LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 33, No.1 - Spring 1987
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas
Copyright © 1987 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Peggie Benton. Baltic countdown.
Introduction by Edward Crankshaw. London: Centaur Press, 1984. 213 pp. Hard cover. Dust jacket. £8.95.
Peggie Benton was a witness at the execution of Latvian independence. She and her husband were members of the British diplomatic corps in Riga between October 1938 and August 1940. Baltic Countdown is a memoir of that period and of their subsequent journey homeward across Russia, a circuitous trip made necessary by the Axis occupation of Europe.
The title of Benton's memoir suggests that the book might contain a blow by blow account of the weeks preceding and the days immediately surrounding the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States. Reminiscences of this period are not lacking, but most of them have been written by citizens of the countries affected, usually in one of the Baltic languages. Baltic Countdown is different because it is written in English and comes from a third party, an observer who can be presumed to be objective because she had no personal stake in the life or death of the Baltic States.
Unfortunately, Benton's book provides a somewhat disappointing countdown to the Soviet Anschluss with the Baltic States. One learns little about the collapse of Latvian independence that has not been previously chronicled. (There are a few notable exceptions, about which more is provided below.) This leads the reader to conclude that Benton was no better placed than the average observer in Latvia. In fact, in some ways, she appears to have been in a worse position than others. Her narrative betrays a detachment from the local scene that is extreme and even smacks of isolation.
The author admits as much when she says that communication between the British community in Riga and the Latvians was very limited because neither knew the other's language. Symbolic of her quasi isolation is the year 1939, when she spends the summer at the Strand, a beach on the Gulf of Riga within commuting distance from the Latvian capital. The background setting is idyllic, far removed from the tempest swirling through Europe as well as from the mundane realities of life in Riga. The author might as well be at a resort on America's eastern seaboard instead of at the Strand. One learns little about the countdown to the end of Baltic independence during the summer of '39.
It is not just a problem of language that keeps the author from becoming well acquainted with Latvian society and culture. Her attitude toward Latvia seems to have been shaped by previous experiences and by her British heritage. Benton identifies more with the Baltic Germans than she does with the Latvians. Her first exposure to Latvia comes in 1933, when she visits the home of her fiancι, son of a struggling Baltic German landowner. Though the engagement is broken off, the author remains on good terms with her former fiance's parents, whom she and her family visit during her subsequent stay in Latvia.
Benton's occasional references to Baltic Germans as "Baits" may confuse readers accustomed to seeing the term used for denoting the region's eponymous nationalities. For Benton to regard the Germans as Baits, however, seems perfectly natural, for they are the group in Latvia (outside the circle of diplomats) with which she apparently most closely identifies. Observing that "Latvia itself tended to be claustrophobic," Benton finds relief in the company of the Baltic Germans because "the Baits provided a completely different society with a feeling of wider horizons lost, and a nostalgic aura of their dominant past." (p. 35) Perhaps she saw in the Baltic Germans a microcosm of Britannia an imperial power on the wane, a people dispossessed in lands over which they formerly lorded.
It would be unfair to infer from these remarks that Benton disliked the Latvians or even that she was unsympathetic toward them. Though she favored the company of other diplomats and of Baltic Germans, she expressed admiration for much of the Latvia that she did come to know. She observed that the Latvians had a very high standard of literacy and took pains to strengthen their culture by purging the Latvian language of foreign influence. She found Latvia to be prosperous food was plentiful and cheap. Above all, the Latvians were a practical, industrious people with a "passion" for order. This latter quality seems to have impressed her most about the people, for she makes several allusions to it and even confesses to sometimes being "irked by the complacent tidiness" (p. 48) of Latvia.
One may well question the accuracy of the author's observation that the Latvians were complacent on the eve of their state's destruction. This is something that could be assessed only superficially by an outsider lacking a grasp of the natives' language and an in-depth understanding of the local society. Still, even her superficial observations are interesting because they may reflect the image that existed on the water's surface. And some elements of that surface image such as the Latvians' practical nature and tidiness no doubt corresponded to a deeper reality.
Benton's general observations about Latvia and the Baltic region are frequently more interesting than her book's specific theme, which is a reaffirmation of the horrors visited upon the Baltic peoples by the occupation and of their helplessness in dealing with the Soviet hydra. It is an important theme, but one about which others have testified numerous times. For those who know this testimony well, it is rather more intriguing to read how foreigners viewed the Baltic republics of the time. If, in Benton's estimation, the Latvian community placed second to the Baltic Germans, then judging from the author's stay in Kaunas Lithuanian society was a distant third.
Benton and her husband stopped over in Kaunas in December 1938 en route to England for home leave (pp. 24-28). Kaunas did not stand comparison to Riga. The de facto capital of Lithuania was "infinitely drab." The center of the city contained a "few tasteless modern buildings." Benton's hotel room was memorable for its "anachronistic drabness." The British Charge d'Affaires in Kaunas felt isolated and bored, complaining that "there's no one here who can iron a dress shirt properly." For that, he sent his laundry to Riga.
Benton does make an effort to appear evenhanded as she recalls her Kaunas visit. She takes issue with a statement by one Kaunas diplomat that the Baltic States were "solid, stolid and squalid." In summing up her experiences in the Lithuanian capital, she tries to take the edge off her criticism with the diplomatic remark that her stay there "was wonderfully restful." This statement, though, only serves to reinforce the impression that Kaunas was the boondocks.
As mentioned previously, not all of Benton's observations on the storm" Unleashed by the Soviets are pedestrian. The author tracks the course of Sovietization through the changes she sees on the streets of Riga. The Latvian capital is transformed from a spotless showcase to a city where litter collects on streets that are no longer swept, where flowers in parks are no longer tended, where shop windows remain unlit, and where people take pains to wear their oldest clothes in public. Benton succeeds in making the pauperization of Latvia palpable.
Baltic Countdown also contains a wonderful vignette of the new order established by the Soviets. When a pro-Soviet mob at Riga's Town Hall Square becomes unruly and begins to threaten Latvian policemen representatives of the old order a Soviet tank moves in and nonchalantly sprays the crowd with bullets.
Benton dealt with the repercussions of the Soviet occupation in her job at the British Consulate, where she was responsible for issuing visas. The invasion brought a flood of visa applicants, apparently most of them Jewish. Benton observed that Latvian Jews were fearful of Russian anti-Semitism and anxious to escape to Palestine. This is probably the most surprising revelation in her book, for it contradicts the ironclad conviction among a significant number of Baits that the Soviet invasion of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia was facilitated by "Jewish fifth columns" and that the Jewish communities in the three Baltic States welcomed the Red Army with open arms. Benton's observations are important because her work in the British Consulate's Visa Office enabled her to speak with considerable authority on Jewish emigration. Her testimony shows that the issue of Jewish sympathies was rather more complicated than some would like to believe and tends to support those who argue that only a minority of Baltic Jews welcomed the Communist takeover.
In total, Benton devotes 40 pages of Baltic Countdown to her experiences in Soviet-occupied Latvia. She and a small party of British subjects leave Latvia on September 1. On her railroad trip across Russia she comes face to face with what she believes to be one of the byproducts of the Soviet "pacification" of the Baltic region. In Siberia the train in which she is traveling pulls alongside cattle cars jammed full of emaciated people. She speculates that the unfortunate occupants are Baltic workers who, "embittered by the loss of their social rights and the mismanagement of the Communist political appointees in the factories, goaded by an intolerable piecework system, forced into unpunctuality and absenteeism by food shortages and the need to forage for their families, and unimpressed by Communist Party incentives, had taken to a go-slow which was entirely foreign to their natures." (pp. 171, 174)
Her observation is eloquently expressed but her reasoning is not entirely sound. The cattle car scene occurred in September or October 1940, several months after the first wave of deportations hit the Baltic region. Thus if is quite possible that the cattle train Benton and her fellow travelers happened upon contained Baits. However, the author's rationale for the deportations is ill-suited to the events of 1940. In the initial stages of occupation, the Soviets targeted "bourgeois nationalists," not workers. The deportations were not so much a response to opposition to the regime (which is what Benton implies) as they were a device for "cleansing" the new Soviet republics of undesirable elements (in the case of Lithuania, it is believed that the Soviets' plan called for the deportation of one-fourth of the population 700,000 inhabitants) and for striking terror into the hearts of nations already stunned into obedience during the first days of the invasion. Stalin's policy of preemptive terror directed against the Baltic peoples was even more cold-blooded and obscene than Benton imagined as she looked upon the luckless human freight crammed into those cattle cars in Siberia.
There are other relatively minor points in Baltic Countdown with which the reader may feel compelled to take issue. For example, the front of the book's dust jacket contains the title, followed by the subheading "A Nation Vanishes." The Latvian nation has most definitely not vanished, though today it is in some danger of extinction. The Latvian state is what has vanished. And Benton's remark that German was the lingua franca of the Baltic States is of dubious veracity, particularly where Lithuania is concerned.
On balance, however, Benton strives to be accurate and to confine herself to what she knew and recorded in her diary. Though the reader might have hoped for a more insightful examination into the Latvia of 1938-1940, the author's honesty validates her memoir and makes its perusal a worthwhile experience for those wanting to better understand the period and the place in question.
Victor A. Nakas