Reviewing The Shadow in the East by Aliide Naylor4 min read
Zooming in on the Baltic states, Aliide Naylor’s debut The Shadow in the East: Vladimir Putin and the New Baltic Front takes the reader on a journey through time and space. Fragmented memories of war, occupation and the first staggering steps towards democracy in the early 1990s are woven together with rising geopolitical tension in post-Crimea Eastern Europe. It is a fast-paced and engaging recount of the development of three similar, yet individual states in a post-Soviet world order and how they have conducted themselves in relation to their mighty Eastern neighbour in both the past and present.
Naylor, a British journalist with roots in Estonia arrived in Russia in the early 2010s – combining studies of contemporary Russian politics, late imperial literature, and 20th century art history – she describes her choice to write a book about the Baltics and their relationship to Russia, primarily due to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2015 and the rising tension in Eastern Europe. However, she was also driven by her own personal interest in the region, fuelled by the “black hole” left in her own family’s history.
Representing the far most Western border of the former Russian Empire and then Soviet Union – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, now as independent states – holds an interesting and somewhat unique position in between the East and West. Aggravated by historical grievances and memories of war, violence and deporations, modern politics in all three states have been marked by strong anti-Russianness. This has resulted in quite severe cases of segregation and discrimination of Baltic Russians (most notably, the large percentage of ethnic Russians in Estonia and Lativa who, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, lost their citizenships, and became so-called grey-passport holders). Most importantly, Naylor argues, it has driven the Baltic states to take whatever measures possible to put distance and protect themselves from Russia. In this quest, they have not only embraced the EU and NATO, but are developing some of the world’s best tools for counteracting hybrid wars and cyber attacks.
The Shadow in the East, to a large extent, confirms my own experiences and understanding of the Baltics and their relationship to Russia and Russians. Spending a few months at the University of Tartu some years back, I got to experience Estonia’s longing to be considered a member of the Nordic community – as a Swede, maybe this is why I immediately felt at home. Sharing an apartment with an old Russian lady who did not speak any Estonian in an area mostly inhabited by Russians, I became privy to how cities are segregated. I was even shouted at by a man at a restaurant who, seemingly curious, approached me to ask what I was doing in Tartu. When I told him that I was studying the post-Soviet states, he angrily replied that “Estonia is not a post-Soviet country, we were occupied!”, which needless to say, put an end to our conversation.
What I enjoy about Naylor’s approach is that as exciting and important as it is to incorporate historical and geopolitical narratives to give a full picture of the Baltic states post-Soviet development, she has really made an effort to cover different perspectives from all layers of society. This is done by combining travel accounts from all over the different states with an extensive amount of interviews featuring expats, high-level politicians, artists and academics but also with Baltic Russians, skinheads, and religious fundamentalists.
This ground level approach is the strong point of The Shadow in the East. It makes it an accessible and interesting reading experience. At the same time, it is an ambitious approach. My experience while reading was that in trying to incorporate all different perspectives – from clashes over old war memorials to the revival of paganism, to money laundering schemes to high tech developments – in a relatively limited amount of pages, once in a while the storytelling became abrupt and somewhat confusing. Other than that, The Shadow in the East offers a very pleasant and entertaining reading experience. If you’re interested in the modern political and societal development of the Baltic states and their relationship to Russia – or just want to enjoy great journalistic-style storytelling, this is really the perfect book for you.
Book details: Naylor, Aliide. The Shadow in the East: Vladimir Putin and the New Baltic Front. Bloomsbury, 2020. It is available to buy here.