Old Town Tallinn, Estonia, Baltics

Baltics: Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania

The Baltic region has a rich cultural heritage and history. The Baltics are home to some stunning nature, and today, Baltic countries are known for their innovative and technologically-minded societies.

There are some striking similarities between all three Baltic nations, including somewhat turbulent pasts marred by invasions.

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania all achieved their independence from the Russians during the Russian Revolution, only to lose it to the Soviet Union during the Second World War. Then, as the Soviet Union started to collapse, the Baltics regained their independence again.

In 2004 all three Baltic countries joined the EU and the NATO, and some years later all three Baltic countries adopted the Euro: Estonia in 2011, Latvia in 2014, and Lithuania in 2015.

Tallinn skyline (Estonia’s capital city)

The Baltics today

After their independence from the Soviet Union, the Baltics have become success stories amongst former Eastern Bloc countries.

The Baltic economic boom from 2000 to 2007 gave rise to their striking nickname: the Baltic Tigers. At the time, Baltic countries boasted some of the highest economic growth rates in Europe.

In 2006 Latvia’s economy grew by 11.9 percent, Estonia’s by 10.3 percent, and Lithuania’s by 7.4 percent. Sadly, the 2008 global financial crisis hit hard the countries hard, with the Baltics falling into a deep recession.

However, the Baltics have steadily bounced back, and since 2010 the Baltic economy has experienced steady growth.

The Baltics not only boast a growing economy, but they are also highly ranked in the Human Development Index.

Meet Estonia

Estonia is situated so that the north and the west of the country extend into the Baltic Sea, bringing Finland’s capital city, Helsinki, and Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, into close proximity with each other.

Estonia borders Russia to the east, Latvia to the south.

Population

The population of Estonia is only 1.3 million: over two-thirds are Estonians, and a quarter are ethnic Russians.

With a landmass of a similar size to the Netherlands, Estonia is one of the most spacious countries in Europe. (Although Finland, Sweden, and Norway are all more spacious.)

Every year there are more tourists in Estonia than there are people living there, and a lot of those tourists come from nearby Finland on the popular Tallinn cruise ships and ferries.

Tallinn

Tallinn, the Estonian capital, is a very popular (and beautiful) place to visit.

Tallinn has a population of 437,000: constituting a third of all Estonians.

Old Town, Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn boasts a well-preserved medieval city called the Old Town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In Tallinn’s Old Town you can find cobblestone streets and alleys bordered by captivating Hanseatic architecture (some of the best in Northern Europe).   

From oppression to digitisation

Estonia has had a rocky road to independence, enduring the horrors of Soviet occupation and Stalinist oppression. However, on the 20th of August 1991, as the Soviet Union was falling apart, Estonia finally gained its independence. 

Leaving its Soviet past behind, Estonia is now an advanced and dynamic digital society. In just 20 years it has become one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world.

The Estonian government offers hundreds of e-services to its citizens and thousands more to its many thriving businesses, giving it the nickname e-Estonia.

Some famous digital products to emerge from this digitised nation are TransferWise, GrabCAD, Fortumo, Pipedrive, Starship Technologies, and Skype.

Estonia’s nature

Harju County, Estonia

Modern Estonia is a green country to live in. It has been accredited with the best overall air quality in the entire world by WHO.

Estonia’s interest in the environment has led to its creation of the World Clean Up Day, a green initiative that millions now take part in.

Estonian sports

Not only are sports an integral part of everyday life in Estonia, but Estonians also successfully compete globally in many different sports, winning medals and prestige.

The Olympics are a good example of how the Estonians punch above their weight in sports: Estonia is one of the most successful countries when Olympic medal success is proportioned per capita.

Some of the most popular sports in Estonia are cross-country skiing, basketball, and football.

Another niche sport that Estonians have excelled in is wife-carrying (eukonkanto). Although originating from Finland, Estonians have also been very successful in this sport.

Latvia in a nutshell

Rāznas ezers, national park

Latvia lies between its two sister Baltic nations, Lithuania and Estonia.

Latvia juts into the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga; it shares a border with Estonia in the north, Russia in the east, Belarus in the southeast, and Lithuania in the south.

The demographic makeup of Latvia is similar to that of Estonia: a quarter of the population are ethnic Russians, and slightly over two-thirds are Latvians.

Historic Riga: gem of the Baltics

Latvia’s capital, Riga, is home to one-third of all Latvians. (All Baltic countries share this characteristic of having proportionally populous capital cities).

Riga is not only the largest city in the Baltics; it is also a very historic city, having been founded already back in 1201.

Riga, Latvia

Riga’s historic Old Town is certified as a UNESCO Heritage Site. Riga’s Old Town is famous for its old churches and cathedrals, as well as its architecture, making it a popular hotspot for visiting tourists.

Riga is a vastly cultural city and has been named the unofficial capital of the Baltics with plenty to see and do for enthusiastic tourists.

Latvian independence from Russia

The last country to occupy Latvia was the Soviet Union. The Soviets treated the Latvians harshly: the year from 1940 to 1941 is known as the year of terror during which 35000 Latvians were arrested, murdered, or deported to Siberia. 

The Latvians gained their independence from the Soviet Union on September the 6th 1991 after a failed coup d’état in Russia, immediately joining the UN.

Prior to their independence on the 23rd of August in 1989 two million Baltics formed a 650km human chain from Vilnius to Riga and on to Tallinn: this peaceful political demonstration was called the Baltic Chain.

Latvian language

Freedom Monument, Riga, Latvia

The official language of Latvia is Latvian; however, it was not always so.

Latvian was threatened in 19th century, and was under threat again during the Soviet occupation.

After gaining independence, the Latvian language started to take hold, and nowadays roughly 60 percent of Latvians speak Latvian as their primary language.

However, there is a large number of people who still speak Russian as their first language: currently estimated at roughly 40 percent.

English is also rearing its head as a spoken language in Latvia: it is mostly spoken by the younger generation and by people living in cities.

Carnikava, Latvia

Latvian sports

Latvians compete in many sports, however, the true national Latvian sport is probably ice hockey.

Despite being a regular in the World Championships and taking part in the Olympics, the best Latvian results to date are achieving 7th place in the World Championships, and 8th place in the Olympics.

Basketball is another popular sport: pre-war, Latvia’s national team won the first European Championship in 1935, hosted the 1937 tournament, and came second in the 1939 European Championships.

During the Soviet occupation, Latvians played for the Soviet team with some success. Sadly, after independence, the Latvian national team has not been blessed with medals.

Football is another popular sport: Latvia’s greatest achievement in football was to qualify for the 2004 Euro Football Championships, the only Baltic country to qualify to date.

Lithuania: the biggest Baltic country

Santaka Bridge, Lithuania

Lithuania is the largest and most populous country in the Baltics, with roughly 2.8 million inhabitants (although Latvia is not far behind).

Lithuania is situated on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea, and it shares a border with Latvia to the north, Belarus to the east and south, and in the southwest, it borders Poland and Kaliningrad (a region of Russia).

Even though Lithuania has also endured a lengthy Soviet occupation, there are currently only 4.5 percent Russians living in Lithuania, compared to 86.4 percent Lithuanians.

Vilnius

Lithuania’s capital is Vilnius, boasting a population of half a million: constituting a fifth of the entire Lithuanian population. Similarly to Estonia, there is an Old Town in Vilnius that is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Vilnius, Lithuania

The town features stunning architecture, historic buildings, and plenty of narrow streets and churches, with most buildings having origins spanning the Medieval and Baroque periods.

Russian rule

After WW2 Lithuania suffered under Soviet rule. During Stalin’s rule from 1944 to 1953 many atrocities were committed: loads of Lithuanians were deported to Siberia or simply killed.

After enduring the Soviet rule for decades, Lithuania finally declared its independence on 11th March 1990, being the first Eastern Bloc country to do so.

The Soviet Union reacted with sanctions and some bloodshed ensued, however, eventually, as the Soviet Union itself was being dismantled, the Soviet Union acknowledged Lithuanians independence on September 6th 1991. 

Lithuanian language

The Lithuanian language is a Baltic language that is very similar to Latvian in its stucture and vocabulary.

Only 3 million people speak Lithuanian, making it one of the least spoken languages in Europe (though it is still spoken by more people than Estonian or Latvian).

Lithuanian was made the official language of the country in 1918. However, with the arrival of the Russians in 1944 and the Russification that followed, Lithuanian slightly lost its dominance. After independence, Lithuanian became once again the number one spoken (and official) language.

Trakai, Lithuania

Lithuanian basketball prowess

Lithuanians have become infatuated with basketball, making it their national sport, and some success has followed.

Their first EuroBasket titles came pre-war, in 1937 and 1939. This initial success awakened the whole country to the sport and its popularity rose rapidly.

After WW2, Lithuanians played for the Soviet Union, and the Soviet team was mostly made up of Lithuanians.

More recently, Lithuania won the EuroBasket in 2003, also receiving medals in the World Championships and the Olympics. Lithuania has produced some of the most renowned European players of basketball.