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Beneath the spires of medieval churches, along narrow, cobbled streets with the North German, HAnseatic flavor of Rostok and Lubeck, beside the glassy moats and stone towers of fairy-tale castles, the Baltic peoples of this non-Slav corner of the Soviet empire work to preserve their own cultural and national identities.

* In Riga, the brooding, somber capital of Latvia, a broad-faced, quiet-spoken Latvian intellectual described how he and his friends take pride in their massive song festivals of 10,000 or more voices, and their own literature and art.

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Latvian-language schools are reservoirs of local culture: Only about half the pupils bother to join the official Komsomol, or Young Communists' League -- whereas in Russian-language schools the rate is 99 percent.

In all three Baltic states, primary and secondary school still takes one year longer than in the rest of the country: 11 years instead of 10. Local officials want to teach local culture as well as subjects required by Moscow. They fear that going back to 10 years would cut into local, not Russian, lessons.

* In Tallinn, capital of neighboring Estonia, national pride is intense, linked in part to the local Lutheran faith.

During the 1980 Olympic yachting regatta, a senior official was asked by a Westerner how many gold medals his country had won. The answer was prompt: "Once." The Westerner was puzzled: The Soviet Union had won at least 30 by then. He repeated the question. The answer was the same. Then the Westerner understood.

The official was referring to the gold medal won by Estonia (in the triple jump, by Jaak Uudmae). He had said it deliberately, to emphasize that the official considered himself an Estonian first, a Soviet citizen second.

Estonians easily understand Finnish, a sister language, and watch Finnish television from across the Gulf of Finland. They know as much about the West as East Germans do from West German TV.

The window on the West feeds glowing memories of Estonian independence between the two world wars and helps keep alive dissident activity in Tallinn and the university city of Tartu.

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* In Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, nationalism goes hand in hand with the Roman Catholic faith.

Believers sit in tiny apartments filled with crucifixes and color pictures of a Pope from neighboring Poland, and they tune into nightly 15-minute broadcasts from Vatican Radio.

Catholic sources estimate up to 75 percent of Lithuanians are believers: Party officials put the figure around 40 percent, which is still high. Masses are crowded. An underground church trains its own priests, claiming the sole seminary (in Kaunas) is infiltrated by the KGB.

Human-rights activists publish their own samizdat journal, Ausra, which means "Dawn" and is named after the first nationalist Lithuanian paper in the 1880s.

Few except the most fervent pretend that any of this resolute activity can lead to a return to political independence anytime soon. Soviet control, established after the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact delineated spheres of influence, remains solid, brushing aside US refusal to acknowledge it.

Almost 50 percent of people living in the main cities are Russian Slavs. Only Russians are said to be allowed to work on the Riga docks, a mere few hundred miles around the Baltic coast from the militant shipyards of Gdansk, in Poland.

Walking through the streets of Riga, it is hard to hear Latvian spoken at all. Crowds of well-dressed Russians swing by, pushing in and out of cafes and shops more attractive than any in the Slavic republics.

The crackdown against dissidents in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Yerevan, and Tbilisi after the 1975 Helsinki Final Act also took place in the Baltics. Three Lithuanian activists, Balis Gayaskas, Viktoras Pyatkus, and Antonas Terleckas, have been jailed.

Mart Niklus and Yuri Kukk, both Estonians, are in custody. Three others, Enn Tarto, Erik Udam, and Endel Ratas, have been harassed since they and Niklus signed and appeal for Baltic independence in 1979.

Moscow keeps tight rein on local Communist parties and close watch on Americans and other Westerners Who return to visit relatives.

The three republics may contain only 2.8 percent of the Soviet population (7. 4 million out of 262 million in January 1979) and occupy less than 1 percent of Soviet territory, but they also represent highly strategic border areas, the invasion route for invaders from time immemorial.

As elaborate ceremonies opened the 1980 yacht regatta in Tallinn, the dim outline of a Soviet warship could be seen in the mist guarding the sea border with Finland. To sail outside the Bay of Tallinn, yachtsmen need hard-to-get passports and other papers showing political trustworthiness.

Most parts of the republics are off limits to Westerners, except for the three capitals and some other resort and coast areas such as the splendid stretch of beach at Yurmala outside Riga, and the Estonian resorts of Kokhtla Yarve and Narva.

Tourists can drive from Tallinn to Leningrad, but may not stop overnight en route.

Westerners may visit Kaunus, the ancient capital of Lithuania, but again, not overnight.

Yet for all this close control, the spirit of Baltic identity lives on, in young and old alike, as it has done through centuries of attack and occupation by Teutons, Poles, Swedes, and Russians.

To take the train or plane northwest from Moscow is to leave behind much of the dirt and inefficiency that mark the nonmilitary Soviet Union proper, and to return to a cleaner, more European world, to cities more Germanic, more Western, to shop windows decorated with bright hangings and discreet metalwork, to clean and pleasant hotels.

Private homes line leafy streets in the suburbs of Riga and Tallinn and Vilnius, holdovers from the years of independence between the wars, and still permitted.

The train between Moscow and Riga is one of the best in the country, from the smartly uniformed car attendants to the serviceable dining car.

In Riga, my family and I turned into a coffee shop-cumsnack bar, sat at a long counter, and ordered hot piroshki (meat buns) and chocolate eclairs.Rare is the chance to do such a thing even in Moscow, let alone other Soviet cities.

In Vilnius, Colleagues and I ate pastries in a cheerful, crowded restaurant better than any we had seen in Moscow. In Tallinn, the Hotel Viru was built by Finns. More impressive even than the floor show are the bathrooms, the best in the entire country.

On the surface, the three republics are alike: more and more urban; more women than men (aftereffects of purge and war); clean streets, tidy fields, and neat fences; the highest rates of car ownership, personal incomes, and worker productivity in the Soviet Union.

To many Russians, the Baltics are "the West" -- oases of service and vacation quiet. They lie on the beaches at Yurmala or Narva, wander the streets of Kaunus or Vilnius, listen to the famous organ said to have been dedicated by Liszt himself in 1884 in Riga's Domski Sobor (Dom Cathedral -- now a concert hall).

More and more Slavs settle in the Baltics, as Moscow has allocated more industry there and as Russians and Ukrainians have sought a higher standard of living. That inmigration has slowed in the past decade, but only roman Catholic Lithuania, with its high birthrate, has succeeded in keeping the Slavic proportion of its population from rising.

In Latvia, however, Latvians seem about to be outnumbered.

The Latvian population in Latvia rose by only 2,000 between 1970 and 1979, while the Russian population went up by 116,000.

And the non-Latvian population is about to jump again: Work is about to begin on a new metro (underground railroad) in Riga, and local residents are being told 50,000 extra workers will be brought in from outside to construct it. Many of these will be Slav. (Residents are also being told that all new apartments constructed in Riga for the next few years will be reserved for the new construction workers and their families -- a fact that displeases a number of Rigans, who say their city is too small to need a metro anyway.)

By 1970 Russians outnumbered Latvians in Riga itself (by 42.7 percent to 40.9 percent), and the ratio is even more lopsided today.

Estonia is the smallest Soviet republic, smaller than Belgium, flat and stony , with 1,446,000 people at the most recent census, in January 1979. It prides itself on increasing productivity as a way of keeping Slavic immigrants at bay. Although the rate of Slavic migration has slowed down, Slavs themselves (Russians, Byelorussians, and Ukrainians) now make up almost one-third of the population (32 percent), against less than one-quarter (22.3 percent) in 1959.

"Estonians are surprising in their passion for independence," says a non-Estonian Balt. "It's all that television they watch from Finland, and their young people."

Several hundred university students in the town of Tartu, population 90,000, gathered on Christmas Eve 1979 for the annual tribute at the grave of a national hero, Julius Kuperjanov, who was killed fighting the Russians for independence in 1979. They lighted candles and made speeches, and about 40 marched downtown before being arrested.

This October, about 150 youngsters in Tartu demonstrated again, reportedly against food shortages.

Emigre sources in Stockholm reported in October that a thousand workers in a tractor factory in Tartu had staged a brief strike to protest unrealistic production targets and a lack of raw materials. It was said to have been inspired by worker protests in Poland. Mart Niklus is on a hunger strike in a Tallinn jail after resisting Soviet influence all his adult life. He lost his job as a language teacher in a Tartu night school after signing the Baltic appeal last year.

Yuri Kukk, an inorganic chemist, lost his university post in Tartu after signing several appeals against the Moscow Olympics and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He had earlier resigned from the Communist Party after a membership of 12 years on returning from a year's study near Paris.

Today Mr. Kukk is in a psychiatric hospital in Moscow, where doctors are making their fifth attempt to prove him mentally unbalanced. The first four efforts only emphasized his sanity, friends report.

Again and again, conversation with Estonians turn back to 61 years ago, when Estonia won its first and only real independence from a Russia torn by war and winter and revolution. Soviet historians dismiss the 20 years that followed as an aberration, and the reunion with the Soviet motherland is painted as inevitable. Lithuania is a different place, half again as big a Estonia, flat and filled with lakes. It was heir to the Livonian empire that in the 17th century stretched east to the Black Sea until the Russian czars pushed it back.

Today it is about the size of Austria. It remains a nesting ground for storks flying from northern Europe to East Africa each winter. And it is still strongly Roman Catholic, impressed by seeing a Polish Pope on live television via Poland when John Paul II was installed in Rome.

"Lithuanians are emphatic, assertive," says a neighboring Balt. "I think it's largely their religion."

roops had to be called out to subdue demonstrations in Vilnius in 1972. A Helsinki human-rights watchdog committee has operated, along with an underground church. Southern Lithuania, occupied by Polish troops in 1920, became part of Poland in 1923, while the larger part of the country emerged into independence. In June 1940 Soviet troops marched in. After a German occupation, Lithuania became Soviet again in 1944.

Lithuania is more rural than its Baltic neighbors (39 percent of the people live in rural areas), and its birthrate is higher, as befits a Roman Catholic area.

Its population (3,399,000 as of January 1979) grew 8.7 percent more than in the preceding decade. Estonia grew by 8.1 percent and the Russian Federation (the biggest Slav republic) by only 6 percent.

The high birthrate enables Lithuanians to form 80 percent of their own republic's population, a much higher percentage than Estonians make up of Estonia (61 percent). Slavic inmigration has not affected the Lithuanian percentage for 20 years.

The trends are toward faster growth in the cities and continued Slavic settlers.

Party officials in vilnius disparage religion and insist it is declining. In September 1980 the party newspaper Sovietskaya Litva made an unusual public attack on the Pope and accused the church of allying itself with "reactionary grouping." It criticized the Vatican Radio, thus indirectly confirming the radio's effectiveness and audience.

Latvia is about the same size as Lithuania, though its Lutheranism means a quieter from of independence and dissent, according to sources in Riga.

"We are quieter than other Baltic states," said one. "We go on about out business."

"Yes," another agreed. "For us the main thing is to survive. Ours is a passive resistance. We're trying to preserve our culture and our traditions. We suffer from the Russian presence: Our initiative is suppressed. The Russian standards of inefficiency and incompetence weigh on us. Our cities are not maintained. Shops are dirty. Service has declined."

soviet officials scoff at such comments and insist that Soviet rule has brought the Baltics modern cities, greatly enhanced industry, and better living standards. They say they respect local cultures: Baltic sources say Soviet influence is inimical to their local ways.

Away from the Baltic shoreline, LAtvia is largely forest. The Roman Catholic influence of Lithuania is much less in evidence: The reformation of the 16th century eliminated most of it.

Like its neighbors, Latvia was independent between 1922 and 1940, though it had had a right-wing dictatorship since 1934. It, too, was seized by the Soviets in 1940, taken by the Germans, and retaken by the Soviets at the end of the war.

Of concern to Latvin nationalists is the population trend: According to the census of 1979, only 53.7 percent of Latvia now consists of native Latvians, compared with 62 percent 20 years ago. Soon, Latvians may find themselves a minority in their own country, since their birthrate is low and Slavs keep on coming in slowly. Russians now make up 32.8 percent of the republic.

All Slavs, including Byelorussians, Ukrainians, and Poles, make up 43.5 percent.

"There's no hope for political independence," says one Western visitor to Riga, himself born in Latvia and now living abroad. "But when I write to my relatives asking if they want to emigrate, they say no -- 'We are the roots of our country,' they say."

He pauses. "The roots of their country. You can't argue with that."

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