Art Nouveau started in Brussels in
1893, but I dont know anywhere other than Riga where it determines the
architectural expert Janis Krastins to
The Wall Street Journal on how Art Nouveau, or Jugendstil, sets the
architectural tone in downtown Riga.
Tallinn is one of the quaintest
capitals in Europe. A city of seven centuries, it bears marks of its varied history. A
fascinating mixture of old and new is Tallinn, a town of pewter-colored steeples, red
roofs, quaint alleyways, numerous towers like gigantic pepper boxes and a treasure of
from a report in Britains Manchester
Quarterly, in 1933.
Vilnius: narrow cobblestone streets
and an orgy of the Baroque, almost like a Jesuit city somewhere in the middle of Latin
Polish writer, Noble Laureate and one-time Vilnius
resident, Czeslaw Milosz.
"To love the Baltic states, you have
to love forests....Love of nature, and most especially of forests and trees, are the keys
to understanding and liking much of Baltic culture."
Anatol Lieven, author of The Baltic
Its a heavenly kingdom for
landowners, a paradise for pastors and a hell for peasants.
From the 18th century chronicle, History of
Livonia, about the harsh social conditions in the major Baltic cities in the
My child, we are a nation of eaters,
but put your spoon in your bowl while a song is being sung.
from a poem by Latvian poet Imants Ziedonis, on the traditional
importance of singing in Baltic cultures.
Russia has long regarded the Baltic
states as its window to Europe. Doormat might be the more apt
From U.S. News and World Report,
November 4, 1996, on Russias long history of invading and occupying the Baltic
The idea that nature shares their
joys and sorrows is strong. The forests sigh and the flowers rejoice with them; the light
of the stars accompanies them in consolation.
From the book, Lithuania: Past and
President (1939), about the traditional Baltic closeness to nature,
If someone had predicted right after
the Baltic states regained independence that they would soon experience rapid growth and a
notable rise in living standards, the guy would surely have been strapped into a white
coat and carted straight off to the nearest funny farm. But, alas, thats what has
happened. Especially relative to other nations of the former Soviet empire, Estonia,
Latvia and Lithuania are now booming.
Answers to questions about how much life has changed for the
better since independence can vary wildly according to whom you talk to. Younger people
are far more likely to have benefited from the economic gains, and they rejoice about the
dawn of free-market capitalism. They are, after all, the ones wearing new designer clothes
and driving BMWs. The elderly are more likely to complain that their lives have become
worse. There are those who would even look back fondly at Soviet rule, which, while
utterly gray, boring and oppressive, was also more secure and predictable. In the Baltics,
however, those who advocate turning back the clock are very few and far between. For bona
fide reactionaries, try Russia or Belarus.
Complaining by the average man and woman on the street is
relatively mute considering the hardships they have had to put up with in recent years.
Plummeting living standards that nearly everyone has suffered to some degree or another
since 1991 would have been enough to spark riots and bloodletting in most Western
countries. Here, there is an underlying faith that things are moving in the right
direction. There is, of course, the small matter of resurgent Russian imperialism. That
potential threat is always more or less on the minds of people in the region. But Russia,
like the weather, is something Balts understand they can only do so much about: just cross
your fingers and hope for the best.
and the Same
A decade after independence, it has become fashionable for Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians to play down
their similarities. After tearing themselves from Moscow’s iron grip, they are, understandably, taking the time to
blow their own horns for a while.
But they have more in common than they’re inclined to admit.
All three were conquered and pillaged by the same communist superpower, for one thing. This bitter legacy
continues to impact all three nations, from the emotional scars that come from living under totalitarianism to the
ungodly apartment blocks that spoil the outskirts of every major city.
And while Lithuania's history in the Middle Ages was unique, with its powerful monarchy and union with
Poland, Estonian and Latvian histories have been closely parallel for going on 800 yearsfrom the 13th century
Teutonic invasion to the present. And since around 1800, Lithuanian history has also been remarkably similar to
that of the other two Baltics.
In all three Baltic states, you also sometimes still get the same sense you’re in a time warp, where the 1930s
have collided head on with the 1990s. Many Balts own the latest-model Mercedes and use laptops to log on to
wireless Internet services, while others still drive Stalinist-era wrecks and don’t even have a phone.
Balts also share many of the same values and idiosyncrasies. They share a similar love of forests, and they
have the same kind of tenacity and stubbornnesstraits that have served them well as a series of occupiers tried
and failed to break their spirits.
They can also have the same tendency towards suspicion of outsiders and can derive a little bit too much
pleasure from the misfortune of others. As one Lithuanian saying goes, "Every Lithuanian hopes his neighbor’s
horse dies." They all have a well-ingrained fear, even loathing for Russia.
But there are clear differences, starting with their respective languages. Lithuanian and Latvian are related, but
vowel-rich Estonian isn’t even in the same language family. There are also differences in national character: The
stereotype is that the Estonians are too reserved, the Lithuanians too emotional and
the Latvians somewhere in between.
Latvia and Estonia do share Lutheranism, the predominant religion in both countries. But Lithuanians are
Catholic, and, as a rule, tend to be more religious.
As they take somewhat different social and economic paths, Balts spend a surprising amount of time ignoring each other. Most would be hard pressed to name a single cultural figure from one of the other Baltics, whereas they could name scores from Sweden or even Russia.
If youre living here for extended periods, there are times when
the Baltic states can feel like island nations. Surrounded by the Baltic Sea to the West
and to the East by Russia, you can occasionally have the sense of being stranded. If only
you could hop in a car for a quick drive to Western Europe. But despite a growing range of
ferries and airlines servicing the region, getting out of the Baltics by car still poses
serious problems. The border is one of them. While all three Baltic governments have
pledged to improve inter-Baltic borders, crossing them can still take time.
As the three Baltics have opened up to the West, the sense
of isolation has, in other ways, dramatically lessened. In the past, there was a tendency
of Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians to look inward and disregard the world outside. To
outsiders, this could also sometimes add to a feeling of being shut off. But as contact
with the outside world increases, Baltic perspectives are broadening. These changing
attitudes are also helping to make these countries more enjoyable places to live, work and
Were No. 1?
All three Baltic capitals still have aspirations of becoming the premier
Baltic city, the place where foreign investors just have to be, the Baltic Hong Kong,
the Paris of the Northin short, the Baltic city.
So far, Riga and Tallinn probably have the most credible claims to being the most
important business and financial centers of the Baltics. (Whether you say Riga or Tallinn
is the No. 1 city tends to depend, not surprisingly, on whether you live in Riga or in
Tallinn. Rigans say its obvious that Rigas No. 1, and Tallinners say its
obvious Tallinn is.) As a result of its less-favorable geographic location, Vilnius may be
a longer shot in this emerging battle of the Baltic cities. It too, however, has dreams of
becoming the regional powerhouse. The improving Lithuanian economy and the increasing
importance of Poland certainly bodes well for Vilnius.
Most bets, however, are still on Riga or Tallinn.
Rigas big trump card is that it is centrally located, and also that it is the
largest, most cosmopolitan of the three Baltic capitals. Tallinns pluses include its
close links to Scandinavia and its generally sophisticated Western outlook.
The first recorded use of the word Baltic was by 11th century
German chronicler Adamus Bremen, who, writing in Latin, referred to Mare Balticum,
the Baltic Sea. One version is that he got the term from the Danish word for
belt, bælteas in the belt-like shape of the sea itself. Another
theory is that Baltic derives from the Prussian word for land-locked bay, balt.
Others say Baltic is from the Lithuanian word baltas, or whiteas
in the white, wind-swept sea.
The tradition of Christmas trees may have originated in
the Baltics, say many Baltic historians. Journals from Riga in the early 1500s mention the
practice of local merchants decorating fir trees on Christmas Eve, then setting the trees
alight after a festive meal. Chronicles from Estonia also describe how German knights in
Tallinn would carry a tree to the Town Hall Square, draping it with colored paper and
fitting it with candles. Only later, say many historians, did the knights introduce the
trees to their German homeland, from which the tradition spread to the rest of the world.
All three regional languages, Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian, had no
single standardized form until the early half of this century. In each country, there were
at least two or three different dialects spoken. The High West Lithuanian dialect was
declared the official language in 1918, and the North Estonian dialect was declared
standard Estonian by 1914. In Latvia, the process of harmonizing the different dialects
went on into the 1920s; the Latvian in the Latgale region is still distinct from standard
Latvian. Estonians and Latvians also tried to purge their languages of German words, while
Lithuanians tried to rid their language of Polish words.
In antiquity this region was known as the Amber Coastso described
by the Greek poet Homer after the golden translucent resin found off Baltic shores.
Virtually all amber came from the Baltics and, via trading routes, arrived in Greece by
2000 B.C. It's the only jewel mentioned in Homer's Odyssey: the cunning rascal came
to my fathers home with a golden necklace strung at intervals with amber
beads. Some Baltic amber has even been found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs;
treasure found with King Tut included an amber necklace.
So thick were forests in this region 1000 years ago, it is said a
squirrel could hop from tree to tree from the shores of the Baltic to Moscow. About half
of the area in the Baltic states is still forested.
(Other tidbits, here)
PAPER-The Baltic States
Twenty things about
life under Soviet rule that have become distant memories in the Baltic states:
1. KGB goons
troops in every nook and cranny of the region
3. Lines, lines and more lines
5. Communist flags
7. Rampant shortages
of everything from bananas to toilet paper
8. Locked restaurant
doors, and portly, ill-tempered doormen yelling at you to go away
zones, including certain cities and most coastal areas
10. State censorship
11. Outbound flights
all connecting through Moscow
all ethnic-Russian police forcesthe aptly named militia
war veterans with rights to cut food lines
along the shore meant to prevent escape to the West
strewn with barbed wire
exit visas for locals
19. Russian military
planes regularly buzzing major Baltic cities
things the Baltic states have in common:
of Russia: After nearly ten years free of Moscows grip, all three Baltics
still hold a grudge. Getting over suspicions about their eastern neighbor will take
in the West: The West is best, or so many Balts still firmly believe.
They want into NATO and the EU so badly they can taste it.
The most important similarity history-wise was the 50 years spent under Soviet rule. A
Soviet thread, from ungodly apartment blocks to various Soviet habits, still runs through
all three nations.
4. Love of Nature:
Balts share a closeness to the land, especially forests. This is also evident in a similar
sense of taste; most Balts tend to prefer low-key, earthy colors.
One of the enduring qualities of all three Baltic peoples over the centuries has been a
staunch refusal to submit to foreign occupations, of which there have been many.
Occupation and passive resistance has helped foster in all three peoples a remarkable
stubbornness, a characteristic which sometimes does and sometimes does not work in their
things the Baltic states DONT have in common:
All three national languages are different. Lithuanian and Latvian are related, but
Estonian isnt even in the same language family.
2. Each other: For all the
proclamations about joint Baltic cooperation, Balts spend a surprising amount of time
ignoring each other. If asked, most Balts would be hard pressed to name a single cultural
figure from one of the other Baltics, whereas they could probably name many from Russia or
They share the Soviet occupation in common, but beyond that, their histories have been
varied, especially Lithuanias.
All three nations tend to look to and be influenced by different regions. Estonians have
the best links with Finland and Scandinavia; the Latvians, with the Germans and to a
lesser degree with the Scandinavians; and the Lithuanians with the Poles, the rest of
Central Europe and also the Americans.
5. Religion: Latvia and
Estonia do share Lutheranism, the predominant religion in both countries. But Lithuanians
are Catholic, and, as a rule, they also tend to be more religious.