Pribaltika and Pribalts: The Weaponized Renaming


Following the European Commission’s issuance of guidelines on the 8th of September 2023, concerning the reinforcement of existing sanctions, the three Baltic States took swift action. These guidelines stipulated that EU member states should prohibit vehicles with Russian license plates from entering the European Union.

The reaction by citizens of the Russian Federation was notably sharp and emotional. The terms like “Прибалтика” and “прибалты” were brought up several times. Those terms have remained prevalent in Russian media and discussions, consistently resurfacing and maintaining their presence in the discourse.

The term Pribaltika (“Прибалтика”) in modern Russian refers to the Baltic States, but its usage can carry varying connotations. In some contexts, especially in online political debates, Pribaltika may be used with negative undertones, reflecting differing historical and political perspectives. But what does the term Pribaltika mean, how it is used, and why it is used in modern Russian?

Historical reference.

Map of the Baltic States with Kaliningrad Oblast.

Propastop already covered this topic in 2017, but in the current political situation, it deserves another, fresher look.

Pribaltika (“Прибалтика”) is a Russian term that means “by the Baltic Sea.” Historically, it has been used to describe regions that were once part of Russia or the Soviet Union. This term was first applied to Estonia, Livonia, and Courland in the late 19th century as part of Russification policies within the Russian Empire. It was also occasionally used for Lithuanian areas and Finland during Tsarist rule. After gaining independence, the Baltic nations were once again referred to as “Pribaltika” only during the Soviet Union’s occupation.

The use of the term Pribaltika in the Russian language, similar to using “na Ukraine” (on Ukraine) instead of “v Ukraine” (in Ukraine), suggests that these regions are considered as part of a larger country rather than independent nations.

What does Wikipedia have to say?

Pribaltika is a term unique to the Russian language and is not employed in English or other languages. An intriguing observation is that when transitioning from the English Wikipedia article about the Baltic States to the Russian version, readers will find a notably distinct historical narrative, with the Russian article titled “Прибалтика.”

Here is a short take from the “Прибалтикa” Wikipedia page, with a translation below.

During the First World War, a part of the Baltic region was occupied by Germany. Following the February Revolution of 1917, Germany established a puppet state known as the Baltic Duchy. This was one of the few instances (alongside Finland and Lithuania) where a restoration of a monarchical system occurred within the former Russian Empire.

Subsequently, in the unoccupied territories of the Baltic region, Soviet republics and independent national states were proclaimed. After the war, these states that emerged on the territories of the former Russian Empire became a kind of “sanitary cordon” between Western countries and Soviet Russia. While Finland technically fell under the term “limitorf” (a term used to describe states formed in the former Russian Empire), in practice, the term aimed to replace the concept of “Pribaltika” for the three new Baltic countries.

The term “limitorf” was also used in Soviet artistic literature, but its political significance was short-lived. After the Baltic republics were incorporated into the USSR, the term “limitorf” remained a historical footnote, remembered primarily by historians. (translated from Russian). 

The Russian Wikipedia article titled “Прибалтика” provides a limited and rather negative portrayal of the creation of independent Baltic States in 1918. It doesn’t adequately cover the history of these countries during their initial period of independence from 1918 to 1940. This omission reflects differing historical perspectives and narratives in the Russian language context regarding this significant chapter in Baltic history. The article’s presence suggests an attempt to shape a narrative that diminishes the idea of the Baltic States as independent nations, potentially aiming to influence the Russian audience’s perception of Baltic history and sovereignty.

This term is even used by pro-Russian Telegram channels, as exemplified by “Антифашисты Прибалтики” (The Pribaltika Antifascists). The Latvian State Security Service (VDD) has accused this group of assisting in activities targeted against the Republic of Latvia on behalf of a foreign state. According to the Latvian State Security Service (VDD), the group “Антифашисты Прибалтики” has been publishing information on its Telegram channel about Latvian officials and other public figures whose activities are perceived as being against the interests of Russia. For instance, they have disclosed the residential addresses of officials and their family members. The “Antifascists” claim that this information is intended for transmission to Russian intelligence agencies. The group’s information channels also regularly praise Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

An article published by Novaya Gazeta in the Baltic, a Russian liberal media outlet abroad, discusses how the Russian language has evolved since February 24, 2024. The article mentions the term ‘Прибалтика’ or Pribaltika, which has historical roots in the Russian Empire. This term gained prominence during the time of Peter the Great’s conquests and was further integrated into Russian culture during Alexander III’s Russification policies. This led to the emergence of ‘Прибалтийский край’ (Pribaltic Region) and ‘прибалтийские губернии’ (Pribaltic Provinces). The article recommends avoiding the use of the term “Прибалтика” because it reflects Russia’s historical imperial ambitions towards the three Baltic states.

Modern Lithuanian philosopher Gintautas Mažeikis highlighted that when the term “Прибалтика” (Pribaltika) is used, it often refers to the past, particularly the Soviet era, or it represents an invented concept, lacking a real counterpart. In essence, Pribaltika has historical roots but is often misused, failing to recognize the individual Baltic countries.

Who are “прибалты”(pribalts)?

Russian speakers often use the term “прибалты” (Pribalts) to refer to people from the Baltic States in the Russian language. However, in Russian news and online political discussions, this term can have a negative undertone. Both “Прибалтика” (Pribaltika) and “прибалты” (Pribalts) have become symbols of unfavorable views towards the Baltic States among Russian speakers, whether they reside in the Baltic States or Russia.

Referring to the three independent Baltic nations collectively as “прибалты” (Pribalts) is viewed by many as an attempt to undermine their distinct national identities and sovereignty. This label effectively erases their individual agendas and status as independent countries, often used in a manner that diminishes their autonomy and historical struggles.

“Прибалтика” and “прибалты” are often used to promote Russian imperialistic agendas, erasing the individual national identities of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and undermining their historical struggles for independence. These terms, deeply ingrained in Russian discourse, are powerful propaganda tools.

The used images are screenshots from the referenced web pages.