A "showcase of the Soviet Union" is a very widespread cliché in Russian media, which is persistently repeated as soon as the news touches upon the history of the Baltic States. It is interesting that different journalists and reviewers do not even try to use any other synonym, as if the term “showcase” was written in some kind of propaganda textbook. It is normally used in roughly the following context – the residents of the Baltics were provided with an excellent life during Soviet times; they failed to appreciate this and wanted to receive independence, and, therefore, now they have gone back to the bottom of the ladder.
Only on rare occasions does someone try to use facts to substantiate how this wonderful life during Soviet times was manifested in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. However, recently several Russian internet websites displayed a YouTube link called The Truth about Life in the Soviet Baltics ("О том, как на самом деле жилось в советской Прибалтике"). It is an approximately five minute-long video, where photographs, as well as short fragments of documentaries about Soviet times are used; the main voice-over message trying to substantiate the thesis of a “showcase” is the central idea of the film.
The authors of the video try to demonstrate proof that substantiates the idea of the advantages that the residents of the Baltic States enjoyed in comparison with the residents of the rest of the USSR. Here, however, they have fallen into their own trap – because they present their favourable attitude towards the Baltic States by representing the regime as less strict than elsewhere in the USSR, thus, revealing its actual totalitarian nature. For instance, permitting rock and punk culture in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in the 80s, which was prohibited elsewhere in the USSR, is mentioned as an advantage.
The video claims that residents of the Baltics experienced other advantages as well: “Immediately after the war, on 21 May 1947, the Central Committee of the CPSU adopted a secret decision – the slowdown in the rate of collectivisation was adopted, considering the historical and economic traditions of the region. This continued until the collapse of the USSR and in the late 80s more than 70% of agricultural products were manufactured on private farms.”
The fact that Soviet farm workers in the Baltic States were not deprived of their passports, as occurred in the rest of the USSR, is emphasised as a sign of special favour. “The salaries of workers, collective farm workers and engineers were 2–3 times higher than in other republics and in the USSR on average, while prices and utility costs – lower,” the authors of the film claim. Thanks to the favour of the Soviet government, the residents of the Baltic states could eat more meat and dairy products than other citizens of the USSR. Famous brands, such as VEF, Radiotehnika, Dzintars, Latvijas balzams, Rīgas maize, Rīgas šprotes and others, which are destroyed now, were created during Soviet times.
“The USSR developed and demonstrated a consumer paradise in a small plot of land on the coast of the Baltic Sea for several decades, but what is happening there now – you know it yourselves,” the video concludes.
“There was no paradise and everyone who lived at the time knew this,” Daina Bleiere, associate professor at RSU and researcher of the Soviet period, says. The fact that the Baltic States received more benefits and a higher culture of service than the rest of the USSR has several explanations.
D. Bleiere: “Firstly, Moscow could not afford to immediately and brutally equalise the Baltic States with the rest of the territory of the USSR in terms of consumption, the drop would be too steep. Second, Moscow used the economic potential of the Baltics for their own advantage and some of that “was left over” for the locals as well. Third, the relative welfare of the Baltic States as a “showcase of achievement” is supposed to serve as proof of the improvement in the quality of life as a result of occupation and annexation. At the same time, the difference between the Baltic States and the rest of the USSR started to wear thin rapidly in the 70s and 80s.
"The facts mentioned in the video are disputable. First of all consider the information relating to collectivisation. I do not know anything about the decision to slow down the rate of collectivisation mentioned in the film. The decision of 21 May 1947, as adopted during Stalin’s rule, hypocritically declared that haste may not be permitted and that collectivisation must be performed strictly on a voluntary basis.
“It also provided for a range of positive incentives for collectivisation, for instance, the creation of exemplary collective farms, granting privileges to collective farms, like connection of the farms to electricity and telephone networks, the collective farms and collective farmers were allowed to pay reduced mandatory duties to the state.
"Thus, this decision was actually targeted at increasing the rate of collectivisation and after its adoption the measures aimed at “expelling” wealthy farmers were implemented – creation of wealthy farmer lists and raising fees and duties for the farmers on the lists. In 1948 the fees and duties were raised for all individual farmers, while those collected from wealthy farmers were raised even higher. We all know what happened in 1949," says D. Bleiere reminding us of the severe truth.
The historian Jānis Riekstiņš, in Mājas Viesis magazine also writes that collectivisation in Latvia “was performed hastily, by using violent methods, because farmers who refused to comply were included in the lists of wealthy farmers for deportation.” He also mentioned several facts from the documentary evidence of the time, where the implementers of the decision themselves admitted that collectivisation was too rapid and caused a severe counter-reaction. The occupation powers cracked down on the most diligent and skilful of Latvian farmers. Furthermore, as J. Riekstiņš writes, “artificial development of collective farms changed Latvian rural landscapes for several decades”.
The statement that more than 70% of agricultural products in the Baltic states was produced by private farms has to be considered as fake news. D. Bleiere: “Individual farmers in the Baltic states were already exterminated in the early 50s. Indeed, individual farmers produced almost one half of the meat and milk until the mid-60s, but these were auxiliary household products of collective farmers and other residents, which only confirmed the weakness of collective farms and Soviet farms. In the 70s and 80s the proportion of individual producers declined, however, it could be the result of different statistical manipulations (the collective farm workers sold their animals to collective farms and these were recorded as products of collective farms).”
The fact that collective farmers in the Baltic States were not deprived of their passports did not have anything to do with favour, it was rather a sign of suspicion by the Soviet government. This was done at the request of the internal security institutions, because, in order to fight the strong armed resistance in the Baltic States, the residents had to be controlled; furthermore, all of the territory of the Baltic States was the borderland of the USSR.
Were salaries in the Baltics 2 - 3 times higher than elsewhere in the USSR? D. Bleiere: “Not that much. The differences varied at different times and in different economy sectors, but on average, they did not exceed 20-30%. The prices were lower in 1941 and immediately after the war, but not later. The market prices could demonstrate a large difference, but only due to the fact of milder oppression of the private producers in the Baltic States compared to Russia and elsewhere.”
The attempts of the film authors to appropriate the brands established in pre-war Latvia such as VEF (founded in 1919) and Radiotehnika (1927) or the even older brand of Rīgas melnais balzams, by attributing them to the times of the USSR, is especially shameless. “All of this was the heritage of capitalism that could not be completely destroyed over a period of 50 years,” D. Bleiere reminds. She believes that the authors of the film are reproducing the former stereotypes about how good life was in the “Baltics” under the USSR, where many residents perceived the Baltics as “the West”.
What is the objective of the film authors? The motivation is not difficult to understand, if the the YouTube profile, Политическое oбозрение (Political review), where the film was published is reviewed - it is decorated by a hammer and sickle on a red background. Here are the titles of other videos published on the same channel with 80,000 subscribers: Why Russians are Feared and Respected Worldwide, On the Revival of Great Russia, Putin - Our President, Who Would Win the Russia vs USA War.
The preparation of this report was supported by the Latvian Ministry of Culture