During the twenty-two years of Estonia’s independence between 1918 and 1940, the Soviet Union, its massive neighbor, and its tool the Comintern subjected the tiny republic to subversion in many forms: propaganda, demonstrations, infiltration, espionage, bribery, extortion, and insurrection. Finally came invasion.
Estonia had declared independence in 1918 after the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Bolsheviks, mired in the Russian Civil War, were unable to keep hold of the Baltic state and in 1920 officially recognized its independence. But this was a tactical and temporary move. At this time the Bolsheviks still nurtured hopes that communist revolution would sweep Europe in the near future. Could tiny Estonia really survive this tidal wave of world history?
Of course, the Bolsheviks were not going to simply wait and see. Following classic Leninist tactics, the Soviet authorities, along with the Comintern, the ostensibly independent international movement which they controlled, organized a covert communist network within Estonia. Their strategy incorporated legal, semi-legal, and illegal organizations, all largely directed from Moscow and funded by Soviet money funneled through the Soviet Legation and Trade Delegation in Tallinn. As early as 1921, the Estonian section of the Comintern was providing detailed instructions for how to organize a secret communist conspiracy within Estonia.
The legal avenue for communist influence was the parliament, where activists from the underground, Moscow-headquartered Estonian Communist Party were elected as candidates under the banner of other parties and groupings. On the semi-legal front, trade unions like the United Workers Front (later, the Estonian Workers Front) were in close contact with banned communist organizations as well as the Comintern. Illegal cells operated printing presses, imported propaganda from the Soviet Union, and organized espionage and insurrectionary conspiracies. Spies and Cheka agents were slipped into the wave of Estonians repatriated to Estonia from Russia in 1920-21, and a well-funded, country-spanning Soviet spy network was put into place. Spies also penetrated Estonia’s criminal and political police forces.
The Estonian government caught wind of all this, resulting in mass arrests in 1922 and 1924. In 1922, authorities tried and sentenced to death Viktor Kingissepp, leader of the banned Estonian Communist Party. In 1924, police uncovered a large ring of communists planning an insurrection and brought them to court in the high-profile “Trial of 149.” One conspirator was sentenced to death. Police also uncovered that over 200 trade organizations were fronts for revolutionary activity.
But despite the crackdown, the insurrection went forward. A ring of about 275 men, including Russians who were in Estonia under the cover of the Soviet shipping fleet Dobroflot and other enterprises, were actively planning a coup d’état under the command of Comintern agent Jaan Anvelt. They had gathered weapons, organized death squads to target senior government and military leaders, and circled December 1 on their calendars. Early that morning they attacked military barracks, airfields, train stations and government offices in Tallinn. Estonia’s Head of State, Friedrich Akel, narrowly escaped assassins who burst into his apartment. But by 10:00 a.m. the coup attempt had been quashed. Thirty rebels were executed and a range of communist-backed parties were barred from parliament. But for reasons of hard politics the Estonian government had to accept the Soviet Union’s incredible disavowal of responsibility.
Violent incidents like these stripped communism of all attraction for most Estonians. But Soviet agents remained active within the country. Police discovered lists of planned political assassinations (including internal communist purges). Soviet agents also tried to penetrate the quasi-fascist Vaps movement within Estonia, which the Estonian government banned shortly afterwards. In 1933, the police uncovered 23 cases of espionage and arrested 51 people.
The Soviet Union’s hunger to devour Estonia had also never gone away. As Mart Laar records in his book Red Terror: Repressions of the Soviet Occupation Authorities in Estonia, in the 1930s the Soviets were already compiling lists of the people and classes they would liquidate when they got the chance. These targets included “all the members of the former governments, higher public officials and judges, higher-rank military, members of political parties, members of voluntary national defense organizations, members of student organizations, persons who had actively participated in anti-Soviet armed fight, police and security police officials,” and almost anyone with foreign contacts.
Tragically, the Soviet Union got the opportunity to sate its hunger. The Nazi-Soviet Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 removed the geopolitical risk of invading tiny Estonia. A coercive treaty of 1939 enabled Soviet tanks to roll across the borders. Soviet emissary Andrei Zhdanov arrived with ready made lists of communists to put into power. In August 1940, Estonia, along with its Baltic neighbors Latvia, and Lithuania, was annexed by the Soviet Union.
The NKVD—Soviet state security—was active within Estonia as early as June 1940, rounding up resisters, landlords, and “anti-Soviet elements.” Zhdanov’s papers had mentioned deportations as early as 1940, and by June 1941, over 9,000 Estonians were deported to Siberia. Unlucky Estonia would then be invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany, and then once more by the Soviet Union. 25,000-30,000 more Estonians would be deported by 1953.
Throughout the years of Estonia’s First Republic, the stormclouds of Soviet aggression never disappeared. The Soviet government and the Comintern schemed constantly to overthrow the country’s government. Finally, under force of arms, they would do so—and Estonia would have to wait until 1991 to reclaim its freedom.
For more information on this topic, see Silvia P. Forgus, “Soviet Subversive Activities in Independent Estonia (1918-1940,” Journal of Baltic Studies 23:1 (1992), 29-46.