What Are the Baltic States? In a Nutshell

What are the Baltic states? The Baltic states, also known as the Baltic countries, are three nations bordering the Baltic Sea in the north of Europe: Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

Where do the Baltic states get their name? They are named both for the Baltic tribes  that inhabited the territory in prehistoric times as well as their position on the Baltic Sea.

While sometimes other countries, such as Poland, are included in the larger Baltic region, it is most typical to consider the Baltic states as only Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania.

It is also important not to get the Baltics and the Balkans mixed up. The Baltics are in the north of Europe, while the Balkans are in the south.

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Contents

Why Are the Baltic Countries Grouped Together?

The Baltic countries are often grouped geopolitically due to a shared history. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were annexed by the USSR in the 20th century. Prior to that, they were under the Russian Empire. And before that, they contended with the Teutonic knights in a world that pressured them, as pagans, to convert to Christianity.

Early Religion

Prior to the adoption of Christianity, the Baltic states practiced Baltic paganism. This religion gave importance to nature and the cycle of the seasons. Neo-paganism is still performed by some people in these countries, and sacred sites can be found throughout the region.

Teutonic Knights

The Teutonic knights also played an important role in the Baltic states. In the case of Latvia and Estonia, they successfully conquered the land and entrenched their religion and culture, and Germans were the landowning class for much of these countries’ history.

Lithuania’s situation was different, the grand dukes with their strong military forces fending off the attempts to invade by the Teutonic knights. This strength in leadership and the sophistication of the armed forces enabled the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to expand its territory, famously “from the Baltic to the Black Sea.”

Evidence of this tense medieval period can be seen in the Baltic countries’ castles. Castles in Latvia and castles in Estonia were built by Teutonic knights. Lithuania’s medieval castles, such as the one in Trakai, however, were constructed by the Lithuanian grand dukes. Castle, castle ruins, and hillforts are strewn over the landscape of the Baltic countries and are often sights of lookout, learning, exploration, or tourism.

Large gray stone castle in summer landscape
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The Russian Empire

Though Lithuania became a part of the Russian Empire later than Estonia and Latvia, all three of the Baltic countries suffered under this regime from the 18th century until after the first world war.

The Russian empire implemented russification policies meant to subjugate the people of the Baltic countries by curbing their ability to practice their culture and speak their language. They even prevented them from using the Latin alphabet, instead forcing them to use Cyrillic.

1918 Independence

As the dust settled at the end of WWI, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia all declared independence in 1918. For a brief time, they enjoyed autonomous rule.

Soviet Union

Unfortunately, the Soviet Union was gaining power and had expansionist desires. In August 1940, the Soviet Union annexed the three Baltic countries. It did so according to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which it had drawn up with Nazi Germany over the course of WWII.

The Welles Declaration, issued by acting US Secretary of State Sumner Welles, condemned the Baltics’ occupation by the Soviets and refused to acknowledge this annexation.

Unfortunately, the act only made the US stance clear – it did not pave a way to aid the Baltic states to freedom from their oppressor. The Baltic countries would have to gain freedom on their own.

The Baltic Way

The 1980s saw the Baltic countries working to demonstrate that they wanted to be free. Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) relaxed the iron-fisted hold the Soviet Union had on its republics enough that political discussions could take place more freely. The movement for retaking independence was gaining steam.

One way the Baltic states demonstrated their desire for sovereignty was through the Baltic Way, a human chain that spanned from Vilnius to Tallinn and met in Riga in between. The Baltic Way took place in 1989 through careful organization and determination.

Footprints in a tile to commemorate the Baltic Way
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Restitution of Independence

It was in 1991 that the three Baltic countries declared the restitution of their original 1918 declarations of independence, with Lithuania to do so first in March, followed by Estonia and Latvia in August. They then adopted national flags – the flags of the Baltic countries.

When did the Baltic states join NATO? All three countries became members of NATO in 2004. They joined the European Union the same year.

What Do the Baltic States Look Like Today?

Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have come a long way in the 30-plus years since they regained independence.

Many of the changes have been a result of their membership in the European Union. For example, all of the Baltic countries today are a part of the eurozone – they no longer use national currencies and have switched to the euro.

They are also all three a part of the Schengen border-free zone, which allows people to travel within the zone on a single visa and without internal border checks.

Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania have made inroads within the fintech, cybersecurity, ehealth, and digital services sectors. In fact, Estonia even markets itself as an “e-state,” advertising the ease with which residents can vote and pay taxes online.

Individual Identities but Still One Region

The Baltic countries are often grouped together without an acknowledgement of their individuality, and they have sought to promote their identities as separate countries with unique cultures and priorities.

For example, Estonia bills itself as a Nordic nation, which is understandable given its cultural and linguistic commonalities with Finland. Latvia and Lithuania prefer to be considered a part of Northern Europe. None of these countries embrace the designation of Eastern Europe, even though they were a part of the former Soviet Bloc (which is why they are often included in this greater region).

However, that doesn’t mean they don’t still join forces, particularly when geopolitical events, such as Russia’s war on Ukraine, call into need their collective experience, knowledge, and awareness of threats coming from their neighbor. Mutually beneficial initiatives, such as Rail Baltica, also keep them connected.

Flags of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania
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The Baltics and Russia

The Baltics and Russia still have a tense relationship three decades from the fall of the Soviet Union. This tension was exacerbated by Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Russia’s war on Ukraine, which began in February 2022. These military campaigns and land grabs seem to the Baltics a repeat of a history where Russia feels entitled to violate nearby nations’ sovereignty.

All three Baltic states have large Russian populations, and many people in these countries speak Russian as a first or second language. The ethnic Russian population in Lithuania is the most integrated due to Lithuania’s policy of granting citizenship to everyone living there, no matter their ethnic or national identity, after independence was reinstated. Lithuania also has the smallest Russian population of the three countries.

Compared to Lithuania’s Russian population of 5%, Latvia and Estonia have significantly more Russians living within their borders – about 25% each as of 2020. After independence, unlike in Lithuania, they were not given citizenship automatically and had to go through the process of naturalization. That means that in Latvia and Estonia, many non-citizens, or stateless citizens, resided (and still reside) there. Without national passports, these may not feel connected to or aligned with their countries of residence and may feel more aligned with Russia.

How Are the Baltic States Similar?

The countries exhibit vast differences, though they do continue to share some similarities. Some of these similarities relate to their historic cultures.

Language

Both Lithuania and Latvia speak Baltic languages, though Lithuanian and Latvian are not mutually intelligible. They are the two surviving examples of the three Baltic languages, the third being Prussian, which is no longer used. Lithuanian is the more conservative of the two languages, whereas Latvian has developed more rapidly and shifted more drastically from its origins (though you may still see some similar root words being used in both languages).

Estonia, however, speaks a Finno-Ugric language, which shares some commonalities with Finnish, which is to the north of Estonia.

Women in flowered headdresses and folk costumes seen from the back
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Folk Art and Culture

Baltic folk art also shares some similarities among the three countries, in part due to similar traditions dating back to pagan times. For example, pagan symbolism, the use of natural materials, and techniques passed down from generations characterize the traditional art of these cultures.

Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian folk culture, too, has some commonalities. All of these societies were agrarian, meaning that farm work and working the land were important, and maintained connection with their pagan roots even after formal adoption of Christianity. These aspects are reflected in superstitions and rituals still practiced around holidays. For example, the use of pussywillow for Easter in the Baltics prevails.

Another way the three Baltic states are similar is through their song tradition. The Baltic song tradition is one under protection by UNESCO. Some of the songs date back to or have elements to pagan times, and this tradition was also used as a way to peacefully demonstrate national pride and desire for independence. Baltic song festivals, which are still held, have been organized since the late 19th century during the period of national awakening of the Baltic states under the Russian Empire.

Sutartines, or polyphonic (multi-part) songs from Lithuania are also inscribed in UNESCO’s list of intangible heritage. These haunting melodies are difficult to master and represent a heritage passed down through generations.

Why Should You Visit the Baltics?

Many people ask “What is the best Baltic country?” or “What Baltic country is the most beautiful?” The answers to these questions are subjective – most travelers like the Baltic countries in general, though some visitors have their favorite Baltic state.

Why do people like traveling the Baltics? Reasons to travel the Baltics are many, but a major one is that they are easy to get around. They’re small, short distances mean you can be in another Baltic capital or other Baltic city in a matter of minutes by plane and hours by bus, and yet they offer beautiful landscapes, historic old town centers, beachside getaways, and affordable sights and attractions.

Old Town Tallinn is one of the Estonian capital’s major tourist draws. Its medieval streets and defensive walls and towers transport travelers back in time, while its state-of-the-art museums and quality nightlife plant them firmly in the present.

Riga’s Art Nouveau architecture makes the Latvian capital a dream for lovers of this early 20th-century style. So many beautiful examples of this type of architecture exist in Riga that many travelers get a stiff neck from looking up at the ornate decorations surrounding windows and trailing up facades.

Old Town Vilnius is the Lithuanian capital city’s sprawling center. Its abundance of sights, shops, restaurants, and museums gives visitors plenty to experience whether their stay is two days or two weeks.

Aerial View of Town Hall Square in Vilnius
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If you’re looking for the answer to “What are the Baltic states?” the best solution is, beyond research, simply visiting. This interesting, culturally and historically rich, and travel-friendly corner of Europe has many secrets to reveal.

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