Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia became independent a hundred years ago, during the period when the Russian Empire was teetering. It is probably no coincidence that the prevailing Symbolist movement in these three countries at this time drew on history and local traditions, as if to add lustre to the Baltic identity through art which is eloquent and poetic, yet largely overlooked.
Estonia and Livonia (which surrounded part of Latvia) had been within the Germanic sphere of influence since the Middle Ages, while the more structured Lithuanian state preferred to forge closer ties with Poland.
The collapse of the Teutonic Order in 1561 paved the way for Poland and Sweden to assert their authority in the region, but in the eighteenth century, it was the Russian Empire which gained ascendancy over the three Baltic countries.
Although the Tsarist power’s sympathetic attitude to elites with foreign origins fostered a climate of relative prosperity among the people of Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania expressed a more cautious response towards St Petersburg from the outset, which was exacerbated when an uprising was ruthlessly suppressed in the early 1830s.
The censorship imposed on intellectuals and the church fuelled loyalty to old traditions; this was a slower process in the other two countries, which initially tried to preserve their historic Germanic influences.
The sense of a national identity did not being to take shape until the mid-nineteenth century. This was also when the name Latvia began to be used for the first time, echoing the desire for recognition expressed by Estonia and Livonia.