Washington, 13 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Sixty years ago this week, Soviet forces began rounding up and deporting tens of thousands of Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians from their homelands, an event that continues to resonate in all three Baltic countries, in the Russian Federation, and in the West as well.
Carried out as the attention of the world was riveted on other fronts of World War II, the deportation of literally thousands of men, women, and children in the Baltic countries occupied by Moscow a year earlier destroyed much of the social fabric of these countries.
Many of those deported never returned. And their places in the society and economy either remained vacant or were assumed by pro-communist groups or by non-indigenous people brought in by the Soviet authorities to solidify Moscow's control of these three countries.
More than that, however, the deportation defined the way Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians viewed and continue to view Moscow. The deportations convinced residents of the Baltic states that the Soviet Union could not be trusted and that they must seek not only to escape from Soviet occupation but seek security guarantees from the West to prevent any new threat from Moscow.
Over the past month, Estonian President Lennart Meri, who as a 12-year-old child was among the deportees in 1941, has been visiting survivors of the deportation around his country. This week, Latvia hosted an international conference on the deportations, a conference which identified this Soviet action as "a crime against humanity." And Lithuanians, too, have remembered the deportation this year just as they have on all past anniversaries.
And all three countries have set up national and international commissions to examine these events, to ferret out the information that the Soviet authorities sought for so long to conceal.
Nonetheless, the Russian government as the successor to the Soviet state continues to insist that the inclusion of the Baltic countries into the Soviet Union was a voluntary event and that Moscow bears no responsibility for what happened there in 1940 and later. Even more, many Russian commentators argue that the Baltic countries should be grateful that the Soviet Union took them in because that helped to protect them against the Nazis.
But there are serious problems with each of these claims. Stalin absorbed the Baltic countries in 1940 after he and Hitler divided up eastern Europe via the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. It is true that the Baltic governments did not order armed resistance to the Soviet occupation that followed, but only because they believed that such resistance would be both bloody and futile.
And the Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries did little or nothing to slow the Nazi advance through them and into the Soviet Union itself in 1941. If anything, the disorder that the Soviet occupation created meant that some in these three countries initially viewed the Germans as liberators rather than as invaders. That reality too continues to color how both citizens of the Baltic countries and Russia view these events.
But it is another Russian argument arising from these events of long ago that is perhaps the most troubling. The Russian government continues to insist that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were legitimately part of the Soviet Union and that as a result the West must not consider including them in NATO.
That insistence represents a challenge to the Baltic countries who are convinced that they need the guarantees of membership and to the West, most of whose governments never recognized the forcible inclusion of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union as legitimate. Indeed, these governments maintained ties with the diplomats of the last pre-occupation governments right up until the three Baltic countries fully recovered their independence in 1991.
The commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the deportations coincides with an upsurge of Baltic efforts to be among the next new members of the Western alliance, a coincidence that makes their political impact now far greater than would otherwise have been the case.