Wintery Holiday: Part 1

The Baltic States

December 20, 2018 – January 2, 2019

Searching for a wintery location to celebrate the Christmas holidays we found two cities:  Riga in Latvia and Tallinn in Estonia, two of the three Baltic capitals just west of Russia. Each one claims the birth of the Christmas tree tradition and both offered notable holiday markets, promising a taste of gluewien and new places to explore.

These two countries, along with the third, Lithuania, line the east coast of the Baltic Sea situated between Russia to the northeast and Poland to the southwest (with Kalingrad, a small Russian enclave stuck between Poland and Lithuania and one we can’t sail to or enter without a visa).

We had considered cruising to this area last summer but time ran out; yet, we had kept this on our radar for future travel based on other cruisers’ descriptions of the lovely old towns encapsulated within these two, now-modern cities. And, when reading about the region’s history, familiar names and places cropped up, such as the Hanseatic League (a German alliance of trading guilds that dominated this part of the world from the 12th to the 16th century). As you may know by now, we love connecting the historical dots, and these two capitals offered more opportunities to do just that.

And, if you’re like me, my knowledge of the area was minimal, which meant, what else, delving into the background of this region. Similar to a lot of European countries, tracing the history of Riga and Tallinn became a convoluted journey over many centuries…  here goes a recap:

Importance of Trade

Access to the Baltic Sea and a network of rivers fostered trading routes, including the Amber (‘gold of the north’) Road (Baltic to the Mediterranean)

with the Old Silk Road* bringing goods to the Mediterranean that found their way to Northern Europe.

*Now termed the ‘Silk Routes’ due to other roads connecting the East and the West. What’s really interesting is China’s plan to develop a New Silk Route, part of President Xi Jinping’s 2015 ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative to create an economic trade link using land routes (‘Belts’) and sea routes (‘Roads’).


Trade drew many to the shores of this Baltic region. Scandinavian Vikings started frequenting the Baltic people’s land in the 8th century, and German merchants began settling here in the 12th century, eventually becoming part of the Hansa League (14th-17th CE). Crusaders soon followed. In the same century the Danish King Valdemar II (1170-1241) introduced Christianity.


13th Century

The Germanic crusaders–Order of the Brothers of the Sword and Knights of the Teutonic Order–

took over most of the region in the 13th century, eventually adding northern Estonia (sold to them by Valdemar II who wanted out) to their holdings in southern Estonia and Latvia.

Unlike its northern neighbors, the Lithuanians managed to maintain their independence; and, when it seemed prudent to find an ally to ward off the Teutonic Knights, they chose Poland over Russia, linking them to Catholicism and, eventually, a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

14th -17th Centuries

As the Hansa grew more powerful, German merchants became de facto rulers of both Riga and Tallinn (previously known as Reval). In spite of never being more than 10% of the population the Baltic, Germans became the dominant force in the mercantile and professional sectors. Even when Russia’s Tsar Ivan IV (aka Ivan the Terrible) invaded in the mid-1500s,

the Germans maintained administrative control and continued to grow extremely wealthy. This Germanic influence is one reason why Estonia and Latvia became Lutheran after the Reformation, while Lithuanians kept their ties to Catholicism through their alliance with Poland.

In the late 1500s Sweden entered the picture when the heir to the Swedish throne was also King of Poland (Sigmund Vasa III) as well as the Grand Duke of Lithuania.

17th & 18th Centuries

While this union only lasted seven years, it began a century-long turf war between Poland-Lithuania and Sweden. Russia entered the fray in the mid-1600s with a tug of war over Ukraine. It wasn’t until Russia’s Peter the Great (1672-1725) finally won the Great Northern War (1700-21) in his decade-long grudge with Sweden’s Charles XII (1682-1719) that fate was decided for the Baltic States. That fate being Russification.

19th Century

With the emancipation of their serfs in the early 1800s, Estonian and Latvian natives immigrated to the cities and began to grow a strong middle class and a sense of nationalism. The access to education aided this socioeconomic change. (Lithuania’s development came later than its northern neighbors’ due to their peasants remaining serfs until 1861, when all of Russia abolished this feudal system.)

20th Century

With the Russian Revolution and WW I the revolutionary spirit spread throughout the Baltics. By 1920 all three countries won their independence from Soviet Russia. For the first time flags representing Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania flew in those countries. In Riga we visited the Monument to Freedom, erected in 1935 to honor the Latvian soldiers killed during its War of Independence (1918-20).

These three Baltic countries remained independent until 1939 when they fell under USSR’s domain with the signing of the 10-year, secretive Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (aka the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact).

After only two years Hitler reneged on the deal, invaded the Soviet Union, and subjected Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians to Nazi brutality. In 1944, these three countries swapped autocrats and came under the reign of Soviet terror. Finally, with the collapse of the USSR in 1991, all three countries wrested control and won their independence.


To help understand the modern history of the countries we visited, two museums provided excellent information:  Riga’s Museum of the Occupation of Latvia and Tallinn’s Vabamu Occupation Museum.

We located The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia in its temporary location on the second floor of an imposing, but musty government building. Before we entered the rooms covering the occupation of Latvia, signage greeted us describing another misery:  Ukraine’s Holodomar, the National Catastrophe (1933-32). Thirteen billboards walked us through Stalin’s elimination of dissidence through planned starvation of Ukraine’s citizens, a horrific irony considering this country’s farming villages once supplied 43% of the world’s barley, 20% of its wheat and 10% of its corn pre-WW I.

The exhibit described how the Soviets first confiscated all the food, removing any and everything edible. Then they compounded the act by surrounding the farms and villages with armed guards, ensuring no one could leave. Stalin then replaced the local, dying population with collective farmers from other parts of Russia to perform spring sowing of the fields. During this time a large-scale purging resulted in the arrest of 124,000 “Ukranian Nationalists”. Then, at the end of 1933, the government removed all records of those who died of starvation, in effect denying their existence.

With the exception of a few documented accounts by foreign eyewitnesses,

this mass starvation campaign remained in the shadows until the late 1980s. In 1988 the US called it a crime of genocide with other countries following suit. The obvious purpose of the exhibit was to serve as a reminder that these atrocities can and do occur, and the world offers plenty of tragic examples, Yemen being one.

And, that was before we entered the four rooms depicting life under first Nazism, then Communism.

Welcome to more human misery…

The maps below provide a visual of the Baltic states first identified as individual countries following their 1920 independence… then annexed by Russia… who lost them when Germany  invaded…. but recaptured them for a second Russian occupation… ending with finally winning their independence in 1991.

The first Soviet occupation of 1940-41 established the Soviet totalitarian terror system with the goal of destroying all resistance and of soviet-izing all Latvians.

Artifacts from the Soviet occupation, one showing the Estonian flag hidden inside a purse…

and photographs, such as the 1940 headquarters of the NKGB (People’s Commissariat of State Security, aka Cheka) and NKYD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) document this Russification imposed brutally upon the local populace.

Ironically, life under the Soviet regime was so harsh that many Latvians welcomed the German soldiers as liberators when they arrived July 1, 1941.

This quickly changed when locals realized one totalitarian ruler was replacing another.

I learned from one display how Germany planned to colonize some Latvian cities by deporting 50% of the local inhabitants and importing 164,000 German settlers to ‘Germanize’ the region over a 25-year period. While in another area a map of the Riga Ghetto appeared in an August 1941 edition of a local paper.

By September of that same month 29,000 Jews are interned there. Meanwhile mass killings of Jews occurs, resulting in 70,000 Latvian Jews murdered along with 20,000 out of 25,000 jews brought to Latvia from other countries. An estimated 1,000 Latvian Jews are the only ones to survive the war.

More maps identified the main deportation routes used in the 1940s and 50s by the GULAG (the administration of forced labor camps) where thousands of  ‘criminals’ performed slave labor. Yet, deportations to Russia had begun even before WW II with over 15,000 Latvians exiled in Siberia or sent to GULAG camps by June 14, 1941. They were joined by 21,000 from Lithuania and 11,000 from Estonia.

For those curious, here’s the legend, which, hopefully, you can enlarge.

The largest, post-WW II deportations started on March 25, 1949 when 42,000 Latvians–almost 2% (!) of the population–are forcibly resettled in Siberia or GULAG camps along with 32,000 Lithuanians and 21,000 Estonians.

Until Stalin’s death in 1953, 44,271 citizens are deported. Out of those 5,500 die during the journey or in exile. Eventually the rest are released with the majority allowed to return to Latvia in 1956, but not to their original homes and they are still black-balled by the Soviet government.

If one does the math it’s stupefying to see how Stalin and his henchmen endeavored to decimate the natives of these Baltic countries.

Out of the Nazi occupation, homegrown partisan forces continue to fight, only now the enemy are the Soviets. Aiding these fighters are non-violent resistant groups. Persecution of the dissidents peters out in the early 1980s with Mikhail Gorbache’s perestroika in 1985 signaling the beginning of very public demonstrations advocating Latvian independence.

To me, one of the most powerful statements of this resistance against tyranny is an event that occurred August 23, 1989 – the 50th anniversary of the Molov-Ribbentrop Pact. On that day two million people joined hands

creating a 600-km (373 mile), unbroken human chain from Tallinn via Riga to Vilnius, the three capitals of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (FYI, the image below shows the countries’ flag colors).

What a powerful image, one that would be amazing if we could do the same in the US to protest the hate speech and groups festering in our country. Sign me up. I’m there.

1991 brings independence but not without huge losses: the % of the population comprised of native Latvians has gone from 75% in 1935 to 52% in 1989.

Latvia oriented itself to the West, joining its international groups:  the United Nations (September 1991); NATO (April 2004); and the European Union (May 2004).

A long, long history filled with invasions, occupations and finally national independence.

With the strong likelihood of making your eyes twirl around in your head even more, click here for Tallinn’s Museum of Occupation and other sites…