The Baltic States - Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - are far from being the grey, Soviet-scarred republics that many people imagine them to be. For a start, they're graced by three of the most enthralling national capitals in Eastern Europe, each highly individual in character and boasting an extraordinary wealth of historic buildings, as well as an expanding and energetic nightlife and cultural scene. Outside the cities lie great swathes of unspoiled countryside, with deep, dark pine forests punctuated by stands of silver birch, calm blue lakes, and a wealth of bogs and wetlands, all bordered by literally hundreds of kilometres of silvery beach. Peppering the landscape are villages that look like something out of the paintings of Marc Chagall, their dainty churches and wonky timber houses leaning over narrow, rutted streets. As you'd expect from a region periodically battered by outside invaders, there are dramatic historical remains aplenty, from the grizzled ruins of the fortresses thrown up by land-hungry Teutonic Knights in the thirteenth century, to the crumbling military installations bequeathed by Soviet occupiers some 700 years later.
Although the half century spent under Soviet rule has left Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians with a great deal in common, they're each fiercely proud of their separate status, and tend to regard the "Baltic States" label as a matter of geographical convenience rather than a real indicator of shared culture.
The Latvians and Lithuanians do at least have similar origins, having emerged from the Indo-European tribes who settled the area some two thousand years before Christ, and they still speak closely related languages. The Estonians, on the other hand, have lived here at least three millennia longer and speak a Finno-Ugric tongue that has more in common with Finnish than with the languages of their next-door neighbours. In historical and religious terms, it's the Lithuanians that are a nation apart - having carved out a huge, independent empire in medieval times, they then converted to the Catholic faith in order to cement an alliance with Poland. In contrast, the Latvians and Estonians were conquered by Teutonic Knights in the thirteenth century and subjected to a German-speaking feudal culture that had become solidly Protestant by the mid-1500s. From the eighteenth-century onwards, the destinies of the three Baltic peoples began to converge, with most Latvians and Estonians being swallowed up by the Tsarist Empire during the reign of Peter the Great and the Lithuanians following several decades later. Despite their common predicament, no great tradition of Baltic cooperation emerged, and when the three Baltic States became independent democracies in 1918-1920 - only to lose their independence to the USSR and Nazi Germany two decades later - they did so as isolated units rather than as allies.
The one occasion on which the Baltic nations truly came together was in the 1988-1991 period, when a shared sense of injustice at what the Soviet Union had done to them produced an outpouring of inter-Baltic solidarity. At no time was this more evident than when an estimated two million people joined hands to form a human chain stretching from Tallinn to Vilnius on 23 August, 1989, the fiftieth anniversary of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact - the cynical Soviet-Nazi carve-up that had brought the curtain down on inter-war Baltic independence. Baltic fellow feeling became less pronounced in the post-Soviet period when each country began to focus on its own problems, and it's now the differences - rather than the similarities - between the Baltic peoples that most locals seem eager to impress upon visitors.
How different they actually are remains open to question, with both locals and outsiders resorting to a convenient collection of clichés whenever the question of national identity comes under discussion: the Lithuanians are thought to be warm and spontaneous, the Estonians distant and difficult to know, while the Latvians belong somewhere in between. In truth there are plenty of ethnographic similarities linking the three nationalities. A century ago the majority of Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians lived on isolated farmsteads or small villages, and a love for the countryside, coupled with a contemplative, almost mystical feeling for nature, still runs in the blood. Shared historical experiences - especially the years of Soviet occupation and the sudden re-imposition of capitalism that followed it - have produced people with broadly similar outlooks and, wherever you are in the Baltic States, you'll come across older people marked by fatalism and lack of initiative and younger generations characterized by ambition, impatience and adaptability to change.
The Baltic peoples today are also united by gnawing concerns about whether such relatively small countries can preserve their distinct identities in a rapidly globalizing world. The rush to join NATO and the EU has been broadly welcomed in all three countries, not least because membership of both organizations promises protection against any future resurgence of Russian power. However, locals remain keenly aware that they can only be bit-part players in any future Europe. Lithuania has a population of 3.8 million, Latvia 2.3 million, and Estonia only 1.4 million - hardly the stuff of economic or cultural superpowers. Combined with this is a looming fear of population decline in countries that share some of the lowest birth rates in the world. Such anxieties are particularly strong in Estonia and Latvia, where the indigenous populations are in many towns and cities outnumbered by other ethnic groups - particularly Russians - who were encouraged to move here during the Soviet period. Only 55 percent of Latvia's inhabitants are ethnic Latvians, and the figure in Estonia, at 65 percent, isn't much better. Eager to immerse themselves in the new Europe and yet profoundly concerned with the need to preserve their national uniqueness, the Baltic States find themselves at a challenging crossroads....Continua