When was the last time you did something for the first time?


Border crossing

The headline is a quote from leadership and  inspiration guru John C. Maxwell.

Here’s some more inspiration:

“Seven Steps to Success
1) Make a commitment to grow daily.
2) Value the process more than events.
3) Don’t wait for inspiration.
4) Be willing to sacrifice pleasure for opportunity.
5) Dream big.
6) Plan your priorities.
7) Give up to go up.”
John C. Maxwell

I guess I am following some of those steps right now. How?

  1. Interacting more with social media and using my Instagram and Tumblr accounts to promote my work and ideas.
  2. Checking social media more to see what other people are doing and to get inspiration.
  3. Updating my website with background images and text which really reflect my writing and photography. It is all about focus.
  4. I am dreaming big – I am going to format and publish my Riga novel and then approach some independent bookshops to see if they are will to stock a copy or two.
  5. Living in a changing world as we do, it is no longer enough to keep going with the flow and letting life wash over. It is time to be pro-active. I am going to start running my own writing workshops NOW!
  6. I am accepting that in order to move forward I have to give up on projects which are not working. So I am shelving that Estonian crime novel I keep coming back to until I have a really good idea.
  7. My upcoming trip to Belarus must lead to something not just a big adventure. Photobook? Guidebook? Travel video? Novel? Journal? Who knows?
  8. Decluttering. Without clutter I am free to think and dream and produce.
  9. Getting up and going first thing in the morning to take advantage of the peace and quiet in the house.


Image source:https://i.ytimg.com/vi/qDH3ddNUuaU/maxresdefault.jpg

Writing Historical Fiction

It has been an interesting couple of weeks in my writing head.

For the last few years, I have been battling with the idea of writing a novel set in the Baltic Region in the not too distant past. My first attempt to write about this was called “You Can’t Bury the Past Forever.” This novel was based around a young English girl who inherited a house in Tallinn and then wanted to find out more about her grandparents who had owned it. The plot followed the investigation into her grandfather’s near arrest and subsequent escape to Sweden, then America. The protagonist was able to track down the informer and expose him. It was, I think, an interesting novel but one which failed to say what I wanted to say.

That novel is still sitting on my hard drive waiting for the moment when I have the idea which will rescue it.

In the meantime, I have been investigating former KGB sites in Estonia and Latvia. I was greatly moved by two visits to the former KGB headquarters in Riga, that I came away wanting to tell the story of the events of that building in fictional form. I have plotted out the novel and done quite a lot of research into the events I am writing about. I have even written the first chapter.

A quick Google search has thrown up several websites and blogs which deal with historical but they all assume you are going to be writing about something way back in time not near-history. As Emma Darwin rightly says, the key thing to remember is not that you are writing history but are writing a story. (http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk/Historical-Fiction.html) Erika Sanders lists the required elements of writing historical fiction are: doing extensive background research, creating factually accurate characters, having a theme which is still relevant to today and basing the setting of the novel on research (http://www.ehow.com/list_6927820_requirements-historical-fiction-writing.html). All good advice.

The internet makes it both easier and harder to write historical fiction. It is easier because so much information is at hand for the writer. It is harder because so much information is at hand for the reader and any errors will be quickly picked up.

Is it worth pursuing? I think it is. There are a lot of stories from our near-history waiting to be told. They need people to find them and tell them. That is what I hope to do.



“Riga 2014” project “Corner House. Case No. 1914/2014”

“One of the goals of the “Riga 2014” project “Corner House. Case No. 1914/2014” was to prompt a public debate about many problems in the history of the 20th century that have not been sufficiently discussed to this day: the consequences of totalitarianism, preservation of the memory of victims of totalitarian regimes, the importance of public debates and discussions in the contemporary political culture, and how the memories of Latvian residents about the history of Latvia in the 20th century should be preserved for the future generations.” (http://riga2014.org/eng/news/54437-a-discussion-about-the-future-of-the-corner-house-video-recording accessed 19/10/14)

The Corner House (Stūra māja) inRiga is so called because it sits on the corner of Stura Street and Freedom Street. During the Soviet Occupation of Latvia from 1940 to 1991 this was one of the most hated and feared buildings in the city. It was in this building that the KGB interrogated and, in some cases, shot Latvians for “crimes against the state.”

Since the demise of the Soviet Union and the Independence of Latvia, the Corner House has been used by the police. For part of this year, the building as been taken over by the Museum of Occupations to mount an exhibition on the events which took place there and the people arrested by the Cheka.

Now, the question for historians and Latvians is what should the future of this building be. The debate held on 13/10/14 brought together many people from different organisations to discuss the topic and no doubt the discussion will be ongoing as the issue of how to record and memorialise the events of 1940 – 1991 continues across Europe.

It is 25 years since the Berlin Wall fell and Communism began to roll back across Europe and there has been enough distance for historians to be able to look back without stirring up old fears. Furthermore, there is now a generation grown up in the post-communist world who do not necessarily know about the recent history of Europe.

Recent events in Russian satellite states and the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin indicate that the Russian bear is not ready to lie down. The world needs reminding of what could happen should that bear escape it’s cage. The exhibitions in former Communist countries are helping to that but the atrocities committed by the KGB have not yet been fully documented and presented to the public. This exhibition has gone some way to filling the gap.

Former KGB HQ in Riga to reopen in 2014

In July 2014 I am making a research trip to Estonia and Latvia as part of my preparation for writing a series of crime novels based in the region. I am currently editing a novel I have written based on the riots in Tallinn by Russian emigres during April 2007 and the subsequent cyber attacks on the country.

As part of  the trip I will be visiting Riga. As I wrote in the previous post, Riga is one of the Capitals of Culture for 2014, so this should be an exciting time to make a return visit.

As I have an interest in the KGB, resulting from research into a previous novel, I shall be visiting the exhibitions at the former KGB headquarters in Riga.

The building is situated on the corner of Brivības Street and Stabu Street. After the occupation of Latvia on June 17, 1940, the building became the headquarters of the State Security Committee of the Latvian SSR, commonly known as the “čeka”. It did not take long for part of the basement and the ground floor to be reconstructed as prison cells and a place of torture and execution. The building used to hold a total of 44 prison cells with about 175 places (beds). Later, when the number of prisoners grew rapidly, the cells were packed and up to 36 people were confined in cells with six beds. The State Security Committee remained in the building until 1991, when Latvia regained its independence and the State Police moved in. Since 2008, the building has stood empty. (Source: http://www.baltic.travel/company/press-centre/news/date/2013/05/20/kgb-headquarters-riga accessed 06/04/14).

The building is now being reopened as part of the celebrations for Riga 2014, when the city becomes one of the European Capitals of Culture.

There will be exhibitions held here related to the theme of Freedom Street, which will tell the story of the Latvian move towards freedom in 1991.

World War 1 saw the destruction, not only of buildings and people, but the destruction of whole ways of life and culture. Latvia, like the other Baltic States, lost their prestige, their identity and their freedom in the aftermath of the war. Many Latvians were exiled, expelled, killed and impoverished after WW1. Many Latvians left to start a new life elsewhere and, many, never returned.

The exhibition, Latvian Suitcase, aims to demonstrate what was to be found in the luggage of those Latvians who, for different reasons, had to leave their country for ever. It is a multimedia exhibition focusing on memories and asking the individual what they would take in a suitcase if they had to leave their home country for an indeterminate time. The other exhibitions deal with the relationship between people and power, which will be very powerful considering the uses the Corner House were put to for over 50 years.

The exhibitions are free and run from 1st of May to the 19th of October. The opening hours are: Monday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Thursday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. It is closed on Tuesdays.

Riga – Capital of Culture 2014

Riga is one of the 2014 Cities of Culture along with Umeå in Sweden. The idea began as the European City of Culture from an initiative, by Melina Mercouri in 1983, who was then the Greek Minister of Culture.  Riga is the third Baltic city to be so honoured because Vilnius was one of the holders in 2009 and Tallinn in 2011.

As always there will be lots of special events for both residents and locals who want to partake of regional culture. The official website of the cultural events is to be found at http://riga2014.org/eng/.  According to the site there will be a special commemorative coin minted in Germany at the Staatliche Münze Baden-Württemberg (The State Mint at Baden-Württemberg), which will be available in autumn. There are also collector coins available from the Bank of Latvia to celebrate various aspects of Latvian culture.

There will be a special coin to commemorate The Baltic Way or Baltic Chain, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. The Baltic Way was a peaceful celebration on August 23, 1989 and was literally a human chain which stretched through Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. The total distance of the chain was about 600 km. Around 2 million demonstrators linked hands for about 15 minutes at 16:00 GMT.

The date was chosen because it was the 50th anniversary of the 50th anniversary of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, a secret pact, which divided Eastern Europe into “spheres of influence” and allowed the Red Army to invade Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania illegally in 1940. The Kremlin had denied for years that such a pact existed and that they had been invited into the Baltic States. There was major unrest throughout the Baltic States throughout 1989 in the run up to the 50th anniversary. A commission was set up by the Congress of People’s Deputies to study the agreement on August 15th 1989. On August 17th some proposals were printed in the Communist Party newspaper of the Soviet Union, Pravda, which made some concessions to the Baltic States such as lessening the language laws. On 18th of August Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev, the Chairman of the commission, admitted in an interview that the pact did exist and the USSR had, basically, invaded the Baltic States. On August 22nd the Supreme Soviet of Lithuania declared that the Soviet Union had illegally invaded Lithuania and, therefore, all its laws were illegal. The human chain took place the day after.

The Soviet Union responded to the chain with a vast amount or condemnation and rhetoric but did not impose a Crimea Solution.

Seven months after the human chain, Lithuania became the first of the Baltic States to declare independence from the Soviet Union. By the end of 1991 all three states were independent.

The economic and social history of Estonia

I am currently writing a novel set in Tallinn and based on events relating to the removal of the Soviet War Memorial in Tonismagi which happened in 2007. In order to make sure that I have got the historical aspects of the story correct I have been doing a lot of online research into the history of the country.

At the moment I am looking at the events which led up to removal of the war memorial and the reasons for the removal. The removal of the monument led to demonstrations in both Tallinn and Moscow and the reasons for the public reaction are central to the story I am writing.

In this post, I am sharing some of the information I have cleaned about the Russian/Soviet role in the shaping of modern Estonia.

In 1721 the Swedish forces in Estonia were defeated by the Russian Empire and Russian rule was imposed under the Uusikaupunki Peace Treaty. Under the Russia rule several aspects of the original German-Nordic infrastructure and culture remained such as the legal system, Lutheran church, local and town government and education. The Russians abolished serfdom in 1819 which allowed peasants to own their own land or move to the cities. This created the foundation for the Estonian national cultural awakening which became an important force in the resistance to Communist rule in the 1980s.

The 1905 revolution in Russian led brutal suppression by the Russian Empire as it fought back. However, the Estonians were still able to maintain their culture, language and dreams of independent statehood.

The collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 and the events of World War 1 presented Estonians with the opportunity to gain national autonomy. The Republic of Estonia was declared on February 24th 1918, just one day before German troops invaded. The German troops withdrew in November 1918 and fighting broke out between the Estonian and Bolshevik troops.

The Treaty of Tartu was signed on February 2nd 1920 by the Republic of Estonia and Soviet Russia in which Soviet Russia gave up the right, in perpetuity, to the territory of Estonia. There followed 22 years of independence and immense social and economic change. The agrarian economy was run on a feudal system with native peasants working on large estates held by ethnic Germans.

After 1920 the state seized control of the large estates, compensated the German landowners and redistributed the land to ethnic Estonians in order to create small farms. At this time the country already had a large industrial sector which was dominated by the world’s largest cotton mill but the economy had suffered from the economic events in Tsarist Russia. During this period Estonia established a parliamentary form of government, traded with Scandinavia and western Europe, introduced the Kroon as its currency, gave cultural autonomy to minority ethnic groups, established Estonian language schools and the culture flourished.

This came to an end in August 23rd 1939 when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact was signed by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. This pact reversed that of Treaty of Tartu and the Soviet Union was able to occupy Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and parts of Finland. The Estonian Socialist Republic (ESR) was declared on July 21st 1940 and in August the country was occupied by Soviet troops.

The Sovietization of Estonia began with the introduction of Stalinist communism, the expropriation of personal property, the nationalisation of the means of production, the introduction of the Russian language and the first deportations of Estonian landowners and private citizens. When Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22nd 1941 the situation for Estonians got even worse. The Nazis carried out their own repressions and about 5,500 Estonians died in concentration camps, ports were destroyed, 45% of industry and 40% of railways were damaged, the population decreased by around 200,000 people as over 80,000 people fled to the west and over 30,000 soldiers were killed in battle.

The defeat of the Nazis led to the Soviet seizing control of the Narva and Petseri border districts, arresting anyone who had supported the Nazis or not welcomed the Soviets, deporting 20,722 people to Siberia and introducing ethnic Russians into the country.

The destruction of the ports, industry and the railway system during the war had crippled the Estonian economy. The land which had been redistributed during the period of independence was seized and by mid-1949 more than 56% collectivised and many small farmers were deported to Siberia. On the other hand, industry was allowed relative freedom to grow and prosper.

Things improved greatly after Stalin’s death and Estonia was allowed greater contact with the west. Ties were re-opened with Finland and the Finnish president made a visit to Tallinn. This resulted in the opening up of sea lanes between the two countries and the construction of the Sokos Hotel Viru to accommodate the new tourists and business people. The signal blockers came down from St Olaf’s spire to give Estonians access to Finnish television and radio. All ties with the west were carefully monitored by the KGB from the HQ in Pikk and their listening station in the Hotel Viru but there was much more freedom and Estonian culture was allowed to emerge from the Soviet cultural reform.

Step by step Estonians gained more freedoms and more self-control. This approach contrasted with the violent approach of Latvia and Lithuania, and so Estonia managed to avoid the crackdowns and murders of January 1991. During the August coup of 1991, when Gorbachev was kidnapped, the Estonian government was able to give the West a clear view of the events unfolding in the USSR as it had regained control of its telecommunications systems. On August 20th 1991 the Estonian government reissued its declaration of independence and the USSR Supreme Soviet recognised it on September 6th. Soviet troops formally withdrew on August 31st 1994.

The desovietisation of Estonia was pretty swift with the country quickly opening up ties to the west and demolishing the statues and plagues which represented Soviet rule and the Soviet version of history. Some of these can now see preserved in the basement of the Museum of Occupations.

PS The cotton mill in Narva County went bankrupt and was bought by a Swedish company.