The Soviet Union was a home that didn’t feel like a home. Actually, it felt like hell.
“Throw off the yoke of imperialism!” That was the USSR’s pitch, and it sounded great. But many countries who would eventually become Soviet socialist republics and satellites weren’t there because they wanted to be.
In 1940 Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia learned the hard way that you don’t say no to the Soviet Union. Unwillingly they became part of Russia’s big, effed up family.
That house was falling apart, that much everyone knew. Things were always broken: appliances, electronics, and lights would cut in and out without reason, and there had been one too many accidents involving the staircases. But despite the deterioration, water damage, and mold, they tried to hold on to it. It was all they had.
Ukraine stood beside the grimy bathtub and cranked its rusty knobs as cold nipped at his bare skin. A short sputter of brownish water shot out, startling him. After more fruitless cranking, he sighed and slipped into a robe.
“Hey!” He shouted down the hallway after peeking his head out. “Wasn’t someone supposed to be fixing the pipes today?” No response. “Hello? Anyone? The pipes are—” He heard a sudden groan to his right.
“It was me,” Estonia admitted sheepishly. “I was supposed to be on pipe duty, but things kept coming up.”
Ukraine nodded. “I understand, but the showers… they’ve been out for days. And you know that Russia takes the chore wheel very seriously.”
Estonia stomped his foot in frustration. “Aw, typical Estonia! Can’t do anything right!”
“That’s not what I meant!”
“Oh my gosh, Ukraine!” Latvia had suddenly and almost impossibly appeared right behind Estonia. “Please stop yelling at him. He’s trying his best.”
“I wasn’t yelling.”
Estonia whispered, “Please stop yelling at me.”
Ukraine stared at them incredulously. “Could you just fix the pipes? Please?”
“Yeah, you’re right. I’ll get to it. Sorry.”
“There’s no need to apologize—”
Latvia chimed in again. “Will you please let him apologize!”
Ukraine said nothing more of it and Estonia went off to fetch the tools. He and Latvia moved toward opposite ends of the hallway, but then she stopped and turned around.
“Oh, Ukraine? Hey, um, you haven’t seen Lithuania lately, have you?”
“I haven’t, sorry. Maybe Russia has.” He frowned sympathetically. “She pushes him around a lot, doesn’t she? Poor guy. I’d hate to ever be in that position.”
Russia sat across from Lithuania in her private study. Behind her was a crackling fire and Belarus begrudgingly giving her a shoulder massage.
Lithuania watched with hardened eyes and for a second wished he were Russia—basking in the privilege of being the heart of the most powerful empire in the world. But then he realized what he was thinking and a bought of self-loathing overcame him.
“Russia,” he began, steadying his mind, “how long do you think this can last?”
“How long can what last?” She asked, paying more attention to her shot glass than to her fellow socialist. Then her eyes lit up. “Oh, Lithuania, are you here once again to tell me that you’re unhappy? To cry wolf by pretending that you want to leave?”
“You think I’m pretending?”
“The threat is real this time?” She sighed dramatically. “Oh, please don’t go! Whatever will my empire do without you, Lithuania? I’d be too heartbroken to go on.”
He grit his teeth. “You should take me seriously. I deserve as much.”
Russia smiled and shook her head. “Is that right?” She downed the shot of vodka then immediately grabbed another from the end table. But instead of drink, she swished the clear liquid around in her glass. “You don’t really deserve anything. I—Belarus!” Russian shouted suddenly. “Did I tell you that you could stop?” Rolling her eyes, Belarus continued tending to tight muscles and Russia returned her attention to Lithuania.
“Your entrance into the Soviet Union was a gift,” She explained. “Without us, you’d have been ravaged by the Nazis. Then the remaining scraps of your dignity and identity would have been eaten up by the greedy West.”
Was the forceful military occupation a gift? Were the dead bodies of Lithuanians who tried to fight off the Soviet intrusion a gift? Was it a gift when Stalin called for the mass deportations of tens of thousands of innocent people who would die before they could ever see home again? And the way Russia had helped herself to the Baltic countries’ “scraps?” That must have been a gift too.
He wanted to say those things, but he knew it wouldn’t matter. Like all powerful countries, Russia would find a way to justify her every decision. War might be written by the victor, but so was morality.
Instead, Lithuania shook his head and got up to leave. “Russia, I believe that the West is the the lesser of two evils.”
“Lithuania!” She called, stopping him in the doorway. “You know that you are capable of leaving this union whenever you want. Why haven’t you, then? Is it because you know that I’m right?” His jaw tightened and his lips formed a tight frown. Russia saw this and grinned. “Oooh, that’s it, isn’t it? You know that you need me to shield you from this harsh world.”
“Russia, I appreciate your sincere concern, but you don’t need to lecture me about harsh worlds.” He slammed the door behind him.
Latvia’s arms were still soapy from washing dishes when she threw them around her friend. “I thought maybe Russia had eaten you or something.”
“Does she do that to people?”
“I’m sure of it.”
Lithuania smiled as Latvia pulled away. “Don’t worry about her. ‘Russia aint shit.'”
The other squinted at him. “What did you just say?”
Lithuania rolled up his sleeves and began helping with the dishes, just as the chore wheel demanded. “It just means that we shouldn’t worry about Russia. It’s something that America says.”
Latvia gasped. “You can’t say that name in this house! You might conjure the demonic spirits of capitalism and they’ll… they’ll spur us toward the evilness of self-interest!”
“Self-interest? God forbid.”
After sharing a laugh they fell into silence. She’d lather and rinse the dishes then hand them off for him to dry and put away. They were just growing accustomed to the quiet when a voice behind them shouted, “All finished!”
They both jumped. A plate fell crashing to the ground and broken shards glided across the kitchen floor.
“Oh my fff—!” Latvia cried.
Estonia stared at the floor in horror. “Oh, no! I’ve done it again!” Immediately he and Latvia bent down to gather up the pieces. “But on the bright side, I fixed the pipes in the bathrooms. We can all enjoy a semi-warm shower now.”
“Mind fixing the dishwasher while you’re at it?” Lithuania asked.
“What am I now? The plummer? The Tool Boy?”
Lithuania shrugged. “You are wearing the tool belt.”
“Dang. You’re right.”
“Hey, hey,” Latvia said as she stood. “Now that we’re all here, there’s something I wanted to talk about something. It’s, um… it’s kind of serious.”
Lithuania slid a stack of bowls into the cabinet and turned to her. “What is it?”
“Well, I… I can’t live like this anymore.”
Lithuania softened. “Latvia…”
“You can’t either, can you?” She asked firmly. “Right? We didn’t choose this. People have suffered and died because of an ideology that was forced on us. It’s wrong! We’ve been demanding independence from the Soviet Union since they first took it away. So then why did we stop fighting for it?”
The other two could feel the pain in her voice, but they also felt the embers of defiance. Latvia may be tired, cornered, and abused, but trumping all of that was fervid determination.
“Because we already tried fighting our way out of this before,” Estonia said, unable mirror Latvia’s enthusiasm. “It didn’t work.”
Latvia stared down at the shattered pieces of ceramic in her cupped hands. “No, no, it’s different now… We don’t have to defeat the Soviet Union. We don’t even have to fight it. We just need to break it.”
Lithuania asked, “But how?”
“If we leave, others might too,” she said, tone becoming hurried, anxious. “If everyone’s gone, it’ll be over, right? It’ll all be over! This—this thing that’s happening, ‘glasnost?’ It’s crippling Soviet control. This is the best chance we have.”
She set the pieces of plate on the counter so she could take her friends’ hands. They felt a firm squeeze. “If we’re going to do something,” she said, “we need to do it now.”
The other two exchanged glances and saw in each other the same thing they saw in Latvia’s misty eyes. There was fear, but even stronger was the burning ache for liberation.
The three of them understood what they had to do. At the same time, they knew their sense of fellowship would distance them from the others in the union. It was a rift they could feel. In that moment, all they had were each other. Drawing near, they huddled together in that cold, broken kitchen.
“Alright,” Lithuania answered. “We will.”
Song to consider: True Colors by Kesha
1. Glasnost and perestroika were policies introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev. Translated to “openness” and “restructuring,” these were initiatives to loosen Soviet control on the republics and overhaul the economic system, respectively. Glasnost gave the republics an opening to start nationalist movements and demand independence.
2. As you finish reading this, please keep in mind that these stories are based on real life. The USSR’s involvement in the Baltic states is not a light topic. You can read more about it here. Summary: The Soviet Union pointed its guns at them and said, “Hey let our military forcefully enter your countries and set up pro-Soviet governments and by the way we don’t take no for an answer, thanks.” The Baltic states didn’t have the power to say no. It wasn’t until 1991 that they finally declared independence.
That’s why I wanted to write this. It wasn’t just the US and its allies that that ended the Cold War. The Soviet socialist republics who stood up and demanded independence played a significant role in burying the Soviet Union.
3. Belarus would have been called “Byelorussia” during the time this story takes place. However, that might have confused readers so I decided to go with the more familiar name.