Center for Baltic HeritageDiscovering Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania
The news regularly features items regarding the "tiny Baltic states" and their uneasy relationship with neighboring Russia. Yet, the news never refers to "tiny" Denmark, Netherlands, Switzerland, or Taiwan, even though they are all smaller than any of the Baltic states—and whose combined population outnumbers that of their northern neighbors, Denmark, Finland, and Norway. This is not bias or ignorance, but a simple reflection that the Baltic states are still making their way back to the world stage in the post-Soviet era.
The Baltic past is rich in ancient cultural treasures and in the geopolitical lessons it teaches, as relevant to today as when Count Shuvalov, Russian governor-general of the Baltic provinces, first stated:
“The historical mission of the Baltic provinces is to serve as a battlefield for the problems of the highest politics in Europe.”
That role continues even today—26 years after the demise of the USSR, as the Baltics find themselves between an autocratic Russia and a western Europe seeking to fashion them, yet again, into a geopolitical front-line cordon sanitaire of democracies.
Our reference efforts here date to 2000 and our featuring These Names Accuse, an account of the first Soviet mass deportations and a list of those deported, after finding virtually nothing online. Even today, we find the quality of information on the web about Latvia and the Baltics lacking. There has been improvement. Popular resources such as Wikipedia often contain accurate and useful information. But inaccuracy has also multiplied. For example, twenty-five years after the fall of the USSR, Russia trucked out “Ukrainians are Nazis” propaganda to justify its invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.
Thus our quest continues: to find and preserve long forgotten pieces of paper holding accounts of the Baltic past, produced during the times they describe—or accounts by those who were there to experience events. Our purpose? To see the Baltics through the eyes of their times, no hindsight, no spin doctoring. Our search for objectivity also extends to the present: to disseminate reputable scholarship to counter the mischaracterizations and misconceptions which still envelope the Baltics decades after they restored independence following half a century of Nazi and Soviet occupations.
Yet, the significance of the Baltics is not that they have been a geopolitical battlefield for eight centuries—these are but a fraction of the millennia the Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians have lived and thrived along the Baltic coast as stewards of some of Europe's oldest and richest cultures.
While the Albanians might choose to dispute the contention, the Latvians and Lithuanians comprise the oldest surviving Indo-European culture. Linguists have forged entire careers comparing the somewhat older Lithuanian language to ancient Sanskrit. To someone familiar with languages, Latvian noun declensions are similar to those in Latin. There is also the controversy, at least amongst ethno-centric linguists, whether the Baltic branched off from the Slavic, or the Slavic branched off from the Baltic. Based on the age of languages, not chauvinism, we tend toward the latter view.
Hydronyms are often used to estimate the range of inhabitation by peoples or tribes. The areas inhabited by the Baltic tribes were significantly larger at one time—the Volga is a Baltic, not Russian, name. Those areas shrank owing to pressures from both Germanic and Slavic tribes. The current territories of Latvian and Lithuanian habitation as defined by their country's borders have been stable for the last four millennia—the Estonians arrived 1,500 or more years earlier and were displaced northward. Their kin, the Livs, remained settled mainly in fishing communities along the coast of the Baltic and Gulf of Rīga. Tragically, those communities went into a steep decline in the 20th century. Peters' mother told of learning Liv folk songs with her friends as a teenager in Kurzeme (Courland), but that generation, and language and song, are now gone—the last native Liv speaker died in 2013.
Despite its small size, Latvia and the other Baltic states and peoples boast a wealth of variety in traditional dress, foods, customs, and, at least prior to the 20th century, dialects. The folks songs, dainas, of the Latvians are voluminous and ancient. Baltic literary tradition started largely in the 19th century with the national awakenings. Most well known outside the Baltics is their the tradition of choral music, Baltic choirs are amongst the world's best.
If you leave our site a bit more informed and curious, then we will have accomplished our mission!