Visiting Riga, Tallinn and Helsinki provides not only a wonderful opportunity to become acquainted with less familiar countries and cultures but also an exciting opportunity to see the birth of national identities (on all possible levels) in a relatively short period of time.
Latvia and Estonia are small countries each with a long history, ancient cultures and a very short period of independence dating from 1918, abruptly stopped in 1939 and then only restarted extremely recently in 1991. Both countries are close neighbours but at the same time very different historically. Despite Soviet Occupation these countries managed though years of hardship to hold on to their local traditions, although the Soviet heritage brought about major problems – such as the high number of newly-settled Russians amounting for half the population in some Latvian cities, including Riga. However today, Latvia and Estonia are extremely proud of being different and are culturally alive with their own traditions which give them the chance to survive in the new global world of the 21st century.
Latvia was dominated for a long time by German ‘crusaders’, by the German Order that brought Christianity to Latvia and because of the high percentage of the German population, Riga remained predominantly a German city until World War II. Running parallel to the Germanic influences, there was the Dukedom of Courland that became part of the Russian Empire after Peter the Great’s time in the 18th century. This drew Latvia into the Russian orbit and brought magnificent results such as the baroque palaces by the famous architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli. During the early 20th century Riga was a highly developed city with the strongest of musical traditions (Richard Wagner was one of the chief Conductors of its opera house). At the same time, Riga produced an almost unrivalled Art Nouveau architecture which can still be admired today in the beautifully preserved old city.
Like Latvia, Estonia has a complex history and Tallinn has all the hallmarks of a well-preserved medieval city. The city was originally developed by the Danes, then belonged to a German Order, then to Sweden and since 1721 was a Russian enclave up until independence in 1991. All these ‘invaders’ have left their traces and the city is a charming mixture of Gothic, Baroque, classical and even neo-Russian monuments. But it is also exciting to see the formation of a new Tallinn with its inventive contemporary architecture and the Kumu, a wonderful new museum of art. To the east of Estonia, is the old city of Tartu with its famous University which has played a critical role in the development of Russian and Soviet cultures.
Compared with major traditional European countries, Finland only acquired its unique and very own identity in the last hundred years or so. In this time, its culture has become recognizable almost as ‘a European brand’.Though Finland belongs to the same language group as Estonia and Latvia – Finno-Ugrian, their histories and their heritage are very different. Only a short sea journey across a narrow strip of water – the Gulf of Finland – separates them, but for all their similarities, it might just as well be a giant ocean.Helsinki’s development only got going in 1817. Its core is classical and in many ways is reminiscent of St Petersburg. But the late 19th century brought growth of a national conscience and its artistic expression was a neo-Romanticism, a fascinating mixture of Art Nouveau and a northern national folklore. Indeed, the Villa Hvittrask belonged to leaders of this nationalist surge and became very influential in the Arts and Crafts movement at the beginning of the 20th century.
Throughout the journey, Professor Leporc will focus on the fascinating art, culture and history of these three countries and their irresistible will for independence. Perhaps one of the most glorious moments was the Soviet –Finnish war of 1939-40 when small Finland heroically resisted Russian aggression. The whole world suddenly took note of this great example of Finnish courage. Though the Finns were defeated, they showed a strength of character that inspired a rapid post-war development.
Maximum Party Size: 25