Bipolar In Bratislava – The Slavin Monument: Eternal Glory & Tyranny

Rasto and I took off in his car, headed out of Petrzalka back across the Danube to Bratislava. He asked about my interest in history. I told him that among my favorite topics was military history. He then decided that we should visit the Slavin Monument. On our way there, I noticed that we crossed the Most SNP Bridge. I also remembered how the Slovak Posta headquarters where I had first met Rasto was located along a street named Namestie SNP.  Namestie means square in Slovakian and the street led to Namestie SNP where an SNP memorial was located. Obviously, the initials SNP were embedded in the national consciousness of Slovakia. They stood for Slovak National Uprising (Slovenské národné povstanie), an event that anyone with an interest in Eastern European military history should know.

Puppet Statements – The Will To Collaborate & Revolt
Slovakia gained its first taste of independence in an unlikely manner. In 1938 much of the southern half of the country (then known as Czechoslovakia) had been handed over to Hungary as part of a nefarious deal known as the First Vienna Award. Then on March 13, 1939 troops from the Third Reich marched in and occupied the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia. The following day a Nazi puppet state, the First Slovak Republic, was formed. This situation was less than desirable for Slovaks, but did give them their first taste of independence. This deal with the devil lasted for over five years, but when it became increasingly apparent that Germany was going to lose the war an increasing number of Slovaks planned to revolt. At the same time, the Red Army was on the verge of entering Slovakia. The time was ripe for a revolt which occurred beginning on August 29, 1944 in Banska Bystrica, a city in the central part of the country. The revolt failed due to infighting among various factions, tepid support from the Soviet Union and brutal retaliatory measures by the Germans.

The SNP may have been a lost cause at the time, but it would later prove useful.  It offered the Slovaks an opportunity to save face for their conduct during the war. Despite a fascist government that provided years of support to the Nazis, Slovaks could point to the uprising and say their true goal was to throw off the German yoke and gain independence. In other words, the Germans had forced Slovaks against their will to collaborate. The SNP was the true will of the Slovak people according to this line of argument. The event was glorified during the communist years and that glorification continues up to the present.  Truth be told, Slovakia was in an almost impossible position during this time, a small country that could either choose some form of independence or be totally overrun. Of course, it was eventually overrun by the Red Army and put in the service of a new overlord, the Soviet Union. The Soviets called themselves liberators and the Slavin Monument was an outcome of this liberation.

Puppet State - First Slovak Republic 1939 to 1945

Puppet State – First Slovak Republic 1939 to 1945

Exacting A Toll – The Cost Of Liberation
Rasto drove me up the winding road that leads to the monument. Slavin is not just a monument, but also a hill and specific quarter in the city. It occupies a prime position overlooking Bratislava known for its beautiful views, as can be discerned by the many embassies and villas in this area. Thus, it is quite strange to find mass graves and the nation’s most famous war monument (which ironically is not for Slovak soldiers) crowning Slavin Hill. I must have been blind to spend almost two days walking around Bratislava, never noticing the Slavin Monument. It was placed on a prominent land form where it would be noticed.

One cannot help but feel reverence towards the soldiers buried in mass graves on Slavin Hill. They fought and died to free Bratislava from fascist control. Yet I also had a feeling of repulsion, not for the individual soldiers themselves, but for the communist system and all the brutal excesses their victory brought to Slovakia. I knew liberation had come at a price. A toll was exacted through the violent behavior toward the locals from Red Army soldiers at the time. Later the violence moderated, only for a decades long occupation to begin. I remarked to Rasto how the “liberation” was nothing of the sort. He saw it differently. Of course, there were excesses, but the Soviets were an ally then, just as Russia was today. In Rasto’s opinion, Slovakia needed to stay close to Russia. They were fellow Slavs as well as a useful counterweight to Western European and American power.

The Slavin Monument in Bratislava

The Slavin Monument in Bratislava (Credit: Redaktor Pythin)

A Monumental Lapse Of Reason – Permanent Occupations
As for the Slavin Monument, it was an impressive work of Socialist realist architecture. The architect must have been on steroids when he conceived such a mighty work of monumental symbolism. There were the usual sculptures with soldiers carrying weapons, another one kissing a flag and girls holding flowers. The crowning achievement was the main monument, which among other things consisted of a four-sided colonnade, a giant obelisk and a Soviet soldier who held a banner in his hand while it unfurled. It was all so monumental in scale and design that one tended to forget that 6,845 soldiers were buried in both individual and mass graves on these grounds. That thought was sobering. According to a nearby inscription the monument gives: “Eternal glory to the heroes who fell in battle for the freedom and independence of our motherland.” Whether or not the latter part of that statement is true, depends upon whom you ask.

Communism and the Soviet influence on Slovakia right up to today is still a point of contention. Rasto and I began to discuss this, which led into a conversation on the current situation in Russia under Vladimir Putin. I felt Putin was bad for Russia. He had grown more and more autocratic during his reign. The system in contemporary Russia could not be characterized as anything close to democratic. It had turned into a dictatorship. Rasto listened, but countered with the opinion that Putin was the best leader for Russia at this point in history. He was exactly what Russians wanted and needed. We argued about Rasto’s viewpoint for quite some time. He felt a strong Russia was best for Slovakia. I raised the issue of the forty-year occupation of his country by the Red Army. Rasto saw this as symptomatic of the Cold War, nothing more, nothing less. His pro-Russian leanings irritated me. The same must have been true for him when it came to my American worldview.

Graves at Slavin Monument - 6,845 soldiers are buried on the grounds

Graves at Slavin Monument – 6,845 soldiers are buried on the grounds (Credit: Kyle Simourd)

The Ghosts of the Great Powers – Spheres of Influence
Amid our heated discussion, I did not stop to ponder the situation or setting. Here I was an American, arguing about the geopolitical orientation of an Eastern European nation while standing at a Soviet World War II Memorial overlooking the capital city of Slovakia. In a sense everything and nothing had changed since the Cold War ended. American hardheadedness over what was best for Slovakia and other nations in the region was still strong, but the ghosts of Soviet rule continued to haunt the nation.  Slovakia was now a member of the European Union, which offered security and prosperity. It was also a small country that had repeatedly been a pawn in the affairs of Great Power politics. For that reason, Rasto was likely hedging bets. He had high hopes for the future of his young nation, but those hopes were tempered by a past that was always hovering in the background. Much like the Slavin Monument overlooking Bratislava.

Click here for: A Path Paved By History – Bratislava’s Coronation Route: Long Live The Past

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.

Both Eyebrows On The Road – Leadfoot Leonid: Brezhnev Behind The Wheel

Anyone who remembers the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev cannot help but recall his stolid rigidity, dark, ultra-thick eyebrows and frosty visage. Brezhnev became the human face for the stagnation and stolidity that beset the Soviet Union during his long and depressing reign over the country from 1964 to 1982. He looked like a block of ice animated only by Politburo meetings and military parades. For a generation he was the ultimate symbol of unwavering allegiance to a corrupt, ossified system that could not and would not be reformed. It is hard to disassociate Brezhnev’s image from the slow, inexorable downslide of communism.

He was iconic in the worst of ways, a cult of bad personality that was about as memorable as any ordinary nightmare. Yet there was another side to him, livelier but just as unsavory. Those who knew Brezhnev privately saw a man who was shockingly vain and materialistic. A lover of fur coats and the finer things in life that communist leaders such as himself supposedly abhorred, but secretly hoarded. He craved the trappings of luxury, never more so then when it came to automobiles. Brezhnev loved nothing more than quite literally life, in the fast lane. He drove wild and loose in some of the best automobiles that his power could purchase for him.

Collision course - Leonid Brezhnev ready to roll

Collision course – Leonid Brezhnev ready to roll

More Equal Than Others – At Everyone Else’s Expense
I once heard a story that Brezhnev ran someone over while driving from one of his dachas on the outskirts of Moscow on his way into the Kremlin. This story may be apocryphal, than again Soviet leaders could do almost anything they wanted to without reason. Like every exaggerated story the one about hit and run Brezhnev contains many seeds of truth. Brezhnev loved to drive his personal collection of automobiles at very high speeds. He had no less than eighty-two cars to choose from. Many of these had been given to him by other heads of state. Consider that this occurred in a country where the highly successful might have to wait five years or longer for an opportunity to purchase a very poorly made car. Brezhnev proved Orwell’s metaphorical aphorism from Animal Farm, “that everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others.”

Brezhnev was a leader who got what he wanted at everyone else’s expense. A pseudo dictator who was just as corrupt as the system he presided over. A running joke often told among Soviet citizens is revealing. In the telling, Brezhnev takes his elderly mother on a personal tour of one of his luxurious homes in the Russian countryside. She remains silent throughout, even when Brezhnev showed her his fleet of luxury automobiles. Finally, he got fed up and asked her what she thought. To which she replied, “It’s very nice, but what will happen when the Communists come back to power?” This was Soviet style communism at middle age, corrupt to the core.

Leonid Brezhnev - receiving the keys to a 1973 Lincoln Continental from Richard Nixon at Camp David

Leonid Brezhnev – receiving the keys to a 1973 Lincoln Continental from Richard Nixon at Camp David

Crash Course – Taken For A Ride
One of the most famous car stories of the Brezhnev era concerned a trip he made to Camp David in the mountains of western Maryland where he met with President Richard Nixon. This less than dynamic duo could have rightly been called partners in political crime. On this occasion, Nixon played to Brezhnev’s love of cars in an incident that almost led to dire consequences for both men. Much to his joy the usually stolid Soviet leader was presented with the keys to a brand new 1973 Lincoln Continental. Little did Nixon know that this gift would lead to a ride risking both their lives. As soon as Brezhnev took possession of the keys, he was raring to take the Lincoln for a drive. Lead foot Leonid got in and invited Nixon to join him. Despite the reservations of a Secret Service agent who grew alarmed when he realized what was about to happen, Nixon took the front passenger seat.

The two most powerful men in the world at that time then started down one of the narrow, curvy roads around the perimeter of Camp David. Brezhnev was not familiar with the route. He was used to driving however he liked. In no time at all, he sped the car up to 50 miles per hour then started down a hill that led into a dangerous curve. Brezhnev was throwing caution to the wind. Nixon must have wondered if they were on a collision course with fate or a tree. The Soviet leader was out for an adrenaline rush in a dream car, while the American president sat beside him terrified. Brezhnev was in control of the car, Nixon was just along for the ride. The situation might best be described as too fast for conditions and Nixon knew it. As they sped into the curve Nixon told Brezhnev to “slow down, slow down.” Abruptly the Soviet leader hit the brakes, the tires squalled, but the car safely made the turn. A relieved Nixon complimented Brezhnev on his driving skills, proof that a little lie can help when it comes to diplomacy.

Fast Friends - Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev at Camp David

Fast Friends – Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev share a lighter moment at Camp David (Credit Robert L. Knudsen)

Driving Them Crazy – A Show Of Credentials
This was not the only time Brezhnev looked to drive his new Lincoln on American roads. While in Washington, D.C he wanted to take the car out for a spin around the city. He was informed that the Secret Service would not allow him to do this. It must have been a shock to the system for Brezhnev to realize he could not do anything he wanted, even in America.  This did not stop him from dreaming up a disguise so that Americans would not be able to recognize him. He offered to, “take the flag off the car, put on dark glasses, so they can’t see my eyebrows and drive like any American would.” To this idea, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger quipped, “I have driven with you and I don’t think you drive like an American.” One can only wonder how many traffic laws Brezhnev would have broken that day if his wish had been granted. He could have easily been charged by the police for being an unlicensed driver. His response would likely have been to show them his party card. With this show of credentials, Brezhnev would have probably driven them crazy.

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.

A Natural Death– Biełaviežskaja Pušča:  Viskuli, Belarus & The Extinction of the Soviet Union

Many people assume the Soviet Union was created after the Russian Revolution in October 1917, they are mistaken. It was not until after the Russian Civil War ended in 1922 that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were able to declare supremacy over a large part of the Eurasian land mass.  The Soviet Union was only then unified into a singular political entity. On the eve of New Year’s Eve, December 30, 1922 the Soviet Union was officially declared to the world from the stage of one of Russia’s most venerated institutions, the Bolshoi Theater. It was unified under the Treaty of the Creation of the Soviet Union which was signed by the Soviet republics of Russia, Ukraine, the Transcaucasus and Belarus. Oddly enough it was in the latter republic sixty-nine Decembers later, that the Soviet Union would be dissolved. The scene of its denouement was far from the glittering prominence of the Bolshoi stage. Instead, it occurred in a remote section of a provincial outpost, on the extreme western frontiers of an empire that would soon cease to exist. Less than ten kilometers from the Polish border in the Biełaviežskaja Pušča, which contains the last remnant of Europe’s primeval forest, a group of six dignitaries put the Soviet Union out of its misery. The location for this historic event could not have been more ironic, nature is eternal, the ideology of man is mortal.

Viskuli - the hunting estate that was the scene of the Soviet Union's dissolution

Viskuli – the hunting estate in Belarus that was the scene of the Soviet Union’s dissolution

Lost In The Woods – The Paradox Of Progress
Communism was a contagious idea for many reasons, one of which was the appeal of creating an entirely new world. Industrial strength and the proletarian masses were to lead the way. Of course that was not what happened. Whether it was Lenin or Stalin, Brezhnev or Gorbachev, communism had an element of tyranny and anti-reform that planted the seeds of its own destruction. This brave new world was at the point of collapse by the late 1980’s all across Eastern Europe.  It held on for a little longer in the Soviet Union, but by December 1991 the last rites of communist totalitarianism were being prepared just as a long cold Russian winter was turning the world to ice. The document which would put an end to an almost seven decade long experience in human misery would be signed at Viskuli, a hunting estate in western Belarus.

Viskuli had been constructed as a dacha complex used for vacationing by communist officials from the Soviet Union. In itself, that was nothing special. It was the forest that stretched out in all directions from Viskuli which made the area rare and unique. Before man conquered nature this same type of primeval forest covered the entire northern European Plain, but human “progress” over thousands of years had eradicated almost all of it. Much of the forest was turned into farmland or transformed into villages and cities. Even today on the periphery of the Bielaviezskaja Pusca farming still threatens this World Biosphere Reserve’s health. Pesticides and fertilizers seep into the area through run off from farms. Yet despite such threats, this oldest of the old growth European forest has managed to survive, quite unlike the political entities that have made it their playground at one time or another down through the centuries.

The way it used to be - Biełaviežskaja Pušča

The way it used to be – Biełaviežskaja Pušča (Credit: Ralf Lotys)

Death Brings Renewal – The Paradox of the Primeval
The history of protection of the Bielaviezskaja Pusca goes back all the way to Lithuanian and Polish Kings in the 14th and 15th centuries that first set it aside as a hunting reserve. They issued decrees to protect its wildlife from poachers. The actions of a 17th century Polish king who displayed progressive foresight in dealing with the region’s peasantry would have been lost on the historically myopic apparatchiks who spent their holidays pleasuring in Viskuli during the Cold War. In 1639, King Wladyslaw IV freed all peasants in the forest from serfdom and taxation on the condition that they become royal foresters. For the next century and a half this arrangement worked rather well. Such a radical act of progressivism towards the dispossessed puts the Soviets social achievements to shame. It was only when the forest came under the control of the Russian Tsars in the late 18th century that these royal forester’s rights were abolished. It was not long though before the Tsars realized the reserve’s value as a refuge for wildlife. In was once again given protected status.

The warfare and ensuing political upheaval that scarred Europe so badly in the first half of the 20th century also detrimentally affected the reserve. By the end of World War I, German occupation had resulted in the extermination of all European bison in the forest.  Railroads and lumber mills built to support the occupiers brought unwelcome development. Poland did designate it as a national park in the years between the World Wars, slowly reintroducing the bison, but Polish oversight of this area was soon swept away by another World War. The 240 inch thick oaks and luminous undergrowth became breeding grounds for partisan warfare.

Modern industrial armaments brought death and destruction, but the bodies of soldiers and partisans would not find renewal in the decay of these dark woods. A different kind of death had long been integral to rejuvenating the forest. Approximately 6,000 species in the Bielaviezskaja Pusca subsist on decaying logs. Over half the forest at any one time is dead. And it is this death that leads to life. In an odd sense the same thing happened with human influence on the forest at the end of the war. The Soviet takeover led to decrees that protected the forest. This slowed to a halt the forest’s degradation by human indicatives. At least this time, the communists proved that they were much like those they were against. The forest was preserved just as it had been by kings so long ago. Of course this was as much by indifference as it was reverence.

The end of an empire - The signing of the Belavezha Accords

The end of an empire – The signing of the Belavezha Accords (Credit: RIA Novosti archive, image 848095 U Ivanov)

Eternity In The Woods – Survival Beyond The Soviets
A new period in the history of the peoples of what would become known as the former Soviet Union began on December 8, 1991 when the Belavezha Accords was signed at Viskuli. This dissolution also meant a new overlord for much of the forest, the nation of Belarus (Poland oversees a smaller portion of the forest.) Those who signed the accords on that frosty December day were thinking of politics not nature, but they would have done well to contemplate the forest that surrounded Viskuli. It had survived kings and dictators, empires and ideologies as well as several millennia of climatic change. On the other hand, the Soviet Union could not even survive the same century it had been born into. Eternity was still standing amid the woods of the Bielaviezskaja Pusca, while mortality was inherent to the systems of man.

 

Alone At A Funeral – Moment Of Surrender: The German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst

In Berlin the past never seems remote. There are remnants of the Berlin Wall, churches that World War II bombers crashed into, buildings constructed by Kaisers, Communists and Nazis. Almost anywhere you look the past is still palpable. There are also more remote sites that many would just as soon forget. Where the past is extremely painful and nothing good can come from reopening an old wound. One of these sites lurks in an otherwise ordinary neighborhood, the kind of nondescript setting that one usually does not equate with a history making event. Yet this is Berlin a place where war, defeat and division are all within living memory.

German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst

German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst (Credit: Anagoria)

The House Of Capitulation – A Less Than Impressive Impression
On April 30, 1945 in an underground bunker beneath Berlin, Adolf Hitler blew his brains out. Forty-eight hours later the flag of the Soviet Union was raised over the Reichstag. As remarkable and decisive as these two events were in the German capital, neither signaled the official end of the war. Though the Red Army was in the process of finishing off the last remnants of the German Army and the Battle of Berlin would conclude on May 2, 1945, the war would not officially conclude until six days later. The surrender would take place far from the center of Berlin, in an eastern suburb of the city known as Karlshorst. The same place where the surrender was signed, known today as the German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst (Deutsch-Russische Museum Berlin-Karlshorst), can still be visited.  I discovered the place devoid of tourists on a beautiful spring day. In retrospect it is not surprising to me that only 40,000 people visit this site each year.  Just finding my way to the museum was not easy.

The quickest route by public transport to Karlshorst is on the Berlin S-Bahn 3 line. I took it starting at Ostkreuz in East Berlin, heading further east along the line for 5 kilometers until I arrived at the Berlin-Karlshorst station. A short walk brought me to Rheinsteinstrasse, which according to my map eventually led to the museum. What followed was a pleasant walk. The tree lined street flanked on either side by pastel painted apartment buildings and villas.  It seemed almost too normal, well kempt and above all, very German. It was hard to believe that during the Cold War, Karlshorst had been dominated by the Soviets. That domination began during the Battle of Berlin at what is today the German-Russian Museum, which after twenty minutes I found. The building was less than impressive, a bland gray, two and a half story structure with a red tiled roof. It looked like what it had been prior to the Soviets arrival, an officer’s mess hall. It was hard to believe that anything important could ever have happened here.

Deadly beast - Soviet T34 tank outside the German-Russian Museum

Deadly beast – Soviet T34 tank outside the German-Russian Museum (Credit: Andreas Teutsch)

No Illusions – Conditions For Unconditional Surrender
Standing in front of the museum I did see one visible artifact that betrayed the Second World War, to the left of the building stood a large Soviet T34 tank. It is generally agreed that the T34 was the most effective tank built by any side during the war. Its combination of firepower and mobility was unmatched, as was the Soviet ability to manufacture 80,000 of these deadly beasts. In large part, the Soviet war machine was propelled westward to Berlin by the T34. In April 1945 the Red Army slowly fought their way into the city despite the fiercest of resistance. It was during this time that the Supreme Commander of Soviet Forces, Marshal Georgi Zhukov setup his headquarters in what is today the German-Russian Museum. From here he directed the final assault on Berlin. It would also be from here that the death certificate of German militarism would be signed.

The surrender of all German forces was a two part affair.  The Wehrmacht (German Armed Forces) only wanted to surrender to the western Allies. The Wehrmacht’s leadership had no illusions about the harsh punishment that awaited them at the hands of the Soviets. An act was drawn up and signed in Reims, France on May 7th, but this did not satisfy the Soviets. Josef Stalin and the Soviet high command insisted that this act of German unconditional surrender was invalid.  Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower ensured that the commanders of all three branches of the German military were flown to Berlin where they would take part in a formal surrender to the Soviets. Thus, late in the evening of May 8th, Allied, Soviet and Wehrmacht delegations traveled to the former officer’s mess at Karlshorst to sign the unconditional surrender.

Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signs the German unconditional surrender at Karlshorst

Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signs the German unconditional surrender at Karlshorst (Credit: NARA)

Before And After Midnight – Strokes Of Fate
Visiting the museum felt sublime. I was not really interested in any of the exhibits on offer. The true power of the place resided in the room where the surrender was signed. The room itself was a large cavernous space, a typical setting for a large dining hall. The allied delegation arrived just before midnight on May 8th while the German representatives entered the hall just after the clock had struck midnight. A new day had dawned both literally and figuratively. The ceremony took less than 15 minutes to complete, breathtakingly brief when compared to the years of planning that went into preparing for war, followed by the years of killing.

And all the horror, infamy and tragedy was ended by a few strokes of the pen in a quarter of an hour. It was the end not only for the Wehrmacht, but also the beginning of the end for two of their three signatories. In just over two weeks the man who signed for the Luftwaffe, Hans-Jurgen Stumpff would commit suicide by ingesting poison. He could not live with the shame of surrender. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel would be hanged the following year, after being convicted of war crimes at Nuremburg. His death was a particularly gruesome one. The trap door through which he fell to his death was not set right causing him to be slowly strangled to death. His fate could not have been worse than the millions of innocents who lost their lives because of decisions made by men like Keitel and Hitler’s other henchmen.

Room where the unconditional surrender of the German armed forces was signed

Room where the unconditional surrender of the German armed forces was signed (Credit: Andreas Teutsch)

Dead End – Footsteps Creaking Across The Floor
Standing in the room where World War II in Europe finally came to an end was a humbling experience. The museum is a somber memorial to the very end of a bitter, brutal war that took more lives than any other in human history. There is little to celebrate and much to mourn. No one else was visiting the museum at that time. I was all alone, standing to the side looking at the place settings. The room was setup to look like it did when the surrender took place. The only sound I could hear was my own footsteps, creaking across the floor. The effect was unsettling. A deep sadness came over me, the kind that occurs when you realize that nothing will ever be the same again. I felt like I was the only person at a funeral, on this day I was.

 

Stairway To Nowhere – The Chernobyl Tour: Memory Makers

Imagine for a moment a group of 10 foreigners standing around a table in a block shaped administrative building in the village of Chernobyl. In the middle of the table is a liability waiver form written entirely in Ukrainian using the Cyrillic alphabet. None of the foreigners can read the language or alphabet. Of the group, only one is ethnically Slavic, a 50-ish Polish woman with eyes as bright as her blonde hair. She finds the form just as incomprehensible as everyone else does. It seems that she has been living in Great Britain for several decades. A short, slightly balding Finnish male, who looks ten years older than his actual age, quietly stares forward at nothing in particular. His expression says “will they or won’t they. Whatever they decide to do, I will follow.” A Norwegian, who also happens to be a soldier, looks nonchalant and slightly bemused. No one utters a word. The silence is a symptom of discomfort. They could all be signing their lives away.

A pen has been laid beside the form, which has a series of blank lines awaiting signatures. Sign and the guided tour of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone will continue for those who agree to waive liability so they can enter one of the world’s most toxic areas. Refuse to sign and it means getting left behind in the building, spending the rest of the day experiencing what the later years of the Soviet Union was like, stagnant, stolid and emotionally indifferent. Everyone knows what they are supposed to do, but no one wants to go first. There is a pen that was left behind by the Ukrainian tour guide who left the room a couple of minutes earlier. He did not offer much in the way of advice. He had made an offer without really making an offer, knowing that only the foolish would refuse to sign.

I was part of this group, the lone American who suddenly felt a close kinship with a group of reticent northern Europeans. I felt a sense of relief that they were now at my side, nine other people who would make this decision easier for me.  The question that hung in the air was this: who was going to sign first? I was looking at everyone else, staring out from the corners of my eyes. Finally the husband of the Polish woman, the lone Englishman in the group put an end to our plight with a bit of quintessentially English pragmatism. “Oh just come on and sign the thing. We didn’t come all this way to turn around. No way is anyone going back without seeing it.” Tight smiles and nervous chuckles followed. Of course, he was right. We had traveled an hour and a half north of Kiev, paid almost a hundred dollars and had suffered through a foreign language film on the Chernobyl disaster that seemed to be a half-life in length. We had come to see Chernobyl and that was exactly what we were about to do, sort of.

Guide with a Geiger Counter - the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant complex can be seen in the background

Guide with a Geiger Counter – the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant complex can be seen in the background

A State Of Nature – Pripyat Consumed
On any guided tour, let alone one to Chernobyl, there are many fascinating attractions to see. Tourism on the dark side was my initial reason for taking this tour. By that I mean a personal fascination with catastrophe and tragedy. I have no idea why I gravitate towards tragic places. It is more about a feeling rather than a flair for the dramatic. Certain places are fraught with tension and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is one of them. It is a rather banal cliché to say that travel is about discovery, but that is true. Not so much discovery of a place, as of yourself.  There was something I needed from this place. Perhaps it was validation of my worst fears about humanity, where we have been and where we are headed when it comes to nuclear weapons and energy, a place of no return. I sensed this while walking around the eerie, modern ghost town of Pripyat, surely one of the largest, vacant urban environments anywhere in the world. I came within a kilometer of the notorious Reactor Number Four, whose meltdown and explosion contaminated an area equivalent to the size of Belgium. I ate in the power plant’s canteen and suffered no ill effects. Much of the tour was spent observing the tour guide holding a Geiger counter which did most of the talking. Its constant whine was a surreal and shrill accompaniment to the tour, rising or falling depending on the level of radiation in the air or ground. It was an alarm that would take thousands of years to turn off.

Was the tour worth it? The short answer is yes, for two very different reasons. The Exclusion Zone, specifically Pripyat, was and always be (unless man commits nuclear suicide) an experience without precedent. Little explanation was necessary. The place was the opposite of normal. Imagine an entire city being consumed by nature, absent the humanity which had labored to build it. Wilderness was slowly, inexorably overtaking the work of man. Pripyat is the ultimate example of humanity’s fleeting existence. Everything manmade eventually decays, sliding back toward a state of nature. Ironically, the longest lasting manmade thing in Pripyat happens to be radioactive contamination. It kills off man and at the same time lives on for thousands of years without him, an invisible and toxic artifact of self-destruction.

A near death experience - a ferris wheel in Pripyat's former amusement park

Near death experience – a ferris wheel in Pripyat’s former amusement park

Fossilized Remains – The Memory Makers
The tour’s value was also enhanced by one thing that had little to do with Chernobyl, the experience of interacting with other members of the group. Many of their faces, words and actions have stayed with me. What I remember has less to do with Chernobyl and more to do with the oddities and nuances of the people I traveled with. These memories – and photos I rarely ever look at – are all that I have left of that day. There was the Englishman, who looked to be his late 60’s. He was a fascinating character for two reasons and one of those reasons had little to do with him. First there was his Polish wife, who was at least a decade younger with sparkling eyes and the charismatic softness of her accented English. She had a magnetic allure, one of those women who no matter their age are sexy without even trying to be. It was hard to tell what was more mysterious, the power of her beauty or the fact that a somewhat haggard, ill dressed and rather disheveled Englishman, had somehow won her heart. He was quite the charmer though.

Like most Englishman I have met, he managed to use humor to keep everyone feeling welcome while also at a distance. He was full of verbal witticisms and clever asides. Yet he too was mysterious. When I asked him why they were travelling in Ukraine he stated an interest in fossils. When I questioned him further, asking if he was a paleontologist, all he would offer was that they were returning from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv where they had seen an important fossil. I believed him even though I had no idea what he was talking about. I tried to imagine what the famous fossil in Kharkiv might look like, all I could envision was a neo-Soviet bureaucrat.

View from a balcony - at Pripyat's abandoned hotel

View from a balcony – at Pripyat’s abandoned Hotel Polissa

Soldiering On – Hugs, Kisses & Loneliness
Then there were a handful of Norwegians. The soldier was happy to talk about his duties in the Norwegian army. Basically it sounded like a good paying job, with plenty of fringe benefits, such as long holidays, learning how to play at war and getting to hang out for a living. I am sure he was a devout believer in rubber bullets. The guy seemed less like a soldier and more like everyone’s best friend. He was taking a long weekend to visit Chernobyl. This was the normal life of a single male Norwegian soldier, something definitely worth fighting for. There was also a Norwegian retiree couple who had traveled around the deep south of the United States. It did not take long for them to detect my southern accent. They regaled me with their stories of using public transport in Memphis, Tennessee. Everyone had warned them that they were going to get mugged for sure. They were surprised to be the only white people on the bus and had encountered no problems, only helpful, friendly people. They talked about this for a good half hour, fascinated with their supposed brush with danger in America.

My most distinct memories involve two people from Finland. One was a girl in her 20’s who turned out to actually be a Mexican national. She had come to Finland as part of a university exchange program, found a job and decided to stay, an icy proposition. She said the weather was dreadfully frigid and gray during the long winters. People drank too much, but the Finns were so polite, even when they were falling over drunk. She told me a story of how reserved they were emotionally. One time, she had sent her Finnish boyfriend a romantic text, something to the effect of “Hugs and Kisses.” This had freaked him out. He immediately called her, asking what it all meant.  Suffering thirty below half the year could probably do that to any man’s emotions.

There was also a stereotypically shy Finnish man. With his soft voice, unassuming nature and social awkwardness, he seemed fit for a cubicle at some Nordic computer programming powerhouse. He actually was a computer programmer who talked about the threat of outsourcing to his job. Talking to him made me both bored and nervous at the same time. He had one of the nicest cameras I have ever seen around his neck. It looked like he was born with the thing on. The lens was bigger than a baby’s head. He enjoyed traveling around the Baltic, where he visited the old trade cities of the Hanseatic League. I got the feeling that he was the kind of person who was completely content with loneliness. Loneliness was something I did not feel much of on this trip. I came to see Chernobyl and Pripyat, but ended up feeling like I was on a Scandinavian tourist junket with a witty Englishman thrown in for good measure.

Stairway to nowhere - in Pripyat's abandoned Hotel Polissa

Stairway to nowhere – in Pripyat’s abandoned Hotel Polissa

The Final Attraction – A Character Study
It was that Englishman who brought the tour to a memorable conclusion for me. One that has stuck in my memory ever since. We entered an abandoned, half ruined hotel in Pripyat. Several of us carefully made our way up a stairwell that was an obstacle course of trip hazards. One wrong step and a person could fall a couple of stories to what would most probably be a painful death. There were no barriers, either physical or mental in the place. One could go anywhere at their own risk and let their imagination run wild. I found myself standing on the precipice of an open shaft, looking down into an abyss of darkness. The Englishman came up beside me, looked around and suddenly said “just imagine being alone here in the dead of winter.” I peered down into the dark shaft nervously. Only later did I realize that here was the real attraction of the Chernobyl tour, fear and oblivion. That was what I had come to see and that was what I finally found.

Walking Backward Against The Wind – Slavutych, Ukraine: The Other Side Of Chernobyl

There is only one place in Ukraine where a visitor can travel to Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Yerevan, Baku, Tbilisi and Moscow in a matter of minutes. They can even go to Kiev without actually being there. This can only be done in the city of Slavutych in northern Ukraine. There is one caveat. The traveler will not actually be in those cities, but instead in districts named after them. The idea sounds intriguing, if only it was not linked to one of the worst ecological disasters in human history, the Chernobyl nuclear accident. The reason districts in Slavutych were given the names of these cities is because workers came from each of them and their respective Soviet republics to build a city for those workers displaced by the disaster. A model community was constructed just 50 kilometers away from the site of Reactor Number 4, site of the cataclysmic meltdown. One might suppose that the proximity of Slavutych to Chernobyl would be too close for comfort, but in the 28 years since it was constructed, Slavutych has become known for its prosperity. Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever, that is except for the radioactive exclusion zone half an hour away from Slavutych.

Apartment blocks in Slavutych, Ukraine

Apartment blocks in Slavutych, Ukraine – many workers and their families from Chernobyl were relocated to the city in 1988 (Credit: fraskini)

On Suspect Terrain – A Utopian Fantasy Rises From Dystopia
The popular perception of a city close to Chernobyl has been informed by Pripyat, that planned Soviet city which was abandoned 36 hours after the meltdown of Reactor Number 4 in the early hours of April 26, 1986. Pripyat’s vacant, crumbling buildings, cracked streets and eerie amusement park have become a surreal symbol of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Popular media has focused on Pripyat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone to the point that Slavutych is rarely, if ever mentioned. That is understandable since Chernobyl was the signature disaster of the nuclear age, while Slavutych was a modest attempt to mitigate the massive damage wrought on the populace by upheaval and relocation. It is ironic that Slavutych is just a half hour away from Chernobyl by public transport.

How could an area so close to Reactor Number 4 not have become horribly contaminated?  The answer is rather banal, it was not downwind of the fallout cloud. Thus, the heavily wooded area where Slavutych would be constructed was relatively unscathed. Nevertheless, two meters of fresh topsoil was brought in and laid before construction started. To say that the first inhabitants of the city were moving onto suspect terrain would be an understatement. Yet the citizens of Slavutych have suffered much less than almost any community in the region. It has been one of the healthiest places to live in Ukraine. Oddly enough this has much to do with Chernobyl, as does just about everything else in the city, from the reason for its existence to its prosperity and wellness. A city built as an escape from the worst nuclear disaster in human history has become known for its youth and wealth. This is especially perplexing when measured against the fact that the city is located within thirty minutes of an exclusion zone that will likely stay uninhabitable for thousands of years to come.

Memorial in Slavutych to Chernobyl victims

Memorial in Slavutych to Chernobyl victims (Credit: mtaHarlemLine)

Prospering From Disaster – The Rise of Slavutych
The success of Slavutych is one of the world’s most improbable stories. The fact that it has thrived can be largely attributed to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. There were four working reactors at Chernobyl, only one of which exploded. The other three continued to operate as a vital power supply for Ukraine. This meant that thousands of workers would have to be housed somewhere in the surrounding area. A railroad siding called Nerafa was selected as the site for Slavutych. The new city’s name was an Old Slavic language word for the nearby Dneiper River. Construction would require clearance of a thick forest, but the river offered an uncontaminated supply of water and the pre-existing transport infrastructure offered ease of access to and from Chernobyl.

In just two years a city rose out of the forest, strangely it was designed with a younger generation in mind. This was because approximately 8,000 children who had been living close to Chernobyl would now be living in Slavutych. The new community had sports facilities, youth centers, good schools and lots of playgrounds. A total of 9,000 workers, many scientists and highly educated engineers moved into the town. They received good housing, high quality medical care and good salaries for working at Chernobyl.  As a newly independent nation Ukraine went through tumultuous economic times during the 1990’s, meanwhile Slavutych’s economy continued to hum along. The quality of life was excellent. Such problems as low wages, unemployment, alcoholism and drug abuse that plagued the rest of Ukraine were minimal in Slavutych. This was a strangely successful, post-apocalyptic utopia.

In essence, Slavutych was a half-size version of Pripyat, with a trajectory that was on the upswing. Unfortunately, Slavutych had much in common with Pripyat, such as being totally reliant on Chernobyl. That ended up being a major problem. In 2001, the three nuclear reactors at Chernobyl were finally shut down. This constricted the flow of money to Slavutych. For 13 years the city had been virtually bankrolled by the entity that ran the power station. Now funding was dramatically reduced. The personnel working at Chernobyl fell from 9,000 to 3,000 workers. Slavutych has been on the wane ever since. Despite such measures as declaring the city a Special Economic Zone, with tax perks for business startups and investment, the city has stagnated. Those who work at the plant today, either help construct the new sarcophagus which will seal Reactor Number 4 for a century or dismantle other parts of the facility. The worker’s labor is now going toward putting themselves out of a job. That brutal paradox sums up Slavutych’s relationship with Chernobyl.

Leaving Slavutych, Ukraine

Leaving Slavutych, Ukraine (Credit: fraskini)

The Dream & the Reality – Fleeing & Fleeting Slavutych
The fate of Slavutych is uncertain, though decline seems all but inevitable. The city and its citizens can only walk backward against the prevailing winds of history for so long. It is remarkable that the city has lasted this long, despite the fact that it was built on the fringes of what is perhaps the worst environmental disaster in modern history. Slavutych’s existence is nothing short of astonishing. The city proves that mankind can live for a limited amount of time, side by side with its worst mistakes. Unfortunately the radiation from the Chernobyl meltdown could outlive humanity. That is a reality that the best efforts of mankind, such as Slavutych, can never mitigate.

School Is Out, Forever – Pripyat, Chernobyl & Lessons On The End Of Innocence

I can still remember the exact moment when I lost my innocence. Often people will say they lost their innocence the first time they were jilted in romance or during their first sexual encounter. My experience was totally different. I lost my innocence watching a TV movie. It happened on November 20, 1983. I was 12 years old at the time and had just started junior high school. Every weekday morning I attended Mr. Connelly’s 2nd period Social Studies class. One Friday morning he mentioned that we should watch a movie that weekend. It was called The Day After and would air on the ABC television network Sunday evening. The film was about a nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union. I thought it sounded interesting, as did almost 100 million Americans who tuned in that Sunday night. Exactly 55 minutes and 57 seconds into the movie, the possibility of hell on earth entered my consciousness as nuclear warheads sent vortexes of fire, flame and catastrophic levels of radiation onto eastern Kansas and western Missouri. The immediate destruction was terrifying and its aftermath worse as the characters reckoned with survival, only to experience slow, painful deaths.

Chalkboard in a classroom at Middle School Number 3 in Pripyat

Chalkboard in a classroom at Middle School Number 3 in Pripyat

The world as I understood it died that evening. Nuclear war was no longer some vague concept, it was a distinct possibility. The worst part was that it could happen almost any minute. And nuclear war was always measured in minutes. In the time it takes to watch an average television sitcom, civilization could come to an end, for all time. I can still recall how I was barely able to sleep for several days afterward. Slowly I adjusted to this new and frightening reality. The threat of nuclear war would always be with me, as it would be with humanity. The movie started a personal fascination with nuclear war, nuclear weapons and nuclear disasters. Perhaps this was a reaction to the trauma I had experienced that evening.

Desk and chair at Middle School Number 3

Desk and chair at Middle School Number 3

Permanent Scars – Chernobyl & The Long Goodbye
An odd and horrifying thing happened in the Soviet Union that would affect all things nuclear just two and a half years after The Day After aired. Thankfully it was not a nuclear exchange, but something similar in scope occurred. Radiation equivalent to 500 Hiroshima atomic bombs was released in extreme northern Ukraine and southern Belarus. This was the Chernobyl disaster, where on April 26, 1986 Reactor Number 4 suffered a catastrophic meltdown. The news spread around the globe along with radioactive fallout. This was a nuclear disaster, the likes of which had never before been experienced by humanity. The most frightening aspect was that the effects of radioactive contamination – covering an area the size of Belgium – were going to last for thousands of years. I found myself in the school library reading newspaper and magazine articles about the accident, trying to comprehend what would turn out to be a monstrous human tragedy. Chernobyl changed the world. It indirectly helped lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union, as Ukrainians and Belarusians lost faith in the communist system and the party leaders who tried to ignore the disaster.

Portraits of Communist Party dignitaries

Abandoned portraits of Communist Party dignitaries

When the Soviet Union disintegrated five and a half years later, an independent Ukraine was formed. One of the legacies of communism Ukraine would struggle with was Chernobyl. The cost of containing the damage was exorbitant in scientific, financial and human terms. Yet life was never the same for those who had lived close to Chernobyl. Tens of thousands suffered from the poisonous effects of radiation. Overlooked, but often just as insidious were the effects of upheaval on those who were forced to relocate. Many could not cope and sank into depression, which led to alcoholism or much worse. A slow, grinding death replaced the more immediate one that had occurred in the wake of the meltdown. Things never returned to normal in the area, but as the years passed the survivors moved on, scattered in apartment blocks throughout Ukraine and Belarus. The world moved on as well, but could never quite forget. Chernobyl was a blight on the earth and human consciousness that left permanent scars.

Doll at a piano in Middle School Number 3 in Pripyat

Music depreciation – doll at a piano

Ghost Of Civilization’s Past – Pripyat Middle School Number 3
In September, 2011 I traveled to Kiev for one reason, to visit Chernobyl. Foreign tourists were now allowed inside the exclusion zone. Daily tours could be easily arranged out of the Ukrainian capital. These tours included glimpses of the Chernobyl Power facility, the sarcophagus covered Reactor Number 4 and an opportunity to visit the once bustling, but now totally abandoned city of Pripyat. 49,400 people, the entire population of Pripyat, had been evacuated 36 hours after the meltdown. All the inhabitants had vanished, literally overnight. A guided tour was how I came to be standing inside Pripyat Middle School Number 3, just a few kilometers away from the now confined, but still deadly detritus of Reactor Number 4. Outside the sun was shining and the leaves were just beginning to turn autumn colors beneath a deep blue sky. Inside the school it could not have been more different. There was dust and debris everywhere, the air tasted like chalk and footsteps echoed down empty corridors. My tour group of twelve, all foreigners, except for a guide and driver, wandered about snapping photos.

Former classroom ravaged by radiation, looters and time

Former classroom ravaged by radiation, looters and time – none of which can be seen

I had never seen anything like this. The school’s look and feel had little to do with the way things were in Pripyat pre-meltdown. Looters had ravaged the place. It was a microcosm of what the world would have been like downwind of a massive nuclear exchange. At one time, Pripyat had 15 primary schools, 5 middle schools and one professional school. At Pripyat’ Middle School Number 3 hundreds of teenagers had walked the now ruined halls. On the chalk boards, ghosts of lessons were still discernible. In the gym, I peered into the corners where first kisses had once been exchanged and hormones started to rage. Songs extolling the Soviet Union would have been sung here. All of this was now in the past. It was over, but it was also frozen. This was a place where the ghost of the late Soviet Union’s past still stalked the hallways. It was a school in the truest sense of the word, since there was still so much to be learned here. There were lessons to be discerned on the frailty of human existence, the meaning of abandonment and the end of civilization. The school was a boneyard of history.

Class Project - decades later

Class Project – decades later

The Day After Every Day – An End To Innocence
I was able to discern eerie similarities between Pripyat’s Middle School Number 3 and Valdese Junior High, where I attended school from the 7th through the 9th grades. There were poster boards covered with photos from class projects, adolescent sketches and idolized depictions of the world as teenagers see it. Windows were left open for natural air conditioning, wooden desks looked much the same and the classrooms were of similar size. The difference was that I had been able to finish junior high in the same place that I started. Not long after I went off to high school, they closed Valdese Junior High down. It was old and falling into disrepair. A few years later I climbed through a broken window to get inside. What I found looked about the same as the school in Pripyat. Both schools were now closed, forever. Looters had done their dirty work. The classrooms were covered with debris.

School is out, forever - Middle School Number 3 in Pripyat, Ukraine

School is out, forever – Middle School Number 3 in Pripyat, Ukraine

It was sad, but outside my abandoned school’s walls my hometown continued to progress. It was not disrupted by a nuclear disaster. Valdese was no Valhalla, but it was not Pripyat either. The Day After was now every day in Pripyat. Nothing had been stolen from me in my school or hometown other than my innocence. The Day After had just been a figment of Hollywood’s imagination, a distant nightmare that I was able to conjure up once again in Pripyat. I was lucky, we were lucky. Pripyat could have been us. It still could be.

 

Fall From Grace – Catholicism, Communism & Cross Cutting at Lviv’s St. Elizabeth Church (Lviv: The Story of a City #7)

One of my first memories of Lviv was seeing the Church of Saint Olha and Elizabeth. Like the majority of visitors to the city I arrived by train. After procuring a cab at the entrance to the station, I rode out of the parking area, down Chernivetska Street to make the turn onto Horodska Street, which is the main road leading to the city center. It was here that the soaring spires of the church suddenly appeared as a towering illumination of electric red, incandescent purple and lightning white that outlined the neo-Gothic edifice. By sheer presence the church commanded my attention.  This was not a coincidence.

Church of Sts. Olha & Elizabeth Church

Church of Sts. Olha & Elizabeth Church – illuminated at night (Credit: Lilia Sytnyk)

Tragic and Tortured – The Church Of St. Elizabeth’s 20th Century
I later discovered that the church’s placement near the main railway station was done intentionally. When it was constructed in the first decade of the 20th century, the city was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was built with the idea of being the first and most memorable sight to catch the eyes of new arrivals. The church was dedicated to the memory of Emperor Franz Josef I’s wife Empress Elizabeth of Austria who had been murdered by an Italian anarchist in Geneva in 1898. Thus it was given the name, Church of St. Elizabeth. From the very beginning, the church was meant to be noticed.  The design called for three spires shooting skyward, with the tallest one peaking at 85 meters. A bit more subtle, was the fact that the church was situated to impede the view of another landmark, St. George’s Cathedral.

This does not seem to make much sense today as both churches are now Greek-Catholic, but up until 1946 the Church of St. Elizabeth was Roman Catholic, built to serve the Polish community that made up a majority of Lwow’s (the city’s Polish name) citizens. They were determined to keep the city Polish through and through. And what could be more symbolic of the Polish, than Roman Catholicism. Conversely, St. George’s Cathedral was the mother church of Ukrainian Greek Catholicism. More than any church or building in Lviv, St. Elizabeth’s history is a direct reflection of the city’s tumultuous 20th century. The church’s proximity to the railway station did it no favors when war broke out. The structure suffered damage in World War I, the Polish-Ukrainian War, the opening days of World War II when Luftwaffe aerial bombing targeted what was one of Poland’s largest cities and later in the war as the Soviets took the city back from the German army. St. Elizabeth was also raided by its own side in the First World War, when its bells were taken and melted down by the Austro-Hungarian administration to aid in the war effort.

Church of St. Elizabeth in its early years

Church of St. Elizabeth in its early years

Crossing God – The Aspirations of Atheism
The darkest days for the church, dawned at the end of World War II, when the Poles were forcibly expelled from the city. As for the Ukrainians they to be transformed into atheists or so the ruling Soviets thought. The military conquest was complete, but the spiritual conquest was never accomplished. This was not for want of trying. In the summer of 1946 the Church of St. Elizabeth was shuttered. The interior was vandalized, with the confessionals and many sculptures smashed. The natural elements added to the degradation, as snow fell inside the sanctuary. No one was allowed inside, as the main entrance gate was kept locked. The sad state of the church made it no longer worthy of Queen Elizabeth’s memory. The glory of St. Elizabeth’s like that of Austria-Hungary’s halcyon days was but a distant memory by the middle of the 20th century.

What really drove the Soviets to distraction was the fact that the church was home to the tallest manmade structure in the city which was topped with a cross. This form of symbolism could not be tolerated. As long as that iron cross stood at the architectural pinnacle of Lvov (the Soviet name for the city), the communists must have felt that they failed in their aspiration for complete totalitarian rule over the city. Something had to be done about this. Short of bringing the whole church down, the Soviet leaders in the city thought they had a better idea. On a moonlit night in 1962 a man began to scale the central tower of the church with one goal in mind. He was going to cut the cross down with a handsaw. In retrospect, this was senseless madness, but the culprit’s passion was fired with ideological zealotry.

Something To Believe In – A Cross Cutter’s Final Moments
When one stands at ground level outside the church today, gazing at its apex, a feeling of dizziness takes hold. Just trying to imagine the vertigo felt by the cross cutting zealot can be overwhelming. The cross cutter would have been looking down on the flickering lights of Lvov and then upwards at a sky lit by the silver sparkles of a hundred stars. Working through the deepest hours of night until the first creeping expanses of sunlight appeared in the east. On and on he sawed. His work coming into focus as daylight exposed the cross. Meanwhile, a crowd began to slowly gather in the streets surrounding the church. They were said to have shouted threats and curses. All the while, the lonely zealot kept up his work. He held tight to the cross as he continued to saw and saw until finally, off came the cross, taking the zealot into free fall with it. He held onto it during the last moments of his life. The last thing he ever grasped was what he had so fervently rejected. The man and the cross fell to earth, but the Church was still standing.

Following this incident one would think that the ruling communists would have left the church alone. As the decades passed and the Soviet Union descended into stagnation the Soviets still would not moderate their behavior towards St. Elizabeth’s. The humiliations continued into the 1970’s when the church was turned into a cement storage warehouse. It is a wonder that the communists did not have the church demolished. They made plans to do just that, but it would have been too expensive, communism was not exactly known for efficient public works projects. The fact that the church was used as a warehouse can be seen as an indictment of communism’s inability to provide for enterprise. The powers that be were forced to utilize whatever buildings remained from the pre-communist period.

Sts. Olha and Elizabeth Church

Church of Sts. Olha and Elizabeth in Lviv (Credit: Alexander Naumov)

Spiritual Power, Staying Power
In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed. Lvov became Lviv and the Church of St. Elizabeth was soon transformed into the Church of Saint Olha and Elizabeth. A church that had been built for Roman Catholicism and suffered under Soviet Communism was now protected and preserved by Greek Catholicism. The power of religious tradition had trumped atheism. The cross cutter’s story became an apocryphal tale of deadly ideological obsession and foolish destruction.  A metaphor for a Soviet system that had tried to create a brave new world, but in the process had been consumed by an older spiritual one.