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Landscapes in flux: the Baltic states

Simon Bell
Professor of Landscape Architecture at the Estonian University of Life Sciences and President of ECLAS, the European Council of Landscape Architecture Schools

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are the three Baltic States and the only members of the EU which were once constituent parts of the Soviet Union. Over the course of the century since 1914 they became independent from the Russian Empire, were taken over by the Soviet Union, invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany, reoccupied by the Soviet Union and regained independence on the latter's collapse. The landscape which is visible today has many unique features as a result of these different phases. Each country has certain similarities and also differences. Estonia is close to Finland and shares a Finno-Ugric language and cultural heritage (though Finnish and Estonian are different). Latvia shares a language group with Lithuania (Baltic languages although also mutually incomprehensible) and possesses the largest urban metropolis, Riga, which gives it a certain atmosphere, while Lithuania is Catholic and shares features with its on-time political partner Poland.

Key aspects of the landscape and the changes wrought over the last century or so include the break-up of the Baltic-German manorial estate system and the eventual exodus of all Baltic German people at the end of the Second World War, the collectivisation of agriculture in the Soviet period, rebuilding of urban areas and their expansion using Soviet models and styles, an enormous military infrastructure and, in the post Soviet era the restitution of property to those from who it was taken in the Soviet nationalisation programme. The result is a complex mix and a landscape in many areas dominated by a recent heritage which is not that of the nations themselves but of the most recent occupiers. Former missile bases, radar stations, air fields, naval facilities, ammunition stores, control and command centres and the strip of coastal landscape and islands which were off limits to the local people are now part of this "dissonant heritage". While the oldest inhabitants still remember the pre-Soviet era and the older and middle-aged people lived through and out of the Soviet Era into the post Soviet times, the younger generation now studying landscape do not remember it as they were born just afterwards. They now look on it as the past and with this change in generations the time is ripe to start taking stock of this. There are many relicts and ruins of the Soviet time, too many and too common to retain but a debate is now starting about how to evaluate and come to terms with this heritage, what to do with it preserve? demolish? re-use? redesign? let nature take over? or all of these as options.

In the landscape architecture department of the Estonian University of Life Sciences we are interested in these aspects and we look at the theory behind dealing with the period in a course on "Landscape and Ideology". We are part of a network looking at Cold War and Soviet Era closed sites and cities in the Baltic Sea Region (with Danish and Latvian partners and have recently undertaken research at both master and doctoral level in the field. Other people in the region are also starting to show an interest. The landscape of military conflict is something we are also thinking about across Europe with the 100 anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War.

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