Chekhov’s Gun: The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in the Baltics

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On August 23, 1939, Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop signed a nonaggression pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact contained secret protocols to divide Eastern Europe between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, precipitating the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, the Soviet invasion of Poland fourteen days later, and the Soviet occupation and annexation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania over the course of the next year.

The history of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is better known today, in part thanks to international commemoration events like Black Ribbon Day. But the story of how the Baltic peoples discovered the secret protocols that prescribed their subjugation to the Soviet Union is less known. It is a story imbued with the tragic irony of Chekhov’s gun: the very document that spelled out the Soviet occupation of the Baltics also triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Within a few months of the Pact’s signing in 1939, several leading Baltic diplomats had discovered the details of the secret protocols via contacts in London, Paris, and Berlin. Vilhelms Munters, the Latvian foreign minister, had known since early August that something was afoot in Berlin’s foreign office. The day after the pact was signed, a Lithuanian colleague in Berlin, Kazys Škirpa, had sent him the full text of the secret protocols. By October the Lithuanians and Latvians were desperately trying to stymie Nazi and Soviet designs through diplomatic channels in Western countries, but resisted making the secret protocols public to avoid panic.

Sending the protocols abroad helped Alfreds Bilmanis put it in the hands of American legislators by the end of the war, which is why the US never recognized the Soviet occupation of the Baltics. Perhaps more importantly, if the secret protocols circulated abroad in the Western free press, it would eventually leak back into the Baltics through émigré circles.

Keeping the secret protocols alive in the West was especially important since the Soviets killed or deported almost all the Baltic diplomats with knowledge of the pact. To this end, August Rei, Estonia’s Prime Minister-in-exile in Stockholm, published a collection of documents called The Nazi-Soviet Conspiracy in 1948. The exiled Supreme Lithuanian Committee of Liberation circulated a similar document to British, American, and French foreign ministers in 1950. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, these sorts of appeals found their way to the Baltics via the infrequent ferry services from Scandinavia, Finnish Radio, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. There is evidence of the secret protocols being printed and distributed in Estonian samizdat by 1979.

By the late 1970s, the rumors of the Soviet-Nazi pact gave hope and credibility to the growing number of Baltic dissidents who opposed Soviet rule as an illegal occupation born from an unholy marriage with Nazi Germany. At first, the Soviets persecuted the 38 Lithuanians, four Estonians, and three Latvians who signed the “Baltic Appeal” on the fortieth anniversary of the Pact’s signing in 1979, but by the time Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the movement was so large it was getting harder to repress.

Groups like Helsinki-86 in Latvia and “Movement for the Publication of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact” in Estonia demanded an uncensored release of the Pact. One of the most significant breakthroughs came on June 1 and 2, 1988, at the joint conference of Latvian Creative Unions. This was the first time that Latvian and Russian intellectuals in Riga declared Soviet rule to be unlawful and harmful. Mavriks Vulfsons, a respected historian and TV presenter previously sympathetic to Stalinism, was the first public figure to openly read from the recently declassified Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. His 2004 obituary in the Baltic Times reads as follows:

“Vulfsons’ speech was a rhetorical bombshell with a nuclear impact. ‘We must learn to look truth squarely in the eye, no matter how difficult and even unbearable that truth might be,’ he said. [First Secretary of the Latvian SSR Boris] Pugo squirmed, and after an uncomfortable pause the audience roared with ecstatic approval. For Vulfsons this was a bittersweet confession. In 1940, as a militant Stalinist he had cheered the Baltics’ conquest. But he never could agree honestly with the way Moscow rewrote history thereafter, rebranding a bloody occupation a popular revolution. ‘I know it wasn't,’ Vulfsons said. ‘I was there.’ Three years after his shocking speech, the Baltics were free. Pugo was dead, having killed himself as Soviet power crumbled all around.”

Vulfsons’ speech placed the Soviet Union on the defensive, backing the regime into a morally indefensible corner with the muzzle of Chekhov’s proverbial gun. The secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop had been hanging in the background of the Soviet occupation since the very beginning, and now they would be turned against the play’s antagonist in a pleasingly chiasmic act of historical catharsis.

Without its claim to the moral high ground, the Soviet narrative of liberating the Baltics from the Nazis unraveled quickly. On August 5, 1988, the Lithuanian Sajudzio zinios published the full Pact. Marina Kosteneckaya, Latvian delegate to the Moscow Congress of People’s Deputies, slipped copies under the hotel doors of other deputies from all the Soviet republics. On August 23, 1989—the fiftieth anniversary of the pact—three million Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians linked arms in a human chain from Tallinn, through Riga, to Vilnius. The secret protocols between the Nazis and the Soviets united anti-Soviet and anticommunist movements across the Baltics, fracturing an already-faltering Soviet Union in its waning years.