The present-day independent states of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine share the experience of having been Soviet republics throughout a large part of the 20th century. At the same time, their respective development after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 has been very different. Based on more than twenty years of research, innumerable visits, and a great many interviews, Li Bennich-Björkman explores the question of why these four countries have turned out so differently in her monograph “Bakom och bortom järnridån. De sovjetiska åren och frigörelsen i Baltikum och Ukraina” [Behind and Beyond the Iron Curtain. The Soviet Years and the Liberation in the Baltic States and Ukraine].
While not a historian, Swedish political scientist Bennich-Björkman turns towards the past for explanations, beginning in the interwar period, but focusing mainly on the period after Stalin’s death in 1953. It is in many ways a very solid and engaging book, not least in its comparative approach and its rendering of the relationship between the local branches of the Communist Party and the local intelligentsia in the four Soviet republics: In Estonia, this relationship between 1960 and 1978 was characterized by acceptance, later, between 1978 and 1986, it moved towards polarization. In Latvia, by contrast, the entire period between 1959 and 1987 was marked by antagonistic relations. In Lithuania, the relationship between 1956 and 1974 was almost one of symbiosis, but between 1974 and 1987 it became one of polarization. Finally, in Ukraine, the relations between the Party and the intelligentsia went through multiple changes; between 1960 and 1965 they were characterized by symbiosis, between 1965 and 1972 by polarization, and between 1972 and 1982/83 by antagonism. Bennich-Björkman’s major point is that these relationships had far-reaching consequences for how the different states managed the road towards independence and democracy, showing convincingly that the past casts long shadows.
Estonia is often portrayed as the former Soviet republic which has managed the transition to independence and democracy best. Bennich-Björkman concurs, claiming that Estonia has managed to attain a higher degree of political and economic stability than the other three states. Her main explanation is that Estonia during the decades before independence in 1991 was marked by “existential” and “non-Soviet” resistance. This kind of resistance meant expressing both an individuality and a distinctiveness together with others, for instance by forming clubs for restoring historic buildings in Tallinn or discussing Estonian history and literature. This “existential” resistance differed from political opposition, which was more pronouncedly anti-Soviet. Bennich-Björkman also points to the importance of Tartu, the southern university town where liberal ideas continued to flourish also during the Soviet period.
Bennich-Björkman’s historical analysis, as well as the explanatory weight she attributes to the aforementioned aspects for the later consolidation of Estonia as an independent and democratic state, are sound. However, I find it somewhat problematic that Estonia is used as a kind of yardstick against which the other three states are measured and eventually fall short. Even if I to a large extent agree with her conclusion that Estonian-type existential resistance was less prevalent in Latvia, I still wonder how much of that conclusion actually rests on a too specific definition of such resistance, rather than exploring what kind of existential resistance took place in Latvia? This tendency to use Estonia as an ideal and a benchmark is enhanced by the book’s outline, with Estonia being the first case to be examined in each part, followed separately by the other three states. Occasionally, there is also a difference in how the four states are presented. In the first part of the book, dealing with the period between Stalin’s death in 1953 and Gorbachev’s ascension as General Secretary in 1985, the chapter on Estonia is mainly based on interviews, while the chapters on Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine rest primarily on historical overviews with only a few interview contributions. When it comes to Ukraine, much of the focus is on the western part, and especially the city of Lviv. Here, Bennich-Björkman highlights Ukrainian nationalism and the importance of Lviv when it came to existential resistance, which also played a role in Kiev and beyond. Even with this focus on western Ukraine and the fact that Ukraine was made a part of the Soviet Union already in 1922, whereas the Baltic states were occupied in 1944, the comparative approach still works. This is mainly due to one of Bennich-Björkman’s major points, namely that all the Soviet republics were different from one another, both with regard to their history and to the respective relations between the local branches of the Communist Party and the local intelligentsia.
Comparing the development in four separate states is a daunting task, and Bennich-Björkman must be highly commended for taking on this challenging undertaking. However, the wide scope of the study also brings with it the risk of minor misconceptions. The differences between Estonia and Latvia during the Soviet period are, for instance, to some extent attributed to differences in political culture between these two states already manifested during the interwar period. She maintains that the Ulmanis regime in Latvia was not only more hardline authoritarian than the likewise authoritarian Päts regime in Estonia, but also that it was marked by a more aggressive form of nationalism. Her argument here is based on Georg von Rauch’s book “Geschichte der baltischen Staaten” [History of the Baltic States] from 1970, which is marked by a clear Baltic German tendency and hardly represents recent historical research.1
Something I find missing in the book is an understanding of the postcolonial situation in both Estonia and Latvia during the interwar period. The conflict between the state-building Latvians and the former elite, the Baltic Germans, had been much sharper in Latvia than in the parallel case of Estonia, something that needs to be considered when assessing a perhaps more aggressive form of nationalism in Latvia. I would also question whether differences in political culture in these two states during the interwar period really have a strong explanatory value for the relative lack of existential resistance in Latvia during the Soviet period, and the antagonistic relations there between the local Party and the Latvian intelligentsia. To my mind, a more convincing explanation would be that Soviet repression was much stronger in Latvia, and the local Party as well as the intelligentsia were subjected to much more thorough purges than was the case in Estonia. Consequently, the Estonians had greater possibilities to develop existential resistance than the Latvians. Bennich-Björkman emphasizes this crucial difference, but especially in the first part of the book the purges are somewhat downplayed as an explanation for the lack of existential resistance in Latvia.
All in all, I find Bennich-Björkman’s monograph to be both exceptionally interesting and unquestionably well-written. Her knowledge about Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine is nothing less than impressive, and she skillfully guides the reader through the modern history of these countries in a scholarly, personal, and loving way. In the final section of the book, she weaves the different strands together in a very well-reflected, forward-looking discussion of the four countries’ respective developments. Among other things, she points to the importance of the Humanities in the development of democracy. In both Estonia and Lithuania, an intelligentsia connected to the Humanities had a strong presence during the founding years of the new republics, ensuring that ideas and ideologies became vital parts of the political system, while economic interests were held at bay. The political elite in Latvia and Ukraine did not have the same connection to Humanist thought, and here the emerging economic elite managed to capture the political arena. Political and economic power became intertwined, a development that opened the door for a culture of corruption. Bennich-Björkman’s monograph therefore provides not only a solid historically-based explanation as to why Estonia’s, Latvia’s, Lithuania’s, and Ukraine’s roads to democracy differed, it also provides us with insights about what conditions promote or undermine the development towards democracy. This, I believe, should serve as a lesson also for older democracies; that democratic rule is not a given, it is something that continuously needs to be won.
1 For more recent academic research on the history of the Baltic states, which is however not used by Bennich-Björkman, see Andrejs Plakans, A Concise History of the Baltic States, Cambridge 2011; Andreas Kasekamp, A History of the Baltic States, Basingstoke 2010; Karsten Brüggemann / Ralph Tuchtenhagen / Anja Wilhelmi (eds.), Das Baltikum. Geschichte einer europäischen Region, Band 3: Die Staaten Estland, Lettland und Litauen, Stuttgart 2020. See also the review by Tilman Plath, in: H-Soz-Kult, 01.10.2021, https://www.hsozkult.de/publicationreview/id/reb-50565 (06.07.2023).