Stage 25 – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania & Russia: The Baltic States
Ordinarily, the frontier with the European Union marks the western boundary of my area of interest as a traveller. While the countries west of this line are generally more prosperous and stable than those to the east, their dull, over-regulated order, numerous tourists and high prices make them far from inspiring travel destinations to me. However, compelled by their former incorporation into the USSR, I decided to briefly pass through the three independent Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on my way to the rather intriguing Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. In the context of the Soviet Union these three countries seem insignificantly small, yet they were instrumental in its collapse, with all three regaining independence before the union was formally dissolved. Having been incorporated into the USSR only in 1940 as part of the secret terms of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany, Soviet occupation here was brief (and never formally recognised by most Western governments) but has left the region with simmering demographic problems. Personally, while I would not find anything as compelling as the rugged wildness of Russia, the Baltic states made a pleasant break from the rigours of winter driving as I waited out the worst of the weather, waiting to head east once more through Belarus, the Urals and into Central Asia for the summer.
It’s the 28th December 2010 and I have just crossed the Russia – Estonia border and am in the city of Narva. Throughout history, Narva has been a trade and border post between various states and empires; Danish, Swedish, Russian and Estonian, and today remains one of the principal border crossings between the EU and Russia. The two empires even face off architecturally across the Narva River, with the originally Danish, thirteenth century Hermann Castle looking across to the somewhat larger Ivangorod Fortress in Russia, built by Tsar Ivan III in the fifteenth century.
I am unable to buy car insurance at the Estonian border, and here my problems begin. Being in the EU with an EU-registered vehicle, I may only purchase a policy issued in the country in which the vehicle is registered (i.e. the UK). However, in order to purchase a valid insurance policy for the truck, it must be in the UK at the time at which the policy is taken out. By exercising my right of freedom of movement, one of the founding principals of the EU, and the right which I most cherish as an individual, I am stuck in a dead-end; my circumstances do not fit in any of the pre-described tick-boxes or spreadsheets by which Western life must be organised, the computers cannot process me and I am in fact, by driving at all in Estonia, breaking the law. Fuck the EU.
I drive cautiously for a kilometre or so to the home of my host Alexander, an ethnic Russian whose parents moved to Estonia during the time that it was part of the USSR, and now finds himself in a country where he does not speak the local language, and has little wish to integrate into Estonian society. For Alexander, his EU passport allows him far greater travel opportunities than most Russians but nevertheless his cultural homeland is undoubtedly east of the Narva River. Alexander is quite typical of the generation of Russians who now live in the independent Baltic states, a demographic anomaly which raises politically sensitive questions of citizenship and equal rights.
On New Year’s Eve I take a bus to the capital, Tallinn, located on the Baltic coast just across from Helsinki in Finland, a country with whose population ethnic Estonians have both cultural and linguistic ties. I spend the evening in the company of my Estonian host Barbara and a number of other people from across Central Europe. It’s a very enjoyable New Year’s Eve, watching fireworks in the central square, then joining a house-party thrown by a member of the US Embassy in Tallinn, back in Western culture for the first time in more then three and a half years, but it simultaneously feels very odd indeed; I feel I have very little in common with people around me and my mind seems still to be somewhere in the wilderness of inner Asia.
Tallinn is a strikingly attractive city. Whilst Narva still has strong echoes of the USSR, feeling like a cleaner, more tranquil and less policed version of Russia, Tallinn is absolutely European and the attractive, tall and narrow buildings of the city with their steeply pitched roofs are beautiful pieces of Hanseatic architecture, quite reminiscent of northern Germany. Long known as Reval, Tallinn came under the influence of the Teutonic Knights during their Northern Crusades of the thirteenth century, and became the northernmost member of the Hanseatic League in 1285. Coming under (albeit rather loose) Russian influence early in the eighteenth century, Reval eventually became Tallinn in 1920 when Estonia was formally recognised as an independent country, something which would last just twenty years. It was in the Baltic capitals such as Tallinn that some of the most vehement protests emerged in the 1980s USSR, calling for the legalisation of national flags, recognition of national languages, non-communist leadership and ultimately full independence from Moscow. There are virtually no signs of the Soviet Period visible in central Tallinn and with its crowds of tourists and souvenir shops, it feels rather tame. After a couple of days of exploration, I’m ready to leave.
I take a bus south across the centre of the country to Viljandi, a neat and charming small town of multicoloured wooden houses on narrow streets filled with around a metre of snow. The elegant, cream-coloured Lutheran St. John’s Church, whose crisp and simple lines contrast with the extravagance of many of the Russian Orthodox Churches I have seen over the last few weeks, serves as another reminder of just how culturally different Estonia is from Russia, for here I am already in a traditionally Protestant area. Estonians are clearly not like many of the other non-Russian minorities of the USSR who have been assimilated to various degrees into the modern Russian State; this is a vibrant and clearly wholly independent nation both in culture and in language.
I’m hosted here by Silja, who works at the Viljandi Culture Academy which revives traditional Estonian music and theatre, earning Viljandi its reputation as the country’s cultural capital. It is with her brother however that I indulge in a more universally Nordic tradition; having a long session in their integrated bathroom-come-sauna, eventually getting very drunk and rolling around naked on the snow-filled balcony. Altogether this makes Viljandi a very pleasant and relaxing stop.
I take another bus, south again to the cross-border town of Valga, whose Latvian half is known as Valka. Here I board a train and slip into northern Latvia without anything more than a sign; I am back in the Schengen Zone whose borders have been dismantled; a great pleasure for someone who regularly spends hours crossing borders. Immediately I hear a difference in the language, with the distinctively long vowels of Latvian coming over the train’s announcement system. Latvian and Lithuanian are the only two surviving members of the Baltic languages, only very distantly related to Slavic languages and seemingly retaining elements of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language, though their precise evolution is unclear.
I get off the train in the town of Cēsis, described as ‘Latvia’s most Latvian Town’, which I have chosen over Riga as my one stop in the country. As I step out of the station building, I notice for the first time in roughly two months that outdoor temperatures are above zero, though the prospect of spring is still depressingly far off. Cēsis is an immediately likeable place however, located in the hilly Vidzeme Upland and noticeably less manicured than Viljandi, with a centre full of colourful, pleasingly faded (or decrepit) pre-Soviet buildings, and in fact the town bears no architectural trace of the hated occupation whatsoever.
While Tallinn seemed strongly Germanic, Cēsis has a more medieval Central European charm; a damp, brooding town of cats flitting into doorways and shabby courtyards glimpsed through street entrances. This atmosphere is enhanced by the Lutheran St. John the Baptist Church, a towering, buttressed thirteenth century basilica with a Gothic bell tower and spire which pierces the damp, grey clouds which hang over the town. Cēsis also has one of the Baltic region’s most impressive castles, dating back to the early thirteenth century and constructed by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, German warrior-monks who would eventually merge with the Teutonic Order and become the semi-autonomous Livonian Order, ruling what is now Latvia until the Polish-Lithuanian takeover in the sixteenth century.
I find Cēsis an atmospheric and charming place to visit, and it also feels very slightly more Slavic-influenced than Estonia, more Polish than Finnish. But I also find that people are a little cooler here than in Estonia, and far more so than in Russia; people seem to prefer to stay out of each others’ business, often looking away if one catches their gaze.
On my way south to Lithuania I need to spend a few hours waiting for a connection in Riga, which gives me ample time to reflect on the misery of using public transport. Riga’s bus station is as foul a place as I have found myself in for quite some time. It has the air of villany and seediness that such places have in Russia, though partly disguised with an (admirably) efficient cover which would be utterly out-of-place in Russia; clear information, internet access, no queues, helpful service, and no police. Still, this façade of decency somehow makes it all the more repellent. It’s full of pigeons, flapping up to ledges under the roof, males chasing females, presenting the ever-tantalising prospect of having one defacate on my head. Each dustbin has a sullen, puffy-faced tramp rifling through its contents which I can only imagine are far too meagre to support much of a drinking habit. Inside is the gentle smell of the unwashed; gaunt heroin-addicts patrol around looking for unattended bags; most of the non-vagrant / addict patrons of the waiting room (including myself) appear to be dressed from charity shops, and a good number have the pasty grey-yellow appearance of career alcoholics. Very few people here look like particularly decent individuals.
Perhaps this is normal for bus stations and not a reflection on Riga in particular, but it further embitters me towards the EU and the bureaucratic black-hole it has put me in. I take my scruffy self and my woven nylon bag (which I had to purchase in Narva to carry my belongings) into a shop and purchase a can of larger to further camouflage myself into the human environment.
It’s cold and damp when I arrive in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. In contrast to Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania has a long history as a major regional power (largely in union with Poland), and to an even greater extent than modern Poland, is today only a small scrap of its former self. In the thirteenth century, enduring raids and Christianisation by the Teutonic Knights and Livonian Order, the Grandy Duchy of Lithuania emerged in this region of the Baltic coast, spreading southwards into the western lands of the early Eastern Slavic state of Kievan Rus’ as it was fragmented by Monogl and Tatar attacks. Later, the Grand Duchy declared a union with the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland, creating in the fifteenth century the largest state in Europe, covering modern-day Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and parts of Estonia, Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Moldova. This union persisted as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth until the very end of the eighteenth century, when it was partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria. Since this time, the history of Lithuania has very closesly followed that of the other two Baltic states.
Vilnius is a fairly attractive city, though it seems rather depressing; a city where nobody appears to smile, an aspect hardly improved by the grey weather which hangs endlessly above the entire region. It’s a grim fact that Lithuania has one of the world’s highest suicide rates, though social and economic problems are usually cited as the cause. As capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania for more than 450 years, Vilnius has a centre whose scale and grandeur are slightly striking in a city with a population of little more than half a million. From the remains of the ancient castle complex which occupies a hill on the banks of the Neris River, one has a most impressive view of a sea of terracotta-tiled town buildings around Vilnius University, tree-lined avenues and grand plazas such as that in front of the Neoclassical Presidential Palace and Cathedral. What is also evident is the influence of Catholicism here, with the gaudy, candy-coloured Baroque façades of basilicas such as the Church of St. Catherine giving the city a splash of colour.
After Vilnius I spend a few weeks in Poland, firstly with Karolina (whom I had last seen in Kazakhstan in July) in Warsaw and then with Maciej (whom I had last seen in Mongolia in November) in Gdańsk. It is from Gdańsk on the 14th February that I take a bus east, crossing into the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad which makes up something of a fourth Baltic ‘state’, and a very intriguing little region of Russia.
Kaliningrad was long known by its German name of Königsberg and was founded in the thirteenth century by the Teutonic Order, becoming capital of its Lutheran successor state, the Grand Duchy of Prussia following the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Königsberg became a thriving, multi-ethnic port city and cultural hub, passing into the German Kingdom of Prussia, then the German Empire and into modern Germany. By the outbreak of World War II, save for a five-year occupation in the mid eighteenth century, Königsberg had no historic connection to Russia whatsoever. However, the city was something of a spoil of war granted to the Soviets at the Potsdam Conference, and was renamed in 1946 to Kaliningrad after Mikhail Kalinin, one of the most senior of the Bolshevik cadres who also had no connection to Königsberg. Following the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the small region of Kaliningrad has found itself a tiny exclave of Russia, wedged inside the EU between NATO members Poland and Lithuania.
My first impression of Kaliningrad is of a standard Russian city with a few more European touches; there are fewer Soviet cars on the streets, for example and a better range of goods available in the supermarkets. Very soon however, I realise that Kaliningrad is actually a very unusual place indeed. The upheavals of the twentieth century are all too evident in modern Kaliningrad; visibly there is virtually nothing physically remaining of Königsberg, which was very comprehensively bombed by the British, during the Second World War. Even for a fan of Soviet Architecture, the modern cityscape of Kaliningrad is not easy on the eye; rows of peeling, pale-grey apartment buildings, broken pavements and the all too visible ‘House of Soviets’ an ugly pile of an unfinished administrative building which was recently painted ahead of a presidential visit. Some of Königsberg’s old gates have been rather carelessly restored, but there are only faint vestiges, in the occasional old apartment building or factory walls, of the old red-brick cityscape.
Certainly the most impressive building in the city is the very well restored Königsberg Cathedral, located on a lovely, tranquil island (formerly known as Kneiphof) in the Pregolya River. Kneiphof was once a central district of Königsberg, containing amongst its narrow streets the University of Königsberg where Immanuel Kant, one of the key figures of Western Philosophy and a native of the city, both studied and taught as a professor. Today only the red-brick Gothic cathedral remains, originating in the fourteenth century, left a bombed-out shell in 1945, only to be restored in the 1990s following Kaliningrad’s declassification as a closed city. Kant’s grave and mausoleum still remain, adjoining the cathedral.
Equally as striking as the physical aspect of the city are its demographics; any and all Germans unlucky enough to find themselves in the region at the end of the war were soon expelled from Soviet territory, and Kaliningrad repopulated with Soviet citizens. Since the fall of the USSR, Kaliningrad has been designated a Special Economic Zone and has become something of a manufacturing hub, encouraging further inward migration of Russians from further east. With its tragic history, fall from grace, devastated cityscape and glaring and absolute demographic change, Kaliningrad has a very deeply melancholic air.
I make a short trip west to the Baltic coast, to what was the westernmost settlement of the USSR, the port of Baltiysk, main base of the Russia Baltic Fleet. It’s a cold but sunny day and I enjoy a short walk along the coast which is covered thickly by large concrete tank traps, themselves partly coated in ice from sea-spray. Like many previously heavily militarised areas of the USSR, Baltiysk has clearly experienced a period of decline; rotting old watchtowers and rusting barbed wire attesting to the financial cutbacks in the Russian armed forces. Nevertheless, as Russia’s only true ice-free port on the Baltic, Baltiysk remains a vital strategic asset and the Baltic Fleet continue to occupy part of the town, including the crumbling, star-shaped seventeenth century Prussian Pillau Fortress which Napoleon stormed in 1807. Elsewhere in town I see old German houses, now owned and lived-in by Russians, giving Baltiysk the same odd, melancholic air as Kaliningrad. I can’t think of anywhere else I’ve been which has witnessed such a sharp demographic change.
I take a night bus out of Kaliningrad to Kaunas in Lithuania, then north to Tallinn and east to Narva where the truck has been parked. My plan to wait out the worst of the winter cold has backfired however and I catch a cold-snap in Narva, with temperatures dropping as low as -33ºC at night. Clear, sunny days of around -20ºC are not unpleasant, but are far from ideal for the car maintenance I need to carry out. The truck has been sitting outside for over seven weeks and is just a large pile of snow when I return and it takes a couple of hours of digging to clear the area around it. I then need to purchase a blow-torch from a hardware shop in order to melt the thick crust of ice and open the rear tailgate and load covers in order to extract my tools. I’m waiting for a shipment from the UK, which will contain a new radiator and new front springs, things which broke beyond repair during the months of rough driving in Mongolia last year, but this involves quite a few days of waiting.
During my days in Narva I come to rather like the place, which seems much like Russia but with a few civic improvements. I’m graciously hosted by Sergei, an ethnic Russian and I spend several days with him smoking and drinking great Estonian beer. On one very mellow afternoon we drive out with a friend of his to the nearby seaside town of Narva-Jõesuu. It’s a perfectly clear, bitingly cold day and the colours of the fresh sea ice and low, reddish sunlight, the crisp fresh air and the light crunching of my footsteps on the ice are especially vivid and memorable impressions.
I meet a number of Sergei’s friends in Narva, all Russian but in different social circumstances. Some, like Sergei hold Estonian passports and are happy integrate into the culture, speak the language and generally seem to be prosperous and worldly. There are also those who choose to take a Russian passport, speak only Russian and are far more like the Russians I know in Russia. There are also members of a third group who I meet; those with neither nationality, but with grey ‘Alien’s Passports’ of a stateless citizen. These are invariably ethnic Russians who do not qualify for naturalisation in Estonia (often due to a lack of language competency) and make up a little publicised human-rights issue in the EU (the situation is actually worse in Latvia which has a larger Russian minority), another demonstration of the demographic problems which the Baltic region has been left with.
Eventually the terrible cold relents somewhat, my parts arrive and I fit the radiator despite the still freezing conditions. I charge the truck’s two totally flat batteries and then fire it up after eight weeks of being in the freezer of winter Estonia. It catches first on two, three and then four cylinders, shooting out clouds of unburned diesel until the engine smoothens out. I say my farewells to the numerous people who have hosted and helped me in Narva and head back to the Russian border, relishing my exit from the EU and the end of my stint using public transport. There is a queue system in operation at the border and a toll for entering (the first on my trip) and after waiting my turn I proceed to the border compound. My passport is very carefully inspected for twenty minutes before I am allowed to proceed back into beloved Russia.
I clear Russian customs at around 02:30 and drive south through the night roughly parallel to the Estonian border, reaching the attractive city of Pskov early in the morning. The snow here is thinner than in Estonia and I have a (quite false) glimmer of hope that spring might be on its way. Beyond the city I join the only toll road I have ever encountered in Russia, which is icy, extremely rough in places and outrageously expensive, an unpleasant re-acquaintance with the traditional Russian fact that the legalised mafia which runs so many private industries have almost limitless potential to screw the common man. There are no immigration procedures at the Russia – Belarus border just beyond the village of Dolostsy and after a brief look inside the truck by a customs officer, I am waved through into Belarus.