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Hope in the Baltic States.

Hope in the Baltic States

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the Soviet Baltic Republics, from the northwestern border of the Soviet Union and provide strategic Russian access to the Baltic Sea. The republics have been culturally and ethnically non-Russian since they were occupied by Stalin's troops in 1940 as unwilling partners in the Soviet federation.

The forced annexation of the Baltics was lost amid the turmoil of World War II but concentrations of Baltic immigrants--especially in Cleveland, Chicago and Milwaukee--kept the issue politically alive by lobbying the U.S. government on behalf of the captive nations in the years following the war. Little could be done, our government advised, although Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian-Americans never gave up hope for their kinsmen trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

Between the end of World War II and the rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, a series of repressive regimes kept dissent in the Baltic Republics under tight control. The Gorbachev reforms, however, opened the door to a reexamination of the Baltic question and, by 1989, the movements for Baltic independence was openly reported in the American press.

Late that year the Lithuanian Parliament declared its independence and announced its intention to secede from the Soviet Union. When Estonia and Latvia followed suit in early 1990, Gorbachev was facing a crisis many historians likened to the secession movement that precipitated the American Civil War.

First-Hand Look

During my visit to Russia, I wanted to visit this troubled region and see for myself the historic changes that were threatening the political survival of the Soviet Union as we know it.

Using the press credentials provided by modern casting magazine (and, admittedly stretching the nature of my journalistic mission a bit), I worked my way through the maddening Soviet bureaucracy and secured a journalist's visa to enter Estonia and Latvia. Lithuania, I was told very forcefully, was closed to foreign visitors as rumors of Soviet tanks in the streets of Vilnius permeated the meager news accounts leaking from that embattled republic.

I took a bus from Leningrad to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. The road, which is themain highway between western Russia and the Baltic Sea, was two lanes with mud shoulders. The trip of just over 200 miles took several hours as the bus slowed for road repair crews trying to patch a road that was, in places, more patch than road.

We passed only three service stations on the road, two of which were closed because they were out of gas. The third station had a line of automobiles and farm vehicles that stretched for more than a mile and a half.

There were also no rest stops along the way, although the bus driver stopped at roughly the midway point for passengers to relieve themselves in the woods near the road.

Crossing the border into Estonia was anticlimactic. There were no guards, no checkpoints and little else to mark the boundary between the Russian Republic and the Estonian Republic. But there was no doubt that a boundary of some sort had been crossed. The change outside the grimy bus window was dramatic. More so because it was unmarked.

The first sign was the gravel that replaced the mud as the shoulder of the road. In place of the large collective farms that dominated the Russian landscape were small, prosperous-looking farms with neat barns and brightly painted farmhouses. The yards were well-kept and the fencing was in good repair, all in marked contrast to the Russian collective farms.

The side roads leading into the main highway were paved, unlike the dirt roads encountered throughou Russia. And the road surface on the highway itself was far smoother and held some promise that it would survive the fierce northern winter.

We passed gas stations that actually sold gas and, as we entered the small towns on the outskirts of Tallinn, there were sidewalks and pets in the yards, both of which are rare sights in Russia. The people in the streets were well-dressed, again in sharp contrast to the drab shabbiness of the average Russian, and they actually smiled and talked to each other in the streets.

Between the broad, green fields, prosperous family farms and small-town friendliness, the scene that unfolded before me was more like Minnesota or Wisconsin than anything I had yet seen in the Soviet union.

Signs of Independence

The city of Tallinn was a delight. This seaport town is the capital of Estonia, which is the smallest of the Baltic Republics. The city dates back to the 13th century when it was settled by the Danes. It later joined the Germanic Hanseatic League and retains a Danish-German flavor in its architecture and food as well as in the ethnic identification of its people.

In February of this year the Estonian Parliament followed the Lithuanian lead and declared Estonian independence, an action not recognized by the central Soviet government. How far the Estonians will pursue independence beyond the merely symbolic February pronouncement will largely determine the severity of the Soviet response.

In mid-May, just about a month before my visit, there was a major pro-independence demonstration in Alexander Nevsky Plaza, just outside the Estonian government building. When I visited the plaza traces of the demonstration were still present in the Russian troops situated around the square and in the young Estonian Defense Forces volunteers who ringed the Parliament building in a symbolic gesture of sovereignty.

I spoke with several of the young men, all under 25, well-dressed, unarmed and wearing the powder-blue armbands of the Estonian Defense Force. Two spoke English and the others joined in our conversation with gestures and nods of approval. I asked them why they were guarding the Parliament building.

"Because it is ours, not theirs," their leader said with a flick of his eyes toward a line of Russian soldiers.

I asked him if he took part in the May demonstration. He nodded. "We all did," he said as he mentioned to his compatriots. One of the young men silently opened his shirt to reveal a long scar and a deep bruise, still evident a month after the confrontation with the Russians.

What will you do if the Russians decided to crack down? I asked. "We will not leave. This is Estonian soil, not Russian. They," the young leader said as he pointed across the square to the Russians, "are not fighting for their homeland. But we will."

As I looked into the strong faces of the young men who risked so much just by being there, I believed him. We both also knew, without having to speak the words, that if the well-armed and well-trained Soviet troops tried to end the standoff, the Estonian Defense Forces wouldn't have much of a chance to resist.

When I walked back across the square to the steps of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a long black Lada, the kind of automobile only the KGB can afford, moved slowly over the area I had just left. The dark tinted rear window came down and a long telephone lens took pictures of the young men. The car slowly swung around and they took my picture as well. It was a chilling reminder that despite all appearances to the contrary and the hopes of the young men in the square, we were still in the shadow of Moscow.

Visit to Latvia

The following day I left Tallinn and took the bus to Riga, the capital of Latvia. The trip was 320 km but much smoother and quicker than the shorter trip the day before, which was primarily on Russian roads. Although Latvia declared its independence on May 4, 1990, the presence of Russian soldiers was far less evident than in Estonia. However, there were quite a few Soviet officers on the streets of Riga.

One officer I spoke with was with an elite Soviet airborne division that had seen action in the Afghanistan War. His presence was an indication that the Russians view their military presence in Latvia as more than mere tokenism. The relations between the Russians and the Latvians, who are ethnically primarily Poles, has historically been very bad. The current situation has not improved matters.

Unlike Tallinn, which has almost a resort atmosphere, Riga is a grimy, industrial city. It is the center of the country's aluminum industry and has several aluminum foundries within it, but they are closed to foreign visitors. Because of its industrial significance, Riga is of strategic importance to the Soviet Union. There is little chance the Soviets will grant complete independence, although several of the Latvians I spoke with held out hope that some compromise could be reached to grant Latvia some measure of autonomy within the Soviet federation. Other, more militant Latvians contend that nothing but total independence is acceptable.

I spoke with one young Russian who lived in Latvia and he supported the Latvian independence movement. He said there is a major division within Russia that seems to follow generational lines with the younger Russians supporting the Baltic independence movement and their fathers, perhaps remembering the devastation of World War II and the need for territorial buffers, adamant against any talk of Baltic independence.

Helen, a young Latvian activist, took me to a small museum in Riga that was featuring an exhibit of Russian atrocities against the Latvian people. "This would never have been allowed before Gorbachev," she conceded. "But independence for Latvia, now, is a fact. What follows independence...," she shrugged and let the sentence remain unfinished.

A I left Latvia and the Baltics, and rode the bus back into Russia, I had a hard time sorting the images and impressions this side trip left with me. I don't think I'll ever forget the determination and the courage of the young men of the Estonian Defense Forces, or the resolve of Helen and the young Latvians in the Riga museum. But I must admit a measured of dread and fear for their future.

I'll soon forget the faces of the Latvian shopkeepers and Estonian students, or of the young Russian soldiers conscripted from the Ukraine and from the Asian steppes of eastern Russia.

The soldiers, boys really, no more wanted to be there than the Estonians and Latvians wanted them. Old men in Moscow, and to an extent in Washington, would decide whether these boy soldiers and the determined young patriots who face them across the squares and plazas of the Baltics would kill each other.

We can only pray that saner heads will prevail and a peaceful solution found. That was certainly my prayer as I left this beautiful but troubled land.

Mr. Simonelli is the executive director of the California Cast Metals Assn.
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Title Annotation:part 2 of 3; Impressions of the Soviet Union
Author:Simonelli, Frederick J.
Publication:Modern Casting
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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