The regime of Vladimir Putin has consistently sought to demonstrate that the period of independence and sovereignty of the Baltic states is an “abnormality” of as compared to the “normality” of the period, when the region was under Russian or Soviet rule1.
The early years of Yeltsin’s presidency were a period of relatively low tension between Russia and the Baltic states in general, including over historical views. The highlight of Baltic-Russian relations regarding their common historical past was the agreement signed on July 29 1991 between Lithuania and the Russian Soviet Republic. This bilateral agreement stated that Russia recognized that Lithuania had been ‘annexed’ by the Soviets (though Moscow avoided the word ‘occupation’) and acknowledged that efforts to reduce the consequences of the period for Lithuania would increase trust between the two states.2 However, in the mid-1990s, the Russian government started to distance itself from acknowledging Soviet annexation.3 Possibly the last time Russian officials acknowledged the Soviet occupation of the Baltics was in 1993 when the Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation Andrey Kozyrev confirmed that the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic states in 1940.4 For Russian leaders, Baltic occupation began to be interpreted as a voluntary act by the Baltic states of joining the Soviet Union.5
With the start of Putin’s presidency in 2000, tensions regarding the historical record between Russia and the Baltic states increased. Putin’s regime began to consciously rehabilitate Soviet-era leaders and symbols as well as the Soviet version of history.6
During the 2000s, a number of pronouncements from the Kremlin leadership denied the occupation of the Baltic states. The official stance reiterated the states’ ‘voluntary joining of the USSR’ thesis. President Putin summarized the Russian position in 2005 stating:
“If in 1939 the Baltic countries had joined the Soviet Union, then in 1941 the Soviet Union could not have occupied them, because they were already part of the Soviet Union.”7
The same year, the chief of European affairs at the Kremlin, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, seconded Putin, declaring that ‘There was no occupation. There were agreements at the time with the legitimately elected authorities in the Baltic countries.’8 At the same time, according to political scientist Nerijus Maliukevičius of the Institute of International Relations and Political Vilnius University – the Russian historical narrative stereotyped the Baltics in ‘enemy-fascist’ image, enabling Russia and Putin’s regime to be perceived as a ‘beleaguered fortress’9. Russian government sponsored research centres just further strengthen this myth and any Baltic or European efforts to re-assess the Soviet period were branded as attempts to wage an ‘information war against Russia.’10
The Soviet victory in the Second World War has held a particularly important place in such historiography, which unfolds alongside efforts to raise national pride in contemporary Russia. The 2005 commemoration of the 60th anniversary of Soviet victory in the Second World War marked the peak in rehabilitation efforts of the Soviet era. On the occasion of the 2005 commemoration of the Soviet victory in the Second World War, Putin stated, ‘The world has never known such heroism… Our people not only defended their homeland, they liberated 11 European countries.’11 With the 70th anniversary approaching in 2015, Putin sought to rehabilitate in 2014 the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop pact where Soviets and Nazis pact that carved up Eastern Europe.
Throughout the 2000s, Russia’s historical propaganda intensified and reinforced its soft power efforts to create a network of co-opted communities in the Baltic states. According to Joseph Nye, the information revolution created virtual communities where national borders are no longer important,12 and this was increasingly apparent in the Baltic states where internet and digital tools became widespread. Using its influence via the media, the Russian propaganda machine has been particularly successful in creating a virtual community of not only the Russian diaspora but also of a segment of the Baltic population that remains linked culturally, linguistically, and ideologically to Moscow. According to Maliukevičius such soft power tools maintain a working relationship with compatriots abroad and encourage them to form a loyalty to modern-day Russia, including its interpretation of history and political system. This ‘soft’ loyalty may evolve into a more formal relationship in future, if or when needed13.
1 Nerijus Maliukevičius, Interview, Vilnius, Lithuania, October 2014
2 Nerijus Aleksiejūnas, Didžiųjų ir mažųjų valstybių santykių teorijų taikymas: Lietuvos ir Rusijos santykių analizė, Vilniaus universiteto leidykla, Vilnius, 2003, pp. 30-31.
3 For more on the Baltic-Russian tensions over Soviet occupation see Agnia Grigas, The Politics of Energy and Memory between the Baltic States and Russia, p. 127-173.
4 Aivars Stranga, ‘Russia and the Security of the Baltic States: 1991-1996,’ in Atis Lejiņš and Daina Bleiere, eds., The Baltic States: Search for Security, Riga, 1996, p. 144.
5 Aleksiejūnas, p. 34; Kadri Liik, ‘The ‘Bronze Year’ of Estonia-Russia relations,’ Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Yearbook, Tallinn, 2007.
7 Putin, undated news conference in 2005, Lynn Berry, ‘Behind Putin’s Estonia Complex,’ The Moscow Times, 24 May 2007.
8 ʻKremlin denies Soviet ʻOccupationʼ of Baltics,ʼ AFP, May 2005.
9 Interview, Vilnius, Lithuania, October 2014.
10 Dimlevich cited in Agnia Grigas, The Politics of Energy and Memory between the Baltic States and Russia, p. 132
11 Bush Denounces Soviet Domination,ʼ BBC, 7 May 2005, viewed on 14 May 2010,
12 Joseph Nye, “The Benefits of Soft Power”, hbswk.hbs.edu, 2 August 2004, < http://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/4290.html>.
13 The “Humanitarian Dimension” of Russian Foreign Policy toward Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and the Baltic States. Ed. Gatis Pelnens, Riga, 2009.
Agnia Grigas (Ph.D, University of Oxford) is the author of ‘The Politics of Energy and Memory between the Baltic States and Russia’ (Ashgate 2013) and a forthcoming book ‘Rebuilding the Russian Empire: Compatriots, Information Warfare, and New Military Tactics’ (Yale University Press 2015). Learn more: www.grigas.net.