Illegal, Anti-Socialist and Petty Bourgeois: How Maritime Smuggling in the Baltic Undermined the Soviet Economy


  • Tomasz Blusiewicz



In 1945, cross-Baltic commercial links, damaged by World Wars, the Great Depression and protectionism of the preceding decades, appeared broken beyond repair. Long before 1945, the Baltic had already been dismissed as a place where regional economic integration, though perhaps impressive in the sixteenth century, had been steadily declining ever since. The Cold War era ushered in new kinds of barriers that further disintegrated what had once been a common market. By the 1950s, the Baltic‘s role as a shared marketplace, the way it functioned at the zenith of the Hanseatic League, reached a nadir. Amidst the Cold War freeze, signs of grassroots cross-Baltic economic exchange could hardly be spotted. They remain neglected in current historiography as well. During the Cold War, only Matti Männikkö and Klaus Zernack wrote a transnational, region-focused history of the Baltic. In light of access to new sources, the old wisdom needs to be revised, and the issue of unofficial trade in the Baltic during the Cold War should be restored to its proper place in historiography. Black marketeers remain the unsung heroes of a special kind of resistance to the communist economic order. Most scholarly attention has so far been given to the so-called ―commercial tourism‖ on the European continent, with the maritime channels receiving only scant recognition. I argue that it needs to be acknowledged that Soviet Bloc sailors, many of them Baltic-based, were among the pioneers of trans-Iron-Curtain exchange, both legal and illegal. This article is based chiefly on the records of the Soviet secret police and other organs of state repression. It relies mostly on the KGB Archive in Vilnius and the Russian State Economics Archive in Moscow. The first part the article focuses on outlining the evolution of maritime smuggling practices in Lithuanian Klaipeda. The second part sketches an overview of the same phenomena in their most advanced condition, in the early 1980s, both in Klaipeda and across the entire Soviet Baltic. Despite the inherent distortions of such a view, generated by executives of a police state, these Soviet records nonetheless constitute one of the best sources of information about practices that were meant to leave few traces behind.

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