A Gap In The Defenses – Suwalki, Augustow & Bialystok: Last Forevers (Travels In Eastern Europe #64)

The Seskotai to Warsaw portion of the train trip turned out to be a delightful journey. I had the Welsh couple to keep me company while the train rolled through the gorgeous countryside of northeastern Poland. It was at the height of autumn. The forests were illuminated with fall foliage, while the ponds and lakes which dotted the area shimmered in the afternoon sunlight. The Welsh couple I had met on the platform at Seskotai, consisted of a strikingly attractive, middle aged red-headed woman who worked some sort of office job close to Cardiff, while her stocky husband ran the farm they owned together. Both of them were pleasant and talkative, unless the subject turned to the English, whom they found particularly distasteful. If anything was wrong in Britain, then it was an Englishman’s fault according to them.

Their attitude had much in common with Eastern Europeans from small and medium sized nations that had suffered at the hands of much larger foes. As the English were to the Welsh, so the Poles were to the Lithuanians or the Germans and Russians were to the Poles. The couple were frequent travelers to Eastern Europe, coming to watch horse races each year in Brno, the Czech Republic’s second city. On these same trips they made time to visit other places in the region. They were now heading towards Brno to watch the races starting in a couple of days. The husband studied the rolling landscape with the eye of a farmer. He noted the many fallow fields, remarking that these could easily be cultivated. The Poles were leaving money in the earth. The lack of development in this region made its nature more spectacular.  The forests, fields and ponds literally glowed beneath a radiant, late afternoon splash of sunshine.

State of nature - The beauty of northeastern Poland

State of nature – The beauty of northeastern Poland (Credit: Lilly M)

A Most Important Unknown Place– Strategic Suwalki
I was entranced by the serene and pristine nature. This was matched by my fascination with the area’s history. Despite its beauty, I knew that this land had been fiercely contested by Poles, Lithuanians, Prussians and Russians for many centuries. The geopolitical situation had stabilized since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but could flare up at any time. Half an hour after crossing the Polish border, the train made a stop in Suwalki. Suwalki was not only close on the Lithuanian border, but to its north could be found the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and to the south, Belarus. Nations that were to be feared rather than trusted.  The area was just as strategically important today as it had been during the first half of the 20th century. The flat narrow strip of land I was traveling through was a highly strategic security corridor for the European Union and NATO alliance.

Known as the Suwalki Gap, the only place the Baltic States border the rest of NATO. It is through this gap, that NATO troops would have to travel if they had to defend the Baltic States from a Russian attack. Conversely, Russia could sever NATO’s connections with Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia by closing off the gap by moving troops and armor into it. This land pockmarked with lakes and dark forests, rolling fields and rural farmsteads has not changed much over the centuries, either physically or geopolitically. Rumbling through it on a Polish train gave little hint as to its true importance to European and world peace. It was hard to imagine that a land hardly anyone knows, visits or cares about could become the setting for another World War.

The Suwalki Gap

The Suwalki Gap (Credit: Bruno Adrie)

A Primeval World – Beauty & The Beast
After Suwalki the next stop was Augustow, one of those places that was in the wrong place at the wrong time multiple times from 1914 to 1945. The First and Second Battles of The Masurian Lakes brought the German and Russian armies here in the fall of 1914 and winter of 1915. Polish and Lithuanian forces fought the Battle of Augustow around the area in 1920. Then during World War II it experienced multiple occupations, deportations and exterminations. Ethnic Poles were deported to Kazakhstan by the Soviets, the Jewish community was wiped out by the Nazis and the Soviets rounded up Polish Home Army members at the end of the war. As for the physical infrastructure of Augustow, seven out of every ten buildings were destroyed. With a history like this, it was a wonder that anything was left standing. Yet the main attraction of Augustow remained unscathed. The train skirted the Puszcza Augustowska, Polish for the Augustow primeval forest, In addition to the venerable woodlands. The train passed by several large lakes that the sunlight had transformed into pools of liquid fire. The natural world trumped the manmade all across northeastern Poland.

Much the same could be said of Bialystok which was the next prominent place the train stopped. Like so many places in the world which are well endowed with natural beauty, Bialystok was on the edge economically. Ever since the collapse of communism, industry had fallen on hard times. This made it a Polish hinterland and not just in a geographical sense, but also an economic one. Its youth fled to more vibrant cities further west. Bialystok was a place to vacation or visit family in the surrounding area, but very difficult to make a living. The history of Bialystok, was pretty much the history of Augustow, just on a larger scale. Half the population and 75% of the city center was destroyed during the Second World War. It was rebuilt afterward. Unfortunately, this took place under the communist regime which left a dismal legacy of concrete and smokestacks. Looking out the train window it was hard to believe that nearby stood the last stretches of the primeval forest which once covered much of Northern Europe. Deep in these woods the European bison still roamed. This ancient world has been protected in the Białowieża Forest National Park. Comparing the surrounding nature to Bialystok was like a reality episode of Beauty and the Beast.

Momentary rapture along Polish Railways

Momentary rapture along Polish Railways (Credit: Grzegorz Saczyło)

Forever Fleeting – Momentary Raptures
After Bialystock, the stops increased, but were in less prominent places. The kind of towns that people leave, rather than visit. Lapy, Szepietowo, Czyzew, Malkina, Tluszcz. Before long we were on the outskirts of Warsaw. This would be my last train trip for at least six months. I was back to where I started two weeks before. Saying goodbye to the Welsh couple filled me with a wave of sadness. Not because we had that much in common, but from the knowledge that traveling brought me into contact with people and places that were otherwise foreign to me. I became familiar with another world, one that was forever fleeting. These were moments that I could only have for a limited amount of time. Somehow I would have to make them last forever.

Abandoned By The World – Sestokai, Lithuania: A Forgotten Frontier (Travels In Eastern Europe #63)

The morning arrived that I was due to leave Lithuania for Warsaw. My trip was almost over, except for this final train trip. I was surprised to discover that only a single train traveled between the two cities each day. This had to do with geo-politics. A more direct route between the two cities would have gone through the city of Grodno in Belarus. I could have gone this way, if I had an inordinate amount of time on my hands, wanted to chance getting shaken down by Belarusian border guards and purchase an outrageously expensive visa.

Belarus was not in the European Union and was not likely to be anytime in the future. Thus, I would have to take a train to Sestokai, a small town close to the Poland-Lithuanian border and then make a transfer. Almost all of Lithuania uses the old Soviet railway gauge which is broader than the standard European gauge. Thus, one train would take me from Vilnius to Sestokai and then another one from Sestokai to Warsaw. The line that ran from Sestokai to the Polish border opened just two years after the Soviet collapse. So many things are new in the old world of Eastern Europe. For some reason, I imagined Sestokai as a large railway interchange teeming with activity. That turned out to be far from the truth.

Unexpected Nightmares – The Night of Day
I got to the Vilnius Train Station well ahead of time. I did not want to miss the only train that could take me to Warsaw in time for my flight back home the next day. Soon enough we were headed through the Lithuanian countryside. It did not take long before we were at Kaunas, the second largest city in the country. I knew Kaunas, but not from a prior visit. I had seen a terrifying photograph taken in Kaunas during World War II while visiting the site of the infamous Wannsee Conference in a suburb of Berlin. This was where the Final Solution – the planned extermination of the Jews – was planned. An exhibit about the Holocaust in Lithuania contained a photo from what is known as the Kaunas Pogrom in late June of 1941. It was taken during the Lietukis Garage Massacre. In the photo, a man was swinging an iron bar at someone lying on the ground. There was the blood and bodies of Jewish men who either lay dying or were already dead. Soldiers were gathered around watching.

The horror - Lietukis Garage Massacre in Kaunas

The horror – Lietukis Garage Massacre in Kaunas

The photo was utterly terrifying. I froze in horror and looked at it for a long time in stunned disbelief. The one thing I remember besides that image, was that it was taken in Kaunas. This memory was a shock to my system. Looking at Kaunas through the train window, nothing hinted at this brutally dark past. It was not fair to judge Kaunas by a photo taken in the city seventy years before in entirely different circumstances, just as it was not fair to judge this city from a train window either. I began to have strange, paradoxical feelings. Ever since that first, fleeting glimpse of Kaunas, I have longed to explore the city, prove that horrific picture wrong by experiencing beauty and kindness there. To find a bright, transcendent light to burn away all that darkness. Unfortunately, light and darkness also can cause blindness. Knowledge of history is a wonderful thing, until you realize that it can lead to unexpected nightmares. I will have to come back to Kaunas, if only to prove history right or wrong.

Crossing Over – Isolated Anxiety
After Kaunas I began to get anxious. I knew the train would stop soon, but I had no idea what was to come. This moment of anticipation heightened my awareness. The train soon came to a dead stop at what had to be Sestokai. There was a small brick station, several sets of train tracks going in either direction and hardly anyone else around. I struck up a conversation with a Welsh couple. They were just as confused as I was. Where was the Polish train that would take us on to Warsaw? The place was nearly deserted. Standing on a platform with no train in sight, it felt like we had been abandoned by the world. There was something cinematic about our situation. Isolated travelers, thrown together on the frontier of a foreign country, having no idea what might come next.  It is moment’s like these while traveling that I feel most vulnerable. Conversely, it is also in such moments that I rely on hope and trust. What other choice was there? We would just have to wait.

An Isolated Anxiety - Sestokai Train Station

An Isolated Anxiety – Sestokai Train Station

We were supposedly in the heart of Sestokai, but whatever town there seemed to be of no consequence. Nothing notable could be seen. This was a strange hinterland. It felt like a border outpost, but was not quite on the border. It was of great importance to travelers, but there were very few to be seen. The railway station looked like it belonged to a forgotten era. It had a provincial, time standing still look about it. Sestokai only enjoyed its notoriety because of a quirk in the European railway gauge system, a relic of the Cold War. In a sense I was standing, not just on a platform, but one of those bizarre fault lines that are a legacy of the Eastern Bloc and Soviet Union. I imagine that as Lithuania becomes more intertwined within the European Union and westward in outlook, Sestokai will become increasingly marginalized. By the looks of it, the place had always been close to that point.

Leaving Lithuania

Leaving Lithuania (Credit: Gediminas)

Leaving Lithuania – An Unknown Fear
The Welsh couple and myself were at the point of wondering aloud to each other whether another train would come for us. That was followed by rhetorical questions about whether we were even in the right place. None of us knew a word of Lithuanian so there was little use in entering the station to ask. Besides, none of us wanted to leave in case the train suddenly arrived. After what seemed like an eternity, but was in fact less than thirty minutes, a train slowly pulled up to the platform. No one signaled or gave us any hint that this was our train, we just got onboard. As the train began to slowly head west towards the Polish border I relaxed. We were on our way to Warsaw. Leaving Lithuania behind made me sad. When, if ever, would I return? This is a fear I always have when leaving a country or at the end of a trip. Is this the last time? I have no way of knowing and that is one of the main reasons I keep on traveling.

Taking On The World – Lithuanian Long Shots: Basketball The Baltic Way (Travels In Eastern Europe #62)

While walking around Vilnius I began to notice something strange, attached to many of the light posts were basketball goals. Above them were banners heralding the fact that Vilnius would soon be hosting the next World Basketball Championships. It was also a signal that Lithuania’s most popular sport is basketball. In Europe, just as in the world at large, football is the dominant sport. And this dominance is most pronounced in larger countries such as Spain, Germany, Great Britain and France. The chances of Lithuania or any other small European nation making a run at a World Cup title are minuscule. Unlike football, basketball requires only five starting players. To field a world class side, a team only needs a couple of excellent players or a starting five that gels at the right time. Putting together a world class basketball squad is something Lithuania has done time and again, going all the way back to the 1930’s.

After the Soviet Union collapsed at the beginning of the 1990’s and the reconstruction of the Baltic nations, I distinctly remember hearing Lithuanian names for the first time. The two I recall most prominently were Sarunas Marciulonis and Aryvadis Sabonis. Both were excellent basketball players who would go onto careers in the National Basketball Association (NBA). This was my first hint that the sporting prowess of the Soviet Union was a distinctly multi-ethnic affair. Many of the best Soviet sportsmen were not ethnic Russians. At first this seems a bit odd, because “the Russians”  was a term synonymous with the Soviet Union. Ethnic Russians were  80% of the total Soviet population, but there were millions of Soviet citizens from other ethnic backgrounds as well. Many of these made a name for themselves, especially in athletics. Some groups such as the Lithuanians already had strong athletic traditions that the Soviets built upon.

Nationalist sentiment - Lithuanian and historical Vytis flags displayed by fans during EuroBasket

Nationalist sentiment – Lithuanian and historical Vytis flags displayed by fans during EuroBasket (Credit: globalite)

A Point Of National Pride – Tipping Off
Basketball in Lithuania owes much of its popularity to the nation in which it was invented, the United States. Lithuanians came to America seeking a better life throughout the late 19th and early 20th century. While working their way up the economic ladder, many of them spent leisure time playing basketball. In 1935, ethnic Lithuanians from around the world were invited back to their ancestral homeland to take part in a World Lithuanian Congress. Lithuanian-American basketball players fielded a team at that event which captured the imagination of their compatriots. The American influence grew the following year after Frank Lubin, whose parents were both born in Lithuania, led the United States to the Gold Medal in the 1936 Summer Olympics. Lubin followed up this success by traveling to Lithuania and coaching basketball. The popularity of the sport began to soar within the country.

In 1937, Lithuania played in its first international competition, the EuroBasket tournament. Due to the play of several Lithuanian –Americans, who had been late additions to the team, they won the championship. Two years later, Lithuania hosted the event and won again. World War II effectively ended Lithuania’s reign as European champions with subsequent international competitions cancelled for the duration of the conflict. Following the war, Lithuania was subsumed into the Soviet Union. Its star basketball players became the force that would lead the Soviet side to a silver medal in the 1952 Summer Olympics. They starred in future Olympics as well. Many Lithuanians were able to channel their nationalism through basketball. Kaunas’ Zalgiras squad often played their hardest when facing the top Soviet team, CSKA Moscow. The games were a point of national pride and became de facto contests between Lithuania and the ruling regime. Basketball was cathartic, allowing Lithuanians to show their patriotic pride short of a full-scale revolt, which would have been met with deadly force.

The first great Lithuanian National Basketball Team - EuroBasket 1937 champions

The first great Lithuanian National Basketball Team – EuroBasket 1937 champions

Giants & Giant Killers – Olympian Achievements
When representing the Soviet Union, ethnic Lithuanians played as though they had something to prove. One of the greatest upsets in Olympic Basketball history and arguably the Soviet Union’s greatest basketball victory in international competition would never have occurred without a triumvirate of Lithuanians leading the way. At the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea, the Soviets faced off against the tournament favorite United States in a semifinal match. Marciulonis, Sabonis and Rimas Kurtinatis combined to score 73% of their team’s points. Kurtinatis was on fire, leading all scorers with 28 points. The Soviets prevailed 82-76 over a United States squad that was filled with players that would go on to memorable NBA careers. It was a stunning upset. Coincidentally, it would also be the last Olympics where Lithuanians competed for the Soviet Union.

When Lithuania regained its independence in 1990, the small Baltic nation of just three million people was finally able to field a truly national team. It had been over half a century since Lithuania had competed on their own internationally. They were good enough to make a lasting impression. In 1992, the Lithuanians played as an independent nation in an Olympic Basketball competition for the first time ever. They went on to win a bronze medal in Barcelona. In both the 1996 and 2000 Olympics they managed to duplicate that feat. In the latter, they came close to pulling off another miraculous upset of the United States. In the semifinals, they met an American squad filled with star NBA players. The pre-1990 days when the Soviets put players on the court who were amateurs in name only was no more. Those virtual professionals had been heavily subsidized by the Soviet state.

Now it was the United States sporting a team with real professionals, taken straight from the NBA, the world’s premier basketball league. All-stars such as Jason Kidd, Gary Payton and Kevin Garnett faced off against a Lithuania team with only two players who would make it to the NBA, Sarunas Jasikevicius and Darius Songaila. And both Jasikevicius and Songaila would be journeymen at best. What the Lithuanians had in their favor was a cohesive team that had mastered the fundamentals of basketball. These traits helped them push the American squad to the limit. They nearly became the first team to defeat American professionals in the Olympics, losing a close contest by just two points.

Sarunas Marciulionis - one of Lithuania's greatest basketball stars

Sarunas Marciulionis – one of Lithuania’s greatest basketball stars (Credit: 517design)

A Victorious Expression – Nationalistic Sentiments
Lithuania has secured its place as one of the more formidable basketball teams in the world, a threat to beat the very best. That tradition has continued during the 21st century, with a couple of fourth place finishes in the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games. In addition, they won the bronze medal at the World Championships in 2010. Basketball is a crucial part of life for most Lithuanians, acting as an expression of sporting prowess and nationalistic sentiment. It allows this small, relatively quiet nation a place on the world stage. A place where they can take on all comers and enjoy the pride and pleasure of victory.

Estonia’s Forest Brother: August Sabbe:  Fighting Beyond The Bitter End

About once a year I hear the story retold of World War II soldier Hiroo Onoda. Onoda was the Japanese intelligence officer who hid out in the jungles and mountains of the Philippines for over three decades. He continued fighting the war, believing Japan had never surrendered. For Onoda, the Japanese surrender was unfathomable. Only in 1974, after Onodo’s former commanding officer traveled back to the Philippines and convinced him that Japan had long since surrendered, did he finally give up the fight. Onoda’s single-minded zealotry has been viewed as symbolic of the Japanese mindset during the war. He may be an outlier, an extreme example, but Onoda’s fanaticism shows how seriously many fighting for the Japanese cause took their duty.

Freedom fighters - A group of Estonian Forest Brothers

Freedom fighters – A group of Estonian Forest Brothers

Beyond The War – Taking To The Woods
Hidden behind the iron Curtain and almost unknown to westerners, the same fanatical resolve was also to be found in several parts of Eastern Europe after the World War II officially ended. In Ukraine and the Baltic States, partisans continued to fight the Soviet regime throughout the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Hiding out in the woods was a way of life for these fighters. None more so than those in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. They became known as Forest Brothers. Living a precarious existence, hiding out among the thick, dark woods and impenetrable lakes of the inland Baltic landscapes, these fighters managed to exact a considerable casualty toll on Soviet armed forces.

In skirmishes large and small, using guerilla tactics, along with their knowledge of the landscape, many of the Forest Brothers managed to evade capture for years. Still others perished not long after they took to the woods. By one estimate the fighting between the Forest Brothers and Soviet forces led to over 50,000 deaths. For all their courage and skill at wilderness warfare the Forest Brothers were up against more than they would ever be able to defeat. The Soviets could marshal an endless supply of soldiers and intelligence operatives, while the Forest Brothers had only a limited number of men to spare. The weight of numbers would turn out to be too much, but that did not keep a few men fighting well beyond the 1950’s.

August Sabbe (on the left) - Legendary Forest Brother

August Sabbe (on the left) – Legendary Forest Brother

Holding Out – The Lonely Fight
In southeastern Estonia, within a half hour’s drive of the Russian border, stands the tiny village of Paidra. Here the landscape is totally pastoral, with forests interspersed with fields and a handful of farmsteads. On the village’s eastern border runs the Vohandu River, on its western flank is Pikkjarv Lake. The greater area is surrounded by woods. This is a land that time forgot. Besides roads and humble dwellings, not much has changed in this land for centuries. One thing that has is the political system. It has now been over a quarter century since the Soviet Union collapsed and an independent Estonian state was re-established. The Soviet collapse was unexpected, but even more surprising was the fact that it occurred peacefully. That is because in parts of Estonia, the fight against Soviet power went on for decades. It is hard to imagine that a place like Paidra was a hotbed of rebellion, but it once was. The little village gave birth to one of the great Freedom fighters and final holdouts against the Soviet reoccupation of Estonia which took place in 1944.

August Sabbe was born under one empire and would die under another. In 1909, the year of his birth, Estonia as a nation was just an idea. The land into which he was born bristled under Tsarist Russian rule. When he died – if in fact he did die – in 1979, Estonia was a Soviet Socialist Republic, a small constituent part of the Soviet Union. Sabbe was not even ten years old when Estonia first gained its freedom. All through his teenage years and early adulthood he grew up in an independent nation. This all changed with the outbreak of World War II, first the Soviets, then the Nazis and once again the Soviets occupied Estonia. The latter occupation was harsh and deadly for Estonians, as tens of thousands were shipped off to Siberia, while the country was flooded with ethnic Russians who were seen as loyal to the Soviet regime.

Thousands of Estonian men took to the woods, in what became a valiant yet ultimately futile attempt to fight for their small nation’s freedom. By 1953 most of these fighters had either been killed or gravitated back to domestic life. August Sabbe was not one of them. Sabbe somehow managed to hold out, living by his wits, backwoodsman skills and aid from friendly villagers. Twenty-five years after the fight had been all but lost, Sabbe was still living in a bunker not far from his birthplace. As unyielding as Sabbe was in continuing the lonely fight for independence, so to were the Soviets in their efforts to apprehend any Forest Brothers that still roamed the vast woodlands of rural Estonia. Many of those who had helped Sabbe survive over the years, eventually grew older and died. He was forced to move closer to settlements. After a series of petty thefts close to the area Sabbe was from, the authorities began to take notice.

August Sabbe Memorial Monument - near the Vohandu River in Paidra Estonia

August Sabbe Memorial Monument – near the Vohandu River in Paidra, Estonia where he is said to have died

Open To Conjecture – Not To Be Taken Alive
In September 1979, while the 69 year old Sabbe was fishing in the Vohandu River, he was approached by two KGB agents posing as fishermen. Sabbe tried to pull a gun on the men, but he was not quick enough. They lunged at Sabbe and all three men ended up in the river. A fierce tussle ensued. When the KGB men finally pulled Sabbe from the water, he seemed to finally be subdued. Then suddenly he broke free from their grasp and dove back into the river. He would not be seen alive again. The river was quite shallow, leading some to believe that Saabe may not have drowned, but was killed. One thing is for certain, Sabbe would never be taken alive. He was true to the values of the Forest Brothers until the day he died. Whenever and however August Sabbe’s death might have occurred will always be a mystery, not unlike the man himself.

A Dream Lost In Time: A Trip To Trakai Island Castle: The Memorable & The Unforgettable (Travels In Eastern Europe #61b)

In 1866 a Polish artist by the name of Jozef Marsewski visited Trakai. He proceeded to paint a view of Trakai Island Castle from an opposite shoreline of Lake Galve. In the painting, the bare ruins of the Castle stand austere and dignified. Two decrepit bastions appear to the left of the main castle tower which rises above everything in the painting except for a luminescent sky. Sunlight warms the left side of the tower and collection of ruins which spread out beneath it. The waters of Lake Galve are placid and act as a giant watery mirror, reflecting an array of colors across the sky. On the left side of the painting, the sky and water almost become one, blending in a glorious shade of pastel pink. In the foreground, two figures on either end of a boat glide atop the still waters. I saw this painting long after I visited the castle. It made me yearn for another visit to Trakai. One that would take place in the waning afternoon hours of an intensely warm summer day. To watch the sun slowly evaporate into a pink hued horizon while the castle shimmered in a medieval mirage.

Trakai Island Castle in ruins by Józef Marszewski

Trakai Island Castle in ruins by Józef Marszewski (Credit: National Museum in Warsaw)

Capturing Trakai – Ruins & The Imagination
Such a scene did not materialize on the day I visited Trakai. It is highly unlikely that I will ever have that experience , but I can always dream or at least gaze at Marsewski’s painting which has much the same effect. The painting can be seen today in the National Museum in Warsaw.  The scene Marsewski captured at Trakai evoked an intense mysticism in me. That mysticism was shadowed by a sense of irrevocable loss. It would be difficult enough to find a day similar to the one Marsewski portrays, but impossible to find Trakai Island Castle in ruins. The restored castle I visited on that gray autumn day looked thoroughly grand and astonishingly beautiful. Unfortunately, it did not speak to me the way those ruins did as seen in Marsewski’s painting. Perhaps that was because the finished product of the present does not lend itself to the imagination the way ruins do.

One thing that could be recreated from that picture was a boat ride on the waters of Lake Galve. As I was leaving the castle, a lone boatman pleaded with me and a handful of others walking the grounds to go on his watercraft. He was insistent to the point of irritation. His beckoning followed me in and out of the castle. I heard him bellow forth at others with the same phrases. His cacophonous voice was the only sound in an otherwise silent environment. He was persistent, following whomever would listen or look his way. There was nothing remotely threatening about the boatman. When I thought about him later I felt a bit sad. Here was a man at the end of tourist season trying to make a living. His prospects for the next six to eight months were bleak. No wonder he was trying so hard. I think he deserved payment for being so adamant and obstinate. He left an impression on me that developed into an eternal soft spot for him in my heart.

Trakai Castle ruins sometime between 1870-1880

Trakai Castle ruins sometime between 1870-1880 (Credit: Arz1969)

Imperiousness – At Everyone Else’s Expense
On my way back to the mini-bus I met the Englishman who was on the tour with his mother. We struck up a conversation. He thought the castle was a fabulous sight, but Lithuania was not for him. The people were reserved, if a bit cold. There was so much silence. Even though I enjoyed Lithuania, I knew what he meant. There was something about this land and the people that made me feel alone. A quietness and solitude seemed to pervade everything. The only exception was our tour guide, who came walking briskly up to us ready to unload a mindful of information. It was supposed to be a short ride back, but I felt a sense of inevitable interminability coming on. Sure enough, as soon as we began the ride back toward Vilnius, the guide told us everything she wanted us to know about Lithuania. What Lithuanians did for fun, what sports they played, what the economy was like, what daily living was like and strangely enough, when she might get married. She was the Lithuanian version of a walking almanac.

I had to give her credit though for trying so hard. Plus, I came to value her torrent of information much more after the imperious, older Norwegian lady began to talk about herself. She owned many businesses, had been insanely successful and made sure we knew it. She reminded me of a haughtier version of successful small-town businessmen in America that I have known. No one could do it better than her. And she did it at everyone else’s expense. I wondered what the Englishman and his mother thought. They were humble middle class people, polite and deferential. By the time we got back to Vilnius I knew this woman was better than me and everyone else she had ever met. It was a relief when the mini-bus dropped us off in the Old Town.

Ready to go - Boat on Lake Galve with Trakai Castle in the distance

Ready to go – Boat on Lake Galve with Trakai Castle in the distance (Credit: Henryk Kolowski)

Warmth & Wonder – A Mother’s Instinct
The Englishman then asked me if I wanted to have a drink with him and his mother. I said sure. We found a nice outdoor café and ordered a few beverages. I noticed when we were at Trakai that his mother always stayed behind. When she walked, it was with noticeable pain. I wondered if this was the product of some sort of recent injury. It turned out that she had a chronic arthritic condition. She winced while trying to sit down and getting up was just as difficult. It was painful  to watch her facial expressions as she tried to get comfortable in a chair. Her son was infinitely patient. He helped her get up or move around. The mother looked to only be in her early 50’s, if that.

Despite her physical condition, her outlook on life was cheerful. She enjoyed talking to me about her life on the outskirts of London. Her eyes radiated a sense of warmth and wonder. I could not imagine how painful it must have been for her to travel to Lithuania or on the bus just to visit Trakai. She and her son gave me their addresses and phone numbers, then told me to come visit if I was ever near their home. We finished up our drinks and said short goodbyes, hoping to meet again in the future. I deeply regret that somewhere along the way I misplaced their contact information. It is almost certain that I will never see them again. It is also certain that I will never forget them. That was worth the trip, both to Trakai and Lithuania.

The Floating Fortress – A Trip To Trakai Island Castle: Irritability, Beauty & Tranquility (Travels In Eastern Europe #61a)

After a couple of days in Vilnius I decided that it was time to see something of the Lithuanian countryside. My newfound friends at Vilnius Home Bed & Breakfast recommended a day trip to nearby Trakai Island Castle. One look at a photo of Trakai convinced me this was where I should go. Trakai is the eye candy of Lithuanian castles. It sits on an island, its red brick image reflecting off the water. The photos I saw of Trakai before booking the tour were astounding. So much so that when the tour operator told me that the interior of the castle would be closed because it was a Monday, I could have cared less. Such minor scheduling details would not preclude me from taking photos or walking along the walls. Trakai was not going to be an exercise in history so much, as it was an exercise in vanity. Thus, I found myself at 10 a.m. on my last morning in Vilnius boarding a bus with a small group that included an English woman, her adult son and a broad shouldered, imperious looking Norwegian lady.

Hill fort mounds in Kernave

Hill fort mounds in Kernave (Credit: Jan Mehlich)

The Unimaginable Past – Kernave
Our guide was a Lithuanian woman who looked to be in her late 20’s. Once she started talking, she hardly ever stopped.  We heard, but did not learn, a withering amount of Lithuanian history over the next 45 minutes. Her idea of leading a tour was to tell us so much information that we would be too exhausted from listening to ask any questions. Between the bus ride and an unending stream of facts, I was ready to sleep for a month. Finally, the bus made a stop at an overlook for the ruins of Kernave. Here stood what was reputed to be the first capital of Lithuania. The ruins are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and were supposed to be the main attraction. Unfortunately, during the 1920’s a magnificent, yet entirely out of place neo-Gothic Church was constructed nearby. There were other churches in this area from the 15th through the 19th century, either they fell into ruin or were removed. The irony is that during Kernave’s golden age, the inhabitants were pagan. They were fighting for their very existence from Christian crusading Teutonic Knights. Now a massive church overlooked all that remained of their glorious past.

The remnants of Kernave sat on a plateau just above the Neris River. While I found the various mounds and ruins impressive it also was a reminder of just how few people lived in even the most important settlements during the early medieval period. A small town in Lithuania today would easily swallow these mounds the represented Kernave. During this time, the overwhelming majority of the population lived in the countryside, their existence was precarious at best. Kernave’s population would have expanded to capacity when they were under attack. It was as much a seat of protection, as it was of power. Kernave was likely the greatest Baltic hill fortress of its time. Nevertheless, its current condition did not look very impressive. Those were very different times, as unimaginable to us as today’s world would have been to Kernave’s residents.

A Magic Moment - Lake Galve & Trakai Island Castle

A Magic Moment – Lake Galve & Trakai Island Castle

The Magic Of The World – In Progress
The guide continued to talk incessantly as we headed towards Trakai. It was difficult to even get in a word. When I did ask her a question, if it did not fit in with her pre-prepared narrative, she became rather abrupt. By the time we arrived in Trakai, I was less interested in seeing the castle than getting a break from her ceaseless chatter. I fled from the bus and headed straight towards the edge of Lake Galve, which surrounds the island that Trakai stands on. Just about the time I was getting ready to snap my first coveted photo of the castle, I noticed a sailboat sliding silently across the water. It was a moment of stunning beauty and picturesque serendipity. I was instantly pleased with the photo, which looked so enchanting that I could hardly believe such a scene was there for the taking. Sometimes beauty and tranquility conspire to create a perfect moment that captures the magic of the world in progress.

I then made my way over the footbridge leading to the castle. Though the interior was not open, just walking around the castle walls proved illuminating. Trakai Castle had undergone an extensive restoration which was visible to the naked eye. The lower parts of the walls were original and did not match up with the bricks that had been used to rebuild the taller parts of these walls. The restoration had taken over a decade. Strangely enough, it was done under the communist regime. This seemed odd, as the idea of nobility was anathema to the communists. I noticed this same phenomenon at work while visiting the Old Towns of Riga and Warsaw. What possessed these regimes to rebuild historic neighborhoods and structures was hard to fathom. Perhaps it was done in a paradoxical bid to create confidence in a communist system that was an imposition on national honor. A reminder that not all was bad. Or at least the past offered respite from the present. Whatever the case, the restoration was fabulously done.  It did make me wonder though, had the castle ever really looked this good. All restorations approximate the past. This one was so magnificent that any faults I could find seemed like mere quibbles.

Reconstructing history - The brighter red brick is from the mid-20th century castle restoration

Reconstructing history – The brighter red brick is from the mid-20th century castle restoration

At The Mercy of History – The Decline Of Trakai
And what of the history of Trakai Castle? The castle underwent three phases of construction between the latter half of the 14th century and the first half of the 15th century. Its principle usage was as a fortress guarding against attack by the Teutonic Knights. One of these attacks brought it to ruin in 1377. This brought home to me the martial prowess of the Teutonic Knights. Taking Trakai meant overcoming nature as much as man. The castle would be rebuilt only a few decades later in stouter and stronger form, accentuating the Gothic elements. After the Teutonic Knights were soundly defeated at the Battle of Zalgiras (more famously known as the Battle of Tannenburg) in 1410 the castle morphed into a palatial residence for the Grand Dukes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The castle only went into perpetual decline after being badly damaged in the 17th century wars with Muscovy. It fell into disuse and was abandoned, left to the mercy of the elements.  The fact that it would eventually be resurrected in its current form did not mean that the ruins were without value, especially for artists.



The Power Of False Promises – Napoleon In Vilnius: Conquest & Failure In Lithuania (Travels In Eastern Europe #60)

When I think of Napoleon, the image that usually comes to mind is of a masterful military commander and visionary political leader. A self-made emperor, whose intoxication with power and flawed genius changed Europe forever. His vision and conquests reshaped the continent. I rarely think of Napoleon as having anything to do with Eastern Europe, but if I do it almost always involves his disastrous Russian campaign. Scenes such as the dyspeptic dictator directing his forces at the bloody Battle of Borodino or standing in the smoking ruins of Moscow. While visiting Vilnius I scarcely gave a thought to Napoleon, why would I? Vilnius seems light years away from anywhere I would associate with Napoleon. Yet he spent eighteen eventful days in the city during the summer of 1812. Long enough to leave both a legend and legacy behind.

The Grande Armée crossing the Niemen

The Grande Armée crossing the Niemen

Force Of Will – Liberation Without Freedom
Napoleon’s invasion of Imperial Russia commenced in territory that is now part of modern day Lithuania. His army crossed the Niemen River on June 23, 1812. He was soon being feted by the mayor of Kaunas.  Four days later, Napoleon arrived in Vilnius. The city had been liberated by his troops with hardly a casualty. First, the Russian Tsar Alexander and then his troops hastily retreated to the east. Upon his arrival, Napoleon was given a mixed reception by the residents of Vilnius. On one hand, he was a possible liberator, who would restore the independence of Lithuania. Pulling it out away from Tsarist rule. The reality turned out to be much more complicated. While Napoleon created a provisional government in Lithuania, he appointed French officials to have the final say in its affairs. The provisional government was created not to liberate Lithuania, but to help raise men and supplies for the invasion of Russia.  Napoleon was only going to give the Lithuanians a little of what they wanted to ensure their loyalty. In return, he received nine regiments of Lithuanian infantry and cavalry to assist the Grand Army. Twenty thousand men were called to arms. Little did they realize that in the coming months they would be marching into a deathtrap.

Right after his arrival, Napoleon toured the fortifications protecting the city, then over the coming days he visited a few more of the most prominent sites. I can vouch for the fact that the one which amazed him most is certainly worth seeing on a visit to Vilnius. The idea of Gothic architecture as flamboyant seems contradictory. Gothicism is usually dark, brooding and intimidates as much as it inspires. St. Anne’s Church in Vilnius is styled in what is known as Flamboyant Gothicism. The church’s façade is fantastically exuberant, with towering spires soaring skyward. No less than thirty-three different types of brick were used in the creation of the edifice. Imagine a red brick Bat Mobile turned vertical in a wonderous dynamism of stone and style. Such a spectacle led a man as deeply cultured and brilliant of intellect as Napoleon to have been profoundly moved by the sight of St. Anne’s. Legend says that upon seeing the church, Napoleon remarked that he would like to carry it back to Paris, “in the palm of his hand”. It is unlikely that Napoleon used these exact words, but it would not be surprising if he found St. Anne’s an otherworldly architectural wonder. Sadly, his reverence did not stop the church from being used as a military warehouse during the war.

False Promise- Napoleon in modern Vilnius

False Promise- Napoleon in modern Vilnius (Credit: Adas)

The Gate Of Dawn – Soldiering On
Another famous place in Vilnius that Napoleon visited was the Gate of Dawn. Just as today, the Gate of Dawn was the only one of the original nine city gates still standing, the rest having been torn down in the late 18th century by the order of Russian Tsarist officials when they took over the city. The gate gained its fame due to a venerated painting known as Our Lady of the Gate Of Dawn, which has been known to have miraculous powers. The painting portrays the Virgin Mary in northern Renaissance style. Long after the painting was done, a chapel was constructed around it and became a place of pilgrimage. That reverence continues today, just as it did two centuries ago. Napoleon first entered Vilnius through the Gate of Dawn while heading toward the city center, what is presently the Old Town. His first impression of Vilnius was that the locals were not as enthusiastic towards him as they had been earlier in Warsaw. Nevertheless, he and his soldiers were welcomed by crowds hoping that Napoleon would throw the Tsarist yoke off Lithuania once and for all.

The presence of his troops was a different story. The Grande Armée wore out its welcome not long after its arrival. They commandeered or looted crucial food stores and livestock from the locals. The peasantry took to the forests, trying to safeguard their possessions from marauding soldiers. Within a matter of days, the Grande Armée went from being viewed as liberators to obstinate occupiers. Relief only came to the area when they marched out of Lithuania, eastward into Russia. Vilnius would soon become a distant memory for them and their leader. A little less than five months later, a very different Napoleon was back in Lithuania. His army had been defeated by the vast spaces, harsh winter and a Russian Army that fought to the death for their territory. Napoleon arrived back in Vilnius on December 6th. His stay lasted less than a day, as he almost immediately left for Paris. There he hoped to fend off a coup d’etat and then raise another army. Napoleon may have been defeated, but he would live to fight another day.

French Army - in the Town Hall Square of Vilnius during the retreat

French Army – in the Town Hall Square of Vilnius during the retreat

Grand Failure – Blind Ambition
The same could not be said for the Grande Armée, which by this point was barely recognizable as a fighting force. Thousands of starving, emaciated, frost bitten soldiers descended on Vilnius. Many were past the point of exhaustion. They died at the outskirts, in the streets and on doorsteps all over Vilnius. Mass graves were dug to bury the corpses of an army that could no longer be termed “Grand”. The same soldiers who had once taken whatever they wanted from Lithuanians were now reduced to the status of beggars. Just as Napoleon had provided Lithuanians with false hopes, he did the same with his army. The campaign proved to be a death knell for Napoleon’s imperial ambitions. His visits to Vilnius at the start and end of the campaign, illustrate both his ambition and ultimate failure.

Vilnius Home – A Family Of Foreigners: By Way of Lithuania (Travels In Eastern Europe #59)

I came to Vilnius nursing a terrible head cold. The damp and chilly Baltic climate that hovered over Riga had knocked me sideways. Rarely have I ever been so sick while traveling overseas. My first impulse was to long for home. Since thousands of kilometers separated me from my bedroom, I would have to make the best of a less than desirable situation. There was no direct train between Vilnius and Riga, thus I suffered through a bus ride that made me swear off that mode of transport forever. I arrived in Vilnius sweating and shivering with fever chills. I expected the worst. It was just a short walk from the bus terminal to the Bed & Breakfast where I had reserved a private room. This Bed and Breakfast did not have many reviews on the website I used to book the accommodation, but the few that were posted all said the same thing, it was outstanding.

The proprietor met me at the door with an overwhelming warmth that made me momentarily forget my illness. Her name was Aleksandra and she smiled constantly. The accommodation, known as Vilnius Home Bed & Breakfast, felt just like the smile on her face. The atmosphere was upbeat, positive, light, almost giddy. Aleksandra had started the hostel not long ago. She was committed to putting forth a world class effort by providing the best service possible. She said, “Let me know if you have any questions”. I would later discover that she was a rarity, the kind of person who backs her words up with action. The impression she made gave me a new sense of energy. I was ready to go explore Vilnius, no matter my condition.

Aleksandra - Welcoming with a smile

Aleksandra – Welcoming with a smile (Credit: Vilnius Home Bed & Breakfast)

A Multiplicity Of Ethnicities – Wilna, Wilno, Vilnius
Before arriving in Lithuania I wondered if it could really be that much different from Latvia. The answer was a nuanced yes. Whereas Latvia’s main 20th century historical foe was Russia and then the Soviet Union, Lithuania had battled first with Poland and later the Soviet Union. Vilnius had been at the epicenter of this conflict, contested by a multitude of ethnicities. The Russians knew it as Wilna and the Poles as Wilno. There were not many Lithuanians in the city to call it Vilnius at the turn of the 20th century. The results of an 1897 Russian census (the city was part of the Russian Empire at that time) done according to language shows that only 2% of the population was Lithuanian. Polish speakers outnumbered Lithuanian speakers 15 to 1, Jews outnumbered them 20 to 1 and Russians 10 to 1.

Vilnius was one of the most ethnically complex cities in Europe during the first half of the 20th century.  Even though Lithuanians formed their own nation in the aftermath of World War I, Vilnius was placed within the Second Republic of Poland. The creator and then leader of that Republic, Marshal Jozef Pilsudski was a Polonised ethnic Lithuanian. In 1931, two-thirds of Vilnius’ population was Polish, with another 28% Jewish. Ethnic Lithuanians could hardly be found in the city or the adjacent region where they made up a miniscule percentage of the population. World War II changed the ethnic composition of Vilnius irreparably. Lithuania was given the city by the Germans in 1939. In the following years, the Jewish population was destroyed by the Holocaust. Then the Red Army occupied the city at the end of the war. The Soviets forcibly moved out Vilnius’ Polish population (which was 80% of the city in 1944). In moved Lithuanians and Russians.

Old Town - Vilnius

Old Town – Vilnius (Credit: calflier001)

A Lithuanian City – On A Human Scale
By 1939 Lithuanians were a plurality of the population in Vilnius, a half century later they were a majority. In 1991, Lithuania was the first of the Soviet republics to openly revolt against the communist regime. The squelching of this initial revolution was short-lived as an independent Lithuania was reconstituted by the end of that year. Lithuanians were now in the ascendant, but the capital’s population and the surrounding region were much more heterogenous than other areas of Eastern Europe that had been ethnically cleansed.  There were still large populations of Poles, Russians and Belarusians. Scratch just beneath the surface of modern Vilnius and that complex legacy of multi-culturalism begins to appear.

Strolling into Vilnius’ Old Town I immediately noticed the incredible Baroque architecture. Unlike Riga’s Old Town which was laden with Gothic and Romanesque inspired structures, Vilnius evoked a later era of ornately florid, lavish splendor. Along narrow winding alleyways the splendid buildings just kept on coming. I would later learn that Vilnius has some one thousand protected structures and I believe it. Some were gloriously restored, others bore the graffitied tattoos of communist era delinquency. Still others retained a half-ruined charm. The city also seemed much quainter and more inviting than Riga. The architecture (except for the churches) was on a much more human scale. It was a strange feeling to come into a land where I did not speak the language, never really considered visiting and knew little more than what a guidebook told me about its past. Then as if by magic, after a couple of hours I felt totally comfortable. Vilnius would fit me perfectly for several days.

Vilnius Home Bed & Breakfast

Vilnius Home Bed & Breakfast

A Place With & Without Problems – Night Lights
That evening I did something very rare for me. I went out to the commons area at Vilnius Home Bed & Breakfast. Aleksandra had been so remarkably kind and welcoming when I checked in, that it made me want to socialize for a change. I found a group of travelers chatting while Aleksandra served hors d’oeuvres. The group was full of revealing stories. A young Belarusian man was holding court as his female travel companion looked on. He worked in the Minsk theater and it was obvious that he was a natural. Everything he said or did was intensely theatrical, animated with marvelous hand gesticulations.

A conversation arose about police in the post-Soviet nations. I said that in Ukraine, specifically Kiev, the police force appeared to be menacing. Aleksandra’s husband said the Lithuanian police never would come when you had a problem and were only interested in enforcing corruption. The young Belarusian man outdid us both. He said, “that was nothing compared to the Belarusian police.” “When they arrest someone, they know they are in real trouble.” And this was not for the crime, but just for the fact that the Belarusian police were involved. He made a frightful face and said, “If you get taken in, there is no telling what might happen.” Then he let out a mocking laugh. We all knew what he was talking about.

A young woman from Kazakhstan, whose parents were ethnically Lithuanian, began to converse with me. If I understood her correctly they had been part of a Soviet era migration to work in Central Asia. I mentioned the quiet silence and distance of Baltic peoples in general. She told me it was much better than Kazakhstan where people were incredibly rude. Pushing and shoving one’s way around public transport was a given. Brusqueness was not so much an attitude as it was a way of life. Her answers were shrieks of expression. She would pause for a few seconds before replying in a caustic manner.

Then there was Jan, a Pole from Poznan who was in town as a special guest at a chess tournament. One of his forebears was being lauded and he was representing the family. Jan had an amazing knowledge of history, specifically the Holocaust. He was taking a year off from school before heading back to get his graduate degree. He was also going to make a pilgrimage to the place where Pilsudski’s heart was buried, in his mother’s grave. Aleksandra turned out to be ethnically Pole as well. When I asked about issues between Poles and Lithuanians she replied with a beaming bright smile. She didn’t have any problems. And at that moment neither did I. The world outside, the world of division and separation melted away in that room. I felt a feeling of warmth and comfort, almost like home. In a sense I was at home, Vilnius Home Bed & Breakfast.


Free Tour To World War 3 – Riga, Latvia & Ethnic Russians: Cataclysmic Possibilities (Travels In Eastern Europe #58)

On my first full day in Riga I headed straight to the heart of the Old Town. In the late morning I joined a Free Tour of the city that began beneath St. Peter’s Church, a Gothic styled slice of Teutonic architecture topped with a Baroque tower that provides a magnificent panorama of the Old Town and adjacent Daugava River. The tour was led by a Latvian woman with sad eyes and a talent for dispassionate discourse. In her right hand she carried a yellow suitcase, which for no apparent reason was the eclectic symbol of the Riga Free Tour. She led our group of fifteen curious foreigners to various sights that illuminated the diverse history, peoples and cultures that had sustained Riga since its founding by the German Crusader Albert in 1201. He has since come to be known Albert of Riga, such was the success of his enterprise. Riga was now a part of Latvia, but that was a much more recent development. The city had been under the sway of Baltic Germans, Tsarist Russian officials and Soviet apparatchiks during its long and storied history.

Lady with the Yellow suitcase - Leader of the Riga Free Tour

Lady with the Yellow suitcase – Leader of the Riga Free Tour

Little Moscow – The Dark Side of Riga
At the midpoint of the two-hour tour we ran right into some living history. The tour happened upon one of the peoples who had so influenced Latvia’s history and still were today. Surrounding a park bench were a group of Russian men conversing loudly with a single woman. Though it was not even lunchtime, they were imbibing vodka from a dreadful looking bottle. From their wrinkled, red faces and bellicose behavior it was obvious they were drunk. It looked like this was not a passing fancy, but a way of life for them. Inga told us that this section of the city – south of the Old Town and on the right bank of the Daugava River – was known as “Little Moscow”. She said, “as you can see” they have a very different culture here. In so many words, she was saying that Latvians and Russians were not very compatible. There was a marked contrast between quiet, humble, Latvians who were still very much connected to their rural roots. As compared to Russians who were city dwellers, inhabiting what had once been thriving industrial areas in Latvian cities, but were now increasingly marginalized and living in blighted post-communist landscapes. In a nutshell, the Free Tour was providing me a window into the greatest divide in Latvia and Riga today. It was also the greatest threat to Latvian independence and strangely enough, also a threat to world peace.

Russians have been living in the land that is now modern Latvia since medieval times. At the turn of the 20th century they made up one-tenth of the population, largely located in the Latgale region of eastern Latvia. The Red Army’s occupation of Latvia near the end of World War II and its reincorporation as a republic in the Soviet Union led to a dramatic change in the ethnic composition of Latvian society. Intense Russification was carried out in tandem with a policy of rapid industrialization. A massive influx of Russians moved into the cities, including Riga, where they lived in high rise, concrete apartment blocks and worked in heavy industry. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, one-third of Latvia’s population was ethnically Russian. In Riga, their presence was even more pronounced, with ethnic Russians making up almost half of the population.

Demographic Destiny – Creating Latvians
Today, one-quarter of Latvia and 37% of Riga’s population is ethnically Russian. That figure is a bit deceptive because Russians still punch above their weight in the city. The lingua franca of Riga, even after 25 years of intensive Latvian language education, is still Russian. According to the Latvian Central Statistics Office, exactly half of Riga’s population uses Russian in their daily interactions, as opposed to 43% using Latvian. What do these numbers mean? That for a tiny nation like Latvia, in a constant struggle to maintain its identity, the ethnic Russian population is perceived by many as a threat. Such a perception had only been exacerbated by the rise of Soviet revanchism under Vladimir Putin. Unlike Ukraine which has a large enough population to stand up to mighty mother Russia, the Latvians are in a much more vulnerable position. Understandably, but with predictably negative consequences, the Latvian government has made it compulsory that all those seeking citizenship must pass tests showing fluency in the Latvian language, in addition to knowledge of Latvian history and the Constitution.

This has led to a situation where 12% of the Latvian population are non-citizens. The majority of whom are ethnic Russians. Russian is also classified as a foreign language. The Latvian government’s policies have created the unintended consequence of a potential fifth column inside the country.  Add to this the fact that ethnic Russians suffered disproportionately in the post-Soviet era economic transition, due to their employment in heavy industry. Thus, it is little wonder that the Free Tour I was on ran across a group of ethnic Russians drinking themselves into oblivion. I wondered what it must be like further inside this area, within the concrete apartment blocks looming on the horizon. We were not going to find out, as the tour turned its back on that scene, much the same as I assumed many Latvians do. Soon thereafter I could see the Stalinist architecture of the Latvian Academy of Sciences Building looming above the city. Legacies of the Soviet era in Riga were hard to escape.  The experience was unsettling for me, an American. Unlike Latvians, I was not worried about losing my country. I was worried about losing the world in a nuclear conflagration that could start over Russians in Latvia.

Legacy of Soviet Latvia - Latvian Academy of Sciences in Riga

Legacy of Soviet Latvia – Latvian Academy of Sciences Building in Riga (Credit: Panoramio)

Leaps Of Imagination – The Path To Oblivion
In 1996, the doyen of American Cold War diplomats, George S. Kennan, sat down for an interview. He was 92 years old at the time, but his mind was still razor sharp. In the interview, he warned that the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) into the Baltic States was a “strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions.” This might lead to the United States and its allies having to decide whether to defend Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia against a Russian military incursion. What Kennan meant when he used the phrase “epic proportions” was the possibility of nuclear war. His logic is not hard to follow.

Would Americans really fight for the territorial integrity of a remote country, such as Latvia, in what could lead to World War 3? All because of the perceived rights and slights to an ethnic Russian minority. The idea seemed absurd, but it was possible and only has grown more so in the 21st century. On that Free Tour in Riga I saw that this idea was not an abstract one. It was standing around a bench, an hour before noon, drinking itself into oblivion. Later when I reflected on that scene, I hoped this was not where Latvia and the world were heading.

Pissed Off – The Freedom Monument In Riga: Latvians Versus Lads (Travels In Eastern Europe #57)

The first thing I did after checking into my accommodation in Riga was to go for a walk in the city just after sunset. The temperature was dropping and the dense, heavy air reminded me that I was in a much wetter climate than much of Eastern Europe. Latvia was a land of mist and frost, humidity and water. Riga stood astride the Daugava River and was not far from the shoreline of the Baltic sea. I could almost taste the water vapor on my tongue. This was a land where the cold bit hard, going straight to the bone. Soon I could feel a chill perspiration develop on my forehead. I was already suffering at the beginning of what would turn out to be a terrible cold. The climate in western Latvia was only going to make it worse.  Despite my state of sickness, I could hardly wait to see something of the city.

Freedom Monument - Symbol of Latvian National Independence

Freedom Monument – Symbol of Latvian National Independence (Credit: Diego Delso)

Exposure To A Wider World – Delinquent Depravity
In the encroaching darkness I lost my way to one of the most revered spaces in the nation. After a few minutes of walking, I found myself in front of the vaunted Freedom Monument. Close by stood a couple of police officers chatting among themselves. When I walked by them they eyed me warily. I spoke and received no reply. They had good reason for suspicion. With my red hair, I probably looked a bit too British for their liking. The British did not have a good reputation in Riga and Riga had a reputation as the scene of occasional depravity. Two outrages had taken place at the Freedom Monument during the first decade of the 21st century. These had caused an up swell of anger among Latvians and cast suspicion on foreign visitors, especially English speaking one. Thus, the terse reception I received from the police officers keeping a watch over the monument area. I was not to be trusted and in their mind they had good reason for that attitude.

In the space of a few months in the late autumn and early winter of 2006-2007 two British males had engaged in outrageous behavior at the Freedom Monument. The reason for this behavior could be chalked up to public drunkenness, but the underlying reasons were more complicated and did not reflect well on British citizens or the Latvian capital. Riga had become a tourist destination for thousands of British lads who came to drink, hang out in strip joints and attend stag parties. And Riga was just the most prominent example of this phenomenon. Eastern Europe was ground zero for British boys to act out their foolish impulses. Cheap air fares offered by discount airlines took these young men to places they could never have imagined and after a hard weekend of partying could hardly remember. Long before I visited Eastern Europe, I read about such behavior. My first experience with it was hearing a group of British twenty somethings announce themselves through the streets of Bratislava, Slovakia. It was barely past noon and they already were on an epic bender. They looked ready to expose themselves to the world that day.

Raunchy Riga - Time for trouble

Raunchy Riga – Time for trouble (Credit: Riga Daily Photo)

Out Of Their Mind – Out Of Their Pockets
Not long after I set foot out the door from my hostel in Riga, I found myself walking past glitzy strip joints. Lights flashed illuminating darkened windows and doorways, silhouettes of neon lit women advertised the temptations on offer inside. It was in these establishments that unwary foreigners had been getting their pockets emptied throughout the 21st century. Unsuspecting, passion loving men would awake the morning after a night of intense debauchery with searing headaches and fuzzy memories. They had been scammed. Lesser lights got off by just drinking themselves under the table, followed by a bit of sinful frivolity. These young men were not in Riga for its splendid architecture, fascinating history or a relaxing holiday. They were in Riga for holidays that could turn very bad. A few of these foreigners did see some sites. Unfortunately, at the Freedom Monument they managed to distract from the attraction.

In 2006 a thirty-year old British male was arrested for urinating on the Freedom Monument. He was charged with a misdemeanor violation, but to Latvians his crime was tantamount to treason. He had desecrated a public monument and harmed national sensibilities. A little over four months later, another British citizen was caught urinating in Freedom Square which surrounds the monument. While engaging in this act of public depravity, the culprit’s friends snapped photos. Obviously, he did not mind getting caught in the act, including by Latvian authorities. These disgraceful acts made international headlines, casting a light on the poor behavior of immature British males and lad culture. Latvians were rightfully outraged.

Keeping watch - Ceremony at Freedom Monument in Riga

Keeping watch – Ceremony at Freedom Monument in Riga (Credit: Saelma)

The Gathering Place – Independent Movement
Standing in the square looking at the Freedom Monument, I found myself less than impressed. The copper toned lady Liberty stood atop a six-story high travertine column. She was brightly lit, but shrouded in mist. Her hands were raised toward the sky and in her grasp she held three gilded stars. I had expected that Latvia’s Lady Liberty would have been more spectacular, somehow soaring higher and giving me a feeling of transcendence. The monument was nice, but nothing great. My opinion though, was just that. What really mattered was how Latvians felt about the monument. They made those feelings clear every November 11th when they came to the monument and celebrated National Independence Day. This was a yearly spectacle, but there had been other events even more important. Such as in the late spring of 1987 when 5,000 Latvians gathered in memory of those who had died due to Soviet tyranny. This gathering re-enthused an independence movement which led directly to the reconstitution of the Latvian nation a few years later.

The most important event in the history of the Freedom Monument was one that never occurred. Its planned demolition by the Soviets in the 1940’s and 1950’s. For some reason – the myths and stories are legion – it was never taken down. The monument is a microcosm of Latvia and its people, both have staying power. They have weathered the storms of fascism and communism to soar above all would be conquerors. This is a point of national pride and the Latvians do not tolerate the desecration of a sacred national icon.  The honor guard standing at its base demanded respect, for the nation, its people and their national symbol. Fun loving foreigners and fascinated tourists would do well to keep that in mind.