The Baltic Course  

Cherished images of history

By Eugene Eteris, from Copenhagen

It’s always good to know neighbors’ history, in particular, if neighbors have common routs in historic development and cultural traditions. One has to acknowledge such factors as a “complex historical destiny”, on the one side, with contradictions and clashes between Eastern (Oriental) and Western (European) cultures and their consequential influence for the Baltic States’ development, on the other. 




Last year’s 1,100 years anniversary of one of the oldest cities in Europe – Pskov –  close to the borders of Estonia and Latvia on the Russian side (for comparison we can mention that Latvia’s capital Riga is “just” about 800), aroused historical reminiscences within the present European debate about the “clashes of cultures” on the continent. In our Summer BC’s English edition (Nr.10, 2003, pp.44-45) we have revealed some “pages of history” connected to the city’s glorious anniversary.


This anniversary gave a certain ground for historical reflections. The Balts (Nomadic people) and Goths (Germanic people), the ancient tribes living at the present Baltic territory in 200 BC to 200 AD were closely developing with the Eastern Slavs. There is a clear evidence of a general cultural continuity in this region. Bur how did present Baltic nations come into being? Did native tribes or Scandinavians create first Baltic states? Were they the products mainly of external influences or internal socio-economic change? These questions are part not only of historical controversies about Baltic States’ beginnings but also of common historical evolutionary grounds. All implanted with the scarcity and dubious nature of written records from the shadowy times… 

Among various “discovery” theories, that of the Norman theory is well worth mentioning.

Scandinavian routs

Although ancient history of the Baltic Sea’s eastern boarders is full of mysteries and uncertainties, some aspects of development are more or less certain from Norman theory’s point of view.

The East Slavs inhabiting the region were divided into a number of ulysses, and small administrative regions. During the 7-9th centuries AD the East Slavs pushed back numerous Finish tribes and the Letts and Lithuanians, who occupied the land in the north of the region. At the time East Slavs were divided into about ten ulysses providing the dominant stock of the Russian nation, e.g. Krivichi, Vyatichi, Severians, etc. (1). One of the East Slavs’ early cities was Pskov on the Velikaja River as well as Novgorod on the Volkhov River and Polotsk on the Dvina, etc. These cities flourished while trade routs were secured.

Starting from the eighth century the new menace appeared from the north – the Varangians, as the Slavs called the Vikings. Both the Slavs and the Baltic tribes recognized very soon the Vikings’ leadership abilities, organizational skills and energy; they often were invited by local communities to defence their towns. The Varangians-Vikings played an important role both in the Slavs northern European part and southern part; the latter has led to the formation of Kievan Rus, the first Russian state. Probably due to climatic conditions and far away from Greek-Roman influence, that the first Russian state was formed in the south, and not around Novgorod and Pskov.

It’s almost certain that Vikings gave its name to Russian State people; possibly from the Finnish word for “rowers” (although in Latin Rus means farmland). By tradition the year AD 862 marks the beginning of Russia’s history as a state. In this year the Varangian-Viking prince Rurik (sometimes called Rorik or Riurik as well) from Danish Yuland territory, a wealthy feudal lord, established the first Russian ruling dynasty (in Kievan Rus). But the Rurik first arrived in Novgorod, naturally through the present Latvian and Estonian territories. 

In the Danish encyclopaedia issued in 2000 it is said that Rurik in 855 tried to take Danish throne, although without success. Rurik “gave a name” to one of the strongest Russian dynasty which ruled Russia from the end of 800 up to 1598. The dynasty that followed, i.e. the latest royal Romanov’s dynasty ruled from 1613 to 1917, being overthrown by Lenin’s Bolsheviks.  

Close but different

All the three Baltic States have common borders with Russia, i.e. Estonia and Latvia on the eastern side and Lithuania, on the south-western side, with Russian enclave of Kaliningrad region. Since time immemorial everyday existence of the Baltic people has been connected to various Russian cultural and religious developments.   

The Baltic States’ connections to their eastern neighbor – Russia – is more than just accidental. Alexy II, patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, the country’s most influential religious figure, was born 75 years ago in Tallinn (his initial name is Ridiger), the capital of then independent Estonia. But it’s not all that, there are much more serious and firm connections, both religious and cultural. In fact, Russian Orthodox Church was established a millennium ago by Vladimir I, the Grand Prince of Kiev, and the grandson of Princes Olga, herself a native of Pskov.   

Russia’s northern neighbors, the Swedes, Danes and Germans, had taken advantages of Russia’s involvement on the east as early as the 12th century, to encroach on the eastern Baltic shores. The Swedes seized the territory that is now Finland; the Danes took Estonia and Germans colonizing the territories near the mouth of the Western Dvina and the Niemen Rivers (i.e. part of present Latvia). Even the Roman Pope who in 1229 had forbidden all commerce with the Russians as enemies of the “true faith” continued jointly with the Holy Roman Emperor to encourage various orders of Teutonic Knights to establish themselves in Livonia or, presently, Latvia (2). For centuries the Baltic States have been whipsawed between powers to the east and the west. For example, Estonia – with a Scandinavian outlook and influence from German merchants- has been for the most part converted to Lutheranism.   

From the early 18th century Russian Czars pursued a heavy-handed policy of cultural Russification in every corner of their empire, of which the Baltic region was just an integral part. Since 1991, when the Baltic States seceded from the Soviet Union, the Patriarchate of Moscow continued to minister the Orthodox Christians in the three independent republics.

Literature used:

(1) Ian Grey. The Horizon’s history of Russia. – Horizon Book Division, Ed., Wendy Buehr: American Heritage Pub. Co., N. -Y., 1970, p.19, (2) Maclean Fitzroy. Holy Russia. An historical companion to European Russia. –Weindenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1978, p.17.