Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Real Balts Stand Up and Light Fires -- Including in Russia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 21 – By a recent convention, the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians are often referred to as “the Balts,” but in fact, there is an older community from which only two of these nations – the Latvians and the Lithuanians – descend. And that community is now being celebrated not just by those two but by others even in Russia.

            Tomorrow, the Latvians and Lithuanians will each mark the Day of the Unity of the Balts by lighting fires and remembering when by their common efforts the Baltic tribes were successful in resisting the Northern Crusade in 1236. But they will not be the only people to do so, Ales Mikus reminds (

            Instead, they will be joined in commemorating this event by those who want to celebrate this original Baltic heritage in Tver, Smolensk, Voronezh, and Kursk, as well as many as 150 other locations across the region and “even around Moscow,” the Baltic activist from Belarus observes.

            But according to Mikus, who maintains a web portal on the Balts and this holiday (, this holiday, linked not only to the 13th century battle but also to the fall equinox, has a meaning “broader than a simple historical recollection.” Instead, it is historically an occasion for those who share this memory to look inward and reflect on their origins.

            The ancient territory of the Baltic tribes who spoke their own dialects extended eastward from what is now known as the Baltic Sea to the Upper Volga and Upper Don, but those who recall this proto-nation do so not to focus on borders but on their common ancestors and to reflect on the complexity of their different histories.

            In the intervening centuries, “the appearance of the residents of this area could not but change, but the ancient substrate remains Baltic,” Mikus says; and he notes that “in Belarus, for example, it has been convincingly shown on the basis of examples from archaeology and anthropology that a Slavic invasion in any massive way did not occur.”

            “Something similar,” he continues, “occurred in those ancient Baltic lands which are now lying within the Russian Federation.”

            This holiday is especially meaningful for the current author. When I returned to the US State Department to serve as Baltic Desk Officer, one of my first actions was to rename that position the Desk for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. There were real Balts in the past, but these were real countries – and both merited attention, although better separately than conflated. 

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