Although the three Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – are often, as here, grouped together for convenience, in fact, they are quite different in history, culture and language. Estonian, for example, is not even an Indo-European language (belonging instead to the Finno-Ugric group that also includes Finnish and Hungarian). Latvian and Lithuanian, though drawn from the same roots, have developed separately over the centuries to the point where speakers of one cannot be assumed to understand speakers of the other.
Given their small size and geographic proximity, however, the Baltic countries have often shared a common fate at the hands of outsiders, especially during the 20th century. In the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litvosk, the Russians (then under Communist rule) ceded the Baltic countries to Germany. In 1939, as part of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Germany, controlled by the Nazis, returned the favor and secretly agreed that the Baltic countries would be part of the Soviet sphere of influence. Stalin's Red Army quickly occupied all three. Notwithstanding the Pact, however, Nazi Germany in 1941 invaded the Soviet Union and overran and occupied the Baltic states in the process. A few years later, Germany was defeated and the Soviet Union promptly "accepted" Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as new Soviet "republics".
Although the three nations did experience varying degrees of industrial modernization under Soviet rule, the costs – in terms mass arrests, deportations and killings of thousands of people; the collectivization of agriculture; the nationalization of other businesses; and the general loss of political identity and personal freedoms – far outweighed the benefits. In each of the countries, the KGB (the Soviet secret police) and its informers cast an ominous cloud over daily life for almost half a century.
During the 1980s, in response to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost (or "openness"), residents of the Baltic countries began to demonstrate against Soviet rule. Their grandest display – and one of the most moving demonstrations in favor of freedom the world has ever seen – came on August 23, 1989, the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. On that day, two million people formed a human chain that stretched more than 400 miles across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and called for independence from the Soviet Union.
In September 1991, as it began to crumble from within, the Soviet Union finally recognized all three Baltic countries as independent nations. Since independence, all three countries have experienced rapid economic development and, in 2004, they became members of the European Union and NATO. During this time, tourism increased dramatically. The capitals of each country boast finely restored old towns that offer a window into the past, complete with German, Russian and (in Estonia) Scandinavian influences.
I visited the region for a little more than a week in May 2006. In retrospect, I wish I had been able to allocate more time. Although the countries look small on the map, it takes a surprisingly long time to get from place to place, even by car. Vilnius, for example, is about as far from Tallinn as it can possibly be and still be within the Baltics' boundaries. In addition, the inter-city highways were under much-needed repair to bring them up to modern European standards and construction delays were frequent. As a result, I did not get to see as much of the areas outside the capital cities as I would have liked (though I did manage see resort areas along the Baltic coast, such as Neringa (also known as the Curonian Spit) in Lithuania and Jūrmala in Latvia. All in all, I highly recommend a visit. The tourist infrastructure is quite advanced, the people are friendly and there is much to see, especially for history buffs.
This photos on this page offer highlights of each of the places I visited in the Baltics. For more detail about any particular area, select from the links at the top of the page or the drop-down list below.