Present-day states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, located on the extreme eastern shores of the Baltic Sea. They are bounded by the sea on the west and north, by Russia on the east, by Belarus on the southeast, and by Belarus, Poland, and an exclave of Russia on the south.
Historically the region has included such provinces as Courland (modern Kurzeme), Livonia, Selonia, and East Prussia.
While the borders of the Baltic states have been stable for decades, this has not always been so. Lithuania, for example, embraced a huge territory during the 15th century. At its territorial zenith historic Lithuania included the present-day state of Belarus and part of Ukraine and extended from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.
In the late Middle Ages East Prussia on the southern and southeastern shores of the Baltic Sea was overtaken by German expansion from the west. It was the territorial expansion of imperial Russia in the east, however, that eventually ended any aspirations for political autonomy on the part of the Baltic states. They fell under Russian imperial rule during the 18th century and remained so until the Russian Empire itself collapsed during the Revolution of 1917.
An independent Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were part of the new Europe that took form after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the cessation of World War I1918.
Independence was relatively short-lived, however. In 1940 the Baltic states were forcibly occupied by the USSR, which in 1939 had entered into a secret agreement with Nazi Germany that recognized Soviet hegemony over them. In August 1940 Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were formally incorporated into the USSR as constituent republics. The incorporation was never recognised by the United States and many other countries, although some governments accorded it de facto recognition. Prewar Baltic legations remained active in Washington, D.C., and in several other Western capitals.
Under Soviet central planning the economies of the Baltic states were integrated into the Soviet economic system. This resulted in considerable growth in production. Indeed, although living standards during the postwar Soviet period remained relatively low, they were generally higher than the average standard for the USSR as a whole. As the Soviet economic and political system began to deteriorate in the late 1980s, covert independence movements in the Baltic republics gained momentum.
In the early spring of 1990 the Baltic republics each declared independence. However, the Soviet government did not recognise these declarations as legal, and there was little tangible support for the Baltic states from the international community. The independence movement continued to grow notwithstanding Soviet attempts to squelch it. These included economic blockades and demonstrations of military force, notably but not exclusively in Lithuania.
In August 1991 a small group of hard-line Communist Party conservatives attempted to wrest control from the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The coup attempt was ineptly organised and met with stiff resistance from democratic forces throughout Soviet society.
In the aftermath of the failed coup (see August Coup)the Baltic states once again affirmed their independence. On this occasion Baltic independence was quickly recognised by many major nations, and on Sept. 6, 1991, it was recognised by the rump USSR itself in one of the first official acts of its new parliament. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were admitted to the United Nations shortly thereafter.
The Baltic states thus share much in terms of common history. But, however much they have in common, including residual populations from earlier eras of colonization and occupation, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are ethnically and linguistically quite distinctive.