A peek into the shadows of history and the present
A review of The Shadow in the East. Vladimir Putin and the New Baltic Front. By: Aliide Naylor. Publisher: I.B. Tauris, London, 2020.
There has always been a tendency, especially in the West, to group together the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into one, and treat them as more homogenous than they are in reality. As Andres Kasekamp wrote in his book The History of the Baltic States, “‘Baltic’ is not even a term originally used by the peoples living along the coast of what is now known as the Baltic Sea”. It was Adam of Bremen, a German chronicler, writes Kasekamp, who described the sea as Mare Balticum –in reference to the Latin word for “belt” (balteus). What’s more, each country has its own distinct national features including culture, history and language (Lithuanian and Latvian are considered Baltic languages, a branch of Indo-European; while Estonian is Finno-Ugric). Nevertheless, despite their distinctiveness from each other – and despite the fact that, after some successful lobbying, the Baltic states are officially declared by the United Nations as being a part of Northern Europe – history and geography have grouped these three states together, for better or for worse.
What’s more, nearly 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is one more element that bridges these three states together – and that is the threat from the East. This threat hangs like a shadow over the three Baltic states and is the main topic of the debut book by Aliide Naylor titled The Shadow in the East. Vladimir Putin and the New Baltic Front.
From the darkness
The topic of shadows is one that permeates throughout Naylor’s book, which is a social exploration of the various viewpoints on the current situation in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but also Russia. Through narrative storytelling, backed up by a presentation of research, the author presents fascinating accounts from a variety of interlocutors (she admits that she had conducted around 120–150 interviews for the book) who all have their own perspective. By putting these stories together in one publication the reader gets a better sense of the commonalities and differences that exist between and among the societies. It is a captivating depiction of the relationship between domestic politics, geopolitics, socioeconomic issues and generational differences.
Of all the shadows, however, which emerge as themes, probably the most prominent is the shadow of the past. “The memory of the Second World War and beyond is still deeply etched into the fabric of modern society in every single Baltic state,” writes Naylor, “in the public space, education and art.” This memory revolves around the understanding of the war as a time of two invading and occupying forces. First the Soviets in 1940, then the Nazis in 1941, and then the Soviets again in 1944. The latter in the memory of the locals was treated as an occupation until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Interestingly, through Naylor’s stories we learn of very different interpretations of these invasions and occupations. Her stories highlight the horrors of wartime. The author even briefly investigates gender-based violence during the war, such as rape against locals; a topic we learn has not been widely studied in the region.
From the stories of some of her interlocutors and those from the archives, we learn the Soviet Russian soldiers were the most brutal with their policies. The forced deportation of local populations and the departure of thousands as refugees greatly affected all of the societies (at one point in 1949, 200,000 people from the Baltics were deported over the course of four days). This also created a strong expat community, many of whom settled in the West, waiting patiently for the end of the occupation to be able to return to their beloved homeland so torn apart by the Soviets. But these also created a strong divide between those who stayed and those who fled or were forced out.
However the shadow of the war also revealed the taboo of discussing collaboration with the Nazi regime during the Holocaust. This is still a topic which has not been fully resolved in the Baltic states; or rather ignored. Illustratively, Naylor discusses the controversial story of Jonas Noreika – celebrated as a Lithuanian anti-Soviet hero, but more and more evidence point to him as being also a Nazi collaborator. The news shook the foundation of memory politics in Lithuania, forcing many to openly ask questions regarding some of their own family’s past.
Indeed, a lot of Baltic memory is related to the trauma and tragedy of the occupation periods. In their respective memory policies, each state has even erected a museum (or museums) to shape the narrative of these times. In Tallinn, Naylor visits the Museum of Occupation (opened in 2003). She then takes us to Latvia and Lithuania’s Museum of Occupations (plural, to show both occupations). We understand better why the Baltic societies see both occupations as painful periods in their history and why they have called upon Europe to recognise Soviet crimes on the same level as Nazi crimes (the EU has rejected the proposal).
The shadow of the memory has even led to conflict, which brings us to the core of the book, namely, the current relations between Russia and the Baltic states. The first wake-up call was in 2007. It was in the wake of Estonia’s decision to take down the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn – a Soviet-era memorial dedicated to the Red Army’s liberation of the city. The authorities in 2007 decided to relocate it to the military cemetery three kilometres outside the city. This move sparked protest and outcry from the Russian side. Shortly after the relocation, Estonia was a victim of a massive cyberattack. As Naylor writes, “the attacks had broad-reaching consequences and in the aftermath of the Estonia case, people started to realise that an adversary does not necessarily have to have ‘boots on the ground’ to do wide-scale damage to a state, its institutions, or its people.” Lithuania experienced a similar attack in 2008 – with 300 websites shut down. Indeed, many of these tactics were later used in Ukraine in 2014, not surprisingly for many security experts from this region.
Another shadow that emerges in the book is the theme of fear. Metaphorically speaking, we cannot see who or what is lurking in the shadows, waiting to attack when the moment is right. This is certainly the case for the Baltic states which, rightly so, have a lot to fear in terms of the unknown and security in the region. Naylor describes the growing nervousness of the societies and some of the actions taken – from erecting fences along the borders with Russia, reinstating conscription for military service to NATO’s deterrence policy of enhanced forward presence.
The illegal annexation of Crimea and the ongoing war in Ukraine did nothing but to stoke even more fear in the region. Hybrid warfare has become a popular term since then, as we saw misdirection, covert activity, massive disinformation activities and even illegal border changes without a single shot being fired (this was the case in Crimea). This has certainly hit close to home for many in the Baltics, especially since the Russian minority population (in Estonia 24 per cent; Latvia 27 per cent; Lithuania six per cent) has been cited as one of the possible flashpoints in a hybrid operation against a Baltic state. Naylor takes us to Narva, the town in Estonia which borders with Russia and has a Russian population of 73 per cent. She runs into a group of “Russian nationalists” who introduce the topic of stateless citizens in the region – these are the ethnic Russian populations who are officially residents of a country like Estonia or Latvia but do not have citizenship there. It has always been a dividing point exploited by Russia to weaken social cohesion. Naylor concludes that “the number of stateless persons in the Baltics is slowly declining, but weak integration … [ensures] the communities stay ostensibly separate”.
The author uniquely describes not only the perspective from the Baltic states, but from Russia as well, almost taking us to the up-side-down of the Russian reality, and how it perceives the “threat from the West”. She briefly recounts Vladimir Putin’s rise to power and how he has managed to carefully cultivate his “image of being strong and active, authoritative and firm, highly perceptive yet austere and enigmatic”. The desire to pursue some sort of reintegration of the former Soviet Empire is a strong motor of the Putin regime’s policy in its self-termed “near abroad”. The example of the Baltic states successfully joining Euro-Atlantic structures like NATO and the European Union illustrated to Putin that competition for influence in this region was intensifying. The war in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014 were the Kremlin’s attempts at forcefully stopping this spread any further.
But does reintegration of the Soviet Union mean a direct threat to the Baltic states? For some of Naylor’s interlocutors the answer is yes. Despite the fact that these states are members of NATO, and with that come security guarantees and the above-mentioned deterrence policies, many locals fear that there would be a western reluctance to come to their aid, especially in the case of an ambiguous hybrid operation. Naylor cites a 2016 Rand Corporation study which concluded that “NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members”. She also notes the level of anxiety as being relatively high – according to one Baltic-wide survey from 2017, 68 per cent of Lithuanians and 62 per cent of Latvians fear an all-out war (45 per cent for Estonians).
Naylor concludes with a look at the future and an acknowledgement that an invasion or all-out war is unlikely. But she does emphasise one note that has particular relevance for the year 2020 and that is related to how the memory of the past still shapes the present. Unfortunately, as Russia prepares to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second Word War, it seems we are moving away from Naylor’s recommendation of developing a “multi-faceted understanding of history”. Certainly this means that the shadows which loom over the Baltics will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Yet, by reading Naylor’s The Shadow in the East we can at least get some context on how to shed light into these dark spots of history, and the present.
Adam Reichardt is the editor in chief of New Eastern Europe and the co-host of the Talk Eastern Europe podcast.