Small Wars Journal

Insurgency as Cultural Production

Share this Post

Editor's Note:  Alex Verschoor-Kirss provides us with an illuminating and little-known case of insurgency.  In examining the Estonian Forest Brothers movement, he explores the cultural dimensions of insurgency.  This is not meant in the simple dimensions of culture that the U.S. too often placates itself by exploring:  right hand/left hand, soles of feet, hand on heart, simple linguistics.  He describes how insurgency can be a form of cultural production largely devoid of any political hopes.  The relatively clean nature of this case, as he describes it, gives us insight into the cultural dimensions we might explore in the accidental guerilla strands of the more complex insurgencies we face today.

It is often supposed that the goal of an insurgency must be political. Its end goal must involve the overthrow of the current political order in order to substitute another order that is more palatable to the insurgent. This focus on political objectives is clearly embraced by theorists of insurgency and guerrilla warfare. Mao Tse-Tung, for instance, states in his primer On Guerilla Warfare that “without a political goal, guerrilla warfare must fail.”[1] The U.S. army counterinsurgency field manual is even more blunt, defining insurgency as “an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict…political power is the central issue in insurgencies and counterinsurgencies; each side aims to get the people to accept its government or authority as legitimate.”[2] Even as the goal of the insurgent is oftentimes political, though, it is not exclusively political. Insurgencies may be waged for a variety of reasons, including economic necessity, religious obligation, or to fulfill a variety of cultural and social obligations. Pointing out that insurgencies fulfill cultural as well as political roles is not a mere definitional correction of the publically held understanding of what constitutes an insurgency. Rather it corrects a potentially deadly oversight on the behalf of those who seek to counter insurgencies with military force by gifting practitioners a clearer picture of the motivations of insurgents and the role they play in society.

            One of the clearest historical examples of an insurgency whose aim was not primarily political is that of Estonian resistance to German and Soviet occupation during and following World War II. This historical case study is generally unknown to even those broadly acquainted with the history of insurgencies and counter insurgencies. The partisans, known in Estonian as the metsavennad (forest brothers, or “brethren of the forest”), were active in some capacity for over 30 years, stretching from 1944-1978.[3] They waged some of the fiercest and most committed resistance to Soviet occupation in the middle of the 20th century. What is most interesting about the forest brothers, however, is not their historical accomplishments in terms of battles or enemy soldiers killed. The forest brothers were also not particularly innovative in their tactics, which encompassed a fairly predictable mix of classic guerrilla style warfare that was only slightly adapted to take advantage of the unique geography of the Estonian landscape. Rather what differentiates the forest brothers from other similar movements is that their insurgency functioned as much as a form of cultural and national production as it did as an actual military resistance. In other words, for the forest brothers, success in battle, while desired, did not necessarily serve as an end in and of itself. The form that the conflict took, that of opposition to the hated Soviet or Russian invader, was of equal importance to the function of the conflict, regaining independence.

Through exploring this previously ignored historical example of insurgency it will become clear that the widely held belief that the goal of all insurgencies is political change is only partially correct. Insurgencies also perform a function that is profoundly cultural; they create oppositional communities through the production of rallying symbols and narratives, and these cultural elements oftentimes survive well after the end of the actual insurgency. While political objectives may play a large role in the motivational mindset of the insurgent, this does not detract from the significant role that this cultural production plays, both in the context of the insurgency and in post facto analyses of the conflict. Here I am not arguing that the forest brothers, or insurgents in general, embark on a campaign of resistance solely as a form of cultural production. Nor am I arguing that they necessarily link their actions to this form of classification. Rather, I intend to show the way in which outside observers, whether a historical population in the midst of an insurgency, counterinsurgents opposing an insurgency, or a modern academic analyzing insurgencies, need to recognize the importance of cultural production in insurgencies in order to truly understand those aspects of an insurgency that cannot be explained politically. Furthermore, as the United States wraps up counterinsurgency conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan in the coming months it should be noted that a failure to understand the cultural roots of those insurgencies contributed to their prolonged and difficult nature.

            It might seem at first absurd to argue that the forest brothers represent a unique, or even practical, example for this tendency. At the same time, however, the small size of the Estonian movement actually provides a perfect frame for understanding the cultural function of insurgencies.[4] The size of the movement not only helpfully restricts the scope of analysis, but also provides a window into a world of concentrated and homogenized nationalistic and cultural tendencies. Estonia before and after the war was fairly monochromatic, made up of between 90-96% ethnic Estonians.[5] Unlike most other European nations during World War II, for instance, Estonia had a relatively small Jewish population, which had peaked prior to the First World War at 5,500 individuals.[6] This relative lack of competing cultural or ethnic identities allows for a cleaner argument regarding the formation of a specifically Estonian cultural identity through anti-Soviet resistance following the Second World War.

            There are two main reasons why the goal of the forest brothers should be considered as the paradigm of a nonpolitical insurgency. Firstly, they had no chance of success in achieving political change. Secondly, their actions were the product of a transhistorical narrative of resistance to occupation that resonated with both Estonians living under Soviet occupation, and the Estonian diaspora community. Because under Soviet occupation all outward forms of cultural or nationalistic display were banned, partisan activities became the only way of being a “true Estonian.” Thus being a partisan both fulfilled a profound cultural role and also created new cultural symbols and elements.

            Certainly the forest brother movement had political goals. It obviously desired the overthrow of the Soviet government and the reestablishment of an independent Estonia. However, these goals were profoundly unrealistic. The clearest evidence defining the forest brother movement as being one of cultural production is that their struggle was ultimately futile and doomed to fail. Tönu Parming, in his introduction to Mart Laar’s War in the Woods, writes that “It could hardly be expected that a small, decimated people on a small territory could succeed militarily against the might of a highly militarized state.”[7] Rein Taagepera is even more direct: “In the face of heavy odds, their persistence in fighting…defies imagination.”[8] Why then did the forest brothers fight? Were they just ignorant to the uselessness of their resistance? No, rather the forest brothers were engaged in something much larger then solely a physical struggle. Their actions of resistance possessed a greater cultural significance because of the historical opposition between the Soviet Union (Russia) and Estonia. To resist Soviet aggression can in many respects be seen as being Estonian, and to be Estonian was something that the Soviet authorities tried to repress. The forest brother movement thus was as much a battle of symbols and cultures as it was about actual fighting.

While the modern Soviet occupation of Estonia occurred in 1939 following the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, interrupted by a brief German occupation during World War II that was stamped out 1944, Russian influence in the region goes back hundreds of years. Given a historical context that can be only described as one of political oppression and occupation, it would seem clear that the primary purpose of any resistance movement to Soviet occupation would be to restore independence. At the same time, however, the new occupation was not limited to the political sphere. Rather, it represented the attempt at the total destruction of Estonian life and the substitution of an all-encompassing Soviet system. As Villibald Raud writes, “During the second Soviet occupation of Estonia the liquidation of the last vestiges of a Western economic and cultural system took place.”[9] William Tomingas notes that as early as 1940 the goal of occupation had been to “bring culture to Estonia,” ignoring the fact that this necessitated replacing the previously existing cultural and societal norms.[10] By responding to these cultural attacks the forest brothers simultaneously were trying to check the advance of Soviet culture while both preserving traditional Estonian culture and advancing new forms of that culture.

            Defining notions of Estonian culture through symbolic acts such as the forest brother insurgency falls closely under Clifford Geertz’s definition of culture as “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes toward life.”[11] It is important to remember that Estonian culture is primarily defined oppositionally against the incursion of the Soviet Union or Russian interests. Sigrid Rausing, in defining “How to be an Estonian,” notes that “the perception of the Estonians’ own history and culture is so cloaked in pagan mystique that it has become almost primordially other—an otherness that is situated in a structural opposition to the otherness of the Soviet Russians—ancient and magical as opposed to shabby and modern.”[12] Herein lies the key to understanding the forest brothers as a cultural movement. Individuals retreated into the forest to resist, but such movement was not solely born out of necessity. The forest was linked with Estonia’s historic and cultural past, and thus was an almost sacred place from which to oppose the mechanistic, totalitarian forces of the Soviet Union.

The widespread impact that the actions of the forest brothers had on both occupied Estonians and the Estonian Diaspora community greatly transcends the military impact that they had on the subject of their resistance, the Soviet Union. It is for this reason that they, more then any other insurgency, exemplify the cultural aspects that are always present in all forms of guerilla warfare and insurgency. Whereas some of the most diehard Estonian nationalists might have thought that the forest brothers had a chance to defeat the Soviets and regain independence, indeed having the recent events of the Estonian War of Independence from 1918-1920 to draw upon, the fact of the matter is that they had no chance of success in their struggle. Their continued resistance, despite overwhelming odds, points to the deep cultural significance of their struggle. Their actions provided hope for both occupied Estonians and the Diaspora community that fled Estonia when it was clear that reoccupation by the Soviets was inevitable. Especially within the occupied nation, guerrilla actions were some of the only activities that could be termed as “cultural” because of the blanket ban on any form of cultural activity. The resistance, especially in the 1960s and 70s, became nearly entirely symbolic. Certainly other insurgencies follow this greater pattern of involving actions of cultural production in addition to political gains, but in virtually no instance is the imbalance of power so great as it was between the Soviet Union and Estonia.  Combined with the intensity with which Estonians hold to their own unique culture while being constantly bombarded by other forms of culture due to their small stature, this asymmetric balance provides a near perfect example of an insurgency that depends much more on cultural motivations than political ones.

What significance, however, does the history of the forest brother movement have to modern understandings of insurgency today? In the first place recognizing that insurgency oftentimes has cultural motivations or influences is important for definitional clarity. Secondly, it has a real world impact on the way in which counterinsurgency doctrine must be formulated to conform to the cultural, as well as political, realities of a target area. It is possible to see some of the failure of initial U.S. attempts at counterinsurgency in both Iraq and Afghanistan as stemming from, in part, a failure to appreciate the cultural dimensions of the conflict. Nowhere is this more clear than in Afghanistan, where oftentimes the difference between the Taliban, an indigenous political/religious movement, and Al-Qaeda, an international terrorist organization, is not well understood both in the theater of operations, and at home in the United States. The staunch opposition that coalition forces face in Afghanistan can furthermore be linked to cultural factors within Pashtun society. This has been accurately noted by among others, David Kilcullen, in his description of the “accidental guerilla.” For instance, in his account of a battle in Uruzgan, Afghanistan in 2006 he notes that “the most intriguing thing about this battle was not the Taliban, though, it was the behavior of the local people…a group of farmers who had been working in their fields and, seeing the ambush begin, rushed home to fetch their weapons and join in.”[13] He goes on to explain that “there is no evidence that the locals cooperated directly with the Taliban; indeed, it seems they had no directly political reason to get involved in the fight.”[14] Here, a cultural valuation of honor and manhood caused individuals who otherwise would not have taken part in a guerrilla ambush to join the fighting. These cultural norms superseded political goals or pragmatic ones. Similar examples of cultural influences can undoubtedly also be found regarding insurgents in Iraq where once again there exists a historically rooted cultural valuation of resistance to an occupying force. Historical events such as the revolution of 1920 against British colonial rule, through a complex process of myth creation and other culturally formative tactics, could then be redeployed following the U.S. invasion in 2003.

What the Estonian case provides, however, is a much clearer historical example of the cultural roots of insurgency that predates these modern conflicts while also stripping them of other ethnic or religious tensions. The monochromatic nature of Estonian culture prior to the Second World War is infinitely simpler to define then a complex Afghan or Iraqi culture made up of competing religious and ethnic sections. While the Estonian resistance may have been small by international standards, it is of inestimable value in the mind of Estonians because of its relation to entrenched notions of Estonian culture. Mao might be right in asserting that “without a political goal, guerrilla warfare must fail,” but only if “failure” is defined as an inability to overthrow the political order. The forest brothers might have failed militarily, but they succeeded culturally by protecting the uniqueness of Estonian culture from Soviet destruction while also asserting new cultural symbols and narratives around which to rally. This cultural legacy has a continued relevance for Estonians today, and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.

[1] Mao Tse-Tung. On Guerrilla Warfare. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000. Page 43.

[2] The U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Page 2.

[3] The most comprehensive work available in English regarding the Estonian forest brothers is Mart Laar’s War in the Woods. (Washington, D.C.: Compass Press, 1992). Those interested in a deeper history of the movement then can be provided here are strongly encouraged to consult it.

[4] The exact number of forest brothers is unknown, although have may be as high as 30,000. This number, however, has a tendency to be inflated by patriotic historians. (O’Connor, Kevin. The History of the Baltic States. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003). Page 125 n. 10

[5] Raun, Toivo U. Estonia and the Estonians. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1987. Page 229. Raun’s work, although lacking the modern history of Estonia including its independence in 1991, provides one of the best histories of Estonia that is available in English.

[6] Weiss-Wendt, Anton. Murder Without Hatred: Estonians and the Holocaust. Syracuse University Press, 2009. Page 3.

[7] Laar, xvii.

[8] Taagepera, Rein. Estonia: Return to Independence. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993. Page 80.

[9] Raud, Villibald. Estonia: A Reference Book. New York: The Nordic Press, 1953. Page 32. Here it is perhaps more correct to read “western cultural system” as “western-influenced cultural system,” Raud would also most likely argue for a distinct notion of Estonian culture.

[10] Tomingas, William. The Soviet Colonization of Estonia. Kultuur Publishing House, 1973. Page 249.

[11] Geertz, Clifford. “Religion As a Cultural System.” In The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973. Pages 87-125. Page 89.

[12] Rausing, Sigrid. History, Memory, and Identity in Post-Soviet Estonia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Page 146.

[13] Kilcullen, David. The Accidental Guerilla. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Page 40.

[14] Ibid., 40. 


Categories: insurgency - COIN

About the Author(s)

Alex Verschoor-Kirss is a student at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He is currently working on a thesis that redefines the label of religious terrorism by investigating how it is misapplied by both terrorist organizations and spectator audiences.


Again though, you are stating they were creating an alternative set of values to be set up in competition with Soviet Values..'social, economic competition by any other name is still 'political'. By any other name, it is still social competition whether the for the hearts or minds of the local population or the opposition..


Wed, 08/01/2012 - 9:25am

In reply to by pK

Anyway, I would to read anything you have previously written. I am interested in your research.


Tue, 04/10/2012 - 11:00pm

In reply to by pK

I'm arguing that there is a profound difference between a political battle waged against a government and a cultural competition of images and symbols. There are similar mechanisms at play in that there is competition in both instances, but otherwise they are very different. I think you're adopting a way too broad definition of "political" actions. In the case of the forest brothers their target wasn't just the government, but also the population around them. They knew they couldn't defeat the Soviet Union militarily, but had a greater chance of doing so culturally.


Thu, 03/22/2012 - 11:01am

In reply to by pK

Could you explain the difference a little more in detail please. I cannot really see the difference between competition between cultural groups or between govt. agencies as being anything but "political". It still remains "political" whether it is over material resources or influence over a population. While the means too achieve influence may be different, the fact is that either political actor is creating a world view, policy and the means to achieve whatever end state they desire.

Please explain what the difference is..


"That's true in one sense: actions that create competing oppositional communities can be correctly defined as being in some sense "political," although at the same time there are qualitative differences between that form of political activity and politics in the form of governmental organization and institutions. Here I'm more interested in contrasting cultural formations with this second form of "politics."


Thu, 02/23/2012 - 2:02pm

In reply to by pK

That's true in one sense: actions that create competing oppositional communities can be correctly defined as being in some sense "political," although at the same time there are qualitative differences between that form of political activity and politics in the form of governmental organization and institutions. Here I'm more interested in contrasting cultural formations with this second form of "politics."

"Cultural production" is itself a political act; when you create "identity" you are creating an alternative to the "other" thus creating social competition, hence "politics".


Sun, 02/12/2012 - 2:04pm

In reply to by B_Andrews

I believe my argument is a bit more nuanced than Keegan's in that while he consistently refers to "culture" he never fully defines what he means by it. In linking my work to Geertz, and by dealing primarily with how insurgency actively creates culture, I'm moving much more towards an anthropological approach. My thesis furthermore is as much an argument about form and structure as it is about motivations and causes, which also differentiates it from Keegan.


Fri, 02/10/2012 - 5:12am

This thesis (war as a cultural activity) is is one of Keegan's main points in his "History of Warfare." it's also one of the major reasons Clausewitzians reject the book.