All Saints Street in the center of predominantly Catholic Vilnius may seem like the last place to look for the pleasures of the flesh. However, this street is home to the Eroticenbar, one of many nightclubs offering striptease shows in the city.
Gawking at naked women refilling drinks may not be everyone's cup of tea, but the patrons seem to be happy with what they get for their 80 litas ($20) entry fee. And although this venue might seem a bit sleazy, plenty of other, more respectable places have discovered that similar shows pull in the crowds.
Across town, bars and clubs are installing poles and hiring dancers. And these are just a few indicators of a revolution in people's perceptions of nudity and sex in all three Baltic countries.
Sin and bare it
While strip shows may not seem very radical to Westerners accustomed to public nudity since the 1960s, they are a recent phenomenon in this part of the world. Run by an aging, asexual gerontocracy, the U.S.S.R. was so inhibited that one Russian woman said during a TV link-up with Americans during the Brezhnev era that "there is no sex in the Soviet Union."
Pornography was completely taboo, and even mainstream artists had a hard time exhibiting paintings of nudes. Even as glasnost began to crack the ice, people were jailed for clandestinely watching pirated Western soft porn videos.
If anything, Lithuania's Catholic culture added to the sexual repression. Aurimas Alisauskas, a Vilnius resident in his 30s, remembered loud demonstrations by women outside the offices of the newspaper Respublika when it dared to publish pictures of girls in bikinis.
"First it was the Soviets who restricted us, then it quickly became Catholic women," said Alisauskas.
That was a decade ago, but today it is hard to find a publication that does not feature pictures of scantily clad women. Furthermore, plenty of Lithuanians, especially the young, like to see live nudity performed by both genders.
Of course, the desire for sex is one of the driving forces behind the growth of strip bars. One young male watching a striptease by male performers at Prie Universiteto, a student hangout, said he was there because, "There are so many girls here. They will all be aroused when it's over." But he admitted afterwards that he had also liked the show as a form of entertainment.
However, there are deeper reasons for the trend as well. G-Man, a member of a Lithuanian music project aptly named "Pornstar" for its use of sexual themes, said his group was symbolic of the music culture that gave birth to "sex, drugs and rock-n-roll" in America and Britain.
"Young people here were raised to think sexuality is freaky stuff. Now everything is changing so fast, and new things are available and interesting to try. It's like rock-n-roll. Everyone is doing what he or she wants. It's fun and cool."
Although Latvians admit they were restricted by Soviet attitudes as well, they don't seem to have any religious barriers to nudity. In fact, it sometimes seems as if they have not only overcome the communist strictures but have overtaken the West in letting it all hang out.
The apparent promiscuity of Riga has even received attention in the West. There are several Web sites in which foreign males tell all about their sexual exploits in the city. A few years ago, one British men's magazine dubbed it "the city of long legs and short skirts."
Perhaps there is something in the traditions of the city, or of Latvian culture, that takes an unrestrained view of sexuality. For example, the facades of the century-old Jugendstil buildings that grace central Riga contain many sculptures of half-naked men and women.
Then there are the "dainas," traditional Latvian folk songs. While Latvians regard them as a rich collection of poetry full of spiritual insights from ancient pagan traditions, there are also many songs that deal with everyday aspects of peasant life - including sex.
A few years ago, an anthology of these so-called "naughty dainas" was published in Riga, complete with drawings of naked couples cavorting in the forests and fields. The person responsible for these pictures, Yelena Antimonova, is an ethnic Russian with a deep interest in Latvian culture, and was one of the first artists in Soviet times to tentatively paint the naked body.
Explaining the dainas, Antimonova believes that Latvians hover somewhere between two opposing world-views. On the one hand, like other Europeans they are steeped in the Christian tradition which emphasizes mind over emotions or the body, and which traditionally restricts depiction of nudity and sex.
On the other, they retain links to a pagan pantheism that reflects "openness and joy in living."
While she is unhappy with the spread of pornography, which she views as not at all related to art, Antomonova believes that Latvians may now be swinging back to the pagan side of their character.
"Today, it's almost Polynesian, in the sense that everything is permitted," she said.
However, Antimonova is not sure that there is something uniquely Latvian about openness to nudity. For example, she has illustrated a collection of Russian folk tales that are quite explicitly sexual. Asked about the nudity displayed in Jugendstil architecture, she said that in her opinion, a hundred years ago people were more educated than nowadays, and that the placement of nude sculptures might have been seen as nothing more daring than following a tradition that goes back to the Renaissance.
Furthermore, she said that the sexual dainas were not just forbidden under the Soviets - the authoritarian regime of Karlis Ulmanis that ruled Latvia from 1934 to 1940 also banned them.
However, Antimonova said that her experience with the anthology she published suggested things were definitely getting more laid back. When the book first came out in the mid-90s, she noticed that shop assistants would try to conceal it when handing it over to customers. But since then, people have used her drawings as illustrations for wedding invitations and birthday cards.
And when it comes to striptease, Latvians are becoming more open in a similar way to Lithuanians. While there have been striptease clubs in Riga for quite a few years, the art form has now started to go mainstream.
Velvets, a venue in Old Riga that surprisingly manages to house both a disco and a well-regarded French restaurant, recently added striptease to its attractions. On Wednesday nights, two girls dance topless to a mixed crowd that is split evenly between Latvians and Russians, according to Silvija Vitolina, the club's co-manager.
Vitolina admitted that adding striptease was a ploy to pull in customers on the quietest night of the week but said it was just part of a wider tendency in which people are demanding more for their money. However, she added that although there are still conservative sections of society, the young are shedding their inhibitions.
"The world has gone through the 'free sex' phase, and now it is here," said Vitolina. "Each generation has fewer complexes."
If the generalization about Lithuanians is that their Catholicism inhibits them, for Estonians the stereotype revolves around their unemotional national character. But they have also been getting rid of some inhibitive layers in recent years.
An Estonian naturist society was covertly established 25 years ago, and the movement seems to have gained popularity in recent years. With a meter of coastline for every Estonian, there are several nude beaches in the vicinity of Tallinn, and more near Parnu in the south of the country, including a few gay ones, and one for women only.
However, this is mostly a fringe culture, as much because of the climate as social attitudes. Mailis Sults, a psychologist at Tartu University, said there was a clear difference between people who go naked to get a tan or for the feeling of freedom it gives them, and those who want to ogle at naked bodies.
In fact, serious naturists have no desire to display themselves, which in a paradoxical way means that baring it all in a semi-public place is a private act for them.
"The seed of naturism has probably not fallen on fertile ground here," said Sults. "To separate a naturist from the others is impossible for nine months of the year. And the other three, you never know either."
Nevertheless, there is one sphere of life where Estonians like to bear it all as much as the other Balts - the sauna. And while the public bathhouses that were a feature of Soviet life are now mostly gone, lots of well-off Estonians are installing them in their new houses and apartments.
"The sauna has been an integral element of culture through centuries," said Jaan Vijard, a sales manager who owns two private saunas. "Myself and many other Estonians rarely spend a week without a good 'leil,'" he added, referring to the steam produced by splashing water on heated stones.
Vijard also said that unisex saunas were becoming more popular now. And Estonians may not be behind their neighbors after all when it comes to getting it all off, if Vijard's first experience in a Latvian sauna was any guide.
"In my birthday suit, I proudly walked in the steam-room only to find my Latvian colleagues sitting in swimwear. The shock was mutual," said Vijard.