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by Patricia H Kushlis

Well before the Soviet Union collapsed, it was clear that the trajectory of the Baltic states differed greatly from that of the Central Asian Soviet republics. In contrast to the Baltic states clamoring to leave the Soviet Union, Central Asian ones had been pretty satisfied with their lot. Removal of the support they had received from Moscow hurled them spiraling into a vast and unpredictable future.

For decades, Moscow had been shifting funds from the “wealthier” European parts of the huge country to its poorer and less industrialized provinces East of the Urals,   This helped keep Russian rule in place but it also alienated the European population of the USSR – including those in the Russian Republic – who had a better sense of the country’s profound deterioration and their own personal poverty in comparison with far wealthier neighbors to the West and even those in Eastern Europe.

But the differences were more than just economic. Even after seventy years – or fifty years in the case of the Baltics, which were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 – there was still a latent sense of western democracy in the European republics. The next steps – especially in the Baltics – were turning the remnants of democratic parliaments, presidents, and the judiciary contorted under Communism and Soviet rule back into what they had once been or at least aspired to be. In Central Asia, however, that history and those institutions had never existed. Central Asian republics knew no alternative form of leadership aside from Asian authoritarianism or how modern economic systems or governmental structures functioned, whereas in the Baltics those long dormant memories had sprung to life once the heavy fist of Communism was lifted under Gorbachev – even just a little.

As a result of my Helsinki assignments, first as Information Officer at the embassy and then on the U.S. delegation to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), I had a front row seat to some of the most important political events of the twentieth century. My perspective was enhanced by my late husband Bill Kushlis’ position as embassy Political Counselor, our earlier service in Moscow, and our Russian and Finnish language skills.

Something’s Brewing in the Baltics

We knew that something was brewing in the Baltic republics before we had arrived in Helsinki in July 1988 because Elo-kai Ojemaa, a fluent Estonian speaker and head of our small U.S. Embassy Helsinki Consular Section, had been reporting voluminously on Estonian television programs she was watching while sitting in her Helsinki apartment after work. These broadcasts had been carried on Helsinki cable for at least the previous six months.   No longer was Estonian television airing the staid stale Soviet anti-American workers’ paradise fare but more nuanced programs aimed at appealing to the cultural aspirations of its nationalistically inclined Estonian-speaking viewers.

My glimpse of that changing political climate began my first day at the embassy when I saw one of the tall ships sailing from Helsinki to Stockholm flying, for the first time in 50 years, the blue, black and white flag of the pre-war independent Estonia instead of the previously obligatory red and yellow hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union. This was a harbinger of things to come.

Over time, we met Estonians involved in the independence movement. The first group consisted of distinguished writers and poets, several of whom had come to Helsinki for the first time for a writers’ conference associated with the University of Helsinki. More and more, Estonians would appear in Helsinki for meetings, conferences and shopping, coming with ever more frequency as travel between Tallinn and Helsinki grew. We rarely knew ahead of time who would arrive or when. Depending upon the Estonian, the person might pay a call at the embassy just walking distance from the downtown harbor where the boat from Tallinn would dock or perhaps visit the America Center, near the Helsinki Central Railway Station across from our U.S. Information Service (USIS) offices, with its American library, periodicals, and up-to-date reference service.

Culture and Politics Intertwined

I occasionally met the editor in chief of Este-Elu, a cultural newspaper with offices in Tallinn, that became more political as time went on. Over lunch we’d trade gossip and swap reading materials – copies of her newspaper for those of the International Herald Tribune, pamphlets or recent U.S. newsmagazines that she took back to Tallinn with her. I still have copies of Este-Elu which, as time passed, reported less and less on cultural events and more and more on political ones. In Estonia, culture and politics were intertwined.

Meanwhile, the major Finnish media substantially increased its reporting and commentary on the extraordinary events taking place in the Baltics. The Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s major newspaper, trained a group of its Helsinki-based reporters in a crash course in Estonian and assigned them to Tallinn on rotation beginning as early as 1989. Several of the reporters I knew participated, although the paper also had a free-lance Estonian reporter on call.

The newspaper also sent experienced reporters who had previously covered the Soviet Union from Finnish news bureaus in Moscow on fact-finding trips that included the other Baltic republics, Moscow, Leningrad, Kyiv, Kishinev, and Soviet Karelia. This is how Public Affairs Counselor Bill Kiehl and I first learned in March 1990 of the expansion of independence movements from the Baltics – where they had begun soon after Gorbachev took power – to other republics throughout the European part of the Soviet Union.

Simultaneously, the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation (YLE) was training journalists from Baltic electronic media. This training showed results forcefully in Lithuania, following that country’s declaration of independence in March 1990 and the movement of Soviet military units into Vilnius. When the Soviets sent tanks and special KGB forces on January 13, 1991 to suppress Lithuanian independence, occupying the Channel One television tower, killing 13, and wounding hundreds of anti-Soviet demonstrators, the film of the occupation taken by its camera crews was transmitted to the world through the Finns; they in turn had received it from Estonian and Latvian colleagues who themselves had received it via Lithuanian Channel Two in Kaunas – which Soviet special forces strangely never attempted to occupy.

First Visit to Tallinn

It wasn’t until Labor Day weekend in September 1990, however, that my husband Bill and I first traveled to Tallinn, then a raggedy, down-on-the-heels town, very different from today’s vibrant one. We stayed at The Palace, a newly renovated Finnish-Estonian joint venture hotel on the edge of Old Town that I had learned about from Finnish journalists. We went as tourists rather than embassy officials. Despite the fact the U.S. had never recognized the forcible incorporation of the Baltic republics into the Soviet Union, contacts with Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians were the purview of U.S. Embassy Moscow and the U.S. Consulate General in Leningrad until after the failed August 1991 coup in Moscow, when U.S. recognition policy changed abruptly.

Uninterested in State Department turf rules, the Estonians made no distinction in which U.S. official they met with; to their mind U.S. Embassy Moscow and the U.S. Consulate General in Leningrad were on foreign territory, plus Helsinki was far closer and the shopping much better than in the Soviet Union. Estonians had also watched Finnish television for years. Long before they were allowed to cross the Gulf of Finland, they were aware of the cornucopia of goods western shops sold versus the paucity in Moscow and Leningrad, as well as getting a view of how democracy functioned.

Even though our trip was not an official one, we met with Lennart Meri, a documentary film maker and head of a three-person Estonian cultural institute. We also had lunch at Este-Elu with the editor in chief and journalists involved in on-the-spot-reporting of events occurring in the republic’s ongoing struggle for independence. On Sunday we happened upon a service at a major Lutheran church packed with parishioners. Although the language was Estonian, we could understand parts of it because of its proximity to Finnish. The pastor’s sermon rang out clearly, calling for the day when Estonia would once again be free and independent. This wasn’t a lament for the past, it was a call to participate in an action-packed future. The middle-aged woman we had seen earlier waving an outsized Estonian flag in the middle of the Town Square suggested that the pastor was far from alone in his sentiments.

Woman waving the Estonian flag in defiance of Soviet rule in Tallinn’s Town Hall Square, September 1990. Photo by PHKushlis

On the Road to Baltic Independence

The path to reinstatement of the independence of the three Baltic states was founded on their claims of illegal incorporation into the Soviet Union as a result of the secret August 23, 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that had divided spheres of influence between Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Nazi Germany. However, each Baltic republic took a somewhat different approach. They ranged from the Lithuanians’ overt and immediate declaration of independence in March 1990 and Latvia’s May 1990 declaration of independence after an unspecified transition period to Estonia’s declaration of sovereignty in 1988. All three met various forms of pushback from Moscow. In the end, ethnic nationalism and democratically elected governments overrode everything else. Our primary role in Helsinki was to report the information we received back to Washington and to serve as a way-station for U.S. officials going to and from Moscow, Leningrad, and directly into the Baltics.

In August 1991, then-Estonian Foreign Minister and later Estonian President Lennart Meri, photographer in tow, met with Bill Kushlis and Administrative Counselor Bill Burke at the front door of the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki to give them the Estonian government’s request for recognition to forward to Washington. By then the Estonians already had a functioning non-communist independent parliamentary system, a president, and media trained by Finns and other Nordics, a variety of civil society groups, some students and faculty who had studied abroad, and gold reserves long kept in U.S. and UK banks. But Estonia’s fifty year absence from the international community needed bolstering, and the opening of western embassies in Tallinn was a first step.

Even before the U.S. formally recognized the de facto independence of the Baltic republics on September 2 – ten days after the Estonian request was delivered and forwarded to State –the department reassigned primary contact for each of the three Baltic countries to a different U.S. embassy: In Helsinki’s case, Estonia. This put Bill on the first Embassy Helsinki delegation to meet with the Estonian government in Tallinn. That trip had three prongs: to prepare for a September 14 visit by Secretary of State James Baker to ensure that the message was carried to Moscow of U.S. recognition of the Baltics as fully independent nation-states, to establish a formal working relationship with the new Estonian government as a sovereign state, and to announce publicly Washington’s intention to open an embassy in Tallinn. State had established skeleton staffs to arrive in time for Baker’s visit. Tallinn’s embassy team was led by the late Ambassador Robert Frasure, but Embassy Helsinki continued to deal with the barrage of high and mid-level Washington official visitors as well as briefing and logistically backstopping the new staffs assigned to each of the three Baltic countries

A piece of Estonian art from 1991 – the tiny trap that roared.

An American Library on the Wish List

I assisted Acting PAO John Brown with Baker’s September visit and his accompanying media entourage in Tallinn. Then in December I helped our Moscow embassy with Baker’s visit there to recognize the outcome of the December 8 meeting among the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus that effectively declared the death of the Soviet Union. But the event I remember most vividly was Foreign Minister Lennart Meri, who later became President of Estonia, expressing his desire for us to establish an American library in Tallinn. While on the tarmac waiting for Baker to depart for Riga, he told me and John how he and his aides had frequented our library in Helsinki. There our librarians had kept a cardboard box of International Herald Tribunes and news magazines ready for them to take back to Tallinn – a great source of information and support through the difficult years leading up to the reinstatement of Estonian independence in 1991.End.


Pat Kushlis served as Information Officer in Helsinki from July 1988-December 31, 1991, then as Public Affairs Advisor on the US Delegation to the 1992 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) Helsinki Review Conference, a several month international conference of European states. Other foreign service assignments included Moscow, Bangkok, Athens, Manila and USIA Headquarters, Washington, DC.






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