About Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian Food and Culture
The almost 8 million Baltic peoples have many factors in common: a temperate climate and a rich harvest from the Baltic Sea, a land that is primarily agricultural and pastoral, but a bitter history of invasions, conquests, and humiliating oppressions. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the three countries that comprise the Baltic, have known foreign overlords controlling their lands, attempts at Germanization and Russification, and even extermination and deportation of their peoples.
For almost 500 years, and despite other conquerors who were tempted to rule over the Ests, the loosely knit tribes of Estonia, it was the Swedes who held sway from as early as the 1500s. To this day, Swedish architecture, names, signposts, and even many Swedish foods are strongly influential in Estonian life. Russification followed in 1721, when Sweden ceded Estonia to czarist Russia. A burst in Estonian culture resulted from the brief respite after the First World War when foreign influences in the land receded, but returned again in 1939, with the forced establishment of Russian military bases in key Estonian areas. By 1990, Estonia began the laborious trek to independence.
A glimpse into Latvia’s history shows many similar and unhappy parallels. In 1201, the Germans swept over the rich fertile lowlands and sweeping forests of Latvia to conquer the tribes known as Letts, and established the capital city, Riga. By the mid-1500s, the German influence disintegrated, but in ensuing years the small land became the center of a struggle of three other powers: Poland, Russia, and Sweden. In 1795, Latvia officially became a part of the Russian Empire although much of her lands remained in the hands of German overlords. Like Estonia, Latvia was to taste brief independence following the First World War until 1939, when it too was forced to accept the establishment of Russian military bases on her land. By the mid-1990s, however, like Estonia, Latvia too was on the way to independence.
Lithuania’s history shows her to be culturally and historically the strongest of the three Baltic countries. Lithuania not only successfully rebuffed early foreign invaders, but for a period of almost 200 years (1200-1400), actually expanded to exert control over much of the territory of Belorussia, the Ukraine, and parts of western Russia. The country’s power might even have extended farther with the marriage of Jagelo, Grand Duke of Lithuania and Jadwiga, Queen of Poland, but for a clash in
religious convictions. The Polish-Lithuanian Roman Catholicism could not be reconciled with the principles of Orthodoxy of the Russian, Belorussian, and Ukrainian areas. By 1700, the tide of Russian power and influence was so strong that not only did these latter lands wash back to Russia, but the tide of influence “back-washed” into Lithuania as well.
In the First World War, Lithuania was occupied by Germans, who seemingly supported the many Lithuanian nationalistic movements. But after Germany’s defeat, a pro-Polish government was set up in Vilna (1920), and a part of Lithuania even united with Poland. This period was followed by an alliance with Estonia and Latvia but they too succumbed, as the others had, to Russian domination leading to the establishment of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. By 1993, the last Soviet troops left, after much unrest, and like her sister Baltic countries, Lithuania too is struggling to control her own future.
In spite of such a history of foreign domination and influence, the Baltic peoples have staunchly retained a rich culture of their own and are famed for their literature, folk legends, athletic physiques, and joyous choral singing groups. Latvian and Lithuanian peoples share ethnic and language roots in the Slavic-Baltic division of Indo-European languages, but Estonian ethnic and language roots are to be found in the Finno-Ugric family, relating them more to the Finns and Hungarians.