* FOR the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, World War II didn't really end until the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
That's worth knowing if you want to comprehend the psyche of the Baltic States today.
We are in Tallinn, Estonia's capital, and the guide is recalling this city's complicated past.
Today, though, the Old Town looks picture-perfect with its towers and belfries and pastel-painted buildings, and I decide it's the loveliest medieval town I've seen.
I edge away to take the perfect picture of a girl in a medieval dress. The guide's lips draw tight with annoyance. She says the girl is not Estonian but Russian, and she pulls me back within her orbit where we return to Tallinn's complicated past, once again.
Conquerors are uppermost on this guide's mind – marauding Danes and German knights, Swedes and Tsarist Russians, Germans (briefly) after World War I, Soviet Reds, World War II Nazis and, from 1944, those Soviets . . . again.
The grim account seems at odds with the storybook images surrounding us today.
Released from a string of oppressors, Tallinn has not yet been overrun by tourists. Restored as a venue for the Moscow Olympics in 1980, the Old Town retains an authenticity undiminished by Russians in Estonian dress, but our guide is having none of this.
We're off to Toomkirik, Estonia's .......
........ chief Lutheran church, where again she dwells on knights and German merchants.
"The coats of arms covering the walls are their memorials. Those with a palm tree motif indicate forebears who participated in the Crusades. German merchants settled here and Tallinn joined the Hanseatic League of trading cities. And here you see graves for members of Tallinn's Guilds."
And on it goes. And I listen politely, as I always do.
Now we are to see the Katariina Guild, craft studios where masters, apprentices and students collaborate, as was customary.
This is authentic, an appropriate bridge between Estonia's medieval and modern times, we are told, and I take her point. In Soviet times hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians were settled on Estonian territory but, culturally, this is not another Eastern Europe.
Tallinn has depth, there's no doubting that. From the Kiek in de Kok, a medieval tower where Ivan the Terrible's cannon balls are embedded, through to the bombed cellars of World War II, it's rich in history. And Tallinn sets the tone as we proceed south.
We reach Parnu, a resort town for whoever held sway in Tallinn. Tsarist Russia is well-represented in the onion-domed Orthodox Churches and Galina, our new guide, prays and lights a candle.
She's a pleasant woman from Riga, Latvia's capital. Galina says her family was settled in Riga by "Big Russia".
Galina will accompany us across the border and take us to Riga's Art Nouveau district. Despite tumultuous times, it's one of the largest and finest in the world and, until World War I, much was built by Mikhail Eisenstein, father of the Russian filmmaker, Galina says.
We cross Riga's old city moat. Hundreds of little padlocks adorn the bridge, their missing keys tossed into the water below in optimistic gestures marking the marriages of Riga's modern-day citizens.
Old Riga was optimistic, too. Teutonic knights built the Dome Cathedral and in the 1880s it gained the world's biggest organ – still one of the best. Guild houses went up, including the magnificent Blackheads Merchants Guild, rebuilt in 1999.
St John's has the loveliest meshed vaulted ceiling and St Peter's offers panoramic views of the red roofs of Riga's Old Town.
Countless medieval buildings remain, plus Romanesque storage vaults such as Rozengrals, now a restaurant serving authentic medieval dishes, which are delicious.
Nevertheless, Riga's destruction cannot be ignored. Blackened foundations greet us and photographs of Riga burning bid us goodbye.
In addition to earlier Baltic crises, World War II sparked immense concern. Latvia was forced to take Russia's side, German bombs fell. Both groups slammed in and out, allegiances formed. Ultimately the Soviets stayed on. Mass deportations to Siberia followed. And so our stroll around the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia is sobering.
Themes include The Partisan War, Fathers Against Sons and The Will to Survive. Propaganda posters of all sides are displayed. But the blonde plaits cut off an 11-year-old Latvian girl in 1952 sum things up. We enter Lithuania comprehending "the Baltic condition". Galina takes us to the Hill of Crosses, a solitary place where, for centuries, Lithuanians raised crosses as symbols of hardship, hope and belief.
It held special significance during Soviet times. Bulldozers came but the crosses just kept returning – about 100,000 every year.
Catholicism is so prevalent that it's hard to believe Lithuanians were the last European pagans.
Olga, our guide in the capital, Vilnius, says churches became warehouses under the Soviets. The beautiful St Casimir's became the Museum of Atheism.
Restored, they are well worth visiting. So, too, the Gates of Dawn chapel above the eastern gate and Gediminas Tower, the last remaining tower of the old castle, where a string of occupiers flew their flags.
Vilnius is more than monuments and another lovely medieval town. In the inner city, there's the breakaway Republic of Uzupis, governed by artists. In the embassy area is a bust of American rock musician Frank Zappa.
"Yes, we do have a sense of humour," Olga says. "But if you have time, please visit the KGB Museum."