Three little former Soviet Socialist “Republics” and one large, but sparsely populated country have never been so significant.
Now where was I…until my trip posting was rudely interrupted by “Judge” Aileen M. Cannon and her Special Master ruling, one of the most criticized rulings since, well, since”Justice” Samuel Alito’s majority opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, settled law for close to 50 years. “Once you have the courts you can pretty much do whatever you want.”
But, I digress. Back to cruising the Baltic.
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, all formerly independent countries which were annexed by the Soviet Union after World War II, eventually becoming independent countries again after the fall of the Soviet Union. They are commonly recognized as the “Baltic States.” Each of these republics has less than 1.5 million people. Each is distinctly different from the others. And each is a member of both the EU and NATO…the key reason, despite Putin’s desires, that the three have not been invaded by Russian, to suffer the fate of Ukraine.
We visited, in order, Klaipeda Lithuania and the capitols of Latvia and Estonia, Riga and Tallinn, respectively. The port call in Klaipeda, Lithuania’s major seaport on the Baltic was interesting, but not as interesting as the country’s inland capital, Vilnius, would have been. (If for no other reason a visit to the Lithuanian capitol would have been rewarded with a better understanding of the city’s various names. Depending on which major power was in charge, the name of the city changed – Polish: Wilno, Belarusian: Вiльня (Vilnia), German: Wilna, Latvian: Viļņa, Ukrainian: Вільно (Vilno), Yiddish: ווילנע (Vilne). Vilnius’ naming history aptly sums up the difference between Lithuania and it’s sister Baltic republics; its ties, voluntary or not, were much stronger to Russia, Poland and Germany than either Latvia or Estonia. And with regard to Jewish history, before World War II, Vilnius was one of the largest Jewish centers in Europe. Its Jewish influence led to its nickname “the Jerusalem of Lithuania.” Even Napoleon referred to it as the “Jerusalem of the North.”
Riga, Latvia’s capitol, is a fantastically beautiful city, named European capitol of culture in 2014 and home of more than 1/3 of Latvia’s total population of about 1.9 million. It’s the capitol of a country that successfully overcame Soviet domination to become both an EU and NATO member, ranking very high in the Human Development Index, and performing favorably in measurements of civil liberties, press freedom, internet freedom, democratic governance, living standards, and peacefulness.
Besides the many photos of wonderful buildings, statues and sites I took in Riga, the memorial that moved me the most was the one below, commemorating the “Baltic Chain,” also known as the “Chain of Freedom,” a peaceful political demonstration that occurred on 23 August 1989 when approximately two million people joined their hands to form a human chain spanning 690 kilometers (430 mi) across the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, protesting their unwilling status as Soviet Socialist Republics (SSR) of the Soviet Union.
Actual images of the Baltic Chain:
On March 11, 1990, seven months after the Baltic Chain, Lithuania became the first Soviet state to declare independence. The independence of all three Baltic states was recognized by most western countries by the end of 1991.
Estonia, the northernmost of the Baltic republics has more in common with Finland than it does with either Latvia or Lithuania. Tallinn, the lovely capital city, is only a short ferry ride to Helsinki across the Gulf of Finland; many Estonians make that ride every day to higher paying jobs in the Finnish capitol. The languages, known as Balto-Finnic, are similar; while in the west we naturally place Estonia into the geographic group known as the Baltics, many Estonians identify as a Nordic country, tied more to Finland, then the Baltics. In fact, in answer to a question put to an Estonian I met…”the three Baltics are joined together geographically with very small populations (less than 2 million each), wouldn’t it make sense to join together as one, larger, more significant country,” the answer was, “Why, our commonality stops at the border.”
Tallinn’s old town is magical, noted particularly for housing Raeapteek (Town Hall Pharmacy), which opened in 1422 and claims to be the oldest continuously running pharmacy in Europe. Traditional, but I’m told recently discontinued remedies included, snakeskin potion, mummy juice and powdered unicorn horn (for male potency).
Our brief stop in Helsinki consisted mostly of shopping. Of particular interest was the presence of a retailer who, to my amazement, is still “a thing.”
Many readers of a certain age are familiar with the Finnish design brand Marimekko. I’m sure many of us had at least one Marimekko fabric stretched on a wood frame hanging in the 1970’s era living room.
There are several Marimekko shops in Helsinki selling not just fabric, but really stylish women’s attire…some of which, not suprisingly, we brought home.
Given current world affairs, our visit to Helsinki couldn’t have been more timely. With Finland’s soon-to-be membership in NATO, its, and neighboring Estonia’s strategic importance couldn’t be greater as entry into the major Russian seaport of St. Petersburg requires shipping to pass through the narrow passage between the two allies.
Our cruise adventure ended in Stockholm, spending two days there. Besides taking in the beauty of this city of islands, we had a choice of two major museums to visit. One, the Vasa Museum is a maritime museum that displays the only almost fully intact 17th-century ship that has ever been salvaged, the 64-gun warship Vasa that sank on her maiden voyage in 1628. The Vasa Museum opened in 1990 and, according to the official website, is the most visited museum in Scandinavia.
The other was the ABBA Museum, the homage to one of the greatest pop groups of all time and still today, with Volvo owned by a Chinese company and Saab run into the ground by General Motors, Sweden’s second biggest export, after IKEA.
The choice was easy. View a ship that sunk two days after launching or walk around the rest of the day humming “Mama Mia.” Weeks later, I’m still humming.
By the way, the visit to Stockholm brought back memories of one of my last business trips to the Swedish capitol. It was in December 1985. I was traveling with my client promoting the sales of California raisins in Europe. At dinner in a lovely Stockholm restaurant, I couldn’t help but notice a menu item I hadn’t seen before: grilled reindeer steak. Unable to resist this treat, I ordered it. That night, not sure if it was the steak or too many shots of Absolut vodka, I couldn’t sleep, the image of the next morning’s Swedish newspapers feeding my insomnia:
*American adman eats Rudolph. Christmas cancelled
Next up, a wonderful visit to Krakow.
2 thoughts on “Cruising the Baltic: You say Baltic, they say Nordic, let’s call the whole place great!”
Wonderful writing of a memorable Baltic adventure. Thank you for sharing the historical and present day features of this often bypassed region somewhat off the usual tourist path. reindeer cartoon was priceless as well! Carry on!
Loved this travel commentary! I don’t have to wait until you get home to hear about the trip. I would love to see more of your pictures though and the clothes that you bought. On top of that you made me laugh at the end.