Baltic studies in America's heartland

  • 2004-03-18
  • By Janis Cakars
Indiana is better known for its basketball than its connections to the Baltic states, but those ties are considerable.

Following World War II, Indiana became home to many exiles from Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Among the Latvians who settled there was Agate Nesaule, whose book "A Woman in Amber" was praised by American critics while being received somewhat controversially in emigre circles. The painter Vija Celmins, who recently had a retrospective exhibit at New York's prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art, also hails from the Hoosier State. The Latvian community of Indianapolis is still substantial enough to warrant a visit from singer Marija Naumova on her recent tour of the Unites States.
But Indiana's Baltic ties are not limited to ethnic enclaves. Indiana University, at its flagship campus in Bloomington, devotes uncommonly serious attention to Baltic studies.
As with the Baltic communities that grew in the state, these efforts can be traced to the postwar years. At that time, the university's legendary president, Herman B. Wells, saw that the United States was taking on an unprecedented role on the international stage and would have to expand its knowledge of the world in tandem with its growing political power. He sought to make Indiana University a leading center of international studies with special focus on Soviet and East European area studies.
Wells also saw that Europe's loss could be Indiana's gain. He recruited from the displaced intellectual talent that was uprooted during the war. Among these was the Estonian Alo Raun who was appointed professor of linguistics at Indiana University in 1952 and taught until 1975.
Today, Alo Raun's son, the historian Toivo Raun, best known for his book "Estonia and the Estonians," carries the torch of Baltic scholarship at the university. Toivo Raun teaches courses in Baltic and Finnish history and Estonian culture and plays a leading role in guiding a program of Baltic studies at the university in addition to conducting his own research.
Baltic studies at Indiana University is anchored in the Central Eurasian studies department, where Raun works, and it sits side by side with Finnish studies. The Russian and East European Institute is another major pillar of support for Baltic studies, but it is through the Central Eurasian studies department, where courses on Baltic and Finnish language, history and culture are taught. Indiana offers three levels of Estonian and Finnish every semester and participates in the Baltic Studies Summer Institute, which offers classes in Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian as well as Baltic culture and history, supported by a consortium of universities. In addition to professor Raun, other pillars of Baltic studies at Indiana University include Felix Oinas (emeritus) the well-known linguist and folklorist and Inta Gale Carpenter, another folklorist, whose has recently done research on the 1990 Latvian song festival, Latvians in displaced persons camps following World War II and women's narratives about health care.
A university rests on its library and Indiana University's collection of works pertaining to Baltic history, politics and culture is extensive. The many works in Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian as well as English, German and Russian and other languages provide a solid foundation for research done by faculty and students alike.
A unique feature of Baltic studies at Indiana University is the Baltic and Finnic Studies Association. This organization seeks to create a community of scholars and students as well as promote knowledge and interest in the region. At its core is a group of graduate students in area studies, history, folklore and other departments, but all of its activities are open to the pubic and a wide array of people from town and university participate. Indeed, one needs only to stroll to the town square to see the presence of Baltic culture in the surrounding community-a Latvian flag hangs in Caveat Emptor, a bookstore owned by Janis Starcs.
The association was founded in 1999, a year after Indiana University hosted the biannual conference of the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies and the Baltic Studies Summer Institute. Toivo Raun is the academic adviser. Many BaFSA members aspire to be truly "Baltic" students and study more than one Baltic language and they joke that they are paving the way for a Baltic entente in the 21st century. The group organizes both academic and cultural events ranging from meet and greet get-togethers with musicians Ilgi and Julgi Stalte to more formal lectures. Last year the association held its first annual Baltic and Finnish film series. Every year it helps organize independence day celebrations for the four countries in its sphere of interest. It also organizes weekly conversation hours in each language where learners can get a chance to practice outside the classroom.
In 2003-2004, BaFSA continues to have a full schedule. This fall Latvian and Finnish independence days were celebrated with the university and Bloomington community. Each celebration featured a short program with singing and traditional food. The spring semester has already seen Lithuanian and Estonian independence day celebrations and a return of the Baltic film festival is forthcoming. In addition, BaFSA continues to meet for weekly language coffee hours in Estonian, Latvian, and Finnish. For more information see the Russian and East Euro-
pean Institute web site at

Janis Cakars is a graduate student
at Indiana University
and a member of theBaFSA.
He is currently conducting
dissertation research in Riga.