Self-Determination in Word and Deed: Tartu vs. Paris


  • Hent Kalmo University of Tartu



principle of self-determination, Paris Peace Conference, Tartu Peace Treaty, Bolsheviks


The Tartu Peace Treaty of 1920, signed between Estonia and Soviet Russia, has been credited with laying the foundation for stability in Eastern Europe in the interwar period. Ants Piip, a member of the Estonian delegation at Tartu, attributed this achievement to the equitable character of the agreement, comparing it favourably with the Treaty of Versailles, widely seen as a dictated peace already in the immediate aftermath of its signature. A similar view was expounded by the Soviet government, which portrayed the Tartu Peace Treaty as an expression of the principles underlying the November Revolution. It especially emphasised the self-determination of peoples, proclaimed repeatedly by the Soviet government as a sine qua non for a just peace. According to the Soviet narrative, the principle of selfdetermination had been hailed by the Entente only to be later betrayed at the Paris Peace Conference. The Tartu Peace Treaty, where the principle of self-determination figured prominently in Article II, thus became, in this telling, an ideological counter model to the results of the Paris Peace Conference. Despite their anti-Bolshevik outlook, Estonian diplomats and politicians inclined towards a comparable interpretation: they had accepted the Soviet peace proposal, with the offer to recognise their right to selfdetermination and independent statehood, only after the Allies had failed to live up to their promises at Paris.

The refence to the principle of self-determination in the Tartu Peace Treaty has not received much attention from historians. As Lauri Mälksoo has noted, it remains a well-nigh forgotten chapter in the history of international law. Mälksoo argued that the reference is all the more noteworthy since the Soviet government gave the principle a remarkably wide scope, joining to it the right to secession, which was not yet enshrined in general international law at the time. Assuming that the principle of selfdetermination was mentioned in the Tartu Peace Treaty at the initiative of the Soviet side, Mälksoo suggested two motives that might have prompted it: the need to recognise the fait accompli of Estonian independence, and the wish to justify within Russia itself the decision to relinquish territories that had formerly belonged to the Tsarist Empire. This article shows that the Estonian side was also keen to refer to the principle of self-determination, quite independently of Soviet wishes, as demonstrated by a draft peace treaty drawn up two months prior to the start of the Tartu negotiations by a commission of experts convened by the Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs. This fact is indicative of the broader diplomatic significance that the Estonian delegation – and its head, Jaan Poska, in particular – attached to peace talks with the Bolsheviks. The article demonstrates that Poska did not start the negotiations in December of 1919 with the sõle aim of signing a peace treaty with Soviet Russia. Just as important, if not more so, was the prospect of using the talks to convince the Entente to recognise Estonian independence de jure.

The Estonian government had founded its claim to international recognition on the principle of self-determination. Upon the outbreak of the Bolshevik revolution, the Estonian Provisional Assembly had availed itself of the Soviet decree proclaiming the right of all peoples of Russia to selfdetermination, including secession and the formation of a separate state. Without being confident in the resolve of the Soviet government to adhere to the letter of its public pronouncements, Estonian politicians nonetheless saw the usefulness of invoking the decree, since the latter could be seen as ratifying Estonia’s decision to secede from Russia. They were already positioning themselves vis-à-vis the Entente Powers, whose freedom to recognise the nascent republic was constrained by rules of international law regarding the validity of secession. The principle of self-determination had great value for a seceding state, especially in circumstances where the mother country did not have a lawful government and was thus unable to consent to any separation of territories (as Russia was regarded in the eyes of most governments at the end of 1917). The Estonian position was buttressed by a string of diplomatic statements made by the Entente Powers in 1918, assuring Estonia that its status would be determined at a forthcoming peace conference in accordance with the principle of self-determination.

Such assurances filled Estonian diplomats with great optimism when they set out for the Paris Peace Conference at the beginning of 1919. The principle of self-determination was tantamount to independence in their mind. It was therefore with growing disappointment that they observed the unwillingness of France and Great Britain to recognise their independence at Paris, intent as the latter were to reconstitute their former eastern ally. This is not to say that Estonian claims were completely ignored. British politicians did not think that they were failing to honour their promises when offering Estonia internationally guaranteed autonomy, under the aegis of the League of Nations, instead of independence. Autonomy did not satisfy Estonians, however, who were canvassing all options at their disposal to arrive at their aim. The quest for ‘other ways’, beginning in earnest in the summer of 1919, has been mostly interpreted by scholars as a decision to reach a peace settlement with the Bolsheviks. The article shows that the Estonian strategy was more multi-faceted. International recognition remained their chief aim, and their receptiveness to Bolshevik peace feelers should be seen in this light. The emphasis placed on the principle of self-determination from the very start of negotiations with Soviet Russia in September of 1919 was a part of this Western-directed diplomatic approach. The Bolsheviks had their own aims in mind when foregrounding this principle. The consternation that the Treaty of Versailles had caused in Germany offered them an opportunity to depict the Paris Peace Conference as the latest manifestation of Great Power imperialism, to which the Soviet proposal of a ‘democratic peace’ (no annexations, no contributions, self-determination to all peoples) was allegedly the only viable alternative.

The peace talks between Estonia and Soviet Russia were thus caught in an ideological struggle between the Soviet government and the Western Allies concerning ‘just peace’. But they also fitted in with the – apparently contrary – Soviet strategy of abandoning outright military aggression and preparing the ground for ‘peaceful coexistence’ with capitalist states, with a view to buttressing the Soviet regime economically. The reference to the principle of self-determination in the Tartu Peace Treaty can be explained by all the considerations mentioned above. The Estonians had their sights set on reinforcing their international status by tying it to the principle. The Bolsheviks were showcasing their adherence to ‘democratic peace’ and contrasting their favourable attitude to small peoples with the hypocrisy of the Great Powers (the fact that it was Soviet Russia that had initiated the war with unprovoked military aggression in 1918 was conveniently ignored). Moreover, on a less public level, Soviet Russia was signalling that it was willing to consent to self-determination in the Russian borderlands in order to reach an agreement with its Western foes, and that it would rely on the long-term superiority of the Bolshevik system in lieu of head-to-head collision with capitalist states. In this last sense, the Treaty of Tartu marks a strategic turn for the Soviet government that became so consequential for the 20th century that the treaty with Estonia acquires truly foundational significance.


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Author Biography

Hent Kalmo, University of Tartu

Hent Kalmo is Research Fellow at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, University of Tartu.