POPULAR belief holds that there are three Baltic states - Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. However, because of boundary changes in 1945, there is also a fourth Baltic state, the northern half of the old German province of East Prussia. Today part of the Soviet Union with a label that is a cartographer's nightmare - the Kaliningrad Oblast of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic - this territory is that small section of the USSR between Lithuania and Poland. After 45 years of silence, this region is beginning to stir.
When the Russians annexed this province from Germany in 1945, East Prussia's German population was expelled. The southern half of East Prussia was annexed by Poland. (However, a significant German minority still exists there. During the early 1980s, this writer organized a relief operation for the German minority in southern East Prussia.)
From 1945 until 1989, Soviet-occupied northern East Prussia was a forbidden zone to which no one, including Soviet citizens, could travel, and the site of the Kremlin's most sensitive naval base, situated in K"onigsberg.
Except for two American reporters permitted to visit K"onigsberg (renamed Kaliningrad by the communists) in 1985, no Westerners were able to visit the town where Immanuel Kant did his writing.
Last year, however, as part of glasnost, perestroika, and the cold war thaw, northern East Prussia entered the headlines.
In June West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to use this oblast as the locale for a German-populated constituent republic of the Soviet Union.
For Bonn, this is seen as a means of stemming the flood of German 'emigr'es from the USSR. For Moscow, it is seen as a solution to an ethnic problem that has been dogging the Soviets for many years.
Until 1941, there was a German Soviet republic in the USSR, known as the Volga Autonomous Republic, located along the Volga River. After Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, Stalin dissolved the republic and exiled the Germans to the Kremlin's Central Asian republics of Kirghizistan, Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan, and, especially, Kazakhstan.
But during the 1960s, the communists scrapped Stalin's decree that declared all Germans in the Soviet Union a fifth column of Hitler. This, in turn, led to demands by the Germans for their own national republic.
This request was given tacit support by Brezhnev in 1972 through a decree authorizing the return of the Germans to the Volga region. Konstantin Ehrlich, editor of a German magazine in Kazakhstan and a leader of the German minority in the USSR, revealed that decree in 1988.
However, the Russians, now in the process of rediscovering their own national awareness, are adamantly opposed to losing land to a new republic.
The Kremlin also toyed with the idea of creating a German republic in the northeast corner of Kazakhstan. But the Kazakhs, like the Russians, are unwilling to see their republic divided up.
Consequently, when, in July 1989, the People's Deputies in the Central Government at Moscow read a declaration creating a commission for solving the problems of deported people within the USSR, the Germans looked upon it as an authorization to recreate a German Soviet republic.
The question was where to place it. After the rebuffs in the Volga region and in Kazakhstan, the decision was made to place it in the Kaliningrad Oblast, the former German East Prussia.
Last October, the Soviet publication Literature Gazette questioned its German readers about the plan to establish a German constituent republic in the Soviet Union. More than 80 percent replied they would rather move to northern East Prussia than migrate to West Germany.
A few weeks later, Moscow revealed plans to attract Germans from the various Soviet republics to settle in the Kaliningrad Oblast by proposing to rename Kaliningrad ``Kantgrad,'' in honor of Immanuel Kant.
Creating a German Soviet republic in northern East Prussia contains much historical irony.
When the first German state was established on the the Baltic at the mouth of the Pregel River during the 13th century, it was the only German-populated area outside of the control of the Holy Roman Empire. Today, a recreated German republic in East Prussia would be the only German area of Europe outside the European Economic Community.
While this fourth Baltic state is planning on being only a constituent republic of the USSR, sovereignty may be an issue if Lithuania's secession attempts succeed. For if Lithuania is independent, northern East Prussia would have no land connection with the remainder of the USSR.
In addition, the fourth Baltic state, East Prussia, may have problems with its southern neighbor, Poland. Warsaw has been dickering with the Kremlin for several years to have Moscow cede the Kaliningrad Oblast to Poland. Last summer several Polish historians at a conference in Warsaw issued papers justifying Warsaw's annexation in 1920 of eastern Lithuania - the present-day area of Vilnius.
The chilly waters of the Baltic are heating up.