NONVIOLENCE IN THE BALTIC STATES HELPED THEM BREAKAWAY FROM THE SOVIET UNION
Updated: Jul 16
I hadn’t associated the three European Baltic nations—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—with nonviolent movements. However, from 1986-1991, nonviolent protests in these small countries helped them peacefully break away from the Soviet Union, which had for decades treated them as vassal states.
On August 223, 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany entered into a Secret Protocol, included in the equally secret Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, a purported non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union that recognized the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence over the three Baltic states, Finland, and part of Poland. https://www.britannica.com/event/German-Soviet-Nonaggression-Pact.
For more than four decades, including during WWII, the Baltic countries suffered under Soviet domination. In 1985, upon taking power, Soviet leader Gorbachev announced new policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (greater political openness), which led the citizens of the Baltic countries to feel freer to criticize Soviet repression.
Over the next six years, each of the three Baltic states engaged in nonviolent movements, using a variety of methods, including the formation of large pro-independence organizations; mass protests; press reports; revealing previously secret information; and uniquely, the use of music and singing and a 6000km human chain stretching over three countries. A unifying factor was a recognition that armed rebellion in these three small countries against the seemingly mighty Soviet Union would be futile.
By 1991, these methods of resistance led to their independence.
In 1986, Latvians became aware of Soviet plans to build a hydroelectric power plant on Latvia’s largest river, and to build a subway in Latvia’s capital Riga. Both would have damaged Latvia’s cultural heritage and its environment. The press urged Latvians to protest these plans.
In early 1987, the Environmental Protection Club was organized, which through the rest of the 1980s became a leader in the movement for independence. Later that year, people placed flowers on the Freedom Monument, a symbol of Latvian independence.
The movement gathered steam in 1988. The Writers Union discussed economic self-determination, ending Russian immigration, making Latvian society more democratic and protecting the Latvian language. This conference also publicly revealed the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which had determined Latvia’s fate as a Soviet occupied territory. Press reports of the conference led to the formation of wo important organizations, the Latvian People’s Front and the Latvian National Independence Movement. Later in 1988, a mass demonstration calling for Latvian independence took place.
In 1989, on the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, approximately two million people from all three Baltic countries formed a human chain stretching 690km through the capitals of all three countries. This largest human chain in history, known as the Baltic Way, was a key step in the independence movement in Latvia as it was in Estonia and Lithuania.
In 1990, elections to the Latvian Supreme Soviet led it to declare national independence. Bombings and threats from internal groups loyal to the Soviet Union and from Soviet secret police (OMAN) led to plans for civil disobedience in the event Soviets regained control of the country. On December 11, 1990, the Popular Front announced an organized national defense plan to use nonviolent actions and noncooperation to resist Soviet violence. in a statement titled “Announcement to All Supporters of Latvia's Independence.”
When OMAN seized the national printing press in January 1991, the National Front organized a demonstration of 700,000 in Riga and called for the people to build barricades to protect key government buildings and communication centers. The barricades were viewed as a form of nonviolent protest, as those manning the barricades were not armed and were urged not to carry weapons. Also, the National Front was careful to document the resistance to counter likely Soviet propaganda. Several of those on the barricades were killed by the OMAN forces.
In September 1991, Latvia was recognized as an independent nation by the Soviet Union, which itself dissolved in December 1991.
Soviet plans to build phosphate mines in Estonia raised serious environmental issues that, as in Latvia, were an origin of Estonia’s nonviolent path to independence. However, while Estonia’s independence movement in some ways followed that of Latvia, it was unique in that it was fused with music such that it became known as the Singing Revolution.
In 1987, Estonians held a series of mass protests that featured the singing of Estonian nationalist songs, forbidden under Soviet rule. Contemporary rock and pop musicians joined in the cultural revolution. In May 1988 at the Tartu Pop Music Festival, thousands of Estonians joined hands and sang together. In addition, composer Alo Mattisen played his forbidden “Five patriotic songs.” The next month, at the close of the official Old Town Festival in Tallinn, the crowd spontaneously sang nationalist songs.
A massive song festival in September 1988 drew a record 300,000 people, nearly a quarter of Estonia’s population of about 1.3 million. The national flag flewfor the first time since WWII and political leaders who were present called for Estonian independence. Importantly, by this point, the ruling Estonian communist party favored increased autonomy, and by September, the government passed a declaration of national sovereignty. The next year, nearly 700,000 Estonians joined 500,000 Latvians and a million Lithuanians in the Baltic Way human chain.
Estonians, in response to threats from Gorbachev, registered 860,000 people as Estonian citizens, and in a February 1990 referendum, overwhelmingly voted to establish an alternative government to the then-Soviet dominated one. https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/estonians-campaign-independence-singing-revolution-1987-1991.
Estonians demonstrated their commitment to nonviolent methods when hundreds of pro-Soviet ethnic Russians, in a coup attempt, seized the Estonian parliament in May 1990. Rather than resort to arms, tens of thousands of Estonians soon surrounded the building, but they allowed safe passage through which the pro-Soviet rebels could peacefully leave. https://www.nonviolent-conflict.org/estonias-singing-revolution-1986-1991/.
Like Latvia, Estonia obtained its independence in 1991.
Additional sources: Zunes, Estonia’s Singing Revolution, 1986-1991, 2009, International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.
See also https://ltmkm.lt/revoliucija/, which has a sample of music and photographs from the Singing Revolution.
As in Latvia and Estonia, the pro-independence movement was sparked by environmental concerns, including pollution in the Baltic Sea and Russian plans to expand the Ingolina nuclear facility to become the largest in the world, with Chernobyl type reactors. Initially, artists, writers, journalists and intellectuals, but no politicians or well-known dissidents, formed the core of those looking for reform. On June 3, 1988, a group of about 500 formed a group known as Sajudis, meaning “Movement” in Lithuanian. Despite no money, within a few months Sajudis had organized rallies around Lithuania including one where 15,000 circled the Ingolina nuclear facility. In addition,Sajudis began publishing its newspaper. Sajudis wasseen as exercising a moral authority in the country.
In September 1988, authorities with rubber batons attacked a peaceful demonstration attended by 15-20,000 people. Sajudis protested and called for the resignation of the Lithuanian Communist Party (LCP) first secretary Songaila. Although the LCP permitted the Lithuanian national flag to be raised, and proposedallowing the Lithuanian language official status, protest over Songaila continued until he resigned on October 19, 1988.
During the next year, Lithuanians used a variety of non-violent methods to counter increasing threats from the Soviet Union. These included celebrating Christmas 1988 for the first time sine WWII, a boycott of dairy products to protest poor quality, refusal of Lithuanians to pay an increased automobile tax, over 1.5 million Lithuanians signing a Baltic country wide petition demanding that occupying Soviet armies withdraw and participation in the Baltic Way human chain on August 23, 1989. In addition, many students burned or returned Soviet conscription cards and 102 veterans of the Afghan wars publicly returned medals and awards.
On February 24, 1990, Sajudis won a landslide victory in elections for the Supreme Council, and soon thereafter passed a declaration of independence. Despite increasing military threats and a Soviet economic blockade during 1991, Lithuania refused to capitulate. When Soviet KGB troops arrived in Vilniuson January 11, 1991 and moved on the television transmission tower, 7,000-9,000 citizens surrounded the tower. As troops moved toward the tower in armored vehicles, 14 civilians were killed. However, the attack on the tower never happened, in large part due to the resistance of those surrounding the tower.
British journalist Anatol Lieven wrote:
Soviet measures however only increased the determination and morale of ordinary Lithuanians. Those who, immediately after the declaration [of independence], had been critical of Landsbergis and Sajudis, became increasingly supportive, and popular demonstrations returned to their pre-independence dimensions.” (Lieven, The Baltic Revolution, p. 239, quoted in Miniotaite, p. 51.)
By the end of 1991, Lithuania was recognized internationally as an independent country, while the Soviet Union was dissolved.
The three small Baltic states success in obtaining independence from the Soviet Union is a remarkable example of how nonviolent methods can work. Plainly, the countries had no chance of success if they had tried armed rebellion against the powerful Soviet military. Instead, the people in these three countries used mass protests, independent newspapers, boycotts, elections, cultural events, and noncooperation in paying taxes and military conscription to frustrate Soviet backed authorities. Gradually, the independence movements won over large majorities of the populations and even made inroads on the views of local communist parties. Moreover, even when faced with military actions and threats of further violence, the people in Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia maintained their nonviolent approaches and obtained independence from a country that in 1987 was considered one of the world’s dominant powers.
It is a prime example that nonviolent methods can be successful when armed conflict would have been futile.
Cover Photo Credit: Vladas Ščiavinskas. Lithuanian State Central Archives