THE PAST in the Baltic has a way of walking around in the present, behaving as if it were alive," writes Anatol Lieven. This is of course true of many countries whose natural development has been in some way arrested by foreign domination and not only in Eastern Europe, as the example of Ireland attests. But in the case of the three Baltic republics, that past is largely imagined.
Not that the events which absorb their peoples never took place. They did. But each one is the subject of half-a-dozen wildly differing perceptions and interpretations. This is because each of the three countries is an extraordinary mixture of peoples and outlooks.
Not only do the states not correspond to easily defined ethnic or cultural classifications, they were all, in varying doses, subjected to overwhelming German, Polish, Scandinavian, Jewish and Russian influence.
It is in his ability to feel his way into every point of view in each of the three countries that Lieven demonstrates a truly remarkable intellectual versatility. He picks his way carefully through the present realities of the region, a landscape haunted by ghosts, legends and memories of obscure tragedies.
He evokes the beauty of Tallinn and Vilnius, the decayed grandeur of Riga, and the hauntingly omnipresent forest, source of the Batts' beliefs, symbol of their strength and refuge of their resistance fighters.
The history of the three countries is a minefield. The early periods are poor on reliable sources and rich in 19th century pseudo-myth, much of it grotesque. The nationalist movements of the late 19th century and the short period of independence between 1918 and 1940, are complicated and maddening.
The terrible 1940s, with their succession of massacres, are neither easy nor pleasant to describe, and the struggle for independence from 1990 to 1992 for all its bravery and sincerity, often relapsed into what Lieven calls "national-religious theatre".
His sensitivity serves him well, as it is only by treating everything, however absurd, with indulgent understanding that one can begin to comprehend what happened and why. He does not belittle the importance of religion, and also dwells on the "lost Atlantises" of the area the German, Polish and Jewish worlds which dominated the region for centuries. They not only shaped the past and the present, they are to some extent shaping the future of the three countries.
Lieven was The Times correspondent in the Baltic States during the critical events that led to their independence and personally witnessed some of the most dramatic moments.
He is thus in a position of some authority to reveal the true nature of the forces at work then and now, and to assess the chances for the future. Lieven should be believed when he states that the problem of the large Russian minorities and their possible rejection by the new nations represents the greatest single threat to stability in the Baltic states, and by extension, the whole wider region.
This is all well worth reading and thinking about.