by Will Mawhood
It wasn’t long after I moved to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, that I noticed a number of peculiar changes taking place in me. I became increasingly snobbish about what constituted cold weather (I remember saying things like “below -15 isn’t really cold” to rather bemused friends). I developed an odd, and very typically Estonian, sensitivity about people implying I didn’t live in Scandinavia. My opinion of my compatriots also took a fairly severe hit. It wasn’t just the often shirtless, frequently shouting and even more frequently intoxicated Brits I had to try to avoid while trekking from my Old Town workplace to the trolleybus that took me back to my Soviet-era sleeping district, Mustamäe – it was the questions.
People appeared interested in where I was living and what I was doing, which was nice, it just kind of bothered me that their preconceptions were so wildly inaccurate. I got a little bit tired of having to answer questions about the conditions and characteristics of my new home with “no, you’re thinking of Russia/Poland/Romania/Kazakhstan”, and on at least one occasion “no, you appear to be thinking of Eritrea”. My mum, who is a well-educated and intelligent woman, asked in a somewhat concerned tone when discussing plans to come visit me: “they do have hotels there, right?” Of course, I had to admit to myself that I would have known little, if any more myself before moving there. The conclusion: Britons didn’t, on the whole, know much about Estonia or the other Baltic states, and neither did they care a great deal.
This was five years ago, but it’s worth mentioning that this vagueness on the part of the outside world doesn’t appear to have diminished in any way. On one occasion recently, on telling someone I’d just met that I had a lot to do with the Baltics, I was met with the response: “oh yeah, I know the Baltics: Estonia…” A significant pause ensued; I nodded encouragingly and he pressed on. “…Lebanon”. I wished he had stopped after Estonia.
I’m a writer, I guess, at least I have tried to become one since I moved to Estonia, and I like to learn about things through reading. Yet this can be hard in the Baltics, especially if you don’t speak the native languages – little is translated into English, and that which is can be prohibitively expensive/academic. Foreign media isn’t often much help either: over the years I’ve been here, I’ve eagerly looked out for references to the Baltic states in media in my own language, but they have been few and far between, and often deeply frustrating, shallow and predictable when they do appear. There are a set number of templates for articles, which are united by featuring Russia offscreen but affecting everything nonetheless, understood to be the main draw: plucky little Estonia/Latvia/Lithuania worry about Russia; Russians oppressed in small-minded, sinister little Estonia/Latvia/Lithuania; cute little Estonia/Latvia/Lithuania – actually surprisingly nice; gawping at Soviet relics in brutalised little Estonia/Latvia/Lithuania.
So inaccurate, partial or garbled versions of Baltic history and current reality are rather common in the British media. Let’s look at one example – admittedly taken from a less than reputable source: The Daily Mail, Britain’s premier vehicle for small-mindedness and casual bigotry. I give you the article entitled: “The stag hunters: Hordes of British men are flocking to Latvia for cut-price parties. But they are easy prey for mafia beauties who seduce them, spike their drinks and empty their bank accounts”. This mouthful of a headline is, incidentally, a pretty perfect snapshot of the Mail’s signature tone – packed with anxiety-inducing collective nouns, and simultaneously morally censorious and obsessed with sex. Anyway, in the article itself you will find slightly strange passages like this one:
The young men are lured to Riga by cheap booze in scores of glitzy bars served by attractive local girls.
Pub crawls in the capital are not the only form of stag party. More adventurous lads pay huge sums for pool parties in private mountain houses (with more Latvian lovelies on hand to cater for their every whim), shooting trips where the young men fire Kalashnikovs, and sailing trips.
When I presented this quote at the lecture I gave in Riga on this subject, there was immediate laughter. The author of this article spent, presumably, at least a day or two in the capital of a pancake-flat nation in a pancake-flat region – a country so flat, in fact, that its language doesn’t even have a word for “mountain” – spoke, presumably, to a fair number of people and still came away with the conclusion that they were within easy driving distance of towering peaks. I rather worry what happened to those stag parties lured off to these fictitious mountains by the promise of pools and lovelies.
A more distressing example I came across a little more recently came from an unexpected source: sharp, sarky left-wing hero (and transplanted Brit) John Oliver. (Link here, see 00:23 onwards for the offending passage).
Haha, Estonia. The country that pioneered e-voting, parking by phone, Skype and which leads Western Europe and North America in a wide range of areas. Estonia. What a laughable country. Had none of his staffers thought to check whether Estonia did indeed deserve to be a punchline in this respect? I can only assume the thinking was: this place, wherever it is, sounds like a tiny, funny Eastern European country, which is almost inevitably backwards and a little embarrassing; it will do. But if even the wittiest and most informed Brits (and Americans) didn’t have the first clue about the Baltics, what hope was there for the others?
It’s strange in some ways, because Britain most definitely has had an impact on the Baltic region over the years – as, in a more subtle but nonetheless palpable way, have the Baltics on Britain. In fact, being just far enough away in Europe to be of interest for trade but not for colonisation, and often oppressed by neighbouring Russia and Germany, countries with which Britain has historically had a generally uneasy or actively hostile relationship, the small, strategically placed Baltics are natural allies.
There’s a little church in the middle of the wandering lanes of Tallinn’s Old Town that gives vivid proof of this, demonstrating that Britain’s support was fairly crucial for the existence of the Baltic states on the map at all. In a corner of the snow-white Church of the Holy Spirit (Puhuvaimu kirik), a Union flag hangs, a tribute to the more than 100 British sailors who lost their lives in the often-forgotten Baltic campaign of 1919, in which British gunboats helped to secure the existence of the nascent Baltic states in the messy and confusing struggles for independence, contributing to the eventual quashing both of German plans for a German-run “United Baltic Duchy” and Lenin’s desire for a series of Soviet republics running up the Baltic coast – as well as, in Latvia in particular, a fair amount of native resistance to the idea of self-rule. Not far off, on the border of Old Town in the ample shade of the Fat Margaret (Paks Margareeta) medieval guard tower, there is a plaque commemorating this sacrifice, bearing thanks in both Estonian and English – see below.
Of course, having influence in a region doesn’t necessarily mean that the majority of your populace back home is knowledgeable about it, or perhaps even aware of its existence. The now-forgotten British travel writer Owen Rutter’s enormously sympathetic travelogue, The New Baltic States and Their Future, written just a few years later – of which more later – is a testament to that. During his travels through all three newly-independent countries in 1924, he repeatedly reports being plied with alcohol and thanks as soon as the Lithuanians, Latvians or Estonians he met learnt that he was British, as well as that the main foreign language taught in the schools of the new states was English. This latter reform came a little too late for most of those he met, though – to all but a few of those he meets there, he speaks in French, the lingua franca of educated Europeans at that time. But while he is clearly proud of this – to the degree that he quite possibly overstates the reverence shown for Britain and its officials – he also confesses, in a somewhat ashamed aside, that:
Here were three little countries which, now free to determine their own affairs, had their eyes turned gratefully towards the English-speaking race, the majority of whom knew nothing of their struggles or their victory, and indeed hardly recognised their existence – The New Baltic States and their Future, 1925
The ignorance on the part of most has not vanished even today, but as I’ve learnt during a few months of haphazard reading, that doesn’t mean total ignorance has been the rule either: British merchants, writers, artists, politicians, have had a conception – if often an extremely shaky or downright inaccurate one – of the region for centuries. Having been asked by Edgars of Robert’s Books to talk about something Baltic-related, I set out to find out a little about how my home country has affected and seen this part of the world over the last few centuries. I’m not a proper historian, or particularly qualified in any field at all, so please expect wild inaccuracies, huge chronological jumps and generalisations based on inadequate evidence. (Also I should point out that, because I’m English, this will focus considerably more on England than any other part of Britain, which is intended as no disrespect to Wales or Scotland, or indeed any part of Ireland – I just have more of an idea what I’m talking about with respect to England).
So… the earliest reference to this part of the world from a British author I came across was quite early indeed – in the 14th-century sequence of poems The Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer, a writer sometimes known as “the father of English literature”, for the fact that he was among the first authors to write in English, at a time when the language of the country’s rulers and aristocracy was still generally a dialect of French. The Canterbury Tales is a formally loose collection of stories told by a group of pilgrims en route to Canterbury, the holiest site in England.
The following quotation is from the beginning of “The Knight’s Tale”, named after the pilgrim who tells it, and describes the eponymous figure in the following terms:
A KNYGHT ther was, and that a worthy man
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.
Ful worthie was he in his lordes werre.
And thereto hadde he ridden, no man ferre
As wel in cristendom as in hethenesse
And ever honoured for his worthynesse
At Alisaundre was he, whan it was wonne
Full oft tyme he hadde the bord bigonne
Aboven alle nacions in Pruse,
In Lettow hadde he reysed, and in Ruce
No Cristen man so ofte of his degree
As can easily be seen from this extract, The Canterbury Tales is old enough that it’s sometimes a struggle for even native speakers to easily parse the language used – the orthography has not yet been standardised to any extent and the knotty consonant clusters of the original Anglo-Saxon haven’t yet been worn away – “knyght” would have still be pronounced with an initial “k” sound. Nonetheless, even at this early point in modern England’s history, there is an awareness – albeit an apparently very vague one – of the Baltic states – or at least one of them.
As mentioned, The Canterbury Tales lacks much in the way of an overarching narrative of its own – it’s more of a disordered collection of other stories, meaning it’s probably better than most novels at seamlessly reflecting the conditions and concerns of its time across a wide range of levels of society. This extract shows us how wide-ranging and adventurous the life of a mercenary knight would have been at the time: he’s fought in the crusades in the Levant (“Alisaundre” is Alexandria), but also in Europe: “Pruce” is Prussia, “Ruce” is Russia, and “Lettow”, a little surprisingly, is Lithuania.
It’s significant that the reference is to Lithuania, not to Latvia or Estonia. At the time of writing, it would have been the only one of the currently existing Baltic states that the outside world would have had a clear sense of as a separate entity: the territory now covered by the other two countries had already been conquered over the course of Northern Crusades of the 12th century, but Lithuania was a very different case – not simply an assortment of linguistically and culturally related tribes but a formidable, if loosely-constituted empire, and Europe’s last bastion of paganism. Lithuania was the last part of what is now considered Europe to be converted to Christianity, and the last one to be subjected to a crusade, one which had limited success, given that the rulers of Lithuania only eventually abandoned paganism of their own free will in the late 14th century.
The battle against the Lithuanians, unlike the earlier Northern Crusades, which were fought mostly by German and Scandinavian knights, was one that English soldiers could and did involve themselves in. Some of those involved in the fighting were very important indeed – case in point, King Henry IV of England. Henry, seen below, wearing a throw on his head for uncertain reasons, ruled from 1367 to 1413, and is a relatively minor figure in English history (although, oddly, the subject of not just one but two Shakespeare plays). He was deeply unpopular for most of his reign, much of which he spent outside England, and he twice made long, perilous journeys to Lithuania to assist an international band seeking to force it to become Christian.
The historian Richard Hakluyt, who lived several hundred years after Henry and so should be regarded with a reasonable degree of scepticism, recorded one of his bloody visitations upon Lithuania in the following terms:
Hee vanquished the armie of the king of Lettowe, with the captiuitie of foure Lithuanian Dukes and the slaughter of three, besides more than three hundred of the principall common souldiers of the sayd armie which were slaine.
This wholesale slaughter concluded with a not strikingly impressive feat: “there were conuerted of the nation of Lettowe eight persons vnto the Christian faith.”
Lettow has gained an “e” since we last saw it, although this probably doesn’t reflect a different pronunciation, just the vagaries of a language that had no fixed conventions regarding spelling until the 18th century. What seems striking now is the lack of concern for the destruction being wrought on this far-off land that clearly posed no threat to England. But then it seems to have been a part of the world that was regarded with a great deal of apprehension – mysterious, sinister, wild, unknowable, full of forest-dwelling folk worshipping strange gods in their sacred groves.
You can get a little flavour of the British conceptions – or perhaps misconceptions – of the region by consulting a strange and fascinating artefact from the same century: the Hereford Mappa Mundi (world map), named for the city in the west of England where it was drawn up.
It’s immediately obvious that it’s a map based more on religious convictions than on much in the way of hard evidence about the rest of the world – Jerusalem lies at the exact centre, for one thing, and the map also features the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel. Its reach is considerable for that particular era – India is included, although imprecisely – but there are odd mistakes: curiously, Europe is labelled “Africa” and vice versa. Since seas are reduced to narrow rivulets that barely separate the lumpy continents, getting your bearing is more than a little tricky. However, once you’ve established that the series of distended blobs at the bottom-left-hand corner of the map is intended to be the British Isles (greatly overestimated in their size, proportionate to the rest of the world), you can work out most of the European continent down to the Mediterranean. Scale is approximate at best: Scandinavia, for example, is a tiny knobbled peninsula, barely half the size of Wales. Beyond it, we find the Baltic Sea, which was, apparently, linked by a mighty river (some amalgam of the Daugava, Dniestr and Volga) to the Black Sea, no great distance away.
Just about the only other thing noticeable in this part of the world, filling up almost all the land available, is a group of what look like giant mice. Their expressions are generally rather amenable, but this impression is undermined slightly by the fact that they are brandishing giant axes at one another. The Mappa Mundi website informed me that these figures are not in fact mice, but cynocephali, or dog-headed people, once believed by Europeans to exist throughout many areas across the Near East – and referred to with apparent authority by biblical figures. A little further down the coast we find a man apparently petting some strange and enormous amalgam of a wolf and donkey. The Baltics look a thoroughly intimidating, not to mention mad, place, one which you would want to give a wide berth to, unless engaged on some daredevil mission of exploration or Christianisation.
Then that’s it for quite a few hundred years. The next significant British author who I could find mentioning anywhere on the modern territory of the Baltic states was a very significant one indeed – the 17th-century Londoner Samuel Pepys. Pepys is probably still the best-known diarist in British, and perhaps even world, history – a colourful, contradictory, observant and rather bizarre figure, who provided a sharp, eccentric glimpse into the London of four hundred years ago, a London which still looked kind of like this:
Pepys wrote his diaries over the course of a fairly interesting, extremely turbulent period of history – his adult life coincided with the Plague, which killed a quarter of the city’s population; the Great Fire of London in 1666, which rendered the old city almost unrecognisable; and the restoration of the monarchy after ten years of a republican protectorate under Oliver Cromwell.
They were written in a code that was not deciphered until after Pepys’s death, partly because he was a Catholic at a time and place where that was a risky thing to be, but also to conceal his (frequent) infidelities from his wife. But in among all these cataclysmic events and complicated personal business, you can find a number of references to the Baltics. Here’s the first one, from 1662:
By and by Sir W. Batten and I by water to Woolwich; and there saw an experiment made of Sir R. Ford’s Holland’s yarn (about which we have lately had so much stir; and I have much concerned myself for our ropemaker, Mr. Hughes, who has represented it as bad), and we found it to be very bad, and broke sooner than, upon a fair triall, five threads of that against four of Riga yarn; and also that some of it had old stuff that had been tarred, covered over with new hemp, which is such a cheat as hath not been heard of. I was glad of this discovery, because I would not have the King’s workmen discouraged (as Sir W. Batten do most basely do) from representing the faults of merchants’ goods, where there is any.
And here’s the second, from the following year:
Up, leaving my wife sick as last night in bed. I to my office all the morning, casting up with Captain Cocke their accounts of 500 tons of hemp brought from Riga, and bought by him and partners upon account, wherein are many things worth my knowledge.
“Hemp”, in this case, means rope – at this time, the city of Riga was known for the high quality of the material it exported. Later that same year, Pepys witnessed in London “a trial between Riga hemp and a sort of Indian grass, which is pretty strong, but no comparison between it and the other for strength”.
And you may not be surprised to hear that the fourth and fifth and sixth references to Riga in Pepys’s diaries are also entirely about hemp. Pepys appears never to have had a thought about Riga not in some way related to rope. What does that tell us about the city of that time? Well, mostly that Riga is now a trading city. Several hundred years on from the crusades that were meant to Christianise and (so it was then thought) civilise the region, it is now thought of primarily in mercantile, not ethnic or cultural, terms – in terms of what it could provide to other parts of the world.
Riga had been a member of the Hanseatic League, the largely German-dominated network of trading cities around the Baltic and North Sea, since 1282, meaning that it was indirectly linked with English ports like Boston and Hull. And Riga was far from the only member in the region – Tallinn and Tartu (then known internationally by their German names, Reval and Dorpat respectively), were also major members of the league, as were Kaunas, Cēsis, Pärnu, and a number of other cities throughout the region (unsurprisingly, more frequently in coastal, German-ruled Estonia and Latvia, than inland, increasingly Polonised Lithuania). A result of these increased mercantile links were the development of groups of English and Scottish traders in the Baltic ports, small in number but often influential – George Armitstead, the mayor of Riga during the first decade of the twentieth century, during which the city grew furiously in both size and importance, was of Scottish descent; visiting the city only a few years after the declaration of Latvia’s independence, Owen Rutter found a British club, set up to serve the three-hundred-strong community there.
So it now appears that the Baltic is now known in Britain mostly due to its products, and as an accessible thoroughfare to Russia. It certainly seems to have lost the strange, wild, forbidding associations that one can sense in the Hereford Mappa Mundi. That said, the general ignorance about the region hasn’t disappeared, which shouldn’t be too surprising: after all, you may like a product and be saddened if its supply ceases, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are particularly motivated to learn about the location where it comes from. Certainly, Pepys’s knowledge of the Baltic region appears to start and end with rope, as the following strange anecdote shows us – not about Riga, but about Courland (an area which is now the provinces of Kurzeme and Zemgale in Latvia, but was at that time a semi-autonomous German-run duchy within the territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth).
The great entertainment and sport of the Duke of Corland, and the princes thereabouts, is hunting; which is not with dogs as we, but he appoints such a day, and summons all the country-people as to a campagnia; and by several companies gives every one their circuit, and they agree upon a place where the toyle is to be set; and so making fires every company as they go, they drive all the wild beasts, whether bears, wolves, foxes, swine, and stags, and roes, into the toyle; and there the great men have their stands in such and such places, and shoot at what they have a mind to, and that is their hunting. They are not very populous there, by reason that people marry women seldom till they are towards or above thirty; and men thirty or forty years old, or more oftentimes. Against a publique hunting the Duke sends that no wolves be killed by the people; and whatever harm they do, the Duke makes it good to the person that suffers it.
It’s an interesting story, if of dubious veracity in several ways (the marriage thing doesn’t sound quite right). Pepys hears it from a friend (a “Mr Harrington”, who has travelled in the region), and it’s significant that it’s presented totally unglossed, without comments – it’s from a part of the world about which he knows nothing and about which he’s prepared to be entirely credulous.
It also hints at very limited extent to which at this time, in the Baltic region as elsewhere in Europe, cities were identified with their attendant regions. There is no mark of recognition to indicate that this is the same part of the world as Riga, home of Pepys’s rope of choice, even though that the ethnicity and language of the common people would have been the same around Riga and in Courland. Of course, within the city of Riga itself, as in Reval (Tallinn), the dominant language would most definitely have been German, and as the majority of merchants in the region were also German, it is most likely that this is the face which modern-day Estonia and Latvia presented to the world. In the case of Lithuania, it would have been Polish that was increasingly the language of the cities. Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, overwhelmingly poor, uneducated and tied to the land, were mostly unable to travel or give the rest of the world much of an idea about their identity or way of life.
An awareness of the distinctive qualities of the common people of the region does, however, start to develop in Britain over the course of the following century or so, at least among the relatively small ranks of the highly educated, especially with regards to Lithuania. This was spurred to a very large extent by the idiosyncrasy of the native languages of the region, all of which are members of small and unusual linguistic families (Estonian is Finno-Ugric, and thus entirely unrelated to 90%+ of the languages spoken in Europe; Latvian and Lithuanian the only surviving members of the Baltic language family). Evidence of these stirrings of interest can be found in an issue of the Foreign Language Quarterly (also available online), published in London in 1831, during the short and incompetent reign of King William IV. Amid articles on Danish drama, Roman history and Russian literature, we find one about a recently issued collection of “Lettish [Latvian] Popular Poetry”.
The collection was assembled, apparently, by a German priest resident in Livland (now Vidzeme – northern Latvia), who describes the Latvian-speaking peasants living around him, in ever-so-slightly patronising terms, as “a simple-mannered and now-existing people”. Alongside quotations from the traditional songs included (rendered both in English translation and in barely comprehensible Germanified Latvian), there are descriptions of the traditions of the local people, with a particular focus on the midsummer festival of Līgo/Jāņi, a celebration barely changed from pagan times which is also celebrated in Estonia and Lithuania – as Jaanipäev and Rasos respectively.
The reviewer, fixating on the pagan elements preserved in the celebration, describes the event in, at points, horrified terms – it is an event in which the names of ancient Baltic gods and Christian saints are “grotesquely blended”. He seems to be protesting a little too much, judging from the account given:
Throughout the whole of Lettland, in the evening of St. John’s Day, there is a festival of flowers. Maidens go about in procession crowned with wreaths, and carry wreaths of blue corn-flowers to the houses of their acquaintances, singing as they go”.
Wreaths of flowers, singing maidens, communal festivities – grotesque indeed. As well as lingering over these pagan residues, the article displays a quality that becomes increasingly common among British accounts of the region – namely, simply blaming all of the problems of the region on the Germans. The reviewer refers to “the unhappy peasantry of Lettland” (using the German word for the country; the term “Latvija” not yet having gained ground, even among Latvians), and quotes with approval another writer who decries the fact that the native people have been “ruined by German oppression, and with unnatural harshness kept for six centuries in an enslaved, wretched and half-barbarous state”.
The reviewer of The Foreign Quarterly Review speaks with enthusiasm, and often with sympathy, but it’s very clear, as with most references to it, that it’s being viewed from a distance, by someone with seemingly no first-hand experience of his own. In this text, we also begin to see evidence of another feature which becomes increasingly common in writings on the Baltics – wild and improbable theories attempting to categorise the languages spoken in the region, confusing due to the way they don’t fit quite into any bigger language family. In the review, the author collates a few of the existent theories to explain Latvian. The linguist Parrot advanced a rather far-fetched theory that Latvian was a long-lost, stranded member of the Celtic family of languages (along with Welsh, Irish, Cornish, Breton, etc.). By contrast, the German writer Adelung believed that, given the similarities to German and Russian that are evident in certain words, Latvian was simply the product of the mixing of those two languages.
Rather more sophisticated academic attention was paid to Lithuanian, with many scholars intrigued by its very palpable similarity to Sanskrit, one of the very oldest of all Indo-European languages – and one that is still in use as a literary and sacred language in India.
The parallels really are striking, as the table shown below, which collates just a few common words from each language, demonstrates; indeed, an entirely fictitious belief took hold that speakers of each language could easily understand one another – see the following quotation from the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1882 on the subject of Lithuanians: “Their language has great similarities to the Sanskrit. It is affirmed that whole Sanskrit phrases are well understood by the peasants of the banks of Niemen [Nemunas].”
- SON: Sanskrit sunus – Lithuanian sunus
- SHEEP: Sanskrit avis – Lithuanian avis
- SOLE: Sanskrit padas – Lithuanian padas
- MAN: Sanskrit viras – Lithuanian vyras
- SMOKE: Sanskrit dhumas – Lithuanian dumas
However many misconceptions remained, the increasing number of published narratives from British travellers in the region during the 19th century give us a powerful insight into both life there at the time, and the predominating prejudices, expectations and cultural assumptions of British travellers during the period.
These rarely concern themselves exclusively with the Baltic region, usually taking the form of, essentially, prefaces to accounts of travel in Russia. The oddly-named Leitch Ritchie was among the first British travel writers to write about his trip to the region. Scottish-born Ritchie had a seemingly rather uneven career producing fiction, travel narratives and journalism. His now almost entirely forgotten books bear lurid and often diverting titles like Wearyfoot Common and Schinderhannes, the Robber of the Rhine. His trip to Russia isn’t mentioned in most accounts of his life available online, but it did produce a book: Russia and the Russians.
But despite this conclusive-sounding title, he actually enters the empire through what are now the Baltic countries – in his case, crossing the border near Klaipėda in modern-day Lithuania (then known as Memel, and actually a part of Germany). His first impressions don’t seem positive – he has harsh words for not only the quality of the road, but also the attractiveness of the landscape and the undesired assiduousness of the passport check.
At the time of his journey (the early 1830s), western Lithuania and Courland (western Latvia), through which he journeys on his way to Riga, had been part of the Russian Empire for just a few decades, but Ritchie’s writing indicates a growing sense – and one that would only become more intense over the centuries that followed – that the Baltic region was home to a type of Russians, and a natural, if atypical part of the Russian world. He seems rather surprised to find the peasants “still in European costume”, and throughout, he refers to the “Russian towns” which he passes through in Lithuania and Courland, commenting that one fact or another proves or disproves the popular impression of Russia – even though at this point the number of actual ethnic Russians in the region would have been very small.
Despite this, Ritchie does manage to identify a number of distinct qualities in the areas through which he passes which still hold true today. The beguiling, though quiet picturesqueness of the region is one; of the houses he passes, he says: “their white walls and fiery red roofs give them the appearance of the houses we see in a children’s picture book.” The unusual centrality of song to the lives of the Baltic peoples is also noted. Staying at a country tavern in Courland, Ritchie notes:
a large company of peasants assembled in the kitchen… The music was in general simple and mournful and many of the voices were singularly sweet
While the hard-to-please Ritchie seems impressed enough by the melodious singing of the locals, he is much less enamoured with most of what he finds. Approaching Riga, having passed through Courland’s capital, Mitau (now Jelgava), which he refers to as “a dirty little town”, he comments acidly on how flat and dull the landscape is and calls it “the worst avenue into Russia that could be chosen”. He’s referring more or less to the area around Olaine, a part of Latvia that even now has relatively few defenders, but what’s revealing about the phrase is its ambiguity about where he actually is in relation to Russia – throughout his journey Russia seems both all around him, regardless of the actual cultural and geographical characteristics of the location, and also something that retreats before him. He is rather more impressed by Riga – although he criticises the paving of its streets and is disconcerted to witness residents of the suburbs worshipping “an immense wooden statue resembling a Hercules with an infant on his shoulder”, he does concede that it has “the most marvellous and well-placed skyline I can think of”. At least some things haven’t changed.
After Riga, he hurries on to St. Petersburg, pausing only in Dorpat (Tartu), where he makes a few uncomplimentary comments about Estonian women. Ritchie’s seeming attitude towards the peasants of the region – and the peasants still made up the vast majority of the population – is one that becomes increasingly familiar in texts dating from this period: theoretical sympathy, practical repulsion. They are sometimes picturesque (the singing peasants in the house in Courland), sometimes repellent (the ill-kempt, lank-haired Estonians that seem to bother him so much in Tartu), but they are at almost all times defined by their essential childishness and impulsiveness. One observation he picks out in particular is intriguing – his travels through Courland appear to coincide with a mad craze for swings, and he sees many standing outside roadside houses; passing through, he observes “the peasantry might be correctly described as being divided into two classes, those who were swinging, and those who were waiting for swing”.
He has partial, but decidedly limited sympathy with the problems they experience, pointing out irritably that they have chosen to live in a place with a harsh climate, where life is only good in the summer and in the winter they have to eat their livestock, concluding airily “too ignorant to be really independent, their existence is a continued series of famine and repletion…” But this does not mean he has no hope for the future: “All these, however, are merely the evils of ignorance, and I venture to predict that, fifty years hence, the traveller in the Baltic provinces of Russia will find a free and flourishing peasantry”. It’s interesting to note, despite his cautious optimism, just how distant is the possibility from his conception of the future that the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians might seize power and form their own state, or that the inequitable semi-feudal system in place could be overturned – although perhaps this isn’t surprising, given that we are deep in the age of European empires. The limit of his vision seems to be: they will still be peasants, but they will be better peasants.
A rather more sympathetic and significantly less short-tempered British author on the region was Elizabeth Eastlake, whose Residence on the Shores of the Baltic was published in 1841, and which deals primarily with the conditions found in Estonia at that time. In the book, she criticises the violence and oppression inherent in the hierarchy governing Estonia, still organised largely along ethnic lines. Eastlake, born into a well-connected Norfolk family, had a keen insight into the world, being almost an insider herself: her sister had married a German aristocrat from the region, and she made several trips out to visit the couple. (She is pictured below, apparently suffering from a severe headache).
A characteristically sharp, subtle point she makes concerns how the segregation imposed on the Estonians by their Baltic German overlords extends even to the field of linguistics; an Estonian, to a Baltic German, was an “Esth“, but their masters would have been deeply offended to be referred to by this term – the landowners were always “Estländers“.
To Eastlake, the lot of the ordinary Estonian was not a happy one:
“Some instances occur of Estonians who have raised themselves from the peasant’s hut to a state of competence, retaining no indication of their origin save in their peculiar Estonian German; but, generally speaking, they are a fretted nation, borne down by the double misery of poll-tax and liability to recruitage”
Eastlake comes across as a highly empathetic and accomplished woman, and it’s hard to doubt that her feelings for the peasants and ordinary people of Estonia were based on understanding and experience – although even she is prone to making dismissive comments here and there, it is mostly sympathetic or admiring: she refers fondly to “the quick babble” of the Estonians’ “gentle language”. But in some British texts at least, it seems reasonable to question the opprobrium so enthusiastically directed at the German overlords. It’s worth asking whether these attacks are principally motivated by sympathy for the benighted peasants of the Baltic, or by a desire to take down and discredit a rising regional power and potential rival to Britain (not only Germany, but the Russian Empire that the Baltic Germans were theoretically loyal to). Would they have been quite so concerned by the plight of the poor people of Ireland, then suffering under an oppressive regime enforced from London?
This barely suppressed desire to have a go at the Germans turns up even in the most official contexts. Take, as an example, the 1918 letter of recognition from the Foreign Minister of Great Britain, Arthur Balfour, to Zigfrīds Anna Meieirovičs, the representative of the Latvian provisional government in London, later free Latvia’s first foreign minister. After a couple of sentences of fairly standard pleasantries and expressions of support and esteem for “the Lettish people”, Balfour manages to get a dig in at the Germans, observing how relieved Latvians must be to be freed from “the German yoke”.
But the most determinedly unimpressed of all the 19th century travellers to the region I came across was one Sir Nathaniel William Wraxall, whose travelogue of 1809, the not-especially-catchily-titled A Tour ‘Round the Baltic Thro’ the Northern Countries of Europe, Particularly Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Russia, & Prussia; in a Series of Letters, goes out of its way to bash and deprecate most aspects of life in this part of the world. Of Riga, “a most disagreeable” city, he writes huffishly:
My stay in this city has been rather regulated by inclination, than strictly proportioned to the number of objects it presents, either of amusement or instruction. It would be difficult to have found a spot more destitute of any natural beauty or advantages, in which to induce an adventurer to fix, than is the situation of Riga
This seems a little strong, not to mention rather hard to get one’s head round – why it is that he does feel an “inclination” to stay at a place so overwhelmingly ghastly as Riga is never fully explained. Even considering the 200-year gap with our present age, it’s hard not to feel that Wraxall is going rather overboard – even in areas of Purvciems on particularly gloomy days, I rarely feel that I am literally in the worst place in the world.
Wraxall is not much more positive about Estonia – Dorpat (Tartu) is “rather a large, straggling, ill-built village than a town”. Although he is predictably dismissive about Mitau (Jelgava) – or “Mittaw” as he renders it – calling it “mean” and “wretchedly paved”, he does develop an uncharacteristic enthusiasm for the countryside surrounding the nearby palace of the Duke of Courland (ruler of a semi-autonomous region within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth corresponding roughly to the modern Latvian regions of Kurzeme and Zemgale)
The plan and dimensions may be pronounced too magnificent for a sovereign of such limited territories… it’s [sic] situation is very agreeable, on a small eminence just without the town, and washed by the River Aa [the Lielupe], which is pretty broad, and winds most delightfully through the meadows that surround it on all sides. The country is mostly flat, finely wooded and resembles exceedingly some parts of England.
He concludes: “I have not seen a more soft and elegant landscape in the north of Europe than presents itself from the balconies of the palace”. The similarities with England aren’t purely restricted to the surrounding landscape: the Duke, who the author takes a shine to, is thoroughly effusive in his praise for Wraxall’s homeland, citing “antient alliances” between England and Courland, dating back apparently as far or further than the 17th-century rule of Oliver Cromwell – which would have postdated the establishment of the Duchy of Courland by less than a century. This is the first example I could find of rulers of the Baltic states seeking protection from predatory neighbours in far-off Britain. In the case of Courland at this point in history, it has reason to be concerned: the partition of their erstwhile guardian, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, historically tolerant of their nominal freedom, has left it prey to “Muscovy” – and Wraxall fears, presciently as it turned out, that the Duchy is not long for this world.
Unlike others, Wraxall has little patience with the locals, and seems generally sympathetic to the German crusaders’ forced colonisation of the region centuries before, commending their policy of “conquer and reform” – which doesn’t seem a million miles away from pairing “beat up” and “educate”.
The next time the poor and desperate of the Baltic countries came to the attention of the general public of Britain, it would be in a way that was much harder to ignore, and it would take place right under their noses. This would cause certain difficulties. The British have a cultural tendency to champion the underdog, but this sentiment often changes when the underdog proposes to flee from the unequal fight and relocate to Britain. And that was what, increasingly, the inhabitants of what are now the Baltic states began to do in the latter half of the twentieth century, escaping political repression, economic depression and increasing Russification. But more of that in the second part.
This article has been adapted from a talk given by Will Mawhood at Robert’s Books in Riga on 27th May, 2016. Part Two, which will take us through the twentieth century, will follow before too long.
Will Mawhood is the editor of Deep Baltic. He is from London and studied in Liverpool.
© Deep Baltic 2016. All rights reserved.