A trip into the unknown

In the middle of June, I was thinking about where to spend the autumn half term and thought of Minsk. As a user of Postcrossing, I had been allocated a member in Minsk, Republic of Belarus, to write to. The person I wrote to, sent a message back with a link to a video. The video was short, a day compressed into a few minutes, but I was hooked. Within minutes, I was booked on a return flight to Vilnius with the prospect of a short land journey to and from Minsk.

People have asked me, incredulously, Why Minsk? Why not? Many of my colleagues and friends seem to think it is a rather dangerous place. They mean the Ukraine. Actually, the mean The Crimea, which is no longer part of Ukraine having been swiped by Putin’s Russia. Someone mentioned a bomb going off in Kiev. This was the week when an Islamic terrorist mowed down innocent people at a street festival in Nice. Wrong capital and wrong country.

I have elected to fly to Vilnius for two reasons: it is cheaper than flying to Minsk and I would like to see Vilnius again. There is also the added bonus of a transfer from Vilnius to Minsk and back.

I have written a short article for the Minsk Gazette on the thorny issue of travel visas. I have never been to Russia because I really cannot be bothered filling in an application form which is even worse than a job application. People have told me that they would be put off by having to apply for a visa. I have warned them that this could be the new travelling reality now the UK has voted for Brexit. The good news is, that the Belarus visa is two sides of A4 and does not demand to know what colour underwear you have. I managed to print it off and fill it in within 10 minutes.

To go with the visa you need travel and health insurance, a receipt from your accommodation to show that all is above board and the renters have the permit to do business, a nice photograph, tickets and the money. I was missing the accommodation coupon the first time but got my visa the second time.

The visa office had a nice stash of tourist information in England which I have added to my collection. What I have learned from this material is: not a lot of English is spoken, there is a lot of the Cyrillic alphabet around in Belarus and there is a lot to see. My trip is for three days so I am already thinking about how much I can fit it if I keep at it from 08:00 to 17:00. I have booked an apartment in the hope of meeting some residents in the corridors and maybe having a chat. This worked in Warsaw.

I have been corresponding with other travellers on Trip Advisor to find out useful information for the trip. We have had a lively discussion on the possibility of travelling from Vilnius by train. Despite over 30 years of independent travelling and as long teaching the English language, I failed to understand the requirements of the Belarus Railway website (http://www.rw.by/en/)and booked myself a ticket on a Eurolines bus from Vilnius to Minsk. I hope I can make myself understood the other end as I would really like to travel back by train.

I have no idea what to expect in terms of weather, food, drink and the feel of the city. All I know is, it will be a great adventure. I expect to come back having met some wonderful people and with some wonderful photographs.

Giant Statues and Giant History Recorded

From my Facebook Page (https://www.facebook.com/Lynn.Bradshaw.Writer#) and TripAdvisor review

I have started writing up my reviews of Budapest on TripAdvisor.

Giant Statues and Giant History Recorded

There are few places left in Europe where you can see the monumental monuments and statues the Soviets placed to remind the conquered of their station in life. Memento Park is one of them.

Despite the Disney World approach to selling the park it does have a serious purpose. That purpose is to act as a reminder of how much the Soviet System brutalized the populations it tried to rule and subdue. The statues remind us of the enormity of the ego of the Soviet invaders and the belief system they tried to force on people e.g. Socialism with an Inhuman Face. Once you get past the tacky tacky souvenir shop, itself a comment on the tackiness of Sovietsky, then you are in a surreal world of monster statues.

Not all the statues are really really huge. Some are just normal pass-by without noticing size, some are just about noticeable and some are so huge they can probably be seen from outer space. The huge ones generally represent the fallen Soviet heroes or commemorate heroic events by the Soviets; the smaller one remember the fallen, the quietly heroic and the people who made a difference to life in the country.

The park is a place of wonder and reflection. There’s a huge pair of boots near the entrance which were Stalin’s boots. One could say, that they remind us that he got “too big for his boots” which is why he was deposed and most statues of him destroyed. Lenin fared better. Karl Marx, who stirred up the whole revolutionary business in the first place, sits at the entrance looking rather academic.

The park is accessible via metro from Gellert Station and a 150 bus. The bus trip goes through residential areas and a bit of countryside before stopping near a dirt track. When you get off the bus, the Statue Park is behind you . Look around for the boots!



Communist housing units in Warsaw

“Ostalgie” is the term used for having nostalgic feelings for the old ways of life behind the Iron Curtain. It emerged after the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the rush to capitalist-type economic systems destroyed the way of life which had existed since 1939. People in the Eastern Bloc countries began to miss some of the certainties of life and products of the Communist Era; people from the West began to yearn for a view of the life style which had been denied them for 50 years.

Ostalgie is evident in the recreations of aspects of Communist life in former Communist countries. Go to East Germany, Poland, Hungary or the Czech Republic and take a tour in a Trabant. Relive the olden days in Warsaw with a visit to the Communist Museum with it’s replica Socialist Style flat.In Tallinn, visit the Energie or Narva coffee shops and see how it used to be, down to the decor and the brightly coloured cakes. In Warsaw, visit the Red Cow pub and marvel at their artifacts. Wander round old markets and pick up a statue of Lenin. In Riga, go to Agenskalns Market and get yourself a Soviet lapel pin or an old piece of equipment. The huge Victory Monument is still looming large in Riga, if you want to cross the river and marvel at it. In Budapest, don’t forget the Monument Park which is full of Communist Statues. In Lithuania visit Kaunus and see the remains of the Soviet monuments on the streets. The restaurant Marxism in Budapest is a reminder of how the food used to be. If you go behind the National Museum in Tallinn you can see an abandoned lot of old Communist statues, including a rather nice Lenin.Unfortunately, the statues and red stars have largely disappeared in Prague. There used to be a rather nice one outside the main station.

Obviously, no one misses the KGB in its various incarnations, the spying, the secret photography, the phone tapping, the prison cells, the sudden executions, the lack of free speech, the tanks on the streets, the food shortages and the blocked television channels. It seems, though, that there is a yearning for some of the simplicity and certainties of the old Communist days in our consumerist society.


“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.

The Great Russian History Tour of Estonia

The Great Russian History Tour of Estonia which used to reside on the pages of http://www.visitestonia.com seems to have disappeared. It appears to have been taken off the website though it was there a few weeks. Conspiracy theorists might find a link between this and the resurgance of the old Soviet enemy in the Crimea.

The basics of the tour as posed on the Visit Estonia website were:

1. Kadriorg Palace → 2. Tallinn Tourist Information Centre in Old Town → 3. St. Nicholas’ Orthodox Church → 4. Church of Our Lady of Kazan → 5. Paldiski town → 6. Amandus Adamson Studio Museum → 7. Haapsalu Tourist Information Centre → 8. Africa Beach and Promenade → 9. Haapsalu Resort Hall → 10. Tchaikovsky’s Bench in Haapsalu → 11. Haapsalu Railway Station → 12. Pärnu Visitor Centre → 13. Church of Jekaterina → 14. Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Pärnu Transformation of Our Lord Church → 15. Barclay de Tolly Mausoleum → 16. Tartu Visitor Centre → 17. Kolkja Museum of Old Believers → 18. The Pühtitsa Dormition Convent (Kuremäe Convent) → 19. Narva City Guide.

The website recommended taking 5 days to do this tour but there seems to be some pointless stops on this tour.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the removal of the last of the the Soviet occupiers, I am planning on combining a tour which takes in both the pre-1939 Russian rule of Estonia as well as the remnants of the post 1939 Soviet invasion.

My Grand Tour would start in Tallinn and then branch out:

Tallinn > The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral on Toompea > Freedom Square > Sopros Cinema > Kohvik Energia > Kohvik Narva > Kadriorg Palace

Tallinn > Haapsalu > Haapsalu Railway Station > Estonian Railway Museum > Haapsalu Promenade > > Africa Beach > Haapsalu Resort Hall > Pjotr Tchaikovsky bench > Haapsalu Shawl Museum > Haapsalu Old Town > Episcopal Castle and Convent > Uuemõisa manor > Ungru manor > Swedish Market > Pürksi manor house > Kiltsi airfield > Communications Museum > Museum of the Coastal Swedes > Carl Abraham Hunniuse Monument > The Ilon Wikland Gallery of Children’s Books > the harbour.

Tallinn > Narva > along the E20 > Narva old town > Narva Hermann Fortress >  the bridge to Russia > the Kressholm Cotton Factory

Tallinn > Tartu > the old town and the museum

Tallinn > Parnu > the old town and the beach areas.

No doubt I will be adding to do this list as I plan further but I think this is a good start for anyone planning a one week trip to Estonia.

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.