A few months ago, a debate emerged on Twitter about why Baltic states insist on independence instead of forming a union state, which would arguably make them more powerful. I asked why France, Germany, and Poland insisted on autonomy instead of creating a union state, as they would also be more powerful together.
Despite their small size, the Baltics are three independent states for good reasons. Their languages, especially Estonian, differ significantly, necessitating communication in a common language, English. Historical influences also vary, although less so in the past 100 years. As a result, national and business cultures tend to differ noticeably.
Lithuanians take pride in their Catholic faith and national glory, boasting of kings and an empire once the largest in Europe. In contrast, Estonians pride themselves on Protestant work ethics, excellent education, and innovations. Latvians present a more complex picture, mixing at least three different cultures. These include Protestant work ethics and education in the Western and Central regions, Catholic faith in the East, significant Russian immigration in the cities, a vibrant and international culture in Riga, and a lack of commonly recognized truths that can sometimes lead to heated internal conflicts but also to individual achievements.
These differences also manifest in the national cultures. Estonian culture is relatively close to Finnish culture, partly due to language proximity, while Lithuanian culture resembles Polish culture, with which it has been closely knit for centuries. Latvian culture, again, is a complicated story. It has been considerably more open to international influences for centuries, including German, Jewish, Polish, and Russian effects. Thus, it has many layers. At the deepest of them, I sometimes refer to Latvians as "kidnapped Swedes." This situation is not only due to the centuries-old Curonian culture, which once stood as a formidable rival to the Vikings in the coastal regions but also to the profound cultural assumptions underpinning their society.
Perhaps a similar climate has influenced, leading to similar daily routines, desires, and goals. Like Swedish culture, Latvian culture is one of the most Feminine in the world, meaning it significantly emphasizes striving for harmony, individual quality of life, less explicit differences between gender roles, environmental awareness, and work-life balance. The traditional culture has been deeply dependent on the natural seasonality and finding harmony with it. It is evident in this part of the world that one has to work hard when the summer is high, and autumn brings its fruits. However, winter is cold, long, and dark, limiting the possibilities to work and giving lots of time to contemplate and engage in meaningful social interactions while not being as harsh as farther North. For example, Latvians have a tradition that is virtually a twin of Halloween, with the difference that it begins in November and lasts until February when the working hours are short due to lack of sunlight in a traditional countryside dwelling, and meeting neighbors can be a fun change from the otherwise mundane routine.
Perhaps the feminine culture was the most obvious in the coastal fishing settlements. While in most places around the world, families are referred to by the husband's name, here, the wives dominated (like, "This is Mary's house, and that fisherman over there is Mary's husband"). First, the husbands were often away in the sea, but second, their lives were dangerous and short.
Fishermen often faced the harsh reality of not returning from the stormy Baltic Sea. Their role in the household was significant as a source of income, but it was unreliable.
However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The changes brought by the 19th and 20th centuries mark the beginning of the "kidnapping." In the 19th century, despite high educational levels, Latvians faced open discrimination in their land by both the German aristocracy and Russian imperial power. WWI granted independence and democracy to Latvia, but at a steep price, as the Latvian land served as the front line between German and Russian armies for most of the war. The population still hasn't recovered to the numbers at the beginning of the 20th century. WWII brought another wave of devastation, no less severe than the previous one, followed by an illegal Soviet occupation for the next 50 years. Since Latvia was the most economically powerful of the Baltics before the war and was geographically located in the middle, extra force was applied to prevent any national uprisings against the occupying power. This reality included vast immigration, removal of locals from positions of power, and an extended military that primarily relied on local financial support. All these factors were at play in all the Baltics, but they suffocated Latvia more than Estonia or Lithuania.
The restoration of independence rightfully returned Latvia to the map and its ability to decide its destiny. However, due to the years under the Soviet system, the locals lacked knowledge of the market economy and the structure of democratic institutions. Strong émigré in the United States, Canada, and Australia initially supported it, leading to a wave of new influences. On the one hand, it has led to familiarity with various political and economic systems. Still, on the other hand, it has also sowed distrust, as those systems were often applied here without adequately understanding the deeper cultural layers.
While this is a time of national reconciliation, finding common ground with all the cultural differences has not been an easy task and is not a completed task. As a side effect, interpersonal trust is at decreased levels since the internal cultures sometimes have different assumptions about precision, interpersonal honesty, cooperation with state offices, and legal regulations in general. The role model is Sweden or Scandinavia; for some, it is Russia. For others, it is the United States or Germany. It may come as a surprise, but the lack of interpersonal trust and cultural unity is also a factor leading to less focus on striving for power and individual achievements – they make less sense in a social context where there is a lack of consensus on what counts as an achievement. Also, the openness to different points of view and ability to adapt to various settings is a component that has helped to avoid violent conflicts that are often seen in other regions with heterogeneous cultures.
Latvian culture can be characterized as a simmering blend that has remarkably maintained peaceful coexistence among various cultural assumptions. Although stressful and overwhelming for those involved, it also provides fertile ground for innovations.
Understanding Latvia is vital to understanding the Baltics. For instance, Estonia shares similarities with the Protestant parts of Latvia, with somewhat fewer intercultural interactions but strong cultural and economic ties with Finland. A more unanimous culture has led Estonia to confidently associate itself with the Nordics – mainly Finland and Sweden. Currently one of the world's least religious countries, Estonia has found its path to innovation relatively easily. Also, being one of the world's most Northern countries (most of its population lives on the 59th parallel North), Estonians understand nature's harshness and unforgiving elements, like late frosts that can destroy crops. This understanding helps to put less-than-necessary quarrels aside and rationally act towards the best possible outcome.
On the other hand, Lithuanians are known for their solid Catholic devotion, a trait they share with Eastern Latvians. Furthermore, both groups share this custom with Poles. The Lithuanian relationship with Poland is not as straightforward as the Estonian relationship with Finland. They have had violent border conflicts in the past, including about the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, which Poland occupied in the 1920s and 1930s, and the Polish sentiment of being the more influential and powerful family member of both the cultural and power center of their past joint state, is widely rejected in the Lithuanian public.
Nevertheless, Lithuanians, just like Estonians, have less internal strife than Latvians, and their culture is relatively coherent. The impact of religion on the societal level has decreased over time. It was influenced by the Soviet meddling the least among the Baltics, so it succeeded in mainly retaining a local management culture throughout the occupation years. Also, Lithuanian culture is marked by a relative multi-centrism of economic activity compared to Latvia or Estonia, and its relationship to the sea is mainly limited to the joys of vacation in their short strip of the sea border.
That said, all three Baltic states are located next to each other and, indeed, share lots of common customs and experiences that might be taken for granted by locals. Yet, with the interplay of diverse cultural influences, femininity, characterized by Hofstede's cultural classification, appears to be more pronounced in Latvian society. This results from its noticeable internal value conflicts and the individual desire to seek refuge from them in personal, more harmonious spaces.