The Winter War
The conduct of Soviet policy just preceding the Second World War in regard to Finland and the three Baltic Republics of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania was solely determined by the necessity of safeguarding Soviet frontiers against imperialist aggression, particularly German imperialist aggression. There was at the time a propaganda barrage in the imperialist press which portrayed Soviet actions as the expression of ‘Soviet imperialism’, in an effort to malign the Soviet Union’s internationalist peace policy. The campaign of lies and misinformation on this question, as indeed on many other questions involving the Soviet Union, continues to this day. It is with the purpose of countering this libellous campaign and to inform the reader of true facts relating to these events that we are publishing the material comprised in the following two articles.
The USSR and Finland
Finland provided the best place d’armes for an attack on Russia “for the best approach to Petrograd (Leningrad} is from the Baltic, and the shortest and easiest route is through Finland, whose frontiers are only thirty-five miles distant from Petrograd. Finland is the key to Petrograd and Petrograd is the key to Moscow” (The Times, 17 April 1919).
“Using Germany’s preoccupation in the West”, wrote the Manchester Guardian of 6 November, 1939, “Soviet Russia has now turned the tables [on Germany] and is now seeking safety for Leningrad.”
The Soviet Union quite correctly refused to be bottled up in the Gulf of Finland.
In January 1939 the Finnish and Swedish governments reached an agreement for a joint refortification of Aaland Islands and notified the Soviet government requesting its consent. In all probability it was Germany that advised the Finns to fortify the islands of Dagö and Ösel – intending to battle the USSR in the Gulf of Finland.
In view of the foregoing, it was to be expected that the USSR, when settling differences with the three Baltic states, would also seek to solve outstanding strategic issues with Finland as, without such an arrangement, there would be critical gaps in her Baltic and Arctic defences.
A glance at a map of the area will reveal:
• That the route to Murmansk would remain open so long as the Rybachy and Sredny peninsulas (the part that looks like an island to the north of Murmansk) were in weak hands;
• That the gateway to Leningrad would remain half-open so long as the Soviet Union had no fortifications and naval bases on the northern shores of the Gulf of Finland.
Between 12 October and 9 November 1939 eight meetings were held in Moscow between the representatives of the Finnish and Soviet governments respectively.
The Soviet Union proposed that the Soviet-Finnish border on the Isthmus of Karelia be shifted 38 kilometres to the north of Leningrad, to move Leningrad out of range of any artillery fire from the frontier. In exchange for this, the USSR proposed to transfer to Finland a part of Soviet Karelia twice the size of the territory Finland was asked to transfer to the Soviet Union, The total area of the territory requested for the purposes of redrawing the frontier was 2,761 square kilometres, in exchange for which the Soviet Union would cede to Finland territory with an area of 5,529 square kilometres i.e., more than double the area. As Stalin said during negotiations: “It is not the fault of either of us that geographical circumstances are as they are. We must be able to bar entrance to the Gulf of Finland…
“Once a hostile fleet is in the Gulf, the Gulf can no longer be defended.
“You ask what power might attack us. England or Germany. We are on good terms with Germany now, but everything in this world may change …
“We ask that the distance of Leningrad to the line should be 70 kilometres. That is minimum demand, and you must not think we are prepared to reduce it bit by bit. We can’t move Leningrad, so the line has to move. … We ask for 2,700 square kilometres and offer more than 5,500 in exchange" (quoted by V. Tanner: The Winter War: Finland against Russia: 1939-1940′; Stanford (USA); 1957).
Further it was requested that Finland lease to the USSR for a definite term a small section of her territory near the entrance to the Gulf of Finland (the port of Hango) for the establishment of a naval base. With a naval base at the southern entrance to the Gulf of Finland, namely, at Baltiski port, as per the provisions of the Soviet-Estonian Pact of Mutual Assistance, the estab-lishment of a naval base at the northern entrance to the Gulf of Finland would fully safeguard the Gulf of Finland against hostile attempts on the part of other states.
In addition, such a base would also serve to strengthen the security of Finland herself
The object of the Soviet proposals was to make herself impregnable in the eastern Baltic. These proposals involved no infringement of Finland’s sovereignty. Nevertheless the negotiations reached deadlock and the Finnish delegation left Moscow on 13 November 1939.
The Finns maintained (1) that the Soviet-German non-aggression pact had removed the threat of Germany using Finland to target Leningrad; and (2) that the acceptance of the Soviet proposals would be a violation of Finnish neutrality and a weakening of her defences.
On 26 November 1939 at 3.35 in the afternoon, the Finnish side suddenly opened fire on Soviet troops. Seven shells were fired, in which four Red Army men were killed and seven wounded
While resolutely protesting against this incident, the Soviet government demanded that Finland withdraw its troops without delay 20-25 km further from the border on the Karelian Isthmus, thus preventing the possibility of repeated provocation.
The Finnish replied on 28 November denying that the Finns had fired shots, mocking the victims by suggesting that the incident resulted from a Soviet military exercise, and refused to withdraw its troops from the frontier unless Moscow did the same. It was clear that the Finns harboured hostile feelings towards the Soviet Union and wished to keep Leningrad under threat.
In view of this, the Soviet Union on 28 November renounced the 1937 Non-Aggression Pact and declared itself released from its obligations thereunder. This was followed by General Mannerheim signing an order for general mobilisation late on the night of 28 November. On the 29th the USSR broke off relations with the Finnish government. After this hostilities assumed larger proportions.
On 1 December 1939, a People’s Government was formed in Terijoki, eastern Finland, which supported the actions of the Red Army on Finnish territory and thanked the USSR for its invaluable assistance for the purpose of soon eliminating, by joint efforts, the most dangerous seat of war created in Finland by the criminal government of war provocateurs. The People’s Government vowed to overthrow the government of the Finnish White Guards.
The Soviet government recognised the Terijoki People’s Government as the government of Finland on 2 December 1939, and concluded with it a Mutual Assistance Pact whereby the two states undertook to assist each other, including militarily.
Thereafter the Soviet government maintained that Red Army operations in Finland were merely in fulfilment of the terms of the Mutual Assistance Agreement with the Terijoki government.
During the Soviet-Finnish campaign there was a deluge of malicious propaganda in the imperialist press, designed to malign, misrepresent and undermine the Soviet war effort and to portray the Soviet Union as an imperialist power bent upon destroying Finnish independence, incorporating Finland into the USSR and dispersing its population. An unbridgeable gap separated the press reports and the realities of the campaign. Here are a few examples of the trajectory of imperialist plain lies in this regard:
• That the morale and physique of the Red Army were low’
• That its leadership was hopeless;
• That its equipment was antiquated.
But none of our ‘war’ correspondents came anywhere near the front, let alone witnessed a battle. They were all typewriter generals sending their reports from places far away from the scene of action.
Furthermore they claimed:
• That a partial revolt had broken out in the Red Army, with hundreds of arrests in Leningrad and throughout the Ukraine;
• That the Soviet Union, thanks to the campaign in Finland, had become dispirited and demoralised;
• That the Soviet Union was threatened by a bad harvest, when as a matter of fact the 1940 harvest was one of the best in the country’s history;
• That the Red Army in its advance was using Finnish civilians – men, women and children – as human shields;
• That Stalin’s health had deteriorated and he was suffering from lack of nervous power, just when he was looking very fit and laughing heartily watching a ballet performance at the Bolshoi Opera House in Moscow, accompanied by Marshal Voroshilov, the Soviet Defence Commissar, Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Commissar, and other Soviet leaders.
While these doomsday stories were being spread by the imperialist propaganda organs, a peace treaty was being signed in Moscow – signed because the allegedly ‘impregnable’ Mannerheim line had been smashed and the Finnish army was on the verge of collapse.
• The Red Army’s 600,000 men were pitted against an equal number of Finnish troops;
• The Soviet aerial assault did credit to its personnel, methods and materiel;
• The single railroad line feeding the 700-mile front functioned with precision;
• The Red Army’s ability to be flexible and adjust its plans did much credit to the Red Army General Staff;
• Whilst neither the French nor the Germans dared attack each other’s fortified lines, the Red Army advanced with assurance against the Mannerheim line and smashed it by a frontal assault, the first such breakthrough in modern military history;
While the imperialist press and radio up to the last days of the war were consistently claiming that disaster was befalling the Red Army north of Lake Ladoga practically every day, the world was to learn after the war that the front was sufficiently stable to permit the construction of an 80-mile railway line running from Petrozavodsk to Soujarvi, the completion of which was announced to the Congress of the Supreme Soviet by Andrei Zhdanov – thus bringing credit to the engineers of the Red Army.
Major H S Hooper, an expert who paid close attention to Soviet military affairs, gives us an objective and truthful account of the lightning speed of the Red Army’s operations and the capabilities of Soviet railways, which played a crucial role during this campaign. This is how he sums up these aspects, among others, of the campaign:
“The Red force on the Isthmus consisted of 14 divisions of infantry, and some idea of the difficulty of rail communications and the necessity for smooth staff work can be gained when it is noted that 30 trains alone are needed for the transportation of one division. The speed of the follow-up of the Red Army surprised the Finnish Command. Much doubt had been expressed outside the Soviet Union as to the capabilities of the Soviet railways to stand up to the strain of war and the movements of mighty armies. This myth was now destroyed. The Murmansk railway carried out the task for all forces of the thrusts north of Lake Ladoga. But more remarkable as a feat of good railway work, as well as good staff work was the supplying of the fighting divisions on the Mannerheim front during the rapid advance. The two railways for this area merged into one over the Neva bridge at Leningrad. At this bottleneck supply trains must have been passing at the rate of at least one an hour throughout the campaign.”
He correctly concludes:
“General Meretskov’s plan, well conceived and boldly executed, was on a scale worthy of the past great masters of the art of war. In contrast to the days of Tsarism, he had the advantage of superior weapons, but for all that he could never have brought the campaign to its decisive conclusion had it not been for the fighting qualities of the rank and file of the Red Army. …
“In Finland, the Red Army, in a race against time, achieved what no other modern army has yet dared to attempt, that is, it attacked and broke a modern defensive system of fortifications by frontal assault. The campaign was won in what is perhaps the most difficult terrain in Europe, in a sub-arctic climate and during mid-winter, the severest winter experienced for 70 years. As a feat of arms it stands out in all history as unique. Only military ignorance or political prejudice would dare to deny it [our emphasis]” (Major A S Hooper, The Soviet-Finnish campaign, self-published, London 1940).
Major Hooper was absolutely correct. There was plenty of military ignorance, more correctly wilful ignorance, and prejudice. And in this orgy of ignorant and prejudiced anti-Soviet propaganda, the British labour movement, just like our present-day misnamed Stop the War, joined the imperialist side with gay abandon, accusing the Soviet Union of pursuing an imperialist agenda and of imposing harsh peace terms on Finland following the latter’s surrender. However, after the Finnish government had at last thrown off its mask by entering the Second World War on the side of Hitlerite Germany in June 1941, a belated change took place in its estimate of the Soviet-Finnish campaign, as well as the peace terms imposed on Finland after her defeat. The September 1941 issue of the Iron and Steel Trades journal had this to say on this score:
“Subsequent events incline one reluctantly to the view that the real mistake Russia made was in being too lenient in her peace settlement. If she had occupied the whole of Finland, as Germany would have done under similar circumstances, it would have been impossible for another German pawn to be used against her”
Slightly earlier, nine months after the end of the Soviet-Finnish war, The Times in its review of the year’s events offered its considered judgment, saying that the peace terms were not, in the event, unduly harsh,
And in May 1941, Commander Stephen King-Hall MP, in his comments on the Soviet Finnish war, wrote:
“The Soviet Union declared, and its subsequent behaviour supported the view that the Russians were speaking the truth, that its object in making war on Finland was that of securing certain territories and frontier adjustments which would improve the strategical position of Russia in the Baltic. The Russians explicitly denied that they wished to absorb Finland into the Soviet Union, and this implied that the Russians ‘ freely and willingly’ accepted the settlement which had created (in 1918) an independent Finnish State, out of what had been for some time a Russian province.
“The Russians won a complete military victory but confined their demands to the territorial readjustments. It may be supposed that had they wished to do so, the Russians could have annexed Finland.” — (News Letter, May 22, 1941).
What the Soviet-Finnish war, and the Treaty following the successful test of Soviet arms, achieved was to eliminate an anti-Soviet war base which for decades had been prepared by the enemies of the USSR with such care at the very gate of Leningrad. Simultaneously it strengthened the security of the entire coast of the Gulf of Finland and the Murmansk railway – the most important artery of the Soviet north, and Murmansk itself, while laying the foundation for the development of stable and good neighbourly relations between the Soviet Union and Finland It did not affect the independence and sovereignty of the Republic of Finland, the independence which – incidentally – she had received from the Soviet state some 22 years previously It represented a real triumph for the peace policy of the Soviet Union.
The very newspapers, politicians and labour leaders who had during the Soviet-Finnish campaign damned the Soviet Union as imperialist, and her armed forces as brutal, inept, incompetent and cowardly, suddenly had nothing but praise after witnessing the heroic resistance of the Soviet people following the treacherous attack by Nazi Germany on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. This gentry suddenly discovered that the Russians had become first-class mechanics; that the Soviet army personnel were characterised by “such skill, ingenuity, resourcefulness and morale” as never seen before, displaying organisational skills and staff work of the highest quality. The splendid morale, the efficient leadership and the modern equipment of the Red Army suddenly began to be universally acknowledged and seen with admiration and respect – even with gratitude: “… we owe the Russian army a debt we have not yet repaid”, wrote the Evening News of 10 October 1941.
The peace treaty – 13 March 1940
Everyone could see from its contents that the treaty was an instrument of peace – not a source of plunder. It served to make Leningrad safer and to protect Kronstadt, as well as provide for the security of Murmansk.
Its aim was to prevent Finland from being used as a jumping off ground for an attack upon the USSR, as it had been in 1917-20.
The terms of the Treaty served to corroborate this and give lie to those who were busy maliciously attributing imperialist motives to the Soviet Union, alleging that she was angling to destroy Finland’s independence, occupying the country ad expelling its population to the Central Asian Republics of the USSR. And further that, after conquering Finland, its aim was to overwhelm Norway and Sweden.
As the peace negotiations between Finland and the USSR were drawing to a close, the British and French governments did their desperate best to encourage the Finns to reject the Soviet terms, to continue the fighting and, to that end, they sent valuable material assistance to the Finnish forces with promises of more.
None of this worked as the Finnish forces, to repeat, were on the verge of collapse. In addition, Norway and Sweden, through whose territory the British and French expeditionary force had to pass, refused permission.
On 13 March 1940 it was announced that the Soviet-Finnish peace deal had been signed the previous day, and it then became known that the negotiations in Moscow for the conclusion of the peace agreement has started on 7 March. The Treaty was ratified by the Finnish state on 15 March 1940 and by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on 19 March. On 20 March the exchange of ratifications took place at the Kremlin.
With the sole aim of strengthening Soviet security and preventing Finland from being used, as it had been in 1917-20, as a launching pad for an attack on Leningrad, as well as to provide for the security of Murmansk and the Murmansk railway, the terms of the peace treaty provided for the transfer to the USSR of the Finnish part of the Karelian Isthmus, with the town of Viborg and Viborg Bay, the western and northern shores of Lake Ladoga with the towns of Kexholm, Sortavala, Suojärvi, a number of islands of strategic importance in the Gulf of Finland, territory east of Merkjäarvi with the town and Kuolajärvi and part of the Rybachy and Sredny Peninsulas. Further, Finland agreed to lease the peninsula of Hango (often referred to by critics of the USSR as the ‘Gilbraltar of the Baltics’) and its territorial waters to the Soviet Union for a term of 30 years for constructing a naval base capable of defending the entrance to the Gulf of Finland against aggression.
In addition, as provided for by the 1920 Soviet-Finnish peace treaty, Finland undertook not to establish on her northern Arctic coasts military or naval ports, nor to maintain in these northern waters submarines or armed aircraft, or any naval or other armed ships.
The USSR and its citizens received, again as per the 1920 Treaty, the right of transit across the Petsamo region to Norway and back. There were provisions also for the right of freight transit between the USSR and Norway and the USSR and Sweden across the Petsamo region and for the establishment of a civilian air service between the USSR and Norway across the Petsamo area.
Finally, there was provision in the Treaty for construction of railway communications between the town of Kandalaksha, on the White Sea, and the town of Kemijärvi, and for the renewal of trade and economic relations between the Soviet Union and Finland.
The Soviet Union and the Baltic Republics
The three Baltic republics – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – lie on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea. While Latvia, the central republic, is the largest in area and possesses the crucial port of Riga, Lithuania, the southernmost, is the largest in terms of population. Estonia, the northern republic, is the smallest in population and area but guards the Gulf of Finland which is the sea approach to St Petersburg (Leningrad).
All three Baltic states had been occupied by German armies during the First World War. Knowing their deep hatred of the Germans, the Tsar formed special Baltic regiments which won glory in the First World War and subsequently became some of the best shock troops of the Russian revolution.
On the same day as the victory of the October Revolution, Soviet Republics were set up in the Baltic States (7 November 1917). They were, however, short-lived, as Germany took away the Baltic States from a defeated Russia at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. When Germany finally collapsed at the end of 1918, the Soviet Baltic Republics again briefly reappeared.
However, profiting from the Allies’ fears of the ‘Bolshevik menace’, Germany was given allied assistance to help set up ‘independent’ governments in Finland, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.
For several years these governments were not officially recognised by the allied powers that had brought them into being, but were merely used as bases against Soviet Russia. The latter was in fact the first to recognise them and to sign Treaties with them in 1920 to secure peace.
The new governments confiscated land from the German barons to redistribute to the peasants and instituted some democratic reforms. This infuriated the largely German upper class, which aimed to separate the Baltic States from Russia.
The Baltic States could not survive without close relations with Russia, but the upper classes preferred to see the ports and industries shut down – turning centres of commerce and industry into ghost towns and afflicting working people with chronic unemployment – rather than foster a mutually beneficial and friendly relationship with the Soviet Union.
With the collapse of the world market in 1930, which shook the Baltic economy, political disturbances followed, leading to the establishment of fascist regimes in Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. These governments dissolved parliaments and consigned their opponents to concentration camps.
All the Baltic states, including Finland, became a military base for Nazi plans against the Soviet Union. Forts set up on the Soviet border were inspected by the Chief of the German General Staff, General Halder.
On 15 March 1939, Nazi armies marched into Prague and took over Czechoslovakia. Seven days later, Hitler seized Memel, Lithuania’s only port on the Baltic.
The Baltic governments, at least outwardly, dashed to pieces the hopes of Anglo-Soviet joint action, that was at the time under consideration, against Hitler in the summer of 1939.
The USSR had demanded that such an agreement should protect not only Holland and Belgium but also the Baltics as strategic outposts of the USSR.
The Estonian and Latvian governments (probably at the instigation of Britain) chose this moment to sign an agreement with Nazi Germany, on 7 June, 1939, whereupon British prime minister Chamberlain had a perfect excuse to state: “One cannot guarantee a state against its will”.
“We wish to live in peace with the Baltic peoples, but if these tiny countries allow big adventurers to use their territories for big adventures, we shall widen our little window on Europe with the help of the Red Army” bluntly warned Andrei Zhdanov, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the USSR.
The ‘little window’ was clearly a reference to Leningrad, while a widened window meant the Baltic states.
From then on the USSR knew that she must handle the threat to her border alone.
She postponed trouble by signing the non-aggression pact with Germany on 23 August 1939.
Following Hitler’s victory in Poland and the terror it inspired in the Baltic states, the USSR proposed a defensive alliance to them which they did not dare turn down. Small Red Army units entered the Baltic states to strengthen naval bases and forts. The USSR set out to win over the Baltic people. After the collapse of the Polish state, the Red Army occupied the provinces of western Ukraine (which had been snatched from Soviet Russia by the Poles in 1920) and western Byelorussia, so as to prevent the Germans from reaching the Soviet borders. The Soviet Union also restored Vilna (Vilnius) to the Lithuanians who had not forgotten nor forgiven its illegal seizure by the Poles 20 years earlier. Through diplomatic channels, Moscow forced Baltic Germans, numbering 160,000, to return to Germany – thus removing a significant Nazi Fifth Column. These measures were very popular with the Baltic peoples.
The Red Army, by its exemplary behaviour, helped greatly to win the affection of the people of the Baltic Republics for the Soviet Union.
The USSR was determined to prevent these small countries on its northern frontier from becoming jumping-off points for aggression against the USSR.
The war between Germany and the western powers made the solution of the problem of Soviet security on the Baltic both an easier as well as a more urgent proposition than before.
Accordingly, the Soviet government invited the governments of the three Baltic states and Finland to start negotiations for realistic pacts of mutual assistance.
Soviet pact of mutual assistance with Estonia
Negotiations were held in Moscow from 24-28 September 1939 between representatives of the Estonian and Soviet governments, ending in the signature of a pact of mutual assistance and a trade agreement.
The purpose of the pact was to develop friendly relations established by the Peace Treaty on 2 February 1926 and the pact of non-aggression and peaceful settlement of conflicts dated 4 May 1932.
Under the agreement, the parties undertook to render every assistance, including military, in the event of direct aggression or menace of aggression, on the part of any great European power against maritime frontiers of the Contracting Parties in the Baltic Sea or their land frontiers through the territory of the Latvian Republic, as well as against the bases.
The Estonian Republic secured to the Soviet Union the right to maintain naval bases and several aerodromes for aviation on lease on reasonable terms on the Estonian islands of Osel (Saarema), Dagö (Hiiumaa) and the town of Paldiski (Baltiski Port), thus removing the danger of Estonia being utilised as a jumping-off ground for an attack upon the USSR. The Pact basically changed the relation of forces in the Baltic, giving the Red Banner fleet an opportunity to safeguard the Soviet coasts, while at the same time ensuring the safety of Estonia itself.
Because of its geographical position and its strategic importance, Estonia had always attracted the attention of imperialist powers who attempted to strengthen their economic and political position in that small country. Let it be remembered that in 1919 the British fleet attempted to attack Kronstadt from Estonia. The Soviet-Estonian Pact attempted to remove that danger.
The two Contracting Parties undertook not to conclude any alliances nor to participate in coalitions directed against one of the Contracting Parties.
The Pact guaranteed the independence, sovereign rights, as well as the economic systems and state organisation of the Contracting Parties.
The Soviet-Estonian trade agreement
The trade agreement provided for an increase of 4.5 times in the trade turnover between the two countries. The Soviet Union granted the Estonian Republic the right of transit of its goods along the railways and waterways of the USSR to Murmansk, Soroka, and to the ports of the Black Sea. The agreement also made provision for a great extension of the transit of Soviet products through Estonian ports.
Prior to 1917 Estonia depended heavily on the Russian market. After the First World War, life in the Estonia ports came to a standstill. Leading branches of industry – textiles, shipbuilding, engineering – entered a decline and deindustrialisation took hold. Whereas formerly it was an agrarian and industrial country, by 1939 it had become predominantly agrarian. Close business connections with the large Soviet market, as per the provisions of the Pact, could not but help revive the Estonian economy, cheapen her imports, make her export trade more profitable, increase the business of Estonian ports and revive Estonian industry.
The Soviet-Latvian Pact of Mutual Assistance – 5 October 1939
The Pact was built on the Peace Treaty of 11 August 1920 and the Non-Aggression Pact of 5 February 1932.
Under this Pact, the Soviet Union secured the right to maintain naval bases in the towns of Liepaja (Libava) and Vestpils (Vindava) and several aerodromes.
The Soviet and the Latvian press hailed the pact as an instrument for the preservation of peace and security of both the USSR and Latvia. Like the Soviet-Estonian Mutual Assistance Pact, the Soviet-Latvian Pact created new obstacles for any aggression in eastern Europe and strengthened peaceful relations in an area crucial to preservation of international peace.
The Soviet-Latvian trade agreement
In 1914, Latvia was one of the most industrially developed provinces of Tsarist Russia, with the Russian market absorbing 75-90 percent of its industrial output. By separation from the Soviet Union, Latvia suffered huge commercial damage, through the loss of the huge Russian market. Her industry went into decline and within two decades Latvia too was transformed from an industrial into an agrarian country.
The new Soviet-Latvian trade agreement promised to accelerate economic development in Latvia. The Latvian journal Rits, in an article devoted to the new trade agreement, declared:
“The renewed and extended trade agreements of the Soviet Union with the Baltic states will result in a sharp turn for the better in the development and structure of trade in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. They make it possible for the Baltic states to make good the breach made in their trade” with other countries “as a result of the extremely difficult shipping conditions” (Rits, 21 October 1939).
The three main provisions of this trade agreement, as of agreement with the other Baltic states, were: (1) an increase in the general trade turnover between the two countries; (2) the grant to Latvia of the right of transit of her goods along the Soviet railways and waterways to Murmansk, Saroka and the Black Sea harbours; and (3) a considerable increase in the transit of Soviet goods via Latvian ports.
Speaking in Riga on 23 October 1939, Latvian Foreign Minister M Munters, among other things declared:
“The Soviet Union based its approach to the new problems confronting it … on a policy of mutual understanding. The Soviet Government is endeavouring to consolidate its interests, not by way of one-sided actions, but by the conclusion of agreements”.
Dealing with the question of the possibility of mutual help between states so vastly different in size, armed strength and social structure as were the USSR and Latvia, Mr Munters categorically stated:
“Everyone knows that neither the Soviet attitude during the negotiations nor the contents of the Treaty itself showed any signs of any desire for domination. Exactly the contrary was the case. The text stresses our sovereign rights in clear language”.
This statement was clearly meant to be a slap in the fact of propagandists in the imperialist countries who were busy slandering the Soviet-Baltic agreements as expressions of Soviet ‘imperialism’.
The Soviet-Lithuanian pact of mutual assistance – 10 October 1939
This pact was built on the Peace Treaty of 12 July 1920 and the Non-Aggression Pact of 28 September 1926.
By the very first Article of this Pact, the city of Vilna (Vilnius) and Vilna Province were transferred by the Soviet Union to the Lithuanian Republic and included in the territory of the Lithuanian state. The cession by the USSR of Vilna to Lithuania “evoked unexampled enthusiasm in Kaunas [the temporary capital of Lithuania during the inter-war years], with schools closed and houses adorned with flags, with strangers kissing each other and dancing in the streets; old people capering like children, forgetting their age and infirmities” (The Times, 12 October 1939).
By article IV, the Soviet Union and the Lithuanian Republic undertook jointly to effect protection of the state boundaries of Lithuania, for which purpose the Soviet Union was granted the right to maintain at its own expense, at mutually agreed points in the Lithuanian Republic, Soviet armed land and air forces of strictly limited strength – the sites and buildings required for this purpose to be allotted by the Lithuanian government on lease on reasonable terms.
The other provisions of the Pact were similar to those embodied in the Pacts between the Soviet Union and the other two Baltic states – Estonia and Latvia.
The conclusion of the Treaty was hailed with delirious joy across Lithuania by the press, leading public figures, high-ranking military officers and the public at large.
The Lithuanian people had every ground for rejoicing since injury done to Lithuania by the Polish usurpers 19 years earlier had been remedied, declared the Vilnius daily ‘Lietuvos Zionios’.
The Lithuanian press expressed sincere thanks to the Soviet Union for the latter’s sympathy for Lithuania’s historical ideals, for continuing her policy of strengthening her own frontiers while pursuing a policy which recognised the self-determination of peoples – the very principles embodied in the Soviet-Lithuanian Pact.
In a special article on the Soviet-Lithuanian agreement, the Latvian journal Rits, on 12 October 1939 declared: “We can already now affirm that the signature of the Treaty between the USSR and Lithuania has concluded an important stage in the history of the Baltic states. All three of these states have come to an agreement with their great eastern neighbour, obligating themselves mutually to defend their own and her frontiers. Co-operation with the Soviet Union – military, economic and cultural – will without doubt lead to further rapprochement between the Baltic states”.
After the conclusion of the Soviet-Estonian and Soviet-Latvian Pacts, Mr L J Garvin, writing in The Observer of 8 October 1939, had this to say (inter alia):
“Moscow will have controlling facilities on the main railways through Lithuania to the sea. In Latvia, at Libau and Windau – names familiar to generations of British shippers and seamen – the Soviet Power will regain ice-free ports on the open Baltic. Riga itself, though more obstructed in the winter, will become again a great Russian outlet.
“As well as the large islands of Ösel and Dagö, commanding the whole Gulf of Riga, Estonia yields the naval use of Baltiski. But just opposite lies Finland. She is to be asked for an island or two, so that Russia may guard on both sides the naval approaches to Leningrad.
“So perish the fervent Nazi dreams of Baltic domination. They hate the forfeit, but must stomach it.”
In a leading article, the Daily Telegraph declared: “Stalin’s anxiety about the establishment of German power on Russia’s Baltic flank is removed. The Soviet [Union] is on the way, not merely to be secure from attack from the west, but to dominate the Baltic, which becomes not a German, but a Russian lake” (10 October, 1939).
In an editorial of 14 October 1939, The Times correctly stated: “The German retreat from the Baltic constitutes the second main defeat of Nazi policy since the war began.
“Almost every port of any value on the Baltic between Riga and Memel will henceforth serve as a Russian naval base, Russian aerodromes will be strewn down the littoral, and leased areas will be reserved for occupation by Soviet troops. The two islands which guard the mouth of the Gulf of Riga will hold Soviet garrisons”.
This was certainly the view of authoritative representatives of the British government as, for instance, Leslie Hore-Belisha, Secretary for War, who summed up the situation at a press conference on 13 October 1939 saying that “in the first round of the war since the occupation of Poland, Germany had suffered a major defeat in the Baltic … It has always been a substantial element in German strategy to dominate the Baltic. Now it is to be dominated by Soviet Russia” (as reported in the News Chronicle of 14 October 1939).
An authoritative statement on the question of the Soviet government’s attitude to the Pacts with the Baltic states was made by VM Molotov. Speaking at a special session of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on 31 October 1939, he declared to the world that the Soviet government had honoured and would honour their word to the Baltic states, saying: “The special character of these Mutual Assistance Pacts in no way implies any interference of the Soviet Union in the affairs of Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania. On the contrary, all these Pacts of Mutual Assistance strictly stipulate the inviolability of the sovereignty of the signatory states and the principle of non-interference in each other’s affairs. The Pacts are based on mutual respect for the political, social and economic structure of the contracting parties and are designed to strengthen the bases for peaceful, neighbourly co-operation between our peoples. We stand for the scrupulous and punctilious observance of the Pacts on the basis of complete reciprocity, and we declare that all the spreading of the nonsense about Sovietising the Baltic countries is only to the interest of our common enemies and of all anti-Soviet provocateurs”.
He went on to point out the economic benefits to the three Baltic states consequent upon the conclusion of these Pacts, adding that these states would be far better protected than they had been in the past from outside attack:
“In view of the special geographical position of these countries, which are in a way approaches to the USSR, particularly from the Baltic, these Pacts allow the Soviet Union to maintain naval bases and aerodromes in specified parts of Estonia and Latvia and, in the case of the Pact with Lithuania, provides for the defence of the Lithuanian borders jointly with the Soviet Union.
“The creation of these Soviet naval bases and aerodromes on the territory of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and the stationing of a certain number of Red Army units to protect these bases and aerodromes, ensure a reliable defence base, not only for the Soviet Union, but also for the Baltic states themselves, and thereby contribute to the preservation of peace, which is to the interest of our peoples.”
Setting up of Soviet Republics in the Baltics – summer 1940
In the summer of 1940, having conquered France, Hitler turned his attention to the east, concentrating 80,000 storm troopers disguised as ‘tourists’ and 200 aeroplanes on the border of Lithuania.
The USSR, taking note of these developments, demanded that her Baltic allies admit larger Red Army forces to fortify their common frontier. These forces swept through the Baltic states on a few hours’ notice, cheered by lines of crowds. Several government chiefs and heads of secret police, sympathetic to the Nazis, took refuge on German soil. With these measures, the Soviet Union had transformed the Baltic States from being outposts of Hitler into outposts of the USSR.
Thousands of progressive leaders, released from concentration camps, began again to organise the masses. Within four weeks, special elections were held, which saw the largest and most enthusiastic turnout of voters ever seen in the Baltic states.
New parliaments met at once and applied for admission to the USSR as sovereign Soviet states. At an extraordinary session of the Supreme Soviet, the Baltic states were admitted into the USSR; and all residents of the Baltic states, including refugees from many countries – such as German and Polish Jews – were granted Soviet citizenship.
Following their admission into the USSR, the Baltics had immediate access to the huge market of the Soviet Union, which absorbed everything produced in the Baltic states. Living standards experienced a dramatic improvement, while cultural activities flourished in a land which had hitherto been a cultural desert.
All these developments were interrupted when, on the morning of 22 June 1941, Germany launched its treacherous attack on the USSR. The German bombers, tanks and artillery brought back the Baltic barons. They did away with the names of these countries, calling them instead collectively “Ostland” – the land of the East – in which the ‘natives’ were not allowed into the same trains and trams as their new masters, while their wages were a third of those in Germany. A quarter of a million Lithuanians were transported to Germany as slave labour, while a large number of Baltic girls were pushed into soldiers’ brothels in Germany and branded with red-hot irons with the letters SM, standing for Soldaten Mädchen, i.e., soldiers’ girl.
The Nazis were determined to wipe out the cultural heritage of the Baltic people through wrecking their national libraries, burning manuscripts, and smashing gramophone records of old Baltic folk songs.
But this time the Baltic people gave a display of organised resistance such as they had never before been able to do. The whole population rose in arms to resist the German blitzkrieg. Large numbers of people and their governments were evacuated into the depths of the Soviet Union, where they formed national armies under their own officers and went into battle as special units of the Red Army. More than 3,000 Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians were decorated for bravery in just the first two years of the war,
Women of the Baltic states distinguished themselves both in battle and as guerrilla fighters behind German lines. Erica Gaile, the Latvian skiing champion, killed 32 Germans; Monica Meinshane killed 58. The 18-year old Lithuanian guerrilla, Maria Melnikaito, organised and commanded a detachment, and fought for two years before she was finally captured.
With her 5-strong command, Maria was surrounded by a large German force. One of her comrades was killed. In her last engagement, Maria claimed 7 German lives with her tommy gun and several more with her grenades. Having failed to blow herself up with her last grenade, being too weak from her wounds to pull the pin, she was caught. The Gestapo tortured her, breaking her fingers and slashing her breasts in the hope of extracting information. However she remained grimly silent and was hanged in a Lithuanian market place as an example to the villagers.
Even in this she defeated the enemy, for the villagers reported her last words: “What are you German dogs doing here? This is Soviet Lithuania”. This account is taken from Anna Louise Strong’s Peoples of the USSR, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1944, p.127). Following the Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War, and the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Baltic states returned to the USSR. With the triumph of counter-revolution in the USSR, following three and a half decades of Khrushchevite revisionist treachery undermining the Soviet Union, these three Baltic states, as indeed many other non-Russian former Republics of the Soviet Union, became ‘independent’. Presently the three Baltic states, having been incorporated into the warmongering neo-Nazi Nato alliance, have become centres for maligning the Soviet Union and glorifying Nazism.