The Baltics and Russia: A Complex Relationship

The Baltics and Russia, that is, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Russia, have never been really separate in some people’s minds—whether they be those who are a little hazy with world history and geography or those who have a provocative political point to make.

However, though it wasn’t always so, the Baltic countries are independent entities, with Russia looming as a historic power as well as a neighbor on the map. In short, when we talk about the Baltics and Russia, the situation is both straightforward and complicated. And the political perspective of this issue is different than the community or personal one.

This article will break down some of the factors that have shaped the relationship between Russia and the Baltics.

History in the Baltics and Russia in a Lenin statue
Grutas Park is an example of where the history of Russia and the Baltics comes together. Photo 63334957 / Baltics Russia © Nikolai Korzhov | Dreamstime.com

Contents

The Importance of Geography

Geography is an indisputable factor in the relationship between the Baltics and Russia. Estonia shares a border with mainland Russia, which is to the east, with its Narva Castle facing Russia’s Ivangorod Fortress across the river, an eternal reminder of historical tension between the two countries.

Lithuania also shares a border with Russia. The Kaliningrad Region, or the Kaliningrad Oblast in Russian, is a territory of Russia separate from the mainland sandwiched between Lithuania, Poland, and the Baltic Sea. The Kaliningrad Region allows Russia to maintain an unexpected presence to the west—it’s a little like the Baltics are squeezed, loosely speaking, between mainland Russia and Kaliningrad.

Latvia shares a border with Russia and is sandwiched between Estonia and Lithuania.

Historic precedent, politics, and practical considerations have led Russia to seek to buffer itself against attack from other countries and protect itself through geographic means, particularly with its capital, Moscow, so close to its western border. After all, even Napoleon’s French army was able to enter Moscow. Furthermore, during WWII, Hitler’s army invaded Russia. Russia’s desire to create distance between it and the West stems from centuries of shifting centers of power in Europe and attempts at military conquest. One of the ways Russia has used to safeguard itself has been to take over territory that creates this distance—the nearby and neighboring countries to the west.

A castle with towers is reflected in a river
Ivangorod Fortress in Russia faces Narva Castle in Estonia in eternal architectural standoff. Photo by Georgy Trofimov on Unsplash

The Russian Empire

The expansion of the Russian Empire played a role in the relationship between the Baltics and Russia—which also, in part, had to do with geography and border protection. As Timothy Marshall, author of Prisoners of Geography, explains:

In the 18th century, Russia, under Peter the Great—who founded the Russian Empire in 1721—and then Empress Catherine the Great, expanded the empire westward, occupying Ukraine and reaching the Carpathian Mountains. It took over most of what we now know as Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—from which it could defend against attacks from the Baltic Sea. Now there was a huge ring around Moscow; starting at the Arctic, it came down through the Baltic region, across Ukraine, to the Carpathians, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, and the Caspian, swinging back around to the Urals, which stretched up to the Arctic Circle.

White sand dunes with sea and sky in the background
The Baltic Sea has always been strategic for countries in the region. Photo by Inga Jagminaitė on Unsplash

Russification and Nationalism

The Baltics’ absorption into the empire was more than just territorial expansion—it was cultural expansion as well. Russia initiated a policy of russification in the Baltic states that would continue into the era of the Soviet Union.

Russian was made the official language for administration, law, and bureaucracy. Schools that did not teach in Russian were shut down. Churches were closed. Not only was this russification process a reaction to Baltic nations’ displeasure about Russian rule, on the flip side, the russification process encouraged national pride and helped increase interest in the nations’ local languages and culture.

The tension created between the local cultures and those instituting russification policies further shaped the relationship between the Baltics and Russia at this time, creating, on one hand, nationalist movements in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia that would set the tone for later declarations of independence, and on the other hand, a local population that had to be “managed” by Russia, which saw nationalism as a threat to its rule.

The Soviet Union

After WWI, the Baltic nations declared independence from the Russian Empire and sought to forge their own paths as sovereign nations. However, independence was short lived. In 1940, Russia annexed Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia as a part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed between Hitler and Stalin. Neither the United States, the United Nations, nor the European Union recognized this annexation. Unfortunately, lack of recognition did not help the cause of these countries and they became a part of the Soviet Union.

As a result, Russia had even more influence on the Baltic states. Russification policies continued, Russia integrated the Baltic economies into that of the larger USSR, and Russians moved into Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, some to take over official positions.

Independence

In the late 1980s, the Baltic states began to see some opportunity for regaining independence. The Soviet Union had softened some of its stances under leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and this greater freedom allowed for independence movements to gain steam.

The Baltic Way was one memorable protest that indicated the Baltic states’ desire to pull away from Soviet rule. This peaceful demonstration saw a human chain stretch from Vilnius to Tallinn through Riga in August,1989. This beautiful event showed the world that Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were eager to govern themselves.

Lithuania was the first nation of the Soviet Union to declare itself independent in 1991, and Latvia and Estonia soon followed. The USSR wasn’t yet ready to let them go, but after a struggle, they became free.

red and orange fireworks over water
Independence days are important holidays in the Baltic countries. Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

Reclaiming Identity

The Baltic states joined the EU in 2004, aligning themselves with Europe and through a gradual process—one that continues to a lesser extent, to this day—symbolically, politically, and ideologically stepping away from their Soviet past.

All three Baltic states – Lithuanian, Latvia, and Estonia – joined NATO in 2004.

Though they used their own national currencies for several years, they have since joined the Eurozone. They are also a part of Europe’s Schengen Zone of free movement across borders.

Furthermore, the national languages of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are the official languages, not Russian. The other languages of the Baltic countries are still used, but Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian are the state languages.

The Question of Citizenship

The Baltic states took different approaches to non-citizens living in their countries after their declaration of independence from the Soviet Union. These were largely Russians who had held long-term residency, with Latvia and Estonia having a larger Russian population than Lithuania.

Lithuania integrated those people, issuing passports and citizenship to everyone. However, Estonia and Latvia issued “alien” passports to non-citizens and created rigorous requirements for them to gain citizenship. Though independence occurred for these countries in 1991, by the year 2000, there were still discussions about ethnic integration. The issue of stateless people in these countries continues to be an issue, but the number of people without official citizenship is shrinking.

The Baltics and Russia Today

The situation between the Baltics and Russia today stems from historical conflicts resulting from geography and politics. Though Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are independent nations a part of the European Union and NATO, they still feel vulnerable to Russia’s often aggressive stance, particularly given Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and some comments Putin, Russia’s president, has made about the Baltics having been occupied by the Soviet Union with their “consent.”

Energy Security

The Baltics have also pulled away from Russian energy. Having relied on it in the past, separating themselves from energy dependence upon Russia brings the Baltics more closely under the umbrella of European energy security. Russia has, in the past, used energy as a control measure, as when it cut off gas to Ukraine in 2014.

Belarus and Democracy

The Baltics face another neighbor that is politically aligned with Russia, which is Belarus. Belarus has long been led by dictator Lukashenka. In the presidential elections in 2020, the Belarusian nation protested the rigged results, where Lukashenka again was declared to have won the vote by a wide margin.

Lithuania, in particular, became a safe haven for dissidents and politicians from Belarus who are in favor of free elections. The Baltics have all indicated their support for Belarusian democracy, further setting them in opposition of Russia-supported actions.

Into the Future

In the years since breaking away from the USSR, the Baltics have further established their identities as independent nations with historic cultures and languages that are firmly separate from that of Russia.

Their independence days are noticeably celebrated, they have rejuvenated their pre-Soviet traditions, and they have taken different strategies towards renovating, reusing, or transforming buildings and spaces that have the stamp of the USSR or Soviet domination on them. For example, in Vilnius, the former KGB headquarters are now a museum of oppression, manor houses that were turned into schools throughout the Baltics are being restored to their former beauty, and the relevance of Communists and Soviet symbols—if they still remain—are being reconsidered.

But even this is complicated. Many believe that the past shouldn’t be erased, and that just because a monument or building is from the Soviet era, that doesn’t necessarily mean it should be removed from public view. Thirty-plus years from independence, and the communities in these countries continue to grapple with how they should handle this history. Grutas Park is one example of a solution to the problem—Soviet monuments have been removed from their places of prominence in city squares and relegated to a forest, where they can be viewed within a provided context.

Russian Communities in the Baltics

It should be noted that, just because the politics between the countries of the Baltic states and Russia can sometimes be messy, it does not mean that the people of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia hold animosity towards Russians themselves, and vice versa. Russian speakers and those of Russian ethnicity live in the Baltics and are a part of society there. Furthermore, many families are of mixed ethnicities or consider themselves a part of more than one community.

an antique typewriter with cyrillic letters
Russian language is still widely used in the Baltics, both as a first language and as a second. Photo by Anton Maksimov juvnsky on Unsplash

Russians also use the Baltics as a holiday destination and, given that Russian is still widely spoken in these countries, get along well in their native tongue. Russian citizens may also move to the Baltic countries for jobs. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—though English is widely spoken as a second language for many younger people—still maintains services, such as bank or immigration services, in Russian. Furthermore, restaurants often have Russian versions of their menus and shops carry Russian products. Media outlets in these countries also produce written, radio, and television content in Russian for their Russian-speaking audience members.

In short, culturally, people from the Baltics and Russia get along. Politically, it is another matter. Historical trauma—as well as historical claims—continue to affect today’s political affairs and the rhetoric of politicians.

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