Throughout history and across the globe, there has always been a cycle of powerful nations and ethnic groups dominating less powerful ones—imposing customs, languages and religions along the way, which, in one way or another, become woven into the fabric of the occupied country’s national identity. Sitting at the crossroads of Europe, the Nordic region and then-Soviet Union, the Baltic States have experienced precisely this type of war and development. For centuries, parts of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia have changed hands between neighboring nations of Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Russia—each country putting its own stamp on what today are three independent, modern nations infused with a rich culture.
Like so many other countries, World War II brought suffering to the people of the Baltic States. In 1940, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were each under authoritarian rule, which came to an end when Russia occupied the region briefly, followed by a Nazi Germany invasion. Toward the end of the war, however, The Soviet Union regained control and would maintain it under a policy of Sovietization until the countries gained independence in 1991. Each country has since developed democratic systems of government, modern economies and joined the European Union.
A small nation of about 1 million people, Estonia is the Northern-most Baltic state and has historically strong ties to its neighbor, Finland. The majority of the population (68.5 percent) speak Estonian while approximately 29.6 percent speak Russian.
Estonia is one of the most secular countries in the world. The largest church is Lutheran, but over half the population is not associated with a religion. That said, Estonians are spiritual in their love of and connection to nature, literature and long tradition of folk music, as evidenced by their biggest holiday apart from Christmas, Jaanipäev–a midsummer celebration filled with song and dance and long summer days that barely see the dark of night.
Estonians enjoy seasonal produce, pickled herring, dark rye bread, and dishes with staple meat and potatoes.
Sandwiched between Estonia and Lithuania, 2 million people call Latvia home. It is known as a “singing nation,” due to its sheer volume of and passion for historic folk sons, and festivals that celebrate them.
Like Estonians, Latvians celebrate midsummer in late June called “Jani” or “Liigo!” Adorned in wild flowers and decorating with oak leaves, they gather with friends and family around a bonfire to enjoy beer and caraway cheese, and sing and dance into the bright night.
Soccer is the most popular sport in Latvia, followed by hockey, but the nation also enjoys playing and watching tennis, cycling and rugby.
Lithuania is the largest of the Baltic states, with nearly 3 million people—the majority of whom belong to the Roman Catholic Church. While they celebrate midsummer like their Baltic neighbors, February’s Shrove Tuesday is also a popular Catholic holiday, where families feast and kids dawning masks go door to door singing and getting pancakes.
Lithuania has a longstanding choral tradition and cultural emphasis on folk music. Since, 1924 the Lithuanian Song and Dance Festival has been bringing singers and dancers of all abilities together from across the country—a celebration that has reached 30,000 participants.
Basketball is the most popular sport in Lithuania, with their national men’s team ranked among the highest in the world, and several players in the NBA.
Food influencers from Poland to Scandinavia have found a way into Lithuanian diets. They enjoy potato dumplings, smoked meats, pork and cabbage, and a traditional cold beet soup called arešaltibarščiai.