Collective memory and the war in Ukraine as seen by Baltic twentysomethings

Young people in Tallinn Old Town.
Young people in Tallinn Old Town. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The generations born after the Baltic states regained their independence have not directly experienced what their elders suffered during the Soviet occupation. But tales run in families and influence the way young people look at the Russian invasion in Ukraine. These are their stories.

A sovereign and democratic state. People struggling for independence as one of the foundations for a strong cultural identity. A common enemy, which unites Eastern Europe in its most recent history. Ukraine has it all to be seen by the Baltic countries as a sister struck by events repeating themselves.

In Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the memory of bombings and the Soviet "liberation" (so the Russians called it) is still alive. Simply because the generations that have experienced the occupation are all still alive. And those who have not lived through it but were born in three free countries, carry within themselves the collective memory of what their families have suffered.

Their parents grew up in an occupied country, their grandparents saw it happen. It is trauma becoming memory. And memory that returns to trauma when, just some kilometers away from their capital cities, Baltic twentysomethings look with concern at what is happening in Kharkiv, Mariupol, Kyiv. In the meantime, however, the reassurances: today they are still part of political Europe and of NATO. Here is what the war looks like from Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn, as told by five twenty-year-olds born and raised there.

The long shadow of the Soviet occupation

"Both world wars, particularly the second, and the Soviet occupation are at the core of our social memory. And stories from the times of the socialist republics are part of family tales. We, our generation and the next, have been lucky to be born in an independent country. But we still know Russia as 'that,' as the aggressor" Kristīne (28) says, from Latvia.

"Immediately, when news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine came out, the common feeling was that we are next, that this is our doomsday for which we have been preparing for 30 years. There is a certain existential dread, I see it in the news or even in the way my family interacts with me. But that's because the history of the Russian occupation, the damage it has done to our cities and lives... it's all still very tangible," according to Mia (21), Estonian. "Just look around, everyone our age checks the news 24/7. Even some of my friends have told me that sometimes they can't sleep. They're still thinking about the war," Rauno (28), also from Tallinn, adds.

Brigita (28), from Lithuania, explains: "The idea was that, at some point, this could happen. We also tried to tell NATO, the European Union, and no one really listened to us. Because maybe they thought, 'oh, you post-Soviet countries, it's not really like that, you're just paranoid.' And that possibility finally actually happened, but to Ukraine. We were frightened because the news awakened memories, in our parents, in everyone, we didn't think it could happen in this century." Marija (26), also from Lithuania, speaks of this gap in understanding. "When talking to people from Western Europe, you can feel a difference in the way we feel and look at the ongoing conflict. They don't seem to understand the sense of danger and fear we have. We know what that country has done to us. Could this fuel fears? Sure, but because it's not just pages in the history books – these are things we have experienced, heard from our relatives. This difference can be felt." "This war for us does not only concern Ukraine, but is a threat to the whole region and the stability of the continent," she adds.

There are many Russians in the Baltic republics. What happens now?

While in Lithuania the Russian speaking population is around 5 percent of the total, in Estonia and Latvia the proportion rises to about one person in four. Rauno unfortunately sees "Much fear in the Russian minority in Estonia. The war will certainly have an effect on how many people look at Russians in our country, perhaps in a more negative light. I would say that they are preparing for this eventuality."

"It is horrible to see this already happening, this widespread Russophobia towards people who were born and raised in Estonia, and are effectively Estonian citizens. Although when the news arrived, I think there were moments of anxiety even within our borders, since indeed a good number of people are in the sphere of influence of Russian information. But many public figures immediately appealed to make a clear distinction between the Russian population and Putin's supporters. The relationship that was there, however, has now been tainted, at least a bit." according to Mia.

The initial reaction, and the subsequent rationalization, appear to be the same in all three Baltic countries. In Latvia and Lithuania too, politicians and public figures have asked – and are asking – to keep the two groups well separated. "Otherwise, it will be a victory for Putin and the Kremlin, this is what he is looking for: a pretext to say that Russians are not welcome, to activate the propaganda machine on this issue," says Brigita. In the Baltic as in the rest of Europe, "There is a feeling that one cannot be neutral: either you are on the side of Russia or of Ukraine. But here we are still talking about uniting society and keeping it united, that we must all stick together. Here in Latvia the widespread idea is that yes, these are Russians. But they are our Russians," says Kristine.

Let Ukraine join NATO and the EU. But it will be complicated

Doubts are few: Ukrainians have been working to get closer and closer to this goal in recent years, and now "They are fighting a war not only to defend themselves, but all of us. If that [joining NATO and the EU] is the direction they have chosen, it is their right to do so, and they have the opportunity to do so," according to Kristīne. "Looking at Ukraine, we now see a strong country that is fighting for the security that we, luckily, have at least a little by being both in NATO and in the EU. If not, perhaps what Ukraine is experiencing would have happened to us. I would be happy if they entered the two unions," says Brigita.

According to Mia, probably, "Now more than ever Ukraine has a real shot at joining NATO and the EU." But everyone, even around there, knows that it is not at all simple. "For many reasons, it is an important but complicated discussion. Also, because it would involve the risk of escalating the conflict with Russia even more, and we can only imagine the consequences for relations between East and West in general. In the 2000s, there was this big wave of countries joining the EU, but today it is no longer the same story as it was then," says Marija. "However, it would be a big political statement if Ukraine were allowed to join the European Union. If I honestly look at what that process was like for us Estonians, we actually weren't 100 percent ready to be part of it, according to the criteria. They are not ready, but if the European institutions let them in, the signal would be very strong," according to Rauno. Things are different when it comes to joining NATO. "They will not be able to join because NATO does not accept countries with active conflicts, so it was also for Georgia in 2008. Thirteen years later, they are still there and with 20 percent of their territory occupied. Today, Ukraine is definitely not in a position to join NATO."

The most present and recurring feeling, when talking about the invasion with them, basically is that they expected it. To what extent such conflict can be expected to break out in Europe, in general, in 2022, is a slightly different matter. Because instead of surprise, for them, what violently emerged was shock. "Both my friends and I, when we woke up to the news of the invasion, we had panic attacks, we cried a lot. Now the reactions are more under control, we have come to terms with what is happening and understood that, only in this way, we can stand firm more than ever and help Ukraine in every possible way," says Brigita. Just a few days ago, however, one person told Kristīne what best describes the dominant feeling: "It [the attack] just broke my heart. We have no idea where to start to put the pieces back together. And probably, it will take generations to do so."

The article was originally published in the online portal of Italian paper Il Fatto Quotidiano.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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