Una Bergmane, Politics of Uncertainty: The United States, the Baltic Question, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union. Oxford University Press, New York, 2023

In her Politics of Uncertainty, Helsinki University researcher Una Bergmane presents a careful and thoroughgoing study on the struggle of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for independence during the Perestroika period. Embracing a chronological approach, the author starts by overviewing the historical development of the Baltic territories; the occurrence of the Baltic problem in 1940, when those states were forcibly annexed by the USSR; and the activities of a strong Baltic diaspora in the West during the Cold War. Next, Bergmane examines how in 1987-1989 the Baltic authorities and civic movements, using the opportunities offered by Gorbachev’s democratisation policy, were balancing between Soviet political groups in their careful attempt to gain a wider autonomy. Then the study proceeds to the internationalisation of the Baltic question in 1989-1990 as an endeavour the Baltic independence movements to get the West to help them ensure a full independence from the USSR. The last two chapters discuss the events surrounding Lithuania’s declaration of independence in 1990; the 1991 Soviet military backlash in Latvia and Lithuania and the subsequent toughening of the Western backing of the Baltic case and, finally, the Baltic states’ acquisition of independence thanks to the USSR’s weakening after the 1991 August putsch.

The author herself repeatedly argues that the principal innovative feature of her research approach is the consideration of the Baltics’ quest for independence as an interplay of the three main actors involved in that process, namely the Baltic states themselves (in particular, their communist parties and independence movements), the West (embodied by the US and its European allies) and the Soviet Union (specifically, the Kremlin as well as the liberal and conservative circles of the Soviet political establishment). Essentially, Bergmane succeeded in maintaining a balance between these actors and demonstrating that each of them was not a monolithic, static and uniform, but a dynamic and buzzing community. This research strategy brings Bergmane to some conclusions that many readers—especially those not specializing in the Baltic states—may deem surprising. For instance, Bergmane persuasively demonstrates that it was mostly not for the will of the Soviet and US executive authorities, but for pressure coming from those countries’ secondary organs, pressure groups and smaller US allies that the key decisions favouring the Baltic states’ independence were made. Those readers, who intuitively regard Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as nearly identical, may be impressed by the special attention the author pays to dissimilarities in their historical development, which eventually translated into distinctive independence-achievement strategies during the Perestroika period.

The study is commendably unbiased. While the general tone of Bergmane’s presentation is somewhat supportive of the Baltic states’ desire for independence, she is circumspect when depicting the different, even contrasting, sides of historical events. For example, she notes some positive aspects of the Soviet rule in the Baltics, such as the fact that Moscow stimulated the artistic and creative activities of their national intelligentsia after the death of Stalin, eventually helping those countries preserve their identities under the Soviet regime.

Importantly, Bergmane analyses the Baltic question in the then international context and visàvis other core international issues of that period. She convincingly shows the minor role the Baltic question was playing throughout most of the Perestroika period for the USSR, the US as well as the biggest Western European countries—while Scandinavian and Central European states, contrariwise, attached greater importance to this issue. For the world powers, the Baltics’ struggle for independence was a process of constant indecisions, miscalculations, equivocations, distrusts, tough choices and overdue decisions. Politics of Uncertainty provides a powerful reminder that big historical developments often happen thanks to small actors and domestic groups rather than influential world leaders—albeit posterior public perception may suggest otherwise.

The potential applicability of Politics of Uncertainty far surpasses the narrow historical period it researches. While dedicating her analysis to the Baltic countries specifically, the author gives useful remarks on some debatable issues concerning Perestroika, its limitations and inconsistencies. Furthermore, the book can be a useful data source for international relations scholars working on small states’ strategies and the role of various governmental organs and interest groups in foreign policy decision making. On the latter point, interestingly, within one book we see the very diverse cases of the authoritarian Soviet Union, the democratic United States and the three small nascent Baltic republics. Also, the book touches upon the questions of diaspora politics, interstate trust, the interplay of values and realpolitik in the policies of Western democracies as well as foreign policy uncertainty. The latter, as Bergmane conclusively proves, may easily spring not only from a shortage, but especially from an oversupply of information.

Scholars principally interested in present-day politics may get perplexed by some of the facts and conclusions drawn by Bergmane. Indeed, the high significance the European countries attributed to the OSCE, the little support the Soviet conservatives enjoyed among the Baltic Russians, the fact that the most and main backing the Baltics independence advocates received was from Russian liberals and not from the West could be surprising against the backdrop of today’s political realities. Many of the phenomena described in Politics of Uncertainty appear topical if set against the current Russo-Ukrainian confrontation that began in 2014. On both Ukraine’s and the Baltics’ side, we see active endeavours to engage the West in the resolution of the problems they had with the Kremlin; a subsequent disappointment with the West for a perceive lack of support; a recurrent emphasis on their own “Westernness” they placed attempting to dismantle their own image in the West as too extreme and intransigent. On the Western side, we observe the perception of those countries as historically “belonging” to Russia (which is viewed as somewhat a justification of Moscow’s aggressive actions) and the conception of those countries’ requests as important morally, but not worth risking a full-blown destabilisation. In Ukraine, like the Baltic case, the West’s red line for the Kremlin was a use of force: the West tolerated—if not in word, but in deed—the relatively peaceful annexation of Crimea in 2014 but showed an extraordinarily strong reaction in 2022 after Putin’s all-out invasion of Ukraine.

Despite certainly being a well-researched book, Politics of Uncertainty still has some weaknesses. Some of them, nevertheless, do not hinge on the author: for instance, the study would have significantly benefited if the pertinent Soviet governmental documents of the Perestroika era were declassified. Other drawbacks, however, stem from the author’s approach. First, when discussing the political groups of the Baltic states, Bergmane pays strikingly scant heed to the movements opposing those states’ independence. Their origin and activities are explained only cursorily and even their leaders’ names are not mentioned in the book. What is accounted for rather vaguely is whether those groups represented people’s genuine initiative or their actions were predominantly orchestrated from the Kremlin. Their attitude to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact also remains unclear. The author alludes to a generational divide between the Baltic communists (with their younger generation generally more benevolent towards Perestroika) but does not say if there were any ethnic Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians desiring to remain in the USSR.

Second, while explaining the Western attitude to the happenings in the Baltics, the author primarily focuses on the stance of the US. This is perfectly understandable given that country’s leading position during the Cold War, yet, Bergmane almost completely leaves out the European states’ standpoints to the Baltic issue in the period anterior to Perestroika. The author minutely expounds the reasons for the non-recognition of the Soviet annexation of the Baltics by the US, whereas about the European countries she solely asserts that some of them recognised it (and that among these was Sweden) and others did not. The reasoning behind the former and the latter approaches remains nebulous. Likewise, Bergmane thoroughly scrutinises the US Congress’ insistence of the continuation of the non-recognition policy in the pre-Perestroika period and the role of the Baltic diasporas in it, whereas she says nothing about whether there was a similar pressure in the European states. This seems rather odd since even a quick search helps one find numerous materials related to the condemnation of the illegal Soviet annexation of the Baltics issued by the state organs of several European countries as well as by the European Parliament in the Cold War period.

Yet, even I referred to these points as weaknesses, they may indeed enfeeble the coherence and proportionality of the author’s argumentation, but not at the major points of discussion. Concerning the topic stated in the book’s title, Bergmane managed to develop it masterfully, in an impartial and balanced manner, disclosing many useful details while keeping a good eye to the broader context. Her findings can be used in a wide range of future studies and are relevant in the current political situation.

Artem Patalakh