Illustration Moa Thelander

Essays The idea of “Yule Land

About Estonia’s endeavors to become part of the staid but stable Scandinavia – an effort based on the belief that the country actually has a special affinity with Scandinavia. One sign of this, Pärtel Piirimäe points out, is the use of the word jõul (cognate to English “Yule”). The Estonians, like the Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, and Finns, thus live in Yule Land.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds pages 36-39, December, BW 4:2011
Published on on January 16, 2012

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Baltic provinces or a common Nordic space?
On the formation of Estonian mental geographies

On Christmas Eve 1998, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who is now serving as the president of the Republic of Estonia, published an article in which he developed the idea of “Yule Land”.1 Ilsaves used this poetic name to signify the region where the name for Christmas is derived from a common root: in Britain “Yule”, in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark “jul”, in Finland “joulu”. This region also includes Estonia, where Christmas is called “jõul”, but excludes other countries in the region, such as Germany (“Weihnachten”), Latvia (“ziemasvetki”), Lithuania “kaledos”, or Russia (“rozhdestvo”).

Ilves’s aim is not to make an interesting linguistic or historical observation but to point out that the countries that form “Yule Land” have a lot in common. Most importantly, these countries seem to share basic values that are reflected in various characteristics that can be objectively measured, such as a low level of corruption or enthusiasm for technological innovation. Ilves points out that in all these aspects, the Scandinavian countries and Finland are at the top worldwide, and Estonia is approaching their level very fast, having left other post-communist countries far behind.

The concept of “Yule Land” is an example of a conscious reconstruction of mental geographies. It is based on an entirely plausible assumption that “regions” do not exist in nature but are formed in people’s heads. In order to make sense of the surrounding world, we have a natural tendency to group together phenomena that seem to have something in common. This is also the way we handle the overwhelming number of states and nations in the world.

Such groupings are not necessarily objective, for it is always open to debate which characteristics are essential and which are merely accidental. People might think that geography itself offers the most certain guidelines to mental mapping of regions, but this is usually an illusion. For example, the role of seas has varied greatly in history: they have divided countries into separate regions, but they have also bound countries together, as Fernand Braudel has famously shown with the example of the Mediterranean. Similarly, the Baltic Sea has, for most of last millennium, functioned as a connector rather than as a separator.

Therefore, geography alone is never a sufficient indicator. We need, instead, to look at how people interact and what binds them together. This leads us to the second most important component of region-making: politics, or, more precisely, state- and empire-building. Empires, indeed, influence region-building in the long run, because the policies of the central authorities result in similar effects in the various parts of the state. It has to be pointed out, however, that it is in the nature of empires that they contain a number of different nations and political communities, which preserve their own character, traditions, and often even distinct legal system and forms of administration — this is, in fact, why they are called “empires” and not “states”. Thus, it can often happen that the political ties of authority and obedience — which are easy to observe — overshadow much more fundamental characteristics that distinguish the parts of an empire from one another or connect them with other regions across the boundaries of the political map.

A further problem bearing on objectivity is that once the regions are constructed, they stick in our heads and languages, and are hard to get rid of, even when the reality on the ground has changed. All these problems can be observed in the case of Estonia, and have, indeed, prompted Ilves and others to reconstruct the mental geography of this part of the world. The “regionalization” of the Baltic area in the past century has been determined by a political history that has cast a long shadow over all other characteristics even to the present day. After Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania broke away from the Soviet Union, it took ages for the world to stop calling them “post-Soviet republics”, gradually realizing that there is not really too much in common between these countries and, for example, Belarus or Kyrgyzstan.

What is wrong with the “Baltic region”?

The widely used label for the three countries is now “the Baltic States”. So, why invent “Yule Land” if another, seemingly neutral concept has already been adopted? Why are the Estonians not so enthusiastic about viewing themselves as part of the “Baltic region”, and why are they looking elsewhere for regional belonging?

One important reason seems to be that the term “Baltic” still carries a lot of its Soviet legacy and is therefore a constant reminder of the less fortunate period in the history of the region. It is worth remembering that before World War II Finland was also seen as a Baltic state. Finland as an independent state had — just like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — emerged from the ruins of Tsarist Russia, and it had similarly been the object of the Hitler-Stalin Pact that left all these countries to the Soviet “sphere of interest”. However, Finland’s resistance enabled it to avoid Soviet occupation and after the war it successfully managed to be included in the “Nordic space” — nobody would call Finland a “Baltic state” any more. Thus “the Baltics”, as we know the region today, is first and foremost the creation of the Soviets, which is not a legacy that people are very keen to hang on to.

It is also important to remember what that legacy reminds us of: it is the sense of vulnerability and the need to look for wider spheres of belonging. This, of course, was the reason the Baltic states were so enthusiastic about joining NATO. And the security argument has been central even in the cases of joining the organizations that were designed for aims other than security, such as the EU or the monetary union. Every new layer of integration with wider European and trans-Atlantic structures has been seen, without much debate, by the Baltic nations as beneficial to their security and therefore desirable.

The word “Baltic” itself also lacks any meaningful connection to the Estonian national identity. It has always been a foreign word. Many European nations call the body of water “the Baltic Sea”, but the Estonians have their own name for it: “the Western Sea” (Läänemeri). “Baltic” is also commonly used to signify a distinct family of languages within the Indo-European language group, but again, the Estonian language does not belong to this group. Linguistically, the Estonians are very close to the Finns, which is another factor prompting them to look toward the North in search of kin, rather than toward the South. And, finally, the term “Baltikum” is a creation neither of the Estonians nor of the other indigenous populations on the eastern side of the Baltic Sea, but was invented by the German elites who lived in these countries from the thirteenth until the early twentieth century.

The origins of the concept “Baltikum”

Thus, when we look for the roots of the Baltic identity, we need to look at the formation of a national group that does not even live in this area any more. The older generation of the Baltic Germans — in German, “Deutschbalten” or sometimes just “Balten” — still has a distinct identity that is based on the common homeland of their ancestors. It has to be said, however, that these ancestors started to call themselves “Balten” as late as the middle of the nineteenth century. Before that, their provincial identity was much stronger than the national one. The Germans formed the governing and land-owning elites in three Russian provinces along the Baltic Sea (hence “the Baltic provinces”) — Estland, Livland, and Kurland. These provinces, the territories of which correspond roughly to present-day Estonia and Latvia, had their own distinct political structures, administration, and legal traditions.

There was nothing unusual about this; in fact, it was typical of early modern conglomerate states that new territories that were acquired via a contract or a treaty maintained their distinct character under new overlords. The Baltic provinces of the Russian Empire had their origins in the sixteenth century when the Old-Livonian state system was dissolved in the turmoil of the Livonian War. The province of Estland emerged when the towns and nobilities in the northernmost possessions of the Teutonic Order surrendered to the king of Sweden. Livland formed from the parts that surrendered to the king of Poland. The last Master of the Order kept some territories to himself in the form of a duchy that owed allegiance to Poland — this was the origin of Kurland. Livland became Swedish during the seventeenth century; both Estland and Livland were acquired by Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century, and, finally, Kurland became a part of Russia with the partition of Poland in late eighteenth century.

Despite the administrative and political divisions, the idea that in a certain sense these provinces belong together was preserved throughout the Early Modern period. Seventeenth-century chroniclers often employed the word “Livland” as a common denominator for all these provinces, emphasizing that in this usage the term covered the provinces of Estland, Livland, Kurland, and Semgallen, and should not be confused with the distinct province of Livland. Such usage, however, appears to belong to the vocabulary of bourgeois and clerical writers only. The nobility, on the contrary, opposed the habit of treating the provinces as a single unit, and attempted to reinforce the provincial identities at the cost of the regional one.

One of the methods of doing this was to extend the history of the province far beyond the time of present rulers, sometimes by very inventive means. For example, a chronicle written at the end of the 17th century by high-ranking noblemen in Estland argues that the distinct identity of the province goes back to pre-Christian era, when pagan rulers governed the powerful kingdom of “Eastland” (Östland). That state was conquered and Christianized by Danish kings who in 1080 founded the Duchy of Estland. This duchy then figures as an autonomous historical actor that throughout history has changed protectors voluntarily in exchange for a confirmation of its historical privileges.2

Similarly, the nobility opposed the occasional attempts by central authorities to impose the common identity of the empire as a whole on the Baltic provinces. Such a conflict of identities can be observed in the course of the controversy over “reduction” (the resumption to the crown of the estates of the nobility) in late seventeenth-century Livland. The most vehement opponent of the reduction, Johann Reinhold von Patkul, was sentenced to death by the Swedish High Court in Stockholm. Patkul managed to flee the Swedish realm and later justified his actions in published writings. One of the accusations of the Swedish prosecutors had been that Patkul had betrayed his fatherland (“patria”), by which they, of course, meant Sweden. Patkul responded that he had acted as a true patriot, because his “patria” was not Sweden, but Livland, and he had risked his life for the sake of Livland, as an honorable patriot was obliged to do.3

The Baltic provinces and the North

In the course of the Great Northern War, Sweden’s Baltic provinces were conquered by Russia. Provincial nobles and city magistrates swore allegiance to the Tsar who confirmed their privileges and restored possessions lost with the reduction. It is only natural that the nobility had no fond memories of the Swedish period. Accordingly, they did not emphasize the Swedish legacy as a part of the identity of the Baltic provinces in the Russian Empire, despite the fact that in the actual life of the area that legacy was rather strong, considering that a large number of Swedish laws were valid until the nineteenth century. The self-image of Baltic nobles was very strongly based on their rights and privileges, which, in their view, pre-dated Swedish rule, were illegally threatened by the Swedish kings, and then rightfully restored by Russian tsars in the capitulation agreements of 1710. The generosity of the tsars towards their new subjects was reciprocated with the loyal service of Baltic Germans in the Russian military and administration. They managed to accommodate the dual identities — provincial and imperial — without too much difficulty.

This “happy marriage” ended abruptly in the middle of the nineteenth century when the “Slavophile” Russian politicians started working towards greater unification of the Empire. This entailed the abolition of the special status of the Baltic provinces. Under this serious threat, the German elites in three distinct provinces realized their common interest and the need to act together. The word “Baltic” started appearing in journal titles, polemical writings, historical works, and elsewhere. The sense of common identity was strengthened by the national movement in Germany, which prompted many Baltic Germans to view themselves as people with a special mission to spread “Deutschtum” in the less civilized part of the world.

The Baltic Germans never identified themselves with anything “Nordic”. In fact, in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, “the North” was an entirely undesirable label, since the northern nations were generally considered savage and uncivilized. “Nordic” meant the same as “barbaric”. During the Thirty Years’ War, an anti-Swedish broadsheet was printed in Germany that scared the readers with the Northern barbarians that fought in the Swedish army. It depicted three figures — a Lapp, a Livonian, and a Scot, all in their national garments and traditional weapons, but all looking equally fearsome.4 In the same vein, Russia, which was also widely viewed as a barbaric country, was located towards the North rather than the East — it demonstrates how mental geographies affect where people think countries are actually situated.

Only during the eighteenth century did “the North” start to acquire a more positive meaning. One of the earliest and most important positive connotations was the concept of “Northern liberty”. The idea that the North had been the bulwark of liberty against the spread of southern tyrannies was developed and promoted by Enlightenment thinkers, such as Montesquieu and Diderot.5 In particular, the personal liberty and political participation of the peasant class was a remarkable testimony to the eminent position of the value of freedom in Northern societies. The peasant curia of the Swedish Riksdag was quite unusual, even in a European context. Elsewhere in Europe, where any representative assemblies existed at all, the peasants were “represented” by their noble landowners.

This Nordic tradition of peasant liberty was totally foreign to the Baltic Germans, who viewed themselves as paternalistic caretakers of their childlike subjects. For Swedish rulers, on the other hand, the “un-Christian” and “inhuman” treatment of the peasants in their Baltic provinces was a constant source of consternation in the seventeenth century. They did not manage to abolish serfdom in noble manors, but the projects drafted in Stockholm to ease the lot of the peasants was one of the primary reasons why the period of Swedish rule was viewed as “the Good Old Swedish Age” by emerging Estonian historiography in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In the search for alternatives to Russian and German nationalist imperialism, the Scandinavian societies seemed the most attractive regionalist alternative.

Thus, the Estonian nationalist movement was complemented by a very strong Nordic dimension. In addition to emphasizing the positive role that Sweden had played in Estonian history, the nationalist historians developed an account of earlier history that demonstrated the close connections and similarities between the eastern and western coasts of the Baltic Sea. The period before German conquest became known as the Estonian Viking Age, which also captured the popular imagination and prompted a number of literary works that depicted the valiant deeds of the Estonian vikings. According to popular myth, one of these deeds was the destruction of the old Swedish capital of Sigtuna in 1187 by the vikings from Ösel (see text box on Sigtuna). Thus, the Estonians sought to be similar to the Northerners not only with regard to the achievements of their modern society but also with regard to the more dubious “pan-European” achievements in their past.

Inter-war Estonia and Nordism

When we look back at the formative period at the end of World War I, the emergence of the independent Baltic states often seems like a predetermined outcome. In fact, it was not the only alternative discussed by the local political elites in this period. The options included the establishment of a Baltic duchy with a German prince as a monarch (advocated by conservative Baltic Germans), having Estonia join Soviet Russia (advocated by some Estonian Bolsheviks), and the creation of a union state with Finland, Latvia, and Lithuania, or one with Finland alone. Also, a union state with Sweden was a matter of serious discussion by Estonian politicians.

 All these discussions reflect a certain distrust in the viability of a small state in the then competitive, and often aggressive international world. This is why even after the sovereign Estonian state was established, the search for wider regional attachment — specifically in the form of a military alliance — continued as intensely as before. The most desirable option in the eyes of many politicians was a broader Baltic union that would include Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and perhaps even Poland. However, Finland did not commit to such an alliance, since it was more interested in closer cooperation with Sweden and other Scandinavian countries; and the Swedes discouraged the Finns from linking their fate with that of their southern neighbors. The Poles were left out of the negotiations due to their conflict with Lithuania over the possession of Vilnius. Hence, what was left of this broader regional alliance was a political union between the three Baltic states that was concluded in 1934.

This Baltic cooperation was, however, not universally approved. One of the most vehement opponents to this alliance was Ilmar Tõnisson who argued that there is no such thing as “the Baltic states” (see the text box). He wrote in 1937 that the Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians have nothing substantial in common and the attempts to put them together had been not merely artificial but indeed harmful to Estonian interests. According to Tõnisson, the “Baltic region” was invented by Baltic Germans with the aim of preserving their political superiority. Later on, this regional concept was advocated by the Latvians, because Baltic cooperation was in their geopolitical interest. The Estonians, however, should detach themselves from their southern neighbors and become a Nordic country. Although Tõnisson did not hide the Estonian interests that would be served by this agenda, he emphasized that idea was viable because it would be based on an actual affinity of culture, language, and national character. Moreover, the Nordic countries would not object to such an extension of the concept of “Norden” (literally “the North” in most Nordic languages) because the addition of Estonia would only strengthen their military cooperation, whereas the addition of Latvia and Lithuania would draw them into the possible future clash between Nazi Germany and Soviet Union.6

Good New Nordic Age

The vision of a “Good Old Swedish Age” has never disappeared from the Estonian imagination. In the 1990s, it took some bizarre forms. For example, the success of the Royalist Party at the parliamentary elections in 1992 can only be explained by the universal admiration of the Swedish royalty and its legacy in Estonian history. The seriousness of the party can be judged by the fact that their election program included the idea of inviting the “disinherited” Prince Carl Philip to serve as the King of Estonia.

Nowadays this vision has transformed into a desire to establish a modern and wealthy Nordic society with its democratic and humane values. When Estonian political commentators occasionally ask whether we really want to become a “boring Nordic state”, most people emphatically say, “Yes!”. In this part of the world, to have a bit of a boring period in history would be quite nice for a change.

The reconstruction of mental geographies by extending the concept “Norden” is a part of these efforts. It is, however, quite clear that the Baltic states will never become Nordic just by talking about it — nor, for example, through the replacement of the horizontal color stripes on their national flags with crosses, as has been suggested by an Estonian journalist. The way towards a Nordic society can only be through internal change and development. ≈


  1. “Jõulumaa ehk vaimse geograafia enesemääramine” [Yule Land or the self-definition of mental geography], Eesti Ekspress, 1998-12-24.
  2. Landrath Wrangell’s Chronik von Ehstland nebst angehängten Ehstländischen Kapitulation-Punkten und Nystädter Friedensschluss, ed. by K. J. A. Paucker, Dorpat 1845.
  3. Cf. Pärtel Piirimäe, “The Pen is a Mighty Sword: Johann Reinhold Patkul’s Polemical Writings” in Die baltischen Länder und der Norden: Festschrift für Helmut Piirimäe, ed. by Mati Laur & Enn Küng, Tartu 2005, pp. 314—341.
  4. Reprint in E. A. Beller, Propaganda in Germany during the Thirty Years’ War, Princeton 1940, Plate IX.
  5. Torkel Jansson, “Über den Begriff ‘Norden’ und die nordische Identität in Estland — unter besonderer Berücksichtigung Narvas” in Narva und die Ostseeregion: Beiträge der II. Internationalen Konferenz über die politischen und kulturellen Beziehungen zwischen Russland und der Ostseeregion, Narva 2004, pp. 29—45.
  6. Ilmar Tõnisson, “Eesti välispoliitika”, Akadeemia No. 3 (1937), 155—179; No. 6 (1937), pp. 355—397; republished in I. Tõnisson, Emajõe ääres, Tartu 1997).
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