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The term Baltic Republics referred to the three Soviet Republics of Estonian SSR, Latvian SSR, and Lithuanian SSR. The independent states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, who had gained sovereignty in 1918, were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940. After a period of German belligerent occupation from 1941 to 1944-1945, the countries were re-integrated as constituent parts of the Soviet Union. They regained their independence in 1991 and are now jointly referred to as the Baltic States.
While forming part of the Soviet Union, the three Republics were usually referred to as "Pribaltika" in Russian. This term, although rooted in Russian history, was perceived as disdainful, as approximately meaning "Baltic territories". Balts themselves preferred the more sovereign-sounding term "Baltiya".
The fifteen Soviet Socialist Republics (SSR) that made up the USSR in the post-War period, including the three Baltic Republics, formally kept a form of sovereignty, retaining the option to leave the Union. In practice the USSR was however a highly centralized state ruled from Moscow. The Soviet Union conducted a policy of russification by encouraging ethnic Russians to settle in the Baltic Republics. Thus, today, about one-third of the population of Estonia is non-Estonian, mostly Russian or Ukrainian. In Latvia the figure is almost one-half, especially in the capital of Riga. The local languages had the status of official languages next to Russian, and they were still partly used in school, in the streets and the local administrative apparatus. However, a large part of people spoke Russian only, and almost everybody had to learn and use Russian in much of their daily life. Soviet cultural policy, which encouraged multiculturalism, allowed Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians to preserve a high degree of Europe-oriented national identity. In Soviet times this made them appear as the "West" of the Soviet Union in the cultural and political sense, thus as close to emigration a Russian could get without leaving the USSR. Having gained independence, the strong national identity, and the fact of already having been sovereign before the War, facilitated the Baltic States' transition into independence and a liberal constitutional order.
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