How Estonia became part of the USSR
by Mike Jones
The following is taken from Mündene fra Estland (The Men from Estonia) by Erik Nørgaard (1), which is based on research in Scandinavia, Germany and the Baltic States including material never seen before from the archives of the intelligence services. What is so remarkable is how the Estonian CP, with only 140 members at the start of the process, could end up as the ruling party there. Presumably the story was similar in Latvia and Lithuania.
Estonia declared its independence on 24th February 1918 in the aftermath of the Russian revolution but it was immediately occupied by the Kaiser’s troops until the German November revolution later that year. Soviet Russia tried to retake Estonia but signed a peace treaty recognising its independence in February 1920. The CPE had been illegal since its inception. In December 1924 400 CP members, as in Bulgaria probably inspired by Zinoviev to cover his earlier fiasco in Germany, attempted a coup. From the spring of 1934 until the first of January 1938 Estonia existed under a type of authoritarian Bonapartist regime. It was ‘preventive’ in as much as it sought to block from power the native fascist movement (VAPS) which was modelled on the Italian one and supported by the Lappo movement in Finland. From 1938 the CPE members in prison – as well as the VAPS members – were released as part of a shift towards democracy. Estonian Communists in exile who had Estonian nationality and who had not taken part in the 1924 coup were allowed home. About one hundred communists were freed of whom about two thirds were still party members.
In 1923 the CPE had won 43,000 votes or 9.5% of the total vote in parliamentary elections. Obviously Communism then had a certain base in the country. The attempted coup in 1924 discredited and isolated them and its members were gaoled or fled to the Soviet Union where three prominent Estonians had leading positions in the Comintern: Hans Pöö gelmann, Jaan Anvelt and Arthur Mehring with Johannes Meerits the next in line. In January 1930 the ECCI condemned the CPE for its right-wing deviations and lack of will to fight the social fascists and so on. The Estonian Party noted this and agreed to toe the line while Mehring was named as the first Secretary of the CPE CC. In January 1931 it was decided to dissolve the CPE illegal organisation in the interior, infected as it was with unsound views, and to rebuild it on a cell basis where the cells would have no connection with each other but would be linked by specially appointed comrades under the control of the Political Bureau and this whole new illegal apparatus should be led by a centre placed in a Scandinavian country but which could act independently and be responsible to the CC and the ECCI Baltic Section in Moscow. The party papers were to be produced in Scandinavia and smuggled into Estonia and this whole system was started up in the summer of 1932 in Stockholm. Johannes Meerits was the deputy first secretary and de facto CPE leader as the Moscow Party members were too fully involved with Comintern activity. In 1933 the whole CPE illegal apparatus was shifted to Copenhagen which by then also housed the CI West Bureau which had moved from Berlin. Meerits summoned his protegé , Karl Säre, from Moscow to Copenhagen where there were two dozen Estonian CPers.
The CPE Conference held in Moscow from the 13-17 August 1934 adopted the new line of approaching the Left Socialists led by Nigol Andresen, a legal party with significant influence on the more radical sections of the working class, thus dropping the line of ‘social fascism’ in order to combat the ‘fascist’ government of President Konstantin Päts, the Peasant Party leader. During July 1935 Meerits met Andresen in Finland and an agreement was signed. In August 1935 the Seventh Congress of the CI took place where Meerits, Karl Säre, Jaan Anvelt, Arthur Mehring and Albert Sakkart represented the CPE. On the 6th October 1935 the CPE CC met in Moscow and the new line was discussed. According to Erik Nörgaard, Arthur Mehring informed Meerits that Johannes Eltermann, an old and trusted comrade and underground worker had been arrested in Estonia and upon his release had made grave charges of betrayal against certain CPE members and he had also criticised the Copenhagen centre for sloppiness and named Meerits. While the CPE members in Leningrad tended to back Eltermann, Arthur Mehring sided with Meerits and began a campaign to paint Eltermann as a police agent. It ended with the latter being murdered in February 1936 on the outskirts of Copenhagen by Meerits, Säre and August Wakepea, an Estonian seaman. (2) Later that year, or early in 1937, Säre went to the USA to work in the Estonian community there and Wakepea went to fight in Spain. After the amnesty and upon his return from the USA, Säre would go back to Estonia.
In the late summer of 1937 Meerits heard of the arrests and liquidation of leading Estonian Communists in the Soviet Union. He is said by witnesses to have been panic-stricken by these events especially when it concerned his protector Arthur Mehring who had ordered the murder of Eltermann. Jaan Anvelt, Pöögelmann, Otto Rästas, Rudolf Vakmann, Johannes Käspert and many others were executed. Even if the CPE was not dissolved Nörgaard believes that the physical liquidation of its leadership in the Soviet Union meant that it might as well have been. In the spring of 1938 Meerits was ordered to appear before the CI Control Commission in Moscow to clarify certain questions. He ignored the invitation. During 1938 the activity of the Estonian CP centre in Stockholm ebbed away. On the 16th February 1939 Meerits walked into the Stockholm police station and applied for legal status. He ended up as an agent of the Swedish political police, later the Finnish too and confessed to that. He denied working for the Gestapo but, says Nö rgaard, made them an offer which they refused thinking that he was penetrating their intelligence for the GPU. But by then he was demoralised and in a state of disintegration.
As part of his deal with Hitler, Stalin was granted not only eastern Poland but the ‘right’ to annex, among other ex-bits of the Tsarist Empire, the Baltic States and Finland. The Soviet Union demanded and got from Estonia a treaty giving them the right to naval and air bases and to station troops there. Soon after the same thing occurred to Latvia and Lithuania. However Finland resisted similar demands and on the 30th November 1939 Soviet troops invaded that country and met fierce resistance, suffering enormous losses but, after 105 days of war, the Finns had to capitulate and lost 40,000 square kilometres of territory though they had preserved their independence.
After accepting the Soviet demands, Estonia had a new government but, in June 1940, a further ultimatum was presented demanding that a new government be formed which would be more susceptible to Soviet demands. The government resigned. More Soviet troops arrived. Andrei Zhdanov was sent to become the de facto governor of Estonia. He presented President Päts with a list of the ministers that he wanted in the government, all of them Left Socialists, left wingers or pro-Communists though there were no CP members, the latter’s official membership being but 140 at the time. Johannes Vares Barbarus became Prime Minister, Nigol Andresen the Foreign Minister, Neeme Ruus the Minister for Social Affairs, Maksim Unt the Minister of the Interior and Alexander Jöeäär Minister of Agriculture.
Meanwhile Karl Säre had succeeded in elbowing aside his rivals among the amnestied CP members and had become Zhdanov’s right hand man taking part in planning the Communist takeover. According to Nørgaard three Left Socialists, Andresen, Ruus and Jöeäär – who would soon join the CP – also took part. The filling of various posts was discussed and it was probably Säre who suggested Meerits for the post of Prime Minister. Attempts were made to get Meerits to return to Estonia, where nobody knew of his now legal status in Sweden, but by means of various ploys he managed to avoid going back. By this time the Swedish police were censoring all communications from abroad and all those within the province of Norrbotten, a stronghold of the Swedish CP and the centre of the iron mining region. Meerits telegrammed Andresen to get Säre to meet him at the home of Cay Sundström (3) in Helsinki. The Swedish political police then informed the Finnish political police of the meeting at Sundström’s home though they failed to say that Meerits was travelling under the name of Nilsson and after getting a visa he arrived in Helsinki on 1st July 1940. Nørgaard believes that the fact that the Swedes only told the Finns that ‘Nilsson’ was a CI agent and the general paucity of detail, as evidence that Meerits was meeting Säre on their behalf to find out what was happening in Estonia. Cay Sundström’s house was illegally bugged by the Finnish political police and Nørgaard presents the contents of the written police transcript which, until now, has never been revealed.
The man Nils Nilsson (i.e.Johannes Meerits) arrived at Sundström’s home at 10.30 on 1 July 1940. His appearance is described. The conversation was in Swedish. It was rather general. Meerits did not tell the truth about his situation. Cay Sundström expressed surprise that the Soviet Union did not demand a new government in Finland as part of the peace treaty. He talked of the isolation of the left in the party. The workers did not support the Soviet Union. Mauri Ryömä, another left MP, was in prison. Sundström asked Meerits if he knew Hella Wuolijoki (4), the well-known author of Estonian origin. Meerits replied that he knew her via Moskvin, the CI secretary. (5) Sundström proposed that Meerits visit Wuolijoki. She had been used to put out peace feelers to the Soviet Union through Kollontai in Stockholm. Sundström told him that he was shadowed by the police and that he thought that his phone was bugged. He arranged a code that Meerits should use to find out if Säre had arrived.
The author of the transcript then went on to investigate those on board a flight from Estonia (6). There was only one passenger on the Estonian plane, one Jaan Reeberg (that is to say Karl Säre with a false passport provided by the Estonian government) who went first to the Estonian legation and then carried on to visit Cay Sundström.
Their conversation was mainly in Russian with some German. Reeberg said that he was on a diplomatic mission to meet an ‘illegalist’ who was coming from Stockholm, whose journey to Estonia he had to organise. He began to tell Sundström what was happening in Estonia.
The report on Reeberg’s account continued
Nørgaard points out that the head of the political police, Tuulse, ordered the destruction of the archives and then he and his wife killed themselves with poison.
The report continues
Reeberg gave away other secrets and the report says,
After recording the whole of the conversation between Reeberg (or rather Säre) and Cay Sundström, the political policeman followed Reeberg into the town where, by chance, he met Nils Nilsson (e.g. Meerits) in the street and they then went to a restaurant but he could not hear what they talked about. Nørgaard reminds us that, as he later records in his book, some fourteen months later, Säre would be interviewed by the Finnish police when he was in Gestapo hands and he told them of what he had talked about with Meerits. It concerned his candidacy in the coming elections and, after his certain success, a top post for him. He proposed that they visit the Estonian Embassy that very day and apply for a passport but Meerits made excuses to avoid doing so. Säre said that he had offered Meerits the post of First Secretary of the Estonian CP, a post that he himself had turned down to give to his senior. Meerits proposed one of the released CPers, Alexander Resev. Säre did not then confess to offering Meerits the post of Prime Minister. Nørgaard says that Estonian CP sources admit this and, in a letter from Nigol Andresen to Karotamm, the then (1943) first secretary of the CP, it reveals that the offer had been made with Zhdanov’s agreement. When interviewed by Copenhagen police in 1942 Säre said that he and Meerits also discussed the murder of Eltermann. (Nørgaard guesses that it was bothering them as to whether he had really been a traitor and whether they would be found out. Wakepea, the other participant, had not been heard of since he went to Spain and had presumably fallen in battle.)
The meeting at Sundström’s home on the 2nd July 1940 was also bugged. Sundström proposed that the Soviet Union put pressure on Finland to establish a leftist government and mentioned which forces would support it. He offered to channel post from the Comintern to the Scandinavian CPs and discussed the Aaland Islands which were claimed by the Soviet Union. After Sundström left the conversation was in Estonian which the policeman did not understand though it is related to Finnish. Upon leaving Sundström’s place Säre and Meerits were arrested. Presumably this was a way of stopping Meerits from going to Estonia and something of which he approved. Säre, on a diplomatic passport, could return to Estonia. Upon returning to Stockholm Meerits went into hiding. Envoys were sent to Sweden to fetch him and threats made too but the Swedes and Finns said that they could not find him. Swedish intelligence had him hidden away. In Estonia and apparently in the Soviet Union he was still regarded as an asset. The day Karl Säre was arrested at his secret address – he was supposed to organise a partisan movement behind German lines – Meerits had visited Helsinki. Nørgaard wonders if he fingered Säre to the Germans through the Finns though this sounds outrageous.
The Estonian elections took place on the 14-15 July 1940. Nørgaard describes how the swindle was organised. On the 17th July it was announced the League of the Working People, a CP front, had won and workers’ demonstrations were arranged in Tallin calling for Estonia to become part of the Soviet union (though this had not been mentioned by anyone during the election.) On the 21st July Parliament requested unity. On the 6th August it became the 16th Republic of the Soviet Union. The same thing occurred in Latvia and Lithuania which joined the Soviet Union on the fifth and third of August 1940 respectively. Like the elections, it was all done without regard for the constitution or the law. Nørgaard the describes what occurred in Estonia which included mass deportations. Karl Säre became first secretary of the Estonian CP on 28th August 1940 and, together with Johannes Lauristin, president of the Council of Peoples Commissars, signed the mass of new laws patterned on the Soviet ones. CP membership went from 1,344 in early September 1940 to 3,732 in June 1941.
On the 22nd June 1941, 29 German divisions attacked the Baltic States on their way to Leningrad. Tallin was taken on the 28th August. Karl Säre was captured on the 3rd September. Communist and Jews were liquidated. Säre was removed to Sachsenhausen concentration camp and to its ‘prison within the prison’ where prominent prisoners were held such as Captain Best (10), the British spy captured at Venlo, and later the DKP leader Aksel Larsen who survived to describe it. Later in 1941 or early 1942, Säre told the Gestapo about the murder near Copenhagen in a desperate attempt to survive by being transferred to Denmark and tried under Danish law where he hoped to be gaoled.
The trial took place in Copenhagen and Meerits was delivered up by the Swedes. Säre gave evidence after being coached by the Gestapo. He had no defence. Throughout, the trial was dubious under Danish law. After agreeing Meerits met with the Gestapo and changed his statement to be more in line with Säre’s. Säre was kept in Gestapo hands throughout and after the verdict was never seen again. Nørgaard has found no trace of him after that. Meerits later changed his story a number of times and obviously implicated Danish CPers to please the Gestapo. When the political prisoners escaped from gaol – Richard Jensen among them – on 21st September 1944, Meerits stayed behind though why is unclear. Upon the liberation of Denmark Meerits made a new statement saying that no murder had occurred and his case was re-investigated but he was found guilty though his sentence was reduced to fourteen years. He appealed but decided to be exchanged for a Dane gaoled in the Soviet Union. He was handed over on the 14th March 1949 and executed on the 1st March 1952 for spying.
1. Mändene fra Estland (The Men from Estonia) by Erik Nørgaard, Holkenfeldts Forlag, Copenhagen 1990.
2. This murder was admitted by Säre when in the hands of the Gestapo after the German attack on the Soviet Union as a way to save his life by getting sentenced in Denmark. It is investigated in great detail by Nørgaard in Mordet in Kongelunden, Holkenfeldt, Copenhagen 1991. The Nazis gave the case great publicity in order to paint the Comintern as a terrorist centre and a number of Danes who had housed and looked after the Estonians were accused so as to give an even worse impression though they had not taken part in the murder and it would have unpleasant consequences for them. After the war Meerits claimed that no murder had ever taken place – no remains were ever found – and that it had been a cover story to hide arms shipments to Estonia.
3. Sundström was a Finnish left-wing socialist and pro-Communist, one of the seven MPs that the Finnish authorities were trying to gaol for treason as the CP had been illegal since the Civil War of 1918.
4. She is the sister to Palme-Dutt’s Estonian wife Salme Pekkala who married Dutt after divorcing Pekkala. She supposedly met Dutt when on CI business in England when she was said to be carrying jewels to help build the CP. Wuolijoki was charged with spying and sentenced to death in Finland when a Soviet spy was exposed as living at her farm. The death penalty was demanded but after intervention on her behalf it was reduced to life imprisonment. However after the war when political prisoners were released she became Director-General of Finnish Radio. She had been a close friend of Moskvin-Trillisser, a leading Bolshevik in Helsinki before 1917.
5. Moskvin-Trillisser was a GPU boss as well.
6. Nørgaard states that the normal service no longer operated after a plane was shot down by Soviet fighters on 14 June 1940.
7. Jaan Tönisson was for a long time a prominent Estonian opposition politician but he was not allowed to stand in the rigged elections as his programme was ‘in conflict with the interests of the people’. Note by EN.
8. The Rifle Corps was a sort of reserve force. Note by Mike Jones.
9. Mändene fra Estland, pp116-120.
10. Incidentally Best got on very well in Sachsenhausen, he praised his treatment and Himmler visited him. It sounds almost like collaboration while Nørgaard hints at this.
Updated by ETOL: 31.10.2003