I have come across this thought pattern on many occasions since I married an Estonian. Quite a lot more recently, as Forest Brothers was published. In short, there is a lot of ignorance in my country about the Baltic States. Even after 22 years of independence, EU and NATO membership, cheap flights for stag and hen parties and countless Eurovision song contests, I still find it happens. In some ways it annoys me, even if I understand the reasons why.
Only the other week, I received a text from an old friend, one I hadn’t seen for over ten years. ‘I’m thinking of going to Croatia, do you know any good resorts?’
‘No mate, about a thousand miles too far south for me. My wife is from Estonia, not Slovenia.’
That’s the first mistake of many, as our collective geographical ignorance means we sometimes don’t know our Baltics from our Balkans. Do we switch off after the first syllable? The break-up of the Soviet empire led to the reformation of many old countries in a short space of time. Former nations that had never featured in our school history. It’s a sorry state of affairs that we couldn’t keep up with the change. You see them all in theEurovision song contest, although perhaps it confuses the hell out of the British public, as they all tend not to vote for whatever turgid song we put forward. At the end of the day, the general thought is that this event is unimportant. It’s why millions tune in every year to listen to how important it is.
The Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania lost their independence soon after von Ribbentroff and Molotov shook hands after carving up the East between them. After the Second World War, they were written out of our history books. So much that, I, as a child, only discovered them by accident on the pages of a pre-war atlas. To the child studying the wonders of people like Jethro Tull (the inventor of the seed drill, not of playing the flute on one leg) and the horrors of the two world wars, these small nations had been omitted from their books. Not remembered. We helped them in 1918, we failed them in 1945. The world moved on in ignorance.
Do people switch off when talking about the Baltic Sea? Is there a feeling that it is permanently cold, near Arctic. It’s certainly harsh in winter. My first experience of Tallinn was about minus twenty Centigrade. However, I have experienced many warm summers. Hot sunny days complementing the warm shallow sea at the continental shelf and the less commercialised long sandy beaches. No British cafes boasting ‘breakfast like your mother used to make’ here. Just as well for me, I can manage to make toast and cereal myself.
A few years back, the government of Estonia and the Welsh Assembly signed a cultural agreement to promote each other through a series of joint events. Woefully under advertised, these passed off very quietly and as such was a great opportunity missed. Depending on your political flavour, Welsh politicians have various ambitions of self-government. These range from closing down the Welsh Assembly to outright independence. So, surely it’s a natural progression to get to know people who have have had similar problems of self-determination, who similarly value their culture and language, who similarly are overshadowed many times by big, noisy neighbours? Perhaps, just perhaps we might learn something from their journey. If only we knew where they were on a map. Perhaps it is easier just to continue looking to the bigger EU nations for friendship? We have so much in common.
That is another problem I think, the UK acts at times as if many countries are beneath us in some mythical hierarchy and therefore not worth paying much attention to. The land of the Baltic states have always been looked at as strategic by many empires. It is the reason they have changed hands so many times in history, as the power of various empires wax and wane. Despite that, it appears we cannot be bothered to get to know them.
Swedes, Danes, Germans and Russians have all had Estonia in their empires at various times, and left their mark on culture and architecture. The result is an interesting and unique mix, not only seen in the Hanseatic capital of Tallinn.
The three Baltic states are grouped together in our minds as one entity. However, in psyche and culture, it’s like grouping Britain, France and Germany. there are many parallels of historical evolution but in the end, each country is completely individual. All three Baltic States have their own unique languages. The lutheran Estonians are deemed reserved by nature, the Latvians more outgoing, whilst the catholic Lithuanians, termed ‘the Italians of the North’. All part of the mix that makes each a pleasure to explore.
There’s a lot to learn, a lot to see and a lot to experience in the lands north of Poland, south of Finland and west of Russia. I commend them to you. That’s where Estonia is.