No Direction Home: Nationalism and Statelessness in the Baltics

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, collectively known as the Baltic states, were among the first republics to gain independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. With independence came a resurgence of interest in Baltic culture-a renewed dedication to Baltic traditions and language, both of which had long been relegated to secondary status.' As the people of the Baltics rediscovered and celebrated their own cultures, some began to push back against what they perceived as a century of repression by the Soviet Union. The obvious targets for this pushback were both the Russian government and the ethnic Russians living within Baltic borders.

When Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were released from the Polish Commonwealth into the hands of the Russian Empire in the 18th century, their national traditions and languages were pushed into the background.2 Russian became the language of public participation and Russian culture became the culture of the elite.3 The Bolshevik Revolution, with its calls for racial and gender equality and condemnations of colonialism, must have seemed like a blessing to the Baltic peoples, and in 1918 the three Baltic nations declared their independence from the fledgling USSR.4

For the first time in modern history, the Baltics were independent and had the freedom to bring their traditions out from the hearth and into the statehouse. Particularly symbolic of this new liberty was the resurgence of Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian as the languages of politics and economic transactions within their respective nations. During the early years of independence, non-native languages like German and Russian continued to flourish alongside the native languages.5 Later, however, as German Fascism spread to the Baltics, new laws, particularly laws related to language, were enacted to restrict the rights of non-native ethnic groups.6 No longer relegated to second-class status, Estonian, Lithuanian and Latvian were heard on the streets of Riga, Tallinn, and Vilnius, and their use on official documents was required by law.

This cultural ascendancy was short-lived. In 1939 the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact brought the Baltics within the expanse of the Soviet Union and repression of a new sort began.7 Even as Stalin spoke out against "great Russian chauvinism,"8 his policies toward the hundreds of ethnic groups that peopled the USSR were policies of assimilation.9 Stalin saw regional and ethnic languages as one of the chief obstacles to the development of a strong Soviet identity in the population at large.10 Thus, Stalinist policy strongly encouraged the use of Russian as the language of politics and economics." In addition to subjugating native languages, Stalin attempted to homogenize the country and weaken ethnic ties by relocating Russians as well as persons of other ethnicities throughout the Soviet Union.12 In the process, the Baltic states, particularly Estonia and Latvia, underwent significant cultural transformation throughout the period of Soviet rule.13

Khrushchev's policies sought to quash ethnic diversity even further, officially establishing Russian as the sole language for communication in the USSR and increasing the number of educational and employment opportunities that were restricted to those proficient in Russian.14 The native languages of the Baltics, as well as those of the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Central Asian republics, were relegated to the home-their preservation or loss depending on the energy with which parents and grandparents passed the traditional tongues to their children.

In 1990, Lithuania led the breakup of the Soviet Union by formally declaring its independence-Latvia and Estonia quickly followed. All three states asserted that, rather than becoming newly independent nations, they were simply restoring their sovereignty which had been held in suspension during the previous fifty years of Soviet rule.15 Arguing the principal of ex injuria ius non oritur,16 and the fact that the West never recognized the Union of Soviet Baltic States, the three states claimed that they had merely been occupied territories for the entire span of Soviet control. …

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