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The Europe into which the eastern Baltic littoral was drawn from the thirteenth century on was itself undergoing major changes. The grand struggle between secular rulers and the papacy over ultimate allegiance was resolving itself in favor of the monarchies, and by the fifteenth century, the monarchs had begun to realize the importance of dynasty and effective internal administration. As old feudal ties between lords and vassals and sub-vassals were eroding, lords could no longer expect loyalty from their subordinates on the basis of a personal bond alone. Military servitors to whom lands had been granted were refashioning themselves into land-based aristocracies, discovering at the same time the benefits of heritability of their holdings and the advantages of binding “their” peasants to the soil. Cities were becoming an increasingly powerful and independent political force, while long-distance trade and commerce established new forms of personal wealth.
The western church still remained in charge, at least nominally, of the salvation of souls, but, as an institution deeply involved in secular affairs, its activities were being questioned by reformers such as John Wycliff and John Hus who were greatly dismayed about ecclesiastical corruption and the spectacle of a very wealthy church. A conciliar movement (Constance, 1414–1417; Basle, 1431–1449) sought to pacify the reformers, but their disquiet continued. Wealth was being redefined to include more than land, but the impulse to control territory remained strong at both the personal and state levels.
At the start of the eighteenth century, the Baltic littoral was a battleground for regional powers, but by the end it had become part of the western borderlands of the Russian Empire. Sweden had been expelled from the eastern shore of the Baltic by the 1720s and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth appeared increasingly unable to keep Russia from meddling in its internal affairs. In western and central Europe, competing powers fought a series of wars about questions of succession while seeking to consolidate European colonies in the New World. At the same time, innovative thinkers in France, England, and the German lands launched and presided over the Enlightenment, writing timeless works about the social contract, the perfectibility of man, and the separation of powers.
In Livonia and Estonia, the new Russian ruling elite, having replaced the Swedish overlords, struck deals with regional and local landowning nobilities in order to secure social and political order and to establish effective administration of the enserfed peasant populations – the Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians. Old administrative boundaries were reaffirmed and new ones created in a manner that cut through the language communities of old Livonia, dividing the Estonians in two. The Latvian population remained divided between southern Livonia, on the one hand, and the Duchy of Courland and Latgale, on the other, both the latter still under the authority of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
The peoples of the Baltic littoral entered the nineteenth century in a fragmented state. The governing social orders of Estland, Livland, Kurland, Latgale (Inflanty), and the Lithuanian lands had to deal with the unpredictability of monarchs in St. Petersburg, the backwash of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic invasion of the Russian Empire, the lagging incomes of their own landed properties, and the collective resentments of the enserfed peasantries. Liberally inclined intellectuals – the Gelehrtenstand – provisioned Baltic cultural space with increasingly precise descriptions of the littoral and with writings in the vernacular languages, while many among them worried that the restless peasantry were insufficiently civilized (germanized or polonized) to handle any new freedoms they might be granted. In this autocratic political system, however, the chief reference points were always the personality and governance style of the tsar-emperor, and the main themes of the littoral's history in the first half of the nineteenth century were indeed set in many ways by the concerns and policies of two tsars – Catherine the Great's grandsons Alexander I (1801–1825) and his younger brother, Nicholas I (1825–1855). Alexander I prided himself on being a westernizer, ruling in the style of European absolutist monarchs, which in his view meant the encouragement of reform, particularly in the area of agrarian relations. His brother Nicholas was far more conservative, and sought to diminish regional autonomy by emphasizing the military character of his rule and heightening controls over wayward provinces.
During the second half of the twelfth century, several interrelated chains of events transformed the eastern Baltic littoral thoroughly enough to produce what might be called a new order. The transformation, which involved western Europeans coming and staying in the littoral, did not take place overnight; in fact, it unfolded over a century and a half. To understand it properly, we have to step away from simplified models of what happened and consider the events in all their complexity. By the twelfth century, the peoples of the littoral had been familiar with strangers in their midst at least since the ninth century, when the Vikings were using the littoral waterways to travel east into the territories of the Rus'. Traders from the west and the east had come and gone, as had Christian missionaries from the lands of the Rus'. How these “others” had been incorporated into the worldview of the indigenous peoples we do not know, but the arrival of the German crusaders and traders could hardly have seemed like an unusual occurrence. Nor would their militancy have seemed extraordinary, at least initially. After all, the tribal societies of the littoral were themselves hardly peaceful and innocent farmers: for centuries they had raided and pillaged one another's territories, and taken captives and slaves. None of these forays had been manifestations of a determined expansionism, save perhaps those of the Lithuanians into adjacent eastern lands.
The Baltic region is frequently neglected in broader histories of Europe and its international significance can be obscured by separate treatments of the various Baltic states. With this wide-ranging survey, Andrejs Plakans presents an integrated history of three Baltic peoples - Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians - and draws out the common threads to show how it has been shaped by their location in a strategically desirable corner of Europe. Subordinated in turn by Baltic German landholders, the Polish nobility and gentry, and then by Russian and Soviet administrators, the three nations have nevertheless kept their distinctive identities - significantly retaining three separate languages in an ethnically diverse region. The book traces the countries' evolution from their ninth-century tribal beginnings to their present status as three thriving and separate nation states, focusing particularly on the region's complex twentieth-century history, which culminated in the eventual re-establishment of national sovereignty after 1991.
The eastern Baltic littoral entered the twentieth century quietly, but in 1901 the city of Riga marked the seven hundredth anniversary of its founding with very elaborate celebrations. The multifaceted history of the city, in some sense representing the whole littoral, was symbolized by the existence in Riga of statues dedicated to Bishop Albert, the founder; Peter the Great, the tsar of Russia who brought Livland into the empire; and Johann Gottfried Herder, the philosopher, who had insisted that the Volksgeist (spirit of the people) was a supremely important element in human affairs. Also in 1901 the Riga City Council elected as mayor George Armistead, a wealthy merchant with progressive ideas and the scion of a germanized English family that had resided in Riga since 1812 and had become part of its dominant German-speaking patriciate. Since by 1897 the city's population had become mostly Latvian (41.6 percent), with Germans (25.5 percent) and Russians (16.9 percent) comprising most of the rest, it was therefore not clear, in Herderian terms, which of the Volksgeister was representative. Armistead's tenure until 1912 was a period of uninterrupted economic growth and urban modernization; at the same time, he and his social class treated the events during the revolutionary years 1905–1906 as unwelcome interruptions to progress and not as the signals of deep-seated socioeconomic and national divisions in the littoral that they undoubtedly were.
The year 1939 turned out to be a fateful one for Europe and the world. On September 1 of that year, Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland began a conflict so vast that it quickly received the designation of World War II, requiring that the earlier so-called Great War become World War I. Germany felt confident about its move east, because on August 23, 1939, Hitler and Stalin had agreed to a non-aggression treaty, eliminating for a time the possibility of a two-front war in the east against the USSR and in the west against France and Great Britain (who had come to Poland's defense). The treaty contained secret protocols laying out German and Soviet spheres of influence in eastern Europe, in which the eastern Baltic littoral figured prominently. Germany ultimately declared itself to have no interest in the littoral, in effect giving the USSR a free hand in the region. The Soviet Union responded quickly, invading Poland on September 17 and in fact occupying a slightly larger but less populous section of the country than Germany brought under its control. It might be added that earlier, in March, Poland itself had benefited from Hitler's earlier dismemberment of Czechoslovakia by demanding and receiving that country's Teschen region, with some 240,000 inhabitants. In any event, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3.
The story of present-day Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania must begin not at the time when countries bearing those names appeared on the European map, but when a group of stateless peoples settled permanently on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea during the fifth and sixth centuries ad. At that time, to the south, the Roman Empire had already dissolved and, in what was to become France, the Merovingian and Carolingian kings were trying to form a successor state. Much later, in the medieval period, only one of the Baltic seacoast peoples – the Lithuanians – succeeded in creating a state of their own; the other two – the Estonians and Latvians – lost such political leaders as they had by the end of the thirteenth century and until the twentieth remained subordinated to German-, Swedish-, and Russian-speaking landowning aristocracies. The Lithuanians too lost their medieval state through a voluntary union with Poland that created a commonwealth in which the Poles became the dominant force politically and socially. Only after World War I did cartographers redraw their maps of Europe to include Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as independent nation-states. Twenty years later, they had to rework them again because the three countries were absorbed by the Soviet Union in 1940 and became soviet socialist republics. The redrawing exercise was not repeated until 1991, when the USSR collapsed and the three Baltic states resumed their independence.
Although the three Baltic republics had been part of the European continent even during Soviet times, the “iron curtain” – to use Churchill's words – separated the communist world from western Europe for almost half a century. Indeed, Soviet-era censorship had magnified the psychological impact of the separation. Not all parts of the communist world were equally far removed from the “capitalist west”; the cultural borders of the eastern European satellite states were relatively permeable to western influences of various kinds, and in the Baltic littoral access to Finnish television images, the Voice of America, and other western stations was possible with special equipment in spite of jamming (although illegal). Western sailors brought western magazines and music cassettes to Baltic seaports, and even the Communist Party had become somewhat tolerant of western musical and fashion “fads” among the young from the 1970s on.
By the later 1980s, however, when barriers of all sorts began to fall, a cascade of impressions, revelations, and personal observations merged into a general feeling of socioeconomic and cultural backwardness that was both enervating and inspiring. The reentry into a dynamic and prosperous Europe would doubtlessly place the Baltic littoral at the bottom of European states in terms of socioeconomic measurements – a humiliating position; even so, the move would ensure progress toward “normality,” a societal characteristic that was mentioned with increasing frequency in the Baltic media.
The 1850s contained two internal events of great significance for the Russian Empire: the arrival on the imperial throne of Alexander II, another “reforming” tsar, in 1855; and the lack of accomplishment in the Crimean War (1853–1856). The latter set off in imperial circles discussion about fundamental reforms to bring Russia to the level of what was perceived to be the advanced western European countries. In the Baltic littoral, these developments coincided with certain local dissatisfactions: the emancipation of serfs in Estland, Livland, and Kurland and the introduction of labor rents had not produced endless agricultural progress. The rural populations continued to be restive, liberalism of different kinds seemed to taking firmer root even in the minds of some members of the Ritterschaften and certainly among the Gelehrten; and the urban patriciates were becoming more resentful over their inability to seize growing economic opportunities in trade and commerce. In the administratively fragmented Lithuanian lands, the harsh russification measures of Nicholas I had not succeeded in eroding memories of statehood and of the failures of the 1830–1831 uprising. Other events, originating outside the empire, also found resonance in the western borderlands: the 1848 revolutions in central Europe, though viewed as unsuccessful, nonetheless toppled the “Metternich system” of intellectual control and left a generation of central European nationalists with a deep craving for another “springtime of peoples.”
A survey of the history of the peoples of the eastern Baltic littoral could start with the first mention of them in written sources, which would permit subsequent events to be described according to a recognized chronology. To begin much earlier requires that in this chapter we use a different time scale from that common among historians, reckoning the passage of time in tens and hundreds of thousands of years. The decision to start earlier was in part based on the desirability of underlining that the Baltic region was not empty space at the time major civilizations appeared, flowered, and declined in the Near East and in the Mediterranean basin; and in part to establish that human movement was from the beginning an integral part of long-term Baltic history. In the centuries when they began to appear by name in written historical sources – roughly starting in the first century ad – the peoples of the littoral were only the latest of hundreds of generations of migrants, some of whom left behind identifiable fragments of material culture while others disappeared leaving barely a trace.
All these comings and goings no doubt had turning points of various kinds about which we are unlikely ever to know very much. The one that was crucial for connecting the continuous human history of the Baltic littoral to the history of the rest of the European continent, however, came when writers in the existing civilizations began to assign names to the littoral peoples, imprecise and largely uninformative though these names were.