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The improbable Baltics

Baltic Sea

I lived in Europe for ten years in total, first as a student, then for work, and I prided myself on having seen much of the continent on numerous business trips and vacations. But I was always aware of a glaring omission: I had never been to the Baltic countries. This lacuna was finally filled in last year with an autumn trip to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. What I saw and learned was alternately inspiring and depressing.

A first-time visitor to the Baltics will be surprised

A first-time visitor to the Baltics will be surprised, for the most part pleasantly, on several counts.

Baltics mapAll three Baltic countries have adopted the Euro, but accommodation, meals, and entertainment are much less expensive than in western Europe. A decent hotel room can be had just about anywhere in the Baltics for a hundred dollars and good seats to a concert or an opera for fifty dollars.

Transportation is similarly reasonable. A comfortable bus ride between the national capitals of Vilnius, Lithuania and Riga, Latvia (295 km, 183 miles), or Riga and Tallinn, Estonia (308 km, 191 miles), costs as little as EUR 5 (USD 6.15) if booked well enough in advance.


The distances between the Baltic cities  – another surprise to visitors

The distances between the cities mentioned above may be another surprise to visitors.

The Baltic countries appear tiny on a map, dwarfed by the Russian colossus to the east. But they’re not all that small in European terms.

Each of the three Baltic countries is larger than The Netherlands or Switzerland; Lithuania and Latvia are both twice the size of Belgium and, when combined, are roughly the size of England.

Each of the three counties has not only a historic, well-preserved capital city, but also seaside beaches and spas, extensive forests ideally suited to hiking and observing wildlife, and lakes to swim, canoe, and fish in (nearly seven thousand in the three countries combined).

Although the Balts themselves may come across as circumspect at first, efforts to engage them in conversation will be rewarded with enlightened, often riveting dialogue, especially if the subject is their history or current affairs.


The most surprising thing about the Baltic countries is that they even exist

From the Middle Ages onward, the lands that comprise Latvia and Estonia were variously ruled by Danes, Swedes, Poles, Germans, and Russians.

Baltics Puzzle

Lithuania was once a great power, first as an independent state extending as far south as the Black Sea, then as part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but internal weakness and powerful neighbours led to its disappearance from the map of Europe in 1795.

It was only 1918 that Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia became the independent states we know today.

The centuries of foreign rule witnessed devastating wars and famines, economic domination by a landholding Baltic German minority, and, in 19th century Lithuania, a harsh Russification policy.


The 20th century was especially brutal

Baltic states flags

The Baltic countries were battlefields in both world wars as well as in their own bloody struggles for independence following those conflicts.

Fortunately, the violence spared the beautiful old cities of Vilnius and Tallinn as well as the cathedrals and Art Nouveau architecture of Riga. The Baltic peoples themselves, however, were occupied, mobilized, deported, and murdered in staggering numbers. Latvia lost 35% of its population in World War One and the Russian Civil War that followed it.

Hundreds of thousands perished again in World War Two, which, despite what the history books might say, did not end in 1945, at least not in the Baltics.

All three countries continued an armed fight for liberty and independence from Soviet rule that lasted well into the 1950s.

Between 1944 and 1952, which is to say following the liberation from German occupation that meant the end of the war elsewhere in Europe, an additional 250,000 Lithuanians were arrested, deported, tortured, or killed.

The Museum of Genocide Victims in the former headquarters of the KGB in Vilnius, replete with detention cells and execution chamber, tells their tragic story.


All three Baltic countries have relatively small populations

Complicating their struggle to survive, all three Baltic countries have relatively small populations.

Even today there are fewer than one million ethnic Estonians in Estonia and only 1.2 million ethnic Latvians in Latvia.

Baltic girls in national headdressesDuring the communist era, hundreds of thousands of people from other parts of the Soviet Union settled in the Baltic countries, especially Latvia.

Ethnic Latvians are a minority in Riga; the mayor is an ethnic Russian.

Low birth rates and emigration characterize all three nations. In the 1990’s alone, the population of Estonia declined by 200,000. Since joining the European Union in 2004, Latvia has lost nearly 20% of its population to emigration as job-seekers flee to the affluent countries of western Europe. The population decline in Lithuania has been only slightly less severe and animates the country’s politics.


The history of the Baltic peoples is horrifyingly violent

Their future is uncertain if they continue to hemorrhage young people at current rates.

Perhaps tourists should visit now while there are still Baltic countries to see; there are dire predictions of their extinction.

But I can’t help thinking that the sense of identity, the three languages and their related cultures, and the preternatural resilience that enabled the Balts to meet the manifold threats of the last thousand years will see them through the current challenges as well.

Baltic Folk

by Anthony J. Minna


The Baltic Review guest Author Anthony J. Minna is a lawyer admitted in New York State and has a history degree from the University of Toronto and law degrees from the University of Toronto and the University of Brussels. He also spent a year of undergraduate studies at Johannes Gutenberg-Universität in Mainz, Germany. 

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