Brothers of the Forest
There's a bombastic monument to the 'Great Patriotic War' of 1941 - 1945 on every street corner in Russia. You don't hear much of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact though or its secret appendix in which Hitler and Stalin carved up eastern europe between them. Finland, Estonia, Latvia and, later Lithuania fell in the Soviet shadow with Poland to be ripped apart between them come its "political rearrangement".
This Soviet 'free hand' was soon the iron fist in the face of the Baltic states, three nations who had finally won their independence from the Czarist empire in the bloody civil war which followed the Bolshevik coup.
The Nazis attacked Poland on September 1st 1939, the Soviets heroically invaded eastern Poland 16 days later, another fact curiously ommitted from the memorials. The rampant Soviets pressured Finland and the Baltics to take Red Army troops, blockaded the Baltics and invaded Finland in the 'Winter War' of 1940. On October 11, 1939 the NKVD issued the infamous Order 001223, mandating the deportation of 'anti-Soviet elements' from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to Russia. And so the fist tightened.
While the world watched Paris fall to the Germans on 14th of June 1940, the Soviets moved against the Baltic states. Several hundred thousand Red Army troops swarmed over the borders from the 14th to the 17th of June, resistance was useless.
Lithuanian President Smetona managed to flee through Germany and Switzerland to the USA where he died in 1944. On July 17, 1940, the acting president, Antanas Merkys, was imprisoned and deported to Saratov in the Soviet Union where he died in 1955. On July 22, the president of Latvia, Kārlis Ulmanis was arrested and deported, dieing in prison in Krasnovodsk on September 20, 1942. Estonian President Konstantin Päts was imprisoned by NKVD and died in the mental hospital of Kalinin on January 18, 1956.
Parliamentary "elections" were rigged by local communists loyal to the Soviet occupiers with non-communist candidates barred or brutalised. In August these puppet parliaments unanimously "appealed" to join the Soviet Union and the three republics were formally annexed. Over the next year, in a spirit of socialist fraternity, 50,000 people were imprisoned or executed in a programme of 'pacification'.
The republics were invaded again in late 1941 by the Nazis. Stalin's savage purges of the millitary and unquestioning belief in Hitler's good faith had left the Red Army helpless in the face of Barbarossa. Ask any Russian citizen, this was the start of the war. They were 'liberated' once more by the Soviets towards the end of 1944 and became Soviet socialist republics, completely subordinated to Moscow and the communist party. The first sweep of arrests of 'undesirables' began at once.
Soviet power was resisted by the people of the Baltic states, even in the failure to re-establish independence after the German defeat. The Balts believed the Western powers would make good their promise to free eastern europe from tyranny, oppose its de facto annexation by the Soviets, and come to their aid.
Around 100,000 Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians escaped the Soviets into the vast wooded hinterlands by the end of 1944. Joined by young men evading conscription into the Red Army and members of Estonia's Self Defence Union, they made up the core of the post-war baltic armed resistance movement - The Forest Brothers.
At first the partisans clung to the belief that a new war would break out between the western powers and the Soviet Union over its contemptuous breach of the pledge at Yalta to hold free elections in the countries they occupied. The brothers armed and hid themselves, waiting for the call. The west chose a policy of appeasement however, and the Soviets tightened their grip, installing puppet communist governments in what were to become the countries of the Warsaw Pact. As the Iron curtain came down the Soviets moved against the forest brothers' families and supporters in the villages and towns. The agent network of the notorious NKVD secret police expanded and raids in forests and on farms became ever more frequent. Passive resistance was not sufficient any more to survive.
In 1945 the Forest Brothers began their counter attack. Smaller Red Army and and security units were ambushed and, in forest courts, they judged party activists, tax collectors and other active collaborators of the hostile power. Food, clothes and other supplies were 'requisitioned' from co-operative stores and state dairies. The NKDV registered 340 attacks by the "manifestations of banditism" including 126 "terror acts" and 7 "diversions".
The brothers lived and worked in groups of six to ten, acting independently. There was no central command to be broken by the waves of Soviet arrests, torture and executions. In Lithuania, where resistance was best organized, armed guerrillas effectively controlled whole regions of the countryside until 1949.
The Soviets counter offensive was the 'March deportations' of 1949. After a brief "second wave" of new recruits the brutal liquidation of farm households, deportation and collectivization by force deprived the forest brothers of their support infrastructure. By 1953 the Soviet authorities had suppressed the active armed resistance, although a few brave men hunkered down in the forests for decades. During this heroic fight for freedom about 2000 forest brothers were killed in Estonia, thousands were arrested and sent to Siberian prison camps. In all the Soviet Union's bloody post WWII suppression of Baltic independence cost another 50,000 lives.
War in the Woods
The history of the Forest Brothers' resistance was suppressed in the Soviet Union and ignored by western academics all too often sympathetic to Moscow. In the late 1980s, as the grip of the arthritic Soviet bear began to weaken, a young historian named Mart Laar had the courage to investigate the topic, despite vigorous opposition by Soviet authorities. Travelling from village to village, Laar and his colleagues collected the stories of survivors of Soviet atrocities and veterans and supporters of the resistance movement. Mark Laar become the first Prime Minister of a newly independent Estonia in 1992.
"A Soviet army officer, decided to take a shortcut home while on leave and march through Oobikuorg, a popular village festival site. To his delight, he found a festival in full swing. A band played, some people danced, others dipped moonshine into their mugs from a vat by the edge of the clearing.
"The officer made himself comfortable among the village folk, filled his mug, and enjoyed himself immensely. Suddenly, the words being sung to a traditional melody struck him as unfamiliar: 'I want to be home when Estonia is free, when Laidoner [Johan, Commander-in-Chief of the Estonian military, deported by the Soviets in 1940 - ed] commands the forces, when I hold the Estonian kroon in my hand.' The officer took a closer look around the festival site. In the distance, he now noticed a neatly constructed pyramid of side arms and light machine guns with a guard standing alongside. Suddenly, it dawned on him that he had stumbled into a Forest Brothers celebration. Apparently, the revelers had anticipated this moment of realization, because at that instant, a pair of armed men stepped up to him and politely asked him to surrender his weapons and identity papers. The officer had no choice. After complying with the request, he was handed another mug of moonshine and the merrymaking continued.
"When the officer reported the incident to the security office the following day, he was harshly reprimanded and finally stripped of his rank, because the officials failed to understand why he hadn't arrested all those Forest Brothers."
"They were saying World War II was over, for us, though, a new war was just beginning."
Escaping conscription into the Army of his nation's occupiers, Eerik spent the next eight years in the forbidding forest in a primitive bunker fashioned of cold mud and stone. His sole luxury was a portable shortwave radio, tuned to Voice of America's Estonian service.
"Being in the forest was clearly an act of civil disobedience. On one hand, we were saving ourselves. But on the other hand, we were also trying to save our country."
"Nobody believed that Estonia would, for decades and decades, be left in the hands of the Soviets," said Laar. "That wasn't even a possibility. It's only a question of time, everybody thought. But after decades went by, the idea about the West coming to their aid disappeared. The fight in the forest became a personal thing. These people fought because they simply wanted to die as free men."
And die they did. By the early 1950s a forest brother might stay alive a year. For Eerik, the end came in 1953. By then, his wife, fearing deportation herself, had joined him in the forest. One fateful winter's day, their bunker in southern Estonia was suddenly surrounded. Reluctantly, Eerik urged his wife to surrender to the KGB troops outside, reasoning that at least her life would be spared. As he slipped out a side entrance and fled for his life on cross-country skis, he heard the rattle of gunfire behind him. Fleeing into the forest, the ski patrols soon captured him for interrogation where he learned that the shots had he heard were the troops spraying his wife with machine gun fire.
"The interrogators beat me so hard," sighed Eerik, shaking his head. "At that point, I wished I was dead."
After languishing without trial in an Estonian prison Eerik was given a 15-year jail term as an 'enemy of the people'. When he finally stepped from behind the bars of his Siberian prison cell, it was 1968, the year of the Soviet invasion of Prague.
"These people fought a war without a battleground, and they went through water and fire to do it," he said. "I would say we were heroes because we always kept our backs straight—we kept our dignity."
Dignity cost Eerik his beloved wife and 23 years of his life, from the time he went to the forest to the time of his release. At 86 years of age Eerik harbored no bitterness about his long ordeal or the cold blooded murder of his wife, nor does he crave revenge. He does, however, have one wish. If he could, he'd like to rouse one of his KGBinterrogators from his grave—the one who so confidently proclaimed that Estonia would never again be free.
"I'd want to give him a message," said Eerik, his blue eyes gleaming. "I'd tell him, 'Look, look around you, the time of independence did come back, and I am—once again—a free man.'"*
Unbowed by 40 years of deportations, oppression, propaganda and crude 'russification' the Balts rode the 1989 wave of anti-communist protests throughout occupied eastern europe and rose in mass, peaceful civil disobedience against the occupiers. Between a third and a half of the entire population joined hands along the borders in one such display of defiance.
Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia finally regained their freedom in 1991, after the failure of the communist hardliner's coup and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The impossible dream of the 'Brothers of the Forest' had finally been realised. The Baltic states were free and joined the E.U. and NATO in 2004.
Even today, even in their homelands, the story of the Forest Brothers is almost forgotten and the band of surviving brothers grows fewer every year. A film by Jonas Vaitkusÿs, Vienui Vieni, came out in 2004. The title - 'Utterly Alone' - is as poignant as the story is stark, following the brutal struggle of the partisansÿ cause. This thesis does far more justice to the Forest Brothers than a mere dog can do here while the links here covers the gamut of Soviet crimes. It's a long list.
Sources - Wikipedia, Tartu City Museum, War in the Woods by Mark Larr, Photos from Estonian Arms and free sources. *The extended Alfred Eerik interview is from the Baltic City Paper Magazine.
August Sabe was among the last of the Estonian Forest Brothers to survive. After years of living off the land he was found, at the age of 56, in 1978 by two KGB agents posing as fishermen. Refusing to the last to submit to capture he jumped into the lake, hooked himself to a submerged log and ended his own life a free man. Oskar Lillenurm, the last known Forest Brother, was found dead in Läänemaa county in the spring of 1980. On June 26, 1999 the ashes of Estonian freedom fighter Alfons Rebane were returned to his homeland for reburial with full millitary honours. He fought against the Soviet occupation from 1940 to 1941 in the Estonian army, served as a leader of the Estonian Legion fighting the Soviets during the German occupation and, after the annexation of 1944, became a leader of "Operation Jungle" in the British Secret Service (SIS) supporting the Baltic resistance.
The Photograph shows Forest Brother Arnold Linderman.
"Whatever the merits, or demerits, of the many years thereafter during which Communism was in power in Moscow, it is a plain and indisputable fact that the very existence of the USSR encouraged working people everywhere to throw of the shackles of colonial rule." - English Labour Party Politician Tony Benn writing in 1992.