For anybody who knows the uninspiring architecture of Soviet public housing, it must have been a horrifying thought: during the occupation of the Baltic State Latvia after World War II, the Soviet leadership wanted to destroy all German Art Nouveau architecture in the town of Riga and replace the old buildings with Soviet style apartment blocks. However, the need for housing was immediate and too great for such drastic action, and it was decided to allow the old buildings to be used. The plan was to replace the deteriorated buildings later, when the USSR had more money. Fortunately, together with the other Baltic sister states Lithuania and Estonia, Latvia became independent from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the beautiful architecture was saved from destruction. Now, the famous Art Nouveau buildings of Riga have been renovated and added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
While they are independent nations and definitely unique in their own right, the three Baltic States shared the same fate after World War II: they fell into the hands of the Soviets and had to endure the oppression and loss of freedom that comes with the occupation by a foreign power. Being ruled by another regime was nothing new to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Throughout history these countries changed hands many times, but communist rule was something new. Churches became warehouses as religious practices were outlawed, Russian became mandatory and the countries’ first language, private farms were confiscated and turned into communal property, tombstones were taken from cemeteries and used as building materials and Soviet military installations moved closer to the shores of the Baltic Sea. The new masters left no doubt who was in charge. Mikhail Gorbachev and his Perestroika changed all that. By now, the three Baltic States have been independent for 25 years, the longest period of freedom the countries have enjoyed in their common history.
Visiting Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania is a fascinating case study in political science. But far from theoretical and abstract, the depressing evidence of 45 to 50 years of Soviet occupation is very real and can be noticed everywhere. At the same time, new life has emerged, mostly in the cities. The Soviets may have been able to suppress many freedoms but they have not succeeded in suppressing the peoples’ spirit. After the declaration of independence, Russian street names were taken down, the hammer and sickle symbols removed from public display and Lenin memorials banned from city squares. New enterprises have sprung up everywhere and modern high rises speak of foreign investment and the beginnings of commercial success. As members of the European Union, the three states share the Euro as their common currency and benefit from financial help with numerous infrastructure projects. Life has returned to this beautiful and still unspoiled part of Europe.
As my fascinating visit to the Baltic States comes to an end, I want to make one more stop at the de-commissioned underground nuclear missile site in the Plokstine Forest in Lithuania. Tucked away in the pristine Zemaitija National Park, an area of low population and sandy soil, the Soviet government decided to locate some of their rockets and nuclear warheads during the height of the Cold War. Up to 10,000 Estonian soldiers were forced under great secrecy to hand-dig the silos for the missiles. (Estonians do not share their language with Lithuanians, therefore minimizing communication between the workers and the local population.) After two years of construction, the missile base was complete and operational. Between 1962 and 1978, the base played an important role in the Cold War between East and West. Around the clock it was ready to fire devastating nuclear warheads in the direction of West Germany, Oslo, Madrid, London, Paris and Istanbul. The missiles would have been able to reach destinations in Western Europe in just 10 minutes time. After 16 years of use and without a nuclear incident, the missile site was closed and abandoned. The reasons: the USA had discovered the base through satellite reconnaissance and the technology used at the base had become outdated. Now open to the public and converted to the museum about the Cold War, it reminds us of a time when the world had come dangerously close to nuclear annihilation.
Growing up in West Germany during the 1960s and 70s, I remember clearly the feeling of great vulnerability. Even at a young age, I was always aware that devastating weapons were pointed in the direction of our home. Listening to news reports on the radio during the Cuba missile crisis and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia stirred enormous fear in my young mind.
With Russia directly to the east of the three Baltic nations and the current and unresolved situation the Ukraine, I wondered how safe the Estonians feel in their country. “The Russians wouldn’t dare to touch us”, one person told me. “We are member states of NATO. Any aggression towards us would mean the beginning of World War III.” When I asked the same question in Latvia, the response was very different. “We are always worried. We do not trust the Russians.” In Lithuania, I didn’t have to ask. As I learned: when the Soviet soldiers had to withdraw from the capital city of Vilnius in 1990, they held up signs with the words “We will be back!” The words are a chilling reminder that, in the history of the Baltic States, independence has always been the exception and not the rule.