From left to right, Neeme Ruus, Johannes Lauristin, Karl Säre, and Andrei Zhdanov. The month is June, the year is 1940, and these enthralled men are watching a demonstration of workers pleading for the formation of a new government.
Estonia dates its occupation from June 1940, 70 years from this week, when uninvited Soviet troops poured across the border, Soviet navy blockaded its ports, Soviet airforce shot down its planes, and hired protestors made their point to the sitting Estonian government abundantly clear that the days of making any autonomous decisions on Toompea were over.
The script had been approved by Leningrad party boss Zhdanov and fellow Soviet emissaries to Latvia and Lithuania weeks before. Demonstrations to remove the governments, followed by the appointment of Soviet-dependent decision makers, followed ultimately by appeals to join the fraternity of Soviet republics. And it all happened on schedule. Like clockwork, demands were made to the Baltic governments in mid June, new governments in office by the end of the month, fresh (and rigged) elections by mid July, and synchronized appeals to Moscow for incorporation that were mulled over and affirmed by the first week of August. In less than two months, the Baltic countries had been swallowed whole, seemingly by their own hands.
By some accounts, the decision to incorporate the Baltic countries into the USSR had been made in February, by other accounts in April. The spring of 1940 was incredibly messy for European countries big and small. When Ruus, Lauristin, Säre, and Zhdanov looked down on those protestors for hire, Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and a swath of France had been occupied by the German Reich. Britain looked forward to a summer of aerial bombardment. America was still gazing at its Depression-hit navel, some of its financiers pondering the wisdom of their investments.
Some argue that Hitler egged Stalin on to do something as brazen as incorporate these three countries into the USSR. But then, as now, Moscow’s great leaders saw what the other great powers were doing in Europe and Asia and didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity. It was a classic case of, “Everyone else is doing it, so why can’t we?” And keeping up with the Joneses, meant taking out the Estonians.
The Estonian state was brittle, anyhow, isolated and ripe for the picking. President Konstantin Päts carried out a political coup in 1934 ahead of an assured electoral defeat to the quasi-fascist Vaps, who yearned for a strong hand to guide them through the turmoil of the Great Depression, and traded Estonia’s democratic soul in the process. The Estonian left splintered between those who would cooperate with Päts and those who wouldn’t. Neeme Ruus, a young social democrat, was one of the radicals in his party who wouldn’t. In 1940, he needed a job. Zhdanov decided he could be minister of social affairs in the new, progressive Moscow-friendly government.
Towards the end of the thirties, Päts tried to liberalize the outcome the ’34 coup and move the country towards eventual, at least partially free elections. In this new climate of openness, he pardoned Vaps and Communists alike. But after sitting for, in some cases, 14 years in Estonian prison for their role in an attempted 1924 coup, Estonia’s reds had no warm feelings for the regime that had just freed them, and at the same time were not yet up to date on the bloody purges that had recently taken place in Russia that had claimed the lives of so many of their fellow revolutionaries. Johannes Lauristin was such a comrade. In 1940, he needed a job. In August, he became chairman of the council of people’s commissars of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic.
On June 17, the Estonian government gave in to all Soviet demands. Any other option would have been suicide, they determined, both tragic and ironic when you consider how many of them died in Soviet concentration camps or at the wrong end of the firing squad. Some of them did kill themselves. The outcome for Estonia was still the same. As the month rolled on, Päts himself became the puppet president of a puppet government. His presence added an air of legality to a takeover forced at gunpoint, for if there had been no army pouring across the border, no naval blockade, and no political demands from Moscow, then there would have been no Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. Päts even posed with the Soviet ambassador for a group shot in mid July. The Soviet ambassador toasted the Tartu Peace Treaty of 1920. He pledged the undying respect of Moscow for Estonian independence.
Several days later, the freshly elected, handpicked, Moscow-friendly Estonian parliament, again barricaded by tanks on Toompea, with Red Army soldiers looking on, voted to join the Soviet Union. But in their zeal to bring Estonia under complete Soviet control, the puppet masters in Moscow forgot many details. Estonian constitutional law was essentially ignored in the effort to keep the Baltic countries on schedule, so the manner in which the Republic of Estonia joined the Soviet Union was inherently illegal, though Päts, himself a lawyer, signed his name on the documents, perhaps knowing how well it might stand up in some distant court, in an alternative reality where Nazis did not parade down the streets of Oslo and Copenhagen and Paris, where bombs did not fall on English cities, and where the actual wills of peoples were taken into account by more powerful authorities. Besides, Päts was certain that Germany would attack Russia. The two lovers were simply incompatible. The Estonian president is said to have expected the break up to take place on any day in the summer of 1940. Then, he perhaps reasoned, it would be a whole different ballgame.
Päts was ultimately right, but his forecast was off by a year. By the time the Germans actually did show up, he was sitting in a Soviet prison, and he would die in a Soviet hospital a decade and a half later. By the time Päts had died — supposedly hospitalized because he still claimed to be the president of Estonia — Stalin was dead, Zhdanov was dead, and Neeme Ruus, Johannes Lauristin, and Karl Säre were but faded memories for Estonians who had seen so many regimes come and go, so many men appear and disappear within such a short period of time.
Ruus was shot by the Germans in 1941. Lauristin allegedly went down on one of the ships during the Soviet evacuation from Tallinn. And what of Karl Säre, that diminutive Communist operative who also needed a job in 1940, and became first secretary of the Estonian Communist Party? Like Ruus, he later fell into the hands of the Germans and was transferred to Denmark to stand trial for murder. After 1943, he was never seen from nor heard of again.
Ruus, Lauristin, Säre, Päts. They all put an Estonian face on the Soviet takeover of their country, signing off on decisions made in many cases by the party boss of Leningrad. Estonians today still wait for the rulers in Moscow to personally acknowledge the moral sewer of 1940, the geopolitical slime in which they lost their independence. For them, it’s a kind of compass — a way to gauge their neighbor’s intentions. It drives Russia’s rulers mad to have something like that expected of them, for in an era when they are trying to regain some confidence, the last thing they desire to do is to personally apologize to some pipsqueak former province.
That’s Russia. Few countries have easy dealings with it. But within Estonia, the people have ever since had to deal with the local face of the June “revolution.” They have to deal with the reality that they too played a role in the forfeiture of their country. Today, one wouldn’t be surprised to see the descendants of all these families, most of them still prominent, drinking in a pub. They are professors and politicians and bureaucrats. One is even a former first lady. All claim to love Estonia, and nobody would ever question that loyalty or adoration. On occassion, it seems like the past never happened. Your best bet to even read about it is to go scrounging around used furniture stores for discarded Soviet history books. Today, 70 years later, it is June 1940 that seems like an alternative reality. It is the nightmarish faded black and whites of the takeover that drift into obscurity. And most young Estonians probably know little of this past, and are content not to know.
Sometimes I wonder if they are right.