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Linking Past to Modern in Under 300 Pages

Despite intelligent voices who protest that the Baltic states cannot be conveniently lumped together, Baltic professors may still be guilty of aiding and abetting the western effort to combine the countries. Professor Šarūnas Liekis examines how Andres Kasekamp’s new book manages in keeping them whole yet keeping them apart.

Andres Kasekamp, A History of the Baltic States, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010 (296 pp.)

The Palgrave Essential Histories publish compact, well-readable and informative histories designed to appeal to anyone wishing to gain a broad understanding of a country’s history. Some smaller countries, even smaller than the Baltic sisters (as the countries were often referred to in the 1990s), have received a volume in the series. We might only guess why all three very historically different Baltic countries received only one book by Palgrave. Some might call it general ignorance on the subject among Western audiences, or maybe they are all seen as unimportant if taken separately? It appears  that the publishers have been captivated, and are willing to further exploit their shared experience within the Soviet system.

Andres Kasekamp took on the difficult task of writing a political history of the three Baltic countries. In his own words, the greatest challenge was to write an integrated, comparative history, rather than parallel histories of three separate countries. The author tried to embrace the perspectives of all peoples who lived in the territories in the past. But did he really succeed?

Obviously, in terms of sociology, culture, and even civilization, all three countries have many similarities. If the study had been conducted in a framework of political science, the concept of the Baltic countries could have been easier to realize from a comparative perspective. However, Kasekamp had to adhere to the methods of historical research. If thoroughly applied, comparative historical analysis should demonstrate more differences than similarities. 

The fate of three Baltic countries substantially diverged from the 13th century onwards. Incorporation of the former Livonia into the Russian Empire and the ethnically Lithuanian part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania did not create any common identity between the peoples and the elites. The predecessors of today’s modern nationalities of Estonians and Latvians were not part of the German ruling class and most of the ancestors of present-day Lithuanians were not part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s nobility. On the other hand, the elites of the Commonwealth and German-speaking Livonian elites did not have anything in common either. The distance between them was comparable to the distance between Russian and French elites in the 18th century.  

The modern Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian nationhoods, based on linguistic nationalism, correlate with the peasant origins of their main reference groups and their orientations. Additionally, the nationalist movement in all the Baltics is clearly related to the emancipation of the lower classes. An attempt by the author throughout the whole book to see the modern Lithuanian nation somehow more related to historical Lithuania is slightly exaggerated.

No doubt, a genetically large part of the Polish-Lithuanian nobility became part of the modern Lithuanian nation. However, in terms of collective and cultural memory, it does not have a place in present-day Lithuania‘s consciousness. Present-day Lithuanians mostly relate to the peasant symbolism and inter-war propaganda stereotypes about their glorious past. The only difference from Estonian and Latvian national epic story-telling is that Lithuanian cultural identity has been surplanted with dubious stereotypes of a historical nature. The retrospectively promulgated myth still remains a historic myth.

The attempt to connect present-day Lithuanian identity with the political past of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, not to mention the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, is somehow problematic. The integration of such cultural memory does not go further than the academic trend to link the present-day identities with the unutilized options and choices made vis-a-vis the old Lithuanian identity at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. However, such attempts to explain the colorful fabric of the past and to demonstrate the past multi-ethnic origins of the Lithuanian political nation are still a novelty for the main body of the nation, which thinks in terms of monoethnic mythology. 

Kasekamp’s account is very much progressive, and looks forward to changes in the Lithuanian mainstream historical narrative. It is well ahead of the current state of affairs though. Indirectly, it opens the window of opportunity for the present-day Lithuanian nation to recover its ties with its glorious past. He attempts to do the same in the Estonian and Latvian cases. Generally, he takes a positive, or sometimes neutral, view towards the contributions of the Baltic Germans in the development of cities and countries throughout the history. This comes even without traditional criticism of the large landowners, who controlled most of the rural areas of the Baltics, and the fates of ethnic Estonians and Latvians, until 1918. 

It is worth mentioning that the author made a good effort to integrate the minorities’ narratives and to see them in context of the Baltic history. The most notable example is Jewish history in Lithuania which has already received substantial attention from scholars. However, the whole work is dependent almost exclusively on English-language sources which unavoidably resulted in some historical sterotypes. Lithuanian historical research offers much more diversified and subtle volumes of publications on the subject.

Certainly, the book is an attempt to legitimize the Baltic states‘ claims for their place in history. It also has a political and legal dimension. And not only because interpretation of history has become the central battleground between the Baltic states and Russia. Kasekamp defends a fair, balanced approach to objective history to the extent of the sources that are available to him. The whole text asserts that the author is well aware of the sensitive and multi-layered nature of historical knowledge, which is prone to use and abuse as an instrument of political manipulation by many interested parties.

No doubt, A History of the Baltic States is an excellent publication opening the history of the eastern Baltics to the English-speaking audience. It is concise, well-written, and made with professionalism and competence.

Sarūnas Liekis is a professor at Vytautas Magnus University. He has studied and taught at Brandeis University, Oxford University, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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