Part of illustration by Katrin Stenmark.

Reviews The Baltic States – how many? A story of a historical coincidence

Andres Kasekamp, A History of the Baltic States, London , Palgrave Macmillan 2010, xi + 251 pages, Andrejs Plakans, A Concise History of the Baltic States, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 2011, xvi + 474 pages

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds pages 52-54, baltic Worlds 4 2011
Published on on January 18, 2012

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The terms “the Baltic States” and “the Baltic states”, as they traditionally have been used, represent two different concepts, in terms of historical, empirical semantics, rather than lexicographic definition.1 The first term denotes Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The second could theoretically denote the states that border on the Baltic Sea, but the idiomatic expression in English for this grouping is “the Baltic Sea region”. It refers to all modern states bordering on the Baltic Sea, including, in addition to the three mentioned, Finland, Russia, Poland, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden. There is another term as well, “the Baltic Nations”, which denotes Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, and Poland. The allusion is to the five new states formed in the Baltic Sea region after World War I. The first three had been parts of various governorates in Russia; Finland had been a Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire; sections of Poland had been parts of various Russian governorates; and the other two sections of Poland were part of the Austrian province of Galicia and part of Prussia in the German Empire. Before World War I, only four states bordered on the Baltic Sea: Sweden, Russia, Germany, and Denmark — four states that are not “Baltic” in the least. The adjective has been reserved for new states, meaning, in the modern era, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Historical regions are customarily defined in terms of shared culture and language, political history, and economic development. The Nordic region is one example, East Central Europe is another. The Baltic States (with a capital “S”) are not. In terms of regional history, Estonia can be defined as a Nordic state and Lithuania as an East Central European state. Latvia becomes a borderland: the state has no historical identity under this name and is a construction with the Latvian language as the common denominator. It is for the Latvians that the term “Baltic” is meaningful. Being labeled “Baltic” indicates that the country has been placed by definition into a greater regional community, and does not stand apart as an isolated minor state in the shadow of Russia.

The Soviet Russian equivalent to the English expression “the Baltic States” is Pribaltika. It is part of the concept of Russia. In the Russian language, and thus in the Russian conceptual world, there are on the one hand the concepts of “Russia” and “Eurasia”, in which the concepts of Pribaltika, Zakavkaz (Trans-Caucasus), and Dalny Vostok (the Far East) are included, and on the other hand “not Russia”, the rest of the world. Finland and Poland are not included in the concept of Russia. Since Estonia endeavors to appear as a Nordic state, cultivating relationships with Sweden and Finland, and since Lithuania gravitates towards Poland and Belarus (East Central Europe), Latvia remains, with its capital city Riga, the still vital nucleus of the concept of Pribaltika.

American historian Andrejs Plakans and Estonian historian Andres Kasekamp have chosen to give their new books about Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania the titles A Concise History of the Baltic States and A History of the Baltic States respectively. The subject of the books is that indicated by the English term, that is, the history of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. But what does that mean? Three parallel histories about three states? A single, coherent historical narrative about a geographical designation? A comparative historical narrative about three states whose commonality is that they border each other in pairs from north to south, and that they all border the same fourth state? A history of all the state formations that the three modern “Baltic” states have been part of over the course of history? A history of a macro-region, the Baltic Sea region, to which the three states belong?

For both Plakans and Kasekamp, the concept of “the Baltic States” is a construction. It denotes the geographical area that severed the bonds with Russia after World War II and had not until then been defined in terms of nation-states. The “Balts” were the German landowners and burghers whose forefathers had settled in Estonia and Livonia in the Middle Ages. Estonia was a name for part of the historical German province of Livonia — which was, by the way, named after the Livonian people and language — and Latvia was a new creation named after the Latvian people and language. The new states were defined territorially essentially along the linguistic dividing lines between them. While Lithuania certainly existed as a state in the Middle Ages, it was not especially “Lithuanian”. The inhabitants of the historical Grand Duchy were largely speakers of Slavic languages and the state was united with Poland from the late 14th century to the end of the 18th century. The new state of Lithuania was defined, like the two others, essentially according to linguistic criteria. Andrejs Plakans and Andres Kasekamp explain how all of this proceeded and how a historical narrative about the Baltic States can be constructed on this basis. The concept seems to be a historical Procrustean bed.

At the beginning of his book, Kasekamp refers to the deeply problematical matter of making “the Baltic States” the subject of a historical narrative. In his foreword, he maintains:

[I]t was not preordained that these three countries together would today be commonly known as the Baltic states. They are not the Baltic States with a capital “S”, as in the United States, not the lazy shorthand “Baltics”, patterned after the “Balkans”.

Historically speaking, what has created the term “the Baltic States” is the formation of new states in Europe after World War I and after the Soviet occupation and incorporation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania of 1940—1991 (in turn interrupted by the German occupation of 1941—1944/45).

The last chapter of Kasekamp’s book is called “Return to the West (1991—2009)”. The title indicates that the three contemporary states are part of the concept of “the West”. The last section in the chapter is entitled “Relations with Russia”. The title indicates that the three states are not included in the concept of “Russia”. The last chapter of Plakans’s book is called “Reentering Europe, 1991 —”. The conceptual formation is identical to Kasekamp’s but the “reentering” is here presented as a process that is still going on. The last section is called “The Travails of Normality”, a title which suggests that the period before 1991 was abnormal and that the years since have been a time of arduous alignment with “Europe”.

The operational definition of the term “The Baltic States” thus becomes such that it comprises the three modern states that cover most of the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea and Europe’s border zone against the non-West, that is to say, Russia. Plakans leads us to understand that this is a temporary definition in a determined phase of European political history. He suggests that there’s something paradoxical in the fact that while Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are internationally recognized states, it seems increasingly less relevant to write the separate history of any single state among them. He describes the task of “Baltic” historians in 1991:

Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian historians had to devise ways of doing their work with at least two audiences in mind: readers in their home countries who, after a half-century of browsing through heavily ideological historical accounts, were truly interested in what really happened in the past; and the larger international historical profession in which national histories, though continuing to be written usually as textbooks, were not generally regarded as contributing much to human knowledge. 

Notably, the nationally defined historians are not expected to write histories whose subject is the Baltic States! Both Plakans and Kasekamp have chosen to write the history of the three countries founded on the generally accepted 19th century construction of peoples within the confines of the Germanic cultural area (Herder’s conceptualization of Volk). On this basis, they both write a comparative history. The backdrop is the general history of the Baltic Sea region from prehistory onward, with special focus on the geographical area where hunters, farmers, and fishermen spoke the two Baltic-Finnic languages, Estonian and Livonian, and the two Baltic languages, Latvian and Lithuanian (“Baltic” here thus denotes a language group in accordance with 19th century German linguistics). The result is that the peoples who have had Estonian, Livonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian as their native languages emerge as subjects and direct producers, while those with other native languages, especially German and Russian, emerge as the masters and shapers of political structures. In the case of Lithuania, we also have the speakers of Russian as the subjects (in contemporary usage, “White Russians” or “Belarusians” and “Ukrainians”) and the speakers of Polish as the  masters.

Historiography in the contemporary states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania is characterized, as Plakans mentions, by the classic nation-state paradigm. This is not true of individual historians’ rigorous scholarly examinations of various historical problems, but it is true of the role of history in society in the form of textbooks and historical memory culture. It is not only true of those who identify themselves as Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians (there are no Livonians any more), but also of those who identify themselves as Russians. With respect to the latter, it is also true of citizens and political leaders in Russia. They are very active participants in the work of defining the “true” history of the three Baltic states. From that perspective, the history of the Baltic peoples is also part of Russian history.

Kasekamp and Plakans recount how historical commissions with international membership were established in each of the three Baltic states after 1991, which were tasked with documenting and analyzing human rights violations during the Soviet and Nazi occupations. These involved outrages committed by people of varying ethnic origins but in the name of the German or the Soviet state. The Russian government perceived this as an attempt to challenge the official Russian thesis that the Baltic states were liberated (and not occupied for the third time in four years) by the Red Army in 1944—1945. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev appointed a historical commission in May 2009, as Kasekamp pointed out, to refute the “falsification of history” (by the Balts).

The example of the historical commissions is evidence of a fundamental difference between the spiritual climate in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania on the one hand and Russia on the other. While state-funded historical research in the three Baltic states is theoretically aimed at trying to clarify historical fact, the commission in Russia is oriented towards establishing the true history in accordance with a predefined conclusion.

Both authors provide good explanations of the conceptual complications, as well as the somewhat arbitrary nature of combining the history of the three states in a single narrative. One might say that the authors allow their narratives to meet an important pragmatic criterion. There is a need in the English-speaking world for syntheses that look upon history from the perspectives that have shaped the people who today make up the majority populations in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and whose native languages are Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian. Consequently, this involves parallel national histories from a dual comparative perspective: first, a comparison of the history that has played out in the geographical territory of the three modern states among themselves, and second, a depiction of the history in the context of general political, economic, social, and cultural conditions in the Baltic Sea region. As a result, Estonia’s history and part of Latvia’s history are written into German history especially and Swedish history to some extent; another part of Latvia’s history and all of Lithuania’s history are written into Polish history; and what is more, Lithuania’s history is also written into Russian history.

Plakans and Kasekamp show that history in which the subject is “the Baltic states” has been constructed on the basis of current political perspectives. For this reason, the history is an open question and both books easily could have ended with a “to be continued” cliffhanger. History may take yet another turn. Both books intimate that Jews played a key economic, political, and cultural role in the Lithuanian area both when Lithuania was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and when it comprised a few governorates in Russia. Consequently, “Baltic” history is, in addition to the history of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, not only also Swedish, German, Russian, and Polish, but Jewish as well. In one part of Lithuania (and Belarus) with Vilnius as the capital, a Jewish national homeland could have been created — a Jewish state with Yiddish as the national language — if 20th century history had taken another turn and if the Jewish national state project had not been projected onto Palestine, instead of what was actually the biggest Jewish settlement area in Europe. This settlement area could then have become a fourth “Baltic state” after the First World War, a Jewish nation-state according to the same ethnic criteria otherwise applied when the new states in Europe were created.

The Baltic states could thus have become four in 1920. Surprisingly enough, the Jewish project has once again become topical, as evidenced in this report by The Economist (June 11th) from the 2011 Venice Biennale:

[T]he Polish […] pavilion has been given over to Yael Bartana, an Israeli video artist. The pavilion presents a trilogy of films about the Jewish Renaissance Movement, a political group founded by the artist that calls for the return of Jews to eastern Europe.

If one permits oneself to think along constructivist lines, yet another possibility arises, alongside a Jewish project: a presumptive fifth Baltic state, in what is now known as the Kaliningrad area and is part of the Russian state. ≈


  1. Because norms for the use of uppercase and lowercase have been shifting in most dialects of English — especially UK English — so that many terms traditionally capitalized are now lowercase, that which in this article is referred to as “the Baltic States” is actually more and more often denoted by “the Baltic states” (indeed, this is the practice that Baltic Worlds follows — though an exception obviously needs to be made in this article).

Andres Kasekamp, A History of the Baltic States, London , Palgrave Macmillan 2010, xi + 251 pages, Andrejs Plakans, A Concise History of the Baltic States, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 2011, xvi

+ 474 pages