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

THE BALTIC STATES: AN OVERVIEW

Baltic Capitals: Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius

While the population of the Baltic states is quite small, each country has a major city as its capital: Tallinn in Estonia; Rīga in Latvia; and Vilnius in Lithuania. Each city has an old town, with historic buildings reflecting their German heritage. Rīga also has a large number of art nouveau buildings. The legacy of the Soviet Union is gradually being erased, although many Soviet-era apartment blocks remain. The capital cities are the seat of government, with many administrative offices in them. Economic activity is intense: Rīga and Tallinn are both important port cities, while Vilnius has emerged as a major financial center. In recent years, the Baltic capitals have become tourist destinations as foreigners have come to appreciate their attractions.

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Song Traditions

One of the most significant cultural traditions in the Baltic states is the singing of folk songs, of which there are thousands. Traditional dance is also important. Children begin to learn singing and dance at an early age, often becoming part of ensembles that perform publicly. Mass song and dance festivals, involving tens of thousands of people, are held on a regular basis, with a great deal of audience participation. The importance of these festivals has been officially recognized by UNESCO, which declared them to be Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. This year, many festivities, including folk singing and dancing, will be held in all three Baltic states as part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of independence for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The tradition of song and dance festivals has been maintained by Baltic communities in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere.

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Celebrating Nature

A reverence for nature has always been at the heart of traditional Baltic culture, and it continues in the present day. The celebration of the mid-summer solstice is one of the most important holidays on the calendar, and all three countries basically shut down for two days. People go to the countryside, where they build bonfires and sing songs until late in the night. The natural splendor of the Baltic countries was endangered by pollution and development in the Soviet period, but now environmental protection is a high priority. The region’s natural beauty is a primary attraction for visitors from all over the world.

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Innovation and Development

The traditional economies of the Baltic countries were based on timber, dairy products, and agriculture. These all remain important, but after the end of the Soviet period, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have undergone a major economic transformation as new sectors have been developed in the areas of computer software, electronics, and ICT (Information and Communications Technology) products. Of the three Baltic states, Estonia has taken the lead in this process, with its development of commercial services such as Skype and governmental programs related to building e-society infrastructure. Latvia and Lithuania have also invested heavily in the electronics sphere. All three Baltic countries have developed close connections with Silicon Valley, with many Baltic companies basing their operations here. It is likely that e-commerce will continue to grow in the Baltic states as their highly educated professional classes make more innovations.

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Present and Future Challenges

The contemporary mood in the Baltic states swings between optimism and pessimism based on a keen awareness of continuing and important problems. Many young people, who may have no memory of the Soviet period, see great opportunities for the future. Those surviving on meager incomes and pensions are often less enthusiastic. The Baltic populations suffered greatly in the years of the last economic crisis, even though the countries bounced back relatively quickly. Many people, including the young, have left Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in search of employment opportunities elsewhere in Europe, resulting in a significant demographic loss in the Baltic states. While the European Union has brought tangible benefits to the region, issues such as corruption remain endemic in Latvia, for example. There is also the fear of Russian intentions toward the Baltic states.

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All and all, however, the Baltic Way continues, as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania preserve their traditional cultures while being open to the new.