Looking Back at the 2018 AABS Conference at Stanford
Liisi Esse, Ph.D.
Associate Curator for Estonian and Baltic Studies, Stanford Libraries
2016-2018 AABS VP for Conferences
The 2018 AABS Conference at Stanford University: The 100th Anniversary of Baltic Independence, held on 1–3 June, celebrated two important milestones – the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies and the 100th anniversary of independence for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The three-day program also highlighted the breadth and depth of Baltic Studies today, featuring 124 panels, roundtable discussions, and workshops—as well as keynote talks, evening receptions, film screenings, literary readings, and exhibits. In total, 473 presenters, including 125 students, and over 200 members of the general public attended the conference.
The keynote lectures by leading historians and policy analysts provided historical and contemporary contexts of the Baltic countries and Baltic studies. The conference’s first keynote talk, “Russian and East European Studies and Baltic Studies: A Historical Exploration,” was delivered by renowned Stanford historian Dr. Norman Naimark. The opening keynote was followed by a roundtable on “Baltic Exceptionalism?”, which featured Baltic Foreign Ministers and Dr. Anna Grzymala-Busse discussing the role of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in the world today. The conference’s official opening ceremony on the first evening included a keynote talk, “The Baltic States and Human Rights in Europe: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” by noted Latvian-American human rights activist and political scientist Dr. Nils Muižnieks.
The second day of the conference featured a keynote talk, “50 Years of Transforming Geopolitics and Baltic Studies,” delivered by Dr. Agnia Grigas, an energy and political risk expert specializing in Russia, Eastern Europe, and the post-Soviet space. The final keynote talk, “The Baltic States at 100: The State Continuity Claim in International Law and in Relations with Russia,” was given by Dr. Lauri Mälksoo, a renowned specialist on the international legal status of the Baltic countries and Russia’s concept of international law.
Cultural programming was integrated throughout the conference. The Open-Air Celebration of Baltic Culture and Reception, an evening program held on a lawn outside the Green Library, featured musical and dance performances by several Baltic and American groups (The Mägi Ensemble, Tiltas, Genys, and Võlukeeled). The event was MC’d by James Tusty and Heather MacLaughlin-Garbes. A literary reading by three prominent writers, Ruta Sepetys, Julija Sukys, and Inara Verzemnieks, on “Stories of Exile, Reckoning, and Hope” took place on the second day.
The conference concluded with a screening of the recently released feature film Ashes in the Snow (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 screening of the film was followed by a Q&A session with Marius Markevicius and Ruta Sepetys.
During the conference, two major Baltic exhibits were displayed on the Stanford University campus. The Baltic Way: History and Culture in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania 1918–2018, on display in Cecil H. Green Library, drew on materials in the Stanford Libraries and Hoover Institution Library and Archives collections to explain the complicated history of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in the 20th century and to consider their prospects and challenges in the 21st. A large traveling exhibit produced by Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom, Masters of Our Own Homes: Estonia at 100, was set up in the Main Pavilion of the Stanford Shopping Center. The exhibit’s aim 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, “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’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 the 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 also featured several professional development sessions. Matthew Kott, the editor of the Journal of Baltic Studies, discussed recent trends in current academic journal publishing during a breakfast session on “Interdisciplinary in Area Studies and the Changing Role of the Journal of Baltic Studies.” He spoke to the role of interdisciplinary journals like JBS in reinforcing or challenging these trends.
A panel of recipients of Fulbright fellowships to the Baltic countries shared their advice on applying for a Fulbright, as well as their experience doing research in the three countries. A graduate student lunch, “How to Find One’s Place in Academia and Beyond Post-Graduation,” featured current graduate students and recent PhDs talking about their experience looking for jobs as a Baltic specialist. A roundtable on “AABS and Graduate Student Concerns: Grants, Publishing, Career Opportunities” featured advice in these areas and also asked how AABS can better serve graduate students.
This year’s conference was hosted by Stanford University Libraries. The organizers, led by Liisi Esse, AABS Vice President of Conferences, are extremely grateful to everyone who helped turn this conference into a success, especially the program committee consisting of 15 division chairs and 47 co-chairs who put together the conference’s academic program and the group of on-site volunteers who helped with the conference logistics.