The Baltic Way: History and Culture in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania 1918–2018

The Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, were long considered to be the hidden gems of Europe. They are countries of great natural beauty, with a folk culture stretching back to pagan traditions. For many centuries isolated, the region was conquered by German knights who subdued the Baltic tribes in an officially sanctioned crusade. In a struggle that began in the thirteenth century, the Germans imposed their domination, reducing Estonians and Latvians to the status of serfs. The Lithuanians were an exception. They were able to defeat the German knights, and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania became an important power in Eastern Europe.

In the following centuries, Latvians and Estonians were conquered by many of their neighbors, including Swedes, Poles, Russians, and Danes. In the eighteenth century, the Baltic countries, including Lithuania, were incorporated into the Russian empire. The Russians maintained the Baltic Germans as a ruling class over the local population. As the Russian empire disintegrated after the 1917 Russian revolution, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania declared their independence in 1918 only to lose their sovereignty again in 1939. After decades of Soviet rule, the Baltic states regained their independence in 1991.

This online exhibit aims to give a brief overview and capture the main features of The Baltic Way: History and Culture in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania 1918–2018 exhibition that was displayed in Cecil H. Green Library in the summer of 2018. Stanford Libraries and Hoover Institution Library & Archives staff worked together to create the exhibition using materials from their respective collections related to the history and culture of the Baltic region. The show drew heavily on the Hoover Archives’ significant historical collections including posters, photographs, correspondence, and official documents, supplemented by the Stanford Libraries’ holdings of publications, oral histories, and personal archives of U.S. immigrants from the Baltic region. Also included were photographs from the traveling exhibit Becoming Post Soviet: Nationhood as Experience in Lithuania (Yale University) and items on loan from Baltic enterprises in Silicon Valley.

The exhibit attempted to explain the complicated history of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in the twentieth century, while indicating some of the prospects for these countries in the twenty-first. It was called The Baltic Way to commemorate the large protest in 1989 when people in all three countries linked hands in a demand for independence. This protest took place on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that had ended the independence of the Baltic republics. The exhibit was also called The Baltic Way to emphasize that the three countries have had their own, specifically Baltic, culture and history.