The Baltic States–Overview

Grouping Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into one “country” is totally unfair. The three states may share the eastern coast of the Baltic sea but they have different histories, languages, religions and more. Why do people group them together…? For convenience? Sure. Because they were all under Russian rule until 1918, then became independent together, then came under Soviet domination in 1940, then became independent together again in 1991…? That too. But the nations differ in many significant ways, including:

Linguistically: Estonians speak a “Uralic” language that’s very close to Finnish, while the others speak the “Indo-European” Baltic language. (A bit more about languages of the Baltic nations below.)

Religiously: Most Estonians and Latvians practice Protestant (Lutheran) Christianity, while most Lithuanians are Catholic. (A sizable Russian minority in each belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church.)

Historically: Estonia and Latvia have never had much power beyond their borders — from the 13th to the early 20th centuries many invaders ruled Estonia, such as the Danes, the Livonian Confederation (“an autonomous part of the Monastic state of the Teutonic Knights and Baltic German ecclesiastical states of the Holy Roman Empire”), the Swedish Empire and the Russians, while Germany (Prussian), Sweden, Poland and Russia controlled Latvia. By contrast, Lithuania established the Grand Duchy in the mid 1200s and expanded over the next several centuries to become the largest European state of the age. It remained powerful until the late-18th century, after which it dissolved as part of the Partitions of Poland, which we’ll touch on a bit when we focus on Poland in a few weeks. Lithuania stayed under Russian rule until 1918.

Many divergent elements of the Baltic history came together in 1918 when all three fought German and Russian armies and became independent. All three remained independent until 1940, when Russia occupied and arranged elections in which only pro-communist candidates could run. When the new governments enthusiastically applied to become part of the USSR — surprise! — the Soviet Union enthusiastically accepted them, and ruled them for the next fifty years, with the exception of Nazi domination from 1941-1944. Many nations called the Soviet takeover an illegal occupation and never formally recognized Russian rule. Though several groups of Baltic partisans such as the Forest Brothers (who today may be called “insurgents”) attempted to push the Communists out, only after “the Singing Revolution” of the late ’80s did the nations become sovereign again. In 1989, in an event called “The Baltic Way,” about two million people even joined hands in a human chain that stretched 375 miles across the three Baltic states. (More about the Singing Revolution below). In 1991 the Baltic states became independent and in 1994 the last Russian troops left.

Since 1991 the Baltic nations have developed multiparty parliamentary democracies, joined the European Union in 2004 and have boasted booming market economies, at least until the recession of 2008. European tourists flock to the Baltics for their seaside resorts and their reputation as being home to warm, welcoming people. At the same time, the Baltic states are still coming to terms with a history full of struggle, especially in the 20th century in which they endured Nazi and Soviet rule. There are still many ethnic, religious, political and social tensions in the region, including a complex relationship with Russians who moved to the Baltics in the Soviet era, and a legacy of antisemitism that endures even after the almost complete eradication of the region’s once-thriving Jewish population.

More information:
“all what you should to know about Baltic States” | Wikipedia on Estonia/Latvia/Lithuania | More about the Baltic Way | Ten great minutes of traditional Estonian dancing | One and a half great minutes of non-traditional Estonian dancing | The Baltic Sea: “the world’s largest body of brackish water” | The Grateful Dead bring Lithuanian national basketball to the world in 1992 (See the Lithuanian national team accepting its 1992 Olympic bronze medal in its tie-dye uniforms)

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