Why the Baltics was a great place to live under the Soviets (PHOTOS)

Lithuanian girls in national dresses, 1984.

Lithuanian girls in national dresses, 1984.

L. Raskin/Sputnik
Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania were considered among the most privileged of the 16 USSR republics. Referred to as “the Soviet Europe”, the Baltics often showcased the best of what this gigantic country had to offer.

The shop window of the Soviet Union

Baltic territories, with their Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian populations, always enjoyed special status, both, as part of the Russain Empire and the USSR. Soviet authorities always tried to take into account the special historical and economic circumstances of this “European” region that was so different from the rest of the country. 

A larger portion of the country’s money was injected into developing their potential. Even the radical Soviet-style reforms of the day were applied with much more caution there.

As a result, the standard of living in the three republics was higher than the rest of the USSR, with salaries double or triple of those in the rest of the country, with people not as acutely feeling the pinch of various deficits in produce, clothes and other items. 

In the streets of central Riga, 1968.
Estonian Pjarnu, 1979.
In the streets of Vilnius, 1967.
Old Thomas pub in Tallinn, 1968.

The Soviet ‘SPA resort’

Millions of people from around the country annually preferred to holiday on Baltic coast and Sea for their health benefits and the best resorts, predominantly found in Latvia’s Jurmala and Lithuania’s Palangi. The Estonian city of Pjarnu even had its own cosmonaut-dedicated health SPA!

Jurmala, 1984.
Holidaymakers on one of the Jurmala beaches, 1975.
Holidaymakers socialize in the Juras Perle outdoor cafe in Jurmala, 1983.
Jurmala, 1983.
Palanga, 1986.

‘The Soviet abroad’

As only a small minority of the Soviet population could afford to leave the country on vacation, and the Baltic states had become a sort of symbol of “vacationing abroad” in Europe, referred to in Russian as their very own “zagranitsa” - a noun invented by combining the two words “za granitsey” (“beyond” and “border”). Here, Soviet tourists could sample the wondrous and alien (to them) architectural styles of Germany, Sweden and Lithuania, walk the narrow streets of Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn and visit the republics’ Western-European-style medieval castles.

If the need ever arose to show what life abroad looked like in Soviet movies, that’s where the directors went to film it. The Soviet Sherlock Holmes’ famous apartment on London’s Baker Street was actually filmed in Riga.

Riga in 1980s.
Church of St. Theresa in Vilnius, 1970s.
View of Old Town of Tallinn from observation point, 1979.
The Town Hall Square in Tallinn, 1983.
Trakai Island Castle, 1983.
Trakai Island Castle, 1960s.

The country’s industrial center

In Soviet times, the Baltics turned into one of the country’s largest industrial centers, with some factories and fabrics outperforming other regions to achieve the Soviet Union’s number one status. For instance, Riga’s State Electrotechnical Factory (VEF) at one point supplied the whole country with electronics, while the glass making factory in Livany was among the largest in all of the USSR.

A group of leading designers of the Riga Autobus Factory (RAF), who participated in manufacturing cars for the 1980 Olympics.
Lenin Vilnius Computer Factory, 1973.
Trench pipe layers in the finished product area of the Tallinn Excavator Plant, the Estonian SSR. 1969.
Vilnius Plant of Electrical Instrumentation, 1978.
Advanced shop workers of bulk yarn in Kaunas artificial fiber plant, 1977.

A gateway to the West

It was actually the Baltic ports - and not Leningrad or Kaliningrad - that were considered the USSR’s gateways to Europe. They handled the bulk of the shipments of Soviet goods. They even launched some lucky Soviets on their first cruise voyages to the Baltic, North and even Mediterranean Seas. 

Artists doing sketches in Riga port, 1976.
The berth of the passenger port in Tallinn, 1970.
Sea terminal in Tallinn, 1973.
Tallinn commercial seaport, 1979.

Supporting national cultures

The mythology of the Baltic peoples, the classical literature of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and, of course, the “ideologically sound” works of Soviet-Baltic authors were often translated into Russian, with hundreds of thousands printed and distributed across the nation’s bookstores and libraries, from Kaliningrad all the way to the eastern tip of Vladivostok. 

Lavish celebrations and grand songs, involving thousands of performers, dressed in national costumes, were a tradition in these republics since the 1900s. And they remained that way during the Soviet period. Moreover, the government would spare no expense in constructing massive stages and performance venues for the purpose. The one caveat was that they would often be held in honor of some communist-themed holiday, such as Vladimir Lenin’s birthday or the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. 

A Lithuanian
Celebrators of the Song and Dance Festival in Riga, 1970.
A girl in a Latvian national costume on the Riga waterfront, 1983.
A joint women's choir performing at the Song Festival in Tallinn, 1969.
Republican Song and Dance Festival in Tallinn, 1976.
A Vilnius University Song and Dance Ensemble, 1974.

Soviet architecture in the Baltics

In keeping with the rest of the country, the Baltic states would be littered with blocky, uniform-looking apartment buildings. Nevertheless, there were real masterpieces of Soviet architecture appearing as well, and they didn’t ruin the medieval look of these cities. In fact, they often added to and harmonized with them. That’s how one of “Stalin’s highrises” (“vysotka”) - the Latvian Academy of Sciences - became one of the symbols of Riga. The building received cultural heritage status from the Council of Europe in 2003, as a monument to 20th century architecture. 

Ironworkers, students of vocational school No. 13 in Riga, 1975.
Gediminas' Tower in Vilnius, 1980s.
A cable bridge across the river Daugava in Riga, 1984.
Lazdynai eldership in Vilnius, 1985.
A view of the station square in Riga, 1975.
A Lithuanian spa resort

Life as it was

Port of Tallinn, 1948.
At the University of Tartu, 1960s.
Traffic inspector Era Kuznetsova and daughter, Riga, 1973.
A kitchen in Soviet Riga, 1974.
Girls in Vilnius, 1980s.

Fans of heavy metal music in Tallinn, 1980s.

 Tribute to the Memory of fallen in battle takes place on the Military Cemetery in Vilnius, 1987.
A seller in Tallinn, 1987.

Chimney sweepers on a roof in Tallinn, 1984.

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