The Baltic States: a bit more diverse than you (probably) imagined

Baltic Sea by Nigel‘s Europe@flickr

Author: Tomas Marcinkevicius


I am from Lithuania. So, when I travel or accept guests from foreign countries, the first information package usually consists of many “no‘s”. Such as…

Hey there, we are here, in the North-East, just a bit upper from Poland. No, don‘t look down on the map, that‘s Balkans, not Baltics. Baltics by the Baltic sea and Balkans in the peninsula in the South, ok? No, Russian is not an official language and we don‘t necessarily speak it, though we would like to. No, languages here are not Slavic. No, natives (except for Russian and Polish minorities) don‘t consider themselves to be Slavs: Lithuanians and Latvians think of themselves as Baltic and Estonians are close to Finns. No, people here don‘t prefer the former-communist identity to their national one. No, it‘s not the same country and we don‘t understand each other by default…


Mostly, I want to talk about the last “No”. Yes, there for sure are some similarities among people from the Baltics, but they mainly come from having a similar history and life experience. There is a Russian saying from the times of Soviet Union: jest takaja strana: Pribaltika (“There is such a country: Baltics”), which is coming from seeing Baltics as the Western and the most developed part of the Empire.

Crossroads of history and insecure tomorrow left some harshness in the Baltic character, which also connects people living by that cold sea. Once in Macedonia, where I was volunteering, me and one Latvian girl even invented a new concept of “Baltic sarcasm”, which was apparently not so understandable to young people from other countries.

Anyway, thinking all three countries are the same would be as mistaken as putting Spain and Portugal, Macedonia and Croatia or Austria and Switzerland into one basket. So, let‘s talk about a few differences that make Baltic states worth visiting one by one and make the time spent in each of them worth it.

The capitals are probably what you are going to see first here. Try to remember the names before you arrive. People in Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn are pretty much fed up by foreigners confusing them: it was fun the first 267 times, now it just got annoyingly old. To help you do that, let‘s play with some colours.

Tallinn, characterized by blue and grey, is the smallest and the coldest of these three, being the furthest in the North. It has the best access to the sea (100 meters from the Old Town) and St. Olav‘s church, which in the XVI century was the tallest building in the world. It is a cute sea port with lots of Scandinavian and German influences, in the recent years replaced by drunken Finnish coming here to get even more drunk on the cheap.

Tallinn, by Marcus Vegas@flickr

Cheap foreign drunks were and still are one of the main problems of brownish-red Riga, the biggest and the best-connected to the world by airlines of these three. Colossal Old Town, mostly influenced by German rule and Daugava river makes the city into what it is. To me, it always looked a bit aggressive in all the possible ways: full of people, parties, diverse stuff to do, strange people and stupidly strict defensive rules. One of them prohibits you from sitting on the grass in parks. There were even talks on banning smoking on the streets…

Riga, by Martynas Pėstininkas

After crazy Riga, pale yellow Vilnius is your chill-out spot. Calm old-town, one of the biggest in Eastern and Central Europe, offers you its narrow streets. Compared to Tallinn and especially Riga, it really looks small and cosy. It‘s not a business city, no matter how many skyscrapers Swedish banks build here. Loads of parks, green spots and people in no hurry testify that. It‘s not Berlin, Budapest, Prague or Warsaw, but Vilnius doesn‘t have to be any of these: it‘s my personal favourite anyway.

Vilnius, by Jurijus Azanovas@flickr

Whether such a thing as a national character exists at all is a hard question, but to hell with it: if you get some stereotypes, at least let them be first-handed. To make it easier, again, let‘s compare these three nations with some other, better known ones.

Latvians, who tend to live in the middle, are the most Baltic of all the Baltics. If Lithuania sometimes try to position itself as belonging to Central Europe and Estonia has pretentions to be Nordic, Latvia knows it‘s place. Long sandy coastline makes Latvians, in my personal opinion, a bit go-with-the-flow and “wavy-minded”, but that just results in a friendly existentialist carelessness. Ooh, and they‘re also supposed to be the best singers in the region, at least that‘s the myth they‘re working on right now. So, imagine a Swedish-German hybrid, and here you go: a typical Latvian ice-hockey player.

The “brothers” of Latvians, Lithuanians, are the confused child in the family. Lithuania kind of had its own history, kind of was a part (or in union?) with Poland, kind of part of Russian and Soviet empires, kind of occupied by Germany, kind of independent… Probably that‘s another reason why the neighbours from the North call Lithuanians “the Italians of the Baltic”. Neurosis is in Lithuanian blood as well as basketball bouncing, but that‘s mainly because they‘re so inland-based and undecided who (and with whom) to be.

If you asked Lithuanians or Latvians about Estonia, the most answers would go like this: a slow geeky brother who spent his pimpled teenage years in front of a computer screen and now is getting money from that. Seriously, 90 percent of Estonian guys I meet have something to do with IT business. That‘s why they call that country E-stonia and that‘s why “Skype” was created by an Estonian team and that‘s why they had the first internet election in the world. Also, they‘re keen on sailing and celebrations in the nature. To my mind, if a Norwegian hacker would have a love child with a Russian lumberjack… he/she would speak Estonian.

Forgetting the national minorities would be an unforgivable mistake, especially if you‘re visiting the cities. They are mostly Russians and some Polish in Eastern Lithuania. From the first sight, they might seem a bit scary, but that‘s just because they‘re scared a bit themselves, usually living in their own districts or even towns surrounded by the natives. Anyway, there are even minor differences between Lithuanian-Russians, Latvian-Russians and Estonian-Russians, but you will have to get to know them yourselves.

This is one of the winning articles of the Mladiinfo Article Writing Contest. The content of the articles does not necessarily represent the view or the position of Mladiinfo.

6 thoughts on “The Baltic States: a bit more diverse than you (probably) imagined

  1. I agree with Aggie.

    I've lived in Vilnius and do really like the city. Vilnius is not a lithuanian city, it's a multicultural city with a specific atmosphere, and although throughout the time many nations claimed the city to be theirs, it remains a unique place with its own characteristics.

    I wouldn't expect you publish an article with loads of (largely wrong) stereotypes. Authors praise of his own country is felt at almost every place in the article.

    1. I agree with both of you 🙂 I actually don't like this article of mine so much, and yes, it's pretty much Lithuanian-centric. Others will be better, I kind of promise.

      On the other hand, it's your right to disagree. Nobody said Vilnius is a Lithuanian city, also, there is no such thing as right or wrong stereotypes. Stereotypes are stereotypes, and I have mine, you have yours.

      1. Tomas,

        I have to say this: You wrote the article, it's your piece of work and you should be proud of it once you decided to submit it to a wider audience. I personally enjoyed it!
        I haven't been in Lithuania nor in any Baltic country, but yes your article makes me wanna go there. I find it appealing.
        You've also included lots of interesting information like the Skype invention. And on the contrary, I think that your article in not at all Lithuanian-oriented, take this for example:
        "…Lithuanians, are the confused child in the family…"

        So, come on, don't agree on anything!That's my opinion of course 🙂

  2. Well, being Latvian, I found the article interesting and appealing despite it's Lithuanian-oriented praise 🙂 I think the author managed to mingle through his own emotions and at times be even very objective.
    What I didn't like at all was the comment he posted afterwards that e didn't like his own article – a shame in my view, and probably depicting what we, Latvians, think of Lithuanians – they will agree with whatever
    just to slime up to someone… Sorry, Tomas.

  3. To take a deeper view into the portentous, complex issue of identity in Baltics multicultural scenery read "Identity in Formation: The Russian-Speaking Populations in the Near Abroad", by David D. Laitin.
    Without doubt, this book is social science at its best.

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