My 3,293-kilometer journey through the Baltics has given me a good idea of what the three Baltic countries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have to offer a traveler. My journey began and ended in the Latvian capital Riga.
There are no spectacular nature experiences to do here, but you have a lot of forest that you can walk in, rivers to paddle on and a long coastline that can offer both swimming and wonderful solitude. Cultural life also has a lot to offer.
What attracted me to explore the three countries was to visit the sights that are on the UNESCO World Heritage List, such as the old districts of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius, the Curonian Spit with its mighty dunes (Lithuania) and Kernave (Lithuania) with their archaeological remains (Lithuania). But I also wanted to come to places like the “Cross Hill” in Lithuania where there are over 100,000 crosses placed by pilgrims, walk among the city of Sigulda Castle, to visit ancient villages, in particular, Lithuania and the mighty castle of Lithuania which played an important role during Sweden’s heyday.
Anyone who is interested in architecture, old urban environments, places with historical connections and ancient villages has a lot to look at in these countries.
I liked traveling in the Baltics for the cities with the old urban environments, the beautiful architecture, the old villages and that it is often still a slower pace here than at home in Sweden.
What was less pleasant on this trip was that it seemed as if very many Balts were still mentally left in the “old Soviet society”, which shows in the fact that people are rude, rude, buffalo and unhelpful.
An example of helplessness was what I came across in the small Latvian village of Mazirbe, where a clerk refused to describe the road to a sight because SHE did not think it was anything to see! The worst unpleasantness I encountered during the trip was the meeting with the tourist-hating policeman Gintautas Stepanafas at the entrance to the national park on the Kuriska headland in Lithuania. First he fined me for driving over a solid line that does not exist and then he showed that he wanted to cut my throat and “all tourists”. I was very surprised by his behavior because the only thing I did was stop to pay the fee to the national park! I have saved his police report as a “souvenir” from Lithuania. The first day I was in Lithuania, my umbrella was stolen from my backpack at the market in Klaipeda. Cheers Lithuania!
I have never had so few contacts with the locals during a trip like this! Though I’m not particularly sorry about that given how unpleasant many Balts were!
In the very near future I have visited 90 countries, all over the world, and have been lucky to meet many nice people, with the people in the Baltic as an exception. Regretfully I met a lot of very rude, unpolite and unhelpful people during this trip. The worst one was the Lithuanian policeman Gintautas Stepanafas who fined me for crossing a line that did not exist !!! It seems, regretfully, that many persons still act as they did during the “Soviet period”. They should consider that they left this era and are now members of Europe! My first day in Lithuania someone stole my umbrella from the backpack. Lithuania, I love you!
Latvia history in brief
Latvia, older history
According to commit4fitness, the land that we have been calling Latvia since the 19th century was inhabited several millennia before Christ. The rich presence of amber on the Baltic coast, used for jewelry and other ornaments, led early to trade between the Baltics and the Mediterranean. In ancient Greek tombs, artefacts have been found dating to about 1,600 BC, which have been shown to come from the Baltic coast. In the 100s after Christ, during the time of the Roman Empire, the so-called Amber Road emerged, which was a busy trade route between northern Italy and the Baltic Sea.
The first reliable written information about a Baltic people, the Aists, comes from the Roman historian Tacitus about a century AD. According to him, these people collected amber and were farmers and fruit growers to a greater extent than the Germans. A Gothic writer named Jordanes wrote in the 5th century that the Aists lived east of the river Wistula. Linguistic research has shown that in ancient times the Baltic region stretched from the Baltic Sea into present-day Russia, all the way to the areas around the Volga and Moscow.
In the late 12th century, German crusaders conquered areas along the Baltic coast. In 1201, Riga was founded by the Prussian bishop Albert. Here the Order of the Sword Knight was formed, which later merged into the German Order. In 1282, Riga became a Hanseatic city.
After the Reformation in 1522, the German Order was dissolved. In the war between 1558 and 1583, Livonia came under Polish-Lithuanian rule. After the Swedish-Polish war, 1600 – 1629, the country came under Swedish control. After the Nordic War of 1700 – 1721, Livonia and Riga became part of the growing Russian empire under Tsar Peter I. Kurland was for a long time an independent duchy under Poland but ceded to Russia in 1795, thus the Tsar ruled the entire eastern coast of the Baltic Sea. Livonia and Kurland remained Russian-controlled Baltic provinces until Latvian independence in 1918.
In the 1850s, a national movement arose that was met by a deliberate policy of Russianization, among other things, Latvian was banned as the language of instruction in the primary school. At the beginning of the 20th century, a political movement was formed that demanded territorial independence for Latvia within the Russian Empire. Between the years 1905 – 1907, the Latvians revolted both against the German land part and against the Russian oppression. However, the uprising was crushed in a very brutal way and hundreds of people were killed in punitive expeditions and executions while thousands were deported to Siberia.
In connection with the First World War, especially during the years 1915–1917, many battles took place in Latvia and the country was paralyzed. In 1915, Germany occupied the western half of the country and a fifth of the population was forced to flee while the Russians moved much of the industry to the interior of Russia.
Some important years in Latvia’s modern history
The Latvians demanded complete independence and Latvian nationalist groups elected a provisional national council
1918 November 18 Latvia declared independence
The Germans and Russians had been definitively defeated, and when the peace treaty was signed in Riga on August 11, Soviet Russia promised to “forever” respect Latvian independence.
1922 Latvia adopts a democratic constitution
The new democracy was unstable and several weak coalition governments took turns. The most important parties were the Conservative Peasants ‘Union, which held the post of Prime Minister in twelve of 18 governments, and the Social Democratic Workers’ Party. The Communist Party was banned. Successful land reforms provided land for over 140,000 landless small farmers
President Karlis Ulmanis, also the leader of the Peasants’ Union, carried out a bloodless coup that dissolved parliament, banned all political parties and established a dictatorship
On August 23, Europe is divided between Germany and the Soviet Union in the secret Molotiv-Ribbentrop pact. The Baltic states fall into the sphere of interest of the Soviet Union
On October 5, the Soviet Union forces Latvia to sign an agreement giving them the right to invade the country
On June 17, the Soviet Union occupied Latvia. The
Soviet Union held elections directed by the Communists, and the new parliament then “applied” for entry into the Soviet Union. President Ulmanis was deported and terror was launched against the population in which over a thousand people were killed in less than a year
On the night of June 14, more than 15,000 Latvian residents, most of them Latvians, but also Jews and Russians, were deported to concentration camps in Siberia.
Industry and commerce began to be nationalized
Soviet rule was interrupted during the summer when German troops occupied Latvia
The Latvian Legion, a Latvian SS unit, was established by order of Adolf Hitler. Most of Latvia’s nearly one hundred thousand Jews were killed, partly with the help of Latvians. Other Latvians risked their lives to save Jews and resist the German occupation
1944 Russian troops return to Latvia after the German army is driven back
German troops capitulated and more than 100,000 Latvians fled to the West
. The Communist Party became the only political organization allowed and the resistance movement, which was mainly represented by the armed Forest Brothers, was brutally crushed.
1949 On March 25, 44,000 letters are deported to concentration camps in Siberia
1953 About 120,000 people had been killed, imprisoned or deported in Latvia
The party leadership was replaced and an extensive purge of nationalist letters was carried out. Intense Russification of Latvia was started, among other things by a massive Russian immigration that threatened to make the Latvians a minority in their own country
1970s, late – 1980s, beginning
The Latvian national movement was reactivated and opposition to the Soviet regime and the extensive environmental degradation, mainly at the military bases, increased.
1984 A Latvian environmental protection organization is formed
After Mikhail Gorbachev took power in Moscow, a civil rights group was formed, which in the following years organized mass demonstrations at the Freedom Monument in Riga to commemorate historic Soviet abuses in Latvia. Over time, the opposition became a very strong force
On June 14 and August 23, there are large anti-Soviet demonstrations in Riga that are crushed by the Russians
Latvia history, modern
In September, Latvian was recognized as a state language
In October, the Popular Front was formed, which brought together the forces that wanted to change the totalitarian regime.
On November 11, the Latvian flag is hoisted at Riga Castle for the first time since the Soviet occupation
In July, the Latvian parliament, the Supreme Soviet, a declaration of sovereignty and economic independence
On August 23, the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, formed the citizens of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, a 650 kilometer long human chain from Vilnius through Riga to Tallinn demands for freedom and independence
At its congress in October, the Popular Front demanded complete political and economic independence, a multi-party system and a market economy.
In the local elections in December, the People’s Front candidates received about 75% of the votes
At the beginning of the year, the Latvian Communist Party was deprived of its constitutional privileges by the Supreme Soviet of the Latvian Soviet Republic, which also condemned the 1940 decision to join the Soviet Union. At the same time, the flag, coat of arms and national anthem of interdependent Latvia were put back into official use.
In the spring, the Popular Front won the election to Latvia’s Supreme Soviet. Parliament renamed the Supreme Council and issued a Declaration on the Restoration of Latvia’s Independence. Anatoly Gorbunovs of the Latvian Communist Party, President of the Supreme Council, was appointed head of state, while the People’s Front’s Ivars Godmanis was appointed Prime Minister
According to Soviet leader Gorbachev, Latvia’s declaration of independence was illegal and in Latvia there were strikes among non-Latvians in protest against independence.
In early January, the Communist Party leadership orders to the Interior Ministry’s special forces, the OMON (Black Berets), to take the country’s main newspaper offices and publishing house
January 13, gathered more than 700 000 people from across the country in Riga to defend the country’s independence
One week later, the Black Berets carried out armed actions against the Interior Ministry in Riga and five people were killed, which gave the independence movement increased support.
A referendum was held in March and almost 75% of the population voted for “a democratic and independent Latvian republic”
In connection with the Moscow coup, on 21 August the Supreme Council of Riga declared Latvia independent. When it became clear that the coup in Moscow had failed and the Communist Party was banned, Latvian Communist leader Alfred Rubik was arrested
Latvia’s independence was quickly recognized by a number of countries, and on September 6 also in Moscow
A difficult issue to deal with after independence concerned the foundations of citizenship in the new republic. At the end of the year, the Supreme Council legislated that everyone who had been a citizen of Latvia until 1940, and their descendants, would automatically be granted citizenship and thus the right to vote.
Strict demands on language skills, insights into the constitution and loyalty to Latvia were proposed for other residents, most of whom were Russian-speaking. This led to demonstrations among Russian immigrants, sharp protests from Moscow and threatening exercises by the Russian military in Latvia. Among the Latvians, however, there was widespread support for harsh laws against the Russian-speaking population, which was in the majority in Riga and six other cities.
In the first parliamentary elections on 6 and 7 June, just over 25% of the population lacked citizenship and thus the right to vote. 89 of 100 Saeima members elected were triplets, although nearly half of the population was non-Latvian
The newly elected Parliament restored the Constitution of 1922 and appointed Agrarian candidate Guntis Ulmanis the President
Negotiations with Russia on the withdrawal of Soviet troops became difficult, but on August 31, the last Russian soldiers leave Latvia.
This year’s parliamentary elections were won by two dissatisfied parties, the left-wing populist Husband (Samnieks) and the German right-wing Joachim Siegerist’s right-wing extremist and anti-Russian party People’s Movement for Latvia. Nine parties were elected to parliament and the formation of a government became difficult. Andris Skele, a non-partisan member, business leader and multimillionaire, succeeded in forming a coalition government with six parties. Skele wanted to attract foreign investors to Latvia and bring the country towards EU membership
1996 On June 18, Guntis Ulmanis was re-elected President
Andris Skele resigned but he had to form a new coalition government, which was hit by several corruption cases and dissolved after six months. Instead, Guntars Krasts formed a new five-party government
Latvia’s relations with Russia deteriorated, partly due to the conflict over the Russian minority’s opportunities to become Latvian citizens, and partly because Latvian veterans from the Waffen-SS were allowed to hold a memorial service in Riga. As a result of the crisis, the Latvian government broke down. In the same year, Latvian nationalist groups forced a referendum on a proposed liberalization of the Citizenship Act. Voters approved the proposal, which was welcomed by the EU
In the parliamentary elections in October, Andris Skele won the People’s Party, a new right-wing party. Skele was forced out and Vilis Kristopans from Latvia formed a minority coalition, which was short-lived
On June 17, Parliament elected former psychology professor Vaira Vike-Freiberga as the new president, Latvia’s first female
Andris Skele returned as prime minister during the year. In the fight against the budget deficit, his coalition proposed, among other things, reduced pensions and an increased retirement age