Mission accomplished

How do you represent a state that has ceased to exist? As three Baltic nations celebrate their 90th anniversary of statehood, we look back at how six diplomats in London kept the dream of nationhood alive during the long years of the Cold War.

In 1988, there was an unusual diplomatic party in London. His Excellency Vincas Balickas was celebrating an astonishing 50 years of diplomatic service in London. Only, the country he represented had not existed for 48 of them.

This de facto Dean of the diplomatic corps was the chargé d’affaires of the one-man Lithuanian Legation in London. At 84, he was the sole surviving envoy from the three Baltic republics wiped off the map following Stalin’s invasion in 1940.

Refusing to accept the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Britain continued to recognise the diplomats appointed by their pre-war governments throughout the Cold War. All had arrived in London in the 1930s, as representatives of the newly independent Baltic states that had fought for their independence, with the aid of Britain, after the Russian Empire disintegrated.

After the Soviet occupation in 1940, these diplomats continued to be included in the London Diplomatic List, under the heading: “no longer included in the list but still accepted by Her Majesty’s Government as personally enjoying certain diplomatic courtesies”.
The countries they represented were not named and, as the years past, their diplomatic positions became more and more precarious.

The Foreign Office, not wishing to antagonise the Soviets, let it be known that should governments-in-exile be created, Britain would not recognise them and these diplomats would lose their unique status.

August Torma, head of the Estonian mission, and Karlis Zarine, head of the Latvian mission both resisted pressure to create such governments, fearing they would lose the fragile diplomatic recognition they enjoyed.

Ambassador Margus Laidre with a photo of August
Torma who kept Estonian dreams of statehood
alive during the Cold War

But with no government to appoint successors, by 1961 the list was dwindling, containing only six names: August Torma and Ernst Sarepera from Estonia; Charles (Karlis) Zarine and Teodots Ozolins from Latvia; and Bronius Balutis and Vincas Balickas from Lithuania.

Mr Zarine, who was also head of the Latvian diplomatic service-in-exile, died in London two years later in 1963, and was succeeded by Mr Ozolins, who continued to serve his nation until 1981 when he too died. Estonia sadly lost both their long-serving diplomats in the same year in 1971. At the Lithuanian Legation, Mr Balutis died in 1967 and it was left to Vincas Balickas to keep the hopes of statehood alive for Lithuania, and for the other Baltics.

An antique 1930s typewriter and adding machine
used by members of the Lithuanian Legation in exile

And he never wavered from his duty. At his celebratory reception in 1988, the aging

Mr Balickas said: “There are 10,000 Lithuanians living in Britain and they regard me

as their leader. I can never retire. I was entrusted to my post by the Lithuanian Government and I can never be a deserter.”

Even then, in 1988, he was issuing about three Lithuanian passports to Lithuanian sailors every year, all from 1930s stock. How widely accepted they were by immigration officials at other ports is hard to say.

At the age of 84, Mr Balickas probably thought his job would die with him. But revolution was stirring behind the Iron Curtain. A year later, the Berlin Wall was torn down and two years after that, the Soviet Union collapsed. Happily the frail Mr Balickas was able to hand over the keys of the embassy to new diplomats despatched from an Independent Lithuania in 1991 and died two years later in 1993. Job done.

August Torma’s many medals awarded to him from
nations far and wide, as well as medals won during
Estonia’s war of independence in 1918-20