ESTONIA IS NEXT, or so they say. They being somebody. The story of how a Russian official voiced concerns about the treatment of Russians in Estonia is already so convoluted, I cannot tell whether it is an accident, or a brilliant PR stunt on the part of pro-Estonian media partisans to make their country seem vulnerable in order to win more security commitments. The fishy trail to a Russian diplomat’s statements at the UN has been well sniffed out by ERR. Yet that hasn’t stopped the speculation that Tallinners might wake up soon to the specter of armed Russian soldiers standing between them and their custom Vapiano pasta orders .
It seems ridiculous, but then again, the Soviet occupation and annexation of Estonia in 1940 was also ridiculous. The 2014 takeover of Crimea was absurd. And who is Russia to let its Dadaist foreign policies stand in the way of geopolitical tits-for-tats?
But as bizarre as such events would be, should they ever unfold, they would also express galaxies worth of stupidity on the part of the Russian leadership. Have not they acquainted themselves with Russia’s history in this indigestible Baltic province? Are not they aware of how many times Estonia has screwed over the empire? Everyone talks about that precious quarter of the population that is Russian. But what about the seventy percent of the population that is Estonian? As history has taught us, Estonians are just not the kinds of people you want in your empire.
But first, let’s make like Mr. Peabody and Sherman and take the Way Back way back in time, setting the controls for the year 1710. It is summer, and the Baltic German landowning elite in the provinces of Estonia and Livonia (present day Estonia and northern Latvia) is about to capitulate to Peter the Great. As part of this reversal in allegiances, Peter guarantees the Baltic Germans their Protestant faith, their traditional privileges, leaves all local institutions in place, and overturns Swedish land reforms that would have put the Estonian serfs on the path to being full subjects of the crown. Estonia thus becomes Russian, but with vast autonomy. Indeed, the official, public language will remain German, right up until the end of the 19th century. When future Estonian leader Jaan Tõnisson goes to market in Estonia as a boy in the 1880s, he will be ordering “zwei” kilos of strawberries, not “dva.”
Yet the Slavophiles in the empire at that time have decided on a course of Russification throughout the land. They want administration in the Baltic provinces to be in Russian, and encourage many Estonians to convert to Orthodoxy. These efforts appear to nullify the old agreement with Peter the Great, and leave the Baltic Germans looking with warm feelings toward an expansionist German empire, which is busy unifying German lands under one leadership. When World War I breaks out, and the Baltic lands fall under German occupation, the Baltic Germans propose integration into the German empire as a Baltic Duchy. The Slavophile Russification policies have alienated the leadership of the Baltic provinces to the point that they are no longer loyal to Russia. They have made the Baltic provinces open to the overtures of expansionist Western powers. The sad yet ironic thing is that Russia’s leaders will make the same mistakes toward Estonia again and again during the 20th century.
Even at that same time, other Russians are busy making a similar mistake. The Northwestern Army of General Nikolai Yudenich refuses to back Finnish and Estonian independence. As a result, the Estonian High Command makes its peace with V. I. Lenin, and interns Yudenich’s retreating forces. Had the White forces agreed to support Estonian independence, they may have been able to retake Petrograd together. Instead, the Whites lose the war, and the Soviets consolidate their power. Yudenich is said to have regretted this decision to the end of his life in exile in Nice, France. Even he knew that the White forces had made a grave mistake in not supporting Estonian independence. Unfortunately, for Yudenich, history could neither be relived nor repeated, and, according to one legend, Yudenich requested to be buried with a tiny Estonian flag in his coat pocket.
We skip ahead to June 1940. The Soviets have provided the Estonian government with an ultimatum to form a government capable of carrying out the mutual assistance pact that the two states signed in September 1939. The government responds by nominating August Rei, a highly intelligent social democrat and former state elder. While Rei is no Communist — he later regards Lenin as suffering from a mental disorder in his memoirs — as a social democrat he is perhaps best poised to accommodate Soviet demands while retaining some modicum of Estonian independence. Instead, the Soviets insist on a puppet government led by depressed poet Johannes Vares (who later commits suicide in Kadriorg), a full military occupation, and annexation into the USSR.
Not only do many Western powers refuse to recognize this illegal incorporation, but political repressions and deportations within the newly proclaimed Estonian SSR lead the public to actually welcome the arrival of the Germans a year later. In a year’s time, the Germans have gone from being the historical enemy of the Estonian people to their saviors. The most hated army in history is greeted by crowds waving Estonian flags. It will later take six months for Soviet troops to break through a German and Estonian defensive line in northeastern Estonia in 1944 and Soviet troops will continue to fight partisans in the forests of Estonia well into the mid-1950s. Yet nothing of the kind happens in neighboring Finland, which has retained its independence, albeit at a huge cost. In Finland, Soviet soldiers will remain stationed first at Hanko and then Porkkala until 1956 without incident.
Had August Rei become prime minister in 1940, Estonia might have joined the Nordic Council in 1956 and retained a policy of strategic non-alignment. Instead, given its experiences with Moscow in the past, the restored Estonian state in the 1990s opted for integration with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and in 2004 the alliance expanded to include Estonia, bringing NATO to within an hour’s flight of Saint Petersburg.
I can go on. The establishment of Russian as an official language in 1940, the import of Soviet workers dramatically changing local demographics, intensified Russification policies in the 1970s that led to the famous Letter of 40 in 1980 and associated protests that year, the illegality of the Soviet annexation that allowed the Baltic republics to spearhead the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But the theme remains the same. For more than 200 years, Estonia was part of the Russian Empire, but enjoyed vast autonomy and even a completely different administrative language. When this autonomy was reduced in favor of central control and Russification policies, it created resentment that reversed loyalties to the empire. Soviet aggression in the 1940s might have had short-term benefits in term of military control, but it had long-term negative consequences that led not only to the dissolution of the USSR, but also the expansion of a Western military alliance right up to the border of the Russian Federation.
I think it is fair to argue then, that any Russian leader who is a student of history should try to avoid Estonia at all costs, because Estonia, as history has shown us, is like a bad cold that you do not want to catch.