I once had the honour of appearing on Estonian breakfast television. I had written a history of postwar violence in Europe and was in Tallinn on a book tour. My hosts had kept me up until at least 2am the night before, plying me with endless glasses of liquid hospitality. Sitting in that studio under a blaze of lights, I desperately tried to mask my hangover by placing a fixed grin on my face. It turned out to be a mistake, because the presenter picked up on it immediately. My book was about violence and atrocity, she reminded me. Was that really something to smile about? Estonia had suffered terribly under both the Nazis and the Soviets. Wasn’t it irresponsible of me to stir up these difficult memories? In this part of the world, she implied, history was something best forgotten.
This experience came to mind while reading Max Egremont’s extraordinary book about his own travels through Estonia and Latvia. Part travelogue and part history book, it is a brilliant exploration of how the past infuses the landscape, buildings, art, literature, traditions, food, conversations and lived experience of the Baltic people.