I stayed in the beautiful capitals of each country (Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn). There I visited palaces, churches, museums, and the city centers to learn the history of the nations’ consistent occupations, especially looking for Russian and Soviet influences in national culture, artwork, and cuisine. My observations ranged from seeing lots of beets and pickled herring on menus, to standing in awe of the beautiful ornate and stylized architecture of Russian Orthodox churches, to mourning the Soviets’ destruction of beautiful religious frescoes in many churches.
Overall, what an incredible experience!
How did you come up with your project and why does it interest you?
How the United States and our allies engage Russia has always interested me. My father was a Cold Warrior as a U.S. Army Field Artillery Officer, and my time as an Army Chemical Officer held significant traditions from the Cold War. I took Russian in my undergraduate studies and during my time at Georgetown, so I knew that I wanted to travel to use my language skills daily with native speakers for the first time ever.
I wanted to expand my understanding beyond Russia to better see its legacy and residual footprint from the Soviet era, as well as its current cultural influence, in former Soviet bloc states. As former Soviet states that are now NATO members bordering of Russia, the Baltic states hold some clear significance. In light of Russian aggression in Ukraine, many eyes have turned to the Baltics to try to predict and prepare for any future interventionism by Putin. With issues regarding Russian ethnic minority rights in Estonia and Latvia, I believed that the concept of identity in the region and sentiment toward Russians and Russian speakers deserved further study.
My questionnaire and interviews of locals complemented my personal observations really well and also let me speak Russian consistently and with more elevated vocabulary than I had previously used in classes.
What was the biggest lesson you took away from this experience?
Most importantly, I learned that although kayaking is great (I went on a midnight kayak tour through the Riga canal), TANDEM kayaking is the devil’s work.
More seriously, I saw firsthand an exceptional legacy of perseverance across the Baltic nations. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have spent centuries under foreign (Swedish, Polish, German, Russian) occupation. Despite this persistent suppression of their self-determination, the citizens of each country were immensely proud of their national heritage and struggle to gain independence.
They are especially proud of their passive resistance against the Soviets. In spite of executions and mass deportations, unarmed resistance (e.g. the Baltic Way, Estonian Singing Revolution) continued in protest of the illegal occupation. I saw a remnant of Lithuanian resistance in the Siauliai Hill of Crosses, a hill in the countryside covered in tens of thousands of crosses, many of the first laid by local women in prayer for men sent off to Siberia. It was somber, but also beautiful and full of purpose and hope (like much of Baltic state history). I saw a procession led by an old woman carrying a handmade and decorated cross to add to the hill. I’m still struck by the power of this continuing tradition.
What are two interesting things about the Baltic states that the average person doesn't know?
1.) All of the Baltic states have a long pagan heritage and were some of the last (Lithuania being the last) European nations to convert to Christianity. (A lot of students in the capital universities study their national pagan history and artwork, and national culture still preserves many pagan traditions.)
2.) The Baltic states each celebrate two independence days, the first from Russian tsarist rule in 1918 and the second from the Soviets in 1990.
Also of importance to any future first-time travelers to the Baltics – tap water is safe to drink in the capitals, and Latvia’s famous drink Black Balsam is not for the faint-hearted.