Sixty Years in Journalism: Revisiting the Revitalized Baltics

When I revisited Vietnam in recent years, after reporting from the region during the 1970s, I noted how its rulers had won their wars against France and the United States only to lose out on the economic front, as Communism put them a quarter century behind the roaring "tigers" of East Asia. Now they are struggling to catch up by offering their cheap labor to international investors.

The Vietnam parallel came to mind as I just revisited the countries of the Baltic region--Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia--which gained independence in the self-determination wave following the first World War only to be forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940 after Stalin made his deal with Hitler. A year later, Nazi forces marched into Russia and occupied the Baltic states for the next four years. Soviet Russia took them back in 1944.

There is no love lost between their citizens and Putin's Russia. The three small nations joined the European Union as soon as they could qualify, and opted to use the Euro as their currency despite the economic difficulties of the Euro bloc. They have had the benefit of both European Union subsidies and outside investment, much of it from neighboring Scandinavia, to improve their economies after the imposed poverty of Communism.

The three countries were "Soviet Socialist Republics" for a half century. The Soviets rounded up tens of thousands of potential opponents--teachers, scientists, writers--and deported them to Siberia. Everyone we met, including reporters for American media, had relatives who were sent away. The Soviet secret police, KGB, set up interrogation, imprisonment, and execution chambers which have been preserved for public view.

At the same time, tens of thousands of Russian workers were encouraged to move to the Baltics to work in factories set up by the Soviets.

The main Nazi legacy pointed out to visitors is the extermination of a quarter million Jewish citizens.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s allowed the three Baltic states to regain their independence. There was an amazing demonstration of their citizens' demand to break free from the USSR on August 23, 1989, when more than a million people formed a human chain, linking hands from Vilnius, Lithuania, though Riga, Latvia, to Tallinn, Estonia, a distance of more than 400 miles. It was the sixtieth anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet pact.

The three countries still have large minorities of Russian-speakers who have never had to learn the local languages and are now being encouraged to do so to qualify for citizenship. Ironically, younger ethnic Russians who are bilingual are in demand by companies because the three countries still have trading relationships with Russia, while young Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians prefer to become proficient in English.

The three counties also rushed to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to insure their security against Russian Ukraine-style aggression. NATO is not establishing bases in the Baltic states, but is rotating military contingents into them and conducting military exercises. The director of an American think tank's Moscow office was recently asked if Putin might really move against the Baltics. He replied that "Putin has respect for NATO--even as some of its members may not."

The fact is that the NATO treaty regards an attack against one member as an attack against all and now applies to Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

The three countries have also opened their doors wide to tourism. Their capital cities have been spiffed up so that visitors can enjoy wandering through the pedestrian zones of towns as historic as any in Europe. Riga also has a district of Art Nouveau buildings dating from the early 20th Century that's an unexpected treasure. Tallinn is the most accessible of the capitals, since it's a port of call for Baltic cruises as well as a two-hour ferry ride from Helsinki, Finland. There are now high-quality hotels run by local and international operators, some taken over from Soviet Intourist and refurbished, as well as international-class restaurants.

In Soviet times, Riga had a factory that produced high-quality short-wave radios. When I worked for ABC News in Moscow, I bought one for about $25 to listen through the jamming to BBC and Voice of America. I asked what became of that factory, and was told it went out of business, because of competition from Communist China.