The global crisis experienced by communist totalitarianism, the disintegration of the Soviet Empire and the Eastern Bloc (“the socialist camp”), and the perestroika and glasnost of the reformer Mikhail Gorbachov created an utterly new situation in the occupied Baltic States, fostering fundamental changes. Over the latter half of the 1980s, a mass, nonviolent freedom movement developed in Soviet Estonia against the Soviet occupying regime, culminating in August of 1991 with the restoration of national independence on the basis of the legal continuity of the Republic of Estonia that existed in 1918–1940. The commemoration of historical anniversaries that had until then been banned became the catalyst for the democratic nationalist movement (also known as the “Singing Revolution”).
On 23 August 1987, the opposition’s first legal political demonstration in Soviet Estonia was held “in memory of the victims of fascism and Stalinism” at Hirvepark (Deer Park) in Tallinn, led by the former political prisoner Tiit Madisson and organised by the Estonian Group for Disclosing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (MRP-AEG) that consisted mainly of dissidents. The disclosure of the secret protocols of the agreement between Stalin and Hitler (Moscow denied their existence until 1989), and the condemnation of the crimes of Stalinism were demanded at the demonstration attended by several thousand people. Speeches were given at the demonstration about the destruction of the independence of the Baltic countries, thus raising the question of the legitimacy of Soviet rule. Analogous mass actions took place in Riga and Vilnius.
This kind of event was an unpleasant surprise to the higher powers that be at the local level, but the event could not be prohibited due to glasnost. The Central Committee Bureau headed by First Secretary Karl Vaino, the highest organ of the Estonian Communist Party (ECP), issued an order to the Party’s Tallinn municipal committee before the demonstration took place to organise an ideological counterstrike “against the machinations of hostile forces and the provocations of foreign radio voices”. The municipal committee formed a “brigade of counter-propagandists” consisting of Party members, with the participation of well-known scholars and scientists for the purpose of holding a debate with the dissidents.
Yet the counterstrike against the dissidents planned by the Party leaders flopped because the persons selected to be their opponents either did not appear at the demonstration or did not take the floor there, being at least neutral by their silence or even solidary in relation to the aims of the demonstration’s organisers. Many sympathised with the freedom fighters but did not dare to demonstrate their sentiments publicly in fear of possible repressions and of losing their jobs and benefits (including travel abroad). Discontent had always fermented to a certain extent in artistic associations, universities and research institutions as well as in circles of friends, and glasnost only strengthened such tendencies that were critical of the authorities.
The ECP Central Committee Bureau met on 24 August 1987, chaired by Karl Vaino. Its top secret decision qualified the demonstration, allegedly inspired by centres of subversion abroad, as being “nationalist and anti-Soviet”. The traditional excuse for ideological shortcomings was applied here as well, and thus the demonstration was blamed on weak work in political education. The entire hierarchical machinery of the Communist Party was set to work to neutralise and root out the harmful effect of the meeting in Hirvepark. Assignments for strengthening internationalist education, ensuring the “correct” interpretation of history, and the research of “blank gaps” were distributed profusely in the work plans and instructions of Party organs. The repression and slandering of dissidents continued. The furious and hysterical reaction of the ECP Central Committee kept the theme topical and served as good advertising for the freedom fighters, which even spread abroad, accentuating attention on the Baltic question and drawing foreign journalists to Estonia.
An ECP Central Committee working group for studying the “blank gaps” in the history of the ESSR and the ECP was formed in October of 1987 as an echo of the events at Hirvepark. This working group tried to demonstrate that the “blank gaps” were only a scholarly and academic problem, and not a political and propagandistic problem, which it in fact actually was. A plan was worked out under the auspices of this working group to study questions that had emerged on the agenda and had hitherto been little researched, and to publish materials. The plan included 11 major problems, research orientations and themes from the history of the ESSR and the ECP. Nearly 30 Estonian humanities scholars, primarily historians, were appointed to conduct this research. Regarding the themes set out in the plan, there were hardly any innovations in content in their selection and phrasing. Twentieth century Estonian history was still approached from the viewpoint of the Soviet Empire (Russia), according to which independent Estonia was an anomaly and a secondary object of research. The entire old system had to be demolished in order to bring about actual changes in historical science.
Moscow reacted nervously to the political demonstrations that took place in the Baltic countries, and this is verified by documents from the Gorbachov collection and of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) Central Committee Politburo that have later been disclosed. Central Committee Secretary Yegor Ligachov said at a meeting on 28 September 1987 that “nobody stood up for the defence of the Soviet regime”. The most abrasive, however, was the secret decision taken on 14 December 1987 by the CPSU Central Committee on “Nationalist manifestations in the Baltic union republics”. This directly spelled out that the issue was not the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact but rather the casting of doubt on the legality of the Baltic States belonging to the Soviet Union. Moscow ordered the thorough improvement of “internationalist, patriotic and atheist educational work throughout the population”, to strike a decisive counterblow against nationalist manifestations, and to expose the secret machinations of hostile propaganda abroad.
The increase in interest in history gave rise to a deluge of new publications. The gradual reassessment of Estonian history began in 1987–1988, and the historian Evald Laasi (1931–1993) was one of the pioneers of this movement. In November of 1987, he published an article in the Sirp ja Vasar [Sickle and Hammer] cultural newspaper on the mass deportation by the Soviet regime of inhabitants of Estonia to Siberia in 1941 and 1949 (10,157 and 20,702 people respectively).
The events that took place at Hirvepark are a sign that the Party of the state had started losing control of processes taking place in society and that crisis phenomena were emerging in the organs of power themselves. The following year in 1988, this tendency continually intensified and emerged particularly strikingly during Vaino’s last months in office. The coming to power of Vaino Väljas and other reform-minded functionaries in the summer of 1988 stabilised the situation somewhat and slowed down the inevitable deterioration of the ECP as a subordinate organisation of the CPSU. Yet the immediate restoration of independence seemed to the vast majority of the Estonian people, including intellectuals, to be an unattainable ideal in 1987 and even later. The peaceful and gradual establishment of more extensive autonomy was considered realistic, and it was believed that the abrupt actions of the independence-minded segment of the population, or the “nationalist radicals”, could only hinder this process. It was not until the autumn of 1989 that the mass movement known as the Estonian People’s Front (founded in 1988) adopted as its aim the complete restoration of national independence.