Monday, 7 September 2015

Baltic overview

Beautiful landscapes, interesting cities and dark histories  

This is a brief overview to accompany the daily blogs that I wrote whilst biking in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. I wanted to go soon because I fear that this is a fragile region and the politics could change quickly. 

The three countries have interesting geographies. Lithuania has beautiful rolling countryside with forest that goes down to the sea. Visiting the Curonian spit where a huge, calm lagoon has been created by Baltic tides was a highpoint. Here I enjoyed the sea, the forest and sand deserts. Thomas Mann picked a good place for contemplation in having his summer home there. (July 15) Estonia is synonymous with lakes and I was surprised at the vast lake Pepsis (July 20) which is the border with Russia. 

The countries also felt different, Lithuania is palpable Catholic and Vilnius is packed with Baroque churches. (July 12) Latvia felt more prosperous with large estates and country gardens (July 18). Estonia, surprisingly, was the most modern despite a huge sparsely populated landscape, and is embracing Internet technology. 

The countries are small in scale; in Latvia and Estonia the capitals dominate the country. Estonia only has a population of one million and it is impressive that it has several universities, and Tartu university is long established (July 19). When I visited the Kunu art gallery in Tallinn I wondered how the population could support a major art gallery (July 22). The influence of outsiders is very visible, Vilnius feels Polish because its previous kings had close links with Polish nobles. Riga feels very cosmopolitan. Estonia feels Scandinavian and models itself on Finland. One also sees Scandinavian design in Estonia. 

Their cultures are Hanseatic with beautiful old cities such as Tallinn and Riga. Folk culture is important there with Baltic festivals of singing and dancing and we saw a local one in the forest in Munamagi Hill Estonia (July 19). The revolution in Estonia started with a singing festival where people could protest. There is also a strong forest culture with woodcarving of all types. 

Their location is important; because they are on the edge of mainland Europe they have all been invaded many times and had different rulers. Looking at a map from 1900 I saw that Lithuania was part of the German empire and Estonia and Latvia part of the Russian empire. They were all occupied thrice in the 2nd World War, first by Russia, then by Germany and then again by Russia and that lasted until 1990. These occupations have had a profound effect. The Lithuanians and Latvians took to the forest and had a prolonged guerilla war against the occupier and were hoping that the West would come and rescue them and were disappointed when this did not happen. 

They also have dark histories, Vilnius was a centre of Jewish learning and culture and 33% of the population were Jewish. The Jewish museum in Vilnius captures the impressive Jewish life and culture in Lithuania. A shockingly efficient genocide was then perpetrated by the Germans in 1941 with some help from the local Lithuanians. The museum of genocide in Vilnius is set in the former KGB headquarters and conveys the different types of torture and oppression that the Germans and then the Russians practiced against the local population. (July 12) One of the most chilling exhibits was an organogram for the KGB showing the different branches such as torture and spying.

I read “The Baltic Revolution” whilst I was there and found Anatol Lievens’ analysis very helpful, sadly he wrote his history in 1994 and there has been a lot of change since then. 

I fear that these states remain vulnerable. They are proud of their EU membership which has brought major benefits to them and the euro is the currency. My travels confirmed this feeling of fragility and Putin could easily decide that he wants to support the 30% Russian speakers who live in Estonia and I’m not sure that the EU would be able to stop him. 

Biking was a great way to see the countryside and experience the changing landscapes even though it rained every day. The northern summer light gave me many beautiful evenings notable the one exploring the art nouveau architecture in Riga. 

It was an interesting holiday, I enjoyed being in new countries and learning about their different histories.

The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Lativia , Lithiuania and the oath to independence.
Anatol Lieven
Yale 1994

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