Next post in this strand: Vilnius
Like many children, I collected stamps. I was always envious of my friend Christopher who had a far bigger and better organised collection, but then Christopher received help from his father, who was a proper grown-up philatelist, while my father was only normal.
Every year Christopher’s dad would acquire the new edition of the Stanley Gibbon’s Stamp Catalogue, and the old one would be graciously passed to me. It was such a big and important book it came in its own cardboard box.
I realise now that I was actually more interested in the catalogue than in the stamps. I would spend hours leafing through the book looking for exotic countries I had never heard of. I do not know how many eleven year olds are aware that Ifni, Heligoland and Trieste have, at one time or another, produced their own stamps. I found them in my school atlas, but I searched in vain for Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. I also had a pre-first world war atlas which showed dozens of strange countries like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, but even that did not show Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia.
My inability to locate them was unsurprising. The three Baltic states were absorbed into Tsarist Russia in the eighteenth century and only gained independence in 1920 after fighting a three-cornered war with an already defeated Germany and a distracted Soviet Union. Independence lasted two decades and produced the postage stamps I had seen in the Stanley Gibbon’s catalogue. In 1940 they were invaded by the Soviet Union as a consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and then by Nazi Germany when Hitler abrogated the pact. The defeat of the Nazis involved re-invasion by the Soviet Union, followed, in 1945, by re-absorption. The three small states disappeared from the eyes of anyone not searching a stamp catalogue for countries they had never heard of. They reappeared in 1991, wresting their independence from the crumbling Soviet Union. They all managed the transition from command economy to liberal democracy with relative ease, joined the EU in 2004 and became, almost from nowhere, part of the European mainstream.
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So now they are easy to visit, indeed the lure of cheap booze have turned Riga and Tallinn into slightly reluctant hosts to a thousand stag and hen parties. Even so I could still not remember which was which until my colleague Mark kindly pointed out that they are in alphabetical order, north to south, and I remained uncertain about which capital belonged to which country.
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The Baltic States were places we had never been and knew little about so it seemed a good idea to visit them. So this month Lynne and I set off to see all three in ten days. They are small countries; on the official measure of small countries, the Wales, Latvia and Lithuania measure 3W, whilst Estonia is only 2W - though none of them can match Wales’ 3 million people. They also have very few sheep.
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