latvian letter

Dear Mare,

We both come from such a small region that most foreigners cannot really tell the difference between the three Baltic States. It is always strange to explain that: no, we don't speak the same language, because Latvian and Lithuanian are Baltic languages while Estonian comes from the Finno-Ugric branch of the language tree. And, no, we haven't got the euro in Latvia yet - you must have meant Estonia.


Laura Lapina

Laura is a third year Law student at the University of Latvia, currently in her Erasmus semester in Hungary. She has won local history contests "History around us" twice and has participated in various Eustory seminars in Spain, Belarus and Germany.

To be honest, in Latvia we hear a lot about Estonia. Probably the Latvian media care quite a bit more about Estonia than yours about us. I would even suggest that lately Latvians have been having a bad case of "Estonia complex." Just this year the weekly political magazine "Ir" had a whole issue focused on Estonia and your success stories – economics, e-government, Skype etc. However, this was not so much evidence of Latvian jealousy but rather of our self pity: although it is still quite far from being the wealthiest country in Europe, Estonia stands as an example of how much growth can be achieved within 20 years. It is even worse when this success is just a three-hour ride away from your home, and you know that in a slightly different political and institutional climate, we could have been able to say the same about ourselves. After all, only 20 years ago, we were at the same starting point!

Historically there have been many meeting points between Latvia and Estonia: early tribal conflicts, the arrival of Christianity in the form of Teutonic knights in 13th century; later incorporation into the Russian empire; the proclamation of independence in 1918; Nazi Germany and Soviet occupation during WWII; reestablishment of independence in 1991 and, lately, accession in EU and NATO in 2004.

The relationship between Latvia and Estonia has always been good in general, yet we could not really call each other allies. While Latvians and Lithuanians may at times call each other "brothers", Estonians are usually referred as the northern "neighbours". And quite often it has seemed as if Estonians do not really want to be associated with the Baltic, but rather to identify themselves with the Nordic countries, and especially with Finland. It also seems to me that there has always been a certain degree of competitiveness between our countries. Let's not forget the Christmas tree debate just last winter. Who would think that two countries could argue over which capital saw the lighting of the first Christmas tree in the world? Even our prime ministers had a chat about it and finally agreed on medieval Livonia, as it comprised both Latvia and Estonia, so that both countries could benefit from it in tourism campaigns.

Photo: Barbara Piancastelli(CC-NC-SA 2.0)
Legend has it that in 1510 Martin Luther lit the first Christmas tree in history after being amazed by a fir tree in a Riga forest, with branches that glistened in the light of the moon and stars.

Despite our differences, both our countries are dealing with similar issues, such as a decreasing population and economical emigration, to name two. And there are some lessons we can learn from each other: in terms of political participation of ethnic minorities, Latvia has definitely achieved more visible results trying to avoid parallel societies.

However, both of our countries also share traditions that are unique, for instance, the Song and Dance Festival which is celebrated with a great respect towards traditional culture both among the old and the young.

I don't think there are many countries in Europe where around 20 000 people would come together every few years to sing choir music and dance folk dances.

In that respect we are quite special snowflakes, aren't we? Most important events in the last century have always been done best when the Baltics have worked together - the "Baltic way" being the most obvious example. The most unforgettable moment took place on 23 August, 1989, when approximately two million people joined hands to form a human chain spanning over 600 kilometres across the three Baltic states. It marked the 50th anniversary of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.  

I guess even we need someone in front of whom we can feel like hot-blooded Southerners.

One thing that still keeps our spirits up in spite of the Estonian prosperity in the region is how much Latvians enjoy the jokes about the "slow" Estonians. No one I asked could tell exactly where they came from - whether it is purely because of the longer vowels heard in the Estonian language (and even more so in the great accent when an Estonian is heard speaking Russian) or simply due to the calm appearance Estonians seem to possess. I guess even we need someone who makes us feel like hot-blooded Southerners by comparison.

Actually, what kind of complaints can we have about our neighbours when just 22 years ago almost two million of our parents held hands together creating a human chain in peaceful protest against the much bigger occupying power? Without wanting to sound sentimental and sappy, I truly believe that we are good neighbours and should further our cooperation in the future to have our voices heard in Europe. 

Hope to hear from you soon,


Estonian reply

Photo: Thomas Hawk (CC-NC 2.0)
Life isn't exactly a beach party here - Estonia ranks highly in alcohol consumption, suicide rate and general unhappiness. 

Dear Laura,

I was generally surprised by your letter. Yes - I was aware that, economically speaking, Estonia has been doing better than Latvia lately but in Estonia we don't know that you Latvians have a complex about it. I fully agree that there's always been competition between our countries but this "victory" does not make me particularly happy. While Estonia might have the knack for being among the first in all sorts of lists; that also applies for the negatives. We're in Europe's top 3 in alcohol consumption, suicide rate and general unhappiness, according to a recent poll carried out by the World Health Organisation.

I agree that Latvia has done a far better job in integrating ethnic minorities into society. In Estonia, it seems that Estonian Russians live in a parallel universe. Yes, they may use the same public transportation as I do, but they have their own newspapers, radio stations and television channels. The fact that they are living in a completely different media sphere can sometimes be a dangerous tool for those who want to cause friction between Estonians and Russians. As far as I know, this is a far lesser problem in your country.

I remember catching onto the fact that Latvians and Lithuanians stick together in the Baltic region quite early on in history and sometimes we Estonians do feel like the odd one out. The fact is that when it comes to origin, Latvians and Lithuanians come from one set of roots and Estonians are very closely related to the Finns. To me, the closer bonds are logical and understandable. The term "Baltic States" is not something we ourselves have come up with; it's the name bestowed upon our small nations for the purpose of making it easier for the bigger players in the world to classify us. Perhaps if WWII had ended differently for the three of us, we'd be even further apart in some senses. But I do not agree that Estonians don't care about Latvians. If it seems so to you then I suppose it could be explained by Estonians being so preoccupied with their careers, working long hours and making more money, that we're left with little time to think about anything else.


Mare Heinluht

Mare is a 19-year-old first year English student at Tallinn University. She has won prizes at the National History Competition several times. She aspires to make a career in fashion and in her spare time she is on a constant hunt for inspiration.

Ah yes, the "slow" jokes. Quite honestly we're always a bit baffled when hearing those. Though it does seem probable that our reserved and calm appearance might have a hand in creating such an image, we happily retaliate with our own jokes about Latvians having six toes. Again, it's a folklore tale and no one knows how it started, but the theory of the abbreviation of Latvia – LV – translating into "Lisa Varvas" (extra toe) in Estonian, seems to be a popular explanation. Just as I've heard Latvians calling the Estonian language "bird language," we find the overuse of "s" in Latvian very amusing. 

There might be many things Latvians feel Estonians are better at, but there are also several areas in which Estonians feel a sting of jealousy towards Latvians. For example, Riga is a prettier city than Tallinn. Every time I visit Riga I marvel at the grandeur of the facades of the buildings. Much of Tallinn, except for the medieval part, was bombed during the World Wars and later replaced by ugly Soviet functionalist boxes. The Riga airport is far better connected than Tallinn's - a fact I find extremely annoying when travelling, because in order to get anywhere I must connect through Riga or Helsinki. And finally, since Latvia is bigger in population, great artists often decide to have their concerts only in Riga instead of Tallinn, which can also be frustrating.

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Estonians and Latvians might not be carved from the same wood but our tightly bound histories and shared experiences and traditions have glued us together very well. One of the longest human chains in the history of the world is a good example of that. I believe that we really are "dear neighbours" and we have so much to achieve together in the future.



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