What is the Baltic? History and Concepts

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

This is my first talk out four at the New York Times journey in the Baltic Sea 3-17 September 2017 (www.TimesJourneys.com). Please find attached to my essay a PowerPoint presentation with maps and pictures mostly taken from Wikipedia.

René Nyberg – 4th September 2017

New York Times Journeys

Disambiguation of the word “Baltic” renders expressions from geology and geography to at least five small towns in North America, besides the more obvious terms like “Baltic Sea” and “Baltic States,” or the name of most popular Russian beer brand, Baltika.

As an introduction this morning, I would like to concentrate on geography and history to provide background and convey a general picture of this particular inland sea of the Atlantic we are about to enter. In times before the railroads, waterways were the most important transport routes. The sea was less of a barrier than a unifier of countries and continents.

The Baltic Sea is a large brackish legacy of the last ice age. Fully saline seawater can only enter it through the rather shallow Danish straits in a complex way. Thus, low salinity defines the physical nature of the Baltic. Its flora and fauna are distinct from the Atlantic. For example, the Baltic herring is not as big as its Atlantic cousin, but even more delicate and tasty if that is possible!

The Baltic Sea’s limited exchange of water puts it particularly at risk. Large parts of the central basin off the Swedish and Latvian coasts suffer from a lack of oxygen and experience annual algae blooms. Occasional pulses of salty water from the North Sea through the Danish Straits help, but the conditions that drive salt water into the Baltic occur irregularly and usually involve large storms.

Algal blooms and “dead zones” are world-wide phenomena, of course. They are evidence of an overabundance of phosphorus in the marine environment that creates eutrophic conditions. The main sources of excess nutrients are runoff from agriculture and pollution from sewers.

Just 45 miles (74 km) in length, the broad and swift Neva River dramatically rules the city of St. Petersburg and is the Baltic’s largest tributary. It discharges more than twice the amount of water than the Vistula River in Poland. For centuries, it was St. Petersburg’s convenient disposal, sweeping refuse and sewage into the Gulf of Finland until nature could no longer take it.

The construction of a modern waste-water treatment plant in St. Petersburg some ten years ago was initiated by Finland and partly financed by the Nordic Investment Bank. It effectively eliminated one of the largest sources of pollution in the Baltic Sea and demonstrated for the first time that Russia could face up to a major ecological challenge in a responsible way. With the construction of this state-of-the-art water treatment facility, the changes have been dramatic. The waters in the Gulf of Finland have become distinctly cleaner.

About half of the Baltic Sea is ice-covered every winter. The last time the entire sea froze was in 1987, which is a rare event. Usually only its northern parts, the Gulf of Bothnia, the Gulf of Finland and the Gulf of Riga are covered by ice. Navigation in ice conditions requires icebreaker assistance, which became possible with the age of the steam engine. Most modern icebreakers are diesel-powered, but Russia even employs nuclear-powered ones in the Arctic. Finland is the world’s leading country in icebreaker technology. But up until the mid-1970s, the northern most Finnish ports had to close for the winter. For comparison, it is worth noting that there is no winter navigation in ice conditions on the Great Lakes of North America.

The conditions in the Danish Straits limit the size of the vessels. The Great Belt Bridge accommodates ships with a draft of up to 50 ft. (15.4 m) and air draft of 213 ft. (65 m).

Because of its lack of recirculation, low salinity and environmental burdens, the Baltic Sea faces a new threat with the huge increase in tanker transport of crude oil from Russia’s largest oil terminal Primorsk at the far end of the Gulf of Finland, north of St. Petersburg. This port, which was known as Koivisto in Finnish or Björkö in Swedish, was part of Finland until 1940. It is where Emperor Nicolas II met Kaiser Wilhelm II had their historic meeting in 1905. The Kaiser tried to convince his cousin to switch alliances, but to no avail.

With the help of modern technology, automatic identification systems, and rules that require all tankers in the Baltic to be double-hulled, we have so far escaped spills. A large oil spill in ice conditions in the Gulf of Finland would be an unmitigated disaster. Skimming oil from slush ice is itself a nightmare, but add to that the ineffectiveness of dispersants in cold water and the slow breakdown of spilled oil in icy waters, and the cleanup task would be nearly impossible.

Oil is not the only energy product transported via the Baltic Sea. A 750 mile (1,200 km) pipeline, completed in 2012, runs from the far end of the Gulf of Finland to the North German coast. This Nord Stream pipeline was basically a Russian-German project. It remains controversial because of politics. It provides for Russia the possibility to reach the European market without transiting Ukraine and/or Poland. Plans to build a second Nord Stream pipeline in parallel with the existing undersea pipeline are close to execution, but the political controversy is intense.

The Baltic Sea is connected by an artificial waterway to the White Sea via the White Sea-Baltic Canal. Originally called the Stalin Canal, it was finished in 1933. The other man-made waterway is the Kiel Canal, originally known as the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal and it extends from the Baltic Sea to the German Bight of the North Sea. It was finished in 1895 and widened just before WW I.

Despite its dramatic history as the first major forced labor construction projects of the Gulag, the White Sea-Baltic Canal today has lost most of its significance. It is too narrow, and like most of the Russian canal system, would require thorough modernization.


Since early 15th century, the King of Denmark collected as a royal prerogative Sound Dues from ships at the border between the ocean and the land-locked Baltic Sea. Øresund, or simply “the Sound” in English, was treated as a river flowing through their land, which it was until the mid-17th century. The meticulously kept records of collected sound dues provide a unique database on trade since the 15th century.

The collection took place at the narrowest point in the Sound at the Kronborg castle in the town classically known in English as Elsinore (Helsingør), immortalized in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Sound dues were abolished in 1857 and all Danish straits were made international waterways free to all military and commercial shipping. The Danish crown was compensated by the seafaring nations who agreed to pay considerable one-time fees. The sum for the United States was 393,000 dollars, which, adjusted for inflation, is something like 2.7 million dollars today.


The stories of Norsemen who reached North America and conquered and settled large parts of the European Atlantic coast and even the Mediterranean are well known. But the eastward movements of the Norsemen were just as significant.

The Norsemen emanating from present-day Norway and Denmark are commonly known as Vikings. Their brethren who came from present-day Sweden were called Varangians. They crossed the Baltic Sea and opened trade routes all the way to Constantinople and the Bagdad Caliphate. Engaging in trade, piracy, and mercenary activities, Varangians roamed the river systems. They controlled the Volga River trade route from the Baltic to the Caspian Sea to Persia and Arab lands, as well as the Dnieper trade route to the Black Sea and Constantinople. The classical Russian expression talks about a route from “the Varangians to the Greeks” (iz varjag v greki). The Byzantine Emperors even trusted a Varangian Guard to protect their person.

The most important mark the Varangians left in history remains the foundation of medieval Kievan Rus’. This early Slavic state adopted orthodox Christianity. After centuries of Mongol occupation, power was consolidated in the hands of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy what today is Russia and Ukraine. For centuries Muscovy was challenged by the multinational Catholic Slavic realm, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Visby on the island of Gotland functioned as the leading center in the Baltic before the Hanseatic League or Hansa. Sailing east, Visby pirates turned merchants established a trading post in Novgorod in 1080. Hansa was a commercial and defensive rule-based confederation of merchant guilds and their market towns with Lübeck as their main city. Growing from a few North German towns in the late 12th century, the Hanseatic League came to dominate maritime trade for three centuries. It stretched from the Baltic to the North Sea and inland during the Late Middle Ages and early modern period. The lingua franca was Low German (Plattdeutsch). Its main trade was Norwegian stockfish from the North Sea and grain from the Baltic.

Even as the Hansa’s power waned in the early 16th century, trade continued. Dutch merchants emerged as the principal traders keen to secure the flow of trade and vary of the constant conflicts between the Danes and Swedes affecting their business. The rising Swedish Empire took control of most of the Baltic Sea. The Kontor in Novgorod closed and Muscovy emerged from centuries of Mongol-Tartar yoke to establish itself as a power to be reckoned with – although still without a permanent outlet to the Baltic Sea. With the discovery of America, global trade routes started to shift.


The Mother of all Revolutions is an apt description of the Reformation. The schism with the Roman Catholic Church began with Martin Luther, only to be taken up by John Calvin and other reformers. Reformation swept through Europe and changed the continent and the world. The ravaging of the Thirty Years’ War produced the bases for new nation states, Switzerland and the Netherlands and later modern Germany.

The Peace of Augsburg 1555 established the principle of cuius regio eius religio or “whose realm, his religion,” which gave rulers the right to determine the religion of their subjects providing for internal religious unity within a state. The religion of the prince became the religion of all its subjects. The Peace treaty of Westphalia 1648 went further, setting the norms of international law.

Reformation established itself firmly in Northern Europe and northern Germany, in the free cities of the German coast, Saxony, Prussia and other German lands. It became the state religion of the Kingdom of Denmark, which included present-day Norway and Iceland and the Kingdom of Sweden with Finland. The Baltic provinces of Estonia, Courland, and Livonia all became Lutheran as well.

The Brethren of the Sword, the Teutonic Knights, a German military order originally founded for the Crusades, converted the inhabitants of present-day Estonia and Latvia to Christianity in the first quarter of the 13th century. The last European pagans were the Lithuanians. Their conversion took place in the 14th century, or about three centuries after the Danes and Norwegians were christened. The Baltic States as we know them today emerged only after World War I. The Lutheran Church and German culture defined the development of Estonia and Latvia, which during centuries had been integral parts of the Danish or Swedish realms. Lithuania, while linguistically related to Latvia, has remained Catholic and closely associated to Poland throughout the centuries.

The Baltic Sea was essentially a Lutheran pond in the 1600s even after Peter the Great founded his new capital St. Petersburg in 1703 and took present-day Estonia and Latvia from the Swedes. Catholic Poland was not a maritime power and the southern coast was dominated by the old Hansa cities and Lutheran Prussia. But with the entry of Russia and the decisive weakening of Sweden after the defeat of Charles XII at Poltava in 1709, the political map of the Baltic Sea was altered permanently.

For seafaring England and industrializing Britain, the Baltic Sea became the source of timber, tar, hemp, and flax, as well as a market for its textile and machine exports. The Royal Navy entered the Baltic Sea at an early stage and continued showing the flag over the centuries. England had established commercial contact with Muscovy already in the 16th century through Archangelsk on the Barents Sea.

The most dramatic incursion of the Royal Navy into the Baltic Sea took place during the Napoleonic Wars and the Crimean War. In 1801, the Royal Navy, with Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson as second-in-command, destroyed the Danish Fleet in Copenhagen to prevent it from falling into French hands. This was repeated in 1807 with the bombardment of the city of Copenhagen. During the Crimean War, from 1853-56, the Royal Navy and the French navy bombarded Kronstadt outside of St. Petersburg and Sveaborg fortress outside of Helsinki, the capital of autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland within the Russian Empire. During the Russian and Baltic Civil Wars in the aftermath of WW I, the Royal Navy conducted sustained operations in the Baltic Sea.


World War I has been aptly characterized as last century’s Urkatastrophe, a catastrophe that precipitated new catastrophes. It dramatically changed the map of the Baltic Sea. Three empires were dissolved, the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian double monarchy, and the Russian Empire. The German Reich kept its name, but the Kaiser was no more. Soviet Russia was pushed back from the Baltic Sea into the far end of the Gulf of Finland with a number of new independent states as its neighbors – Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. With Latvian independence, Russia lost Riga – a great industrial city and major exporting port. Independent Poland emerged after a period of more than hundred years after its partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. The German Reich lost part of its Baltic coast to Poland.

The Baltic Sea of the 1920s looked quite peaceful. The two outcasts of Versailles, defeated Germany and Bolshevik Russia were isolated, weak and preoccupied with internal turmoil. Poland under Marshal Józef Piłsudski pursued an Intermarium or “between-the-seas” policy with ambitions to develop a broader confederation of states situated between Soviet Russia and Germany. The Baltic States, Finland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Yugoslavia were all invited to join, but not much came from these plans. Finland opted out already in 1922.

Interestingly, an iteration of the Intermarium concept has resurfaced. The conference president Trump attended last July in Warsaw on the eve of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, was called the Three Seas Initiative Summit, with the three seas here being the Baltic, Black and Adriatic seas. That meeting brought together the heads of most of the pre-war Intermarium States from Estonia to Croatia.

It suffices to note that, of all Intermarium states, only one survived the upheavals of the 1920s and 1930s as a parliamentary democracy. That country was Finland. Poland and Lithuania became autocratic states with a strong leader in the 1920s. They were followed by Latvia and Estonia a decade later. When the WWII broke out in 1939, Czechoslovakia had ceased to exist. When the war ended in 1945, there were just three national capitals that had fought in the European theater of war that were never occupied by enemy forces: London, Moscow, and Helsinki. +++