LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2013 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 59, No.4 - Winter 2013
Editor of this issue: Mikas Vaicekauskas
Purs, Aldis, Baltic Facades: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania since 1945. London: Reaktion Books, 2012. Paperback, 224 pages. ISBN: 1861898967 (Also available as an e-book edition).
Are the Baltics really the Baltics? Aldis Purs challenges the common notion of a collective identity among Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians in his latest book, Baltic Facades. Starting with a provocative statement by Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who asked, "Who the f— are Balts to us?", Purs examines "how fundamentally flawed and incomplete Baltic identity is" (p. 9). But Purs's book is more than a critique of internalizing the geopolitical label applied to the three countries. Baltic Facades is written as a handbook for lay readers interested in the past and present of these nations on the Baltic Sea. Condensing into a readable volume the region's history from the prehistoric era to current events is the greatest achievement of this book.
Purs, who received his doctorate from the University of Toronto in 1998, is the author of multiple books on the Baltic States and has taught at universities across North America and Latvia. Purs is a specialist in Latvian history, therefore Baltic Facades tends to use Latvian examples. This is appropriate, however, given his claim that "the Baltic concept begins in Latvia and ripples outward" with cultural ties to Lithuania and historical ties to Estonia (p. 12).
Purs offers a brief, yet very rich overview of the Baltic littoral from the Comb Ceramic and Corded Ware cultures of the prehistoric era to Christianization and German, Polish, and Russian domination of the territory until the twentieth century. The progress of pre-Latvia and pre-Estonia are closely linked, while Lithuania's national and political history followed an alternative trajectory until World War I. After common struggles for recognition as independent states in the interwar period, the "shared unhappy experiences" (p. 10) of World War II and postwar Soviet occupation drew the Baltic States closer together as "Potemkin Republics" (Chapter 2).
In the transition from "Soviet Union
to European Union," the title of Chapter 3, Purs examines localized
administration in the Soviet Socialist Republics as well as the
"character of a Baltic movement" for independence from the USSR (p.
88). Common causes are highlighted, as are common struggles, such as
the disenfranchisement of minorities in the post-Soviet republics. The
desire to shun CIS ties and return to Europe is a theme continued in
Chapter 4, "Economic Developments," where Purs retraces Baltic history
from its beginnings, but with an economic perspective. Though at times
repetitive, it reinforces Purs's assertions on Baltic history covered
in previous chapters.
The final chapters return to the questions of identity in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, using the arts to look at the formation of national identity from the nineteenth century onward. Purs also offers a critical analysis of current political machinations (again with a keen eye on minorities) and questions the geopolitical lumping of the Baltic States into a single entity. He asserts that, for Europe, the Baltic States are linked as "the canaries in a twenty-first-century coal mine" — their performance will have global implications (p. 183). The book ends with the prediction that the notion of "Baltic States" will fade away as they leave behind their unhappy shared experiences and integrate into Europe on distinct paths.
Though Purs does not intend for Baltic Facades to fill the role of a rigorous academic tome, scholars of the Baltic region are in a unique position to benefit from the text. He is unapolo-getic in his assertions, both of history and current events, which presents an opportunity to challenge his critiques. There are some misprints (on the date of EU accession, 105) and omissions (for example, influential Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga is not mentioned), and the academic reader will crave more details and footnotes; however, Purs is successful in drawing attention to necessary debates in Baltic studies.
The central question of Baltic identity is one with which to be grappled. Is lack of a common Baltic identity among its constituent nations enough to disenfranchise the concept? Or do their historical ties (Soviet occupation and a common struggle for independence) and geopolitical realities (concurrent accession to NATO and the European Union) de facto prove the existence of the Baltics as an entity? Indeed, the prime ministers of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia presented a joint statement marking the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and commemorating the Baltic Way demonstration just this year — yet another example of the relevance of this question of past and present identity. Although it challenges their commonality, the book itself pays tribute to the Baltics as a collectively analyzed unit, making the question more pertinent.
The book is for lay readers, and those who will gain most from Baltic Facades are those who have some familiarity with the region and its history. Spouses, friends, and classmates who have heard about the region from their Baltic-oriented peers will find their curiosity rewarded. This text has the potential to be an excellent source for ethnic Lithuanians, Estonians, and Latvians from emigre families, providing an overarching picture of the Baltic peoples' heritage.
Purs succeeds in creating an
accessible summary of the history of the Baltic States and their
current identity crises. For scholars, Baltic Facades is
in which to sow questions that challenge common perceptions (and
mispercep-tions) of the region. It remains to be seen whether the
notion of these three countries as a collective unit will be completely
replaced by their treatment as individual nations, or expanded to
include other countries touching the Sea, but Purs opens up space for
the debate - albeit with language a little less inflammatory than Ilves.