Stepping Away From The Nuclear Ledge – Mikhail Gorbachev: An Appreciation or Lack Thereof (Part Two)

Mikhail Gorbachev’s legacy is extremely complicated. That is not surprising since he allowed much of Eastern Europe to part freely from the Soviet sphere of influence and presided over the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Of all the various aspects of Gorbachev’s time as General Secretary of the Soviet Union, nothing causes more approbation and consternation as his involvement with nuclear affairs. On one hand, his summitry with American Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush ushered in an era of drastic cuts in nuclear armaments. On the other, Gorbachev was part of the Soviet disinformation apparatus which initially denied the severity of the meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. This led to loss of life and a massive blow to public confidence in the Soviet government. The mixed verdict on Gorbachev ‘s legacy is torn between his ability to negotiate breakthrough agreements in nuclear arms control, while also playing a lead role in the initial cover up of the greatest nuclear disaster in human history. Nevertheless, Gorbachev’s achievements in helping make the world safe from nuclear destruction – at least for a little while – were considerable and should not be overlooked.

Coming to terms- Mikhail Gorbachev & Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik (Credit: White House Photo Collection)

Silence Is Deadly – A Failure To Communicate
Chernobyl was a disaster unlike anything seen in human history up to that time. The meltdown of Reactor Four at the Nuclear Power Plant, followed by an explosion and fire on April 26, 1986, spread radiation across a wide swath of the Soviet Union and further afield in Europe. Damage control from Soviet leaders meant not telling the truth about what had happened. At least not right away. Gorbachev refrained from issuing any warnings in the days after the explosion even though the city of Pripyat – five kilometers from the power plant – had to be evacuated a day after the accident. No one knew what effect the radiation would have as it began to disperse. Gorbachev and Soviet officialdom’s silence was deadly. The failure to take the proper precautions unnecessarily put millions of lives at risk. This failure included not canceling the May 1st parade in Kyiv where everyone from children to the elderly were exposed to higher levels of radiation. Eventually the truth came out.

Gorbachev finally spoke about the accident on May 14th, almost three weeks after the meltdown occurred. This led to a loss of confidence in Gorbachev and the government at a time when many Soviet citizens were already skeptical. It is impossible to quantify how badly Gorbachev’s reputation was damaged by his failure to be forthright. It certainly did not help him when he was trying to convince the Soviet masses that communism could be reformed under a more trustworthy government. His credibility in this regard was dubious. Gorbachev’s evasion of the truth was a symptom of the overall credibility problem the communist government had in the Soviet Union. Soviet citizens had endured decades of lies, along with poor living standards and a bureaucracy that actively worked against the people’s best interest. Gorbachev did not help to build confidence by staying silent for far too long.

They were that close – Mikhail Gorbachev & Ronald Reagan say goodbye in Reykjavik

Personal Diplomacy – The Power of Differing Perspectives
Gorbachev’s initial handling of the Chernobyl disaster was then, as it still is today, unconscionable, but on other nuclear matters he would meet with a degree of success that few could have imagined when he took power in 1985. During that same year, Gorbachev attended a superpower summit in Geneva, Switzerland where he met with the American President, Ronald Reagan. This was the first of four summits that would occur between the two leaders from 1985 to 1988. These summits would yield unprecedented breakthroughs in nuclear arms control that no one thought possible between two men who were ideological opposites. Gorbachev was a true believer in the communist system. He thought it offered the best way to solve society’s problems. Reagan was a fervent anti-communist and free marketeer. He believed the Soviet Union and the communist system it represented was an odious and oppressive system, one that would collapse under pressure. Oddly, Gorbachev and Reagan connected on a personal level and discovered that when it came to arms control their interests coincided.

At a spontaneous superpower summit that was put together in a matter of weeks, the two met at Reykjavik, Iceland. They came within a hair’s breadth of an agreement to phase out all nuclear armaments in ten years. The sticking point was the American Strategic Defense Initiative (also known as Star Wars), which Gorbachev demanded be put on hold. Reagan would not budge on the matter. Tragically, they could not come to an agreement. Nonetheless, this is as close as any leaders have come to abolishing nuclear weapons. The summit did lead to a later agreement that banned all Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces.

While both men should get credit for their roles, Gorbachev had less to bargain with and more to lose since the Soviet Union by the 1980’s largely relied on nuclear weapons to project power. Gorbachev knew the Soviet Union could not compete with the United States economically, but he wanted to rebuild and restructure the Soviet economy by getting rid of the astronomical sums of money being spent on nuclear weapons and other military expenditures. A comprehensive arms control agreement abolishing all nuclear weapons would have certainly helped the Soviet economy. Better yet, it would have benefitted humanity for generations to come.

Man With A Vision – Mikhail Gorbachev at Geneva summit in 1985 (Credit: White House Photo Office)

A Lasting Achievement  – Making The World Safer
Gorbachev’s willingness to cut the Soviet nuclear arsenal was not just done in the interests of economics, he was also keen to spare the world a catastrophic nuclear war. Gorbachev had a humanitarian streak that eluded his predecessors. He cared a great deal about the common person. Perhaps this came from the fact that he had grown up in hardscrabble circumstances in a farming region of southern Russia. The fact that a Russian provincial and an American who hailed from a small town in the heartland of United States came close to ridding the world of nuclear weapons defies belief. In this aspect of his Soviet political career, Gorbachev deserves the highest commendation.

His work led to the threat of a nuclear war in Europe receding, paving the way for the satellite states of Eastern Europe to break free of the Soviet yoke. Gorbachev was not about to use nuclear weapons to coerce smaller, less powerful nations to stay within the Soviet sphere of influence. Perhaps his aversion to nuclear weapons was an outgrowth of the Chernobyl accident. Gorbachev had first-hand experience of nuclear catastrophe. He never wanted to see it happen again. On his watch the world became a much safer place. For all his failures, Mikhail Gorbachev got the most important thing right. Humanity has him to thank for it.

A Hole In The Heart of Europe – Belarus: An Uncrossed Border (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #37)

Belarus, the word evokes different thoughts, many of them quite distressing. Thoughts of autocratic rule, thoughts of a last refuge for the Soviet system in Europe, thoughts of an ossified, anti-democratic dictator able to bend the people’s will to his whims. From a political standpoint, there is not much good to say about Belarus’ history since the Soviet Union disintegrated. Then again there was not much good to say about Belarus during Soviet times either. One is the only number anyone needs to know when it comes to post-Soviet Belarus. That is because Belarus has had just one leader, Alexander Lukashenko, since it became independent. That number is an expression of how far democracy has come in Belarus.  And that is not far at all. An opportunity has been lost.

Last of The Soviets – Government House in Minsk (Credit: Nuno Godiho)

Dueling Identities – History & Mystery
Belarus is an obscure nation, even for someone like me conversant in Eastern European history and travel. It remains a nation of mystery and history, a land of confused and dueling identities. It is not quite Russia, though sometimes it is hard to tell. It is in Europe, but not really of Europe. At least, not the Europe of humanism and progress. This is a Europe that most of us are unfamiliar with, one of totalitarianism and regress. Belarus is an enigma, an Eastern European version of no man’s land covering a crucial region that lies on a geopolitical fault line between Poland and Russia. Paradoxically, this no man’s land is home to nine and a half million people. They live in an insular state. Rather than a bridge between east and west, it is more like an island unto itself. While there is a great deal of Russian influence when it comes to Belarus, Russia has not been able to assimilate it. The two nations are not one and are certainly not the same.

To the rest of Europe and the world, Belarus is a baffling place, a question mark that lies at the heart of Eastern Europe. The questions it poses are still awaiting an affirmative response. How much longer will totalitarianism rule this benighted land. Will Belarus ever be free of interference from big brother Russia? Will it ever become a popular rather than a pariah state? Answers continue to elude Belarusians. At least ones that would include respect for the human dignity and civil rights of all Belarusians. So much of the little that we know about Belarus is intensely negative. Will that ever change? History teaches us that nothing stays the same, but Belarus for the past thirty years has been changed, not for the better, but for the worse. At best, it has stagnated. At worse, it has ossified. Attempts to renew the country have been met with belligerence and brute force, tear gas and truncheons. The future does not look bright, but this is nothing new. Throughout the 20th century, Belarusians had a rough time of it.

East of center – Belarus and surrounding nations

All The Wrong Reasons – Looking Down On The World
With Belarus making headline news once again for all the wrong reasons, I have asked myself what do I really know about the nation? Beyond negative news blurbs and a handful of guidebooks, the only other things I know about Belarus comes from a series of disconnected experiences with the people and country. These are anecdotes, either personal or political, that provide a blurred window into a nation that seems to defy logic. I have started scouring my mind for anecdotal evidence of Belarus. After so many trips to Eastern Europe, it is hard for me to believe that Belarus is still such a mystery. A nation that is a gaping hole in the heart of my Eastern European travels, an uncrossed border, a chance not taken because of fear and logistics.

Coming close to Belarus and meeting Belarusians is the experiential evidence I have of the country. This has been the only way I could get beyond the dire drip feed of negative news emanating from the country. I have never visited Belarus and for obvious reasons do not plan too anytime soon. I am rather proud that I came as close I did on two separate occasions. The first was while visiting Chernobyl and the abandoned city of Pripyat. Ukraine’s border with Belarus was within a few kilometers of those sites. It is another in that seemingly endless series of tragedies that has befallen Belarus, that much of radiation from Chernobyl ended up on the Belarusian side of the border with disastrous consequences for the inhabitants.

The visit to Chernobyl did afford me a window into a natural world that ignores borders. This tip of Ukraine was heavily forested. It is even more so across the border in Belarus. Later, while flying from Kiev to Riga, my Baltic Air flight traveled over Belarus. I looked down from 20,000 feet at a nation of trees. From the air it was easy to see that forests covered a good deal of the country. Some 40% of Belarus is forest, including a swath of wilderness along the border with Poland that contains some of the last remnants of the primeval forest that once covered Europe. The forest cover makes for good hiding places. This cover allowed the partisan units of Belarus during World War II to wreaked havoc on the German supply lines and occupation forces. From above, the forests in Belarus added another layer of mystery. I could see the forests, but not the trees. This is an apt metaphor for Belarus. A foreigner can see the dictatorship, but not the people who suffer under it.

Undiscovered Europe – Strusta Lake in northeastern Belarus (Credit: zedlik)

The View From Vilnius – Democracy & Dictatorship, Freedom & Oppression
The only other time I came close to Belarus was on this same trip. While staying in Vilnius, I became cognizant that Belarus was too close for comfort. Looking at a map made me realize just how close Belarus was to the Lithuanian capital. And the comparatively smaller sized Lithuania looked like it would not stand a chance if Belarus ever descended into geopolitical belligerence. This realization was different from how I felt while close to the Belarusian border in Ukraine. The latter has the size and resources to keep the Belarusians at bay. If anything, Ukraine is seen as a threat by the government in Belarus. Lithuania as an annoyance.

Belarus had a strange effect on my mentality while in Lithuania. It was hard to believe that two nations could be so politically different from one another, despite their proximity. To go from democracy to dictatorship was a thirty minute drive from Vilnius. For most people a thirty minute drive might mean going to another village, town or county. For people in this part of Europe, it was the difference between freedom and oppression. This was a trip that I would not dare to take.

Click here for: An Accident of History – Prague: Jan Masaryk & The Fourth Defenestration (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #38a)

Terminal Illness – Demography & Demagoguery: The Post-Communist Population Collapse In Eastern Europe (Part One)

Since the collapse of communism in 1989 the quality of life in Eastern European nations has undoubtedly improved. Incomes have risen, consumer products are readily available, freedom of speech and press is now the law of the land (though there has been a great deal of backsliding on both of late) and fear of arbitrary arrest has all but disappeared. Communism was an economic, environmental and human disaster. Planned, highly centralized economies led to stagnation. Heavy industry was kept up by state subsidies. Not only was it terribly uncompetitive, but also led to environmental degradation. Human creativity was quashed. Millions were arrested and died at the hands of dictatorships purporting to represent the proletariat. Politics became an extremely narrow, toxic and often deadly business to be avoided at all costs. State sponsored corruption was endemic to the system, leading to societies where a small group of elites ruled over the masses.

Even in the countries which were ostensibly better off during this era (1948 – 1989), such as Hungary which was home to Goulash Communism and Yugoslavia where Titoism ruled with a much softer fist, the system could only be kept alive and quality of life improved (i.e. shelves with consumer products) by large loans from the western world. By the 1980’s both countries were deep in debt with economies that would have collapsed if the Iron Curtain had not first given way. And these were the supposedly successful communist countries. Yet for all this misery and the unsustainability of communism, it was also at the tail end of this era that the population of most Eastern European countries reached its greatest extent. Communism may have spread misery, but it certainly did not stop people from procreating enough to sustain the population. The same cannot be said today. While the quality of life has certainly improved, there is not nearly as much human life as there once was in these nations.

An Alarming Trend – Failure To Procreate
It is doubtful that many Hungarians would say that 1981 was a peak year in their nation’s history. At that time, Janos Kadar’s increasingly geriatric administration was in its 25th year. Hungary had attained the title of happiest barracks in the Eastern Bloc” due to a decent economy and its relative openness to the wider world. Conversely, the country was still in the grips of an ossified totalitarianism that showed no sign of abating anytime soon. It was also in that 1981 that the population of Hungary hit its highest level ever at 10.7 million. Since then the population has either declined or been stagnant for thirty-seven consecutive years. In 2011 the population of Hungary dropped below 10 million for the first time in half a century. It is unlikely to ever reach that level again, at least not in the 21st century.

Since the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, Hungary’s population has dropped by over half a million people. While this sounds dire, Hungary has plenty of company from other fellow Eastern European countries. In 1990, the year after the Ceaucescu dictatorship was overthrown in Romania, there was another reason for the nation’s citizens to celebrate. Romania’s population hit an all-time high at 23.2 million. Since that time, the population has fallen by over three and a half million. This is an alarming rate of decrease, due to many factors. The fact that communism could no longer keep Romanians hemmed into their own country meant that hundreds of thousands could immigrate abroad in search of better opportunities. Many have found just that and are unlikely to return.

Then there is the case of Bulgaria which does not offer any reason for optimism. People have been disappearing from this mid-sized Balkan nation since the year after communism’s collapse. The population of Bulgaria rose to unprecedented heights, an all-time high of 8.9 million in 1989. The very next year Bulgaria lost over 200,000 people. Perhaps they were obeying the tenant of that old wise saying of “getting out while the getting is good”. Amazingly, 1990 was not the most precipitous one year population drop of the post-communist period, worse was yet to come. In 2002 there were 280,000 less people in Bulgaria then the year before. In percentage terms Bulgaria has lost at least one out of every five citizens (other sources say one out of every four) since the rickety rule of long-time communist leader Tudor Zhivkov came to a peaceful conclusion.

Russian Cross - The black curve reflects the death rate dynamics, the red one corresponds to the birth rate

Russian Cross – The black curve reflects the death rate dynamics, the red one corresponds to the birth rate (Credit: Lihoborka)

Plummeting Population – Economic Growth, Demographic Decline
No Eastern European nation could escape the curse of a plummeting population, including ones that experienced a successful transition from communism to capitalism. For example, Poland has been one of the great success stories of the post-communist era. Economic reforms enacted in the early 1990’s have led to steady growth. When the rest of Europe went into recession following the financial crisis, Poland was the only country to sustain economic growth. One would assume that the demographic situation would also have been much better for Poland. That was not the case. The Polish population did increase for several years following the collapse of communism. Poland gained 550,000 people between 1990 and 1998 when the population peaked at 38.6 million. It has been all downhill from there. The current Polish population is now back to where it was in 1989. That trend will almost certainly continue in the years to come.

Further north and east the situation has been nothing short of alarming. Latvia has lost a quarter of its population since the Soviet Union collapsed, Estonia almost one-fifth. Russia suffered as much or more than anywhere else. The demographic decline there has been symbolically portrayed by what became known as the Russian Cross. This is where the birth and death rates are portrayed on a line graph. In 1992 – the year after the Soviet Union collapsed – the lines crossed as the death rate exceeded the birth rate. The situation stayed that way up through 2013 until the lines re-crossed. During that time span, Russia’s population dropped by 5.2 million. Put another way, Russia lost the equivalent of Norway’s entire population over a twenty-one year period. That is more than a crisis, it is a human catastrophe. Such dire examples beg the question of what exactly have been the causes of this demographic decline in post-communist Eastern Europe.

Click here for: Breeding Like Hermits – Demographic Decline In Eastern Europe: 40 Million Missing Persons (Part Two)


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.