Baltic Commonalities and Distinctions      Lithuania          Latvia      Estonia
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Our summer 2011 trip will be taking us further north-east than last year, to explore in depth the three Baltic Republics, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. All 3 are fellow member states of the EU, but despite their open Schengen-borders, are largely unknown to British travellers.

Last year while in NE Poland (see that trip's webs), we made a 5 day exploratory foray into Lithuania, an experience which inevitably whetted our appetites, hence this year's more thorough venture. We have additionally benefitted from the detailed accounts of journeys through the Baltic region published by fellow travellers Margaret and Barry Williamson on their web site Magbag Travels, a travel information resource of encyclopaedic proportions. We should also like to acknowledge help received from Michael and Cindy O'Malley whom we originally met on a French campsite in 2006 on their return journey from the Baltic.

We shall be setting off shortly and during the course of our travels through the Baltic Sates, we shall publish on the web site detailed logs and pictorial record covering the progress of our travels. As is our custom however, we now present this Prologue study with demographic, topographical, cultural, economic and historical background to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, our 2011 host countries.


Demography:  the 3 countries' 21st century population mix reflects their respective 20th century histories:

q  Lithuania 3.8 million -

84% Lithuanian 5% Russian 6% Polish
  q Latvia 2.3 million - 60% Latvian 28% Russian  
  q Estonia 1.4 million - 70% Estonian 26% Russian  

Ethnicity and Language:  the ancestors of today's Estonians were Finno-Ugric nomadic tribes who migrated from NW Siberia, settling in the northern Baltic region during the millennia following the last Ice Age and sharing a closely related non-Indo-European linguistic and cultural inheritance with the Finns. The linguistically and culturally related Latvians and Lithuanians are descended from the Balts, an ethnic group of peoples who migrated to the region around 2,000BC from SW Asia, speaking an Indo-European dialect quite distinct from the languages of their Slavic neighbours. Contemporary Lithuanian is said to be the closest of living languages to Sanskrit, the ancient tongue from which Indian dialects are linguistically descended. While Estonian like Finnish will doubtless cause us some tongue-twisting headaches, at least the numerals in Latvian and Lithuanian betray a familiar Indo-European affinity.

Baltic topography and wildlife:  the 3 Baltic states are small: it's just over 400 miles from the northern tip of Estonia on the Baltic coast down to Lithuania's southernmost point on the Poland-Belarus border. These flat northern plains (the highest point, Suur Munamägi in Estonia, is only 318m), scoured by the last Ice Age's retreating glaciers, are covered with dark pine forests and plantations of birch, and interspersed with bogs, wetlands and 1000s of lakes including Europe's 5th largest, Lake Peipsi. The ice-sheets also left behind along the Baltic coast long stretches of raised limestone banks, the great Baltic Glint, now forming cliffs along Estonia's coast, and deposited gigantic erratic boulders. Much of Lithuania's Baltic coast is formed by the dunes of the 100km long Curonian sand spit, shared with Kaliningrad Russia. The Baltics, with their food-rich wetlands, low usage of agricultural pesticides and low population density, are seasonal home to Europe's largest population of white storks nesting on poles and buildings.

Shared history, distinctive cultures:  the 3 countries have much in common, most particularly their centuries of oppressive foreign conquest and occupation. Early conquest by crusading Germans from the west and imperialist Swedes from the north led to rule by Tsarist Russia during the 18/19th centuries. A brief and fragile period of independence after WW1 was snuffed out by Soviet occupation in 1939 followed by 4 desperate years of Nazi-German conquest, and 45 years of even more repressive Soviet domination until the collapse of the USSR in 1990. Having reasserted their independence in 1990, the 3 states have now turned their political and economic focus westwards, becoming fully-fledged EU and NATO members since 2004. This shared historical experience of foreign conquest and occupation, especially the Soviet years, followed by sudden re-acquisition of self-government and conversion to market economy has left the 3 countries with much in common. The convenient group-label 'Baltic States' does however belie their distinctively separate identities and cultures which modern-day Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians are at pains to emphasise. Latvia and Estonia both share a Lutheran inheritance from medieval German feudal rule; their significant Russian population is largely Orthodox, including those of the Old Believers sect who broke away from the 17th century liturgical reforms of the Russian Orthodox Church and sought refuge from persecution settling around Lake Peipsi along the Russian border with Estonia. Lithuania, the last pagan country of Europe, adopted the Catholic religion after the medieval dynastic alliance with Catholic Poland; this historical fusion of pre-Christian believes and Catholicism still influences national traditions. One feature however that all 3 countries have in common is their love of singing. The 19th century rediscovery of Baltic choral musical traditions was an important factor in reawakening an awareness of national identity after centuries of foreign domination. During the dark days of Soviet occupation when any expression of patriotic sentiment met with official displeasure, song festivals fostered nationalist feelings; the expression Singing Revolution characterised the independence movements of the late 1980s in all 3 states, hence the appropriate musical accompaniment to this prologue edition.


From prehistoric pagan settlers to medieval Grand Duchy and empire:  the tribes who originally settled the Baltic lands from around 2,000 BC continued a primitive lifestyle in clan-based village groups, without written language, united by language and pagan religion, and cut off by forests and bogs until well into the Middle Ages. From the 12th century, under increasing pressure from Slavic and Germanic neighbours, the tribes began to unify around fortress strongholds such as Trakai and Vilnius under powerful chieftains such as the legendary Mindaugas, first ruler of Lithuania. As Europe's last pagan culture, the emergent Lithuanian state faced constant threat of attack by crusading land-grabbing western invaders such as the Teutonic Knights and the Livonian Order; Chaucer's Knight in the Canterbury Tales saw mercenary service in Lithuania. Such warfare forged Lithuania into a major military power, and the 14th century ruler Gediminas extended the Lithuanian empire eastwards, demonised by western Christians for its paganism. When Poland's king died without male heir in 1382, the Polish nobility formed a dynastic alliance with Gediminas' grandson, Jogaila who became king of Poland under the name of Jagiełło and Christianised the Lithuanians as his part of the deal. Vytautas became Grand Duke of Lithuania, and the combined Polish-Lithuanian forces were powerful enough to inflict a crushing defeat on the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410. Under Vytautas, regarded as Lithuania's greatest national hero, the Grand Duchy's empire was extended from the Baltic to the Black sea. After Jagiełło's death, his descendents continued to rule in Poland. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania remained autonomous but by the mid 16th century, the eastern borders of its empire were increasingly threatened by an aggressively expansionist Russia. In 1569, the Lithuania nobles under fear of Russian menace agreed formal union with Poland under the Union of Lublin which created with Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. As a result Lithuania became a predominantly Catholic country whose religious and cultural tolerance attracted an expanding influx of Jewish population fleeing eastwards from German persecution and speaking the Germanic-influenced dialect Yiddish.

Lithuania's disappearance into Tsarist Russia and 19th century National Movement:  having taken control of Estonia and Latvia following the Great Northern War of 1700~21, Russia exerted increasing control over the Polish Commonwealth, finally wiping Lithuania off the map with the Partitioning of Poland in 1795. Lithuanians took part in the 19th century Polish uprisings but failure and defeat brought brutal reprisals, a wholesale programme of Russification and ban on any book publication in other than in Cyrillic. Nationalistic feeling was kept alive among the intelligentsia by research into Lithuanian folk traditions, and in the later 19th century found expression in illicitly published literature. The leading ideologist of the Lithuanian national movement was Jonas Basanavičius who promoted research into traditional folk culture, study of Lithuania's period of medieval greatness, and edited the first prohibited national revival newspaper Aura (Dawn). The 40 year ban on printing in indigenous Lithuanian was only lifted in 1904.

World War 1 and re-emergence of Lithuanian independence:  Lithuania formed a key western defence line for the Russians in 1914, but within a year the whole country had been overrun by German forces. With the Tsarist regime's collapse, Bolshevik seizure of power and Russia's withdrawal from WW1, Lithuanian nationalist leaders declared the country's independence which was endorsed by the victorious Allies in 1918. It had been assumed that Vilnius would became the new state's capital, but the Poles seized the city souring relations with the newly independent Lithuanian and forcing the Lithuanians to adopt Kaunas as their provisional capital. They also occupied the German-speaking port city of Klaipėda in 1923. The emerging nation's democracy was short-lived: in 1926 left wing moves to align with the Soviet Union caused the nationalist leader Antanas Smetona (see right) to suspend parliament and establish a 15 year long benign dictatorship.

Independence loss under WW2 German occupation and 45 years of communist repression:  under the notorious 1939 Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact, Stalin occupied all 3 Baltic states in 1940 and Lithuanian was absorbed into the USSR. As war with Germany loomed, Stalin tightened his grip on Lithuania with a reign of terror, deporting 1000s of citizens to Siberian gulags. In 1941, the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa against the USSR, overrunning Lithuania within days. SS Einsatzgruppen squads immediately went to work supported by Lithuanian collaborators, rounding up the sizeable Jewish population into ghettos. The systematic killing process continued until 1944, with 100,000 shot in the remote forests at Paneriai near Vilnius. About 90% of Lithuania's Jewish population were murdered by the Germans; the few remaining survivors emigrated after WW2. With the Red Army's advance into Lithuania in 1944, partisan resistance against Soviet rule began and despite KGB infiltration, armed resistance continued for a decade. The post war Soviet regime was led by Antanas Sniečkus, a trusted servant of Moscow who enforced a programme of terror, deportations and collectivisation of agriculture. By the mid-1980s Glasnost period, political dissent began to re-emerge with the first anti-Soviet demonstrations held in 1987 demanding publication of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Opposition grew into a mass movement with the openly pro-independence Sajūdis Movement holding its first congress in 1988. Sajūdis gained a majority in the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet, and their leader Vytautas Landsbergis declared Lithuania's independence from USSR in 1990, the first of the former Eastern Bloc countries to do so, and a landmark act in the USSR's breakup. The Kremlin responded with an economic blockade which caused severe food and fuel shortages, and in 1991 the ham-fisted attempt at military clampdown led to Soviet tanks killing 13 demonstrators at the Vilnius TV tower. With the Kremlin old guard's failure to unseat Gorbachev, Soviet power evaporated leaving Lithuania joyously independent.

Post-communist Independence and Lithuanian NATO/EU membership:  the 1993 visit of Pope John-Paul II to Lithuania served as a powerful signal of the country's break with its communist past. The nationalist-conservative Vytautas Landsbergis (see right) remained the dominant figure in the Lithuanian parliament during the first 10 years post-independence and led the country's wholesale transformation to market economy, with privatisation of former state-controlled monopolies and economic liberalisation during the 1990s. The change however brought inevitable difficulties with the collapse of loss-making industries, rising unemployment and declining living standards. Up to 2007 with large amounts of foreign investment, the so-called 'Baltic Tiger' economies had Europe's highest growth rate; Lithuania's GDP growth rate was 7.5%. But worldwide recession post-2008 led to serious decline in economic growth rates. The most notable feature of post-independence politics has been the pro-Western orientation of the country's foreign policy, with successive governments supporting the cause of Lithuanian entry into NATO and the EU which the country achieved in 2004. Continuing high levels of inflation however have delayed the planned adoption of the Euro. In 2009, Lithuania elected Dalia Grybauskaitė as national President (see left).


Christianising Crusaders impose Germanic feudal aristocracy on Latvian serf peasantry:  the pagan tribes who settled the Baltic lands coalesced into a series of loosely-allied isolated rural communities defended by stockade forts, remaining wholly outside the influence of Western Europe until the 12th century. Increasingly, crusading knights saw the opportunity for territorial gain on the pretext of Christianising the Baltic pagans, and around 1200 AD Rīga was founded as a crusading city at the mouth of the Daugava River. The surrounding Latvian communities were progressively conquered and their confiscated lands divided among the Germanic knights. This confederation of Germanic feudal aristocracy known as the Livonian Order consolidated its rule over a serfdom of Latvian-speaking peasantry, and remained the dominant political force in the Latvian lands for 300 years. By the 16th century, the expanding mercantile city of Rīga, which joined the Hanseatic League in 1282, became focus of the Reformation with the wealthy German nobility funding vernacular translations of the Bible to popularise the Protestant faith among their Latvian serfs. With decline of the German aristocracy's power during the mid 16th century Livonian Wars, the Swedish kingdom took control of Rīga and northern Latvia with the south falling under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Russian control over Latvia and 19th century Latvian National Revival:  Russia destroyed Sweden as a regional power in the 1700~21 Great Northern War and the Partitioning of Poland finally brought Latvia fully under control of the Tsarist empire. Russian rule however brought no change for the Latvian majority who continued working as serfs on estates owned by a German-speaking ruling aristocracy. The Tsarist policy of Russification strengthened the determination of the Latvian middle class which began to emerge in Rīga to develop their indigenous language and culture, despite the Baltic Germans regarding Latvians as second class citizens who should abandon pretensions to education and remain on their farms. The rising generation of Latvian nationalists saw German culture as the language of oppression to be overcome by encouraging a more widespread use of Latvian. Krišjānis Valdemārs, leader of the New Latvians nationalist movement, established the first Latvian newspaper in 1862. Encouraged by Valdemārs, Krišjānis Barons set about a collection of Latvian folklore and dainas, traditional folk songs, to give the Latvians a sense of their own cultural history. The 1905 anti-Tsarist Revolution which spread across the Russian empire was followed by merciless reprisals under which a whole generation of Latvian nationalists were imprisoned or exiled.

WW1, the 1917 Bolshevik Russian Revolution and the Latvian War of Independence:  collapse of the eastern front following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia left Latvia fully in German control in WW1. But with Germany's surrender to the Western Allies in November 1918, a hastily convened Latvian National Council declared Latvia's independence with Kārlis Ulmanis (see right) appointed as head of the provisional government. With the 1918~20 Latvian War of Independence, Ulmanis was powerless since the Latvian Bolsheviks supported by the Red Army formed a short-lived Soviet Republic occupying Rīga and powerful German forces led by General von der Goltz controlled the west of the country. Supported by the Baltic German aristocracy, von der Goltz attempted to depose Ulamis and form a German-dominated state. Ulamis and the provisional government fled to the port city of Liepāja and with British support mustered a Latvian army to oppose von der Goltz's German forces. The Germans expelled the Bolsheviks from Rīga but were themselves forced out by Latvian forces with support from Royal Navy warships. Ulamis returned to Rīga in July 1919 and after failure of a further German attack on the capital in October, the Bolsheviks were driven out in the winter war of 1919~20. A Soviet-Latvian treaty signed in August 1920 officially ended hostilities and the independent state of Latvia was finally established as a parliamentary democracy.

Interwar years and WW2:  interwar Latvian politics was characterised by a proliferation of small parties with Kārlis Ulmanis' party ensuring a degree of stability during a succession of short-lived coalition governments. Steadily rising economic growth was cut short by the 1929 depression which led to public disillusionment with parliamentary politics. The resultant emergence of anti-democratic, extremist right wing groups led to Prime Minister Ulmanis declaring a state of emergency and appointing himself president in 1936, suspending Latvia's liberal democratic institutions and establishing an authoritarian regime. Ulmanis' period of rule resulted in rapid economic growth, during which Latvia attained a high standard of living, albeit at the cost of liberty and civil rights. Under the 1939 German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, Latvia along with the 2 other Baltic States was forced to accept Soviet military occupation; a puppet communist government voted for Latvia's incorporation into the USSR. Ulmanis resigned from government advising his people "I shall remain in my place, you remain in yours"; he was exiled to Siberia where he died in 1942. Baltic Germans fled westwards to Germany amid Soviet terror campaigns and in June 1941, Stalin began mass deportations of Latvians to Siberia. Hitler launched his invasion of the USSR the same month and within 2 weeks the German army controlled Latvia. Murder squads immediately began work and over the next 4 years, 70,000 Latvian Jews were eliminated (see right). Some Latvians welcomed the Germans as liberators, collaborating in the round-up and murder of Jews. Others, fearing German defeat by the Soviets, formed a Latvian SS unit which led Latvia's defence against the Red army in 1944. In October 1944 Rīga fell to the advancing Soviets, and 1000s of Latvians were conscripted into the Red Army in the bitter fighting to drive the Germans from Latvia. Some 130,000 Latvians fled west to escape the Soviet re-occupation of the country, and 1000s of others joined the anti-Soviet Forest Brothers partisan movement. During WW2, Latvia lost 450,000 people, 25% of its citizens.

Latvia under the Soviets (1945~90):  it was immediately clear that the Soviets were here to stay with the post-war years marked by dismal and sombre events for the Latvian nation: communist grip on the country was reinforced by sweeping waves of repression carefully planned and orchestrated by Moscow with 1000s of Latvian citizens imprisoned, executed or transported to Siberian forced labour camps. The thriving economic infrastructure developed in the 1920s and 1930s was eradicated and farming forced into collectivisation. Loyal Moscow-trained communists were brought in to run the local party, and many 1000s of industrial workers were migrated from the USSR intentionally decreasing the proportion of ethnic Latvians. Stalin's death in 1953 brought some relaxation of ideological controls but any opposition to official Kremlin policy was ruthlessly suppressed. Denied any political freedom, patriotic Latvians focused on their cultural inheritance and during the 1970s and 80s, folklore groups and choral societies enabled expression of national sentiment without provoking clampdown by the Soviet state.

The road to Latvian independence 1991: Mikhail Gorbachev's appointment as Soviet Communist Party's General Secretary in 1985 and his policy reforms of Glasnost and Perestroika enabled Latvian intellectuals to raise issues which had been taboo for years, particularly the Soviets' illegal occupation of the country in 1940. The Popular Front mass movement in 1988~89 demanded democratic reform and restoration of Latvian independence, with Latvians gathering in 1000s to sing previously banned patriotic songs. Relatively free elections in 1990 produced a pro-independence majority which announced restoration of the 1922 Latvian constitution. With the 1991 power struggle in Moscow between reformists and communist hardliners, people took to the streets in Rīga with 700,000 strong pro-independence demonstrations. Fearing Soviet military intervention as Soviet special forces opened fire killing demonstrators, barricades were erected around key buildings. Stung by international criticism, Gorbachev abandoned plans for further Baltic crackdown. Soviet and international recognition of Latvia's independence followed in September 1991.

Post-independence and Latvian membership of NATO and EU:  the immediate challenge facing the newly independent state was the transformation of dysfunctional centralised state-controlled economy to consumer-driven free market. The switch was achieved at remarkable speed but at painful social cost, with a minority making fortunes from the transition while the majority eked out a living on meagre wages. Runaway inflation, soaring unemployment, plummeting purchasing power, bank collapses wiping out savings, and the end of basic but universal Soviet social welfare system provided a harsh introduction for the Latvian people to their new freedom. The failure of successive coalition governments to combat corruption and raise living standards has resulted in an unimposing political climate with no single party or leader commanding a clear mandate. The other contentious domestic issue was how best to treat its substantial Russian-speaking minority, almost 30% of the population and a direct result of resettlement policies pursued by the Soviet regime. Despite nationalist claims that citizenship should be restricted to those descended from the pre-1945 population, international pressure for a non-ethnic approach to civil rights caused the Latvian government to grant citizenship to post-1945 immigrants with basic language proficiency in Latvian. Those who remained non-citizens retained the right to reside in Latvia but without voting rights; currently the number of predominantly Russian-speaking non-citizens is 327,000, almost 15% of the population. Latvia was ably represented internationally by the well-respected Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga (see left) who served as President from 1999~2007 and who spearheaded the country's drive to join both NATO and the EU. Despite Russian opposition to its westward leaning foreign policy, Latvia became a NATO and EU member in 2004, but continuing high inflation has delayed Latvia adopting the Euro until at least 2014. The current President of Latvia is Valdis Zatlers (see right).


Prehistoric settlement and Crusading Christian feudal conquest:  the early Finno-Ugric settlers of what is now Estonia lived a rural life in tribal farming and fishing societies, ruled by chieftains from stockade-forts; they were undisturbed by the outside world until the 10th century AD when Vikings set up trading posts along the north Baltic coast. By the 13th century, King Valdemar II of Denmark launched a crusading invasion of Estonia, founding the fortress city of Tallinn as a base from which to subdue the pagan tribes and seize their lands. The locals put up fierce resistance; but not only did the Danes' crusading invasion have papal blessing, legend has it that at the 1219 Battle of Lyndanisse, with the Estonians close to defeating the invaders, divine intervention signalled by a red banner with white cross falling from the sky inspired the Danes to victory. From then this banner, the Dannebrog was adopted as the Danish national flag. In reality, the Estonians were no match for the heavily armed crusaders and by the 1230s, the Danes along with the Livonian Order Germanic knights had carved up the country between them. The locals were forcibly converted to Christianity and their lands divided up among the new ruling class of knights and bishops. Towns like Tallinn and Tartu were populated by German-speaking immigrants attracted by mercantile opportunity, while the Estonians worked the land of the feudal estates in serfdom to their conquerors, a situation which remained virtually unchanged until the 19th century.

Estonia under Swedish and Russian control:  by the 14th century, the cost of pacifying the rebellious Estonian peasantry became too much for the Danes who sold their land-holding in the northern Baltic to the Livonian Order for 19,000 silver marks. A geographical distinction endured, the south of the country known as Livland (Livonia) looking to Riga, and the north termed Estland (which centuries later became Estonia) centred on Tallinn. Under the Livonian Order, the gulf separating Estonian peasants from Germanic landowners and clergy grew wider, while in the towns German-speaking burghers and merchants were served by an increasing population of Estonian servants and artisans. In the 16th century the Reformation was adopted enthusiastically by both aristocratic land-owners and city merchants in their power struggle with the Church, transforming Estonia from a Catholic country to a bastion of Lutheranism. The power vacuum left by the declining relevance of the Livonian order was exploited by the Swedish Empire which captured Tallinn in 1556, using it as a base to take in the whole of Estonia and driving the back the expansionist Russians. 17th century Swedish rule is regarded as an enlightened period in Estonia 's long history of foreign oppression: although the power of the German aristocracy remained intact, Swedish rule brought a degree of improvement in conditions for peasants' and extended primary education; Swedish King Gustav Adolphus (see left) founded Tartu University in 1632 which produced a new cadre of competent administrators. All this came to an end with the 1700~21 Great Northern War between Swedes and Russians which laid waste to large areas of Estonia and made Russian Tsar Peter the Great (see right) undisputed master of the Baltic region. With Estonia now part of the Russian Empire, Peter won support of the German magnates by reaffirming their privileges and offering top jobs in the imperial administration. As manorial estates flourished, conditions for Estonian peasants worsened; the abolition of serfdom in 1816 actually led to further impoverishment with peasants now forced to work as seasonal labourers for meagre wages.

19th century Estonian National Awakening:  at the start of the 19th century, there was little in the way of an Estonian national conscience, and those Estonians who had begun to advance themselves in the cities had become thoroughly Germanised in order to do so. But some enlightened Baltic Germans began to take an interest in Estonian language and folklore, and the Estonian Learned Society was founded at Tartu University to promote the study of local history and culture. Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald used traditional Estonian folk tales as the inspiration for his national epic poem Kalevipoeg in 1857, the first large scale piece of narrative fiction written in the Estonian language. Johann Voldemar Jannsen (see left) published the first Estonian language newspaper the Pärnu Courier in 1857 despite imperial censorship, founded the still flourishing Eesti Postimees in Tartu, and played a crucial role in the Estonian National Awakening by organising the first nationwide All-Estonian Song Festival in 1869; he also wrote the words for what became the Estonian national anthem Mu isamaa, mu õnn ja rõõm (My Fatherland, My Happiness and Joy). His daughter, Lydia Koidula (see right), who anonymously contributed to his writings, was also a major literary figure writing lyric poetry and made a lasting contribution to Estonian literature. Her patriotic poem Mu isamaa on minu arm (Land of my fathers, land that I love) was set to music for the 1869 Song Festival (Laulupidu), and was later sung at Song Festivals during the Soviet occupation uniting Estonians in defiance of the communist authorities. In the 1890s the Tsarist authorities began an intense programme of Russification which only served to radicalise the Estonian national movement. Support for the failed 1905 anti-Tsarist revolution brought setback with most national leaders forced into exile.

WW1, the Estonian War of Independence and inter-war years:  collapse of the Tsarist regime with the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia revived hopes for the Estonian national movement and in 1918 a newly constituted Estonian government under Konstantin Päts (see right) declared independence in Tallinn. A newly formed Estonian army under former Tsarist General Johan Laidoner (see left), supplied with arms by the British, drove back resurgent Bolsheviks forcing them to accept peace terms in 1919, and defeated the Baltic German army in the south securing Estonia's borders. The Constituent Assembly established a democratic republican government presided over by the State Elder, but initial post-war prosperity was brought to an end by the 1929 Great Depression. Many of those who had fought in the War of Independence were disillusioned with the state's inability to provide the expected jobs and increased living standards and joined a fascist pressure group, the Vaps Movement, demanding authoritarian rule. Konstantin Päts with support from the army carried out his own authoritarian coup d'état: political parties were banned and replaced by the Fatherland Union to give the country a unifying ideological focus, and Päts was elected Estonia's first President.

WW2, Soviet and German occupations:  with the 1939 German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact which placed the Baltics within the Soviet sphere of influence, Stalin insisted on establishing military bases in Estonia which was followed in June 1940 by complete occupation and annexation by the USSR through rigged elections. Päts was deported to the USSR and detained in psychiatric prison hospitals until his death in 1956. The Soviets tried to break the widespread hostility to their illegal take-over by a reign of terror with imprisonment, executions and mass deportation to Siberian forced labour camps. Many Estonians took to the forests to avoid forced conscription into the Red Army, forming partisan groups to combat Soviet occupation, and giving support to the June 1941 German invasion of the USSR. Initial expectations of the Germans as liberators of Estonia from Soviet repression and hopes for the restoration of the country's independence quickly evaporated; it was soon clear that the Germans were simply another occupying power. The Germans used Estonia's resources for the war effort for the duration of the occupation and Estonia was incorporated into the German province of Ostland. The inevitable elimination of the Jewish population and other 'undesirables' followed and by early 1942 the Einsatzgruppe commander reported to Berlin that Estonia was 'Judenfrei' (see right - click on picture for enlargement).

Estonia's 45 years under the Soviet repression (1945~91):  by September 1944 the advancing Red Army after fierce battles in the north west had driven the Germans out of Estonia which once again became part of the USSR. The second Soviet occupation was even harsher than the first: in 1949 a further wave of deportations to Siberian forced labour and death camps removed some 20,000 people randomly selected, mainly women, children and elderly, 2.5% of the Estonian population; more than half of these died in exile and most survivors never returned home to Estonia despite amnesties after Stalin's death. Most of those deported were from the countryside leading to a collapse in agricultural production, made worse by enforced collectivisation. Huge scale immigration of industrial workers from other parts of the USSR meant that by 1970 native Estonians constituted only 60% of the population ethnic mix. 1000s of young Estonians joined the anti-Soviet Forest Brothers partisans, believing that help would come from the West. Large areas of the country particularly coastal areas and the islands were declared secret militarised zones with access highly restricted. During the post-Stalin thaw of the 1950s Khrushchev era, Estonians were allowed greater freedom of contact with western countries and in the 1960s, a Tallinn~Hellsinki ferry link was opened. In the 1970s Estonians were able to watch Finnish television and had more information on current affairs and more access to Western culture and thought than any other group in the Soviet Union. This heightened media environment was significant in enabling Estonians to take greater advantage of perestroika during the late 1980s Gorbachev era.

The Singing Revolution (1988~91):  Gorbachev's policy reforms of Glasnost reawakened long repressed national feelings of resentment in Estonia. Protests in Tallinn in 1987~88 demanded greater self-determination for Estonia and in September 1988 250,000 Estonians gathered at Tallinn's Song Festival Grounds in a mass demonstration for independence from the USSR with TV images of flag-waving singing crowds giving the title of the Singing Revolution for the independence movement. In August 1989, the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact, 2 million people formed a human chain along the 600 km Baltic Way stretching from Tallinn through Riga to Vilnius (see right) demanding secession from the USSR. In November 1988, the Estonian Supreme Soviet, now controlled by Popular Front Members and pro-independence communists, issued the Estonian Sovereignty Declaration, and despite threats of Soviet military intervention, a March 1991 referendum on full independence gained 65% support; in August the Estonian legislature proclaimed full independence, and with the collapse of the anti-Gorbachev faction in Moscow, Soviet and international recognition quickly followed.

Estonian Independence and EU/NATO membership: in September 1992 Estonia's first fully free elections in over 60 years were held under the new constitution which established parliamentary government, the Riigikogu (parliament), headed by a prime minister with the president as head of state. The current President of Estonia is Toomas Hendrik Ilves (see left). In the years that followed, despite a number of political realignments, successive governments untainted by politics of the Soviet era have consistently pursued a successful transition to free-market economy. The speed of Estonia's transformation into a modern capitalist state readily positioned the country for EU membership, and a referendum on accession received overwhelming support in 2003, paving the way for full EU membership in May 2004. Estonia's stable economy enabled the country to adopt the Euro in January 2011. Estonia also joined NATO in 2004 confirming the county's position as a fully integrated member of the Western community. Estonia's international realignment toward the West however has been accompanied by a general deterioration in relations with Russia. The enduring issue from the 45 year period of Soviet occupation, which continues to disturb Estonia's relations with Russia, is the continuing presence of the Russian-speaking 30% of the country's population, descendents of immigrants brought in from the USSR during the Soviet era. Qualification for Estonian citizenship required non-Estonians to pass a language test, and despite EU assistance with this, 100,000 'non citizens' debarred from voting rights currently remain, almost 8% of the population. Internally relations between the Estonian majority and the Russian-speaking sizeable minority remain fractious, a situation alleged to be covertly incited by Russian agencies.

So that's the chequered and turbulent background story of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia so far, 3 small and distant countries whose language and culture were almost suffocated by centuries of conquest by neighbours, not least by 45 years of brutally oppressive Soviet communism. As always we journey with a purpose: the intention that our travels will give the opportunity for learning more for ourselves about our 3 host-countries which have so resiliently withstood such oppression. We look forward also to discussing and understanding more about peoples' lives in these modern, fully-fledged EU democratic states, and their hopes for a politically and economically stable future. We set off shortly and as usual shall be publishing regular updates to our web site, with news-update and pictorial record of our travels. Add the site to your Favourites and be sure of sharing our travels; we should welcome your companionship.

Sheila and Paul

Published:  Friday 25 March 2011


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Music this week: Kaks Koori Luuletustele
(Two Choral Poems) 
sung by Le Coq Choir, Tartu, Estonia

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