It has been nearly three decades since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Despite Russia’s reemergence on the world stage as a respected power after market-oriented ‘reforms’ destroyed its economy for the duration of the nineties, the breakup of the USSR is an event regarded by an increasing amount of Russians as a catastrophic tragedy rather than a triumph of ‘freedom and democracy.’
In recent years, there have been numerous polls showing that more than half of Russians not only regret the collapse of the Soviet Union but would even prefer for its return. However, the nostalgia only comes as a surprise to those who have forgotten that not long before the failed August Coup that led to its demise, the first and only referendum in its history was held in March of 1991 which polled citizens if they wished to preserve the Soviet system.
The results were more than three quarters of the population in the entire socialist federation (including Russia) voting a resounding yes with a turnout of 80% in the participating republics. In Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan the outcome was more than 90% voting for renewal. Even the country with the lowest amount of support, the Ukraine, was still 70% in favor. While the measure was officially banned in six republics— Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and the three Baltic states— despite being unrecognized by their local governments the vote was still organized and the outcomes were all over 90%.
Ironically, the union dissolved five months later under the pretext of establishing ‘democracy’ in Eastern Europe just as it ignored the very wishes of Soviet citizens. After more than 25 years of suffering at the hands of economic and trade liberalization, gutting of state subsidies and mass privatization of the former state-run industry, is it any wonder that Russians are yearning for a return to socialism?
The consequences of the disintegration are still felt in the relations with the United States today. It planted the seeds for the carefully arranged revival of the Cold War that was hiding in plain sight until it surfaced with ‘color revolutions’, proxy wars and dubious spy poisonings. One source of the strained relations between the West and Russia has been the Baltic states, which burgeoned following their integration into the European Union and enrollment in NATO membership in 2004 during its enlargement. NATO continues its provocations with massive war games bordering Kaliningrad, while Moscow is painted as the aggressor even though the U.S. defense spending increase this year alone surpasses Russia’s entire military budget.
The antagonism between Latvia, Estonia and(to a lesser degree) Lithuania with Moscow stems partly from from the cessation of the USSR itself. The conclusion of the Cold War resulted in more than 25 million Russians instantly discovering themselves living abroad in foreign countries. For seventy years, fifteen nations had been fully integrated while Russians migrated and lived within the other republics. The Soviet collapse immediately reignited national conflicts, from the Caucasus to the Baltics. While the majority of the ethnic Russian diaspora live in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, nearly 1 million reside in the post-Soviet Baltics and since 1991 they have been subjected to a campaign of forced assimilation, discrimination and exclusion.
The Baltic republics made nationalism their official state policy while moving away from Russia’s sphere of influence into a closer relationship with the West. Boris Yeltsin’s subservience to Washington eclipsed any concern for the fate of captive Russians as the Soviet Bloc was herded into the EU, but his administration did quarrel with the new Baltic authorities and accused them of creating an anti-Russian ‘apartheid.’
As geopolitical tensions have increased under his successor, Vladimir V. Putin, who has embarrassed Western imperialism in the international arena, so has Moscow’s disapproval of the treatment of its minority held hostage in the Baltic Rim. Is a comparison to South Africa warranted? Even if the similarities are only partial, the three states show evidence of deep ethnocracy.
While less than 10% of Lithuania is ethnically Russian, in Latvia and Estonia the number is much higher at a quarter of their entire populations. The three governments have passed laws promoting their official languages and restored citizenship requirements that existed up until 1940, demanding that their Russian minorities apply or risk losing basic rights and guarantees. Russia has interpreted these measures as a form of slow-motion ethnic cleansing intended to coerce Russians to immigrate elsewhere.
When the three states first became independent, in an act of systematic discrimination they distributed non-citizen ‘alien’ passports to ethnic Russians and excluded them from obtaining citizenship automatically, even if they had lived and worked in a Baltic state for their entire life. In fact, citizenship was not immediately granted to anyone whose ancestry arrived after 1940, a policy that specifically targeted ethnic Russians who without naturalization are left stateless.
For example, when Estonia first declared its independence more than 30% of its population (or every third person) did not have citizenship of the country of residence. This inscribed ethnic division into their society and although many Russians have become naturalized over the last two decades, there are still more than 80,000 in Estonia without determined status who are mostly former Soviet citizens and their descendants. In Latvia, segregation runs even deeper where more than 250,000 Russians (15% of the population) remain stateless. Even when they do become citizens, the parliaments have attempted to pass laws banning non-EU immigrants (predominantly Russians) from possessing voting rights on several occasions. Polls also show the prejudice within their societies, with many Balts indicating they would prefer their Russian-speaking neighbors to repatriate.
Meanwhile, the Russian population has expressed concern about the reemergence of neo-Nazism. The authorities have nurtured holocaust denial, such as the Latvian government objecting to an UNESCO Holocaust exhibition of the Salaspils concentration camp on the basis it would ‘tarnish the country’s image.’ No kidding.
One criteria for the naturalization exams is based on language where in order to become citizens Russians must become fluent in Latvian and Estonian, even though they are such a large minority that in larger cities they often constitute 50% of the population and Russian may be the most spoken language. Simultaneously, any attempt to make Russian a second official language have been struck down. It is a deliberate effort to assimilate the Russian-speaking minority and erase remnants of Soviet culture.
In order to obtain basic entitlements, Russians have to pass the tough naturalization tests which many fail several times (especially the elderly), facing fines and risking losing their employment in the process. The tests are notoriously difficult as Latvian and Estonian languages bear little resemblance to Slavic Russian and are much closer to Finnish.
Apart from ethnicity, 40% of Latvia as a whole identifies as Russian-speaking and have been accustomed to schooling in their native tongue where they already have low career prospects and income rates. Rather than inclusion, they have been mandated to adopt the Baltic languages. Beginning in 2019, the Russian language education options in Latvia will be discontinued altogether in higher education at colleges and universities as well as many secondary schools, which has sparked demonstrations in protest.
It should be made clear that what ethnic Russians experience in the Baltics has its own particularities that make it significantly different from the institutionalized racism and violently enforced segregation that existed in South Africa (or what many believe is applicable to the Palestinians under Israeli occupation). The word apartheid itself originates from the Afrikaans word for ‘separateness’ (or apart-hood), but an exact comparison is not the real issue. There are many overlapping characteristics that make an analogy arguable.
For instance, the use of an ID system denoting ethnicity and alien status with the inability of Russians to participate in the democratic process or politics. Their reduced standing contributes to a society where ethnic groups often do not intermingle and are concentrated in particular areas with Russians mostly residing in urban cities. Yet even Israel recognized Arabic as a second official language (until 2018), while none of three Baltic states do so for Russian. When referendums have been held on whether to adopt Russian as a second language, the non-citizen communities are excluded from voting, ensuring its inability to pass.
The exams also coerce Russians to accept a nationalist and historically revisionist account of the last century where the Soviet Union is said to have “occupied” the Baltics. A history lesson is needed to understand how this is untrue and based on pure Nazi mythology. During the Romanov dynasty, the Baltic states had been part of the Russian Empire but became independent for the first time in centuries following the February Revolution in 1917.
Along with Belarus and Finland, the Bolsheviks were unable to regain the three republics during the Russian Civil War. During the 1930s, the three nations were officially sovereign states but under their own brutal nationalist regimes. The Soviet liberation of the Baltics can hardly be seen as a ‘forceful incorporation’ considering what they replaced were not democracies themselves and they were absorbed in order to block Hitlerite expansionism.
Since the restoration of capitalism in Eastern Europe, the Baltic states have waged a campaign of diminishing and obscuring the Holocaust into a ‘double genocide’ of equal proportions , conflating the Nazis and the Soviets as twin evils. Western ‘democracies’ have helped obfuscate the truth about the widely misunderstood Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the treaty of non-belligerence between Germany and the USSR. The 1939 non-aggression pact has been painted as a ‘secret alliance’ between the Nazis and the Soviets, disregarding that France and Great Britain had done the same with the Germans the previous year with the Munich Agreement.
Only the Soviets are said to have ‘conspired’ with Hitler, just as when the West fought the Germans it was for ‘liberal values’ but when the USSR did so it was for competing ‘dominion’ over Europe. In order to mask their own fascist sympathies, the West has falsified the historical reasons for the accord. In reality, there were measures incorporating the Baltic states into the USSR as part of a mutual defense and assistance against German imperialism and their ‘master plan’ for the East.
The truth is that the ruling class in the West feared the spread of communism much more than fascism, and actually viewed the rise of Hitler and Mussolini in Europe as an opportunity to crush the Soviet Union. Leading up to WWII, not only was it Western capital investment which financed the rapid buildup of Germany’s armed forces, but the U.S., Britain and France did everything within their power to encourage Hitler’s aggression toward the USSR. More than once they collectively refused to sign any mutual security alliance with Moscow while appeasing Hitler’s expansionism in Czechoslovakia, with the British in particular guilty of sabotaging negotiations to isolate the Soviets and pit them into a war against Germany.
Stalin was well aware the Nazis planned to expand the Lebensraum further East, but the Soviets were in the midst of a rapid industrialization process that accomplished in a single decade what took the British more than a century. They needed time to guarantee they could defeat an offensive by the Wehrmacht, the most powerful and developed military force in the world at the time. It provided an additional year and ten months of further buildup of Soviet armaments — if not for this move, it is possible the Germans would never have been stopped twenty kilometers short of Moscow and turned the outcome of the war in their favor. The real reason the pact infuriated the West was because it obligated them into having to fight the Germans, something the imperial powers had hoped to avoid altogether.
More disturbingly, the Baltic governments have drawn from the traditions of the far right by whitewashing the local nationalists that sided with Germany during their invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 which broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. The Nazi collaborators have been restored and normalized as ‘freedom fighters’ who fought solely for Baltic independence.
The Estonian parliament has even adopted resolutions honoring the Estonian Legion and 20th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Estonian) without any such equivalent measure for the more than 30,000 Estonians who courageously fought in the Red Army.
To most Russians, it is an absolute insult to the 27 million Soviets who died defeating the Nazis, including the Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians who did so as well. Today, if they wish to become citizens they must swear an oath of allegiance to this rewriting of history which has been made a precondition for obtaining citizenship. The three states also do not recognize the May 9th Victory Day as a holiday, forcing the Russian minority to celebrate it informally.
The rehabilitation of the local nationalists who fought alongside the Germans has been done under the false premise that the collaboration was a purely strategic alliance. The Soviets are portrayed as equal to or worse than Nazi Germany, a false equivalency between fascism and communism that is a ubiquitous trait among ultra-rightists today. Tens of thousands of Latvians and Estonians volunteered and were conscripted into legions of the SS which participated in the Holocaust, as did Lithuanians in the Nazi-created Territorial Defense Force and their Security Police.
They did not simply coordinate on the battlefield with the Germans, but directly participated in the methodical slaughter of Jews, Roma and others because they shared their racism. In Lithuania, for example, quislings welcomed the Wehrmacht as liberators and for the next three years under Nazi occupation helped murder 200,000 Jews, nearly 95% of the country’s Jewish population, a total which exceeded every other European country in terms of percentage of extermination. It is certain that the only thing that prevented Lithuania’s Jews from extinction was the heroism and sacrifice of the Red Army.
During the Cold War, the US and NATO sought to whitewash certain Nazi war criminals when it suited its strategic interests against the Soviets. This went beyond the Germans themselves, whether it was recruiting their spies for espionage, atomic scientists in Operation Paperclip, or making Hans Speidel the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO in Central Europe.
The Nuremberg Trials had ruled the entire Waffen SS as an organization to be guilty of war crimes during the holocaust, but the US chose to make a distinction between the 15th and 19th SS divisions in Latvia (Latvian Legion) and 20th division in Estonia from the German divisions of the SS. In 1950, the US Displaced Persons Commission determined:
The Baltic Waffen SS Units are to be considered as separate and distinct in purpose, ideology, activities, and qualifications for membership from the German SS, and therefore the Commission holds them not to be a movement hostile to the Government of the United States under Section 13 of the Displaced Persons Act, as amended.”
While the displaced persons laws let Jewish refugees into the United States, it also provided cover for the reserved spaces for thousands of Nazi collaborators in an open-door policy providing them safe harbor. Following the end of WWII, many of the former members of the Baltic SS units became anti-Soviet partisans known as the Forest Brothers who carried on a guerilla campaign against the Soviets with the assistance of the CIA and MI6 until it was defeated in mid-50s. Unfortunately, Nikita Khruschev then made one of a series of colossal mistakes by permitting the exiled Baltic nationals to return as part of the de-Stalinisation thaw.
The idea that regiments of the Schutzstaffel were fighting purely for Estonian and Latvian independence is a horrifying fabrication in defiance of the overwhelming evidence documented by holocaust historians. The West has exploited this sanitizing of history that reappeared following the reinstatement of free enterprise in eastern Europe which has proliferated the far right in the EU as a whole. Why? It serves their cynical immediate interests in undermining Moscow. The same manipulations are occurring in the Cold War’s sequel. Last year, NATO even produced a short film and a-historical reenactment entitled Forest Brothers: Fight for the Baltics, glorifying the anti-Soviet partisans as part of its propaganda effort against Russia.
Any crimes that were committed by the Soviet NKVD during the war are dwarfed by the tens of thousands of Jews and Roma which were exterminated on an industrial level by the Nazis and their co-conspirators using the race theory — there is no comparison. Not to mention that the reintroduction of the free market to Eastern Europe killed more people than any period in Soviet history, reducing life expectancy by a decade and undoing seventy years worth of progress. We only ever hear of the faults of socialism and the inflated numbers of losses of life attributed to its failure, never the daily crimes of capitalism or the tens of millions lost in the wars it produces.
he Soviet brand of socialism was far from perfect, but nevertheless a model for what humanity can achieve in the face of tremendous adversity without being shackled by the contradictions of capitalism — an industrial society with relative equality in education, wealth, employment and basic necessities. Now that Western capitalism is once again collapsing, it is making friends with nationalists to revise its ugly history and the Russian minority in the Baltics are suffering the consequence. It will continue to apportion blame on the up-and-coming power in Moscow, no longer the quasi-colony of the Yeltsin era, for its soon-to-be expiration. Let us hope it does not start another World War in the midst of it — for all our sake.
Max Parry is an independent journalist and geopolitical analyst. His work has appeared in publications such as The Greanville Post, Global Research, CounterPunch and more. Read him on Medium. Max may be reached at [email protected]
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