British author Aliide Naylor’s The Shadow in the East: Vladimir Putin and the New Baltic Front, published earlier this year, is the latest book dedicated to the Baltic countries. Starting off from the election of Donald Trump in 2016, an event that raised fears among some about the geopolitical position of the Baltic states, Naylor closely examines the often fraught relationship between the Baltics and their huge neighbour. It also examines a range of other themes: memory politics, especially relating to how the Second World War is remembered in this part of the world, the Baltic states’ Russian-speaking minorities, both those who arrived under the Soviet Union and a new wave of anti-regime figures drawn by opposition to Vladimir Putin’s leadership, as well as the fate of Soviet architecture and other relics in the region. Naylor also looks at how contemporary Baltic culture and art is developing, three decades on from the re-establishment of independence of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
In March Deep Baltic’s Will Mawhood spoke to Naylor about the book and her feelings about what the future will bring for the region.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Where would you say the idea came from for the book?
It stemmed from an article I wrote in 2017 called “Trump, Putin and the New Geopolitics of the Baltics”, just after their [Trump and Putin’s] first phone call. I’d dipped in and out of the Baltics before then, specifically after 2014 because of the escalation in Ukraine after Euromaidan – I started writing a little bit about them after that. But when Trump ascended to the US presidency I started looking more about what the division of the world into the great power blocs again might mean for the Baltic states: whether they would fall into the Eastern bloc or the Western bloc or the European bloc or the Scandinavian bloc.
Because your background as I understand it is was working on Russia. You lived in Moscow for some time, and you studied Russian.
I moved to St. Petersburg to do my master’s and study Russian in 2011. I visited Estonia before that for the first time in the ‘00s, because I’ve got family there – hence the unusual name. So I lived in St. Petersburg for one year, and then Moscow for three years.
And would you say your interest in the Baltics subsequently, did that have anything to do with your heritage or ancestry – or was it just kind of a coincidence that you got interested through this route?
I think it must have had an impact– there’s no way I would have been interested in them I think without that background presence of Estonia in my life. And having an Estonian name you have to constantly explain where Estonia is to people, and they get confused about it and you have to say “between Finland and Russia”. It was really interesting to find out more about Latvia and Lithuania as I was researching the book, because with Estonia I’d grown up with the songs and I’d kind of dipped in and out of the language, but I hadn’t done the same with Latvia and Lithuania, and they’re both very different to Estonia of course.
The main theme or at least the theme you begin with is very much the security question, and I think this comes across as well in the title of the book, which is The Shadow in the East, so we get the sense of a threat. You talk about how the Baltics have been a “testing-ground” for certain techniques – I was wondering if you could expand a little bit on what those techniques tend to be that are used in this part of the world.
I was thinking specifically about the Bronze Soldier situation in Estonia [when a Soviet-era memorial was moved from the centre of Tallinn to a military cemetery, prompting two nights of rioting] and the mass cyber-security attacks that happened after that, on the banking and government websites. And I felt like that happened in Estonia perhaps before it happened in other parts of the world. But I was also thinking in Chapter 2, the “cigarettes and spies” chapter, Russia’s focus on “economy-class agents” – that happened in Estonia perhaps before it started to happen in the rest of the world. Low-level observations of individuals’ social networks, basic practical details, recruits in sports groups, IT. I guess with the Skripal poisonings, these two guys were GRU officers, but they were staying in a twin room in Bow; they didn’t really have the resources to carry out the operation in a particularly sophisticated way, they posed as sports nutrition salespeople. And I felt like there were similarities with what had been happening in the Baltics slightly earlier.
The Bronze Soldier situation was obviously quite a long time ago, and you mentioned these things that are happening in Estonia and Latvia with cross-border spying going on. Do you think these were always intended to be used later in some way, or was it just the fact that the Baltic states are very close that made it natural that they were used there and then maybe later on the situation simply arose that they could be used in other places?
It’s very difficult to assess intent, isn’t it, when it comes to these things? Unless you have some very high-level sources you can never know how intentional or how accidental it was. But I would speculate that having seen the success of lower-level operations previously – how the reaction to an event or a piece of misinformation can be vastly disproportionate; if it had just been ignored, it wouldn’t have been as effective as it was – having seen the reaction to quite low-level operations and how that can be magnified and amplified, I think that possibly encouraged the Russian state to seek those methods abroad, further afield too.
And obviously connected to the security question is the presence of NATO in the Baltics, which you also talk about quite a lot, and Russia’s perception of what this is. The quote that I wrote down is “but the fact remains, from where Russia is standing, NATO has been expanding its influence and edging closer to its borders. It sees – or at least pretends that it sees – the Baltics as being occupied by the alliance as opposed to integrated into it”. So what I wanted to ask you is, based on your own experiences of living in Russia and speaking Russian, how true do you think that perception is: do you think there’s any awareness of what the Baltic narrative is, and that populations are genuinely actually pro-NATO, based on mostly a view of their history, or do you think that people genuinely do believe that they have been manipulated or that they are being occupied against their will?
I think it depends on who you ask. I mean, like the UK – or like anywhere really – Russia does have myriad different opinions inside its borders. Many Russians recognise why the Baltics have such a difficult relationship with the former occupying power, but that isn’t necessarily the narrative pushed by the Kremlin.
I guess going back to your first comment, that’s also kind of what the shadow pertains to – because Russia is perceived as a featureless mass by the West, and I wanted to add a few features to it as it were.
But if we’re thinking about what view is dominant, say, within government – of course not everyone will think exactly the same thing – do you think there is any sense that people understand the Baltic states’ perspectives, even if they don’t agree with them?
Yes, I think there is a sense – a lot of people do recognise that the Baltics were occupied, and they recognise the need for security from the NATO side, but at the same time the West is seen as a threatening presence to Russia, so the Baltics kind of almost symbolise that threat because they’re right on the border. There should be more concern maybe with the Balkans in the “NATO expansion” regard, purely because that the domestic populations are less supportive of having NATO there.
You think Russia should be concerned about this, or you think they would have more grounds to be genuinely concerned?
They would have more grounds to be genuinely concerned about NATO expansion in the Balkans than in the Baltics, because I think that the Baltic population overwhelmingly supports it but in the Balkans maybe not so much.
One thing I thought you did very well was writing about Victory Day in Russia, getting across the importance that has to people, despite all of the incredible bombast of the occasion – as you put it the “real emotion, hardship and loss underpinning the simulacrum”. Do you think there’s any possibility of a mutual understanding developing of the respective perceptions of history?
I was interested that – I’m not sure if this is very new, but it strikes me as being a bit new – in the last year or two on significant anniversaries, the Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkēvičs went out of his way when he was tweeting and commenting about it to stress that Latvians understood and appreciated Soviet sacrifices against the Nazis, but at the same time stressed that this didn’t invalidate the Latvian right to independence, that it didn’t invalidate the Baltic view of World War II – I’ve seen similar statements recently from Lithuanian leaders, which has been interesting. Do you think that by the Baltics doing this, at least through their leaders, showing to an extent that they appreciate the suffering on the Russian or Soviet side, could this lead to a greater mutual understanding, or is that too idealistic?
It’s possibly too idealistic, although it’s possibly the most effective method against Russia’s stance on their own history, because if they’re going to start absorbing and accepting that very real Russian perspective on World War II, then Russia doesn’t have as much to kind of bite back against, and play the “that’s not fair, we had the biggest human sacrifice in terms of statistics in World War II. We won this war for everybody”. If they accept that, then maybe it could lead to Russia coming to terms slightly better with its own history. But I don’t see that happening, because Russia doesn’t seem to be making any decent steps to doing that. I’m sure you’ve read plenty of articles in recent years about the rehabilitation of Stalin, which has been happening incrementally, and even now people who try to teach or speak about the gulag – that’s not part of the state narrative; the state narrative is just one of victory, and it’s much more war-mongering. At least it was under [Vladimir] Medinsky, who was the former Culture Minister, and I don’t see that changing in recent months.
And would you say things like the rehabilitation of Stalin – is that being done primarily for internal reasons, or is there also an aspect of the fact that Stalin had great significance in terms of foreign policy?
That’s a good question. Possibly for internal reasons, because I see Russia venerating these symbols of state power, as opposed to the nation itself or the people who constitute the nation, and having those big public figures who are tantamount to the state – like Stalin is Russia, Lenin is Russia, Putin is Russia – it kind of bolsters the current regime’s power in a symbolic way in some sense. And venerating these leaders at the head of Russia as being who Russia is or what Russia is, I think that’s a large part of it too – egotism basically (laughs).
Kind of another point on geopolitics. I think this may reflect the period when you were writing the book – and we can discuss whether we’re in a different position now but I think you can certainly make that argument – but you start off with the image of Trump [the now removed piece of graffiti in Vilnius where he is shown kissing Putin], and Brexit is also a very significant event during the period when you started to cover the subject, and you quote Sandra Kalniete from the Latvian Parliament, saying “with Brexit and Trump the two pillars of our security are weakened”. From the current perspective, it would be quite easy to conclude that the situation hasn’t in fact changed, do you think that would be true or do you think that’s a very superficial analysis?
I think that with the situation in Syria and Ukraine having gone on for as long as they have, the situation has changed from Russia’s perspective, because these wars are going on possibly longer than they anticipated, and they’re having to pool a lot of resources that possibly they didn’t expect to pool those regions, and that diverts energy and interest away from the Baltics, of course. And there’s also the situation with Belarus and I suppose Eurasia as a whole, and trying to forge better relationships with China. So I feel like Russia has a lot more on its plate now in terms of its relationships with the rest of the world, and the Baltics are taking a backseat now because of that.
And regarding the specific impact of Trump, have you been surprised at all that he hasn’t made more of an effort – or hasn’t been successful, perhaps – in improving ties with Putin, or with destabilising NATO to a greater extent?
I guess all we can do is continue to wait and see, because he is possibly as unpredictable as Putin if not more, and they both derive quite a lot of power from their unpredictability.
I appreciated how you showed in the book the diversity of characteristics among the Russian or Russian-speaking minority population, and how they have very many different feelings towards Russia. You talk about meeting people in Narva who were very kind of Russian chauvinist, and very negative about Estonia, and then talking to a Russian-speaking woman in Visaginas [in Lithuania] who said she didn’t like the Russians across the border for various reasons, I can’t quite remember why.
She said they were rude.
Oh yes – this is an attitude I’ve definitely come across too, which is interesting. Why do you think they are so often written about – especially in coverage in the Western media – as though they are just a bloc? Do you think this is just ignorance, or do you think there’s some other reason for it?
It could well be driven by editors who are less familiar with the region. You know – “we want a story about the Russian-speaking population here”; sometimes editors who are less familiar with certain stories will be looking for a specific story, which maybe doesn’t exist in the way they’d like it to.
Although as we’ve both commented, there is a lot of diversity within the group, there are obviously still sensitivities and broad views of history that are often held by certain groups. One thing I found interesting was that you wrote about the director of the Museum of Occupations in Tallinn, Merelin Piipuu, who referred to Russian-speaking visitors – I don’t know whether she was primarily talking about people from Russia or local Russians – and said “this museum is often seen by them as an attack”. Do you think there’s anything the Baltic states can do about the presentation of history that would lessen this feeling that people have, while also maintaining the need to present history factually?
This goes back to what you were saying about the Baltic states starting to recognise Russia’s role in the war, as well as the occupation, and I think that they are trying to integrate that aspect, but it has to be quite slow, because it’s still very painful for the Baltics – the occupation only ended three decades ago, and there are still people alive who remember what it was like. So navigating that journey towards being more accommodating of the Russians who are still there, that’s going to take time. I think it is happening, it’s just happening slowly.
What kind of changes do you notice among people there, or in cultural projects?
I think partially it’s generational, because the younger generations haven’t been directly exposed to the occupation period, so for them it’s more of an abstract and that’s going to naturally make integration a lot easier. I mean, things I find interesting – going back to Narva, for example: the fact that the Estonian government is making such a concerted effort to make it Estonian in some ways, culturally, by the festivals there [including the annual three-day music festival Station Narva, which began in 2018] or making it like a centre of culture. That’s interesting, because it’s very much a calcified Russian community – and I wonder if that’s maybe going to irritate the Russian community, or make them more receptive towards the fact that they are part of this bigger Estonian and Russian whole.
The last time I was in Tallinn, which was only a couple of months ago, talking to an Estonian friend there, she was saying this is very fashionable among Estonian hipsters, people in their early twenties who are really excited about going to Narva and discovering what’s in Narva. I don’t know – I felt slightly uncomfortable with that for various reasons, the way it was presented.
I guess the Soviet-industrial aesthetic, it really does have an appeal – I mean, it appealed to me to a degree. That’s part of why I moved there [to Russia] in 2011: the interest in the architecture, the interest in Soviet history, and it’s still there.
But I kind of get what you mean – do you know Delta Mityba in Vilnius? It’s on Naugarduko gatvė.
I haven‘t been there, but I know the street.
It’s an old Soviet canteen, but it’s serving Asian food essentially – but it’s a very trendy venue, or at least it was in 2017 when I first visited. It’s actually had some coverage in Delfi, and there was one older columnist who was very upset that the kids who were running it were very fascinated by the Soviet kitsch or Soviet industrial elements – they were complaining that to them it was just this cool part of history that they wanted to set up shop in, and they didn’t understand what it meant and how awful it was that they were doing this.
I found that interesting – that clash of generations in terms of their relationship with the Soviet culture that’s still present in the country.
Thinking about the local Russian population, particularly in Estonia, you talk about the different ways that all of the Baltic states have tried to engage them, in some cases – or in other cases, as you might perceive it, tell them what to do, as with the Latvian language reforms [mandating that subjects in schools should be taught entirely in Latvian after a certain age], which you’re quite critical of. Certain cases where the state has attempted to engage with Estonian Russians, such as ETV+ [a Russian-language channel operated by Estonian Public Broadcasting], has had noticeably very low ratings, certainly compared with the Russian offerings. Do you think there’s anything that can be done about that, or is the main thing just to show you’re trying?
It’s a pretty wild expense, isn’t it, given just how few viewers they’re getting?
But do you think that means it’s a waste of time, or do you think just showing that we do care, even if you don’t watch it, does some good in itself?
That’s a good question. I don’t know.
And I suppose a related question is: is there anything they could do? Could Estonia ever produce a TV station that would compete with the Russian networks?
Honestly, I think they’d find it hard, without blocking the Russian channels completely – and I don’t think that would be a fair thing to do, and I think they recognise that wouldn’t be a fair thing to do. I suppose just to continue providing the options is the main thing, and to show that there is a diversity of news available for people to engage with.
Thinking about the architecture from the Soviet period in the Baltics, you write “the remnants of the Soviet era that are permitted to remain part of the fabric of society are carefully selected, but predominantly distanced from modern life. At times it seems like a kind of compartmentalization. The occupation era is ‘othered’ and remains an alien presence inside the countries even as it is recalled as part of their history”. Two comments there, I guess. Firstly, I did feel that you’d have to make the exception of housing, surely – that feels like a very big, constant reminder, at least in the cities, of the Soviet period.
Yes, I think I would make that exception with the housing – I was thinking more about public memory than the kind of material artefacts that people use in day-to-day life.
Could you expand on that? What did you have in mind particularly when you’re talking about public memory?
For example, the relocation of the Bronze Soldier to the military cemetery on the outskirts – it’s being forgotten and pushed away, and some things they can’t push away. The removal of the statues from the Green Bridge in Vilnius as well. And Monuments Park [in Tallinn] and that one Lenin in Narva – the symbols are isolated and clumped together and kept in a segregated part of the country, it seems.
But I was also thinking about the Modernist-era architecture, that’s just been falling apart mostly since the Soviet collapse – and part of that’s to do with poor construction in some cases, but also there’s no effort made to restore these buildings either. I feel like there should be some desire to preserve the later part of the Soviet cultural heritage, inside the country’s borders.
Do you think that’s something done intentionally, or do you think it’s due to lack of funds or both?
I’d say it’s due to lack of funds – how do you justify it when there’s maybe not even too much demand for it at the moment? There’s lots of housing available in the area, especially with the outward migration issues. I feel like they don’t necessarily need it. It’s not a high priority, especially if the building’s been poorly constructed, or it will to take a lot to make it safe or restorable then you’re going to need a lot of expertise and a lot of funding, and it really needs to be worth the time and the effort and the money.
I found kind of interesting something I don’t think you really expanded on, when you quote [former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik] Ilves – a quote I’ve never seen before – saying the Soviet period was “like a Crazy Eddie’s commercial in the middle of a Mozart concerto”. You said “this suggests a certain ‘class’ divide between the populace that experienced the Soviet period and those who left”. I think I understand what you mean, but could you expand on it a little specifically in relation to that quote, why you chose that one in particular?
(Plays a Crazy Eddie’s commercial) So you get an idea of the kind of dissonance he was talking about there.
I think it’s to do with people who felt this connection to the homeland after they left, the people who were refugees either to Siberia or to Germany or Sweden, and subsequently to America or Canada or other places in the world – England, like my family. There’s a certain kind of veneration of this country that didn’t exist anymore, and so there’s this idea of all of the beautiful things that the country means to people that’s kind of frozen in time, whereas the people who stayed saw the changes, and saw it develop and adapt to the occupation period – well perhaps not adapt, that’s the wrong word. They had this different experience because they saw the country change and they had that later memory, whereas for people like Ilves there was perhaps that frozen idea of a beautiful homeland that didn’t exist as he saw it anymore, which I found very interesting – and perhaps in my family too.
In what way in your family? That would be interesting to hear.
Well, I mentioned knowing some songs about Saaremaa, where my family is from, which I can still sing – but I’m not going to (laughs). Holding onto that folkloric culture – there seems to be a return to that too, in the post-Soviet period as well – seizing the kind of pagan or pre-Christian past as a way to holding onto some kind of national authenticity, or an ancient feeling about the country. I’m not sure I’m putting this very well, sorry.
No, I think I understand to a degree. Maybe you’re saying that people who left had a more romantic idea which didn’t need to be based in any kind of reality because there was no reality to access.
Yes, that’s much neater – what you said (laughs)
And could you tell me a little about your family history? I think you said it was your grandmother who was Estonian – how did she end up in England?
She escaped on the top of a train, I believe, and she ended up in a displaced person’s camp in Germany – they had a Baltic section there, where the Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians were kind of divided but in the same place. I had other relatives who escaped by boat to Sweden, and some of them are still there, and I still have relatives in Tallinn and in Saaremaa, so I go to see them when I go back to Estonia. It’s always very lovely.
And what was your relationship to Estonia when you were growing up? Did you have any at all, or was it just this far-away country that you didn’t know a whole lot about?
It was very present – it was present all the time. We always had the Estonian calendar that would arrive at Christmas every year – so we had the Estonian snow scenes on the wall. And songbooks – we had some songbooks, in an attempt to get us to understand little parts of the language. I had a phrasebook, where I learnt phrases like “mouse eats cheese” (laughs). Very helpful.
So it’s always been there as a very strong presence, but also I am British and I’ve always felt British as opposed to Estonian.
And did you feel that was helpful when writing the book, or were there some ways in which that made it more difficult, having this background?
Yes, I was worried that I couldn’t approach Estonia with the distance or excitement that I could Latvia and Lithuania. But I think exploring the native Russian populations and seeing the parts I wasn’t used to helped a lot – for example, Saaremaa was a very important place for me, and so I didn’t feel I could write about Saaremaa that easily.
The last chapter is called “The Baltic Future” and mostly focuses on culture, and in most cases you mention at least in passing whether the example of culture you’re talking about is a reaction to the Soviet occupation, or whether it might be a continuation of some aspects – you talk about the singing tradition in Latvia, at least the particular strength of some singers right now, being in some way connected to the particular Soviet system that existed. How long do you think it will take before this stops being an obvious question that people ask about it – not just in this example, but for anyone writing about culture in this part of the world – what the relationship to the Soviet period is, and it just becomes “art from the Baltic states”?
That’s a very difficult question, isn’t it? They really don’t like being defined as “post-Soviet”, but at the same time they are post-Soviet. This comes back to compartmentalisation again – it’s difficult for them to step away from being defined as post-Soviet and having a “post-Soviet” culture, when they are post-Soviet and the youth are interested in it.
In terms of history, not necessarily in terms of legitimacy – you’re just saying that it did happen?
Yes, it did happen, regardless of whether it was legitimate or not.
I think the significance of the backlash to the Soviet period also needs to be addressed. I mentioned before this kind of attachment to the older folkloric traditions, and this linked quite nicely with Vello Pettai’s analysis that I mentioned in the introduction. They tried to rally around these points of commonality during the Soviet period, in order to detach themselves from it, and that was really interesting – how that search for something beyond the Soviet has made their regional identity that much more powerful during the post-Soviet period.
Something that I think is probably connected to when you were writing the book, but you don’t talk very much about the rise to popularity of EKRE in Estonia – there were a few sentences. How much of a lasting impact do you think their presence in government will have on Estonia’s international reputation, and even perhaps its geopolitical position? Do you think this is something people will forget about very quickly? Because there was a lot of international coverage of this.
The book was written I think before the elections had happened, or I might have just finished editing it when they happened – so those sentences were fairly hasty and couldn’t take up too much space. I guess it depends how their popularity changes over the course of the next few years too. They’re stuck where they are at the moment, which is frankly in a pretty ridiculously overly-powerful position. But in the next elections, if the support for them continues to increase, I would be very worried. Estonia’s electoral system is fairly proportional, so it is going to be a symptomatic of a wider sense of more conservative, far-right nativism in the country, and that would be worrying, even if the government is trying to liberalise or keep these connections with the rest of Europe; if there’s no domestic sentiment that’s in favour of that, then, yes, I would be worried about that.
Was there anything that surprised you when writing the book?
The number of people who were native Balts who seemed supportive of Putin – that was interesting. I didn’t expect to find that, and I don’t want to make a huge sweeping generalisation here, but I think I kind of hinted at it in the book: that it often came from people who were not in places of good socio-economic standing. This was younger people – often young men, mostly inside the capitals. That was surprising. I know it’s not a good answer, but not really [otherwise]. I went in expecting to be surprised!
Header image – statues at the Salaspils memorial, Latvia. Credit: Linnea Zielinski
All images credit Aliide Naylor unless otherwise specified
The Shadow in the East: Vladimir Putin and the New Baltic Front is available now from I.B. Tauris
© Deep Baltic 2020. All rights reserved.
Like what Deep Baltic does? Please consider making a monthly donation – help support our writers and in-depth coverage of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Find out more at our Patreon page.