​​Musings on How Baltic Breakaway
Led to Soviet Breakup


The obelisk and the surrounding area in Riga, the capital of Latvia, as seen by the author on the morning of July 28, 2009. 

July 28, 2009—Tuesday

As I was sitting at the Moscow international airport, waiting for the announcement of my flight, another thought began to bother me: “My three-day stay at the hostel in Riga begins only tomorrow. What if the hostel is fully booked for tonight? I will be wandering around in a strange city, looking for a place to stay tonight.”

I had similar frustrating experiences before, in other cities. How to contact the hostel in Riga to explain my situation to them? I didn’t have the type of cell phone most international travelers carry these days—the type that one can use in most parts of the world. Using a pay phone at the airport and charging the call to one of my credit cards wouldn’t be as easy as it is in other big cities. Unless, of course, you know Russian. I had gone through that frustration, too, during my brief stay in Moscow.
When I looked around the waiting area, I saw a young woman who had just finished talking with someone on her cell phone. I approached her and explained my situation. “Could I use your phone to call Riga?” I asked her. “And I don’t mean to offend you when I say this: I would like to pay for it.”
“Don’t worry about paying,” she said. “The battery may die any moment. I got the low-battery alert when I was talking. You can use it as long as the battery lasts.” She handed me her phone.
After a couple of minutes’ talk with someone at the hostel in Riga, I handed the phone back to her and said, “I don’t know whether the woman who came on the line understood anything I said. To everything I said, her answer was yes, not a word more. Thank you very much for your help. By the way, you speak good English.”
She laughed and brushed aside my compliment. Then she asked to see the address of the Riga hostel I had just contacted. “Oh, this is close to the city bus station,” she said. “Don’t even take a taxi. There are buses from the airport every few minutes. You will be at the bus station in half an hour or so. A few minutes’ walk from there, and you are at this hostel. Don’t worry. Even if you are lost, Riga is a safe place to wander around.”
“You make me feel good,” I told her. “I am not nervous anymore.” I sat by her side and continued the conversation.
She was a Latvian, from Riga, doing her master’s at the London School of Economics. “So, I have to speak good English,” she said with a smile, alluding to my earlier remark about her English. She was on her summer break. After spending a few days with her friends in Moscow, she was “now on my way home. My parents are anxiously waiting for me. I will be back in London in early September.”
I was enjoying the conversation when an announcement on the PA system interrupted it. “They are asking us to board,” she said.
On hearing the announcement, a young man came out of the nearby toilet. He rushed toward her and said, “Sorry, darling, it took long.”
“This is my boyfriend,” she said. “Enjoy your stay in Riga.” Both of them walked toward the boarding gate.
I was a little disappointed. I had been hoping to change my seat on the flight so I could sit next to her and continue chatting. Surmising that she and her boyfriend were in their early courting stage, I decided to leave them alone and stood in line, several feet away from them.
The Riga airport is small. It was not at all crowded at the early morning hour we arrived. It looked as though ours was the only flight that arrived at that time. At the baggage-claiming area, I once again ran into the young couple.
“Here we go again,” the woman said.
As we came out of the airport, she pointed at a bus stop a few yards away and said, “That’s where you get your bus. My parents are picking us up. We are going in a different direction. Otherwise, I would have requested my parents to drop you off.”
“Don’t worry,” I told her. “You have already helped me a lot.” I paused for a moment and continued, “I pass through London now and then. If you are comfortable about it, let’s exchange our email addresses. I will look up for you when I am in London next.”
“With pleasure,” she said. In addition to her email address, she also wrote down a telephone number and said, “This is my parents’ phone number. If you need any help while in Riga, give us a call.”
This time, she didn’t just walk away. She gave me a hug. Her boyfriend shook hands with me.
“You made my day,” I told them and then walked toward the bus stop.
Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
The bus ride from the airport was very pleasant. Latvia is a sparsely populated country—fewer than 2.2 million people are spread over an area of 24,938 square miles. For a person who lived most of his life in two crowded cities (Mumbai and New York), the morning ride through the almost-empty Latvian streets was an entirely different experience. During the short ride, I recalled some historical facts about Latvia and the other two Baltic States, Estonia and Lithuania.
The first time the three counties aroused my interest was when I heard about the secret protocols to the famous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, concluded on August 23, 1939, between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The pact—named after the two foreign ministers who signed it, Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov of the Soviet Union and Joachim von Ribbentrop of Germany—was known to the rest of the world as a treaty of nonaggression between the two countries.
The rest of the world did not know, nor did it bother to find out at the time, that there were secret protocols appended to the pact. It was these protocols that virtually divided Eastern Europe into Soviet and German spheres of influence. The three Baltic States and Finland fell into the Soviet sphere. After the outbreak of World War II, on September 1, 1939, the Soviet Union annexed the Baltic States. In 1940, they were reorganized as Soviet republics.
The initial Soviet occupation of the Baltic States lasted less than two years. On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany, in violation of the nonaggression pact, launched Operation Barbarossa. Its goal was to annihilate the Soviet Union. As part of the operation, the Nazis occupied the Baltic States. Initially, the Balts welcomed the Nazis as liberators from Soviet tyranny. But before long, they found out the true color of the Nazis. Their occupation was notorious for discrimination against Jews, mass deportations, and killings. After Germany’s defeat in World War II, the Soviet Union reoccupied the Baltic States. From 1945 all the way until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, they remained three of the 15 Soviet republics.
The fact that there were secret protocols to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had come to light soon after World War II. But until 1989, the Soviet Union persistently denied their existence. On August 23, 1989, on the 50th anniversary of the pact, approximately two million people from the three Baltic States held a demonstration protesting against their illegal occupation by the Soviet Union. They formed a human chain, called “The Baltic Chain,” across the 370-mile stretch of Baltic territories bordering the Soviet Union. When their demand for independence intensified, Mikhail Gorbachev, the head of the Soviet Union at the time, set up a commission to thoroughly study the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The goal was to find out whether any protocols, in pursuance of which the Soviet Union annexed the Baltic States, existed in the pact.
The commission concluded that they did, and it submitted a report to that effect in early December 1989. On December 24, the first democratically elected Congress of Soviets passed a “declaration admitting the existence of the secret protocols, condemning and denouncing them.” The Federal Republic of Germany had made a similar declaration on September 1, 1989.
Those declarations paved the way for the Baltic States' independence from the Soviet Union. On March 11, 1990, Lithuania became the first of the three to proclaim its independence. Estonia followed suit on August 20, 1991, and Latvia the next day.
As was expected, the three states’ unilateral declaration of independence met with angry reaction from the Soviet Union. Gorbachev retaliated by cutting off Soviet gas supplies to them. The dispute over gas supplies was resolved later, but there was no going back on the Baltic States’ decision to break away from the Soviet Union. It was the Baltic breakaway that initiated the process of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
The process was completed on December 31, 1991, by which time all the fifteen Soviet republics had become independent. The Soviet Union—or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, as it was officially called—was no more.
My mental journey through the events in Baltic history that became instrumental in the breakup of the Soviet Union came to an end as I arrived at the Riga bus station.
Arrival in Riga
The lady who welcomed me to the Riga hostel was an ethnic Russian. A pleasant person, she hardly spoke any English. I immediately knew that she was the one who spoke with me when I called the hostel from the Moscow airport. She said something in Russian, which a student from St. Petersburg (who was staying at the hostel) translated for me into flawless English. The student—an attractive woman, maybe in her late teens or early twenties—said that the lady was apologizing for her inability to speak English. “She teaches Russian at a high school here,” the student added. “She is the wife of the hostel owner and helps her husband in her free time.”
“No need to apologize,” I told her. “I have already heard her speak two languages: Russian with you and Latvian with a few other guests who just passed by. I don’t know how many other languages she speaks. And how many people in the world speak even two languages the way she does? Moreover, she is very pleasant.”
She gave me a sweet smile when the St. Petersburg student translated to her what I said. She also gave me a special deal. The room I had booked was supposed to be shared by three people. The other two had canceled their booking a few hours earlier. The student explained to me the situation and then added, “She wants me to tell you that if nobody shows up, the whole room is yours.”
“That more than makes up for the small difficulty I experienced while talking with her over the phone this morning,” I told her.
I made inquiries with the student, who knew Riga very well, and with the hostess about some must-see places in the city. When I heard from them that about four hours’ bus ride would take me to either of the two other Baltic countries, I decided to turn the blunder I made in checking out of the hotel in Moscow a day earlier into an advantage. I decided to utilize the extra day I gained in Latvia to visit Estonia. I conveyed to them my decision, adding, “Lithuania will have to wait. Or let me see how I feel about it tomorrow.”
“Enjoy your stay,” the student said.
The hostess also said something, which I thought meant the same.

​​​(Published on September 3, 2017. This is a slightly edited version of Chapter 16 from the author's book, An Indian Goes Around the World – II: What I Learned from My Thirty-Day European Odyssey. The book is available online at amazon.com, xlibris.com and through any Barnes and Noble store. The India edition of the book is available at amazon.in, Flipkart and Pothi.com)

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