Observations on Poland and the Baltics

The family cycled from Berlin to Tallinn this year, giving me an opportunity to see how Poland and the Baltics have fared after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990s. Some observations:

–          Poland is doing well. Agriculture there is as organised and productive as in Germany, with the newest combine harvesters collecting flour for millions of bread rolls.

–          You see large new houses in the minor villages in Poland, and lots of new infrastructure in the towns. People drive in reasonable cars, horse-drawn carts have disappeared, and the youth looks tall and healthy.

–          Interestingly, the Polish are quite bad at English and usually don’t understand you in bars, hotels, and restaurants. Their German and their Russian is a lot better on average, even amongst the younger generation. This in turn seems to be part of the success of Poland: because their English is poor, they can only do somewhat menial jobs abroad, meaning that they get treated as second-class citizens in Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, etc. That in turn encourages them to go back and work on the future of Poland, with great success. So lacking good English language skills, which will have cost them in the early decades after the Soviet Union, is now helping them emerge as a more vibrant and self-conscious society. The opposite can be seen in the Baltics….   

–          Poland is clearly investing in its historical heritage. The fort of the Teutonic Order in Marienburg is beautiful, with many other relics being restored. They are proud of various scientists who lived there throughout the ages, such as Copernicus.

–          You do see some interesting new Cathedrals in Poland and the roads have lots of small places of worship, but there is still no great religious enthousiasm on display. You do not see constant religious processions, groups of nuns and monks, or open displays of large crosses. Television has lots of scantily dressed young people and few preachers.

–          Alcohol is cheap, accommodation is cheap, and the parks and squares are full of young people. So on the outside it’s pretty tourist-friendly.

–          Road users are remarkably well-behaved. To cyclists, in London an orange traffick light means ‘hurry up’ and a red light is a suggestion. Not so in Poland.

–          Interestingly, the Polish have started owning some of the Prussian and Baltic heritage that the North-East of Poland boasts. They are still not quite comfortable with German cemeteries and inscriptions, but things like the Hanze league (which were blatantly German-only) are now embraced. There is also a rediscovery of the Baltic origins of many of the Prussians, which seems to make it easier for them to accept that part of the Polish population. The Polish-Lithuanian alliance is similarly now celebrated.

–          So Poland is essentially constructing a new historical narrative that allows it to live harmoniously with the population groups in its border.

–          Lithuania by contrast is considerably poorer than Poland. The houses are more often wooden, the fields are less productive and less modern, the roads are poorer, the population density lower, and only a few coastal cities are doing ok. Even the cities are losing people though, with the population in Lithuania going down, just as in Latvia.

–          In all the three Baltic countries (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia), the young people speak good English. As a result, you don’t see many of them because many live and work abroad. This is a very mixed blessing: because they do well overseas, they often do not return, which takes the pressure off the politicians to truly reform, making it difficult for new businesses to thrive, keeping the talented youngsters away.

–          The language history of the Baltics shows the importance of not speaking the language of the elites: in each of the three countries, the large coastal cities were dominated by foreign invaders for many centuries. Danes, Germans, Teutonic knights, Hanze merchants, the Swedes, and the Russians ruled the roost in Riga, Tallinn, and the few ice-free harbours on the coast. These cities dominated the economies of these regions but, crucially, their populations were small and these cities did not bother educating anyone on the countryside. As a result, the peasants kept speaking their old languages, never adopting the language of the small elite in the cities. When nationalism swept through the region and delivered new countries at the start of the 20th century, the identity was essentially language-based as the language had remained fairly untouched.

–          There are many ironies to observe in how the populations of the Baltics see themselves. The story of ‘we were oppressed for 700 years until we got our freedom’ could be heard everywhere. Yet, it sounds rather hollow if you press them on who their ancestors were, because they will quickly have to admit that their families are a mixture of German, Polish, Russian, Jewish, and Baltic. So both supposed oppressors and oppressed are liberally represented in the pool calling itself the perennially oppressed. Where have we heard that before?

–          I learned a lot about the Hanze and the Teutonic Knights. The Baltic Hanze cities were more ethnically oriented that I knew, only accepting German merchants into their circles. The Teutonic knights were like an ISIS that made it…..  German knights returning from the crusades who were given permission by the pope to go kill and rob the Baltic populations as long as they converted them to Christianity … which they duly did … for instance destroying Danzig in order to take over the amber trade which paid for the bills …..

–          The tug of war between Riga and Tallinn as to where Christmas trees originated is hilarious. The Ests in Tallinn say it was them because rich bored German merchants organised in the Brotherhood of the Black Heads were first recorded around 1450 to set fire to fir trees in the middle of the city. After a few years of doing this, the practice was forced of the city because of course it caused huge fires in the whole city. Yet, the Lets in Riga say it was them because rich bored German merchants there were first recorded around 1500 to dress up said fir trees before setting fire to them ….. of all the things to be proud of ….

On the whole, things are going pretty well with the remaining populations in that region. No huge tensions or great poverty that I could see. If you force me to nominate something not going well, then it is that the Baltics are rather empty because don’t have enough kids and they encourage the few they have to move away.

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I am and will always be Not Trampis
I am and will always be Not Trampis
4 years ago

You are fortunate to meet both the North and South Poles

paul frijters
paul frijters
4 years ago

yeah yeah, so sue me :-) Fixed now.

Mark Skinner
Mark Skinner
4 years ago

I found while travelling through Poland that people’s English improved somewhat if I at least attempted a few Polish civilities first.