Library and Archives
Library and Archives

Baltic States 1918–1938

Thomas J. Orbison, the chief of the American Relief Administration's (ARA) mission to the Baltics in 1919–20, had a rude, first person encounter with the violence plaguing the region in the wake of World War I and the Russian Revolution. In October 1919, the ARA headquarters building in Riga, the capital of newly independent Latvia, was shelled by the Bermondt-Avalov army, a force made up largely of German freikorps elements and a few White Russian officers. The ARA was not the target of the Bermondt-Avalov army, whose objective at the time was to exert pressure on the Latvian government in Riga. No one was injured, but the shelling received a good deal of local attention; and Orbison recorded the event and its aftermath in his personal diary, now part of the Orbison papers in the Hoover Institution Archives. Latvian president Karlis Ulmanis sent a bouquet of flowers as a gesture of condolence to the mission, which was then feeding many children in the three Baltic states.

Latvians were extremely grateful for the food aid and the medical attention, including dental care, which were provided to their children by the ARA. In recognition of this, Orbison was presented with a number of richly ornamented albums of photographs and testimonials, in which Latvian officials and medical personnel recorded their tributes to the relief activities conducted by Orbison and others in the ARA. These albums are also part of the Orbison collection in the archives, whose ARA records have numerous reports on the food situation in the Baltic region at this time.

The George Herron papers in the archives include documents from as early as 1918 regarding Latvian aspirations for nationhood in the wake of the collapse of the Russian empire. In November 1918, Latvia declared its independence, and along with the other Baltic states it was caught up in a complex equation of forces, involving Bolshevik Russia, Allied intervention against the Bolsheviks, and the Latvian state's own attempts to assert its national sovereignty in an unsettled local environment.

From the materials in the Orbison and other collections in the archives, we learn that the Latvians themselves were grateful for the assistance delivered by the Americans at a time of dire need. Nonetheless, in 1919–20, it does seem that the American government's attitude toward the Baltic states was one of some considerable condescension: the Baltic populations were not viewed by the Americans as being fully capable of self-government, and many in the Wilson administration and in Hoover's ARA thought that the Baltic region should be, and would be, restored to a de-Bolshevized Russian Empire.

Latvians participated in large numbers in the convulsions of the Russian Revolution and ensuing civil war. The area, especially Latvia, had been radicalized by the 1905 revolution and popular resentment of its suppression by tsarist forces, which included sending punitive expeditions against rebels in the Baltic region. After the 1917 revolution, detachments of Latvian riflemen, or strelnieki, who had emerged as independent units in the czarist army during the latter part of World War I, became legendary for their exploits, both on behalf of the Bolsheviks and against them in the service of White armies.

Some strelnieki, having fought on the side of Admiral Kolchak, ended up in Vladivostok at the end of the Russian civil war, a continent away from the Baltic. There are photographs of these riflemen in the Voldemars Salnais papers in the archives. Other strelnieki guarded the walls of the Kremlin in Moscow, where Lenin and his Bolsheviks came to rely on them during emergencies.

By the end of the Russian civil war, many riflemen had returned to Latvia, disillusioned with the increasingly authoritarian character of Bolshevism. These played a part in securing Latvian independence. Those Latvians who continued to support the Bolsheviks remained in Russia; many later lost their lives in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, including the famous poster artist and former strelnieks, Gustavs Klucis, who was shot on Stalin's orders in 1938.

Klucis is referred to incorrectly as a Russian artist in many accounts, including Western ones, which continue to cite his name only in its transliterated form, Klutsis. Ironically, having been committed to the cause of Soviet internationalism, Klucis died as a "national element," i.e., as a Latvian. A number of his posters are in the collection of the Hoover Institution Archives, as are some by another pro-Bolshevik Latvian, Aleksandrs Apsitis, better known by his Russified name, Apsit.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the independent Baltic states were the scene of high drama and espionage, as they provided an important "window" for Western intelligence services interested in communist Russia. Some celebrated figures, such as Sidney Reilly (the so-called Ace of Spies) and Boris Savinkov (an instigator of various conspiracies against the Bolsheviks and a sometime accomplice of Reilly's) spent time in the Baltic region, and Riga was notorious for its spies at this time. The city also hosted the earliest examples of what would become a new breed of policy analyst, the Kremlinologist, with George Kennan, in particular, honing his skills as a diplomat in Riga. Materials in the Bruce Lockhart and Boris Nicolaevsky collections in the archives relate to the activities of Reilly and Savinkov. The Loy Henderson collection contains the memoirs of an American diplomat who was stationed in Riga in the late 1920s; Henderson's autobiography contains his observations on Latvian politics of the time, as well as an account of his reporting from the Baltic region on developments in the Soviet Union. Kennan's activities in the Baltic states are also described in Henderson's memoirs.

The 1920s and 1930s represented what would later be known as the "first independence" of the Baltic states. Contending with the difficulties of the Great Depression, and doing so by means of newly created institutions, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia all experienced political turmoil. In Latvia, the Ulmanis government assumed aspects of a personalistic, authoritarian regime, as political parties and parliamentary rule were suspended. The important Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party suffered as a result; materials in the Boris Nicolavesky collection in the archives contain information about Bruno Kalnins, an important Social Democratic leader in Latvia. There are also collections relating to a number of the politicians and diplomats who were protagonists in this critical phase of Latvian history: Adolfs Blodnieks, Alfreds Berzins, and Felikss Cielens, among others.

The first independence of Latvia was noteworthy in terms of cultural assertions of Latvian identity in the context of the authoritarian, nationalist project of Ulmanis. The Janis Muncis collection in the archives is made up of photographs and other documents relating to mass theater productions, for which Muncis was the designer, in Latvia during the 1930s. This collection came to the archives through the efforts of Gvido Augusts, an artist who has long been active in the Latvian-American community in Northern California. (Muncis himself was later imprisoned by the Nazis for having "pro-American" beliefs. He ended up in the United States after the Second World War.)