In the New Republics


The Baltic countries have been independent for three months now, and what a strange halfway house their independence is. During a recent visit to Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia I saw Soviet guards at the Tallinn docks checking visas of passengers coming off the Helsinki ferry. Soviet militia and Latvian border guards share the same miserable portable cabin out in the featureless fields, where Latvia ends and Lithuania begins. Around the Supreme Council buildings in all three republics, the barricades still remain, as if nobody can quite believe the tanks won’t return. Behind the barbed wire and concrete slabs, Baltic politicians are working day and night to set up new, free institutions, uneasily aware that political liberty remains conditional as long as they remain, in effect, under Soviet military occupation.

Stalin’s work in these parts will take two generations to undo, in part because he was able to take up where Hitler had left off. After repatriating the Baltic Germans and then exterminating the Jews, the Nazis succeeded in decapitating the Hanseatic bourgeoisie. Stalin went on to take down the second pillar of the society, the small farmers. By deporting rich peasants, razing their farms, and then consolidating their fields, Soviet collectivization of agriculture sought to break the last stronghold of Baltic culture.

As the independence struggle proved, Sovietization never succeeded in breaking that culture, but the dull compulsion of Soviet economic life penetrated every sphere. The rusting hulk of Soviet civilization confronts you everywhere in the Baltic: the factories that spew out outmoded and defective goods; the Soviet patrol jets that drone overhead, the decrepit apartment blocks, the empty shops, and the most dangerous legacy of all, the nuclear power station at Ignalina, whose radioactive core may well be the Soviet system’s last malignant memorial in the next millennium.

There is also the huge Russian population which arrived as administrators and occupiers. Four percent of the Estonian population was non-Estonian on the eve of the Second World War. Now Russians make up 30 percent of the population. In Latvia, the percentage is edging toward 40 percent. The new republics believe these figures present them with the specter of their own cultural extinction. Hence the first item in the de-Sovietization of society will be a citizenship law, defining which Russians will be allowed to remain in the new republics.

The new citizenship laws present the new states with their first full-scale conflict between nationalist cultural expression and minority rights. Many Latvians and Estonians deny vehemently, however, that the former allpowerful “occupiers” deserve to be called a minority at all. They prefer to compare them to the French colons in Algeria, and the comparison evokes fearful pictures of expulsion and flight. Yet here as elsewhere, powerful desires for revenge coupled with anxieties about maintaining cultural identity are held in check by equally powerful desires, reinforced by the new republics’ weakness, to be seen to be good Europeans. In practice, the extreme nationalist proposal, in both Latvia and Estonia, to restrict…

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