It is ironic that on September 17, 1939, the day that the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland, the Polish submarine "Orzel", which had been falsely accused of sinking a Soviet steamer, left Tallinn harbour. Because the Estonians did not prevent this departure, the Soviets accused the Estonians of not being able to provide proper security for Soviet interests, and thus they began to patrol Estonian coastal waters and airspace while demanding bases for its military.
On September 24, with 160,00 Soviet troops on the border, Molotov delivered an ultimatum to the Estonian government. Under duress on September 28, the Estonian cabinet agreed to a Mutual Assistance Pact with the Soviets giving up naval, air and army bases for 25,000 troops.
Although the new Estonian government claimed to be independent, as stated in the New York Times, "Estonia had been reduced to a kind of protectorate".
The Soviets exceeded their agreed-upon troop limits in October 1939 in Estonia, but full Sovietization was not yet implemented. Soviet attention at this time was focused on the subjugation of the population of eastern Poland and on territory acquisition from Finland.
The calling home of Baltic German citizens in the autumn of 1939 was a bad omen for Estonia, (and also Latvia and Lithuania). For a half year there existed an uneasy anticipation of impending doom amongst the Baltic peoples, although there was also hope that further German geopolitical moves could possibly save the Baltic countries from Soviet domination.
The Soviets did not move to fully subjugate the Baltic countries until after peace with Finland was signed, and the Nazis had defeated France in June 1940.
To lead in the subjugation of the Estonians, Stalin employed Andrei Zhdanov, a trusted executioner of the Great Terror and Politburo representative. In Estonia, Zhdanov created a "spontaneous uprising" of the working people on June 21, using Russian workers.
Next the Soviets attempted to place legitimacy on their annexation of the three Baltic countries.
In each of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, a Working People's League was established, the same program was introduced, and elections were scheduled on July 14 and 15 under the watchful eye of the Soviet military.
The unopposed candidates who were elected then formed the new Estonian government. On July 21, 1940, with the Soviet military inside the parliament, the new government declared Estonia a Soviet Republic, asked to join the Soviet Union, gave the state control over all land, and nationalized all key business enterprises. All three Baltic countries were incorporated into the Soviet Union in the first week of August with identically worded resolutions.
There had been a definite, consistent pattern for the taking of control of the Baltic countries that had been created, guided by and protected by Moscow.
With people aware of the aims and methods of the Soviet communists there was fear and apprehension as to what would happen next.
Campaign of terror
The Soviet campaign of terror, which had brutalized Poland, would now be unleashed on the Baltic countries to destroy the existing order and create compliant societies. First, former leading government and military leaders, such as President Päts, General Laidoner and Foreign Minister Tõnisson, were arrested and killed or deported to fates unknown. Then just as in Poland, all people who had participated in nationalistic organizations or had been involved in anti communist activities became candidates for arrest.
In total, over 2000 people were executed in this first year of Soviet occupation. Deportations were also initiated in August 1940, and in total 19,000 people were taken. Over one half of these deportations occurred in the night of June 14, 1941.
These killings and deportations were not haphazard, uncontrollable occurrences, but were rather part of a specific action, planned prior to the June 1940 Sovietization program. A secret NKVD manual issued in Moscow in 1939, documented categories of "enemies of the people", and required registration, surveillance and preparation for arrest and deportation for these people. These twenty two identified categories included; social revolutionaries, anti communists of many stripes, policemen, frontier guards, public officials, clergy, Home Guard members, etc.
The goal of the Soviets in this action was to eliminate patriotic elements from the population, break the will for resistance, and weaken the nation physically. The arrests, torture and murders were similar to the atrocities committed against the people of eastern Poland. People were locked into tight spaces, kept awake for long periods, beaten, tortured and often murdered and thrown into mass graves. People sentenced to slave labour camps were transported in cattle cars to the sub arctic regions of Soviet Russia or Siberia. Many of the women and children who were never arrested but merely "banished" to work camps, also died in the winters of 1941 and 1942.
When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Soviets quickly mobilized 33,000 Estonian men (as well as the 5,5000 members of the Estonian regular army) and hoped to use them as an Estonian Rifle Corps. Due to many defections to the Germans, they were not reliable, so most men were sent to slave labour camps in the interior USSR where they perished.
As in Poland, the Soviets paid particular attention to revamping the education system. Private schools were abolished, Marxist-Leninist doctrine was taught, religion was abolished and Russian became mandatory. Publishing houses were nationalized, and over 70,000 books on theology were destroyed.
During the one year of Soviet occupation, it is estimated that 60,000 people, or 5% of Estonia's pre war population of 1.13 million either perished or vanished. These casualties included most of the political, military, and spiritual leaders, of independent Estonia. Of these victims, almost ten thousand were children or minors.