To the rest of the world, the Baltic countries seem to be a single entity, so much so that it is often considered unnecessary to call each of them by name. After all, they seem to have been firmly united by their recent history: 50 years of mostly Soviet occupation, repression, and cultural oppression, followed by nonviolent, "singing" revolutions, which got their name from the spontaneous mass singing of patriotic songs at most political gatherings. And finally, there was the Baltic Way, a human chain of approximately two million people holding hands, which stretched more than 600 kilometers, from Dome Hill in Tallinn to the Gediminas' Tower in Vilnius, to commemorate the sad 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, through which Hitler and Stalin divided up Eastern Europe, putting the Baltic countries under Russian occupation.
However, these singing revolutions took place more than 30 years ago, and, since 1991, the Baltics have returned to the free world. Up close, the differences between the three countries clearly outnumber their similarities. Apart from their recent histories, the only features common to the Baltic countries are the absence of mountains and the fact that there is more fat than spice in the national foods.
Estonian is a Finno-Ugric language, closely related to Finnish and more remotely to Hungarian. Latvian and Lithuanian, which are also not intelligible to each other, form a subgroup of the Indo-European family, their closest affinities being to the Germanic and Slavonic subgroups. Lithuanian, moreover, is possibly the most archaic living Indo-European language, having retained many ancient linguistic structures and word forms.
But the region has been multicultural throughout its written history. In Estonia and Latvia, the aristocracy was German-speaking, though it originated from all over Europe, whereas in Lithuania, Polish became the dominant cultural language after the Grand Duchy of Lithuania allied itself with the Kingdom of Poland in the 14th century. In addition, Lithuania retained its religious freedom in the joint state with Poland, making it an attractive settling place for European Jews, who brought their own culture. Many Baltic cities were also members of the Hanseatic League, the medieval prototype of the European Union.
Historically, therefore, the region has been connected to Europe since the 13th century, and the traffic of ideas and people has, since the adoption of Catholicism, always been more intense than the region's communication with its Eastern Orthodox neighbors. The success of Protestantism in Estonia and Latvia didn't substantially change the situation. Even though Christianity had been present in the Baltics since the 13th century, it took root rather slowly, and Estonians remain the least religious nation in Europe. Lithuanians were the last nation in Europe to accept Catholicism, but when they did accept it, they did so with a vengeance felt to this day.
But the differences are felt also on the societal level. Lithuanian society, for example, is very collectivist and hierarchic compared to Estonian society, which embraces egalitarian individualism. Latvians, in most cases, occupy something of a middle point between the two extremes.
One of the good things Protestantism brought to the Baltics was a high rate of early literacy among the common people, even though the development of national literatures did not take off until the late 18th century. These literatures went on to contribute powerfully to the awakening of national consciousnesses in the 19th century and to provide a channel for resistance during the latter half of the 20th. The Soviets considered all arts to be ideological tools for brainwashing the population and were convinced that the system of censorship they had set up was sufficient for the purpose. In Russia, this was indeed the case, and most of the interesting new works circulated in underground publications. In the Baltic countries, however, the Khrushchev Thaw was seized as an opportunity by the cultural elites to redraw the borders of cultural freedom more broadly.
As a result, translations from many "unrecommended" Western works were able to see the light of day in Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian, which would not have been possible in Russia, and local authors influenced by these works started to develop their own artistic languages. This was also something the public quickly adopted. The first print run of a new novel might have been about 20,000–30,000 in Estonia—in a population of about one million speakers of Estonian—and in every peasant house was a reasonably equipped bookshelf with some classic and some new literature. Complicated imagery and allusive, indirect writing was not a problem for most readers, and keeping up with what was happening at the forefront of literary culture was a matter of course. Literature was nothing less than the prime vehicle of cultural continuity and certainly of the linguistic identity that the Soviet regime actively sought to undermine—though without much success. This role of literature during the Soviet occupation also accounts for the centrality of poetry in all three countries. Even now, poetry is widely read (and perhaps even more widely written) among high school and university students with literary interests, and the best poets are popularly known in each country.
Not surprisingly, the Baltic literatures are as different as the countries themselves, so the concept of a "Baltic literature" is entirely devoid of content. Sadly, the three cultures are not so well known even to each other. All three countries tend to be more interested in what goes on in the central hubs of world culture than in the goings-on next door. And in recent times, the younger generation reads more in English than in the native tongues.
Literature has changed substantially since the liberation, "normalizing," one might say, no longer having to take upon itself the task of preserving cultural identities and memories. The breadth of diversity both within and between the three literatures is impressive, with voices are heard from all corners of society. Equally broad is the range of topics and the palette of literary styles. More books are published than ever before, and any novel selling more than a couple thousand copies can be considered a bestseller. It must also be said that the general reader is less ready to delve into the intricacies of literary sophistication. But if all this has been the price to pay for freedom (and, with it, for free artistic expression), then is there anything really to complain about?
Rein Raud is an Estonian writer and scholar. He has written eight novels and numerous collections of stories, poetry, and essays.