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Chapter 2: Baltic States, Let's talk some Freedom

From Finland I crossed the Baltic Sea by ferry heading towards Tallinn, the first city I would visit in the Baltic States. I read a lot of tips and blogs about Tallinn, so I had good hope about the city and about Estonia. A lot of people go either to Parnu or Tartu as second destination in this city, I went for Tartu as that is where the National History Museum is located. It was at this museum that I decided to write the second chapter about Freedom and the different perceptions I have encountered in the Baltics. And I know that freedom is a highly analyzed topic, surely not very original or surprising, but I think that the perception of freedom and its meaning is such a huge part of understanding the Baltics, that I can’t pass over it.

View in Tallinn


National Independence

This year the Baltic states celebrate their 100 years of independence. Or actually, it was 100 years ago that they declared independence, but then the first and second World Wars happened. It is a year full of celebration and reflection on the regained independence. I will not burn my hands by trying to explain for each country what exactly happened in these 100 years. The complicated part of the history is that this is also very different for each country.

I learned a new story of courage, bravery and peaceful resistance, The Baltic Chain. A couple of days after the Baltic Chain the Berlin Wall collapsed, which resulted that the story of the Baltic Chain is not very known outside of the Baltics. The chain was made by people holding hands from Tallinn all the way to Vilnius. And as these countries have only a small population, one third of their people showed up in order to make this chain. At the map you see not only where the chain was but also where the people came from who joined the chain. You can find this map at the hyper modern Estonian museum.

Apart that this symbol is a sign of cooperation between the different Baltic States, it is also very accurate for the attitude of these nations. As oppression does not only bring less creativity and underground movement, it raised generations of people who are very private, an attitude to not get too involved and calmness. Alexander Lielgalvis from Riga added to this, a lack of rebellious people. What surprised me the most is that for all these three countries it did result in less bloodshed during the last fight for freedom. Somehow they have managed to bargain their way into independence from the Soviet, which was about to collapse. The Baltic Chain was part of this peaceful but strong resistance.

While walking through these three states I wondered how it happened that after all these years of occupation, their nationality lived on. For people it is important to be able to say that they belong to a certain nation and that this nation mostly wants its own state, governed by the rules and traditions of this nation. This feeling of belonging doesn’t disappear after years of occupation, but manages to live on in the people who in their turn find their ways of showing this. And piece by piece with small symbols of their nation, the people got their sovereignty back.

The map of the Baltic Chain at the Estonian national museum


What about your personal freedom?

But that is not the only side of the story. Because after the nation is free again, the people will start to regain their personal freedom as well. New fashion, new music, bars, clubs, books, ideas, writers, thinkers and new tradition come up. And by forming this new society, difficult choices have to be made, new rules and laws have to be implemented. This is already a really difficult process, but even more so when your nation is a mix of the former occupiers and the occupied. The Baltic states did handle this differently and also still approach the problem in different ways.

In Estonia the russian speaking population makes up for around 10% of the population. They are one of the most digitized countries in the world, but aren’t afraid that the Russians will hack them as they are also one of the best in cybersecurity. They have a a super modern National history museum in Europe with many hightech gadgets, a new building and a broad scala on modern topics like Iphones and the invention of Skype. But what most amazed me was their part on their freedom. In a movie they let different Estonians explain what freedom means for them. These quotes are projected on a wall and flash by, none of these quotes is even a bit similar to another. But one perspective stayed with me as this quote acknowledges that one’s freedom may mean someone else’s occupation. A delicate balance that all over the world is hard to sustain and control and causes much of our modern problems.

In Riga for example is the situation much more complicated as 40% of the population is Russian speaking. Even their mayor at the time is Russian speaking. Therefor this subject must be approached with much more delicacy. The Russian speaking population is not always very generous in understanding the Latvian society. For example, when they celebrate the soldiers who fought against the Russians in the second World War to gain independence, are shamed by Russians to be Nazi’s as they fought together with the nazis. In their turn the Latvians tend to exclude the Russian speaking society in certain ways from for example, getting loans at the bank because they suspect a hidden agenda behind the expansion to for example real estate.

I went thinking about this subtle balance between people in a nation and precisely that day I read that from now on in the Netherlands it is illegal to wear a Burka in public spaces. Suddenly that was the perfect example of an imbalance between different peoples freedom. While Wilders finds it is his freedom to be able to say that others should not wear a Burka, as symbol for the Islam in a country that is not by state muslim, he turns his freedom into the oppression of the group of women who do wear this. And while we find in the West that we have to protect our freedom, we tend to forget about others freedom.


Alexander Lielgalvis from Free Riga at one of their buildings

Freedom to change

In Riga I met with Alexander Lielgalvis, one of the initiators of the cultural quarter Free Riga. They were asked by some Russians who own the buildings, to develop a cultural quarter at their industrial buildings. I will write about this project in my next article, but first I want to reflect on something else we talked about. I asked him where the name came from, Free Riga, and I would like to share this story.

At the moment there are many empty buildings in Riga and because of the economic crisis they do not go on the market because the market is already low and will get worse by adding the other buildings aswell. Thus there is still almost no place to develop and set up cultural institutions. During a festival they wanted to show this problem to a wider public and printed stickers saying ‘Occupy Riga’. These stickers were given out to the people and were meant to be put on empty buildings so everyone could see how many buildings were empty at the time. This project developed into a movement and that is were in the end the movement ‘Free Riga’ came from. Because freedom can also be to have a space to develop new projects and try new ideas in the cultural sector. Alexander told me that Latvia does not have a culture of squatters and therefore these buildings remain empty. He wants to promote the idea of temporary use to solve this problem.

In Vilnius some artist have taken a different stance in this right to culture. As most artists and students were living at a quite underdeveloped part of the city, they went to the city government and asked for money to clean up their neighbourhood. After the city denied their request they took it in their own hands and declared the independence of their area and went to develop it themselves. At the entrance of their area you can read their very own constitution and at the first of april they celebrate their independence. At their information point there is a sign which points into the direction of other so called ‘free places’, as that is what they identify with, places like Ruigoord in Amsterdam. After years this project is a very respected artistic area within Vilnius and one of the most touristic.

I hope that they find their way in Riga and find their courage to set up a project like a ‘Free space’ or a ‘Free community’. As these places show us that we do not have to oblige or wait for the state to change, the people can take it into their own hands to create new levels and forms of freedom within the delicate balance that we all try to keep up in sovereign multinational states.

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