Book Review: A History Of The Baltic States

A History Of The Baltic States, by Andres Kasekamp

As part of my study for the upcoming Feast of Tabernacles [1], I decided to read this book for historical background, and found it to be a pleasant read, generally well-researched and certainly nuanced and pro-Western in its perspective, all of which are things that I tend to appreciate in a work. It is not an enviable task to write about a region like that of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, for several reasons that are worthy of mentioning. For one, few people are likely to read a book that is so unfamiliar unless there is a great personal reason to do so—whether one wishes to travel to that country or has a family background there, and this means that those who are most motivated will also have particular interests that must be taken into consideration. For another matter, the three nations among the Baltic states have a distinctive history and culture. Estonia speaks a language in the same language family as Finland, which has successfully branded itself as a “Nordic” nation, which Estonia is seeking to do itself, while Latvia and Lithuania speak languages in the Baltic subfamily of languages. Likewise, Estonia and Latvia were long fought over by Livonian Swordbrothers, Teutonic Knights, Danish and Swedish conquerors, as well as Russians, while Lithuania was long a junior partner in the Polish Confederation and had a much more notable history as an independent state, as well as being under strong Polish cultural influence. The different contexts of language and history despite their compact geographical location make a cultural identification between all three nations among the Baltic states a complicated matter.

In terms of its organization and contents, this book is straightforwardly organized to discuss the history of the areas that are now part of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, along with their interaction with neighbors. The first chapter, a short one, discusses the importance of the area as the home of Europe’s last pagans, subject to the external pressure of crusades instigated by Danish and German interests. The next chapter discusses the expansion of Lithuania into a sizeable Grand Duchy and also the course and eventual collapse of Medieval Livonia under the pressures of the Reformation. After this there is a chapter on the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the rise of Sweden and Russia, who fought over the area as each sought to increase or preserve its empire. The fourth chapter discusses the long and dark period of direct Tsarist rule from 1795-1917. A critical discussion of the brief period of independence, in which unstable republics fell first to authoritarian rule between 1917 and 1939 and then a chapter discussing the states’ status as an eventual borderland status between Russia and Nazi Germany [2] in the period from 1939 to 1953 follows. The last two chapters discuss Soviet rule from 1953-1991 and the return to the west with a focus on EU accession and entry into NATO to find some defense against the resurgent Russian bear. Overall, the book blends respect and regard for the culture of the peoples of the Baltic states with concern about foreign domination as well as the well-being of the common people at large.

For a reader who has no particular team to cheer, the history of the Baltic states is one that combines hope with a lot of concern and dissatisfaction. In truth, the history of the Baltic states is an unpleasant one, filled with violence, exploitation, and foreign domination. The frequent internal divisions of the various peoples of the region, their inability to stand together against foreign domination, and their small population size have combined for a long history of domination by stronger outsiders, whether Danes, Germans, Poles, Swedes, or Russians. Somehow, despite everything, the peoples of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have managed to preserve their cultural independence and languages. The author of this book closes his work with a statement of purpose: “This book, however, has sought to contribute to understanding, in the hope that the Baltic region will never again experience a situation like that in the Soviet-era anecdote about two intellectuals discussing the country’s future: one wonders what the future will hold in a decade, and the other resignedly replies that it is useless to speculate about the future when we do not even know what our past will be by then (197).” This book, even if one disagrees with some of the political and cultural ideology of the author, likely will help those who read it understand the past, and the difficulties the people of this region have in facing it honestly, as well as the way that others, particularly Russians, have sought to delegitimize the Baltic states in their hope for security and autonomy within the dangerous neighborhood of Eastern Europe.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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