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12 March, 2014

The Myth of Starting from Scratch

Up to now, it has been common knowledge that all the Soviet republics started from scratch after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As the Estonian example shows, this was not actually the case and already by 1991 the former Soviet republics had unequal starting positions

When the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev paid a visit to Estonia in 1987, he managed to annoy the hosts by claiming that the Estonian SSR was living at the expense of other Soviet republics. He was taken by his word – the very same year, four Estonian politicians proposed the IME project. IME is an acronym of the Estonian phrase ‘Isemajandav Eesti’ - Self-Sufficient Estonia. The acronym on its own means ‘miracle’ in Estonian. According to the project, the Estonian SSR should have become completely self-sufficient in order to avoid living at the expense of others.

In 1987, it was already possible to speak out on things that had been unthinkable a couple of years ago. Nevertheless, the official rhetoric referred only to the ‘supporting of perestroika’ whatever that meant. In reality, Estonians started to build the institutions necessary for an independent state.

In fact, the story of the IME brings along a more fundamental question. Up to now, it has been common knowledge that all the Soviet republics started from scratch after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As the Estonian example shows, this was not actually the case and already by 1991 the former Soviet republics had unequal starting positions.

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Up to the year 1990, the politicians had only talked about ‘supporting perestroika’, but after the Estonian Communist Party was beaten in the elections, the new power centres – the Popular Front and the Estonian Congress – set the course directly to full independence and started to act respectively. In a short period of time, Estonia introduced her own police, border guard, army, etc – all the institutions necessary for an independent country. There was no hesitation anymore and the only thing the Estonians did not know was when exactly the independence would become true.

A recent PhD dissertation by Finnish scholar Heikki Rausmaa busts some common myths about Estonia’s road to independence. First, according to Rausmaa, contrary to the popular belief that the official Finland did not wholeheartedly support Estonia’s and other Baltic States’ independence aspirations, Helsinki supported them very much but due to the fear of being reprimanded by Moscow for meddling in the Soviet Union’s domestic affairs, our Northern neighbours could express their support only covertly, via cultural exchanges. Finland managed to deceive Moscow by speaking about cultural relations whereas Estonia was stressing her ‘support for perestroika’. Smoke-screening was successful on both shores of the Gulf of Finland.

Rausmaa writes that keeping the right balance between Moscow and Tallinn cost the Finnish leadership, especially President Mauno Koivisto, a lot of popularity as Koivisto was officially required to make statements in which he avoided any criticism towards the Soviet behaviour. Koivisto’s silence after the bloodshed in Vilnius and Riga in January 1991 has become notorious. The Finnish people could not understand why their leaders were so cautious.

It should be remembered that ordinary Finns were helping Estonians all the time during this period. When the borders opened, it became possible to travel to Finland. Many Finns hosted and assisted Estonians. But Koivisto could not tell the truth and became less and less popular in the eyes of ordinary Finns.

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Secondly, and in my opinion more importantly, Rausmaa busts the myth that all the former Soviet republics began from scratch.

In addition to the establishment of state structures, Estonia and Estonian politicians received remarkable aid from Finland. This was – once again! – done in the framework of cultural exchange.

In 1991 alone, Estonia got 50 million Finnish markkas in financial aid. By this time, the Soviet rouble had become practically worthless and the need for hard currency was growing. With the help of this money, Estonian parties and state structures were able to purchase items that were hardly available in the Soviet Union.

The Finnish help was not limited to financial aid. The training organised by Finns for Estonian politicians and officials on how to form democratic institutions, including parties, municipalities, the army, the police, the border guard, etc., was also very important or even more so.  The aid Estonia received from Finland was enormous, but it should be emphasised that many other countries (Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Norway, the U.S.) assisted Estonia as well.

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All things considered, Estonia did not start from scratch after the declaration of re-independence in 1991. Her footing was rather solid. The question of how solid, and whether there were similar processes taking place elsewhere in the collapsing Soviet Union, remains a topic for further academic research.

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