The North and the Notion of Space: Mental Geographies in the Baltic Sea Region

by Anna-Cara Keim

East, West, North or South? The notion of geographical space is always subjective. What we view as North or East constitutes South or West for those living respectively further North or further East. However, in most cases mental geographies are very conscious constructions, and geographical space is no longer simply formed by spatial boundaries but rather becomes a construct in people’s heads. The idea of any particular space is thus culturally and morally loaded. Ultimately, mental geographies also function to create a sense of (common) identity.

In the case of the Baltic Sea Region, and the Baltic Sea more generally, the ideas of Nordicity and Northerness often dominate the discourse. Both concepts, although clearly linked to the idea of the North, have different connotations and historical affiliations. Whereas the idea of the North was constructed to demark the North from the South and Northerness can be seen as simply deriving from it, the idea of Nordicity is a product of the Cold War days and the East-West division. The North, in the mythology of various ancient civilisations such as the Greeks, the Romans but also the Chinese, traditionally referred to the periphery, a cultural and economic backwater. This notion only changed over the last few centuries.
The term Nordic, on the other hand, brings about associations with the political North and with organisations such as the Nordic Council that was founded by Sweden, Denmark and Norway in 1952. Today one may refer not only to Denmark, Finland, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden as Nordic but also to Estonia and even Scotland. Thus, the concept of Nordic and North have been somewhat reunited.

But, as ever, everything really depends on your perspective…

An old map of the Arctic and the Northern half of the globe (1623) –

After all, Northerness, the Idea of North, and Nordicity, are all simply concepts in people’s heads. Just as the idea of Eastern Europe was, according to some explanations, born only during the Enlightenment to give a name to what was perceived to be the spatial gap between Europe and the Orient.

Within what we would commonly call Northern, or North-Eastern Europe, lies the biggest spatial imagination of all – the Baltic Sea, surrounded by the Baltic region. And this is where the problem begins: Who is Baltic? Who is Nordic? And do these terms complement or exclude each other? When talking about the Baltic region we can either refer to the entire Baltic Sea Region or exclusively the three Baltic States- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Or shall we perhaps include Finland? After all Finland was considered a “Baltic State” prior to the Second World War, while nowadays Finland is undeniably regarded as Nordic.

According the historian David Kirby the term ‘Baltic World’ should not solely refer to the three Baltic States but to the entire Baltic Sea Region. However, some perceived the Baltic Sea Area as a historic region, and the political and economic changes of the 1990s  created a need for a new name to be found, one that would help to reach beyond the old east-west divide.

That gave rise to a number of alternatives spatial concepts that accompanied the re-definition of post-Cold War Northern Europe. The most widely known are the idea of Yule Land and the Amber Gateway model.

The idea of Yule Land was coined by the Toomas Henrik Ilves in 1998. It came to signify a region where the word for Christmas originated from a common root; this would include Britain, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Estonia but exclude countries such as Russia, Germany, Lithuania or Latvia. Interestingly, the idea of Yule Land reflects recent Estonian foreign policy efforts to position herself as Nordic.

Latvia, on the other hand, greatly supported the concept of the Amber Gateway that promotes regional co-operation in the entire Baltic Sea Area. Unlike Estonia’s urge to join the exclusive club of Nordic States, Latvia saw her future in greater regional co-operation within the Baltic Sea Region and the Baltic Sea itself as a gateway to Europe.

It remains questionable how much impact those spatial images and imaginations really have. Nevertheless, they remain important for the creation of common identities, which in return may play a role in determining further (political) action.


  1. Thank you, Anna-Cara, for putting in focus this interesting topic again. Just would like to update the picture adding that now Mr. Toomas Hendrik Ilves has evoked a concept of Livonia – a long-standing and bygone state and later also confederation of Estonia and Latvia. You can read his speech in Riga, 5 June 2012, on the official website of the President. The idea is very welcomed also by Latvians. The Yule Land is wonderful idea, but it has two defects: (1) it is too ephemeral and (2) it excludes Latvia. The Livonia concept is not so broad and has a centuries of background. It plays inspiring role for us here, in Latvia and Estonia.

  2. […] What is the Baltic Sea Region? How can we define it best? Does the region actually exist or is it just a spatial construct? And is there a common Baltic Sea Region identity? These are just a few examples of questions that occur again and again as part any discussion about the Baltic Sea Region. Our contributors have also written about the ongoing debate here or here. […]

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