Geology, relief, and drainage
The Baltic region is a part of the great East European Plain, which stretches across much of western and eastern Europe to the Ural Mountains.
The geology of the region is mostly made up of sandstone, shale, and limestone formations, and the landscape everywhere bears mute testimony to the impact of the glacial era. Glacial deposits in the form of eskers, moraines, and drumlins occur in profusion. These features have served to disrupt the drainage pattern, and large areas of land are prone to flooding.
There are more than 7,000 lakes throughout the Baltic region and countless peat bogs, swamps, and marshes. A multitude of rivers cross the region before reaching the Baltic Sea, the principal ones being the Neman and Western Dvina.
The coastal zone also has been influenced by the last Pleistocene glaciation. Owing to variations in the level of the Baltic Sea produced by the melting of the ice cap, there are pronounced differences in coastal zone landscape from north to south.
The northern part of the Estonian coastline along the Gulf of Finland is characterised by a limestone escarpment a short distance from the shoreline. In the extreme north-eastern part, the Pandivere Upland reaches 545 feet (166 metres) in elevation. To the south and west the coastal zone is much less dramatic in appearance. The few hills are less prominent, and extensive sand bars, lagoons, and sand dunes characterise the shoreline. The brackish and now heavily polluted Gulf of Riga is the dominant feature of this part of the region's coastal zone.
Inland, few areas reach even 1,000 feet in elevation, Suur Munamagi at 1,043 feet being the notable exception. While some districts such as the uplands of Livonia and Kurzeme have picturesque Alpine terrain, these districts are also exceptional. In general, elevations throughout the Baltic region are less than 500 feet above sea level.
Over most of the region, annual rainfall varies between 22 and 28 inches (550 and 700 millimetres) and generally increases from the coastal zone to the upland districts of the interior.
The prevailing temperatures are moderate by the standards of European Russia and in general improve from north to south and from east to west across the Baltic region. January mean temperatures range from 19° F (?7° C) to 28° F (?2° C), while July brings temperatures in the 61° F (16° C) to 64° F (18° C) range. On balance, the climate is far from pleasant, owing to winter dampness, late springs, and wet autumns.
Plant and animal life
Despite being intensively farmed over the centuries, more than one-third of the Baltic region remains forested; in some districts, forests occupy more than one-half of the land. Birches and conifers are common as both adapt well to the often poorly drained, infertile, podzolic soils. Because of the long occupation by humans, animal life is restricted mainly to smaller animals, although elk, bear, roe deer, wolves, and wild boar occur, as do hares and badgers.
On the eve of World War II, the Baltic region had about 5.7 million inhabitants, more than two-thirds of whom were rural. Village life therefore was the norm. As a result of land reforms in the early 1920s, following independence, the majority of the large estates were broken up and the land redistributed. A substantial class of farmers cultivating small holdings then emerged in the region.
There were few large cities; in 1939 only about one-third of the population lived in urban areas. Tallinn and Riga were important regional ports as well as the administrative centres of Estonia and Latvia, respectively.
The other major cities were Vilnius (historically Lithuania's capital), Kaunas, and Lithuania's main port, Klaipeda. Vilnius was a well-established regional trade and distribution centre, while Kaunas had acquired an important administrative role during the interwar period as the capital of independent Lithuania. In 1939 Riga's population was almost 350,000, while the next largest city in the Baltic region, Vilnius, had a population of some 209,000.
With the Soviet occupation in 1940 came centralised planning and a massive program of urbanisation and industrialisation. Over the next half-century the Baltic region was transformed. In the early 1990s some 70 percent of the region's population was urban. Riga's population alone accounted for more than a third of Latvia's total population. Tallinn had nearly a third of Estonia's population in the early 1990s, and Vilnius, the present capital of Lithuania, was home to more than 15 percent of that country's population. The Soviet-era program of urbanisation and industrialisation not only reshaped the settlement pattern by shifting dramatically the balance between urban and rural, it also brought with it ethnic and environmental consequences for the Baltic region.
The social and economic structures that had evolved during the interwar era of independence also were transformed following the Soviet occupation. As elsewhere in the USSR, Baltic farmers were brought into the collective (Kolkhoz) and state (Sovkhoz) farm organisations. Nowhere did this system bring benefits to the countryside, and the Baltic region was no exception. In the early 1990s re-establishing a viable and privately run agriculture was a key objective in each of the newly independent Baltic states.