Many people in the UK have limited knowledge of Estonia’s past. When I was in school, the Baltic States were not even a footnote in the story of the Soviet Union. Personally, I only stumbled across their existence by accident, courtesy of a pre-war atlas. For those who have a similar lack of knowledge, here is a short summary of events that lead you to the start of the novel Finnish Boys.
Estonia gained its independence in 1920, following the declaration made in 1918 and a civil war, fought against the Red Army in the East and the German Baltic Army in the south. The inter-war years saw a period of change, but was not without its pain, as Estonia suffered the rise of fascism, like every other country in Europe, which was suppressed by withholding democracy for twelve years.
In the build-up to the Second World War, the Germans and Soviet Union negotiated a non-aggression pact. In this, they effectively carved up the states between them (Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland) as ‘spheres of influence’. This was the von Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. It allowed Germany to focus on its military action in Western Europe, whilst the Soviet Union embarked on an exercise of assimilation.
At the beginning of the war, a Polish submarine ‘Orzel’ was in Tallinn and was impounded as being in a neutral country. The sub managed to slip its moorings and made for England, where it fought with the British until sunk in 1940. This provided the Soviet government with an excuse to demand a military presence in the land. The Soviets demanded military bases and to station 25,000 troops in Estonia. Fearing a bloodbath, the Estonian government acquiesced.
In June 1940, the Red Navy and the Air Force began to blockade Estonia, leading to the downing of a Finnish passenger aircraft with loss of all on board. Within days, the Soviets demanded a new Soviet-friendly government. Having no option, this was agreed to, together with an additional 90,000 troops being sent over. The changeover was rubber stamped by an election, in which the Soviets only allowed pro-Communist candidates to stand. The ensuing parliament petitioned Moscow to become a Soviet Socialist Reublic. The Estonian nation ceased to exist.
Immediately, the Soviets looked to eliminate all potential opposition or anyone capable of organisation. 8,000 people were arrested in the next 12 months and sent to Gulags. Destroyer batallions were allowed to roam freely. This led to the ‘Red Terror’ on 14th June 1941, when 10,000 people were rounded up and sent by trains to Siberia.
However, the Soviet authorities had not counted on the Germans reneging on the pact. Eight days later, the German Army invaded the Soviet Union and within a month, had pushed the Red Army out of the Baltic states.
Estonia as a nation was therefore stuck. On one hand, the Soviets with their totalitarian rule and obliteration of the Estonian nation. On the other, the Nazi regime, looking to establish the puppet state of ‘Ostland’, but with a longer term plan to use the Baltic as a new Aryan colony. A situation that put the nation between Scylla and Charybdis.
This is where the novel Finnish Boys begins, on the eve of the Soviet ‘Red Terror’. Where Märt the baker finds out he is on the list.