Prior to 1991, the Baltic States had long suffered from precarious sovereignty. In the early years of the 20th century, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had gained recognition as independent nation states by the Soviet Union, only to lose it in 1939 after the signing of the Molotov Ribbentropp Pact. Over the course of World War II, these states were subjected to Nazi rule, only to fall back into the hands of the Soviets in 1944 (Siegelbaum). During the Soviet’s rule over the region, the Baltic States were subjected to Moscow’s imposition of a communist framework on all levels of society. Despite this imposition of Soviet culture unto these states, the people of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania held on to their unique Baltic identities. When the moment was right, the people of these nations united in acts of civil disobedience that ultimately brought them independence.
In 1986/87, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the policies of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) in the Soviet Union (Dr. Nelson). These policies resulted in a newfound sense of freedom among Soviets and those under Soviet Rule too. This newfound sense of freedom quickly found ground among the Baltic Nations, where protests began to break out in 1986 and 1987 over pollution (Siegelbaum). These quickly sparked larger and broader protests against Soviet ideals and secrecy surrounding the Nazi-Soviet Pact.
The cause behind these protests was best described by the then current Chairman of the Estonian Presidium, Arnold Ruutel, in an interview transcribed in the Current Digest of the Soviet Press. In the interview, Ruutel noted that the reason these protests were gaining so much ground was that the people of the Baltics felt that:
“The time [had] come to rid ourselves of the burdensome yoke of distrust, which hinders us and makes it difficult, and perhaps impossible, for us to move forward…this is impossible without an honest and complete revelation of the historical truth, a revolution that we, the Baltic Peoples, are not alone in awaiting. It is equally important for all peoples of the Soviet Union and the peoples of the entire world”
Unlike some other Soviet-satellite states where protests became violent, the Baltic States took a different route. In Estonia and Latvia, civil disobedience became the weapon of choice for defeating the Soviet superpower and regaining independence. Events such as the 1988 Tartu Pop Music Festival sparked a new era of openness about national pride among Estonians; at the festival, people came together, held hands, and sang national songs (Reinbold). In the following months, the Old Town Festival in Tallinn and the August Summer Rock Festival brought on even more patriotism and nationalistic feelings among Estonians- This would come to be known as the Singing Revolution. It established hope not just in Estonians, but in Latvians and Lithuanians as well. It gave them hope that that they might be one day again be able to regain their independence and celebrate their cultures without fear of oppression.
As noted IN the aforementioned Current Digest article, on the 50th anniversary of the 1939 Molotov Ribbentropp Pact, hundreds of thousands of citizens from Estonia and Latvia formed a human chain stretching 600-km as a form of peaceful protest (as seen below). This was done in protest of more transparency from the Soviet government on the terms of the Molotov Ribbentropp pact which many believed was not released in its entirety because it showed in reality that the Soviet Union had used the pact in part to annex the Baltic States (MASS ACTION IN THE BALTIC REPUBLICS).The chain, along with the ongoing “Singing Revolution”, sparked a wave of nationalistic and patriotic sentiment that led to reformist parties in the Baltic States. These parties worked together to establish acts of civil disobedience and challenge Soviet influence over their nations (Reinbold). Two years after the formation of these parties and the continuing acts of civil disobedience, Lithuania led the charge to Baltic independence by declaring itself an independent state. Given the unforeseen effects of Glasnost and Perestroika on the foundation of the Soviet Unions rule, Gorbachev had little he could do to stop Lithuania from becoming independent. Lithuania’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union encouraged Estonia and Lithuania to seize the momentum of their independence movements. In August of 1991, both nations declared independence and once again become free independent states, effectively ending Soviet control in the Baltics (Siegelbaum).
Nelson, A. (2018, April 24 & 26) Class Notes.
Reinbold, D. (2018, April 27). Estonia’s Singing Revolution (1986-1991). Retrieved from https://www.nonviolent-conflict.org/estonias-singing-revolution-1986-1991/
Siegelbaum, L. Baltic Independence. (2015, October 07). Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1991-2/baltic-independence/
Seitz, M. Z. (2007, December 14). Songs for a Brighter Tomorrow. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/14/movies/14revo.html
(1989, September 20). MASS ACTION IN THE BALTIC REPUBLICS. Current Digest of the Russian Press, The . Retrieved from https://dlib.eastview.com/browse/doc/13551229
11 thoughts on “The Baltic Independence Movement”
Zane, great post! I think it’s interesting the influence of glasnost and perestroika policies extended into the Baltic States. It’s also interesting to see how unique the movements were in the Baltic States– why do you think they expressed their nationalism in such creative ways, such as the music festivals?
The national songs of the baltic states were always a strong point of pride among the Baltic populations, and I think that they realized they could reconcile their protest for independence with these songs. Another part of it is I think that they realized that singing is about the most non threatening action a group can undertake, so the Soviet’s would have no justification to undertake violent actions to break up such a protest.
Thanks so much for this, Zane. I really like how you’ve explored the power of peaceful protest and music to affect social change. Two quick notes: 1) Check out this video of the finale of the 2014 Song festival in Estonia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKf1NbxwbWw and 2) can you adjust the settings on your blog so that it’s easier to read? The black on red is pretty tough. Thnks!
Nice post! I found it interesting how important the Nazi-Soviet pact still was to Baltic citizens in the 90’s. I also found the singing revolution very interesting. I really like the photo of the human chain you included!
This post was so informative, I really liked how you connected the independence movements in the Baltic states to Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika. It was so cool to learn how these independence movements took on elements of civil disobedience such as the 600-km human chain–must have been quite a sight. I also liked how you included historical background such as the Nazi occupation and the Molotov Ribbentropp Pact. Do you think the counter culture of the 60’s and 70’s against the Vietnam war and segregation in the United States played any part in the Baltic nations adopting their own forms of civil disobedience?
Hearing how civil disobedience overcame such odds reminds me of our own Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and how he was able to use civil disobedience as a great tool to effect significant change and become free, just like the Baltic states.
This is a great post! Do you think that perhaps it is the sudden dissolution of Russia’s satellite possessions which played a role in the weakening of the Soviet Union? How did these movements for independence affect morale in the Soviet state? It’s very interesting to see how all these factors play a role in the collapse and I believe that this movement for independence played a significant part in the dissolution.
I definitely believe that the dissolution of Russia’s satellite states played a role in weakening the Soviet Union overall. These dissolutions sparked other satellite states to recognize that they too could abandon the Soviet Union if they executed a withdrawal in a proper manner, while also giving them the hope and morale to do so.
The policies of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) in the Soviet Union are really interesting ideas because of how they reform Soviet culture as well as the direction of economics. In your opinion how could the violence that took place be avoided?
I think that some of the violence that occurred was inevitable- using violence to suppress protests was a commonality for the Soviet government. The use of violence failed, however, when protests (like in the Baltics) really advertised their causes and the protests to the outside world, thus putting more eyes on them on the international stage as a sort of warning against the Soviets not to get violent.
Sean I loved this post! It really highlights this great event!