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Review July 2023

The recent history of the Baltic states in focus

Review by Vello Pettai
Edited by Charles Clarke, 2023
ISBN 9781787389410
365 Pages
Published by: Hurst Publishers
Interior of the Corner House in Riga, which used to be the KGB headquarters. The photo is focused on two windows with a third window on the left separated by a column. There is a reflection of light on the first window, but otherwise you cannot see through them. Interior of the Corner House (Riga, Latvia), the headquarters of the KGB from 1944 to 1991. Photo credit: Henk Vrieselaar -

Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has brought dramatic attention to all countries of the region, not least the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. This edited volume from a conference held in March 2022 was not intended originally to address this drastic event. Rather, it was intended to mark the inauguration of Cambridge University’s Baltic Geopolitics Programme. Yet, the launch of Vladimir Putin’s war barely a month before the conference was scheduled cast an entirely new light on what the participants had been invited to reflect on: the dissolution of the USSR and the Baltic states’ part in this. 

This book therefore deserves to be read in this dual light. It is an opportunity to go back in time – primarily in the company of historians and some policymakers and journalists from the era – to see what the tumultuous events of 1985-1991 actually were. At the same time, the relevance and poignancy of these reflections is only amplified by the way in which Putin’s attempt to restore control over Ukraine in 2022-2023 has become the most blatant signal yet that for Kremlin the outcome from 1991 is not yet decided. 

The degree to which the authors in the volume blend their historical reflections with current reverberations varies. For example, in her chapter Kristina Spohr feels compelled by the immediate events to extend the arc of her analysis from an original comparison of 1917 and 1991 to now include 2022. Likewise, reflections by Andrew Wilson on how Ukraine was similar and different from the Baltic states during the 1985-1991 sovereignty struggles take on much more consequential meaning, when we consider that, suddenly, Ukraine is fighting for its very survival as an independent nation. 

By the same token, of course, there is much to say singularly about the Baltic struggle for renewed independence under Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms. Moreover, the book does a great job of gathering multiple perspectives on what was happening during those fast-paced years. Not only do Baltic scholars summarize key events on the ground in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but also other authors provide overviews of what the situation looked like from the United Kingdom, Sweden, Ukraine, the Russia Federation and elsewhere. 

we see through the chapters of this book much more than the customary, almost Cinderella-style tale of the Baltic “march to freedom”.

In particular, these latter vantagepoints help to see how the Baltic states held a different meaning for different countries. Be it Sweden trying to make sense of three new neighbors emerging on its eastern littoral, or the UK pondering how security in the Nordic and Baltic region will change, or the United States expressing concern about how Baltic agitation would destabilize Mikhail Gorbachev, we see through the chapters of this book much more than the customary, almost Cinderella-style tale of the Baltic “march to freedom”. This is a tremendously successful aspect of how the book fulfills the promise of its title. We “understand the Baltic states” better not least when we understand how several other salient countries for these people have understood the re-emergence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as independent nations.

At the same time, by offering a plethora of perspectives on the collapse of Soviet power, it becomes eminently clear that no single factor or actor explains the transformations entirely. It is not the oft-vaunted peaceful nature of the Baltic independence movements nor the fortuitousness of Boris Yeltsin coming to power in the Russian Federation, nor the efforts of Western leaders to steer the creation of a new European security architecture, nor Mikhail Gorbachev’s own political reforms and actions that alone tell the story. This book brings together all of these dimensions, and its final takeaway thus has also to be in that form: multi-dimensional.

Moreover, the volume brings out an additional dialectic in terms of what the Baltic states represent for Europe. On the one hand, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are often represented as bulwarks of the principle of national self-determination. Here the argument goes that it is only by recognizing and truly operationalizing the rights of these peoples to determine their own future that we can live up to the principle of a liberal and just international order. This includes working with these nations if it is their desire to integrate with Western political institutions. 

On the other hand, the realities of a geopolitical constellation, where Russia constitutes a heavy weight that constantly pulls the seesaw down on its side means that we are often tempted to ask how much must the West accommodate the interests or sensibilities of Moscow if we are to have true security on the continent? How much should Baltic sovereignty be a function of the Kremlin’s stance if we aim to keep broader power relations in mind?

This tension is evidenced in the volume by having not only Baltic viewpoints about the importance of these nations’ self-determination, but also a special analysis by Sir Rodric Braithwaite attempting to show that key Western leaders did actually promise Russia that there would be no expansion of NATO to the East and therefore “the belief of so many Russians that they were double-crossed is understandable” (p. 168). The Baltic states will probably never be free of this strain: are they entities in their own right or merely pieces in a puzzle to balance West and East?

the challenge of placing the dissolution of the USSR and the re-emergence of the Baltic states as independent nations into a more “recent history” context is only beginning.

For academics reading this volume, there will be some disappointment in the fact that few of the chapters actually rely on novel archival work or deeper historical reflection regarding the period 1985-1991. Instead, many chapters represent summaries of the predominant events, and whilst these are, to be sure, original in terms of each author’s own “string of beads”, the beads themselves are largely known. 

In this respect, the challenge of placing the dissolution of the USSR and the re-emergence of the Baltic states as independent nations into a more “recent history” context is only beginning. In this volume, a solid range of historians and contemporaries from that period attempt to begin that work. At the same time, the challenge for historians engaging with this material is to understand what (if any) insight can be gained from pre-existing political science analyses of these same events. These works serve not only to tally the key milestones, but also to provide a relational perspective across different actors. 

The issue here is, of course, not to privilege one discipline’s standpoint over another’s. It is simply to draw out the fact that as time passes, the return of Baltic independence in the late 1980s will become more and more an object of historical reflection. This will be an exciting shift in epistemological paradigms, to which this book makes a first contribution.

Vello Pettai is Director of the European Centre for Minority Issues in Flensburg, Germany. Prior to starting at the ECMI in 2020, he was Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Tartu, where he worked for 25 years. From 1989-1990, Pettai worked as a founding editor of the Estonian Independent, the first English-language newspaper in the Baltic states. Originally from the United States, he wrote his doctoral dissertation at Columbia University on the role of legal restorationism during Estonia’s struggle for re-independence in the late 1980s.