Blasted in Brasov– Traumatic Memories of Transylvania (Eastern Europe & Me #21)

It is an unfortunate symptom of the human experience that so many of our memories center around traumatic incidents. The things we would rather not remember often stay with us far longer than we could ever imagine. The more we attempt to suppress unwanted parts of our past, the more likely they are too return with a vengeance. Many of our most vivid memories get connected with negative events. Uncommon occurrences that because of their novelty or rarity stick in our mind. These experiences do not have to be life shattering in order to become memory markers. They just need to be unique. I discovered two such experiences lurking in my memory when I began to think about Brasov, that elegant city in eastern Transylvania known for its splendid old town and beautiful setting amid the mountains.

Confined space – Street in Brasov

Stealing Away – Criminal Minds
Drunkenness and drug abuse. Those were not the kinds of experiences I was looking forward to finding when I went to Brasov. During a decade of travels in Eastern Europe that include a trio of trips to Transylvania, I have found the region to be much safer than the United States. Violent crime and the potential for it to occur are rare. I have never seen guns in Eastern Europe except while visiting museums. In the United States, handgun crime is a chronic problem that only seems to get worse with each passing year. Mass shootings are now occurring multiple times a week. There is no such thing in Eastern Europe. When shootings do occur, they are usually related to organized crime. I have read more about stabbings in the region, but these crimes are much harder to commit.

That does not mean Eastern Europe is without crime. Whereas in America, I rarely worry about theft, I have heard numerous stories of theft from travelers in Eastern Europe. In one case, I had second-hand experience with it. On an overnight train from Krakow to Budapest, a friend of mind had his wallet cleaned out of cash. Petty theft is anything but that when it happens to you or someone you know. This is why most accommodations in the region have multiple locks on the door. Phrases such as “do not leave your bags unattended” take on a different meaning in Eastern Europe.

There is also the persistent problem of corruption which still plagues every post-communist country. This corruption is not just the kind where fat cats get kickbacks on contracts. There is also the petty kind, where citizens are forced to pay for services or access that should have already been covered by their tax dollars. A Hungarian once told me that business costs should include a thirty percent add on for various payoffs. While corruption in Hungary has worsened over the past decade, the problem is only a little better or worse than other nations throughout the region. Corruption trickles down through society, affecting everyone, at every level. I have been asked for petty bribes a few times while traveling in the region. Thankfully, this is the exception rather than the rule. Endemic corruption rarely affects tourists on a perceptible level. More problematic are societal problems that can be seen on the street.

Beautiful setting – Council Square in Brasov

Soft Targets – Picking Up Problems
Brasov is prosperous by the standards of Romania. The city has good public transport services, a diversified economy, and a thriving tourist sector. It is in Transylvania, which happens to be the most economically prosperous region in Romania besides the capital of Bucharest. Brasov has a lot going for it, but like the rest of Romania, the city is still recovering from the disastrous Ceausescu era. Societal woes are to be expected. The average tourist is not likely to encounter many problems. Nevertheless, Brasov was where I had a couple of memorable moments that I would rather forget.

One came while walking down a narrow street in the Old Town during the late afternoon. I suddenly found an unwanted companion in the form of a very drunk Romanian man who looked to be in his 40’s. For some reason – most likely my red hair – he thought I must have been German. He mockingly began to sound off in drill sergeant speak. By the tone, I could tell his comments were pejorative. I assumed these were allusions to German militarism The man was trying to get a rise out of me. I would have none of it, but I did consider the possibility that he might lay his hands on me. That would have escalated the situation to a point of no return. There was little doubt that he was inebriated. His mocking tones went on for a couple of blocks before the man finally wandered off. I was a bit shaken by the experience. This could have easily happened almost anywhere else in Eastern Europe. The biggest surprise was that it occurred in Transylvania. I have seen much more public drunkenness in Poland and Hungary. Romanians are not known to be excessively fond of alcohol, but the problem does exist.  

Evening scene – Brasov at dusk

Shock Effect – A Tale of Trauma
By the standards of substance abuse, public drunkenness by someone acting like a lout is only of mild concern. The same could not be said for a shocking sight I came across while walking in the Old Town one morning in Brasov. Foot traffic was rather heavy since it was a weekday. The morning commute on foot to the nearest bus stop or workplace was in full force. While weaving through fellow pedestrians I noticed a woman walking at a brisk pace. Her features were shriveled though she looked to be no older than 40. She pressed a plastic bag to her face from which she was inhaling a substance. This turned out to be glue, the smell of which struck my nostrils just before her rancid body odor. The moment was shocking in the extreme.

Sniffing glue is a sure way to destroy brain cells and shorten your lifespan. Drug abuse is a disease of despair, as much as it is one of addiction. It is no secret that Eastern European societies have had a difficult economic transition to capitalism. Some nations such as Romania have suffered more than others I have grown used to fending off attempts for money or cigarettes in public areas. My infrequent encounters with the destitute have been short and relatively benign. While this encounter was short in duration, it will forever remain in my memory. There was a desperation about that woman I have rarely seen. Now over a decade past that moment, I can only wonder what became of her. I imagine something quite tragic. This is one of those travel memories that I will never forget no matter how hard I try. Travel gives you a different perspective on the world and sometimes it is one you would rather forget.

Tales Of A Ticket Inspector- Constant Departures: An Austrian Railways State Of Mind (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #52)

Riding on trains is one thing, working on them quite another. I learned this while traveling by train through Austria on my way from Ljubljana to Gyor. This trip required making multiple connections, one of which was on an Austrian Federal Railways train that I boarded in Villach on my way to Vienna. After a couple of hours the train arrived in Graz, where a new ticket inspector entered the car. He was a middle aged man with a pleasant demeanor who went about his work in the efficiently productive manner that Austrians are often noted for. While checking my ticket, he asked if I was an American. I replied in the affirmative. He then followed that question up by asking where I was from. At the time I was living in South Dakota. Just in case he had never heard of it – my experience was that most Europeans had not – I added that South Dakota was located on the Great Plains of the United States. This piqued his interest. To my surprise he mentioned that he had visited middle America, specifically Oklahoma. That was the only place he had been in the United States. He said that we should talk and that he would be back shortly. In less half an hour he returned. A conversation began between the two of us that would last all the way to the outskirts of Vienna.

A Dreamy Wonder World –  Clouded Vision
His name was Hermann Wagner and he was an employee of the Austrian State Railways. I immediately began peppering him with questions about what life working the railways was really like. To an American such as myself, European railways are an endless source of fascination. It is hard not to romanticize them. Austria is certainly part of that dreamy wonder world. Traveling by train through its alpine landscapes, elegant cities and super cute villages is like gaining entry to an alternate version of heaven. But what is working on the train  in Austria really like? Herr Wagner told me it was not as nearly as wonderful as I imagined. There were dangers. Passengers without tickets were supposed to be put off the train, but when it was one ticket inspector against several less than savory individuals some things were best overlooked. He had colleagues who had been stabbed or hit before.

In my opinion, one of the great joys of rail travel is that no one ever quite knows who will be getting on at the next stop. Listening to Herr Wagner talk about some of the problems of working as a ticket inspector shifted my perspective.  I suddenly put myself in his uniform and tried to imagine what it would be like trying to deal with miscreants or rule breakers who get on the train and refuse to get off it. A conductor could always call in the police, but that still meant riding the train with less than desirable passengers for a prolonged period of time. The situation seemed to place a fair bit of pressure and a massive load of responsibility on the ticket inspector. The same might also be said for bus drivers, but only a group of determined lunatics would be crazy enough to attack a bus driver. This because the driver could do as much or more damage to the offending party if an inadvertent crash occurred. Conversely, a ticket inspector was at best one on one with an adversary, but in some cases a deficit of as much as one against four was possible. Such potentialities began to cloud my dream vision of a ticket inspector’s job.

Austrian Federal Railways - Constantly on the move

Austrian Federal Railways – Constantly on the move (Credit: Herbert Ortner)

A Life On The Move – In Pursuit Of Abandonment
Despite what I had learned, I still felt an admiration for this man. It came from watching someone do what I have so often dreamed of. Working on a train would mean a life spent mostly on the move, a career of constant departures.. Meeting new people and then saying goodbye to them all in a matter of hours. The regular passengers who would become fleeting friends, the satisfied passengers who would be safely delivered to their destination, the disgruntled passengers who I would soon be relieved of. The women I could have fallen in and out of love with in a matter of hours. Life as a conductor would be like earning a living with one daydream after another. This appealed to me for reasons that would only become apparent the more I traveled in foreign surroundings.

At some point I would come to realize that my father leaving our family when I was six had made me spend much of my life in the pursuit of abandonment. Travel, and not just train travel, was all about abandonment. Leaving one life for a temporary one. Strangely enough my newfound friend was just as interested in America as I was about life as an Austrian Federal Railways ticket inspector. Oklahoma seemed an odd choice for a first visit to the United States for an Austrian who was from a village near Graz. There was a reason for this. It turned out that he and his wife had gone there to see their daughter who was playing college golf on a scholarship. He was fascinated with the landscapes and the people whose friendliness had impressed him. He wanted to go back, just as much as I wanted to stay in this train car forever meeting people like him.

A Fleeting Familiarity – Along For The Ride
The ticket inspector’s eyes literally glowed when he began to talk about his daughter’s golfing skill. He told me how she spent hours practicing with a determination and focus that he spoke of with immense pride. The daughter worked ultra-hard to maximize her talent. I was not nearly as surprised as he may have thought when he told me this. I saw intensity and focus everywhere I looked in Austria. It was a country based on well-ordered organization, a nation of people obsessed with efficiency, productivity and precision. I imagined this man’s daughter hitting balls until her hands bled. Spending thousands of hours in a quest for perfection. There was a reason Austria was such a successful nation, in this man’s words and his daughter’s actions I could sense it. Several years later, I was not surprised to learn that Herr Wagner’s daughter was playing on the European Ladies Professional Golf Tour. Succeeding was the Austrian way, its wealth was an offshoot of this attribute

When I exited the train in Vienna, Herr Wagner exchanged social media addresses with me. I had made a friend for a few hours and an acquaintance for life. The dream of what my life might have been like if I had become a ticket inspector had materialized before me in just a few hours. It was everything I imagined and more. Sadly, I had to abandon it. Abandonment was a recurring theme in my travels, just as it was in my life, to grasp greatness for a few moments and then have to let it all go. I woke up from this dream the moment I stepped off the train into Vienna’s Central Station. Herr Wagner was now a memory, one both fleeting and familiar, much like life.


Floating Away – Saaremaa: An Estonian Island (Searching For The Center of Europe #6)

A Pole put it in Poland, a couple of Belarusians in Belarus, Hungarians in Hungary, Austro-Hungarians in Austria-Hungary not once, but twice. When it comes to the Center of Europe national self-interest trumps the scientific in all but one case and that was in Lithuania by way of France. Some of this makes sense and none of it makes sense. Those nations and empires that have claimed the Center of Europe is located on their territory, all wanted to be at the center of Europe in some way, shape or form. The designation is both trivial and prestigious. It also says a great deal about the countries and empires that made these claims. My suspicion is that both designation and defense of the claims are a sign of deep rooted insecurities.

All the claims are made by nations located in what is classified from a geopolitical standpoint as Eastern Europe, which connotes a certain level of authoritarian government, endemic corruption, and economic backwardness. Such stereotypes are harsh and unforgiving. They do not discriminate, any nation that was once behind the Iron Curtain, still is in many people’s mind. Being at the Center of Europe conveys a certain amount of prestige that is otherwise lacking in such places as Lithuania and Belarus. It can also put a place quite literally on the map. Perhaps that is why some Estonians made their own claim for the Center of Europe. The claim’s uniqueness lies in the fact that the place involved is located on an island.

Taking it to the Limit – Landscape on Saaremaa Island (Credit: Tudernaa)

Picture Perfect – Finding Estonia
Europe and islands, what comes to mind? Perhaps images of the Greek Isles or maybe the thousands of islands off the Croatian coast. It is doubtful anyone thinks of islands in Estonia. Then again, it is doubtful that they think of Estonia at all. It is too far north, too out of the way. It shares a coastline with the Baltic Sea, but so do warmer climes in the other Baltic states, Poland, and Germany. Estonia is the place that gave the world Skype and has digitized public services to such an extent that it is the envy of other European nations. It is home to a picture-perfect capital, Tallinn, that is surrounded by medieval walls and retains its historic architecture. It is a land of good governance with a well-educated population. This makes Estonia well worth a visit, the only trouble is getting there. Estonia is one of those places that you only go to if you really want to visit. In other words, it is a destination in and of itself. Thus, it follows that if Estonia is remote, then Saaremaa, its largest island, is downright obscure.

Ask yourself this, when was the last time someone told you they were going to an Estonian island. The answer is almost certainly never, but there is good reason to visit. That is because Saaremaa has been declared as the Geographical Midpoint of Europe, by who else but some Estonians. It is the only Center of Europe designation to be found on an island. This is ironic because some of the other claims for the Center of Europe have been made without accounting for any islands at all. Estonia’s claim is different from all the others because it is the most remote. Now that is saying something because Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine are not exactly tourist hotspots, especially in the areas where these midpoints are located. Because of its remoteness, Estonia’s claim is fascinating. It demands that any traveler wanting to visit all of Europe’s Geographical Midpoints, will sooner or later find themselves traveling off the Estonian mainland to Saaremaa.

Floating Away – Location of Saaremaa Island in Estonia (Credit: Mmh)

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy – Strange End To A Strange Journey
The Estonian claim that Saaremaa is home to the Geographical Midpoint of Europe rests on dubious evidence that has never been made completely transparent. As might be expected, this claim was made by Estonians. One method of calculation known to have been used was accounting for all of Europe’s islands as well as the mainland. The upshot, the Center of Europe was located on an island in Estonia. Funny how that works! This is the essence of a self-fulfilling geographic prophecy or what in American parlance is known as “cooking the books” to make evidence fit the narrative that is being promoted. Whether this makes any sense or not, a marginal area, in an extremely remote part of Europe such as Saaremaa, would be bound to embrace such a designation. Tourism is a viable economic strategy for an island whose economy struggles during the best of times.

Anyone traveling to Estonia for a visit to Saaremaa will likely be astonished to find that as much as anything, Estonia is a land of islands. There are over 1,500 of them, the largest of which is Saaremaa. Off the island’s northwest tip is Vilsandi National Park, home to 160 islands which make for magnificent waterfowl habitat. Saaremaa’s economic mainstays include fishing, agriculture, and rearing livestock. Tourism also contributes to the economy. It remains to be seen whether having a Center of Europe on Saaremaa’s soil will drive people to visit. If it does, they will almost certainly connect with Saaremaa by taking a ferry to the island’s largest city, Kuressaare (population 13,800). From there, it is a short twenty minute trip into the countryside to the village of Monnuste, which was designated as the location of this Center of Europe claim. This unprepossessing place is home to a grand total of fifty-six Estonians. If this is indeed the center of Europe, it really makes you wonder what Europe’s northern, southern, eastern and western frontiers must be like. It is a strange end to a strange journey into a sort of geographical twilight zone.

Coming ashore at Kuressaare – The largest city on Saaremaa Island (Credit: Hiiumaamudeliklubi)

Middle Europe –  Far From The Maddening Crowds
The midpoints of Europe will likely never be more than answers to trivia questions. They are the preserves of cartography buffs, scientists looking to promote themselves or their countries and the kind of people who love to argue about obscure points of scientific interest. A trip to the various midpoints covers a wide swath of Europe, through low mountains, past roaring rivers, and glistening lakes, into dark forests and obscure islands. A Europe still in touch with its rural roots and a natural world that exists far from the maddening crowds of national capitals. The middle of Europe is out there waiting to be explored by intrepid travelers looking to see the old world in a different way.

A Field In Lithuania – Midpoints of Contention (Searching For The Center of Europe #2)

If someone had asked me to locate the middle of Europe before I researched the topic, I would likely have said Berlin. Historically, Berlin was at the center of Europe’s political, social, and cultural transformation throughout the 20th century, to a great extent it still is today. Berlin also makes a great bridge between western and eastern Europe. If my answer had not been Berlin, it would almost certainly have been somewhere else in Germany. It is a different story for those whose worldview considers Europe to be the European Union (EU). Since the eastern expansion of the EU in the 21st century, its midpoint has gravitated eastward to its present location in a Bavarian field. This is not that surprising. Germany is most certainly at the center of the EU, both geographically and politically. That is likely to continue for decades to come.

Any time the EU expands (or contracts), the midpoint moves. Because of this fluidity, the Bavarian field should enjoy its notoriety for now because the midpoint is likely to move again in the coming decades. The EU’s geographical midpoint provokes little controversy. Like many things involving the EU, it is met with a collective shrug of the shoulders. The opposite is true when it comes to locating the geographical midpoint of Europe. The arguments are ongoing because the parameters by which a midpoint is located continue to change. In other words, the various midpoints of contention that have arisen in the 20th and 21st centuries are all worth a closer look.

Five Star Award – Center of Europe Monument near Girija Lithuania (Credit: Wojsyl)

One Step Closer – Lithuania As The Heart Of Europe
The year 1989 brought Lithuania to the brink of revolt. While the Iron Curtain collapsed in Eastern Europe and the Berlin Wall came crashing down, the Soviet Union managed to stay together, but just barely. Meanwhile, Lithuanians were growing increasingly restless. They yearned to be a free and independent nation, joining other newly independent Eastern European nations. It was during this time that Lithuania was brought that much closer to Europe when the French National Geographic Institute declared the continent’s geographical center close to the tiny village of Girija, just 26 kilometers from the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. Specifically, the midpoint was placed in some woods close to a lake. The designation boosted Lithuanian’s pride, as they were now at the very center of Europe.

Unlike many of the other midpoint designations, the French National Geographic Institute was a scientific body using a scientific method. That gave it a great deal of credibility. They measured the midpoint by taking a cutout of Europe and locating the gravitational center. Their method was impressive enough that the location near Girija was officially recognized as the midpoint by the Guinness Book of World Records.  In 2004, a white granite monument surmounted with a crown of stars was erected at the site. It has now become a tourist attraction, one that visitors to Vilnius are encouraged to see for themselves. If that was not enough, the Open Air Museum of the Centre of Europe, a sculpture park, was created just 20 minute drive away from the midpoint to add to the designation’s tourist potential.

Moving towards the center – Walkway at the Center of Europe Monument near Girija, Lithuania (Credit: Aleksandrs Timofejev)

National Self-Interest – Doubtful & Dubious Claims
The French National Geographic Institute’s claim would seem to have settled matters, but claims as the midpoint accelerated at the beginning of the 21st century. One of these was made for Tallya, in the shadow of the Zemplen Mountains in northeastern Hungary, as the geometric center of Europe. The decision to place the geometric center here was cloaked in obscurity. Predictably, this claim received its own sculpture. One of the more serious claims was also made in 2000, when a couple of Belarusian scientists used a computer program that amalgamated Europe, including such natural features as the Baltic and White Seas, the Ural Mountains and lakes, rivers and streams of Europe, into a single entity. Their calculation placed the midpoint at – surprise, surprise – near Lake Sho in Belarus. They then tried to add weight to this claim by having the Russian Central Institute of Geodesy, Aerial Survey and Cartography confirm it. Following the usual historical habit of marking such spots, a monument was placed in the nearby city of Polotsk. The fact that there was more than just a little bit of national self-interest in making this claim, led some to question it as dubious. The fact that Belarus is politically a dictatorship did not help their cause.

Democracy or dictatorship does not seem to really matter when it comes to claiming Europe’s midpoint. Estonia has been the latest country to claim the midpoint on its territory. This seems to be yet another case of national interest getting in the way of scientific rigor. The uniqueness of Estonia’s claim lay in the fact that it was on an island. Befitting a claim that ends up on an island, the Estonians who made it said that they had accounted for all the islands that were part of Europe in their calculations. In a not so surprising conclusion, the Estonians claimed the midpoint’s location on Estonian territory. Specifically, Saaremaa Island, in the tiny village of Monnuste (population 56). Saaremaa is the largest island in Estonia. The fact that the scientific parameters which led to this designation went undisclosed have led many to question the claim.

One of many – Center of Europe Monument in Polotsk Belarus (Credit: Tranzit-by)

From Peripheral To Central – Moving Towards The Center
For all the differences in opinion regarding the location of Europe’s geographical midpoint, one cannot help but notice that each happens to be located (with the exception of a claim in Sweden) in what is usually thought of as Eastern Europe. This is ironic, because the Europe of popular imagination rarely takes into consideration its eastern half unless that involves Russia. Eastern Europe has been seen for centuries as peripheral, rather than central to Europe. The fact that Europe’s midpoint almost certainly lies somewhere in Poland, Slovakia, Lithuania, Hungary, Estonia or Belarus might come as a surprise for many, especially those who think the heart of Europe lies somewhere in Austria, Germany or Switzerland. From a geographic standpoint, Central Europe is Eastern Europe. It always was and it always will be. Agreeing on the exact midpoint for Europe may well prove impossible, but it never stops a country from trying. That search is likely to continue well into the future and prove just as inconclusive as the current claims.

Click here for: Midpoints of Nowhere – Shadow World: From Bohemia to Kremnicke Bane (Searching For The Center of Europe #3)

Laughing Matters – Travels With Brian: Levitating, Ljubljana & Festetics (Eastern Europe & Me #20f)

When I was growing up a trip to South Carolina meant one thing, fireworks. North Carolina where I lived had banned fireworks, South Carolina could have cared less if you blew yourself up. As long as you had fun doing it what could possibly be the problem. Brian never really liked North Carolina where he spent part of his life. The last fifteen years of his career he chose to live over the state line in Georgia. He often referred to North Carolina as the nerd state of the South. On the other hand, he thought highly of South Carolina which was filled with wild asses both historical and contemporary. It was only fitting that Brian spent his final days in upstate South Carolina. This scholar of the ancient Romans was in a place where they extolled the virtues of Roman candles. I am sure the idea of such absurdities gave him the greatest pleasure. One of his most endearing qualities was an incredible sense of humor.

Scratching the surface – With Gyorgy Festetics in Keszthely

The Same Difference – A Case of Curiosity
Brian and I had two very important things in common. The first was curiosity. He tolerated my Eastern European obsession because he was as fascinated by my interest as I was appalled by his lack thereof. He came of age in a world that viewed anything east of the Iron Curtain as irredeemably backward. For him, communism was a bad idea that the Russians had made worse. The collapse of the Iron Curtain could set the newly freed nations once again fighting each other. The region was filled with strange ethnic groups who spoke unintelligible languages and adhered to customs that were the antithesis of British pragmatism.

The distinction between us and them could not have been greater in his mind. Whereas I saw the Orthodox religion as mysterious, he saw it as superstitious. Whereas he saw the culture as insanely provincial, I saw it as adhering to time worn traditions. There was also the subject of German reunification. For Brian, this was to be feared rather than celebrated. I found it difficult to refute this argument from a man whose mother had been forced by Luftwaffe bombing raids to take him into a bomb shelter as a toddler. My passion for Eastern Europe was not going to change Brian’s heart or mind about the region, but as always, he was willing to listen. That was what really mattered.

Reflections of grandeur – Ljubljana

Levitational Advice – The Rise & Fall
The second thing we had in common was that neither of us took ourselves too seriously. Despite, or perhaps because of his many accomplishments in the field of historical scholarship, Brian never missed an opportunity for an irreverent remark. He was an intellectual powerhouse to the point that Cambridge provided him a full scholarship to any university in the United States in pursuit of a doctorate. Brian told me on multiple occasions that a doctorate was a ridiculous idea. A pointless show of pretension for professional students. After the intensity of Cambridge, his time at Vanderbilt University where he gained his Ph.D. was something of a joke.

His greatest memory of that time was not writing his dissertation on President James K. Polk. A man whom he referred to “as an insufferable nerd.” Instead, it was of a Polish gal he met at a local Catholic Church in Nashville not long after arriving there. She confided in him her avowed belief in levitation. As a matter of fact, she claimed to be proficient in the art of levitating. Perhaps she was trying to get a rise out of him. I found this story a source of endless fascination, Brian less so. As I sat there wide-eyed asking him to provide me with every detail, I could not help but ask, “Did you ever see her levitate?” He only replied with a single word, “Christopher”. This was followed by a look which made clear I might just be as crazy as the girl.  

An American education – On the campus at Vanderbilt University (Credit: BugsMeanee)

Humor Over Hubris – History & Hilarity
Brian loved to make jokes out of whatever material was at hand. When I told him about my trip to Ljubljana, he confessed to having an affinity for deliberately mispronouncing the name of the Slovenian capital. Instead of the proper pronunciation “loo-blee-ah-nuh”. He pronounced it Jubal-jana. Such harmless jokes were some of my most memorable moments with him. Our all-time favorite was Festetics, the name of a famous Hungarian noble family and their Baroque Castle in Keszthely, close to the shores of Lake Balaton. One afternoon I mentioned to Brian that the name was pronounced FESH-tat-itch. We both agreed there was something about this strange name which sounded more like a skin rash than a noble family. Anytime one of us said Festetics, this would be followed lead by endless scratching. As Brian liked to say, “guys like to sit around and act real stupid.” We did plenty of that together.

The rather ridiculous side of Brian was lovable. He did not have the pretensions of most academics. He was still the guy who grew up in Stockport, the only child of a father who worked in a steel mill and a mother employed in the school cafeteria. Hubris had no place in their home, but humor certainly did.
He never lost his sense of humor no matter how serious the subject. I still vividly recall one of his lecture courses on Ancient China which strangely segued from the Huang Ho (Yellow) River to a digression on square dancing. This gave rise to the idea of a Huang Ho dosido. A laugh out loud absurdity that was lost among most of his uber serious students. Brian was always poking fun at his profession. The subject matter gave him ample opportunity to blend history with his incredible sense of humor.

Brian was not above poking fun at himself. This was true, even when it came to the most serious of subjects, including his own death. I once nagged him about making sure he settled all his affairs in advance. He was indifferent to the idea. I could hardly blame him. Who among us wants to admit their own mortality? His willful disinterest exasperated me to such an extent that I finally asked in scarcely disguised frustration, “Aren’t you worried about all the stuff Candace and the girls will have to deal with after you die?” He raised his voice and exclaimed, “Christopher, I’ll be dead so there will be nothing for me to worry about.” As you can imagine that settled it. I had to stop myself from laughing. Unfortunately, his death would be no laughing matter for me or those who loved him so dearly.

Click here for: A Surreal Symmetry – Travels With Brian: The Eastern Front (Eastern Europe & Me #20g)

Time Does Not Fly – Eastern Europe’s Airport Experience (Eastern Europe & Me #16)

Whenever people ask me about my travels in Eastern Europe I usually talk about Budapest, Lviv Krakow or Sarajevo. The magnificence of the Croatian coastline or the delights of Bosnia. Something which will reveal a hidden treasure awaiting discovery. One thing I purposely fail to mention is the mundane and monotonous side of these trips. Such as the fact that I spend a good portion of my travel time waiting. If there is one thing that has been consistent across twenty plus trips it has been playing the waiting game. This entails waiting in airports, at bus stops, at train stations, on the metro and at restaurants. Waiting at passport control, waiting on luggage, waiting at the currency exchange, waiting to check-in, waiting to check-out, waiting for the day of departure, waiting to arrive, waiting for the return trip home. Travel is a waiting game. There are many ways to play it and no way to win it. The second I touch down anywhere in Eastern Europe the clock starts ticking. My entire travel life flashes before me in just two weeks. The time passes in a head spinning, mind bending, mesmerizing manner. There is only one exception to this rule, airports. 

Captive consumers – Passengers inside Budapest Airport (Credit: Ato 01)

Extortionate Prices – Consumers Held Captive
“Time flies” is a phrase used so often that it hardly elicits a second thought. Everyone knows this means time is passing faster than we can possibly comprehend. This is especially true when we are having the time of our lives. Ironically, there is one place where time does not fly, in airports. This is the one place on earth where a traveler can experience geologic time in action. Every process from check-in to departure moves at a glacial pace. This is the reason I have come to loath airports. The ones in Eastern Europe are not much different from the ones in Western Europe or America. They may be smaller and more crowded, but the travel experience is similar. In other words, it is irritating to the point of maddening. In my opinion, the entire process is setup to cause maximum consternation. In this regard, it never fails.

I have never been in an airport in Eastern Europe where the food and merchandise would be considered affordable by local standards. Everything is overpriced. A soft drink or cup of coffee is at least double the price outside the airport. Food is the same and sometimes even costlier. I have experienced this on multiple occasions at Budapest Airport. This rather modest one terminal affair still sells food and merchandise at prohibitively high prices. For some reason, I was under the naive impression that because Eastern Europe is much more affordable for westerners the airports would be a better value as well. They are not. It did not take me long to realize why. Anyone who lives in Eastern Europe that can afford to fly will cough up the equivalent of five euros for a cup of coffee. They are held captive to extortionate prices because they have no other options. Airports are distant from all other competition for food, drink, and merchandise. This is true from Budapest to Bucharest, Podgorica to Prague.

Small scale – Prague’s airport (Credit: Kenyh Cevarom)

Paying The Price – Eat, Drink, & Be Miserable
The exorbitant prices charged in airports are also possible because of the dreaded waiting game all passengers are forced to play. For many years I have vowed to purchase nothing more than a drink at an airport. Unfortunately, flight delays erode my willpower to the point that I find myself capitulating. Anyone who has been forced to spend extra hours at the Budapest Airport will know what I mean. Passengers waiting out delays are forced to eat, drink, and be miserable. These are first world problems, but they are still sources of irritation. How can they not be? Once the waiting game begins, the will weakens and so does one’s hold on their wallet. A great way to relieve anxiety is too purchase overpriced food . This is a sure way to cure anti-depression. There is nothing like lamenting an overpriced croissant harder than concrete.

I do commend Eastern Europe for having small airports. They are a throwback to the way flying used to be or at least that is what I want to believe. The problem is that with passenger numbers exploding since 1989, quaint has come to mean cramped. Comfort is sacrificed for a dilapidated sort of charm. The airports in places like Dubrovnik, Podgorica, and Thessaloniki are tiny by comparison to other European airports. This has an unintended psychological benefit for me. Smaller airports might be packed, but at least they do not have huge yawning spaces that make waits seem that much longer. It has been my experience that the larger the waiting area, the worse the wait. Vacuous spaces have a timelessness that makes the traveler feel as though they are trapped in a time warp. Minutes lose their meaning, hours become the true measure of time, and delays become everyone’s destiny.

Getting in line – Podgorica Airport (Credit: Rakoon)

Taking Flight – A Lesson In Patience & Gratitude
One side effect of delays is that they have helped me hone my people watching skills. I have seen cultural traits materialize before my eyes. These reveal greater truths. For instance, Eastern Europeans will tolerate greater levels of discomfort than those in the western world. That is because they have little choice. Anyone who has flown Wizz Air out of Budapest knows what I mean. The line for check-in is often little more than a melee that passengers tolerate with little complaint. The planes do not land at the gate. Instead passengers disembark on a tarmac that is often frigid or infernal. They are then packed inside a bus and shuttled to some anonymous entryway. They soon find themselves standing elbow to elbow with their fellow bleary-eyed passengers while awaiting luggage. This is met with a shrug of indifference. Stoicism is the preferred attitude to this accumulation of annoyances.

Considering Eastern Europe’s history of upheaval and hardship, airport inconveniences are certainly easier to tolerate for those whose ancestors were often forbidden to travel beyond their own national borders. For someone like me, who comes from a land of comfort and plenty, air travel in Eastern Europe is a lesson in patience and gratitude. The latter is especially important to keep in mind. The fact that in 2011, I flew from Budapest to Bucharest to Sarajevo in a matter of hours is nothing short of sensational when compared to communist era. As late as 1989 this would have been impossible. The experience was not as comfortable or leisurely as I might have imagined. The waiting game was just as excruciating as anywhere else, but the miracle of shuttling between countries that were once forbidden territory for foreigners makes me more than happy to play the waiting game. I just wish it was a tad less uncomfortable.

Click here for: Taken For A Ride In Eastern Europe – Hitting The Roads & Rails (Eastern Europe & Me #17)

Silence Speaks Volumes – Kayakoy: A Greek Ghost Town in Turkey (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #39)

At 6:53 p.m. on April 24, 1957, the sun set over the Kaya Cukuru plateau a few kilometers inland from the Turquoise Coast of southwestern Turkey. It was another serene evening, like so many before it in this land of sublime beauty. The calm only lasted a couple of hours before the ground began to shake violently. An earthquake of terrific force suddenly struck without warning, causing catastrophic levels of damage. In the nearby city of Fethiye, hundreds of buildings collapsed. Part of the city’s harbor broke off and fell into the sea. Massive plumes of dust from rubble filled the air. This was just the beginning of what would prove to be a long and unforgettable night.

Early the next morning, less than an hour before sunrise, another earthquake struck. The first one had been bad enough, registering a 7.1 on the Richter Scale. The second one was even worse in both scale and duration, registering a 7.3 and lasting twice the length of the first one. In the hills above Fethiye, on the Kaya Cukuru plateau, the town of Kayakoy sustained massive damage. Strangely enough, there was not a single casualty because no one lived in Kayakoy anymore. All the inhabitants had vanished thirty-five years earlier.

The past imperfect – Kayakoy (Credit: Nikodem Nijaki)

Home Alone – Modern Ruins
Fifteen years ago, I traveled to Turkey and to visit the ancient historical sites found not far off the country’s western coast. These included famous places such as Bergama and Ephesus. Along the way, I spent time in a couple of coastal cities, Kusadasi and Fethiye. The latter was a revelation due to its combination of natural beauty and ancient wonders. I was able to take boat trips and soak up sun by the seaside. I also visited Lycian rock tombs which predated the Romans. The most famous of these, the Tomb of Amyntas, stood inside a mountain. It was photogenic in the extreme, an unforgettable construction carved seamlessly into the stone. The Lycian find was surprising, but not entirely unexpected since Turkey is known for its ancient ruins. Lycians, Lydians, Phrygians, Greeks, and Romans all called western Turkey home.

What I did not expect to find close to Fethiye were modern as well as ancient ruins. On a short excursion south of the city I went with a group up a winding road which climbed onto the Kaya Cukuru plateau. Beneath a burning autumn sun stood Kayakoy, an early 20th century ghost town haunted by the loss of its former inhabitants. Approximately 350 houses, skeletons of their former selves, stood weather beaten and deteriorating in the suffocating heat. The 1957 earthquake sent these houses into an irreparable state of decline. Their dilapidation added to an atmosphere of loneliness and loss. People spoke in hushed tones out of respect for the undead spirits that seemed to still be lurking in the shadows. Walking through one abandoned home after another felt like being part of a funeral procession where the attendees had arrived a century too late. Every glassless window, cracked stone façade, and vacant interior offered a reminder that people once called these structures home. Two churches and several chapels now were empty. The silence within them spoke volumes.

A sense of loss – Abandoned church in Kayakoy (Credit: Orderincahos)

Trade Offs – The Population Exchange
In the 18th century, the Ottoman Sultan invited Orthodox Greeks from offshore islands to settle on the Kaya Cukru plateau. They created the town of Livissi (Karakoy in Turkish). Its population eventually grew to 10,000 by the turn of the 20th century. Two-thirds of the inhabitants were Orthodox Greeks and one-third Muslim Turks. The Greeks occupied the upper part of town and were mostly artisans. The Muslim Turks farmed the valley below. The two groups relied on each other for trade. Their relations were friendly and peaceful, continuing that way even during the First World War and afterwards as the Ottoman Empire collapsed.

In Turkey, World War I was not the proverbial war to end all wars because it only led to another one in its immediate aftermath. This had consequences far beyond what anyone might have imagined. During the 1919- 1922 Greco-Turkish War the Greeks looked to expand their presence in the western part of Anatolia. Their campaign went badly awry. The Turks were fighting for their national existence as well as their independence. Anatolia was their homeland. Thus, they were going to defend it to the death. Greek nationalists underestimated the Turks, which turned out to be an epic mistake. It would be hell to pay and not just by the Greek soldiers who were cut to pieces by the Turkish counterattack. The inhabitants of villages such as Karakoy would end paying for the mistakes as well.

Greco-Turkish relations in other parts of Anatolia turned extremely violent. Massacres were common. The same thing happened to Turks in Greece. This led to the idea of a population exchange, what might be called a peaceful ethnic cleansing, if there ever was such a thing. It would ensure that Turkey and Greece were religiously homogenous. The upshot was that the Greeks in Livissi were forced to leave in 1923. Many of the Turks they had known their entire lives accompanied them to the harbor in Fethiye where boats would take them to a “homeland” they knew nothing about. At least 1.2 million ethnic Greeks left Turkey, while 300,000 ethnic Turks expelled from Greece.

Fading away – Kayakoy at night (Credit: Sadkergur)

Getting Personal – One Empty House
I knew little about the Greco-Turkish population exchange before arriving in Karakoy. By the end of that afternoon, I knew I would never forget it. While I was aware of Turkish-Greek enmity, to see tangible proof of the results was disturbing. Karakoy’s ruins were unsettling in the extreme, a product of their recent vintage. While ancient ruins feel distant, modern ones are too close for comfort. I could see people still living here, people like me. Once you can imagine yourself as a participant, a place from the past takes on a whole different meaning. Karakoy felt deeply personal, rather than political. One and a half million Greeks and Turks in a population exchange is nothing more than a statistic, one empty house in Karakoy is a tragedy.

Click here for: Lusting For Life – Boldgoko Castle: History Without Humanity (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #40)

Hall of Mirrors – Putin’s Prison (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #313)

Vladimir Putin has put countless people into prison, including himself. For the past two decades, the world has seen how once powerful Russian elites were laid low by Putin. Frequently, this meant sending them to a prison or penal colony (same difference). This was preferable to being tossed from a tenth story window, committing suicide by someone else’s hand or dying in some other suspiciously sinister ways. Imprisonment was a way of not just teaching the offending oligarch a lesson, but a message to anyone else who might dare challenge the Putin regime’s rule over Russia.

Casualty of war- Mikhail Khodorkovsky with image of Vladimir Putin in the background

Harsh Reality – On The Wrong Side of the Regime
The most notable imprisonment orchestrated by Putin was against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an energy oligarch with political pretensions. Khodorkovsky made the mistake of delving into politics. He was stripped of his wealth, suffered through several show trials and spent a decade in prison. The message was clear. Anyone who had the nerve to challenge Putin politically would soon be living in poverty and behind bars. Khodorkovsky got off rather easy. His imprisonment became a cause célèbre in the west. Putin deemed him worthy of political pawn status. He was released in 2013 and went into exile. This was a cynical show of magnanimity from Putin. By the time he fled Russia, Khodorkovsky was a non-entity. Once the richest man in Russia, he has been reduced to writing op-eds and giving speeches at western think tanks, He also started such movements as “Open Russia” and “Instead of Putin” which have done little to boost civil society in Russia.

At least Khodorkovsky made it out alive, others have not been so lucky. Russians who dabble in opposition politics have always been a target. They can expect to be arrested on dubious charges and given open ended prison sentences which will be extended at the regime’s leisure. For instance, Alexei Navalny who is a perpetual political nemesis of Putin and a champion of Russian democracy (an oxymoron if there ever was one). Navalny now faces the harsh reality of possibly spending the rest of his life in prison, if he even manages to survive. Navalny is often put in solitary confinement and given sub-standard health care. This seems to reinforce his resistance. Nevertheless, it has little effect on Russian politics. Navalny and Khodorkovsky are two of the most notable Putin offenders. Each man’s story has been widely publicized in the international media. Nothing much is said or even known about thousands of other Russians who now languish in prison because they were deemed enemies of the state.

Mass movement – Alexei Navalny marching with protesters in Moscow 2017
(Credit: Evgeny Feldman)

Elimination & Isolation – Lonely At The Top
Despite the mass incarceration of regime opponents, Putin overlooked his greatest vulnerability, himself. A strange thing happened on his path to supreme power, Putin managed to put himself in prison. He is serving a life sentence that will not end until his own life does. The only way these sentences could be commuted is if Putin goes into exile. It is not an exaggeration to say that he would rather die than have that happen. Thus, he is doomed to be imprisoned behind the walls of the Kremlin and/or the gilded halls of whatever palatial residence he inhabits. For Putin, death will be a career move. The term dictator for life now applies to Putin. Dislodging him from his role as a despotic 21st century Russian Tsar is beyond the means of almost all Russians.

There is no obvious alternative to Putin. That is by his own design. Putin is as stuck in the Russian presidency, as Russians are stuck with him. Vacating the office is unthinkable, retiring is impossible. Putin has been extremely successful at eliminating opposition to his rule. It has been an ongoing operation for over two decades. So successful has Putin been, that he is walled off from the Russian people and walled in by his ever-shrinking circle of trusted confidantes. He is not the first leader of Russia (or the Soviet Union) to find himself isolated in the Kremlin. One need look no further for a historical example then the last years of Josef Stalin’s rule. Not long before the end of his long and murderous life, Stalin reputedly said that he trusted no one. He might have been including himself in that group.

Losing his grip – Vladimir Putin

No Escape – Betraying Himself
Putin will never enjoy the power Stalin did, but he is well on his way to emulating the isolation Stalin felt. Given enough time, Putin will begin to believe that even his most loyal minions are hoping for his demise. He will see potential spies peaking around every corner in the Kremlin. Confidantes and cronies will become little more than useful idiots or usual suspects. Putin has good reason to be paranoid. He knows better than anyone the level of duplicity it has taken for him to gain and sustain power. Putin lives in a hall of mirrors, where he sees reflections of himself in those who are allowed among him. The only way those closest to him have survived is by amplifying his ideas and echoing his words. Putin is said to value loyalty above all else. That is ironic, since his career has built upon one betrayal after another. Where have all those betrayals led? To a self-imposed imprisonment as the supreme ruler of Russia.

Putin is now stuck. He is in the proverbial “damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.” If as is most likely, he manages to stay in power, Putin will find his room for maneuver has shrunk. Much of this has to do with Russia’s military failure in Ukraine. There is also the fact that Putin has stayed much too long in power. Any leader who spends decades in power runs out of ideas. New policies are rebooted. Versions of older ones are dusted off and given a new cover page, but the script sounds the same.  Habits become engrained, preferences predictable, and advisors act accordingly. No one believes anything will get better, the hope is that things will stay the same. The war in Ukraine only complicates this situation further. The war reflects Putin’s regime in that things will only get worse. This is the prison in which Putin finds himself and from which he cannot escape.

Click here for: Man Without A Plan – Putin’s Show of Weakness (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #314)

The Flip of a Coin – Discovering Sponsianus: The Emperor of Transylvania (Part Two)

The history of Transylvania is not just the preserve of Romanians, Hungarians, and Saxons. There are deeper parts to its past, but these are easy to miss among the Saxon fortified churches, the Hungarian aristocratic mansions, and the wooden Orthodox churches of Romanians. Not to mention the ruined castles, folk customs dating to the Middle Ages, and a pastoral landscape par excellence. Amid such an ecstatic and evocative rusticity, the visitor forgets that the region was also once part of the Roman Empire. Specifically, the province of Dacia. Most famously, Dacia was conquered during the reign of Trajan (98 – 117 AD). Fittingly, Trajan’s conquest came at the zenith of Rome’s territorial expansion. 

For the Romans, Dacia was a valuable region due to its wealth of precious metals. It was also a frontier region, one that would prove difficult to defend, particularly during the Crisis of the Third Century (235 – 284 AD). During this period, the province was plagued by internal strife and barbarian attacks. Dacia was virtually on its own from the 240s – 260s as its inhabitants were left to fend for themselves. Some believe that during this chaotic period a military commander by the name of Sponsianus was declared emperor. There are only a few pieces of evidence for this claim, but that evidence has just been strengthened by recent scholarly work. That work has also strengthened the idea that Sponsianus might be added to the list of Roman Emperors.

Heads up – Comparison of Sponsian coins from the Hunterian (on the left) and Bruckenthal Museums (on the right)

Buried Treasures – Coin Collecting
Samuel von Bruckenthal had a keen eye when it came to collecting. Most famously, he collected over a thousand paintings, including many Old Masters which can still be viewed today in the Bruckenthal National Museum located amid the architectural elegance of the Upper Town in Sibiu, Romania. Bruckenthal’s impulse for collecting was stimulated by the many years he spent as a Habsburg imperial official in Vienna. This gave him access to antiquarian treasures available in the city. Bruckenthal amassed a collection of 17,000 coins that ran the gamut from ancient Greek and Roman pieces to rare finds from his homeland in Transylvania. He was always on the lookout for more rare coins. To this end, Bruckenthal’s interest must have been piqued when he came across some coins that had been discovered in 1713 near Sibiu. The city would be Bruckenthal’s home during his reign as Governor of Transylvania from 1774 – 1787. Furthermore, he had grown up in a village just 35 kilometers northeast of Sibiu. Thus, he was intimately familiar with the region’s history and landscape.

The coins discovered near Sibiu had a deep history that hearkened back to the earliest known times in Transylvania. After their discovery, they found their way to the Imperial Collection in Vienna. Bruckenthal, or someone acting on his behalf, purchased some of the coins which included one that depicted a potential Roman Emperor known as Sponsianus. Four more coins depicting Sponsianus made their way onto the market in Vienna. These were bought by William Hunter and eventually ended up in the collections of the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Both Hunter and Bruckenthal would not have purchased the coins unless they considered them authentic. One famous story was that just before his death Bruckenthal had been studying the coin and declared that it was genuine. Others would later disagree with his assessment.

Collector extraordinaire – Samuel von Bruckenthal

Competing Claims – The Real Thing
In 1863, a numismatics expert by the name of Henry Cohen working for the French National Library closely studied the Sponsian coins to decide whether they should be included in his catalog of Roman coins. Cohen was unsparing in his opinion that the coins were poorly produced counterfeits. He went so far as to say they had been “ridiculously imagined.” Cohen’s opinion was echoed by other scholars down to the present day. For over 150 years, the idea that these coins were forgeries went unchallenged. That was until Paul Pearson, a professor at University College London, came across a photo of a Sponsian coin while working on a book about the Roman Empire. Pearson noticed scratches on the coin’s surface that he believed would have only occurred while in circulation.

Pearson took it upon himself to contact the Hunterian. Staff were open to his proposal to see if his hypothesize was indeed true. Using high powered spectrometry with an electron microscope, Pearson and a team of researchers scrutinized the abrasions. They also did chemical analysis of the soil found on the coins. Their conclusion was that the coins were indeed real. The team soon contacted the Bruckenthal National Museum about the Sponsian coin in that collection, informing the Bruckenthal’s administrators that their coin is also genuine. Pearson’s findings went public in the peer reviewed Public Library of Science (PLOS One) Journal. The article thoroughly outlines the technological and comparative processes used to authenticate the coins.

Pearson’s claim has not been without controversy. It has drawn strong opposition from skeptical scholars who have offered a variety of criticisms. The criticisms included that the proof of abrasions and soil samples are still not conclusive enough for the coins to be regarded as genuine. They also mention that the coin was cast rather than struck. One scholar went so far as to state that Pearson and the team he worked with went “full fantasy” with their claim. Conversely, news media outlets were more than happy to report that not only were the Sponsian coins genuine, but that a new Roman Emperor had been discovered.

Hallowed halls – Hunterian Museum in Glasgow

Dynamic Discoveries – A New Reality
It is not often that Roman Emperors or rare coins make international headlines, but the Sponsian coins and the possibility that Sponsianus was a Roman Emperor are sensational enough that the controversy about their authentication is unlikely to abate anytime soon. Whether or not the coins are genuine is still open to debate, but the fact that powerful technologies and re-examination of existing artifacts can potentially lead to new discoveries is worth celebrating. The renewed interest and controversy inspired by the coins offers a striking illustration of how history is being constantly revised. The past is just as dynamic and fluid as the present. Old discoveries can become new ones. The Sponsian coins are proof of that. Reality or forgery, their story is only going to continue.

A Setup for Failure – Russia After Putin (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #139)

The question of who will eventually succeed Vladimir Putin as the leader of Russia has resulted in a great deal of speculation. Because there is no handpicked successor that raises the possibility for conflict among the competitors for Putin’s position and the potential for civil war. The possibility of an internal conflict is a serious concern. There is historical precedence for this. While often forgotten, it was exactly a century ago that Russia was at the tail end of an extremely violent civil war that resulted in millions of deaths due to warfare, famine and disease. The stakes could not have been higher, with the Red and White Armies battling for control of Russia. It was a choice between communism and a return to Tsarist autocracy. The communists won out with major ramifications for Russia and the surrounding states which were to become part of the Soviet Union. It is doubtful that the same type of ultra-violent conflict will ensue in a post-Putin succession crisis, but this being Russia, anything is possible. Since there is no anointed successor in place, various factions will be vying to place their preferred choice in the presidency.

Setup for failure – Vladimir Putin

Beyond Putin – The Struggle For Survival
Putin’s total control of the country gives a false sense that Russia is united. The truth is much messier. Russia’s conservatives have factions representing ultra-nationalists, relative moderates, those who would like for the war in Ukraine to end tomorrow and those who counsel the use of nuclear weapons. There are economic nationalists, statists, and free marketeers. There is even a warlord, Ramzan Kadyrov, who is bound to make like difficult for anyone who threatens his fief in Chechnya. Take Putin out of the equation and the infighting is almost certain to begin. His control over Russia extends not just to repression of those who disagree with his regime, but also to forces on the right that would threaten to overthrow a weaker president. Whoever follows Putin will struggle to survive if they are not a strongman.

The western world usually focuses on the main liberal resister to the Putin regime, Alexei Navalny, as offering an alternative to the hardline rule that now grips Russia. Navalny has next to no chance of getting control of the government. The best he can hope for is an early release from prison. That is unlikely while Putin’s prodigies fight for control of the country. While the succession for Putin’s replacement is widely discussed, much less talked about is the situation his successor will inherit. There seems to be the opinion that anyone is better than Putin. A successor could hardly be more hostile to the west, but that does not mean they will be much better.

Whoever takes over leadership of Russia will be defined as much by the situation Putin leaves behind, as they will by any personality trait or power base. Putin is setting up his successor for failure, which will be a recipe for internal unrest. Chaos in Russia could bleed over into its near abroad with unpredictable consequences. Imagine the criticism of any Russian leader who does not project strength. A show of weakness, such as ending Russia’s misguided military adventure in Ukraine, could lead to upheaval at home. At some point, whether it is Putin or the person who follows him as president, the war with Ukraine will conclude. That is when the most intractable problems for Russia will begin.

Frozen conflict – Vladimir Putin with military officers

Negative Effects – A Loss of Influence
Imagine Russia after the war with Ukraine ends. The country will almost certainly be under international sanctions, external economic activity will be proscribed so that Russia can only sell its most valuable commodities, oil and gas, to China, India and a long list of third world countries. The days of flooding Europe with natural gas and oil will be at an end. Both China and India will be able to drive down prices (as they are now doing) for their energy purchases. Russia has lost its leverage by alienating European nations. Trustworthy customers such as Germany and Italy will be hesitant to ever again be held hostage to Russian energy. Going back to the status quo that existed prior to the war will be impossible. This presents an array of problems for the Russian economy which has been stagnating since Putin reassumed the presidency in 2012.

The economy will continue to ossify. Russia does not have a dynamic internal market. Competition inside the country is held back by corruption. Rent seeking is the norm and reform is a dirty word, one that carries the connotation of dissent, something that the Putin regime cannot afford to allow. Any successor is likely to continue along these lines. Growing the Russian economy while the nation is increasingly isolated in a globalized world will be extremely difficult. Their one reliable source of revenue, oil and gas, will drop precipitately. The outlook for the Russian economy is bad. It is likely to be stuck in recessionary mode for an indefinite time.

The heir to Putin will also inherit a security situation that offers major challenges on all fronts. While Russia’s situation with Europe has taken a turn towards the disastrous, its situation vis a vis China is almost as dire. The supposed “friendship without limits” that Putin and China’s leader Xi Jinping declared in early February has been transformed by Russia’s poor performance in the war with Ukraine.
China can demand whatever concessions they want from Russia without many consequences. In Central Asia, countries such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are wary of dealing with Russia after seeing what happened in Ukraine. As for Europe, Russia faces a doubling in length of its border with NATO now that Finland will join the alliance. Even with a ceasefire, the situation in Ukraine will be fraught with danger. Russia could expend a fortune it does not have trying to hold on to its limited gains. No European nation is likely to trust Russia while a Putin inspired regime rules the country.

Keeping an eye on the future – Vladimir Putin

Future Shock – Increasing Isolation
Any post-Putin leader of Russia will be faced with constant difficulties and tough decisions. There are no easy answers for Russia’s political and economic problems. The more Russia withdraws from the world, the worse its problems will get. The opportunities for wider engagement with the world are minimal, while the risk of increasing isolation has grown. Putin has left a huge mess for his successor to clean up. It is unlikely they will be able to make the situation much better, without making it worse. Russia’s future looks bleak, with or without Putin.

Click here for: An Exercise in Futility – Russia & Ukrainian Grain Shipments On The Black Sea (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #140)