Liberal thought of our time has often treated nationalism as a relic of an unenlightened tribal past. No wonder that many are now bewildered by the passions aroused by the question of national identity in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. A much more nuanced approach was elaborated by Leninist doctrine, which was mindful of nationalism’s nineteenth-century origins. After all, the great expressions of revolutionary élan of that century blended democratic rhetoric and the national aspirations of peoples struggling against monarchies. That is why the Soviet rulers, instead of denying the existence of “the national question,” attempted to defuse it and make it serve their purposes. Colonialist in fact, they tolerated the republics’ traditional cultures, but only under the condition that they would be “national in form, socialist in content.” For some of the subject peoples, however, the slogan also lent itself to an interesting reversal—“socialist in form, national in content.” The failure of the Communists to govern from the center while also maintaining the trappings of local autonomy brought about the present explosion of the empire by national entities. It probably proves that the duplicity needed to play such a game is beyond the skill of even the most capable bureaucrats.
The Baltic states were the first to break with Moscow and recover the independence that they had lost as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact signed on August 23, 1939. A secret protocol assigned Estonia and Latvia to the Soviets and Lithuania to Germany; but a few weeks later an additional secret clause also gave the Soviets a free hand in Lithuania. Now, after half a century of foreign domination and nearly total integration into the Soviet system, the three small countries have been able to make their claim to independence after having set in motion the events that caused one of the two big powers in the world to disappear. To understand what pushed them to act as they did is of central importance to us all, and if their driving force was nationalism, nationalism deserves our attention.
Strange as it may appear, the foundation for recent conflicts on a continental scale was laid in the Baltics when Johann Gottfried Herder, a Lutheran pastor in Riga between 1764 and 1769, discovered Baltic folklore. Fascinated by the Latvian folksongs called dainas, he was the first to formulate a theory of the national soul, an irreducible core underlying the way of life, the customs, and the mores of every nation. He found followers especially among nations oppressed by foreign powers; and his sensitivity to those folk songs is to his credit. Of great antiquity, going back to pagan times, using many symbols of a forgotten religion, these strong and beautiful songs combined oral literature and music. Festivals of choral singing were allowed by the Soviet authorities in the Baltic countries as an innocent pastime—“national in form”—but they were in fact major events in which people felt they were sharing a magical spell and responding to a buried awareness of a long common past. No other countries of that part of Europe had such a tradition of song, even if they possessed interesting heritages of folklore. For the Baltic nations their singing belonged to the domain of the sacred, and it is no exaggeration to say that they sang their way to freedom.
I heard those songs in my childhood in Lithuania. I belong there and yet I do not belong. Similarly, I doubted whether Anatol Lieven, the author of The Baltic Revolution, would be able to explain, in plain English, the appallingly intricate and turbulent history of these countries and to describe how they recovered their independence. And yet his book shows it is possible. Lieven was a London Times correspondent stationed for several years in the Baltic states, and this stay was partly a homecoming. He visited the manor belonging to his ancestors in Latvia, but his ancestors, though of local stock, had been Germanized and belonged to the so-called German Baltic barons. Not unlike my own ancestors, who lived for centuries in the center of Lithuania, and were native in the full sense of the word, yet spoke Polish not Lithuanian.
If the analogy between our backgrounds seems a bit forced, such approximate comparisons are common in any account of the region. The three Baltic peoples must be treated together and yet they are too different from one another not to require separate attention. The liking felt by each toward its neighbors is equivocal and there are considerable differences between them. The Estonians in the north, Aesti to the Romans, speak an Ugro-Finnish language related to modern Finnish. The Latvians and the Lithuanians are the only survivors of the linguistic Indo-European Baltic group and while they can to some degree comprehend each other, they do not understand Estonian. None of these peoples is Slavic and their national feelings are exacerbated by their antipathy to everything Slavic.
History drew the line separating the Estonians and Latvians from the Lithuanians. The Estonians and Latvians were conquered and baptized in the Middle Ages by German crusaders who became the ruling class in the lands around the cities of Riga, Tallinn, and Tartu, while the natives became peasant serfs. The Lithuanians were never subjugated by the Teutonic knights, and the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania spread from the Baltic to the Black Sea; yet, through a union with the Kingdom of Poland and through baptism (which came late, in 1386), it lost its upper classes to another culture. They gradually adopted Polish, while Lithuanian remained the language of the peasants. Anatol Lieven tries to deal with these intricacies objectively and not to fall into one of two contradictory stereotypes. The first, as he says, is
of gallant little freedom-loving peoples, fighting against wicked empires for the sake of independence and liberal democracy. The second is horrid little anti-semitic peasants, trying to involve us in the vicious tribal squabbles. In relation to the Baltic States, much of the American press in particular has swung between these two poles with almost nothing in between.
To be honest and objective in such cases is risky, exposing a historian to reproaches of bias by national groups about their own versions of the past and present. Lieven’s knowledge of the history of the region is vast and he cannot, in any case, be accused of lacking sympathy for the underdogs. When Herder was constructing his philosophy of nationalism, the chances that these three small peoples would ever become nations were practically nil. The expansion of Russia westward both absorbed the north of the Baltic peninsula and liquidated the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth in the south, thus making Russia the master of Lithuania. “The Balts” meant the German-speaking aristocracy that profited from careers in the tsarist empire and occupied high positions in the bureaucracy and army. “They saw themselves as honest mercenaries, faithful unto death to the Tsar, but above national loyalties,” Lieven writes. That a dialect spoken by their peasants would become a literary language and serve as a mark of separate nationality would never have occurred to the Latvian and Estonian Balts.
The situation did not look quite the same in Lithuania since the Polish-Lithuanian aristocracy and gentry mostly opposed Russian rule, and in their uprisings against the tsar (in 1830 and 1863) they tried to enlist the help of the local people. Moreover, just like my ancestors who already spoke Polish by the sixteenth century, all the members of the ruling groups called themselves Lithuanians. Some were sympathetic to the dialect of the simple folk; but if they had been told that allegiance to the Lithuanian language was the basic national attribute, they would have been as much surprised as Scots would be if they were forced to learn Gaelic.
The local languages gradually deteriorated. By the time of Herder’s preaching, for example, Lithuanian was already strongly Slavicized, that is, Polonized. The rebirth of the Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian languages that occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century verges on the miraculous. It is not an exaggeration to say that the three nations were brought to life not by history but by philology, which implies literacy and books. This is why Lithuanian heroes of the nineteenth century were called “the book bearers.” They smuggled, on their backs, books printed in Prussia across the border, since printing Lithuanian books in the Latin alphabet was forbidden in the Russian Empire between 1864 and 1904. These were elementary texts, grammars, popular brochures, and soon, also, literary works, mostly poetry. Their authors were the first intelligentsia, mainly priests and pastors; they were the real creators of national literatures that until then had, except for some religious tracts, been preponderantly oral. To be a poet in one of these languages was to fulfill the poet’s dream, for one was at the same time a bard, a codifier, an oracle of literary criticism, and, in some instances, the author of a national hymn.
First came philology, then attempts to construct a history of the Baltic nations: Lieven is keenly aware of the mythologizing character of such enterprises as well as of the imprint left on them by the era of Romanticism. During several decades toward the end of the nineteenth century an extraordinary national revival occurred; peasants, led by a handful of intellectuals, transformed themselves into fervent national patriots, proud of their “race” and full of hostility toward their oppressors, the landowners. In Estonia and Latvia, the landowners were German or, as with Lieven’s own family, Germanized local people. In Lithuania they were natives who spoke Polish and therefore were exposed to the reproach of being traitors to the national cause. When the Latvian peasants rebelled and committed atrocities against German landowners and pastors in 1905, this put an end to the self-imagined idyll of masters surrounded by faithful servants. Soon the entire class of Baltic Germans became obsolete and even the name “Balt,” referring to the German Balts, lost its meaning.
The three countries became independent after World War I. One of the first acts was a radical agrarian reform aimed at the landowners. By dispossessing them, the Latvians and Estonians performed, in their view, an act of historical justice, compensation for the battles lost to their medieval Teutonic conquerors. The German community survived somehow until World War II, but after the pact with Stalin in 1939, Hitler evacuated its members to the West. The agrarian reform in Lithuania was less severe and the Polish-Lithuanian landowners preserved their farms, though diminished in size, thus adding to the problems caused by the fact that a considerable Polish minority continued to live in independent Lithuania.
The three newly created republics faced immense difficulties after World War I. They were largely agricultural, had little industry, and except for forests, few natural resources. They lacked enough educated people to organize an efficient administration. Everything had to be started from scratch: schools to train an intelligentsia who came from peasant stock, universities, newspapers, diplomacy, export-import trade. Lieven justly stresses the phlegmatic and pragmatic character of the Baltic peoples and their capacity for hard work. These qualities helped. The three republics prospered, exporting their agricultural products to Western Europe. Estonia and Latvia also had some industrial exports, and Lithuania, which I know the best, developed a model system of state cooperatives, which would buy farm products and sell them in the cities or abroad.
Nationalism was undoubtedly the cement keeping each of these countries together. It would have been better had a less compromised term been available; but if an ethnic group with the same language and common past is regarded as the creator and rightful owner of the State, that is nationalism. Other groups were tolerated in the hope that they would be willing to learn the indigenous language and thereby become full-fledged members of the nation. Yet this was also a doctrine tinged with the nineteenth-century ideology pitting populism and democracy against tyranny. The three republics were democratic, with parliaments, political parties, and freedom of speech and assembly. They were each committed to linguistic homogeneity and to de-Germanization and de-Polonization, goals that were to be pursued by more or less legal means.
However in 1926 when a socialist-populist coalition took power in Lithuania, backed by the vote of national minorities, right-wing forces carried out a Putsch and then set up the authoritarian regimes first of Augustinas Voldemaras and later of Antanas Smetona. Smetona’s government resisted the pressures of outright fascist forces, but the situation of minorities, both Polish and Jewish, deteriorated. In 1934 authoritarian regimes came to power in both Latvia and Estonia, countries that had fewer ethnic tensions than Lithuania during the years between the wars.
Here I come to Lieven’s major theme, which is the treatment of minorities by the Baltic independence movements. Lithuanians chafed throughout the 1920s and 1930s because the city they regarded as their historical capital—called Wilno by Poles, Vilna by Jews, and Vilnius by Lithuanians—had been lost to Poland, which seized it after defeating the Soviets in 1920. The trouble was that the city, mainly Polish and Jewish, had a very small percentage of Lithuanians. Lieven tells us that he has been accused of siding with the minorities; but in defining the pre-war population of Vilnius he reflects the thinking of his Lithuanian hosts, writing that the Lithuanian minority was estimated at between 13 and 30 percent. A census made in 1916, when Vilnius was occupied by the German army, found that of 140,480 inhabitants, 70,629, or 50.15 percent, were Polish-speaking, and 61,265, or 43.5 percent were Yiddish-speaking, while 3,692, or 2.6 percent, spoke Lithuanian. There were also small numbers of Russian, Belorussian, and German speakers.
The proportions among the different languages spoken did not significantly change during the next decades, even though the population grew. For the Poles the city had been an important center of learning since the sixteenth century and the birthplace of Romanticism in Polish literature. For the Jews it was “the Jerusalem of the North,” famous for its scholars who had opposed the rise of Hassidism in the name of Orthodoxy. It possessed the greatest collection of Yiddish books in the world, the renowned Straszun Library. These facts are undeniable, but doctoring the past is a standard practice of national mythologies.
In Lithuania between 1918 and 1939, the principal grievance used to incite hostility toward the Poles was the claim to Vilnius. In 1939, the Soviet Union took the city from Poland and offered it to the then neutral Lithuania, which, only a few months later, was occupied and incorporated into the Soviet Union along with the other Baltic states. Anything connected with the history of this city is hard to explain for it changed hands some thirteen times throughout the twentieth century. The takeover of the city by Lithuanians both fulfilled a national dream and led to conflict, for they engaged in a protracted confrontation with the Polish and Jewish majority in the city and surrounding region.
The first period of Soviet rule was a shock for the Westernized people in the Baltic states: they were thrown into a nightmarish system of Oriental terror, with mass deportations of many thousands of people to Soviet Asia; then, suddenly, came the German attack in June 1941. In some of the nations under Soviet rule, the Germans were greeted as liberators and it took some time before people discovered their mistake. In the memory of many people of the Baltic countries, and especially in Lithuania, the time of the Nazi occupation remains a black hole. The few days in June 1941 when Lithuanians rose against the retreating Soviets and at the same time attacked and killed many Jews are still a source of embarrassment for some, a taboo subject for many others. Lieven summarizes what he found to be the spoken or unspoken version of what happened:
The traditional Lithuanian belief is that 1940–1941 saw a clash of two nations, in which first the Jews, with Soviet help, betrayed and attacked the Lithuanians, and then the Lithuanians, with German assistance, wreaked their revenge on the Jews.
How many, one wonders, share this belief today? It has been openly denounced as simplistic nonsense by some Lithuanian intellectuals, notably the poet Tomas Venclova; and in fact many Jews were deported by the Soviets and suffered the same harsh treatment as other Lithuanians.
Even worse things happened throughout the Nazi occupation, when Lithuanians played a game of compromises and retreats with the Germans in the hope that they would allow an autonomous government. This never materialized. The Nazis proceeded to destroy the entire Jewish population. In Vilnius, they first herded the Jews into a ghetto and then deported them by trucks to nearby Ponary where they were all shot and buried. A valley among wooded hills, Ponary was the place where some 120,000 people were assassinated, more than 90 percent of them Jews. An active part in the killing, it must be said, was taken by Sauguma, the Lithuanian security force working for the Nazis, who created similar death squads in Estonia and Latvia.
Undoubtedly, however, the Nazis found in the occupied countries two distinct nations separated by language, habits, and incompatible tempers. Many Jews were not as hostile to the Soviets as were the Baltic nationalists. In tsarist times, a large number of Jews in the region, called “Litvaks,” were culturally drawn to Russia and spoke and wrote in Russian. Neither the culture of the Lithuanian-Polish nobility nor that of the Baltic peasants attracted them, and I would not blame them for this. Two great Russian poets—Osip Mandelstam and Joseph Brodsky—come from “Litvak” families, not to mention innumerable scholars, translators, and actors. Besides, as Lieven says,
Quite apart from Christian demonology, the entire mode of thought and behaviour of Jews and Lithuanians is very different. Jewish irony, for example, is utterly alien to the Lithuanian tradition. It works on Lithuanian nationalists and their soupy certainties like garlic on vampires.
And we should not forget what the entrance of the Soviet army in 1940 meant to the Jews: the hope of protection against Hitler.
“The Jerusalem of the North” is no more. YIVO, the Jewish Historical Institute has been transplanted to New York. In Vilnius there are Jewish cultural centers to keep alive the memory of the Jewish past, but few Jews live in the city. As for the Roman Catholic inhabitants of the city, the newly arrived Lithuanians and the Polish-speaking burghers who had lived there for generations were in conflict with each other throughout the Nazi occupation. The Lithuanians pretended to be obedient but they managed to squirm out of the Germans’ demands that they supply an entire army to fight on the Eastern front; instead they put together a regiment of auxiliaries to fight Polish and Soviet guerrillas in the countryside.
The underground Polish government and the Polish Home Army considered Wilno part of Poland and they included its people in their overall plan to resist the Germans. The Polish Home Army placed its hopes in the Western Allies and, in trying to control the countryside, it clashed with Soviet partisans as well as with the Lithuanian-German auxiliaries. Thus a three-sided war took place in Lithuania. The victims of these clashes were mostly civilians; and Lithuanian and Polish historians are still engaged in quarrels over who was responsible for the atrocities that were committed.
The next act in Wilno’s history was the return of the victorious Soviet army in 1944, which quickly led to the liquidation or dispersal of many of the non-Lithuanian-speaking people in the city. The Soviets surrounded the units of the Polish Home Army, disarmed them, and deported them. The wave of arrests and deportations to gulags confronted the local people with a choice: either stay and risk an involuntary journey to the East or be “repatriated” to Poland. Practically the entire Polish-speaking community, including almost all its intelligentsia, chose to leave; only the small property owners tied to their cottages in and near the city remained. The Polish Wilno followed the Jewish Vilna on its road to becoming an Atlantis. Now Vilnius’s population of 592,000 is 55 percent Lithuanian; Russians, Poles, and Belorussians make up the rest.
For the Baltic states the Soviet occupation from 1944 until the death of Stalin in 1953 was exceptionally harsh. Enforced collectivization of agriculture and deportations of “kulaks” ruined the prospering rural economy, which was based on middle-sized farms. In Lithuania resistance to the Soviets was carried on by guerrillas called “Forest Brothers” whose war with Soviet units lasted far into the 1950s, with tens of thousands killed on both sides. The world at large ignored this. At the same time, in the cities, a speeded-up industrialization program brought masses of Russian speaking workers from other parts of the Soviet Union. In Estonia and Latvia the growing Russian-speaking minority provoked considerable hostility, which was exacerbated by the low birth rate in these Protestant nations. Latvians are now a majority of only 52 percent, Estonians 62.5 percent. Lithuania, however, succeeded in limiting immigration, and therefore Russification, thanks to the clever tactics of Lithuania’s patriotically minded Communist leaders, and also to the continuing guerrilla warfare, which made the land less attractive to foreigners. The traditionally Catholic Lithuanians also had a relatively high birth rate. Russians now make up only 9.4 percent of the 3.67 million citizens and they were recently granted citizenship by the new, independent Lithuania.
Lieven is a historian and journalist, but for this book he has chosen to be a journalist first. He is a lively writer but a little meandering in covering so encyclopedic a range of subjects. He gives detailed accounts of the leaders, factions, and the behind-the-scenes maneuvers in the far-from-simple process of recovering freedom in 1991. Some of his pages allow us to imagine the double life of local bureaucrats who managed to be nationalists and Communists at the same time, applying in practice the reversed slogan “socialist in form, national in content.”
If my own observations during a recent visit are valid, Lithuania had been mentally Sovietized to an extent not realized even by the inhabitants themselves. Practically everybody of significance was a member of the Party or the KGB, or both, and they had tried hard to make communism work for the sake of the nation. An important element in national life was scorn for Russian inefficiency, for Slavic bungling. And it is true that the Baltic republics were regarded by Russians with envy, as “the West,” more prosperous than the rest of the Empire. Even the collective farms seemed to work.
Some of the peculiar features of the current political scene must be understood in the light of this experience. The people applauded the musicologist Vytautas Landsbergis, the leader of the dissident movement, as a national hero, but except for some moments of mass enthusiasm, they remained cool to him. His first mistake on being elected president of parliament—the mistake of an intellectual—was to proclaim, without adequate preparation, the decollectivization of agriculture. As I was told in Lithuania this year, “collectivization was an economic absurdity but decollectivization is a catastrophe.” In this spring’s election such pragmatic considerations led a majority to vote for Algirdas Brazauskas, “a Communist for independence,” and for members of the old nomenklatura. Brazauskas’s inauguration as president took place in Vilnius Cathedral where he swore allegiance to the Nation, Country, and God (in that order). But this ceremony was preceded by a pagan rite—or a reinvention of an ancient tribal rite—on the sacred Gedyminas Hill.
The Roman Catholic Church was cruelly persecuted under the Soviets and believers were at the core of resistance. Yet I sensed not only that the Church was identifying itself with nationalism but that a large-scale process of laicization was taking place. The Church hierarchy allied itself with the nationalist right and backed Landsbergis. But the politicians who emphasized nationalist-religious language in their campaigns lost in the elections. This, in my view, does not mean that appeals to chauvinistic nationalism have ended. On the contrary, they will be made by every government just because no other theme is available. As Lieven says:
The need to defend the Baltic cultures and traditions against Soviet influence prevented Baltic intellectuals, both within and outside the states themselves, from engaging critically with those traditions, as this would have seemed to give help to the enemy. The consequence was a conformism and unreflecting nationalism which characterizes so much of Baltic intellectual life today.
I would add that conformism and the inability to think individually also reflect their past Soviet experience.
In view of the crimes committed by nationalism in our century, it is not easy to distinguish its different vintages and strains. The nineteenth-century variety emphasized the emancipation of the peoples and the catchwords of the French Revolution. This was a dynamic force behind European independence movements, and without it the Baltic nations would not exist today. Yet it is possible that, as the world enters an era in which technology is dominant, national feelings and traditions will begin to seem, in the modern void, the only means of satisfying the human need to belong. The erosion of beliefs and values that takes place in a consumer society may contribute to an urge to lose oneself in feelings of togetherness, feelings in which one’s own group is opposed to “others.” This may seem the only remedy against nonbeing. In this respect the present search for Lithuanian national identity through the rebirth of paganism is not without significance. The end of Marxist certainties and the decline of the appeal of Christianity behind the mask of ritualistic religion seem to favor anything that promises cohesion. The cult of Earth, and a worshiping attitude toward trees, may perhaps link neopaganism to “New Age” thinking; but in Lithuania, at least, attachment to the “Nation” is at the core of such beliefs.
When a nation builds a state of its own, and defines national interests as linguistic interests, the result can be tolerance (or lack of tolerance) toward those who speak a different language; but such people are always the “others.” I am attached to the country of my birth and of my ancestors and I have used my pen to denounce the cruel Soviet occupation of Lithuania; yet I cannot be a Lithuanian, for I lack a basic quality, a mysterium of participation in the language. Of course there was a time when drawing a line between the Polish and Lithuanian cultures was necessary, just to avoid absorption. Yet, in doing so, the nationalist founders of the country built a trap for their successors—the inability to absorb minorities. In 1939 and 1940 when Vilnius was taken over by the Lithuanians it would have been logical to extend the notion of Lithuanian national identity to all the participants in the nation’s life, irrespective of language. Instead, the Lithuanian-speaking leaders proceeded with “de-Polonization” as their most urgent task. Similar difficulties today—with the Poles and Russians in Lithuania, with Russians in Estonia and Latvia—derive from the same old linguistic premises.
At present there are no obstacles to good relations between Poland and Lithuania. Poland recognizes the present border and has renounced any claims to Vilnius. As for the members of the Polish-speaking minority—7 percent, according to statistics, but mostly concentrated in Vilnius and the neighboring region—they are insecure and cowed. They are the least educated of Lithuania’s groups, and are mostly workers who own small wooden cottages with gardens or laborers employed on collective farms.
Thus the old pattern in which Polish was the language of “high culture” is turned upside down. In Soviet times the Lithuanian Poles looked toward Moscow for protection and now they feel abandoned by Poland. These Poles mistrust Lithuanian administrators: Did they not impose Lithuanian as the language of the state? Only 15 percent of Poles know Lithuanian, a very difficult language for Slavs, while Russian is familiar and previously gave the younger men and women chances to have careers anywhere in the Soviet Union. One administrative move after another by the government seems to confirm a silent intention to “de-Polonize” Lithuania. The officials of the ruling nationality still have much to learn before they gain the trust of 45 percent of Vilnius’s residents.
Concerning Poland’s own policies, I should mention a man who for many decades had considerable influence on the thinking of its intellectual and political elites. Jerzy Giedroyc, a scion of Polish-Lithuanian aristocracy, has published the monthly Kultura since 1947, printing it in France for émigrés and smuggling it across Polish borders for those without a free press. Foreseeing the disintegration of communism, he concentrated upon the future, constantly stressing the importance of good relations between Poland and its Eastern neighbors—Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. He sought contributors among those nationalities, and accepted Vilnius as the capital of Lithuania; indeed he was often suspected by some of his readers as being more of a Lithuanian at heart than a Pole. His generous perspectives convinced many, and today his journal is regarded as a Polish national institution. Traces of his philosophy can be detected in the conciliatory moves of Warsaw toward Lithuania, which tend to reassure Lithuania by affirming the inviolability of the present borders. “Dislike of Poles and fear of Polish conquest,” writes Lieven, “remains largely absent among ordinary Lithuanians, and appears to be principally an obsession of the nationalist intelligentsia.” Yes, but this obsession inclines the Lithuanian government toward unwise policies, for instance, the recent demand that Poland officially apologize for its seizure of Vilnius in 1920.
The presence of a large Russian population in Latvia and Estonia is undoubtedly the most delicate problem those countries have to resolve. The Russians are like a sediment left after the flood of foreign invasion. They were brought by the conqueror; nobody asked the natives their opinion. And let us remember that the Baltic peoples remain aware of the traumatic experience in the Middle Ages—the conquest by the German crusaders. Should they now invite foreigners to share their traditions and institutions? (To visualize what this means, let us assume France would vote to grant citizenship to some 25 million Arabs.) Different temperaments and habits separate the Balts and the Russians, who are regarded by the Balts as slovenly, drunken, and uncouth.
Lieven writes that he has seen Estonians, who are “normally so very calm, twitching and shaking with repressed physical hatred as they speak of the ‘Asiatic, Mongolian barbarians’ who have settled among them, and of their foul habits.” In Latvia, “one can very often hear mothers chastising their children that ‘you’re behaving like a Russian….You’re eating like a Russian.”‘ Slavic disorder, warmth, and carelessness confronted the systematic and cool natives. The Russians knew little about them and did not care to learn their language. “You see,” a Russian woman told Lieven, “Latvian didn’t seem to us like a real language.”
Can the division be overcome? Are there historical precedents for doing so? Lieven writes that the concern he expresses
for the status of the Baltic Russians, and of Russians outside Russia in general, comes not from affection for them, or from a sense that the circumstance of their location is in any way justified. It comes from a strong belief that they are dangerous.
There seems little danger that they will turn against their host countries, for the old Soviet patriots among them are few in number. The danger comes from their being pawns in Russia’s internal political game. Even Russian liberals cannot afford to be soft on the issue of the Baltic Russians; and loss of former imperial territories provides reactionary forces with an ideal weapon. Lieven places his hope in “the natural restraint of the Baltic populations in the face of every provocation to violence” and in the growth of private enterprise that would integrate a middle class composed of both non-Russians and Russians. Yet he is uneasy. His book is an attempt to clarify the present and make the West aware of potential perils.
I must record a certain bias in Lieven’s favor. To some extent I share his position of being an external observer and insider at the same time. Perhaps with the difference that Lithuania—its choral music, its green valleys, its oaks thought to be holy trees—sits deeply in me and I am not free of the pagan temptations that affect some of us from the last country in Europe to adopt Christianity. Nationalism gave Lithuania a separate existence and enabled it to survive through Soviet domination. Nationalism also cut me, and many like me, off from our country. It was as if I did not write in Gaelic and thus could not claim to be Irish or Scotch. In Lieven’s book I found a perfect understanding of our dilemma. I have said little here about his main subject, “The Baltic Revolution,” as seen day by day by a conscientious journalist. But readers who wish to explore the extraordinary spectacle of an empire falling apart will find in Lieven’s book an intelligent, perceptive, and solidly informative guide to recent Baltic history.
November 4, 1993