“Tugev Balti natsionalistlik keskus” ning Nõukogude välispropaganda teel sõjast rahuaega ja külma sõtta [Abstract: “The strong Baltic nationalistic centre” and Soviet foreign propaganda: from war to peace and toward the Cold War]

  • Kaarel Piirimäe
Keywords: Propaganda, Soviet Union, the Baltic States, the Second World War, Cold War


Abstract: “The strong Baltic nationalistic centre” and Soviet foreign propaganda: from war to peace and toward the Cold War

This special issue focuses on censorship, but it is difficult to treat censorship without also considering propaganda. This article discusses both censorship and foreign propaganda as complementary tools in the Soviet Union’s arsenal for manipulating public opinion in foreign countries. The purpose of such action was to shape the behaviour of those states to further Soviet interests. The article focuses on the use of propaganda and censorship in Soviet efforts to settle the “Baltic question”– the question of the future of the Baltic countries – in the 1940s. This was the time when the wartime alliance was crumbling and giving way to a cold-war confrontation.

The article is based on Russian archival sources. The Molotov collection (F. 82), materials of the department of propaganda and agitation of the Central Committee (CC) of the CPSU (F. 17, opis 125), and of the CC department of international information (F. 17, opis 128) are stored in the Russian State Archive of Socio-political History (RGASPI). The collection of the Soviet Information Bureau (F. R8581) is located at the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF). The article also draws on previous research on Soviet propaganda, such as Vladimir Pechatnov’s and Wolfram Eggeling’s studies on the work of the Soviet Information Bureau (SIB) and on discussions in the Soviet propaganda apparatus in the early postwar years. However, this article digs somewhat deeper and alongside general developments, also looks at a particular case – the Baltic problem in the Soviet contest with the West for winning hearts and minds. It analyses Soviet policies without attempting to uncover and reconstruct all the twists and turns of the decision-making processes in Moscow. The archival material is insufficient for the latter task. Nevertheless, a look into the making of Soviet propaganda, the techniques and practices utilised to bring Soviet influence to bear on an important foreign-policy issue (the Baltic problem), is interesting for scholars working not only on propaganda and censorship but also on the history of the Soviet Union and Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The Baltic question was related, among other things, to the problem of repatriating people from the territories of the Soviet Union who had been displaced during the Second World War and were located in Western Europe at the war’s end. Moscow claimed that all these displaced persons (DPs) were Soviet citizens. This article helps correct the view, expressed for example by the Finnish scholar Simo Mikkonen, that the Soviet propaganda campaign to attract the remaining 247,000 recalcitrants back home started after a UN decision of 1951 that condemned repatriation by force. This article clearly shows that propaganda policies aimed at the DPs were in place almost immediately after the war, resting on the war-time experience of conducting propaganda aimed at national minorities in foreign countries. However, Mikkonen is right to point out that, in general, repatriation after the Second World War was a success, as approximately five million people in total returned to the USSR. The Baltic refugees were a notable exception in this regard.

Research shows that despite displays of obligatory optimism, Soviet propagandists could critically evaluate the situation and the effectiveness of Soviet agitation. They understood that war-time successes were the result of the coincidence of a number of favourable factors: victories of the Red Army, Allied censorship and propaganda, the penetration by Soviet agents of the British propaganda apparatus, etc. They knew that the British media was extensively controlled and served as a virtual extension of Soviet censorship and propaganda. Nevertheless, the Soviets were wrong to assume that in the West, the free press was nothing but an empty slogan. Moscow was also wrong to expect that the Western media, which had worked in the Soviet interest during the war, could as easily be turned against the Soviet Union as it had been directed to support the USSR by political will. In actual fact, the Soviet Union started receiving negative press primarily because earlier checks on journalistic freedom were lifted.

The Soviet Union may have been a formidable propaganda state internally, but in foreign propaganda it was an apprentice. Soviet propagandists felt inferior compared to their Western counterparts, and rightly so. In October of 1945, an official of the SIB noted jealously that the Foreign Department of the British Information Ministry had two thousand clerks and there were four hundred British propagandists in the United States alone. Another Soviet official in the London embassy noted in February of 1947 that they had so few staff that he was working under constant nervous strain.

Soviet propagandists were aware of the problems but could not effect fundamental changes because of the nature of the Stalinist regime. The issue of foreign journalists working in Moscow was a case in point. The correspondents were handicapped in their work by extremely strict censorship. They could report mostly only those things that also appeared in Soviet newspapers, which was hardly interesting for their readers in the West. There had been suggestions that some restrictions should be lifted so that they could do more useful work and tell more interesting and attractive stories about the Soviet Union. Eventually, during Stalin’s first postwar vacation in the autumn of 1945, Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov took the initiative and tried to ease the life of the press corps, but this only served to provoke the ire of Stalin who proceeded to penalise Molotov in due course. This showed that the system could not be changed as long as the extremely suspicious vozhd remained at the helm. Not only did correspondents continue to send unexciting content to newspapers abroad (which often failed to publish them), the form and style of Soviet articles, photos and films were increasingly unattractive for foreign audiences. Such propaganda could appeal only to those who were already “believers”. It could hardly convert.

Moscow considered the activities of Baltic refugees in the West and the publicity regarding the Baltic problem a serious threat to the stability of the Soviet position in the newly occupied Baltic countries. Already during the war, but even more vigorously after the war, the Soviet propaganda apparatus realised the importance of tuning and adapting its propaganda messages for audiences among the Baltic diaspora. The Soviet bureaucracy expanded its cadres to enable it to tackle the Baltic “threat”. Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian officials were dispatched to the central organs in Moscow and to Soviet embassies abroad to provide the necessary language skills and qualifications for dealing with Baltic propaganda and working with the diaspora.

The policy was to repatriate as many Balts as possible, but it was soon clear that repatriation along with the complementary propaganda effort was a failure. The next step was to start discrediting leaders of the Baltic diaspora and to isolate them from the “refugee masses”. This effort also failed. The “anti-Soviet hotbed” of “intrigues and espionage” – the words of the Estonian party boss Nikolai Karotamm – continued to operate in Sweden, the United States and elsewhere until the end of the Cold War. All this time, the diaspora engaged in anti-Communist propaganda and collaborated with Western propaganda and media organisations, such as the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and even Vatican Radio. In the 1980s and 1990s, the diaspora was instrumental in assisting Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to regain their independence from the collapsing Soviet Union. They also helped their native countries to “return to Europe” – that is to join Western structures such as the European Union and NATO. Therefore, the inability to deal with the Baltic problem effectively in the 1940s caused major concerns for the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War and contributed to its eventual demise.