[by Laura Tourtellotte]

The importance of folklore in the construction of Baltic identity and in the formation of memory and of a ‘usable [Baltic] past’ cannot be underestimated. As a consequence of occupation for centuries by foreign powers until the early 20th century, much of the Baltic countries’ identities, were, perforce, fueled by nationalism. As a speech given to the Estonian Folklore Society in 1923 by folklorist Oksar Kallas showed, folklore was viewed as expressive of the Baltic people’s souls:

‘We also do not live by bread alone, but also by the Word; we also set a value on spiritual strivings, even though for long periods these strivings of ours could be best compared with the man in the fairy tale who wished to run but was hindered by two heavy weights tied to his feet. We hope, however, that the time of this evil tale is over forever’ (Kallas, 1923).

Note the use of Romantic and folkloric imagery in Kallas’ speech as well as his emphasis on the Word, as the unique religious codification of a nation. This speech was given at the beginning of Estonia’s first period of independence which lasted from 1918 to after World War II when it was absorbed by the Soviet Union. Evident already, however, in this speech is the self-reinvention of Baltic past and a link of the ‘genuine’ Baltic people to folkloric traditions.

Foremost in “the creation of national-cultural symbols [was] the ‘invention’ of Baltic tradition,” wrote Anatol Lieven, a tradition centered on the Romantic ideals of uniqueness in language, song, and folklore (Lieven, 110). In the Baltic states, this invention manifested itself in a heavy reliance on peasant culture, perhaps in part as a result of the region’s long periods of foreign occupation. Estonia and Latvia had been occupied by the German Empire until the early 20th century, while Lithuania was unified with Poland until the Baltic states declared their independence after WWI. Throughout this period the Russian Empire had at times also controlled the Baltic peoples; after 1945 the Soviets reestablished this old pattern by seizing control of the region. With such a long history of occupation by foreign powers, peasant folk traditions in the form of songs and legends became the basis for the Baltic states’ culture, because of the lack of the existence of a ‘higher culture’ in the region (the higher cultures would be of foreign import). The use of folklore was thus used to bolster claims to nation-hood both during their first independence and subsequent to the collapse of the Soviet Union (Lieven, 111).

Declarations of nationalism stemming from the promotion of folk culture did not, however, originate in the Baltic states’ independence in the 1920s and subsequently in the 1990s. German intellectual Johann Gottfried Herder, upon studying compilations of Baltic songs as a schoolteacher in Riga, “attempted to defend the poetic work of the often-derided ‘rustic, uncivilized folk’ . . . as worthy of both study and emulation . . . [and] deserving of veneration” (Karnes, 208). Furthermore, he claimed that these folk poems were “‘imprints of a nation’s soul'” (Lieven, 113). The Baltic states, which, understandably after so much occupation, felt a distinct time-lag in embracing Western intellectual movements, latched on to folklore-supported nationalism.

Following Herder’s promotion of folk culture, nationalist Baltic writers and intellectuals seized upon their native peasant traditions as a justification for sovereignty. Songs, poetry, folk epics, and language were emphasized by local intelligentsia in an attempt to declare their independence and right to self-rule. These ideas were expressed not only in the early 20th century, but also during and after their occupation by the Soviet Union. As the Balts had no literary culture upon which to bolster their claims of nat ionalism, they relied on nature imagery and folk culture in folk songs and legends. Such imagery was abundant in the Baltic region, which comprised of huge forests sparsely populated by peasants, who, although they were nominally Christianized, clung to their pagan roots. As a result, neo-paganism along with shamanistic natural imagery flourished in national Baltic literature, especially with reference to birds as mystical creatures (Lieven 114). The influence of nature symbolism can even be seen in the region’s soft-core pornography, which frequently feature “women in forests . . . sometimes [with] . . . trees for heads, or bushes for legs” (Lieven, 4).

In many cases in order to promote folk culture, the Balts had to invent or reinvent folk traditions. This was evident in the reworking of their pagan hero Lāčplēsis into a semi-historical figure and of their revival of national singing festivals in which hundreds of women gathered in national dress to sing traditional folk songs (Lieven, 120, 112). Thus the Baltic nationalist intelligentsia, by emphasizing folklore, song, language, dance, and traditions, all acted as “recreators of [Baltic] history and folklore, [and] did indeed ‘invent a tradition’ which stretched back into an imaginary past and influenced a real national future” (Lieven, 121). By fostering a lively folk culture and emphasizing folk heroes’ defense of their nations, the Balts created a past for themselves – one that would unite them and establish a historical precedent for self-rule.


Works Cited

  • Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).
  • Oskar Th. Kallas, “Estonian Folklore,” Folklore 34, no. 2 (June 30, 1923)
  • Kevin C. Karnes, “A Garland of Songs for a Nation of Singer: An Episode in the History of Russia, the Herderian Tradition and the Rise of Baltic Nationalism,” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 130, no. 2 (2005), 197-235.