Image: Latvian Occupation Museum, CIA / Public domain; Lsm.lv collage
Many in the Baltic countries and elsewhere still celebrate the US non-recognition policy which specified that Washington would never recognize Stalin’s “forcible incorporation” of the three Baltic states into the USSR, a policy that send a clear message to Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians that they were not alone in their fight for freedom.
But at the same time, some of them have asked over the years why the US did not do more to support the Baltic peoples and their aspirations — even though US policy did not ever promise to take any actions to liberate the three occupied countries, a point Washington was consistent about from 1940 to 1991.
In fact, however, as some newly declassified CIA documents show, the US government not only carefully kept track of “the forest brothers,” as the underground armed resistance to Soviet power there in the late 1940s and early 1950s was known, but provided some limited covert assistance to these groups.
Portions of these documents are being published in Russian translation by the Russian staff of the unified news portal of Latvian Radio and Latvian television. Two selections have been issued (“Тайные архивы ЦРУ. Латвийские «лесные братья» — возникновение, организация, контроль” and “Тайные архивы ЦРУ. Латвийские «лесные братья». Помощь Запада“), and more are promised.
Like the NATO film released about the forest brothers a month ago, these documents have attracted Moscow’s attention. One commentary by Sergey Orlov of Svobodnaya pressa posted online yesterday directly states that with these documents, “the US has acknowledged its role in the support of ‘the [Baltic] forest brothers.’”
In Orlov’s words, the documents show that “the CIA provided the anti-Soviet underground in the Baltic countries organizational and financial help … and from this it follows in particular,” he continues, “that in August 1950, the CIA approved the financing of ‘the forest brothers.’”
“The total sum is not clear,” the Svobodnaya pressa writer says, “but in 1953, 134,950 dollars was devoted to one of the projects for assistance to the anti-Soviet underground. Money was also allocated to the support of anti-Soviet Baltic media beyond the borders of the USSR, he organization of a unity conference in the US, and other goals.”
Orlov does not suggest that the US provided the forest brothers with lethal aid, something he would surely have done if there was anything in the documents to suggest that. But what he does say about the documents may be far more important to an understanding of the complex picture of life in Soviet-occupied Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania at that time.
First, he makes it clear that the Central Intelligence Agency was extremely well-informed about the nature and composition of the forest brothers.
Second, Orlov’s selective quotations indicate that Washington was extremely cautious in taking any steps that might inflame the situation and cause Moscow to crack down even harder than it already did at that time.
And third, Orlov mentions that the Americans were not the only people fishing in these troubled waters at the time. He notes that Stalin’s secret police chief Lavrenty Beriya tried to reach an agreement of some kind with a leader of the anti-Soviet underground in Lithuania whom the NKVD had arrested.
What the two discussed is “unknown,” the commentator says; but after Beria was arrested, interrogated and then shot in 1953, this Lithuanian, Jonas-Vytautas Zemaitis, was shot in Moscow’s Butyrka prison on November 26, 1954, on the basis of a decision by the Supreme Court of the Lithuanian SSR.
Zemaitis is now considered a hero in Lithuania, and there is a monument to him at the Lithuanian defense ministry, Orlov says. But that raises a bigger question: is Orlov’s article really about events of almost 70 years ago, or is it really about the present-day agenda of Moscow which remains interested in destabilizing the situation there.
If the latter – and there is every reason to suspect that – this conclusion suggests Moscow will use the further release and translation of US documents as the occasion not only to try to blacken the reputation of the Americans but also to talk about contacts between Baltic leaders in the past and the Soviet secret services in order to sow discord in the three countries.
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