In the first days of June, Stanford Libraries hosted an international conference with a focus on Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The 2018 AABS Conference at Stanford University: The 100th Anniversary of Baltic Independence brought together 470 scholars, including over 50 Stanford affiliates, interested in Baltic studies.
“The AABS conference continues the tremendous interest and engagement of scholars and the community in our Baltic Studies collection,” said Michael Keller, Stanford’s university librarian. “There is much to explore, discuss and investigate with respect to the Baltic region and I am pleased Stanford Libraries serves as a convener for ideas and discussions on the history and future of this region.”
The three-day conference program, held on the Stanford campus from June 1–3, featured 124 academic sessions, four keynotes, two exhibits, and numerous cultural and social events. The main organizer of this year’s conference was Stanford Libraries’ Associate Curator for Estonian and Baltic Studies Liisi Esse, who has built one of the strongest Baltic Studies collection in an American university.
The conferences of the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies (AABS), the leading academic association for Baltic studies in the world, occur every two years and are typically hosted by universities in the United States and Canada. The incoming President of AABS Andres Kasekamp (Toronto University) noted that this year’s conference was special as it celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of AABS and the 100th anniversary of the independence of Baltic republics.
“The conference was by all measures a tremendous success, to a great extent thanks to the exceptional organizing and fundraising talents of Liisi Esse and the keen interest in the emerging program of Baltic Studies at Stanford. It was the largest AABS conference ever even though it took place geographically further from the Baltic states than previous ones,” he added.
Thought Provoking Program
The conference’s four keynote talks focused on placing Baltic states and Baltic studies into the wider international framework. Renowned Stanford historian Dr. Norman Naimark looked at the intersection of Baltic studies and Russian and East European studies on the one hand and European and Nordic studies on the other. Noted Latvian-American human rights activist and political scientist Dr. Nils Muižnieks assessed the place of the Baltic states in the contemporary European human rights system and the potential of developing a positive Baltic human rights “brand” in contrast to some of other serious human rights backsliders in Central and Eastern Europe. Dr. Agnia Grigas, an energy and political risk expert specializing in Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Post-Soviet space, looked at Baltic studies and geopolitics, asking how Baltic scholars should leverage their expertise to draw out broader implications and conclusions in regional and global developments. Lastly, Dr. Lauri Mälksoo, a renowned specialist on the international legal status of the Baltic states and Russia’s concept of international law, looked at the Baltic state continuity claim in international law and in relations with Russia.
The conference’s academic sessions – panels, roundtables, and workshops – aimed to showcase the latest achievements in Baltic studies. The sessions looked into the past of the Baltic countries, focusing on its history, memory, and identity, and also to present and future opportunities and challenges, such as issues related to disinformation, regional security, and political instability. Several sessions were dedicated to newest developments in Digital Humanities and in the field of libraries, museums, and archives. “Fake News, Post-Truth, and the Baltic Public,” “Baltic Societies, Migration, and Freedom of Religion,” “Trauma and Insight: Using Baltic Literature to Teach and Transform,” and “E-society and the E-state in the Nordic-Baltic Region” were but a few of the 124 academic sessions that were held at the conference.
The conference program included numerous special events. Stanford Libraries and Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) hosted a roundtable on “Baltic Exceptionalism?” featuring the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Latvia Edgars Rinkēvičs, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania Linas Linkevičius, Hoover fellow and the former President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves, and Stanford’s political scientist Dr. Anna Grzymala-Busse.
As a wave of populism and political divisiveness seem to be rising elsewhere in Europe, the Baltic republics appear to have escaped these worrisome trends. Foreign Minister Rinkēvičs explained, “It is not populism that creates disappointment, Euroscepticism, and the gap between the state power and society; instead, it is alienation, economic inequality, and the lack of effective communication that produce a fertile soil for populism. Even if concerns sometimes are exaggerated or unsubstantiated, politicians must take into account that people engage in politics not only seeking material gains – security and identity issues are of equal importance.”
The Foreign Minister also stressed the importance of maintaining strong U.S.-Baltic relations and the significance of Stanford University for the Baltic states, adding that “Stanford means a lot to us and we are happy to know that it held the AABS Conference.”
A Celebration of Cultures
As part of the cultural program of the conference, An Open-Air Celebration of Baltic Culture and Reception was held on Meyer Green featuring musical and dance performances by several Baltic and American groups. A literary reading “Stories of Exile, Reckoning, and Hope” featured three prominent writers Ruta Sepetys, Julija Sukys, and Inara Verzemnieks reading from their recent books.
Two major Baltic exhibits were displayed on the Stanford University campus. The Baltic Way: History and Culture in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania 1918–2018, set up in Cecil H. Green Library, pulls from the collections of Stanford Libraries and Hoover Institution Library and Archives in an attempt to explain the complicated history of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in the twentieth century, and considers their prospects and challenges in the twenty-first. A large traveling exhibit produced by the Estonian Museum of Occupations, Masters of Our Own Homes: Estonia at 100, was set up at the Main Pavilion of the Stanford Shopping Center. The aim of the exhibit is to commemorate a century since the founding of the Republic of Estonia and to introduce its history, culture, innovation, and, most of all, its people, to the wider world. The exhibit was officially opened on June 2 with a roundtable on “No Boundaries: An Oral History Project about Estonia’s Transformation in the Digital Age,” featuring Rainer Sternfeld, Andrus Viirg, Ott Kaukver, Sten Tamkivi, and Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
The conference concluded with the first-ever public screening of a brand-new feature film “Ashes in the Snow,” to be officially released in the fall of 2018. The film is based on the New York Times best-selling novel “Between Shades of Gray” written by Carnegie Medal winning author Ruta Sepetys. The film is produced and directed by Marius Markevicius who previously directed the award-winning documentary “The Other Dream Team” (2012). The film was screened to an audience of 400 people and was followed by a Q&A session attended by Marius Markevicius and Ruta Sepetys, and moderated by Lithuanian Consul General Darius Gaidys.
“This conference highlighted the strong academic level of Baltic studies and also looked into the future of the field, asking why Baltic studies are important and how they contribute to the wider international and transnational scholarship,” said Stanford’s Baltic curator Liisi Esse, the main organizer of the conference. “It was also a significant milestone for Stanford’s Baltic program, which we have now actively built for over five years. I am confident that we will witness many more Baltic events and activities at Stanford in the future.”
The platinum sponsors of the AABS conference included American Latvian Association, Baltic American Freedom Foundation, Consulate General of the Republic of Lithuania in Los Angeles, Dennis Garrison, Lithuanian Honorary Consul in San Francisco, Embassy of the Republic of Latvia to the United States of America, Hoover Institution Library & Archives, Jeff Nelson, Lithuanian Honorary Consul in Virginia, Liga E. Hoy, Latvian Honorary Consul in Northern California, Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Latvia, Ministry of Education and Research of the Republic of Estonia, and Stanford University Libraries.