In the northeast corner of Europe, bordering Russia on the east and the shallow waters of the Baltic Sea to the west, are three often forgotten countries: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Collectively referred to as the Baltic States, for the second half of the 20th century these countries existed in relative obscurity as republics of the Soviet Union. Prior to their annexation by the USSR, their main cities — Vilnius (in Yiddish, Vilna), Riga and Tallinn — were far more renowned than the countries themselves.
The history of the Baltic States is one of occupation. They were continually shuffled between Germany and Russia. Between the two world wars, their nascent democracies had very little chance of survival, due mainly to their importance in a larger geopolitical power struggle, but also to the fact that the three countries had virtually no experience in democracy and self-governance. Even their local languages remained uncodified, with German or Russian used for written communication and education