I often get the impression that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania occupy a similar place in the mental map of many Europeans as Guyana, French Guyana, and Suriname for us Latin Americans. In other words, a lot of people just know that they’re there and that’s it—and more often than not get them and their capitals confused.
In reality, the Baltic region is no obscure little corner of Europe but rather one of the most unique regions of this amazing continent—on many levels.
While getting my Master’s in History at the University of Heidelberg, I started getting into Modern Baltic History. The history of the three Baltic States is one of tragedy, triumph, and controversies. And while the three Baltic States do have a common historical experience determined by Russian domination, for centuries they developed in very different directions—and are much more different than you’d think, not only culturally but also linguistically.
For example, Lithuania (in union with Poland) was a European power until 1795—albeit one that, as my host from Couchsurfing pointed out over breakfast, left little to no signs of its presence in the territories it conquered and controlled. Estonia and Latvia were on the other hand regions that changed hands many times between the Danes, the Swedes, the Teutonic Knights, the Russians, the Nazis, and the Soviet Union. The local aristocracy was German, and the government Russian.
Estonia and Latvia are predominantly (though in a very relative sense) Lutheran, yet religion doesn’t play that big a role there (especially in terms of national identity) as in Lithuania, which is on the other hand overwhelmingly Catholic. Latvian and Lithuanian are both Balto-Slavic languages, but Estonian is Finno-Ugric, meaning its closest relative is Finnish.
Thus, the most important unifying feature for all three countries is their experience under Russian and Soviet rule. Here’s a grossly condensed overview of it:
Following the demise of the Russian Empire, its successor state, the Soviet Union, handed the Baltic States to the German Empire in 1918. However, the Baltic States also declared their independence that same year, with Estonia and Latvia fighting confusing three-way wars against both the German Landwehr (Baltic German militias) and the Soviet Union.
Estonia and Latvia gained their independence in 1920. However, it only lasted until 1940. In the wake of Stalin’s pact with Hitler from 1939, Europe was divided into Nazi and Soviet spheres of influence—and the Baltic States found themselves at the mercy of Stalin.
The Soviet Union reoccupied the Baltics in 1940, deporting tens of thousands of people to Siberia. The trauma of the Soviet Occupation was so great that local people often greeted the advancing Wehrmacht as liberators—with many willing to collaborate with the Germans. The Soviet Union reoccupied the Baltic States in 1944, carrying out further deportations (especially in 1949) and introducing Russification measures.
While the Soviet Union had already been slowly crumbling for decades, its demise started in the Baltic States, where national and environmental concerns sparked demonstrations against the regime. The calls for independence grew louder after the Soviet government recognized the existence of a secret pact with the Nazis (the aforementioned Hitler-Stalin-Pact from 1939), which deemed illegal the occupation of the Baltic States (never recognized by the West).
In the late 1980s, the Song Festivals became places for people to voice their discontent against the system. Acts of protest became more and more common, but the most impressive peaceful demand for independence was The Baltic Way—a human chain stretching over 675 kilometers connecting Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn. Roughly two million people took part in this demonstration, which took place on August 23, 1989—a date that became the Black Ribbon Day, or European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism. The Baltic Countries became independent in 1990 (Lithuania) and 1991 (Latvia and Estonia), and are 3 of the 15 states that formed from the dismembered carcass of the Soviet Union (insert Death Metal growl here).
The Baltic countries underwent a long struggle to achieve their independence, and people there are thus understandably much more appreciative of their countries and their traditions than in other European countries. And I can see why that is. Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians are proud and aware of their history. It seems as though most people knew the lyrics to at least five folk songs.
Having grown up in Latin America, this all seems just normal to me—and was furthermore to an extent refreshing since I live in Germany, where everything from flags to even Lederhosen can be controversial and politicized.
These are different ways to see the world, and looking at one from the perspective of the other just doesn’t work—it’s rather about understanding the respective context.
I was in the Baltics again last week. I had been to Estonia before but never to Latvia or Lithuania. I unfortunately didn’t have much time in each country, but I tried to get the most out of every second. I first flew into Riga, took the bus to Vilnius, then to Tallinn, and then back to Riga. I unfortunately didn’t have the chance to visit the countryside, though—which is, according to several locals, where the real Baltic experience lies. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll go back there sooner than later.
First up: Lithuania.