by Will Mawhood
We left off our survey of the relationship between Britain and the three Baltic countries in the late 19th century, just as the poor, historically marginalised people of the Baltic states went from being an object of pity viewed from afar by a handful of informed British writers and intellectuals, and an object of bafflement and ignorance to the majority, to being the poor, historically marginalised family living next door, where they were often regarded with somewhat less pity. The years running up to the 1905 revolution were not great ones for the Baltic provinces of the Russian Empire: intensifying forced Russification, economic turmoil and political repression; during the revolution itself, the Baltics – Latvia, in particular – were hotbeds of left-wing and anti-imperialist (at least anti-Russian imperialism) sentiment, with law and order breaking down totally for extended periods.
The desperation faced by many ordinary people during the Baltic states in this period can be shown by the fact that in the 50-year period from 1868, one in four of the population of Lithuania emigrated. Many settled in the East End of London, a historically deprived area of the city which has always had a high immigrant population; however, Baltic immigration wasn’t restricted to the capital – Scotland also saw a huge growth in the number of resident Lithuanians, the industrial town of Coatbridge near Glasgow in particular. Here, as elsewhere in Britain, the newcomers were often not treated especially well – Catholics in a fiercely Presbyterian country, with unpronounceable names that were often crudely anglicised, and subject to various indignities, not least being regularly referred to as Poles.
But the immigrant Balt who would become most famous was the rakish, somewhat villainous-looking figure seen just below – Peter the Painter. That picture is taken from a wanted poster, issued after he was accused of involvement in one of the most dramatic and intrepid events in British crime history – the January 1911 Siege of Sidney Street. The previous month, a predominantly Latvian anarchist gang had held up and robbed a jewellery store in the East London district of Houndsditch, taking away thousands of pounds’ worth of loot and causing the deaths of three policemen who tried to stop them. They – or other related gangs – were also thought to be behind recent armed robberies in Motherwell in Scotland and the London borough of Tottenham. Eventually tracked down to a building in Sidney Street in the rough inner-city district of Stepney, they responded to initial police presence with gunfire. The army were called and a six-hour siege ensued; at its peak 750 armed police and soldiers were present. Eventually, the house caught fire – it is still uncertain quite how – and after the fire brigade were refused permission to put it out, the two gunmen inside were killed by the flames. It’s not clear whether Peter the Painter had been present at any point in the siege, but by the time police entered the burnt-out house, he had gone – some still question whether he ever really existed.
Like most of the members of the gang with which he associated, which included figures who would later be instrumental in the Russian Revolution, the decidedly unthreatening-sounding Peter the Painter had a number of identities, ranging from Peter Piaktow to Straume (“stream” in Latvian) to Dudkin, and little is known about his life – or, in fact, about his death – leading to a number of wild theories being propagated. However, in his extremely interesting book A Towering Flame: the Life and Times of Peter the Painter (unfortunately, currently only available in Latvian), the British anarchist historian Philip Ruff confidently asserted, based on the twenty years of research he had done on the subject, that Peter the Painter was in fact Jānis Žaklis, an anarchist from a village near Talsi in the west of Latvia. He had been radicalised by the socialist and anarchist movements that were rife in Latvia during the anti-authoritarian previous decades and particularly active during the 1905 Revolution. A hundred years earlier, Leitch Ritchie had referred to the Latvians as “hardly emerged from the indifference of apathy”. That was clearly no longer the case. Indeed, these Latvians seemed rather frighteningly lacking in apathy.
The firefight caught the attention of the British public to a degree which is perhaps surprising. The photo below shows the home secretary at the time, one Winston Churchill, at the scene of the siege, getting surprisingly -and dangerously – close to the action. A widely repeated story that his hat was shot during the stand-off seems, sadly, to be apocryphal.
The reaction of the British press to the illegal antics of these alien anarchists was, unsurprisingly and perhaps understandably, one of outrage, and less pleasantly, one of intense xenophobia. The Times, at the time the country’s paper of record, decried what was going on in the East End, referring to it as a place which “harbours some of the worst alien anarchists and criminals who seek out too hospitable shores”. But as is shown by the poster below, from a rally nine years before the Siege of Sidney Street, opposition to the presence of large numbers of foreigners (or at least to those “destitute” among them) was by no means a sentiment that had sprung up overnight. Neither was it limited to the right – Keir Hardie, a Scottish socialist and the first Labour member of parliament, a figure still hugely admired within the party, was among those to object to the presence of Lithuanian workers in Scottish ironworks, speculating that the only reason for their presence could be “to teach men how to live on garlic and oil, or introduce the Black Death, so as to get rid of the surplus labourers”.
Awareness in Britain of the cultural distinctiveness of the Baltic states remained limited – as demonstrated by Hardie’s speech, in which he referred to the workers not as Lithuanians but as “Russian Poles”, handily combining the two nations which Lithuania has historically least wanted to be associated with. Newcomers from the modern-day Baltic states were referred to – and almost invariably officially registered – as Russians, or sometimes Poles in the case of Lithuanians. Today, the situation is slightly better – the current London Metropolitan Police website refers to Peter the Painter’s gang rather dismissively as “Latvian immigrant burglars”. The immigrant burglars may have had the last laugh though – in 2007, Tower Hamlets Borough Council named two community housing buildings in Whitechapel in the East End after the mysterious Latvian himself; although this was very slightly disguised by splitting up his (cover) name – Peter House and Painter House. A hundred years later he was, again, infuriating the British press – The Daily Mail‘s headline screamed “Honouring an anarchist: Fury as Siege of Sidney Street killer gets tower block plaque”.
The 1917 Revolution appeared to be fulfilling the promise of 1905, and the disproportionately industrialised and well-educated Baltic states were again initially among the most supportive parts of the empire. Ironically though, it was the very success of the revolution that would do the most to push away the reddest parts from the rest of the Russian-held territories – as it became clear that the new government would not only not continue to pursue the war, but would struggle to maintain order much beyond the larger Russian cities. By the autumn of 1918, all three had declared independence (although this wasn’t definitively secured for a couple more years, due to territorial claims or attempts at outright domination by a number of neighbouring powers). The assistance rendered by Britain to the Baltic states in their efforts to finally create states of their own has already been referred to, so we won’t dwell on that, but considering how finely balanced and unpredictable the situation in the Baltic states was after the Russian revolution, it’s not overstating it to say that the current borders and indeed the very existence of these countries could have been in question without the British intervention.
We’ll pick up the story a few years later, with the 1924 journey of an almost forgotten British travel writer, Owen Rutter, through the newly-formed Baltic states; an expedition that produced the book The New Baltic States and Their Future. Starting his journey in southern Lithuania (at that time denuded of its current capital, Vilnius, which was under the control of Poland and known as Wilno) and ending in Tallinn, Rutter also spent time in Marijampolė, Kaunas, Klaipėda, Riga, Daugavpils, Valga/Valka (a town then only several years into its division between Estonia and Latvia), Narva and Tartu. Judging from one of the only brief biographies I was able to find about him, he was a writer best known for his travels in Asia, as well as for a parody that is now somewhat obscure – of Longfellow’s poem “The Bride of Hiawatha” – as well as, rather worryingly, the “authorised biography” of Hungary’s interwar dictator – and ally of Hitler – Miklós Horthy.
What is immediately striking to Rutter as he ventures through the region is just how closely these states feel themselves to be indebted to Great Britain, and to be tied to them. There are expectations of future protection as well – as he claims, General Alfred Burt, head of the British mission to the Baltic states, “has done so much for these countries that he is come to be regarded as their godfather”. Curiously, these sentiments were most commonly expressed to Rutter in Lithuania – the Baltic state whose achievement of independence Britain had by far the least to do with (the Lithuanian struggle for independence was spectacularly complicated as it was, with involvement from not only the Lithuanian army, but Polish, Soviet, White Russian and troops from an abortive Belarusian state active in various shifting complex alliances. The city of Vilnius, claimed by all, changed hands at least ten times).
Although Rutter speaks French throughout most of the region (at that time, the lingua franca for most educated Europeans), he relates with pride that English is now the principal foreign language taught at schools in all three Baltic states. The generation that follows, he assumes, will speak English fluently.
Interestingly, his conclusions are not a vast distance from those I have heard more recent travellers reach – he found Lithuanians the friendliest and most devil-may-care of the Balts (as well as, oddly, the ones who pledge friendship to Britain most readily – he is told by one Matas Solcius that “I will do anything for an Englishman”), Latvians the most nationalistic and bureaucratic and Estonia the most dynamic and advanced. He expends a great deal of irritation on the border formalities, particularly in Latvia. This notwithstanding, The New Baltic States and Their Future is, for the most part, a chorus of praise. Scrupulously understanding of the difficulties that the countries have faced and are facing, due to destruction inflicted by myriad armies (German, Soviet, White Russian) in the complex series of wars following the 1918 declarations of independence. “It is lack of capital, not lack of enterprise, that holds Lithuania back”, Rutter declares at one point, and his views about Latvia and Estonia are broadly similar. Rutter takes the Baltic side on most potentially controversial questions – considering the Polish occupation of Vilnius as an outrage and approving entirely of the Lithuanian annexation of Klaipėda in 1923.
He is also, for the most part, unstinting in his praise – one might even say awestruck – by what these countries have achieved in rapidly rebuilding their countries after shattering wars while surrounded by generally hostile neighbours – especially given that most of their inhabitants had for centuries been degraded to the status of peasants and serfs by an inequitable social system. One of the most moving scenes comes very close to the end of the book, when Rutter is in Tallinn with a group of Estonian worthies, among the leaders of the new republic. After asking about the ethnic and social origins of a character mentioned, he is answered with:
“He is an Estonian, yes”, replied Mr Lattik. “And the son of a peasant”. He glanced at the Headmaster of the Girls’ School who was with us”. I too am the son of a peasant, he added with a thoughtful smile.
The Headmaster nodded gravely in assent.
“We are all sons of peasants”, he said simply
That is their achievement. They are all sons of peasants and yet they have brought their countries to prosperity.”
Rutter’s conclusion regarding the question implicit in the subtitle of his work? “What must be – so long as they are left alone – a happy future”. If ever there were a set of parentheses that should be backed by sudden foreboding strings…
Despite its comprehensive and lively portrait of these new nations, Rutter’s work seems to have received relatively little attention – one of the few reviews I could find was a single sentence of a somewhat misleading nature.
What I found particularly fascinating was the map that appears at the front of the book, which appears to be self-drawn – or at least compiled as the result of Rutter’s own reports. It shows clearly that, even several years after the consolidation of independence, there still existed a high degree of confusion among those outside the countries themselves about how they should in fact be referred to. (Rutter’s own comments on the Baltic languages themselves tend to be confident but incorrect: as in the following aside, “the Lithuanian s is pronounced like our sh in shadow”)
Generally Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian names are used, although at points, in Latvia in particular, the map compiler just seems to give up and go for the German (or Russian) names. There is an interesting inconsistency – in Latvia, we find “Jelgava”, but “Jaunielgava” (Jaunjelgava). The mapmaker goes to heroic lengths to include Võõpsu, a small village in south-eastern Estonia, despite their clear confusion about how to write it, rendering it eventually as “Wôôbsu”. We also see how much of a state of flux the languages were in, still yet to settle down to the forms we know today – the letter “w” still pops up here and there, despite being shortly to be excised from all three languages as a German (or Polish, in the case of Lithuania) import. At other points, the place names are radically different from their modern versions – the town of Cēsis in Latvia is the barely recognisable Zehsis. Even the adjective form for these countries remains ambiguous: Rutter himself uses “Lettish” and “Latvian” interchangeably, based on logic that is rather hard to deduce – it appears that the former is for people and the latter for inanimate objects. Rutter employs “Estonian” throughout to refer to things and people from the northernmost Baltic country, but in texts from this period it is still common to see it written in English with an additional “h” – “Esthonian”.
A great degree of uncertainty clearly existed internationally about what to call the settlements and natural features in this region, during the uncertain transition from familiar German and Russian names to the unearthly seeming (and often, as shown above, still unstandardised) Baltic toponyms. In some cases, several names were competing for prominence, making the already-pretty-baffling wars for independence in the Baltic states even more confounding for outside observers. The following announcement concerning the “Lettish” (Latvian) government appeared in a US newspaper during the course of 1919, after a Baltic German attack on Riga.
the Lettish government has left Riga and is now established at Rondenpols station… Rondenpols does not appear on any map, but it is probable that it is not far from Wenden, which is about 25 miles east of Riga
They use the old German name for Cēsis, then are quite some way off regarding its distance and direction from Riga, and finally speculate that the government are located at what appears to be an entirely fictional location. Rondenpols did not and still does not appear on any map – a Google search for that name will bring up not a single result. This gives at least a partial indication of the challenges facing foreign reporters – an unfamiliar map full of unidentified troops, fronts of advancing armies, where the names keep changing.
This review from the British conservative bible The Spectator reveals a lot about the kind of slightly airy dismissiveness and amiable bafflement with which the region was still regarded at this period.
Helsingfors? – opposite Stockholm – most of us can place Helsingfors; Reval? – if allowed to generalise the east coast of the Baltic and treat it as a straight line, we could pass on Reval. But Oesel and Dago and Moon? We should put them down as miscreants in a children’s rhyme. We learn from this book that they are islands off the coast of Esthonia – in fact they, together with the gulfs of Riga and Finland, were among the subconscious memories that made us a little doubtful in treating that east coast of the Baltic as a straight line. It was among those islands and the shoals with which they are girt that Mr. Ransome made the voyage of five hundred miles which he describes in this book.
They don’t know, and what’s more, they appear to think it’s rather foolish that anyone should strive know these things. The author’s comment about “the east coast of the Baltic” is particularly baffling, since Reval (Tallinn) is not situated there anyway, but on the Gulf of Finland, meaning that even were we permitted to simplify the map in such radical fashion, the writer still would not “pass”.
The review was of a book regarding a sailing trip among those islands and then into the Gulf of Riga, authored by the man in the picture below, Arthur Ransome.
Ransome was the first of a number of significant British writers who spent longer or shorter periods of time in the Baltic region during their first periods of independence in the 1920s and 30s, when they – or at least their capitals – developed a reputation for a kind of cheerful, somewhat seedy libertarianism. In Ransome’s case, this happened more by accident than by design, resulting from a number of bizarre and uncharacteristic actions. He is a writer best known in the UK for charming if dated books dealing mostly with strikingly unsupervised children sailing and getting into adventures in wild and remote locations – most famously, Swallows and Amazons. He ran away from an unhappy marriage in 1913, and found himself in Russia, a country which he had always felt an affinity with. After compiling a collection of folk tales from the region, Old Peter’s Russian Tales, he found himself providing strikingly sympathetic reports of the Russian revolution, a kind of social movement that it was never totally convincing he would have been keen on taking place in Britain, and running off to Tallinn with Trotsky’s secretary.
Despite his temporary Bolshevik sympathies, Ransome provided a lot of assistance with the consolidation of the nascent Estonian state, which was battling both the Red Army and various bands of armed Germans set on securing continued Baltic German dominance. It was to him that the provisional Estonian foreign minister Ants Piip entrusted a secret armistice proposal to deliver to the Bolshevik forces, with whom the Estonian army had been at war since the previous year. To deliver the proposal, which was accepted, bringing an end to hostilities, he had to cross the battle-lines on foot – and then to recross it again when bringing the response.
Once all of this was over Ransome got down to what seems to have been his true passion – sailing. With Yevgenia and his Riga-built ship Racundra he made three voyages, all through the Baltic region, all of which were turned into books.
Ransome’s is probably the most action-packed and bizarre story, but a number of other writers visited the Baltics during the 1920s and ’30s, years suffused with a combination of headiness and intrigue, as these new states fought to permanently fix their place on the world map and in the consciousness of the globe – with a striking degree of economic success by the end of the ’30s – while on the very border with what many viewed as the world’s most terrifying state – a country which, after the accession to power of Stalin in 1926, started to prove many of the prophecies of doom true as it descended into visibly arbitrary repressions. Full democracy did, however, take root in the Baltics, although all three countries had become authoritarian states by the outbreak of World War II. In Lithuania, Kazys Grinius’s social democratic-leaning government was overthrown in 1926 and Antanas Smetona took power as sole ruler, a position he would only give up with the Soviet occupation of 1940, but democracy lasted in Estonia and Latvia until 1934, when it was swept aside by Konstantin Päts and Kārlis Ulmanis respectively.
One British writer who spent time in the region during this period is Anthony Powell, who wrote the novel Venusberg, loosely based on his experience. Powell went onto become one of the best-known British writers of his time, principally for his twelve-volume novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time, but at the time of writing Venusberg, he was still relatively unknown – this was only his second book and its sales figures were far from spectacular. It’s the tale of a young, somewhat arrogant and diffident young diplomat being posted to what the back cover of my copy describes as “an obscure Baltic state”, and the bizarre characters he meets there. The use of this phrase shows the extent to which perceptions of the region have changed on the part of the outside world: these days, that could only mean Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia, but actually the country in this part of the world with which Powell had by far the most experience was Finland. His father had been posted to Helsinki as head of a British Military Mission, and he had spent a couple of holidays there. Finland at that time was generally also included as a “Baltic state”, which in the context in the time made a lot of sense: it had won its independence from the Russian Empire at almost exactly the same time as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
Powell has claimed, slightly vaguely, that Venusberg (the name of the fictional capital) was at least partly informed by a single weekend spent in Tallinn, but that may well just be in terms of its layout (it features an “Upper Town” and “Lower Town” very reminiscent of Tallinn) – it’s hard to imagine he could have got much to grips with Estonian society in a single weekend. He never made it to Latvia, but this hasn’t stopped many from identifying Riga as the city portrayed – or making sweeping assertions about how accurate it is – see this, from The Independent, advising on a weekend in the Latvian capital in 1998.
It is not some old-fashioned curiosity that is brought out for the occasion. Once you’ve read it, you understand today’s Baltics.
I would rather dissent from this; not only would you not understand the Baltics of 1998, I think it very unlikely you would get much of an insight into the Baltics in 1928 – a place where very real struggles and passions were being acted out. At that time an ideological battleground between Communism, authoritarianism, liberalism and nascent Fascism, infiltrated by spies from a number of significant world powers, it’s all reconfigured as a rather tiresome cross between a farce and society novel, full of rather confused cultural amalgams that rope in awkward chunks of Russia, Poland and Scandinavia, and eccentric and tiresome aristocrats recently rendered significantly less important, but from whom Powell can wring little pathos and less amusement. Venusberg is also, to me, a prime example of the “funny-little-country” genre – in which almost all events are rendered hilarious and fundamentally foolish by the fact that it happens in a country that does not often trouble the discussions or considerations of larger nations.
A dialogue between the protagonist and his love interest early on in the book sets out the impression of the country, which doesn’t develop much after this point.
“It’s a new country, isn’t it?”
“Who used to own it?”
“Russia. I think Germany had some of it too. I’m not sure”
As his superior at the Foreign Office in London says before his departure: “funny folk, foreigners”… Indeed.
Let’s put that aside and move onto a much better writer – Graham Greene, one of the best-known British authors of the twentieth century. Greene found himself in Tallinn and Riga in 1934. By his own account, “I was there for no reason but to escape to somewhere new”; however, others have glossed onto this spying for the Soviet Union or MI5. Whatever the case, the trip made a clear impression on him and was something he returned to a number of times in his correspondence and creative works, whether openly or obliquely. Greene was shown around the Estonian capital by Peter Leslie, a Tallinn-based British diplomat – with whom he struck up a friendship on the plane from Riga after finding they were both reading novels by Henry James. In his partial autobiography Ways of Escape, Greene remembers that he and Leslie “spent a good deal of time together during those periods when I was not searching for a brothel which had been run by the same family in the same house for hundreds of years – a picturesque feature of the capital on no account to be missed, according to my informant, Baroness Budberg”.
This story is bizarre on so many levels it’s hard to know where to start; Greene remains possibly the only person ever to have described a brothel as “picturesque”. His appreciation of Tallinn was clear nonetheless, brothel or no brothel. Riga, from whence he had travelled there, was possibly even better, and for much the same reasons: “a fascinating depraved spot” which he commended for its commitment to revelry – “one had the sensation of a whole town on the tiles.”
Bizarrely, while returning to Berlin from Tallinn in May of that year, he changed trains in Riga, but somehow managed to miss the coup that took place that very night and that ended 15 years of Latvian democracy, making Kārlis Ulmanis sole leader. Meeting his brother in Berlin the next morning, he responded to the latter’s excited questions about the subject with apparent mystification, leading more than one biographer to suspect him of not having been there at all when he claimed, but in Moscow for nefarious and mysterious reasons.
Riga, 1934. The day after the military coup that brought Kārlis Ulmanis to power
Whatever his reasons for being there, creative fruit did result from his time in Estonia and Latvia, and the peculiar geopolitical position these countries had found themselves in. However, the process did take an quite a while, and when it emerged it was in a very unexpected form. In 1958, Greene published a novel entitled Our Man in Havana, which was to become one of his most famous. It took as its subject espionage and the boredom and travails that attend upon informants posted to obscure, sleepy corners of the globe. The hero was a British secret agent posted to pre-revolutionary Cuba, who in order to pay for his extravagant daughter’s habits starts sending fictitious and increasingly absurd reports back to London, sketching out a network of agents, and leaking plans of military bases – actually based on vacuum cleaner manuals. Its commercial success led to a film the following year, but few knew that the book was originally set in a very different part of the world – its working title had been Our Man in Tallinn.
This book had been intended to play off Greene’s experiences in pre-war Estonia, by then firmly under Soviet domination. Why, then, abandon the idea? He explained the reason in Ways of Escape – Estonia at that time, caught between Germany and the Soviet Union, was just too high-stakes for any espionage to be the subject of mockery. There were no real laughs to be had then. Batista’s Cuba in the Cold War – also unlikely to have been much fun for most inhabitants – was a more likely location for a book that was at root a comedy.
I realised I had been planning the wrong situation and placing it at the wrong period. The shadows in 1938 of the war had been too dark for comedy; the reader could find no sympathy for a man who was cheating his country in Hitler’s day for the sake of an extravagant wife
Not, as a friend once told me, because Greene was informed by a publisher that since no one had ever heard of Tallinn, the novel was sure to be a commercial disaster. The aborted script was eventually published as a novella entitled Nobody to Blame, a story set in a very lightly veiled version of Estonia (or “Lesthonia”, as Green ingeniously renames it).
Although he made several trips to the Soviet Union after the war, Greene didn’t return to Estonia again – although it seems he always retained a fondness for the place where he had failed to find that picturesque brothel. The following quote is taken from a letter he wrote to Peter Leslie in 1969; the Tallinn-based diplomat was, it has been argued, probably the inspiration for Wormald, the Cuba-based vacuum cleaner salesman-turned-spy.
What happy days I had in Estonia. I had quite a quarrel with my Communist guide once in Leningrad when I accused his leaders of colonialism. I would hate to go back [to Tallinn] now.
I don’t feel that I can add a great deal to the event that gave cause to Greene’s dislike and resentment – the brutal occupation of the Baltic states by the Soviet Union, with an interstitial, and also brutal, Nazi occupation in between. Britain protested at the absorption of its allies into the Soviet Union, but the idea of actual intervention in a region so far away was always unlikely and maybe impossible at such a time. The country was broken and impoverished by its resistance to Nazi Germany, a fact shown by the continuation of compulsory rationing in Britain until the early ’50s, by which point the (admittedly greater) privations of war were long past in continental Europe.
But this didn’t mean that the people of the Baltic states were finished with Britain – hundreds of thousands of their citizens had been driven from their homes and in view of the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states, most did not want to return; and many remained effectively homeless for years after the end of the war. This is recalled in the fascinating book Walking Since Daybreak, written by Modris Ekšteins, the son of Latvian refugees to Canada, who himself spent periods of his childhood in Displaced Person camps in Germany. He quotes a number of accounts of British and other allied officials being impressed by the behaviour of the Balts in the camps; the Canadian High Commissioner Vincent Massey commenting on one group of Latvians that “I am deeply impressed by the quality of these people, who appear to be industrious, clean, resourceful and well-mannered. The camp itself was a model of self-help, and I could not help but feel that out of all the Europeans I have seen the Balts would make the most admirable settlers.” This contrasted with frequently suspicious and negative attitudes to the Poles, also heavily represented in the DP camps; the same Massey apparently said, with irritation, that when three Poles got together, a newspaper and a political party inevitably resulted.
Although many Balts spent time in the UK after the war, relatively few stayed permanently – most moving on to more socially and economically promising countries like Australia, Canada and the US. The latter of these passed the Displaced Persons Act in 1948, which reserved 40% of visas for refugees from countries and regions “de facto annexed by a foreign power”, a statement that effectively prioritised Balts, as the only refugees from Central or Eastern Europe who could claim their countries had literally disappeared from the map.
References appear in fiction and film from now on, but they seem to become more and more occasional, and vaguer and vaguer, often seemingly included more for local colour than for any other purpose – John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, perhaps the quintessential British spy novel of the Cold War, which revolves around skulduggery carried out in Communist Czechoslovakia, includes a supporting character who has once posed as a Latvian nationalist
Long ago, masquerading as a Latvian dissident, Ben had run with revolutionaries through the streets of Moscow calling death to the oppressors.
But this seems curiously unloosed from the time of writing – here, he seems to be harking back to a Latvia long gone, a cauldron of nationalist and socialist feeling. One could believe that this was simply a period reference. Latvia – and the other Baltics -simply seemed to be fading from memory. They don’t even make it into The Beatles’ 1968 parody of USA-is-awesome anthems, “Back in the USSR”, which drops in references to several other republics: “Ukraine girls really knock me out”, “Georgia’s always on my mind”, etc.
A brilliant Medium page called Imaginary Latvians captures the process by which this happened, charting how Latvia lost its always very tenuous hold on the awareness of the world – and does more or less what you would assume from the description, collecting instances of Latvians appearing in art – mostly in fiction. More often than not, Latvia seems selected by a rather random process – a way of demonstrating the breadth of the author’s imagination. They tend to be peripheral characters, often someone one-dimensional; someone who can be summed up in a phrase, who enlivens a paragraph or two – nothing that would require strenuous research. There are Latvian magician’s assistants, Latvian tennis pros, Latvian conmen, and so on. The following quotation, from Martha McPhee’s Dear Money, is quite typical of the general tone:
Here they converge, on display in Memphis, walking the halls of the stucco-walled convention center, the Marriott hotel, writers riding glass elevators to the rooftop lounge to sip another vodka while awaiting their allotted times to perform. There in the corner is the Latvian performance poet whose subject is standup misery. The drunk from Kentucky is carrying on with the pretty young thing from Manhattan who has just written her first novel. –
If they are given names, they are very often Slavic ones, as is shown in the following quotation from Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land. If they’re not Slavic, they are often literally impossible – the magician’s assistant is called Annette, which is not one that would be permissible considering Latvian phonetics and grammar. In a recent – and generally excellent – Irish novel I read, I came across a Lithuanian waitress named Hedda – also a name that could not occur under the rules of Lithuanian grammar.
You think it’s the psychotic parents and the hostile, under-medicated kids who drive you crazy. But no. It’s always your colleagues — I know this from a year’s teaching at a small New England college back in the day. It’s the Marcis and the Jasons, the exotic Ber-nards and the brawny Ludmillas, over for the Fulbright year from Latvia, who send you screaming off into the trees to join the endangered species hiding there. In-depth communication with smaller and smaller like-minded groups is the disease of the suburbs. And De Tocqueville’s where it thrives.
Possibly the best-known of all fictional Balts from the Cold War period was most probably of German origin, and thus a member of a group who following World War II were almost totally gone from the region: Auric Goldfinger, villain of the eponymous Bond book and movie, who is described as originating from Riga, but fleeing in 1936 at the age of twenty, and of whom it is said: “he must have been a bright lad because he smelled that the Russians would be swallowing his country pretty soon”.
Imaginary Latvians also includes this bizarre but quite brilliant still from the 1970s Disney film The Rescuers, a “rescue aid society” – an apparent convention of mice which features not only a French mouse in stereotypical attire, but also a heavily bearded one claiming to be from Latvia. The film-makers seem not especially well-informed about geography – other national representatives visible in the brief clip include mice from Africa and Vienna.
Was there a second-generation Latvian immigrant on the writing team? It seems more than likely. What other explanations are there? The diaspora, especially those resident overseas as a result of the Soviet occupation, tended to be the only ones devoted to keeping the spirit of the pre-war states alive – and many really were dogged. The creator of Imaginary Latvians, Latvian-American Rihards Kalniņš, remembered the experience of attending a Latvian Saturday school in the late ’80s New York state in an article a few years ago for The Morning News.
We picked through the dense pages of nineteenth-century pastoral novels, recited the names of the country’s longest rivers and biggest lakes, chanted noun declensions in singular and plural, masculine and feminine, and sat on stiff metal chairs by the piano in the basement, crooning folk songs about mowing meadows of clover and watching the sun set into the sea.
His mother, herself a second-generation Latvian, justifies this attendance to her less-than-enthusiastic teenage son by “the need to keep the language alive, in a place where it wasn’t subjected to the intense onslaught of Russification”. And one thing that is quite noticeable as the decades go on and the Baltic states remain under Soviet control is that you start to find references in the British and American media to places like “Pyarnu”, “Liepaya”, Yurmala” and “Tallin”. What unites all of them? They’ve all been transcribed directly from Russian, disregarding the fact that both Estonian and Latvian are written with the Latin alphabet and thus there are accepted ways of writing these names in English, whether with or without diacritics: Pärnu, Liepāja, Jūrmala, Tallinn. You still see this happen sometimes in publications that should know better.
Baltic cities had rarely been known outside the region by their indigenous names – typically, people used the German, Russian or Polish ways of referring to cities (Vilnius was generally known as Vilna (Russian) or Wilno (Polish); Tallinn was usually Reval (German); Ventspils in Latvia could be referred to as Windau (German) or Vindava (Russian). However, this did at least tacitly acknowledge the region’s European roots – by the 1970s, increasingly, it seemed, the Baltics were simply a baffling add-on to Russia itself – unknown, presumed similar.
This probably was not greatly helped by Marvel Comics deciding to make the fictional home of the equally fictional Dr Doom the almost Baltic-sounding Latveria, taking advantage, as many have, of the apparent ease of creating names for imaginary Eastern European countries, which appearing to consist of an few vaguely jumbled together syllables followed by the obligatory suffix of -ia. But judging from the architecture, it actually seems more Central European or Southern European than Baltic. According to the cartoon snippet below, it is “nestled in the Balkan peninsula”, exactly where a distressingly high number of people would put Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia themselves.
The home of Doctor Doom continues to create a surprising amount of confusion, demonstrated by the following curious enquiry posted online I came across while researching this
Is Latvia and Latveria the same place? I heard of this place about a year ago. I meet this guy who was at our summer camp and he was a councilor. He said he was from Latveria or Latvia(whatever one) and he spoke a language which i forget he said what language it is. I think he said Lavteria. It was a really cool language and i want to travel there and learn whatever language he spoke. So, what is the language called and is Latvia and Latveria the same place.
This is followed by this magnificently patient, though also oddly detailed answer.
Based on the context of your story, the counselor can only be from Latvia, a real country in Northern Europe in the Baltic Region. He is probably speaking the Latvian language, which has many similarities with Lithuanian. Latveria is a fictional nation in the Marvel Universe. It is an isolated European country ruled by the villainous Doctor Doom, supposedly located in the Banat region. It is surrounded by the Carpathians, and also borders the fictional Symkaria (home of Silver Sable) to the south.
The extent to which Latvia had become barely more prominent than Latveria becomes quite clear from coverage from the British press from the late ’80s, when the Baltic states first returned to the news – for the first time, in many cases, since they had disappeared below the surface of the Soviet Union. This was because the Baltics, most stridently Lithuania, started making demands for the end of the Soviet occupation and the restoration of their independence. The following article from unpleasant British tabloid The Sun gives an illustrative example of what a struggle they had ahead of them to assert themselves again in the eyes of the world:
FORMER-Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten is taking punk to Russia in a new bid to boost Glasnost.
Kremlin chiefs told him his latest band Public Image could play at a three-day festival starting there tomorrow.
Half a million Russian rock fans are expected to turn up to see Rotten, 32, and other British acts like Big Country and ex-Genesis star Steve Hackett.
Future Film producer Jay Rifkin, who is help-ing to organise the Glasnost Rock 88 festival, said: “This signals the start of a very positive future for rock in Russia.”
Rotten – now calling himself John Lydon recently turned down a £2million offer by U.S. businessmen to reform the Sex Pistols
The festival actually took place in Estonia, and every single reference to “Russia/Russian” would more accurately be rendered as Estonia – or at the very least Soviet. But by this point in the British imagination, the Soviet Union and its largest constituent republic were virtually synonymous. To all intents and purposes, Russia was the Soviet Union – as can be seen in the following footage from an interesting documentary following the left-wing British kind-of-folk singer Billy Bragg on a tour of what was still just about the Soviet Union. In a faded, wintry Tallinn, the first stop before they hit Moscow, he chats with an interviewer about his experiences so far [see 06:45). After being corrected by Bragg about his invitation to play from “the Russian [rather than Estonian] Peace Committee”, the interviewer goes on to observe that it’s wrong to consider the Soviet Union in its entirety as being Russia – but adds, to Bragg’s agreement, “we consider [the Soviet Union and Russia] to be synonymous, don’t we?”. The hundreds, thousands of years of largely separate development from Russia; the profound influence of German, Swedish and Polish culture on the Baltic states; the achievements of the period of independence – all seemed to have been wiped from the world’s memory by its years under Soviet occupation.
Britain plays a limited role in the story of the Baltics after the return of their independence in the early ’90s. One, somewhat unexpected but influential Brit was prime minister John Major, a seemingly decent but dull man, who is almost definitely thought of rather more fondly in the Baltics than in his home country, where his government was a scandal-prone, deeply divided and ineffective interim between Thatcher and Blair. He is recalled, if at all, by most for his caricature on the parodic TV puppet show Spitting Image as a physically grey-skinned man with a taste for peas and little else. He’s remembered more kindly in the Baltic states, although even in the case of the Baltics it’s more for redressing a historic wrong than for any real endeavour of his own.
In 1939, well aware of the mortal danger they were under, the governments of the Baltic states entrusted their gold reserves to the Bank of England for safe-keeping. However, in 1964, the British government decided to sell them in order to meet compensation demands from those with assets in the Baltic states, as well as to the Soviet government (who were paid almost 10% of the total proceeds) – a shameful act, certainly, but one that demonstrates the general post-war assumption that the Baltic states were gone for good, not much more likely to suddenly reappear on the map than the Carthaginian Empire.
Major, then at the very start of his premiership on the restoration of independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, learning of the situation, immediately restored the lost reserves to them. Vytautas Landsbergis, at that time Lithuania’s head of state, responded by immediately redepositing the gold with the Bank of England, a gesture of quite striking confidence given what they had done with the previous instalment.
One Anthony Lippmann, writing in the intriguingly urgent-sounding Metal Bulletin in 2002, observed of Major: “It is not an overstatement to say that the gold ensured the financial survival of the newly emerging states… There may not be many statues to John Major planned in the UK, but there should surely be one in either Tallinn, Riga or Vilnius to the metal deal that saved the Baltics”.
There is still no statue, and probably never will be but he does at least appear in this recent list from Fenikss Fun of the things that every Latvian will remember from the ’90s – along with Latvia’s short-lived transition currency, the rubļis; a popular magazine only available in incomprehensible Polish; and a presidential candidate bribing potential supporters with bananas. Major is affectionately described as Latvia’s “good uncle”.
The next time British people came to the attention of Latvia, they would not be nearly so popular.
“These people think it is a tradition to defile our monument. They are pigs, those British. A piggy nation” – Mareks Segliņš, 2008, at that time Interior Minister of Latvia
Segliņš was speaking after the imprisonment of a British man for urinating on the Freedom Monument in Riga, a symbol of the country’s struggle for independence, and one that seemed to hold an irresistible attraction for drunk and disorientated visitors. In the preceding years, stag parties had discovered the Baltic capitals in a big way, drawn by a sudden growth in budget airline routes to the Baltic capitals, cheap booze in picturesque old towns and most importantly, stunning women. Many, if not most, behaved in a strikingly loutish and insensitive way – Riga set up a special task force to deal specifically with them – and so it’s a little hard to argue with Segliņš’s characterisation of at least part of the nation as having piggish characteristics. I’m somewhat pathetically heartened though, by whoever wrote his Wikipedia entry in English, who points out that “drunken individuals from multiple nations have urinated on the monument”. It’s nice to know that it’s not just us that’s horrible; it’s everyone.
A taste of what these people were expecting can be got from this – appallingly spelt and ineptly phrased – advert from a British website promoting stag parties in the Baltic countries:
You have probably been told about this destinations sightseeing potential already – but what about the smoking hot women here?… And its not just that they are fabolous, but as a fact the female population is much higher than the male – it is about 60% female and 40% male – and as the Russian language is used often, this means that you can also find many Russian beauties here. The food is great, the vodka is cheap and there are dozens ofaction-packed stag activities to choose from.
But the sudden explosion in cheap flights to the Baltic region was not only because of their “fabolous” women; it happened for a reason – the 2004 accession of all three Baltic countries to the EU, along with seven other – mostly post-Communist – European nations. With average salaries in all three countries around a third of their current level, the sudden opening of Western European countries with average salaries many times higher was appealing for people from all three countries. Britain’s decision to open its labour market without any conditions (which most other “old Europe” member countries did not do), as well as the generally high English-language skills of people from the Baltic countries, made it a popular target for emigration, temporary or permanent, (the exception here was Estonians, who tended, as they always had before, to favour linguistically (and geographically) close Finland). The number of Latvians and Lithuanians living in the UK has soared in recent years. In 2001, prior to the accession of the Baltic countries, there were just 4,300 Lithuanians permanently resident in the UK; twelve years later, there were 144,000. The number of Latvians living and working in the country also multiplied by many times, and most seem unlikely ever to return.
One would perhaps expect that this enormous increase in the number of Balts around them would lead to a corresponding growth in the number of Brits interested and knowledgeable about this part of the world. I have no doubt that this has happened in individual cases, but it’s hard to spot much greater enlightenment at the broad social level.
In fact, one episode of the (excellent) sort-of-sitcom Peep Show proved illuminating in its lack of illumination; after meeting a nice-looking woman with a vaguely Slavic-sounding accent, one of the main characters speculates excitedly “oh my God, is she from Russia – or one of those other, made-up countries”. (She was Russian).
(Relevant point: 6:20 onwards)
I suppose “made-up countries” could potentially refer to most of the eastern half of the European continent, about which Brits tend to know little, but the grammatically implicit link to Russia made me think that it was probably the Baltics which he had in mind. It certainly was my perception before moving to this part of the world – they sounded silly and like they were made with some kind of Eastern European template, and were probably all more or less the same, and more or less Russian anyway. As a thoughtful bigot in the comments below the video put it, speaking about the actress playing the character: “piss off back to Poland”.
However, the rise in immigration from the Baltic states – immigrants often employed in fairly unpleasant, physically demanding, low-paid jobs that most Britons were not keen on doing – led, as it does tend to do, to a corresponding rise in xenophobia and bigotry, much as in the early 20th century when the Latvian anarchists were terrorising the East End. Unlike in previous centuries, a lot of Baltic migration was focused not only on the historically multicultural cities on mostly agricultural counties – places like the town of Boston in Lincolnshire, whose foreign-born population increased several times during the period. This led to “journalism” of the calibre of the following kind from The Daily Mail, (them again) which published the following, deeply peculiar attack on the “Eastern Europeans”, entitled “The Town That’s Had Enough“.
Graphic and horrifying snaps of Polski sklepi, and corner shops specialising in Baltic and Romanian food made their point clear – and are referred to as “evidence” as though their mere presence is a criminal act. But The Daily Mail doesn’t leave it there – after referring to Poland as a Baltic country and concernedly citing the number of women wearing padded coats as though this is a security threat, he has a “quick scan” at the crime rates in the local paper, upon which he concludes, significantly:
However, a quick scan of the local paper, the Boston Standard, lists 21 criminals convicted at the magistrates’ court, of which two thirds have names such as Zumbrickij and Kazombiase.
What kind of names would these be? Names that sound very vaguely “Eastern European”? Zumbrickij could be Polish, I suppose, but a Google search for “Kazombiase” brings up only this article and a South African rugby player. This doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence in this intrepid reporter.
Further skewed logic is in evidence from British twaddle-rag The Sun,
The think-tank MigrationWatch UK recently reported that if Britain was to accommodate all the EU migrants who want to come here over the next four years, they will need an extra city the size of Manchester.
A sizeable proportion will no doubt head for Southampton, attracted by the already huge population of East Europeans.
This is a grammatically dubious amalgam of the second conditional (if + past tense + “would”, used for situations that are impossible, imaginary or highly unlikely), and the first conditional (if + present tense + “will”, used for scenarios that are entirely possible). The situation outlined is hypothetical – we cannot know the actual actions of people who “want to” do something at some point in the future – but this does not stop us from immediately jumping into treating it as a confirmed fact. Wearing my experienced teacher of English as a foreign language hat, I can tell you that this kind of jump from the first to the second conditional is rarely grammatically acceptable, unless clearly sanctioned by logic – which it isn’t here.
The conviction among elements of the British tabloid media that there is some overarching Eastern European identity among these culturally disparate, geographically far-flung and historically often entirely unconnected countries, and that they will be “attracted” to where others are, rather than where economic opportunities are, is a rather curious one – (as though someone from Lithuania wavering over whether moving to Britain or not is going to say “oh brilliant, it turns out there are lots of Bulgarians there already. I’ll feel right at home.”) This paranoia hasn’t been particularly helped by reports like the following, from ITV, where the reporter finds a rural Latvian family with at least eight children who have to wash using pond water, and does as little as possible to convey that this is not an entirely typical situation in the country.
Documentaries about this part of the world often include weird visual grammar, pandering to their readers’ idea of what this part of the world is like – see left, the choice to make the front cover image of a guide to Estonian – a historically Lutheran, now strikingly atheistic country the Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral in Tallinn – a building that was constructed opposite to the historic seat of Estonian government as a pretty deliberate statement of domination. Not of course that there is anything wrong with Russian culture, which has had a presence to one degree or another in these countries for hundreds of years, but choosing this as a defining image of the region is roughly as sensitive as an English pub would be as the cover of a guide to Dublin.
More examples of this rather irritating tendency to pamper Brits’ ignorance can be seen in the documentary visible above: made about a Lincolnshire motorbike aficionado – named Guy Martin, hence the almost-pun in the title – with Latvian heritage who is apparently quite famous on British TV as a daredevil, and seems very pleasant and unassuming. His grandfather was Latvian, but he fled the country after the Soviets returned in 1944, and Guy is on a mission to rediscover his roots. As rapidly becomes clear, Guy, despite his evident and touching fondness for his late grandfather, knows almost nothing about his ancestral home – unless he’s acting very convincingly. The programme-makers send him off to reach his family’s now abandoned homestead in Kurzeme just by the Lithuanian border – deciding, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, that it would be suitable for him to go in a vintage Lada. Not entirely clear because his grandfather would have fled quite some time before they became common on Latvia’s road – and because they certainly aren’t a common way of getting around in the country today.
But, as another shot from the journey from Liepāja (visible at roughly 11:00 in the above video) shows, accuracy may not be the principal concern here. If he’s gone this way, he’s taken a decidedly odd route to get to the Lithuanian border: the road from Riga to the Lithuanian border wouldn’t normally pass through Liepāja, still less through its remote and mostly Soviet-era northern suburb, Karosta. Why have they taken such an detour? Well, the formerly closed district of Karosta is pretty striking, providing the visual cues that we’re expecting – a bejewelled, glistening Orthodox church and grotty discoloured blocks of flats. Flattering the viewers’ preconceptions, because challenging them is too time-consuming – this is what Latvia looks like it should look like.
Nonetheless, Guy’s concluding thoughts regarding his Latvian experience (visible at 45:35) were of such overwhelming positivity that the Latvian tourism board surely must be mulling over using it for some promotional purpose. Long written off as grey adjuncts to Russia, an appreciation of the distinct qualities of the Baltic does appear to be growing among some more educated sections of British society. The literary author Adam Thorpe is one example of this: he completed a – rather so-so – novel set partly in Estonia, Between Each Breath, and in a recent interview answered a question about where and when he is happiest with “When I’m lying on an empty, sunny beach in somewhere like Estonia with Jo (my wife) next to me and all I can hear is the sea.” The British composer Gabriel Jackson is another who is a committed Baltic fan. He presented a documentary on Latvian choral music recently on BBC Radio 3 – and he expands in interesting fashion about just what it is that fascinates him about Latvia, which he has visited many times, in this interesting blog post. The first line of that documentary was:
Imagine a song so special that everybody knows it by heart, so beautiful that everybody loves it with a passion, and that every five years over 10 000 people gather to sing to hundreds of thousands more
The Latvian traditional song Pūt Vējiņi (Blow, Little Winds), mentioned in Jackson’s blog post
It’s long been my theory that some of the more pleasant aspects of the Baltic states – its hand-carved, naturally grown, nurtured over centuries air – mesh perfectly with the back-to-nature concerns of modern Western hipsters. It’s not affected, as it would be with more urbanised countries – even Rigans, Tallinners and Vilnians usually have shallow roots in the city, unsurprising in such traditionally rural societies. Go a few generations back, and there’ll be a plot of land somewhere – Samogitia, Latgale, Mulgimaa – and there will be some relatives still there. The Baltic states keep one foot in what is the distant past for most Brits, even as they appear more modern in certain other respects – compare wifi speed in any of the Baltic capitals with what you can get in British cities; try to open a company in Estonia, and compare the experience with the UK.
Thorpe’s composer protagonist, Jack, fits into this category, attracted – to his own surprise – by the spare emptiness of the Baltic landscape. His view of Estonia is (I hope intentionally) often rather patronising and limited, often painting it as an impoverished place but one that is pure, simple and somehow realer than London, where he lives, in a way familiar from post-colonial fiction. He has vivid fantasies of what his life could be if he relocated permanently – “I thought – were I to settle in Estonia, I would learn to skate on lakes, the ice groaning and banging under me”. At another, he thinks of a piece of music he is hoping to write based on his experiences in Estonia as: “Complete simplicity. As spare and clean as a piece of driftwood on a Baltic strand. Long pauses of nothing.”
The peculiar attraction of the region to those looking for wilderness and a kind of tranquility is not a new phenomenon, is demonstrated, like many other things, in Modris Ekšteins’ fascinating history/memoir, mentioned earlier, which features one prominent and larger-than-life example: Colonel Alexander, a British army officer tasked with mopping up the few remaining Bolsheviks from Latgale in a 1920 campaign (and who went on to a glittering military career that included serving as Supreme Allied Commander of the Mediterranean Forces in World War II). A dashing, unpredictable figure, Alexander revelled in the wildness of the border region he was fighting in, which he described evocatively in letters home. In one, he said “I love this country and should like to live here”, and in another “after this country, England seems like a garden, so small, compact and beautifully cultivated”.
Now for Britain, the Baltics may be merely an under-the-radar tourism destination, but it’s not certain that this will continue indefinitely. With the US now led by a child, and large parts of Europe in favour of appeasement of the aggressive regime that resides next door to the Baltic states, it may fall to Britain, consistently Russia’s strongest critic among the major European powers, still militarily significant by European standards and nuclear-armed, to stick up for the Baltics. A Baltic-Nordic-Polish alliance, with Britain as the nuclear guarantor, is an idea that Edward Lucas has promoted, including in an interview on this very site, as a fallback strategy in the event of the disbanding or neutering of NATO. Of course, given that Britain has just deliberately alienated a significant proportion of its neighbours, its influence will be rather weaker on the continent than it once was. As I hope these two disgracefully long articles have shown, Britain has rarely been intimately involved in the life of the Baltic states in the way that Russia or Germany – or even Poland and the Scandinavian countries – have been, but it has been a regular presence in the region, and vice versa, often popping up in odd and unexpected ways. One thing is for certain: Britain will continue to have a relationship with the Baltic states, and it is likely to remain as complex and multi-dimensional as it’s always been.
This article has been adapted from a talk given by Will Mawhood at Robert’s Books in Riga on 27th May, 2016. Part One, which took us from The Canterbury Tales to the dawn of the 20th century, is here.
Header image credit – Estonian World
Will Mawhood is the editor of Deep Baltic. He is from London and studied in Liverpool.
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