The Latvian and Lithuanian peoples speak languages belonging to the Baltic branch of the Indo-European family and are commonly known as Balts. This name is derived from the Baltic Sea and has been in use since the middle of the 19th century.
The Balts have long lived on the south-eastern shores of the Baltic Sea and have included, besides Lithuanians and Latvians (Letts), several other peoples now extinct - such as the Prussians, who were Germanised at the beginning of the 18th century; the Curonians (Kurs), who were Lettonised in the 16th century; and the Semigallians (Zemgals) and Selonians, who were assimilated by the Latvians and to a lesser extent by the Lithuanians by the 14th century. The eastern Baltic tribes, scattered throughout what are now Belarus and the western part of Russia, were Slavicised after the northward expansion of the Slavs between the 7th and 14th centuries.
Estonians speak a language belonging to the Finno-Ugric group of the Uralic family and constitute the core of the southern branch of the Baltic Finns, the other members of this group being the Livs and Votes. Culturally, the Estonians were strongly influenced by the Germans, and traces of the original Finnish culture have been preserved only in folklore. The Latvians also were considerably Germanised, and the majority of both the Estonians and Latvians belong to the Lutheran church. Most Lithuanians, historically long associated with Poland, are Roman Catholic.
The vast majority of ethnic Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians live within the borders of their respective states. Ninety-five percent or more of the population of each state claim their own native language as their first language. Given the huge scale of Russian immigration into the Baltic states in general and its impact on the populations of Latvia and Estonia in particular, this high level of native language as first language is indeed significant.
Other citizens of the former USSR emigrated to the Baltic region during the post-World War II industrialisation drive, but none had the impact of the Russians. Aside from manning in large part the sizable Soviet military bases in the Baltic, by the late 1980s Russians had assumed many of the senior positions in government and most of the key administrative posts. A large number of highly skilled graduates of Baltic technical and university programs were assigned positions outside the region by Soviet authorities.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of less skilled Russians flooded into the region to take jobs in the many new large industrial enterprises. Thus, throughout all sectors of the Baltic economy, including the professions, and even to a degree in the larger agricultural enterprises, there was a significant Russian presence.
Attempts to Russify the Baltic peoples were common in the 1950s but in later years moderated somewhat. The sheer weight of the immigrant numbers simply served to promote this objective in less overt ways. With independence in 1991 each of the Baltic states was in a position to impose controls over immigration from the former USSR
However, within the Baltic region prevailing ethnic balance and demographic trends differed. In the early 1990s the titular nationalities in Lithuania and Estonia account for about four-fifths and three-fifths of the total populations, respectively. The situation was especially serious in Latvia, where ethnic Latvians comprised little more than half of the total population. Even with strict controls over immigration, the demographic consequences of past immigration patterns were not likely to change very quickly.