84 – Estonia and Latvia

I recently spent two weeks visiting Estonia and Latvia. This discussion provides some history, some observations and some impressions about these fascinating countries.

Estonia and Latvia (together with Lithuania, known as the Baltic states) were the western-most parts of the former Soviet Union. They are small countries – Estonia is only slightly bigger than Switzerland and has a population of only 1.3 million – that have been pushed around by their various neighbours for centuries.

Prior to World War 1, Estonia had been ruled in sequence by Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Russia for eight centuries, while Latvia had been ruled by Germany, Poland, Sweden and Russia. Finally, in 1920 they were granted their independence, only to lose it again in 1940, when Stalinist Russia took control of the Baltic states, with Germany’s agreement. Russia set about terrifying the local people into submission, deporting to work camps in Russia, or just shooting, many thousands of intellectuals, artists and others.

In 1941, after only a year of Russian rule, Nazi Germany invaded, and set about massacring the Jewish communities in these countries. At one point, 25,000 Jews were killed in two days outside Riga (the capital of Latvia).

If that wasn’t bad enough, in 1944 the Russians re-invaded. It speaks volumes about how bad it had been under that one year of Russian rule (1940-1) that, with the prospect of Russia returning, hundreds of thousands of people fled to the west, including most of the remaining intellectuals. They felt that things would be much worse under Russia than under the Nazis!! The deportations and murders started up again and continued until Stalin died.

A small number of countries, including the USA and the UK, never accepted that Russian rule of the Baltic states was legitimate. Australia was also a strong supporter, apart from one year. Shamefully, in August 1974 Gough Whitlam’s government withdrew recognition of the Baltic states as separate counties. This decision was reversed in December 1975 by Malcolm Fraser’s new government.

The long history of internal and external pressure for Baltic independence finally bore fruit after the failed Moscow Coup of 1991. The last of the Russian troops left in 1994, and 10 years later the Baltic states joined NATO and the EU.

I have long had a negative attitude to the idea of patriotism. I thought, and still think, that American patriotism is a bad thing for the world. But two weeks in the Baltics gives one a much better understanding of how people can love their country. How could you fail to be passionate about your national identity and independence after what these people have been through? It is something that us cosy, safe Australians can hardly begin to understand. They each have their own languages, and their own distinct cultures, but they have only been independent countries for two brief periods totalling 35 years in the past 800 years. Between 1940 and 1949, Latvia lost 35 percent of its population to war, deportation, exile and mass murder.

We saw photos of how the shops had been almost completely empty towards the end of the USSR. A butcher’s shop with no meat. A 100-metre queue to buy bread. Since the mid 1990s, the economies of these countries have been transformed. The supermarkets are as well stocked as any I’ve ever seen, even if a lot of the food items seem unusual to us. Now the income level in Estonia has reached half the EU average, which is a phenomenal transformation, with Latvia only a little behind that.

One of the most striking things about travelling around in the countryside, which we did quite a bit of, is the low level of commercial agriculture. One sees a couple of cows here, a few sheep there, but remarkably few animals overall, and minimal evidence of cropping. Mostly what one sees is forest. There must be commercial agriculture somewhere, if only to provide the locally produced milk and vegetables, but we didn’t manage to stumble upon it, apart from some small plots of potatoes.

I found this lack of agricultural production quite extraordinary, especially since agriculture was a major activity before and during the Russian era. Explanations that we were given by Estonians included the following. (a) After the break up of the USSR, the directors of the communal farms took the equipment and sold it, leaving local farmers without tractors and other essential machinery; (b) Many of the workers on communal farms were people without a history in agriculture, and the communal farming system did not allow them to build up the skills to farm on their own; (c) many skilled farmers were deported. I’m also not sure what happened to property rights to land. I suspect that property rights are a key factor, but I wasn’t able to find out anything about that. Whatever the reasons are, much land that was formerly in productive agriculture has been abandoned and has reverted, or is reverting, to forest. Even the massive financial support that the EU provides to farmers is apparently not sufficient to reverse this.

Although Russian rule is finished, the ongoing influence of Russia is palpable. There was an explicit policy of Russification, and hundreds of thousands of Russians were moved into the Baltic states. Of the current populations, 25% of Estonians and 30% of Latvians are ethnically Russian. The Russian influence is even more pronounced in the cities: there are actually more ethnic Russians than ethnic Latvians in Riga, the biggest city in the Baltics. One hears Russian in the streets constantly, and public signage and advertising is in Russian as well as the national language.

During the USSR era, the locals were required to learn Russian, and many ethnic Russians would not converse in anything other than Russian. Now the tables have turned, especially in Estonia. The remaining Russians have become a disadvantaged minority, with big social problems in some areas. Only Estonian language is accepted for official purposes, so older Russians are struggling to pick up a difficult language that they managed to avoid for decades. (Estonian is related only to Finnish, and not to any other European language.)

Related to this, it was striking that the poor people we saw begging on the street were mostly old, and I think they were mostly Russian. It was very sad to see so many old ladies begging – something I have not seen anywhere else. My daughter Rosie was constantly stopping us so that she could give a few coins to some desperately sad looking old lady.

Another strong social trend is that, since they joined the EU, many of the young people of these countries have moved to western Europe, especially the skilled young people. This has resulted in a major shortage of labour and skills, and predictably wages have risen.

One of the most visible of the Russian legacies is the preponderance of big, ugly, grey, concrete, rectangular apartment blocks. Even in the country, we kept coming across two or three story apartment blocks in the middle of nowhere, built to house immigrant Russians. Now most of them are desperately run down, and many are abandoned. We were also struck with how run down many of the buildings are generally. Even most private houses seem terribly neglected on the outside. The part of Riga where we stayed, in particular, is just awful – dirty and dilapidated to an extent I’ve only seen in developing countries before.

Despite all the problems, economic growth has been rapid and relentless. I expect it will all look radically different in 10 or 15 years. It will be fascinating to come back and have a look.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

2 Comments

  • Neil Barr
    19 December, 2011 - 11:46 am | link

    We were struck by the many slender, very well dressed young women in stilettos walking on cobblestone streets. I consider Rigan female ankles a challenge to the laws of bio-mechanics. It was quite striking in Vilnius, where the sense of well-dressed fashion counter-pointed the decrepit and decaying buildings.

    • 19 May, 2013 - 9:20 am | link

      I completely agree. I’ve never seen so many stilettos, and I’ve never been in a place were stilettos would be less convenient. Talk about putting fashion above good sense. (I saw shoe repair shops, displaying hundreds of types of stiletto heels ready for repair jobs. It must be a thriving business.) Like Neil, we were struck by the stark contrast between the sharp dressing of the women, and the decrepitude of the physical environment (in Riga – we didn’t get to Vilnius).

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