Eustace Tilly on the Baltics

  • 2006-11-01
  • Compiled by Paul Morton

THE PLAYERS: (From left to right): Mikhail Baryshnikov, Mikhail Gorbachev, Vytautas Landsbergis, and Dame Rebecca West.

The New Yorker has been well-known for its witty, acerbic coverage of all things important and trivial since it was founded in 1925. So, where do the three Baltic states fit on its radar? Here's a sampling of how that paragon of sophistication understood our little region of the world. Make your own mind up as to whether or not Harold Ross' magazine got things right or wrong through wars, revolution and freedom.

Sept. 29, 1928

A "Talk of the Town" vignette relates the story of a Lithuanian actor meeting American reporters. "How big is your country?" one asks. "Pretty big," the actor says. "We got stamps."

Jan. 13, 1940

The great travel writer Rebecca West describes a trip through the Baltics in 1935. A Latvian professor serves as her guide in Riga. "The Latvians, like all liberated peoples with a language which they have had to preserve against the will of their conquerors adore that language and their history." And so her guide is a little horrified to discover that West, an Englishwoman, couldn't recite a single line from her country's own epic "Beowulf."
Later Dame Rebecca has a disturbing encounter with a German conductor on a train in Lithuania. He says that the Lithuanians have not "drive(n) out their Jews," which, in his eyes, have made them a weak people. West counters that Lithuania was the site of pogroms. The German complains that one hasn't occurred there in a very long time.
Aug. 19, 1944

A "Talk of the Town" story, written at one of the darkest times of Lithuania's history, summarizes the country's culture and history in a weirdly happy tone. The Lithuanian language, it says, is "the oldest in Europe…the most subtle, mellifluous, and poetic." It compares the country's landscape to the state of Maine and says its citizens use tunnels under its two thousand lakes "for hideouts during invasions."
At the time Lithuania was caught between the hammer of Hitler and the anvil of Stalin, but The New Yorker can't get enough of the "rather picturesque" nature of fire fighting in the backwoods. There are some schoolbook descriptions of paganism. Then there's this gem, designed to piss off any proud son of Vilnius: "Probably because of its long history of war and oppression, Lithuania hasn't much native literature, music or art."

(Note: Save for a few profiles of Baltic expatriates in America, like the one below, The New Yorker runs few stories about the three Soviet republics between the end of World War II and 1988.)

Jan. 9, 1978

A story describes a popular restaurant in lower Manhattan where you can get the Anne G. Special, "an outstanding Lithuanian meal-in-itself combo of roast beef, cheddar cheese, grilled tomato, bacon, and Russian dressing on pumpernickel." The restaurant is frequented by, among others, Norman Mailer, Dustin Hoffman and Arthur Miller.
Igor and Sonja Sudarsky, a Lithuanian Jewish couple who have survived life in the Kaunas ghetto during World War II, run the shop. Both apparently had artistic ambitions in their youth, but fate had other plans, and now they are bringing great Lithuanian cooking to America.

Dec. 12, 1988

An opinion piece by Barry Paris analyzes the monumental decision by Estonia's Supreme Soviet to approve a "declaration of sovereignty." Paris takes special pleasure in describing the incredulous reaction of Vasily Koltakov, a Russian who voted against the decision. Koltakov complained to Pravda that Popular Front partisans had gone so far as to coach deputies.
"In other countries," writes Paris, "this is called 'politics' and is not uncommon. But in the absence of Soviet opinion polls we have no way of knowing if the populace at large appreciates the irony of a Russian Communist's lament that he is being coerced to conform to the majority position."
The new era has begun.

Sept. 18, 1989

David Shipler reports from Tallinn, which touched off the call for secession among the Soviet republics. He wonders at the conversations taking place inside the run-down but charming architecture of the small city.
"A major topic of discussion was Estonian history, which had been consigned to silence by Soviet fiat but was now being dug up 's sometimes literally 's and affirmed in public." He finds the old town absolutely charming; the poor guy has no idea what it will look like with strip bars, bad restaurants and loud obnoxious music in another 17 years.

May 14, 1990

As Lithuania makes ever stronger strives toward independence, Elizabeth Drew analyzes George Bush's difficulties handling Mikhail Gorbachev. It's a pretty damning corrective for those who would want to credit anyone other than the Baltic peoples themselves for obtaining their own freedom. "[I]t hadn't much occurred to people [in Washington] until fairly recently that there was any possibility of independence for the Baltic nations…[M]ore people than will now admit smirked as each year, during the third week in July, we commemorated Captive Nations Week with parades and ceremonies calling for the overthrow of Communism." That event, Drew says, was just a way for right-wing politicians to show their constituents that they actually cared about Eastern European people, without actually doing anything.
Drew goes on to describe the Bush administration's frustration in trying to stop Soviet military force. "[T]he prevailing sentiment within the Administra-tion was exasperation with Lithuania for forcing the issue" when it issued its declaration of independence. Officials are particularly annoyed by Vytautas Landsbergis, the then-Lithuanian president, who refuses to so much as meet with Gorbachev.
Goddamn Lithuanians. Demanding their freedom via peaceful democratic action. Standing up to petty totalitarianism. Just what do they think this whole Cold War is about anyway?

Aug. 3, 1992

Shortly after the three Baltic states finally achieve independence, Mart Niklus, Estonia's most famous dissident appears at the Sixth Estonian World Festival in New York. Mindy Aloff has some light fun with the fact that Niklus and the conference attendees seem not to understand why the English-language press is uninterested in their meeting. Everyone also seems to think that Niklus is world famous.
Seriously though, Niklus has some frightening words. "The people who persecuted me 's the old nomenklatura 's still hold their positions of power. Those who were formerly red have turned pink, or black and white."

Jan. 19, 1998

Joan Acocella's profile of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Riga's most famous living native son, opens with the ballet dancer showing his two children and current romantic companion the Soviet communal apartment where he grew up. "For fifteen, sixteen people, one kitchen, one toilet, one bathroom, room with bathtub," he says. "But no hot water for bath. On Tuesday and Saturday, [his half-brother] Vladimir and I go with Father to public bath."
The trip to Riga is Baryshnikov's first since he defected from the Soviet Union in 1974, but he still manages to be stunningly unsentimental. He calls his Russian parents, "occupiers" in Riga. "The minute plane set down, the minute I stepped on Latvian land, I realized this was never my home. My heart didn't even skip one beat."