The Prelude to the Tartu Peace Negotiations


  • Peeter Kaasik Estonian War Museum – General Laidoner Museum



Estonian – Soviet Russian peace negotiations, Estonian War of Independence, Russian Civil War, Russian Whites, world revolution


The Peace Treaty of Tartu that was signed on 2 February 1920 is unquestionably one of the pillars of Estonian statehood – it was a victory for the nation-state that only the biggest idealists had dared to dream of only a couple of years beforehand. At the same time, there were a few things in the peace negotiations between Estonia and Soviet Russia that were seemingly incomprehensible. Firstly, all of the peace overtures starting from the spring of 1919 came from the Soviet Russian side. Secondly, both sides at the peace negotiations emphatically considered themselves to be in a defensive war and although this may be arbitrary if we assess the proportions, both sides were actually right. While the Estonian side stressed during the Tartu peace negotiations that Estonia had no connection to Russia’s Civil War and that Estonia was fighting for its independence, then viewed from the east, that is certainly not how it appeared to be. Estonia was by far not alone in waging war against Soviet Russia. The Bolsheviks were at war with all of their neighbours that were aspiring towards independence and, needless to say, also with ‘internal enemies’, in other words the Russian Whites, whom the victorious countries of World War I (the Entente) supported for their own part. Thus, these numerous wars started conflating. Estonia fought partially in response to pressure from the Entente as well, but broadly speaking, due to practical considerations, Estonia also fought in the same sector of the front together with the Northern Corps of the Russian Whites, the later North-western Army, for almost the entire period of the Estonian War of Independence. For precisely this reason, the war between Estonia and Soviet Russia cannot be isolated from the broader sequence of post-World War I continuation wars, which had very many participants and vastly different interests. Thus, today’s ally could become tomorrow’s enemy. The only thing that joined Estonians and the Russian Whites together was their common enemy and not much else.

Estonia succeeded in emerging from this chaos as a victor and in gaining its independence, and this regardless of the wishes of the Russian Whites, but also the wishes of the countries of the Entente, to preserve ‘a single and undivided Russia’. Yet in this regard it should not be forgotten that Estonia played a particularly important role, together with ohter border states, in impeding the spread of the Bolshevik world revolution to Europe. Since this was the main objective of the Bolsheviks, then solely for this reason, the repeated peace overtures that the Bolsheviks made to Estonia should be viewed precisely in this context. It can altogether be said that by the spring of 1919, the war had ground to a halt for the Bolsheviks. Bearing their broader objective in mind, their hands were tied on several ‘unnecessary fronts’, where the final solution could be postponed for tactical considerations.

Hence Estonia’s military might was certainly not what forced Soviet Russia to repeatedly make peace overtures. The fact that the more concrete peace overtures were made to Estonia in situations where the Red Army held the initiative and the actual situation at the front would not appear to have implied desires for peace is particularly noteworthy. Yet at the same time, Soviet Russia’s peace overtures are far from proving Russia’s peaceful plans. First and foremost, the contradiction between theory and practice turned out to be a major problem for the Bolsheviks: the ‘revolutionary situation’ was awfully slow to develop, while on the other hand every military commander’s nightmare took shape, in other words war on several fronts and against many enemies. At the same time, the large number of enemies with many quite different interests provided the Bolsheviks with the chance to neutralise them one by one and thus remove them from the very notional, if not to say non-existent joint front. They hoped to solve the matter by way of peace treaties with those enemies whom they were unable to overpower by force yet with whom they did not have irreconcilable ideological differences. They first needed to destroy the Russian Whites and Poland, which was in their way on the road to Europe (primarily Germany). The Bolsheviks quite likely calculated that the future progress of the world revolution would provide the answer to how eternal or binding those agreements that had been signed with the ‘bourgeoisie’ were.


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Author Biography

Peeter Kaasik, Estonian War Museum – General Laidoner Museum

Peeter Kaasik is Researcher at the Estonian War Museum – General Laidoner Museum.