The Baltic Nations

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Alfred Erich Senn

In the course of European history, the term "Baltic" has had various meanings. To a philologist, it refers to the language family that includes Latvian and Lithuanian. In nineteenth-century Imperial Russia, the Baltic Provinces included only the territory now called Latvia and Estonia. At the same time the term "Balt" referred to the German nobility in the region. Only in the nineteenth century did the masses of Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians become a factor in the politics of the region, and only in the twentieth century, when the independent states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania appeared on the European scene, did observers link them together as the Baltic States.

The eastern shore of the Baltic Sea constituted a major crossroads of military, mercantile, and cultural currents. Although Latvians and Lithuanians speak related languages, the history of the Latvians is more closely tied to that of the Estonians, who speak a non-Indo-European language akin to Finnish and, more distantly, to Hungarian. First Germans and then Swedes dominated the northern part of the eastern Baltic littoral until the Russian Empire incorporated the territory in 1721. The Lithuanians, on the other hand, lived in close union with Poland until their incorporation into the Russian Empire at the end of the eighteenth century.

Between World War I and II, independent statehood allowed all three nationalities to consolidate their distinct identities, which then carried them through half a century of Soviet rule until they again emerged as independent states in the 1990s.


In the historic division of Europe between Latin Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy, the Baltic region lay on the eastern frontier of western Europe. Crusading Teutonic knights brought Latin Christianity in the thirteenth century, when they conquered the lands inhabited by the ancestors of the Estonians and Latvians. The ancestors of the modern Lithuanians resisted, establishing the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Lithuanian grand duke Mindaugas accepted Latin Christianity in 1251, but the Lithuanians soon reverted to their pagan practices. Between 1386 and 1387, the Lithuanians officially returned to the Catholic Church as the result of a political union with Poland.

The Teutonic conquerors drew the northern part of the region into the Hanseatic League, imported the Magdeburg Law for the cities, and established a ruling German upper class. The Lithuanian Grand Duchy, on the other hand, moved into the void created by Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century and incorporated territories that eventually became Belarus and Ukraine, where the population was Slavic in language and Eastern Orthodox in religion. On its western frontier, however, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania controlled only what became known as Lithuania Major, including the cities of Kaunas and Vilnius. Lithuania Minor, the seacoast of present-day Lithuania, including the city of Klaipe˙da (Memel), lay under German rule until the twentieth century.

In the fourteenth century Jews began to immigrate into the region, primarily coming from Germany, and their numbers grew rapidly. Winning the right to maintain their own traditions and ways, Jews found that they could establish stronger communities in the eastern, less-developed lands of the grand duchy, which in 1386 became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and therefore they sank particularly deep roots in Lithuania. Vilnius (or Vilna), the capital of Lithuania, became a major Jewish cultural center.

On the eve of the modern era, the indigenous people of the region lived and worked primarily as peasants. As such they were caught up in the process of intensifying enserfment and were excluded from any political or economic power. In the north the landowning nobility was mainly German, and German merchants together with some Germanized locals dominated urban affairs. In Lithuania, Polish or Polonized nobility, church officials, and merchants dominated the cities and towns, but a significant portion of commerce and banking came into the hands of the growing Jewish population. In the sixteenth century all three native peoples—Estonians, Lithuanians, and Latvians—developed their own written literature, largely as a result of the religious controversies arising from the Reformation.


In the sixteenth century the Reformation drastically changed the nature of the region's cultural development, and the emergence of the Grand Duchy of Moscow as an eastern European power radically changed the course of the area's political and economic history. By the end of the eighteenth century the region had fallen under the control of the Russian Empire.

In 1525 the Livonian Order of the Teutonic Knights secularized its landholdings and formed the state of Livonia with Lutheranism as the official religion. In the middle of the century the Lithuanian nobility, which over time accepted Polish language and customs, showed considerable sympathy for Calvinist teachings. But the Catholic Counter-Reformation, led by the newly formed Jesuit order, restored the grand duchy and Poland to the dominion of Rome.

In 1558 Tsar Ivan IV of Moscow attacked Livonia to extend his realm to the Baltic Sea. Moscow had already begun driving the Lithuanians back from Belarusian and Ukrainian territories. The so-called Livonian War lasted twenty-five years. Although Ivan failed to reach the Baltic, the conflict radically changed the political face of the Baltic region. The Livonian state collapsed. Sweden occupied the northern part of the Livonian lands, while Poland-Lithuania took in the southern part.

The social structure of the Baltic changed little as a result of this conflict. In occupying the northern part of the former Livonian lands, the Swedish government guaranteed the rights of the German nobility. While most Estonians came under Swedish rule, Latvians found themselves split between Sweden and Poland-Lithuania. In the eastern section, Inflanty, or Latgallia, Polish nobility and Catholic influences dominated. In the western section, the Duchy of Courland, the dukes were nominally vassals of the Polish Crown, but they maintained considerable autonomy, adhering to the Lutheran Church and even briefly establishing colonial holdings in Africa. In Lithuania, Polish influences intensified, especially after the Union of Lublin in 1569, which tightened the administrative bonds between the two states. By the terms of this agreement, Poland took over the Ukrainian territories that had previously been a part of the grand duchy.

In the seventeenth century the population suffered grievous losses as warring Swedish, Polish, and Russian troops marched through the territory. These losses culminated in the devastation wrought by plague from 1708 to 1711. Lithuanian historians estimate that the plague reduced the Lithuanian population by one-third. Estonian and Latvian historians calculate that by 1721 the population count was at most 150,000 to 170,000 Estonians and some 220,000 Latvians. The original population of Prussia, which spoke a language akin to modern Latvian and Lithuanian, died out almost completely, and an influx of German and Swiss settlers gave this region, centered on the city of Königsberg, its historic German character.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century Tsar Peter I of Moscow drove the Swedes from the region. He crowned his efforts to expand the Muscovite state by proclaiming it the Russian Empire. As provided by the terms of the Treaty of Nystadt (1721), the Baltic German nobility maintained their privileges. Constituting a privileged caste, they obtained ever greater authority over their peasants, who at times mounted violent resistance to the landlords.

In the eighteenth century Russian influences in Lithuania grew. The tsarist court established control over the Duchy of Courland, which it formally incorporated in 1795. In the first partition of the Polish-Lithuanian state in 1772, the Russian Empire incorporated Inflanty (Latgallia), and in the second and third partitions it incorporated most of Lithuania. Prussia took the Lithuanian region of Suvalkai/Suwałki in the partitions. Napoleon subsequently incorporated it into the Duchy of Warsaw, then at the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815) Russia took the territory as part of the Kingdom of Poland.

At the time that the Russian Empire occupied this territory, the indigenous population had yet to express any voice in its public affairs or in its future. In the middle of the eighteenth century German romantics, to be sure, discovered these peoples, and the German writer Johann Gottfried von Herder paid special note to the particular genius of all national cultures as he wrote about his discovery of the Latvian peasantry. Baltic intellectuals later cherished these thoughts, but they objected that their German visitors often seemed to want to preserve the past as a collection of relics rather than to contribute to the future development of these cultures. It was by no means clear that these local peasant cultures would ever emerge from foreign domination and develop to the level of national statehood.


After the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1814–1815, the Baltic region, for the first time together under one government, experienced a century without foreign invasions. Under the Russian administration, Estonians and Latvians lived in the Baltic Provinces of Kurland (Courland), Livland, and Estland, while most Lithuanians lived in the Northwest Province centered around the city of Vilnius/Vilna. Under these relatively stable conditions, the population recovered, and according to the Russian census of 1897, the population of the Estonian region stood at about 1 million and the population of the Latvian region at almost 2 million. Calculating the geographic and demographic dimensions of Lithuania is more difficult for reasons explained below.

The major social and economic change the nineteenth century brought to life in the three Baltic peoples was the emancipation of the peasants. In the Baltic Provinces between 1816 and 1819 the peasants were freed from serfdom without land. They gained new rights as individuals, but delays in the implementation of the new order and legal restrictions on their right to migrate meant that remnants of the serf system lingered until the middle of the century. In the Lithuanian lands and Latgallia emancipation came in 1861. Since the Russian government wanted to weaken the Polish nobility in the Northwest Province, the peasants received relatively favorable terms in obtaining land. Even so, the population did not feel the full economic and social impact of the emancipation until the 1880s.

Freed from the bonds of serfdom and emerging from their history as the peasants in a region dominated by landowners who represented strong neighbors, all three peoples entered new phases of their national development. Latvians and Estonians enjoyed a more diversified economic life and a more active political life than did the Lithuanians. Riga, an important entrepôt for the Russian Empire, drew migrants from the countryside, and by the end of the nineteenth century Latvians were important participants in Russian Socialist politics. Lithuanians lagged behind for several reasons. The Russian government limited economic development in the region because it lay on the border with Germany, and the local Russian authorities, seeking to weaken Polish influences on Lithuanian culture, banned the use of Latin characters in printing Lithuanian texts—in effect a ban on the Lithuanian press. (The Russian authorities lifted the ban in 1904.) Latvians and Estonians developed a lively public press, discussing social issues at a time when Lithuanians had to publish materials abroad, mostly in East Prussia and later in the United States, and smuggle them into the empire at great risk.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, as a result of the peculiar economic and political conditions, Lithuanians emigrated from the region in much greater numbers than did Latvians or Estonians. Lithuanians wanting to leave rural life for jobs in cities could not expect to find work in Vilnius, which, restricted by Russian government policy, had little industry and remained predominantly a city of artisans. Lithuanians looking for urban work had to think of Riga, St. Petersburg, or other Russian cities, and in growing numbers they chose to go abroad. Those seeking only seasonal work might settle for jobs in Germany or the Scandinavian countries, but those seeking long-term prospects set off in growing numbers for North America. As a result Vilnius, which the Lithuanians claimed as their capital, looked like a Polish city, and according to the Russian census of 1897, Jews constituted a plurality of the city's population (39 percent).

Lithuanian emigration to the United States had far-reaching repercussions on Lithuanian development. Many émigrés, who were mostly young men, nurtured the idea of returning home after they had accrued a sufficient nest egg, usually thought of as perhaps $500. But in America, working primarily in industry and in mining, they found a completely new life that both confused and absorbed them. Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle (1906) focused on one such Lithuanian immigrant to Chicago. The majority of these young men in fact did not return to Lithuania but sent considerable amounts of money back to their relatives at home. Lithuanian nationalist leaders despaired of this emigration, believing that the nation was losing its hope for the future.

By the beginning of the twentieth century nationalist leaders in the Baltic had to define their national existence against a complicated background of circumstances. Although they lived under Russian rule, leaders of all three nationalities saw the greatest threat to their national identities in their own landowners, Poles and Germans. Latvians and Estonians, who could not claim to have had a historic state, talked of the right of national self-determination, but they had to free themselves of the historically entrenched power of the German nobility, who had provided many military figures and diplomats in the Russian government. For both Estonians and Latvians, language was the major factor in their national identities. The Estonians were mainly Lutheran, as were the Germans. But the Latvians found their religious preferences split between the Lutherans in the west and the Catholics in the east.

The Lithuanians faced a different set of circumstances in defining their national identity. They claimed to be the heirs of the historic Lithuanian Grand Duchy, but the heritage of that state was confusing. The ancestors of the modern Lithuanians had constituted only a minority of that state's population. The Poles had dominated the culture of the state, and a person Polish in culture might well use "Lithuanian" as a designation of the territory in which he or she lived. As a result, even the name "Lithuanian" was subject to confusing interpretations. Lithuanian nationalists nevertheless insisted on their historic right to national self-determination, founding their identity on their language and the Roman Catholic religion. Historically, however, the Roman Catholic Church had been a vehicle for the Polonization of Lithuania, and therefore some Lithuanian freethinkers objected to idealizing the role of the church in Lithuanian culture.

On the eve of World War I, despite the obvious growth of national consciousness among all three Baltic peoples, none of them occupied a significant place in the tsarist Russian government's consideration of "national questions" in its empire. Poles, Finns, Armenians, and Jews posed much more visible problems. The particular circumstances of the military conflict from 1914 to 1918 created a situation that suddenly allowed these three peoples to create their own political systems and to emerge as independent states.


World War I brought the opportunity for independence but at a high price. In the course of the conflict, German forces occupied most of the Baltic region. The Bolshevik government, which took power in Russia in 1917, announced that it had no claim to the territory, but Moscow nevertheless attempted to impose Communist governments on the three Baltic peoples. By 1920 Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had established three national republics, and in turn their independence contributed greatly to the development of national societies and cultures in each.

All three newly independent Baltic States considered the strengthening of their respective national cultures as imperative for their new governments. This in turn necessitated consideration of the interests of national minorities. In Latvia minorities constituted 20 to 25 percent of its almost 2 million inhabitants, of which Russians, including Belorussians, represented the largest group (about 12 percent). Estonians made up two-thirds of the 1 million inhabitants of Estonia.

Because of Lithuania's boundary conflicts, calculating the republic's minorities was more difficult. The 1923 census did not include Vilnius, which Poland had seized in 1920, and Memel/Klaipe˙da, which the Lithuanians occupied from 1923 to 1939. That census reported that minorities constituted 16 percent of Lithuania's reported 2.5 million inhabitants and that Jews made up almost half of the minorities (7.6 percent). Jewish leaders had almost idealized the Lithuanian state at its creation, expecting to play a major role in its affairs, therefore they resented the government's efforts to strengthen the Lithuanian role in society while restricting Jewish participation in public affairs. During the period that Lithuania controlled Memel, the republic had a larger minority population because of the number of Germans living in that region. In 1939 the Soviet Union, after occupying eastern Poland, turned the Vilnius region over to Lithuania, greatly increasing both the Jewish and the Polish minorities in that state. The uncertainty of Lithuania's borders was a troublesome consideration in relations between the three republics.

The majority of the population in all three republics was peasants, and the first concern of the new governments was land reform. In Estonia 86 percent of the expropriated land had belonged to Baltic Germans, who were not permitted to keep any land. The Latvians and the Lithuanians permitted the expropriated landowners to keep small estates. In Latvia the landowners affected were mostly German, Russian, and Polish, and in Lithuania they were Polish and Russian. Expropriated Latvian Germans appealed to the League of Nations in protest, but in 1925 the League Council declared that the reforms constituted acceptable agrarian reform and not national discrimination. In all three republics authorities encouraged agricultural cooperatives as a means of relieving the disruption to production efficiency resulting from the breakup of large estates. All three republics reported population increases but declining birth rates during the period between the two world wars.

Throughout the period between the two world wars, the economies of all three republics were primarily agricultural. As of 1934, 60.2 percent of the Estonian workforce was engaged in agriculture, 17.8 percent in industry, and 5.1 percent in commerce. Latvia in 1930 reported 66.2 percent of its workforce in agriculture, 13.5 percent in industry, and 5.2 percent in commerce. Lithuania in 1936 estimated that 76.7 percent of its workforce was in agriculture, 6.4 percent in industry, and 2.5 percent in commerce. Lithuania was self-sufficient in grain production, while Estonia and Latvia normally had to import grain. Lithuania was an important exporter of flax. All three republics significantly expanded their output of dairy products in this period.

The era of independence gave the people of each society the opportunity to develop their national culture to new dimensions. Besides creating new educational institutions and broadening economic life, this involved standardizing and modernizing the native language to meet the new demands of business and technology and building a broader and stronger national self-consciousness as a nation. Although the democratic institutions in each republic gave way to authoritarian rule—Lithuania in 1926, Latvia and Estonia in 1934—by 1939 the society in each of the republics had a clearer collective identity than it had in 1918 and 1919. This sense of identity played a vital role in each nation's survival during the half-century of Soviet rule.


In 1939 the Soviet Union signed agreements with Nazi Germany whereby the Germans recognized the Baltic region as part of the Soviet sphere. In 1940 Soviet troops overran the three republics, and the USSR annexed them as constituent republics. Soviet historians called the process a simultaneous social revolution in each republic. In reality envoys from Moscow restructured institutions to mirror the Soviet system. Although the authorities did not at first collectivize agriculture, they carried out extensive land reforms.

Soviet authorities also struck at the bases of the national self-consciousness by closing national institutions and religious organizations. Some individuals of the old order joined the new, but the authorities, aiming at discrediting the period of independence, put greater effort into winning the support of previously dissatisfied groups, particularly among the minorities. At the same time, through an agreement between Moscow and Berlin, the German population of the Baltic could emigrate to Germany, thereby essentially ending the historic role of local Germans in the lives of the Estonians and the Latvians.

Just a week before Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Soviet authorities carried out massive arrests and deportations in all three Baltic republics. As Soviet forces retreated, Lithuanian activists proclaimed the reestablishment of the Lithuanian state, and in many areas Lithuanians indiscriminately attacked and killed Jews, who, they declared, had served the Soviet regime. German forces suppressed the provisional Lithuanian government and then carried out their own systematic campaign of arresting and executing Jews. By the end of 1941 the Jewish population constituted only a small portion of what it had been at the beginning of the year, and only some 5 percent survived the war.

The Baltic region remained under German occupation until 1944. Partisan resistance, first organized by Communists, developed and helped prepare the way for the return of Soviet troops. The Soviet Red Army brought the Soviet system back, and this time Moscow tolerated even fewer local peculiarities than it had in 1940. The local populations faced the choices of complying, resisting, or fleeing. A great many city dwellers chose flight. Since the Western powers, led by the United States, had not recognized the Soviet annexation of the Baltic States in 1940, Baltic refugees in Western Europe were considered "displaced persons" (DPs). As émigrés they struggled to construct a new diaspora to keep their national cultures alive. The resistance in the Baltic, supported mainly by the peasantry, continued into the early 1950s.

Under Soviet rule the population of the Baltic republics underwent considerable social change. In the late 1940s the authorities collectivized agriculture, doing away with the private farming that had prevailed up to that time. They deported hundreds of thousands of locals. They introduced new industries, which in turn brought in workers from other parts of the Soviet Union, especially to Latvia and Estonia. In contrast, the Lithuanians limited the influx of workers from other regions and even established Lithuanian majorities in the populations of both Vilnius and Klaipe˙da (Memel). By agreement with Warsaw, Poles in Lithuania could leave the republic for Poland.

Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians participated actively in the scientific and intellectual lives of the Soviet Union. Whenever Soviet authorities considered reforms aimed at improving the general welfare, the Baltic republics joined in enthusiastically, and at the time of the collapse of the Soviet system, the Baltic peoples enjoyed a higher standard of living than other parts of the Soviet Union. In the late 1970s, as part of a plan to "merge" the nationalities of the USSR, Soviet educators introduced a new policy called "bilingualism," in accordance with which local children began studying Russian in school before they received any instruction in their native languages. Many Western observers expected rapid assimilation of the Baltic populations into the great mass of the Soviet population.

Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) opened the way for new developments. Given the opportunity to raise social and cultural concerns, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians reacted quickly. Gorbachev responded by encouraging the non-Baltic minorities—Russians, Belorussians, and Poles—against the eponymous nationality in each republic. Baltic national leaders nevertheless persisted. The Baltic example gave focus to considerable national discontent throughout the rest of the Soviet Union and ultimately constituted a major factor in the collapse of the USSR. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia won general recognition as independent states in the fall of 1991.


The post-Soviet societies in the Baltic nations were very different from those of the 1920s. In 1989 only 12 or 13 percent of the workforce in the three republics was engaged in agriculture, 32 to 41 percent in industry. The metalworking industries obviously depended on Soviet supplies and markets, while food and timber enterprises used local resources. Institutions of the 1930s could not be revived easily. The countries faced difficult decisions on returning socialized property to former owners and on privatizing enterprises established in Soviet times. Behind these general questions lay even more difficult ones concerning guilt, atonement, and punishment of individuals and groups for collaboration with the Soviet authorities. In any given dispute, all of these factors interlocked in varying ways, both rational and emotional.

The question of minorities arose in new dimensions. Russians, who had been part of the majority in the large Soviet state, now resented being a minority in a much smaller state. In Lithuania, where the eponymous nationality constituted 80 percent of the 3.6 million inhabitants, the government accepted the so-called "zero-option," granting citizenship to any persons living in Lithuania on a given date. Latvians, only 52 percent of the 2.5 million inhabitants in their state, and Estonians, 60 percent of the 1.5 million inhabitants of their country, adopted more restrictive laws, thereby evoking strong protests from Moscow. That the three Baltic republics continued to enjoy higher living standards than Russia mitigated the complications of this continuing problem.

Another aspect of citizenship laws concerned the rights of émigrés to return to their homelands. A number of those who had settled in the West wanted to return and to participate in public life. Some nationals who had not previously returned from Siberian exile came back. Many émigré institutions and publications moved to the homelands. At the same time it became obvious that the various branches of the national culture had grown apart, carrying differing and even conflicting intellectual baggage with them. In addition, to limit the potential problems posed by their Russian inhabitants, the states hesitated to make every émigré a citizen automatically, and they forbade their citizens from holding citizenship in another state.

The social history of the Baltic nations has been heavily dependent on the kaleidoscope of its political history. The original inhabitants of the region fell prey to the ambitions of neighbors. In the first phase, the upper classes of the native peoples assimilated into the predominant foreign cultures, German in the north and Polish in the south. The three Baltic nations began to emerge as political factors in the region during the Russian Empire. They enjoyed a brief period of independence between the two world wars, when they developed their national cultures with the support of their administrations. The half-century of Soviet rule, extending from the 1940s to the 1990s, threatened their continued existence as ethnic-territorial units. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, they received the opportunity to start again, this time with considerably stronger foundations than they had commanded in the 1920s.

See also other articles in this section.


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