We have been planning this vacation for at least a year and a half. Our good friend Sveta lives in St. Petersburg, Russia. She's visited us twice and invited us to visit her in St. Petersburg. We first became friends when she was our tour manager during our trip to Central Asia, in 1999. After her second visit to the US, we promised her that our next international trip would be to her area of the world. We usually don't travel to only one country. After researching the possibilities, we chose to also visit the Baltic countries, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. We added Belarus and tucked in a corner of Poland. Here's our route. Our vacation of 2003, begins in St. Petersburg and ends in Vilnius.
This vacation will be somewhat different for us. We usually join a tour group. When we started to plan this vacation, we looked at different tours but we were unable to find one that we liked during a time when we wanted to travel. We contacted the company that ran our Central Asia tour, MIR, and using their itinerary as a guide, we planned our own tour. MIR was very helpful. Between their knowledge of this region of the world, their contacts and our research, we put together a unique and exciting vacation. (Well, at least we hope so!)
During our first four days, we will be Sveta's guests in St. Petersburg. Then Sveta will become our tour manager for our visit to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Kaliningrad, Belarus and Poland. As you may know, we are not typical travelers. I have juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and insulin-dependent diabetes. I use a wheelchair, which Steve has good heartedly pushed on terrain that is definitely not accessible. We generally get along just fine. However, it does require a little more forethought and planning. I mention this because I will include accessibility information in this travel log. The start of access information will be marked with the international access symbol, which appears to the left.
We begin our trip, when the limousine picks us up early in the afternoon. It is a pleasant ride to Newark Airport although we are a nervous. This is our first trip on an airplane since September 11. We have read about what to expect concerning the additional security measures. In the best of times, it hasn't been easy for us to go through security, because with me in the wheelchair and Steve handling all of our luggage, we're concerned we'll leave something behind. We're flying with SAS, Scandinavian Airline.
When we arrive at the check-in area, there's a long line, but it moves quickly. We proceed to security. I find them helpful and very thorough. Steve helps me take off my shoes. The security staff takes me in my wheelchair to the side and asks if I can get out of the wheelchair. When I say yes to the security officer, she has me stand up and they inspect me with a wand, as well as doing a hand search. They help me to take off my vest, and they check my numerous pockets. The wand goes off as they pass over my insulin pump and joint replacements. I have to explain everything and show them the card on which my surgeon has certified my four joint replacements.
When Steve rejoins me, he tells me that he must return to the check-in desk and check-in the tools that we carry for my wheelchair maintenance and repair. He takes me to a waiting area down by the gates and returns to pick up the tools at security and goes back to check-in. This surprises me, because with all the preparation research that we did, we read of no warning that small light weight, not sharp tools could not be carried on to the plane. When we travel internationally, it's very important that we bring our own tools since other countries use the metric system. Although we do not use the tools often, we've found it difficult to purchase the size we need. It seems to me that it's quite awhile before he returns. I am relieved when he does. Steve says the attendant was very nice and found a box for him to put the tools.
Our trip to St. Petersburg is actually two flights. First, we fly from Newark to Stockholm, Sweden, and then from Stockholm to St. Petersburg. The flight to Stockholm was somewhat disappointing. The plane was roomy and we each had a screen on the back of the seat in front of us. However, when I turned it on my screen didn't work so the hostess reset it. Dinner was good. Afterward, the plane lights are turned out, but ours did not go out. With both of these misfortunes, Steve begins to feel poorly. When we ask the hostess about our light staying on, she changes our seats. Steve sits next to a passenger who decides to talk to him. He gets an ear full. The woman has a hard luck story and won't shut up. I was lucky enough to take a nap when we first got on the plane. However, in our new seats, I am unable to fall back to sleep. Finally, I do fall asleep.
We land in Stockholm. As we get off the plane, we're asked if we need help, to which we reply no. We go through the next security station, but on the other side of the station there's a spiral staircase. Steve walks me down the staircase, leaving the wheelchair at the top. An airport staff member meets us and says she'll get the wheelchair. She brings it down on an elevator with another person who's in a wheelchair. We wonder why no one told us that we could come down by elevator. The airport staff member takes us to a man who says he'll get a bus to take us to our next terminal. First he brings us into a small room with an elevator and instructs us to take the elevator down one floor and wait for him. We try to use the elevator, but it requires a key card. By this time, there are three of us in wheelchairs with our traveling companions. We cannot get out of the little area, because the door also requires a key card. We are locked in. We wait, trying to signal anyone who passes by. From one floor up, we see the man who brought us to this area. He has driven the bus to the downstairs exit. When he sees we're not at the designated meeting place, he leaves without even looking for us.
Finally, Steve succeeds at waving down someone to help us and she takes us to the lower-level. However, a large group of people has gathered there, so the airport staff cannot bring the wheelchair accessible bus until a regular bus picks up these people. Within a few minutes, the other group departs and the staff person departs to get our bus. Two other people in wheelchairs and their traveling companions arrive. When our bus arrives, the driver says he can only take two people in wheelchairs. Although we were one of the first two parties with wheelchairs, Steve generously lets two other parties get on the bus since their flights are scheduled to leave before ours.
We wait quite awhile for the bus to return. We chat with the others who are also surprised at the poor treatment that we've all received. Two women are going to Vilnius for a family christening. The younger one was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. This is a nice coincidence, because part of my family is from Worcester, and before settling in the Worcester area they were from Lithuania. However, neither of these women knows any Syseskeys (my maiden name). They lived on the other side of the city from my Uncle Henry and his family.
Finally, we get to our terminal and go through its security. A staff member tells us that the disorganization which we have experienced is because the airport is still building this terminal. It isn't supposed to be open yet, but they needed the space early, so they're using it.
The flight to St. Petersburg is only one hour. An airport staff member accompanies us and takes us right through security, to luggage pick up. We get on the Customs line to declare items, but when the official looks at our form on which we have declared my insulin pump equipment and some medicine, he waves us into the nothing to declare line.
We meet Sveta. As always, Sveta is very warm and welcoming. She's energetic, enthusiastic, and friendly. Our friendship started during our trip to Central Asia. Many of the members of that tour group were difficult, to put it nicely. We would get together with Sveta and another couple at the end of most days and review the events of the day over a drink. Sveta had a way of finding something good in even the worst in our group. Amongst the five of us, we found a way to laugh at almost all of oddities they presented.
Sveta has hired her friend Nadia to drive us around during our stay in St. Petersburg. Sveta tells us that Nadia has the largest car of all of her friends. It is a small midsize Ford. Unfortunately, the car broke down as they pulled into the airport parking lot. Sveta tells us it needs a simple repair and Nadia's husband is on the way here to fix it. It seems that we wait a long time. We make good use of the time, have a nice visit and enjoy catching up with Sveta. Nadia cannot speak much English, but she is very nice and Sveta occasionally translates.
The St. Petersburg Airport seems smaller than we had envisioned it, but it is visually fairly fancy. Sveta explains that much of St. Petersburg was redecorated for the city's 300th anniversary, in anticipation of many visitors. The actual event turned out to be much less than expected. The crowds of visitors did not arrive. This was disappointing, because the city could have used the income from the tourism. When Nadia's husband arrives, he fixes the car quickly.
Nadia drives us to Sveta's apartment in St. Petersburg. As we drive through this historic city, it appears gray. I find that some of the places we pass are quite elegant. We arrive at Sveta's apartment building and Nadia pulls the car into the courtyard. The courtyard is in disrepair, but I see signs that once it must have been elegant. There are several steps into Sveta is building. Unfortunately, the approach to the steps is rather uneven. Steve helps me up, and we enter the building. The hallway is dark. We must walk up two flights of stairs. The stairs are rather low and there is a banister. I could probably do them by myself, however, Steve insists on helping me. Since I haven't had much sleep, and the light is dim, I welcome his help. After the first flight, it gets even darker
Sveta tells us that St. Petersburg streets are very dirty, and she asks us to remove our shoes before we walk into her apartment. She has a small alcove in which she removes her shoes. This request does not surprise us because we had read that it's a tradition in Russia not to wear shoes in the house. However, I find it very difficult to walk without shoes. When I explain this to her, she asks me to sit in a chair that she places just in front of the alcove. She gets a cloth and wipes down my shoes. When she shows us the cloth, we are amazed at the filth. Then I look at my hand with which I was holding the banister on the way up. It's also filthy.
Sveta's apartment is beautiful and larger than we had imagined. She shows us the living room, which will be our bedroom. There are two bedrooms, hers and her daughter Olga's, a kitchen and bathroom. The bathroom is actually two rooms, one contains the toilet and just next-door, there's a room with the bathtub and sink.
Sveta has bought a bottle of champagne to toast our arrival. We sit in her kitchen, and she tells us about her plans for our visit to St. Petersburg. Soon Tatuana, one of Sveta's friends, stops by to say hello. She is Chief of the Department of Museums, which means she's incharge of all museums outside of the city of St. Petersburg, in the Leningrad region of Russia. We find her very nice and interesting. We learned that she has met Russia's president.
By this time, we are in need of a nap. After a quick nap, we go for walk. Sveta's daughter Olga has started a new job in an upscale souvenir store, Onegin, so Sveta takes us to meet her. We have heard much about Olga, and we have been looking forward to meeting her. We walk about a mile to the store. As were crossing a bridge, we stop to take a photograph. Steve is shocked to find that his lens is missing from his camera. Perhaps it fell off during our walk. Sveta said if someone found it, the person would have placed it next to the building where they found it. She goes back to look for it, but doesn't find it. We realize that it must have been stolen. If it had fallen off, it would have made a loud sound and we would have heard it. Sveta says that crime is very bad in the city. We are careful with our belongings, but we never would have guessed that a lens would be stolen off a camera. Sveta says she has a camera that she will loan Steve. As nice as her offer is, it still leaves Steve at a disadvantage because he's accustomed to using a feature rich 35 mm camera.
Street Where the Wealthy Live
We arrive at the store in which Olga works and enjoy meeting her. She wants to spend time with us, but we tell her to take care of the other customers. She's only been working here for a short time and is still in training. If the managers are not pleased with her, she won't receive a full-time position. One of the reasons that Sveta brought us to the store, was to accompany Olga back to Sveta's apartment. However, we learn that she must work late so after browsing for a while, we walk back to the apartment
Sveta tells us that she and Olga spent quite a bit of time discussing and planning our dinner. It will be a traditional Russian dinner. We had read that meat is very common in Russian dinners. However, since Sveta does not eat meat, we know that she will not serve it. We're sure that there are plenty of other wonderful Russian dishes to eat. We're not disappointed. We start with borscht, which is different than what we've had in our country. We have sardines, bread, salad, homemade pickles and vodka. When we travel, we are concerned about eating dairy products and raw vegetables. Sveta tells us that the borscht is served with a dollop of sour cream. She assures us that she bought the sour cream at a reputable place. We are convinced but cautiously take only a small dollop. She also tells us that she only washes her vegetables in boiled water. Everyone has to be careful of city water because it contains parasites, metal pollutants and dangerous bacteria. Sveta only drinks bottled water, or that which she boils.
Olga arrives home, and we have a nice visit. She's tired after working over 10 hours. She is in her audition period so she is not paid. She will only be hired if she passes her audition. Sveta has gifts for us from Olga and herself, and we have brought gifts for her and Olga. We give Sveta jewelry and Olga lotion, having made our selections based on what Sveta has given me in the past and what she has bought Olga while visiting us. She gives me a beautiful amber necklace and Steve a bottle of vodka. Since we are her guests, we find it unusual that she purchased gifts for us. On second thought, maybe it's not so unusual. I remember how many times, she has given us gifts before and recall that she loves to shop.
Day 3: Saturday, September 6
After a pleasant breakfast at a Sveta's, Nadia picks us up and we begin our day of touring the city of St. Petersburg. Today's itinerary is to drive to some different places in the city this morning and in the early afternoon. After that Nadia will drop us off at the Hermitage and we will spend approximately three hours there. Before this trip Steve and I had thought we'd like to go to the Hermitage for a full day. When we mention this to Sveta, she says "trust me. I've taken many visitors there. After three hours, they're saturated from seeing all the art." Since we value Sveta's knowledge of touring, we take her advice and we're happy with the day's plan.
I believe that in order to enjoy a visit to any place it's useful to know the history. So before I tell you about our experiences, I will give you a brief overview of the history. Much of the history throughout my journal is based on the Lonely Planet travel guide of the area, which we call our travel bible.
History of St. Petersburg
In 1240, the area that is now St. Petersburg was owned by the Swedish. The Russian military leader, Alexandr of Novgorod fought the Swedes. He beat them and claimed victory near the mouth of the Neva River. This earned him the title of Nevsky, which means of the Neva. Sweden recaptured control of this region during the 17th century. It became the desire of Peter I, who history calls Peter the Great, to defeat this rival and make Russia a magnificent power. Eventually, this led to St. Petersburg's creation. Between 1700 and 1721, Peter the Great led the Russian military in the Great Northern War. In the beginning, he captured the Swedish outposts on the Neva River. In May 1703, he built the Peter and Paul Fortress, a few kilometers from the Baltic Sea and named the city after his patron saint, Sankt Pieter Burkh. It required brutality and resolve to achieve victory over the Swedish.
St. Petersburg was transformed from swamp to a lush capital. The manpower to create the city came from peasants and Swedish prisoners of war, who were forced laborers. Thousands died from disease, exhaustion and starvation. Taxes were levied on everything Peter could think of, including beards, coffins and death. Known as a "Soul Tax", it was a death fee levied on lower class adult males.
Architects and artisans were recruited from throughout Europe. Workers dug canals to drain marshes. In 1712, Peter made the city his capital. Unhappy administrators, nobles and merchants were forced to move to St. Petersburg from Moscow. They were required to bring their own building supplies with them. Their wagons were checked at the city line to make sure they had done so. Aristocrats were required to serve in the Army or civil service, much to their dismay. If they refused they would lose their titles and land. Peter established a new Table of Ranks, a performance-based ladder of promotion where only the upper grades were allowed to retain the nobility which they had inherited. Some aristocrats lost everything. Capable state employees of humble origin and foreigners became Russian nobles.
Peter rallied and enabled Russian resources to compete equally with the West. This was a phenomenal achievement for Russia. Territorial gains consisted of strategic Baltic Sea territories. These territories included a class of German traders and administrators. Russia gained a commercial and military infrastructure. By his death in 1725, St. Petersburg had a population of 40,000, which was 1/8 of the country's urban population. Ninety percent of Russia's foreign trade came through the city. Peter had not named a successor. However, members of his Table of Ranks and trained administration had an interest in preserving Peter's reforms. They safeguarded Peter's changes.
Peter's successors moved Russia's capital back to Moscow but within 15 years Empress Ioannovna returned it to St. Petersburg. From 1741 to 1825, Empress Elizabeth, Catherine the Great and Czar Alexander I ruled Russia. During their reigns St. Petersburg became sophisticated. The royal court gained a reputation of having renowned magnificence. The city turned into one of Europe's grandest capitals with the building of great palaces, government buildings and churches.
On May 2, 1729 in Poland, a daughter was born to German Prince Anhalt-Zerbst. He named her Sophie Friederike Auguste. At age 15, Sophie's father sent her to Russia to marry Peter, the nephew of Empress Elizabeth and heir to the Russian throne. She would become Catherine the Great. On Christmas 1761, Peter's aunt died and he became Czar Peter III. Peter III was greatly disliked and hated by the powerful members of his military. The military believed that Peter's wife Catherine was a better leader and she agreed.
In June 1762, officers led by the brother of one of Catherine's lovers arrested and later killed Peter, making Catherine the ruler of Russia. During her rule it was rumored that Catherine had many lovers. However her diaries listed less than 10. She gave her favorite lovers palaces or large estates. Catherine continually educated herself, which enhanced her love of culture.
Catherine embraced enlightenment and greatly westernized Russia. The French Revolution appalled her and she made sure that in Russia any public spirit of liberalism was eliminated. Catherine is most known for bringing to Russia the world of stage arts and for her letters. She eliminated regulations and restrictions on publishing. Her incredible collection of paintings made the Hermitage a world renowned museum. Catherine commissioned an architectural extravaganza, recruiting many Western European architects to build neoclassical masterpieces.
Upon Catherine's death in 1796, her son Paul I ascended to throne. He was an autocrat from the old school. He infuriated the gentry by attempting to reinitiate mandatory state service. In 1801, Paul's courtiers murdered him. Catherine's favorite grandson, Alexander I began his reign with reforms. He expanded the school system so that lower middle classes could attend. Early in his reign, the Napoleonic wars mobilized different groups of society.
In 1807, after several defeats, Alexander negotiated the Treaty of Tilsit. The treaty was supposed to make Russia an ally against England but the alliance only lasted until 1810, when Russia resumed trade with England. Napoleon became infuriated and attacked Russia with a huge army of 600,000. At that time, this was the largest army the world had ever seen on a single military operation. In 1812, Alexander lured the Army to the vast Russian countryside. A costly battle ensued west of Moscow with no obvious victor. Moscow evacuated and Napoleon entered the deserted city. A few days later it was burned down. With winter close at hand, he ordered a retreat. Russian supporters immobilized their enemy and Napoleon's men froze and starved. Only a small number made it back to Poland, from where the Russians chased them back to Paris. Triumphant, Alexander entered France's capital on a white horse.
In 1825, Alexander died unexpectedly without having an heir. Once again, Russia was in crisis. Constantine, Alexander's brother who favored reform, was married to a Polish woman and happily living Warsaw. He held no desire to return. Officers who had been to Paris preferred Constantine to Alexander's younger brother, militaristic Nicholas. Nicholas's crowning was set for December 26, 1825. A rally of the more liberal was held but squashed by troops loyal to Nicholas. Those who weren't killed were sent to Peter & Paul Fortress. The prisoners were named the Decembrists. Nicholas terrorized each one by looking them in the face before pronouncing death. Some were executed while others were subjected to a mock execution, and then told at the last moment that their sentences have been changed to exile.
During his reign, Nicholas I gave title to peasants living on state land, freeing them. His foreign policy aggravated the Balkans, most of Europe and started the Crimean War. England and France fought against Russia. Command on both sides was inept. The war became a costly standoff. In Russia, Nicholas's focus on military order prevented the people of St. Petersburg from free thought.
In 1855, when Nicholas died, St. Petersburg was the fourth largest city in Europe. His son, Alexander II, terminated the Crimean war. It was time for reform and Alexander II initiated changes at all levels of society. In 1861, serfs were freed. Approximately a third of the land they had worked was retained by the landholders. The remainder went to village communes. The communes assigned parcels to individuals who made redemption payments as compensation for landholders. No one was happy with this program.
The destruction of serfdom led to a market economy, capitalism and industrial revolution. Railroads and factories were constructed, so cities grew larger. However nothing was done to modernize farming and the life of peasants did not advance. During the reign of Alexander II and Alexander III, Russia gained control of Central Asia, a long strip of Pacific Coast, built the port of Vladivostok and sold the "worthless" Alaskan territory to the US for $7.2 million.
The change in Russia brought many poor workers to St. Petersburg. This led to overcrowding, inadequate sanitization and increased discontent. In the early 1900s, revolutionary groups planned to overthrow czarist Russia. Many attempts were made on Alexander II's life; ironic because he was a reformist. In 1881, the eighth attempt was made in St. Petersburg. He was assassinated by a terrorist bomb. Suspects were arrested and executed or exiled. Thus began the reign of Alexander III, marked by repression of revolutionaries and liberals.
On February 8, 1904, the Japanese attacked Port Arthur. The port was home of the Russian fleet during China's Boxer Uprising. Russia's refusal to remove its troops from the region enraged the Japanese. The Russo-Japanese war was quick, embarrassing and demoralizing to Russia. Most of Russia's Navy was destroyed.
In 1894, Nicholas II was crowned. He used traditional Russian strategy for military offenses. This strategy consisted of forcing many poorly trained peasants to fight the Japanese. The butchering of young Russians led to gross political backlash. In St. Petersburg increasing civil unrest ensued. On September 5, 1905, Russia signed the peace treaty, which gave up strategic properties in the East and recognized Japanese control in Korea.
St. Petersburg became a city of strikes and political violence and the center of the 1905 Revolution. It was sparked by "Bloody Sunday" when troops fired on 150,000 workers led by a priest, Fr. Georgy Gapon. They marched to the Winter Palace to petition Nicholas. The group was seeking improved living conditions. Protesters were fired on in all parts of the city, leaving thousands dead. The incident mobilized and united resistance factions against a common enemy.
During the following months, peasant uprisings continued. Mutinies occurred; the most famous took place the on the battleship Potyomkin in Odessa, Ukraine. Protests across the nation were common. In St. Petersburg and Moscow, social Democrat activists organized Soviets, or in English, "workers' councils". The St. Petersburg Soviet was led by Mensheviks, which means Minority People in English. The Menshevik leader was Leon Trotsky. It outnumbered the Bolsheviks, which translates into Majority People. In October, the Mensheviks called a massive general strike, bringing the country to a standstill. Nicholas grudgingly issued the "October Manifesto". It granted unheard of civil rights and created the State Duma, Russia's first elected legislature which was virtually powerless. In 1914, a brief wave of patriotism occurred at the start a World War I. The city's name was changed to Petrograd. Its population was 2.1 million. In the next few years, Russia suffered countless defeats on the battlefield and millions of lives were lost in the unpopular war.
By 1917, morale was very low due to the sacrifices forced on the population by war and breakdown in the chain of command. Russians were infuriated with the strong influence of spiritualist Rasputin on the Czar. Guided by the 1905 model, the Petrograd Soviet Of Workers And Soldiers Deputies formed. Worker protests became general strikes and troops revolted. On March 1, 1917, the monarchy ended when Nicholas abdicated. The Duma had forced the destruction of the 300 year Romanov dynasty. They were exiled to east of the Ural Mountains, killed and buried in a mass grave.
A provisional government declared that general elections would be held in November. In April, exiled Vladimir Lenin traveled to Petrograd to organize the Bolshevik party. The Bolsheviks took control of the Petrograd Soviet. During the summer, tensions increased with the coexistence of a provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet. The Bolshevik slogan "peace, land and bread" and its propaganda won the allegiance of large number of people. In July, facilitated by Bolsheviks, a series of violent demonstrations occurred,. However, since demonstrations didn't have the full support of the Bolsheviks, the provisional government subdued them. Lenin fled to Finland and Alexander Kerensky became prime minister. He was a moderate Social Revolutionary.
In September, Russian military chief of staff, General Kornilov dispatched cavalry to Petrograd to destroy the Soviets. Kerensky's government turned to the Bolsheviks for support against this attack. Public opinion changed to favor the Bolsheviks and they quickly took control of the Petrograd Soviet, chaired by Trotsky. This Soviet became leader of all of Russia's Soviets. In October, Lenin decided to return from Finland and seize power.
The actual Revolution was greatly over exaggerated by the Soviets. On October 24, Bolsheviks assumed key positions in Petrograd. The following day the all-Russian Congress of Soviets appointed a Bolshevik government. That night exchanges of gunfire occurred. A blank shot fired from the cruiser Aurora on the Neva symbolized the Navy's allegiance to the uprising. The provisional government located in the Winter Palace relinquished its authority to the Bolsheviks.
In December 1917, an armistice was signed with the Germans as they approached Russia. In March 1918, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk surrendered Poland, the Baltics, Ukraine, Finland and Transcaucasia to Germany. The Allied powers became infuriated at the Russian negotiation for a separate peace. In retaliation, the Allied supported the anti-Bolshevik fighters.
After the Revolution, several political parties formed to challenge the Bolshevik power. During November, in elections for the Constitutional Assembly, the Socialist Revolutionaries won an all overwhelming victory. The Assembly was promptly shut down by Lenin. Civil war erupted. In 1918, Trotsky organized the Red Army and the Cheka, Russia's secret police. The government moved to Moscow because attacks on Petrograd were feared. This dealt a devastating setback to the city. The population already suffered from food shortages and unrest. By August 1920, the population was one third of its pre-revolutionary size. Until 1921, Civil War besieged Russia. In the end, the Communist Party became victorious and established one-party rule. The Bolsheviks instituted reforms including the use of the Gregorian calendar. The strikes of 1921 and a violently put down revolt facilitated Lenin's liberal New Economic Policy.
Following Lenin's death in 1924, Petrograd was renamed Leningrad. During the 1930s, it was a center of Stalin's industrialized program. By 1939, the population had risen to 3.1 million people and produced 11% of the Soviet's manufactured goods. Characteristically, Stalin regarded the city's officials as competitors for his power, so he ordered the assassination of the local Communist chief. This was the start of his purges.
During the Winter War of 1939 to 1940, the Soviet Union captured land from Finland. In June 1941, the Germans attacked the USSR. This became the official beginning of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War. The Germans reached Leningrad in only two and half months. Hitler loathed the city as the place in which Bolshevism was born and swore to destroy it. In Hitler's plans, Leningrad's destruction would occur after his New Year's victory ball at the Hotel Astoria. From September 8, 1941 to January 27, 1944, Leningrad was under attack. During the "900 day siege", over 2 million people, including three quarters of the industrial plants, were evacuated. Between 500,000 and one million people died from gunfire, hunger and disease.
After the war, Leningrad was protected from future attacks by Finland with the land they captured before WW II. The city was repaired slowly, starting at the center and working outward. Concrete blocks of apartments, so characteristic of communism, were constructed on the outskirts. During Khrushchev's and Brezhnev's rule, communism did everything it could to silence Leningrad's artistic style. However, much of this period's novel creative contributions came to the USSR through Leningrad.
In 1982, after Brezhnev's death, former KGB Director Yuri Andropov took charge. Andropov died soon after. His successor Konstantin Chernenko died 13 months later. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev was installed as leader of the USSR. He initiated an immediate turnover in the politboro, the government and the military replacing many "Old Guard" with his supporters. His most unpopular reforms was clamping down on alcohol sales as an attempt to decrease alcoholism. To facilitate the economy by encouraging management initiative and rewarding efficiency, Gorbachev announced the policy of glasnost, a.k.a. openness.
Gorbachev adopted an attitude of reconciliation towards the West. In 1985, during his first summit meeting with President Reagan, Gorbachev unilaterally proposed a 50% decrease in long-range nuclear weapons. Afterwards he made noteworthy cuts in weapons and military forces. In April 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster facilitated political restructure. It took 18 days to acknowledge the extent of the disaster to the West. Perestroika, a.k.a. restructuring, became the next strategy. This allowed some private ownership of business and possessions. Decreased threat of repression led to a growing cry for independence, which began in the Soviet satellite countries of Eastern Europe. It spread to the Baltics and other Soviet republics.
During June 1991, St. Petersburg and Russia underwent change. The citizens of Leningrad voted to once again to name their city St. Petersburg. A separate governmental organization, which is outside of the city refused to join the renaming and is still called the Leningradskaya oblast. Boris Yeltsin became the president of the Russian Republic, winning by a healthy majority.
On August 19, 1991, a group of Communists attempted an unsuccessful coup. While Gorbachev was away on vacation, there was an announcement in Moscow that a "state of emergency" was in effect. A self-appointed Committee of the State of Emergency claimed it was in power and Gorbachev was held prisoner in his vacation home. Tanks and military soldiers emerged onto the streets. Meanwhile Yeltsin joined protesters at the Russian parliament's headquarters, which is called the White House. As tanks approached, Yeltsin boarded one and insisted its crew hold their fire. The mass of protesters swelled and the coup crumbled. During the coup, in St. Petersburg hundreds of thousands of protesters filled Dvortsovaya pl. The St. Petersburg leader condemned the coup and requested that local residents do the same. Determined but afraid, these residents spent the evening awaiting tanks that didn't come.
St. Petersburg as well as Moscow recruited foreign business. However, the Soviet mentality hung on and took its toll. Every beneficial tenet of international business was broken. Foreigners were bullied and embarrassed when the government changed regulations without warning. The bureaucracy swindled money as often as possible and greatly increased taxes. However since entrepreneurs and big business sought quick profits and were willing to cheat, they came regardless. Investment continued even through the economic crisis of August 1998, when the ruble was devalued.
Like most of the rest of Russia, the 1990s brought hard times for most St. Petersburg citizens. Officials and others embezzled tens of billions of dollars, putting the money in accounts outside of Russia. Even though stores had full inventory and people were allowed to travel where they wanted, it didn't make much difference. Few had money to enjoy their liberty. The city gained the nickname of Russia's crime capital because of the many notorious political and Mafia murders. However, in a positive way it also grew from the attention it lacked since the time of the czars. Although most of the funds that remained in Russia went to went to restoring and modernizing of Moscow, the center of St. Petersburg was also revitalized.
In March 2000, Vladimir Putin's election as president aided the city because he had spent much of his life there and regards the city highly. He chose to hold his first meeting with a foreign head of state, Tony Blair, in St. Petersburg. He continued to meet heads of state in the city and has talked of moving the Ministry of Culture to St. Petersburg. Prior to 2003, its 300th anniversary, the city's infrastructure which had crumbled during the Soviet era, was targeted to be improved. It's a shame that a good deal of the money was embezzled and that the festive celebration that had been planned never became what was supposed to be.
As we begin our drive through the city, Sveta points out the main street, Nevsky Prospekt. First we stop at Kuznechny Market which sells mostly food. Sveta says that this will give us a feel for what life is like. She usually buys her food here. We see that there's plenty to buy and much of it looks very appetizing to us. It's inside a building which has several stairs to get into it. On our way out, as we reach the doorway we see a woman who has passed out. Her body blocks the doorway, so we move to the side. However, most people just walk over her. Since she probably doesn't speak English we don't think that there's anything we can do to help, but we wish we could. Finally someone stops to help her. Sveta talks to someone and learns that this happens occasionally to her. She had an epileptic seizure. It amazes me that when she awakens she just goes on her way, as if nothing happened.
On our way back to the car, Sveta points out Vladimriskaya Church, aka Our Lady of Vladimir Church. Built between 1761 in 1769, it has an onion dome and a three-tier belfry added in 1783. I find it quite magnificent. Back in the car, we pass the Admiralty which has a beautiful bright gold spire. It was headquarters of the Russian navy between 1711 and 1717.
We stop at the St. Nicholas Cathedral where there's a service in progress. As we've seen on previous trips, Russian Orthodox services last for several hours and people just walk in and out, staying for as long as they want. Most of the service consists of singing. Sveta shows us different areas of the Cathedral. The Cathedral was built from 1753 to 1762. We see many of its 18th-century icons and a beautiful wooden iconostasis. An iconostasis is a structure of an Orthodox church which divides the Sanctuary where the Eucharist is celebrated from the area, or nave, where the congregation stands. The Sanctuary symbolizes the spiritual man and the Divine world, while the nave represents physical people and the human world. The iconostasis represents the boundary between the two, the division between them and how they can be reconciled. The columns of the iconostasis represent the division between the spiritual and the sensory. The horizontal beams represent the union between the heavenly and the earthly through the love of God. We enjoy the Cathedral. Back outside, we marvel at its gold domes and light blue exterior accented by white columns. It is truly a beautiful structure with a bell tower overlooking the Kryukov Canal.
Next we go to St. Isaacs Cathedral, which has been converted into a Cathedral Museum. It took 40 years to build, from 1818 through 1858. Its golden dome is a highlight of the St. Petersburg skyline. It's one of the largest domed buildings in the world with over 100 kg of gold leaf covering the 21.8 m high dome. Originally designed by French architect Ricard de Montferrand, Czar Nicholas I insisted on building it even greater. Special ships and a railroad were built to carry the granite from Finland for its large pillars which each weigh approximately 120 tons. This was the last neoclassical structure built in St. Petersburg. Services are only held here on major holidays.
We enter and I am just awed by a beautiful but lavish interior. There are stairs to enter, but once inside, it's mostly level. The altar is in the east area which has painted scenes of the New Testament. The main entrance is on the west side, around which there are paintings from the Old Testament. Sveta tells us it took 20 years to paint. The entire interior is 4000 square meters, with 600 square meters of Mosaic, 16,000 kg of malachite and 14 types of marble. We are amazed by the ceiling which was painted by Karl Bryullov in 1847. His painting measures 816 square meters. Sveta tells us that in Soviet times, the Cathedral was turned into a museum due to its beautiful artwork. There's a statue of Montferrand holding a model of the Cathedral on one of the facades. Steve finds this quite interesting. When we go back outside, we walk around and take photographs. There's much gold interspersed with green columns and paintings of saints.
Back in the car, we ride by Mikhailovsky's Palace, which is now the Russian Museum. Designed by Carlo Rossi, its construction started in 1819 and was completed in 1825. It was built for Grand Duke Mikhail as a way to make up for not being able to become Czar (his brothers preempted him). In 1895, when Nicholas II was Czar, planning for the museum began. It opened in 1898. I find the building quite impressive.
Next we drive to the Summer Gardens. They are not in bloom yet so we view them from the car. It was built for Peter the Great, designed to be similar to the park at Versailles. From what I can see, it must be beautiful in the right season.
Sveta suggests we take a break and she takes us to the Bronx Hautmann's Art Museum Shop. As we walk in, the members of the staff greet her. She tells us that this is a shop that tours often visit and there is a break room in the back for guides. We walk through the shop, looking at items as we go. Sveta ushers us into the back room where there is coffee and liquor. We enjoy a sampling of each and a few snacks. Some of the staff is dressed as Russian nobility. It's touristy but fun. After a while, Steve decides he would like to look for a Faberge egg. Sveta says that if we're going to get one this shop probably has the most reasonably priced eggs. We look but we don't find anything we like enough to pay the price.
Church of Spilled Blood
Our next stop is the Church of Spilled Blood, otherwise known as the Church of the Resurrection of Christ. It is magnificent! Built between 1883 and 1907, it's located on the place where Alexander II was assassinated. Although this Czar was responsible for many great reforms, the People's Will terrorist group blew him up in 1881. There are 20 granite plaques on the exterior. The plaques contain, in gold letters, the highlights of Alexander's reign. The steeple is 81 m high. The beautiful façade also contains mosaic panels of scenes from the New Testament and 144 mosaic coats of arms, one for each of the provinces, regions and towns of Russia during Alexander II's rule. Steve comments that he finds the mosaic colors of the domes the most attractive feature. They are similar to St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow. We walk around the church, in awe and take pictures (of course).
We drive past the St. Petersburg's mosque which is supposed to be modeled after Samarkand's Gur Emir mausoleum, where Tamerlane is buried. Sveta says that since we've seen the real building, there's no point in going into this mosque.
We ride past the oldest building in St. Petersburg, Peter and Paul Fortress. Built in 1703, Peter the Great planned it for defense against the Swedish. However, it's never been used for defense because the Swedish were defeated before it was ready. Until 1917 it was used as a prison, where even Peter's own son was tortured for being rebellious. It's on an island by itself and we don't have time to go there.
Nadia takes us to the Hermitage and drops us off. We have been looking forward to seeing this world famous art museum for a long time. I had read that there is an entrance without stairs. However the stairs of the main entrance were not high and it seems like it will be easier to climb them than to try to find the other entrance. It's worth the climb. As we enter, we see much of the grandeur of the Winter Palace. As required, we check our bags and our cameras. The main hall has beautiful chandeliers and paper mache that looks like bronze. There's a large double staircase, about two flights, but I am determined to walk up and be able to look down from the top. Due to the number of stairs, it isn't an easy climb but it was worth it. It is amazing to be in this beautiful Palace.
We see the coronation carriage of Peter and Catherine. Peter the Great acquired it while visiting Paris in the early 1700s. It's gold draped with red curtains inside. The collection of Impressionists is amazing. It includes Cezanne and Van Gogh. I marvel at a hallway of tapestries.
The Hermitage is actually five buildings, the Winter Palace, the Small Hermitage, the Old and New Hermitages and the Hermitage Theatre. All of the buildings are linked together. In 1754, Czarina Elizabeth engaged Rastrelli to build the Winter Palace. Since this would be his second attempt, she closely oversaw its construction and design. However, she never lived to occupy it, dying just a few months before its completion. Catherine the Great didn't really like the Baroque interiors so she had most of the rooms redone in classical 1830s style. However she kept the exterior, the staircase and the Cathedral.
Next we go into the Small Hermitage. The Small Hermitage was built for Catherine the Great as a retreat. This is where she kept the art collection started by Peter the Great. The Pavilion area is all white and gold. It must be at least two stores high. It is beautiful. Outside we see the hanging Garden. There are crystal chandeliers (after all, what else would they be?). All of the artwork is covered by glass. There is a large beautiful table designed and built by a Russian artist. We see a clock set in artwork which looks like a peacock, and sculptures which are copies of ancient sculptures. I'm beginning to wish that I paid the fee to take pictures.
Sveta tells us that there are 3 million items in the Hermitage. She guides us to the rooms in which she thinks we'll be interested. We're amazed at most of them. We see Italian paintings, most of which are religious. I find the colors of the 13th through 18th-century paintings incredible. The living room is ornate with paintings even on the ceilings and frescoes on the walls. We see two by Leonardo Da Vinci. The doors to the living room were crafted by a French master and look similar to lacquer.
In a long hallway, we see works by Rafael. There is a small, unpolished statue by Michelangelo. The center of this room is surrounded by gold framed paintings and busts. Outside there is a painting of Cana, with Jesus turning the water into wine. In the hall, we see paintings of Greek and Roman mythology and scenes from the Bible. In another hallway, a beautiful urn is displayed. We also see more paintings of Greek mythology in this room. Its ceilings are blue and gold with skylights. We see a display of German landscapes and a room of Spanish art. We go to an entire room filled with Rembrandt. Next we see a room of Flemish art. Much of the work is scenes from the Old Testament. Then we see a room of art from Holland, mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries including Van Loo and a painting of Adam and Eve.
We walk through the New Hermitage, built for Nicholas I about 75 years after the Old Hermitage. Its purpose was to house the increasing art collection. It was to be the "Imperial museum". Many of the art collections were moved to this building. Afterwards we go back to the Old Hermitage, also built during the time of Catherine the Great from 1770 to 1787. She intended it to house her growing collections of books and art. I'm so much mesmerized by what we're seeing that I loose track of what we see in each building. We enjoy a hall of modern art. Along the way, we marvel at a mosaic floor. I remark to Steve that the Palaces are as awesome as the artwork. There is a beautiful portrait of Catherine the Great.
The Small Hermitage contains many religious articles. We enter a hall which has a large chandelier and a marble thrown. The St. George Hall, considered to be the heart of the Winter Palace, contains two rows of gilded bronze chandeliers which hang from each of the long sides of the Hall. Its ceilings are ornate and the balcony is amazing. We see the Military Gallery, which has paintings of Generals from 1812. There is a painted ceiling which is so realistically done that it looks like molding. In the Hall of Coats of Arms we see coats of all arms from 50 Russian provinces. What looks like gold was formerly gold leaf but now is paint. There are showcases of silverware. We see a memorial hall to Peter the Great. It contains a throne which was used by Peter. It continued to be used after he died.
We go into the Hall of Portraits of Czars. It contains the portraits of Czars and their family members. We see the Malachite Hall with beautiful green malachite columns and vases. In the family dining room, there is a picture of each continent. There are two rooms, one has 19th century and the other of 20th century furniture. Steve likes the library (no surprise there). We go into a corridor which contains tapestry from Western Europe, 16th to 18th-century. It's called the Dark Corridor. Even though its quite dark, I sit in awe of the workmanship.
On the third-floor of the Winter Palace we see Impressionists including Monet, Renoir, Rodin sculptures, van Gogh, Gauguin's Tahitian artwork, Matisse and Picasso. By now we're using the elevator to go between the floors and we take it back down to where we enter. We exit to the rear of the palaces, where we wait outside in a beautiful square while Sveta takes care of some business. Sveta was correct; three hours were more than enough. We're overwhelmed with the beauty of everything.
We walk to a Georgian restaurant and enjoy our dinner. We have a sampling of foods including appetizers of chicken and walnut, beans in sauce, a variety of different types of bread which are served with two types of cheese, and homemade wine. I order dumplings and Steve orders stewed mutton. Sveta says she is too full to order a separate dish. Dinner is absolutely delicious. We were very lucky to have a beautiful sunny day and we return home very content.
When we arrive home, Sveta goes out to a public bath. She tells us that she doesn't like to bathe at home because the plumbing is so old that the hot water comes brown. Once again, we realize how lucky we are. When Sveta comes home we toast our day with a slightly licorice tasting cognac. It's light and not too strong. We go to bed early since we're all tired.
For breakfast this morning, we enjoy Sveta's homemade jam. Today we will tour sites outside of St. Petersburg. Nadia picks us up and as we ride towards our first destination, Basal Island, Sveta tells us more about St. Petersburg. Sixty-five rivers and canals and 45 islands comprise the city. Basal Island is the largest island and mostly residential. Formally it suffered from many floods, more than 300. In the 1970s a dam was built. Basal Island was a central island during Peter the Great's time. Throughout St. Petersburg wide streets are called lines. We observe that it's not unusual to see the military. The streets are quiet. According to the last released figures from the 1997 census, St. Petersburg's population is 4,700,000 and still being counted. Within the city there are many apartment buildings, which are not high rises. Many of the islands are sinking.
On our way out of the city we stop at the home of a friend of Sveta, on Basal Island. She lives in a residential section which is lined with apartment buildings. They're different colors, including green, tan, yellow and pink. Courtyards were built in the center of each building. Sveta tells us that there's a problem with people using the courtyards and stairways as public toilets. She says this even happens in her buildings stairway.
On the way to Czar Village we see farmland on which potatoes, cabbage and carrots grow. Czar Village contains countryside palaces. When the palaces were first built, royalty traveled to them by horse. Then the royalty had a railroad constructed to travel the 27 miles outside of St. Petersburg. In 1937, the name of Czar Village was changed to Pushkin, Russia's famous poet who had studied here. We visit the Summer Palace where royalty originally came for hunting. Game included Siberian tigers. The Palace is baroque style, blue with gold.
The palaces of Pushkin were built between 1744 and 1796 under Czarina Elizabeth and Catherine the Great. The enormous grand center building is the Catherine Palace, baroque in style. Designed by Rastrelli and it took from 1752 to 1756 build. It was named for Elizabeth's mother who was Peter the Great's second wife. Each Czar and Czarist added onto the Palace.
Sveta tells us that there's a story which says that when Czarina Elizabeth died there were only six rubles in the Russian treasury, due to her extravaganzas in building and decorating with gold. She had 16,000 dresses in her numerous wardrobes.
Elizabeth's successor had the gold removed and replaced with gold paint, to restore the treasury. Catherine the Great remodeled much of Rastrelli's original interior design into classical style.
The Palace was destroyed by the Germans in World War II, with only two buildings surviving. The Palace exterior that we see has been beautifully restored. There is a long line to go in to the Palace, so we choose not to. Instead, we walk around the grounds and down to a lake. We see a Turkish mosque, which was originally built as a bathhouse. There is also a beautiful coffee and tea house, built by Elizabeth. I find the grounds very impressive.
Next we go to Pavlovsk Great Palace and Park. It's classic style; built by Catherine the Great for her son Paul when he was four years of age. It was used as a royal residence until 1917. In World War II, it burnt down two weeks after liberation when a Soviet soldier accidentally set off German mines with his lit cigarette. It was restored in 1970.
Pavlovsk Great Palace and Park
As we ride through the countryside, we see country houses. Sveta tells us that many in this area have been converted into apartments. The ones which are still private are called dachas, which means country house.
We pass through an area of private homes of varying sizes. Some of these are not finished because the builders ran out of money. We don't see road signs with street names, so I guess that the people who come here just know where they're going. We see factories including some of American companies such as Kraft and Philip Morris.
We ride through the town of Strelna. It's a picturesque town which is close to the Gulf of Finland. Next we go to see Petergof Fountains. However when we arrive, the line is long. Sveta says it's too expensive and there's not enough to see to justify waiting.
We ride inland to the Chinese Palace. Sveta tells us that it was very famous. However since there were no jobs close by people were not attracted to the area and it became very rundown. While the outside is unkempt, the inside is incredible. Floors were made of wood from trees all over the world. The wood was laid in patterns so that as you move from one side of the room to the other, the colors appear to change. This too was built by Catherine the Great. It has nine rooms and its sole purpose was for entertainment. It has no heat or lighting so when used, people came at day light and left before dark. Some of the rooms are decorated with Chinese patterns and others with Korean artwork hung on the walls. There are a few in European styles with large paintings. One room has panels of glass mosaic. There's a ballroom, a billiard room, a cloakroom, a gambling room, a small Chinese study, a large Chinese study and a living room that could be closed off if anyone wished to take a nap. Catherine the Great and most royalty never slept here. Most of the rooms have marble of different colors. In the Reception Room we see a large portrait of Catherine the Great. Her eyes appear to follow you as you move through the room. There's a legend that if one wishes for something while standing in front of the portrait, the wish will come true. I wish to find a replacement lens for Steve's camera. I'll be sure to let you know if this comes true.
Wheelchairs are not allowed into the Palace. After seeing the beautiful floors, I can understand why. Each of us has to put on shoe protectors which are a bit slippery to walk in, especially on these polished floors. Steve never lets go of me. The staff is nice and attentive. In one room, a staff woman insists I sit in her chair. I find this a welcome break.
This is a wonderful stop and I recommend it to anyone traveling to St. Petersburg. However the extravagance is amazing, especially since it was only used for entertaining. Our Lonely Planet guidebook says that the decor is "probably unequaled in any of the other St. Petersburg palaces." I agree, at least in the palaces that we've seen.
It's getting late and we decide we want to stop for lunch. Sveta knows that we are interested in having bliny, which is the Russians name for crepe. Nadia and Sveta take us to a restaurant which they know makes bliny and we thoroughly enjoy their choice. We also have a bottle of Moldova wine. Our lunch for the four of us costs approximately $10.
St. Peter and Paul Cathedral
Before we head back to the city we stop to see St. Peter and Paul Cathedral. It is a beautiful Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Its countryside setting really brings the colors alive. Once again we're lucky to have a beautiful sunny day.
Our way back into the city, we pass by Nadia's family dacha. Her grandmother lives there. When we ask if she gets out here often, with Sveta as interpreter, she tells us that she comes out every weekend to get 40 gallons of water since the water in St. Petersburg is not safe to drink. When we say that this must be hard, she and Sveta say that it's just the way of life. Nadia tells us that she enjoys visiting her grandmother and it's no big deal. Once again, we're amazed at the difference in lifestyles between our St. Petersburg friends and us. When my mother lived half an hour a way from us, it was not routine to visit her every week. The drive from St. Petersburg to this countryside takes longer than half an hour.
Nadia takes us back to Sveta's and we say goodbye to her. She has been a very nice driver. Every time I said "spasiba", which means thank you in Russia, she smiles. I said spasiba often because she was so helpful, especially with the seatbelt which I had difficulty buckling and unbuckling. It's too bad that neither of us spoke much of each others' language.
Back at Sveta's, Steve and I nap. Afterwards Sveta makes a delicious dish of potato, onion, very fresh mushrooms and carrots. We drink vodka. Two friends of Sveta's stop by. First, Irena who's from the countryside comes. She knows a little English, but mostly we speak through Sveta. She is a broker at a bank.
A little while after Irena left, Marina stops by. She speaks no English. She's brought something for us to deliver in Vilnius to a mutual friend of hers and Sveta's. She is a massage therapist, so we tell her about the website which I designed and maintain, www.bmslearning.com. The business is a school for massage therapy and a practice. She seems interested. She has not traveled outside of Russia but would like to one day.
Today we leave Russia to travel to Tallin, Estonia. This morning we get ready for our trip. Steve and I write post cards while Sveta goes to the shoemaker to pick up boots which needed new soles. When she returns, she makes breakfast. She wants to make us eggs, but we tell her that we want to eat light since we have at least a six hour bus trip ahead of us. She warms the leftovers from last night and we really enjoy the repast. We talk about life in Russia. Sveta doesn't think that life will improve much or move towards Western European standards. In some ways life was better under communism. It took her six weeks to get her visas for this trip to the Baltic countries. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania want to be careful not to admit Russian mafia or communists. Sveta hasn't been to the Baltics in about 15 years. As a student, she went there often. It was inexpensive and easy to get there. To Soviet Russians, these provinces were called Baltics, which meant "foreign Russia".
As we pack, Sveta is in the kitchen washing parsley which she will use in the winter. She hangs it to dry during the time she'll be away with us.
At 1 p.m., the MIR driver picks us up to take us to the bus stop where we will catch our bus to Tallin, Estonia. Traffic through the city of St. Petersburg is thick and slightly crazy. The bus to Tallin is a double-decker with only a few seats downstairs. I'm a bit concerned that we'll be able to get a seat downstairs but my concern is unwarranted. Everybody seems to want to go upstairs.
The bus is quite comfortable. We discuss having used a wheelchair to tour St. Petersburg with Sveta. She says she's only seen tourists in wheelchairs in the Hermitage. Usually, wheelchairs are not allowed in palaces because the floors are so delicate. On our ride out of the city, I see an access symbol at the Metro station. Sveta tells us that only one Metro station has a ramp. Some curbs have curb cuts however most sidewalks have drainage gutters which run horizontally between the road and the inside of the sidewalk. Steve says that over all pushing my wheelchair around St. Petersburg wasn't too bad. We did not see any buildings with ramp access.
We're outside of the city quickly and riding through farmland. We stop at what could be a checkpoint. The ride to the Estonia border seems to go quickly. However I sleep for good bit of it, so I'm not a reliable judge. We stop in the small-town of Narva. A Russian soldier comes through checking our passports. Sveta points out an old fort.
When we arrive at the border, an official walks through saying "have your passports ready". We have a wait at the border crossing. When it's our turn, we get off the bus and retrieve our luggage. The border building has a few steps into it. Inside we wait online for a passport check. They take the registration form that we completed on the bus. We get back on the bus, but we stop at the duty-free store. Most of the passengers on the bus get off but we stay on the bus.
At the entrance to Estonia, the officials collect our passports. They ask to see Sveta's proof of medical insurance. She's upset because it's packed in her luggage. She said that she couldn't have gotten a visa without it. Two officials walk through the bus, inspecting it. One has a blond Labrador retriever who is sniffing for something. I think he sniffing for drugs but Sveta says explosives. With all of the stops and inspections, we spent two hours at the border crossing. Narva, Estonia is similar to a small US city. It has tree-lined streets and I find it pretty.
History of Estonia
Estonia's location is such that throughout the years it has been an appealing region for whatever country was in power. Much of its early history is shared with Latvia. The first humans came to this area in 7500 B.C. The first ancestors of today's population were Finno-Ugric hunters from the East. It's estimated that they arrived between 3000 and 2000 B.C. Their descendents are the Estonians and the Livs, who are related to today's Finns, Lapps and Hungarians. They became farmers. Even before the time of Christ, the Baltic region became well-known for its amber. During the early centuries A.D., tribes traded with Germans and the Roman Empire. Later they traded with Vikings and Russians, when they were on friendly terms. At other times, they often fought with Vikings and Russians. In the 11th and 12 centuries, Russian armies attempted to invade Estonia and Latvia but were defeated.
In the 12th century, the people split into tribal groups who practiced nature religions. They divided into eight to twelve districts. The first written history is attributed to the Drang nach Osten, which translates to urge to the east, of German princes, colonists, traders, missionaries and knights of the crusade. Once they had conquered Slavic land in the 12th century, they moved to the Eastern Baltic region. The Pope called for a crusade against the northern heathen people of the Baltic region. At this time, Estonia and Latvia were treated as one land. Germanic missionaries came but had little success until the appointment of Albert von Buxhoevden as Bishop of Riga in 1201.
Bishop Albert von Buxhoevden built the first Baltic German fort in Riga, making Riga the region's leading city. In 1202, he established the Knights of the Sword, an order of crusading knights whose trademark was their white cloaks displaying emblems of red swords and crosses. Their garb signified their goal to convert the region by force. They encountered strong resistance but within 250 years, they conquered and converted Estonia and Latvia. In 1217, Southern Estonia was conquered with the defeat of its leader, Lembitu. In approximately 1219, Denmark as ally of the Bishop conquered northern Estonia. The Danish forces landed on the site of modern-day Tallin. By 1227 the Knights took control of all of Estonia.
During the 1220s, the Teutonic Order, also Crusaders, arrived in Mazovia which is central northern Poland, to protect against raids by the Prussians. Founded in Palestine in 1190 as a charitable organization, it had become a military order and started crusading in Europe. It protected the area by exterminating Prussians and relocating settlers from German states. The Prussians resisted successfully until 1283, when the last of their lands fell into Teutonic control.
The Knights of the Sword received a reprimand from the Pope for their brutality. In 1236, following a raid on Samogitia, they were defeated by Zemgals and Samogitians. The following year they were forced to reorganize as a branch of the Teutonic Order, the Livonian order. At this time the Teutonic Order controlled Lithuania. In 1238, Northern Estonia returned to Danish rule. In 1242 in eastern Estonia, on frozen Lake Peipsi, Russian Prince Alexandr Nevsky defeated the Teutonic Order. This stopped the Knights' eastern expansion.
Intermittently, Estonians revolted. From 1343 to 1346, St. George's Night Uprising, the final and largest revolt occurred. In 1346, Denmark became disconcerted by this uprising so sold northern Estonia to the Livonian order. This put the German nobles in control of the Baltic Sea border from west of today's Poland to Narva, Estonia. They also controlled inland territory and the Estonia islands.
Germanic rulers divided the area into fiefdoms, including (1) Dorpat, today's Tartu and (2) Osel-Wiek, today's western Estonia, with allegiance to the Archbishop and Bishop of Reval which is Tallin. The Hanseatic League of traders controlled the commerce in the Baltic region and North Sea. They bought prosperity to the German controlled towns of Reval, Dorpat, Riga, and Königsberg, which were located on trade routes between Russia and the West. Native Estonians and Latvians became serfs, except for the nobility who had been killed. Domination by the German nobility continued until the 20th-century.
By the middle of the 16th century, the Hanseatic League's hold over Baltic commerce was slipping away. From 1520, the Reformation endangered Catholic ecclesiastical states. In 1535, after the death of its last competent master, Walter von Plettenburg, the Livonian order lost its military power. Discontent of the peasants increased. Many regional powers became interested in Estonia and Livonia, including Poland, Lithuania, Sweden and Muscovy under Ivan the Terrible. In 1558, the Livonian war began when Ivan the Terrible invaded. Twenty-five years of atrocities, suffering and destruction ensued as Ivan attacked, captured or overwhelmed most towns in mainland Estonia and Eastern Latvia. His goal was to obtain entry to the Baltic Sea. Until 1629, in this and following wars, Estonia lost two thirds of its population.
During the Russian invasion, the Livonian order fell apart. Some of its territories requested sanctuary from neighbors. Other territories suffered while those in power fought over them. In southeastern Estonia and eastern Latvia, Poland-Lithuania battled Russia. In 1582, Poland-Lithuania became victorious. Over 20 years in northern Estonia, Sweden captured control from Russia. In 1582, they also conquered western Estonia and the island of Hiiumaa. For a while, Denmark took control of some former church lands in Courland, today's western Estonia.
In 1592, Protestant Sweden and Catholic Poland-Lithuania fought in the Baltics. By 1629 Poland-Lithuania was forced to turn over most of Livonia, today's Southern Estonia and Eastern Latvia, and Riga. In the 1650s during other wars, Sweden protected its capture against Russia and Poland. Swedish rule solidified Lutheran Protestantism. This is remembered fondly as a time of illumination during its long history of foreign subjugation. The 17th-century Swedish kings attempted to increase the standard of peasant life with elementary education and by translating the Bible into the native languages of Estonian and Latvian. They founded Dorpat University, which became Tartu University. However wars, plagues and famines continued to occur.
From 1700 through 1721, Russia, under Peter the Great, fought Sweden in the Great Northern War. In the end Russia replaced Sweden as the ruling power. In 1721, the Treaty of Nystad conceded Estonia and central and northeastern Latvia to Russia. During the war, Estonia and Latvia succumbed to destruction.
The Baltic-German ruling class gained privileges from the Russians. However the peasants suffered increased abuse. Eventually, between 1811 and 1819, the Estonia and Latvian peasants were granted freedom. Beginning in the mid-19th century, peasants were given the right to possess land. In the late 19th century, some Estonia's and Latvians migrated to the Americas.
During the second half of the 19th century and early 20th-century, Baltic national revival occurred. People took up trades and professions. This resulted in commerce and formation of intellectual circles. In the North, educated Estonians and Latvians at Tartu University led the revivals. All three Baltic ethnicities started to celebrate their cultures and sense of nationality by teaching, learning and publishing in their own languages. They held their own song festivals and performed plays. Railroads were constructed from the Baltic ports to Russia. By 1900, the people of Estonia and Latvia were almost totally literate. Tallin, Narva and Riga became industrial centers.
Toward the end of the 19th century, the national movements grew stronger. Much of this was because of the unpopular policy of Russification and treatment by the Russian authorities. Estonia and Livonia were governed as separate provinces.
In 1905, the Baltics first showed their ideals of national autonomy and independence. Callous reprisals ensued when Estonian and Latvian revolutionaries burned manor houses. One thousand people were shot. During World War I, Germany occupied the Baltics. In late 1917 and early 1918, they captured Estonia, and Eastern Latvia. Baltic people hoped that the war would improve their nations. During the February Russian revolution in 1917, which overthrew the Czar, full independence became their goal.
In March 1917, Russia passed a bill giving Estonia self-government and a Parliament. In July, the Diet Maapäev convened in Toompea Castle, Tallin. After the Russian October revolution, a Communist administration was created for Estonia. In February 1918, German forces reached Estonia. The Communist hastily left. On February 24, the Diet Maapäev proclaimed independence. The next day the Germans took control of Tallin. In March 1918, Russia conceded the Baltics to Germany in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
At the end of the Great War, Estonia declared its independence once again. Soviet Russia began a military and political campaign to regain the Baltic countries. In time this was defeated by the local opposition and military assistance from other countries. In Estonia, a British naval fleet and volunteers from Scandinavian forces provided military support. In February 1919, Estonia's prime minister declared his nation liberated from its enemies.
In 1920, Communist Russia signed peace treaties with all of the Baltic parliaments. The treaties recognized each country's independence in perpetuity. All three Baltic republics got off to a promising start. However in the early 1930s, they were trapped between the Soviet Union and expansionist Nazi Germany. Eventually they became ruled by governments more afraid of the Soviet Union than Nazi Germany. In 1933, Estonia's anti-Communist, anti-parliamentarian movement called vaps passed a constitutional referendum. A bloodless takeover by the prime minister ensued and he took over as dictator.
On August 23, 1939, the Soviet Union and Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop nonaggression pact. In secret it divided Eastern Europe into Soviet and German control. Estonia and Latvia became Soviet. The Soviets insisted on "mutual-assistance pacts" with the countries which allowed Soviet troops to be stationed within the boundaries.
In 1939 and 1940, Germans who were living in the Baltics returned to Germany to comply with Hitler's Heim ins Reich summons, which was his order to return Home to the Reich. By August 1940, all three Baltic republics were under Soviet military occupation with Communists having won corrupted elections. The three countries became states and, as such, accepted as republics of the USSR.
Soviets began nationalization and purges. It's estimated that between 11,000 and 60,000 Estonians were killed, deported or fled from Estonia in the first year of occupation. Many of those deported were children and elderly. On June 14, 1941 the mast deportations to Siberia began. Later in 1941, Nazi Germany invaded and occupied the Baltic countries. The people of the Baltics hoped that their life under the Nazis would improve. The Nazis governed the Baltic countries and Belarus as one territory called Ostland. Some locals collaborated with the Nazis, joining in the killing of Jewish people. They earned a reputation for cruelty which was as bad or worse than that of their German masters. It's estimated that 5,000 Jews were killed in Estonia. Fifty thousand Estonians became German soldiers, some volunteered while others were forced. Nationalist and Communist guerrilla resistance against the Nazis grew. Between 1944 and 1945, approximately 70,000 Estonians escaped from the Baltics to avoid USSR recapture. Others were sent to Siberia. The estimated number of Estonians lost stands at approximately 200,000 people during World War II.
By the end of 1944, the USSR had again captured the Baltic countries. Most cities were greatly damaged in the fighting between the Soviets and the Nazis. Between 1944 and 1952, Stalin's control was decisively implemented. In the Soviet way, agriculture became collectivized. At least 60,000 Estonians were murdered and deported.
Thousands of people throughout the Baltics fled to the forests to escape living under Soviet rule. They became known as the "forests brothers". Some took up arms and forcefully resisted communism. By 1953, most were captured. However it wasn't until 1978 that the last one named August Sabe, an Estonian, was overtaken by the KGB. He drowned while swimming across a lake attempting to avoid capture.
As postwar industrialization ensued, migrant workers were sent to the Baltics. Most came from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Native Estonians and Latvians grew apprehensive that they would become minorities in their own countries. This augmented revulsion of Communist control. The immigrants received the top jobs and housing allocations, causing even more resentment. For the first time in their history, population of cities and towns was greater than that of the countryside. On the positive side, this brought an improved standard of living, however it also led to environmental problems. Religion and tourism became restricted. However, Tallin still received tourism, commerce and investment from Finland which was a neutral state and maintained close affiliation with the Soviet Union. Therefore Estonia earned a reputation as the most westernized of the Baltic countries during Soviet rule. It maintained this reputation afterwards.
During the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev started to encourage glasnost, which translates to openness, and perestroika, which translates to reconstruction. The resentment of the Baltic people emerged. National opinion resulted in push for independence. In 1988, the people of the Baltics began to seek their independence very urgently. In Estonia, many people gathered to sing previously outlawed national songs and state their hunger for independence. This became known as the Singing Revolution. In Tallin, approximately one third of Estonians or roughly 300,000 attended this gathering.
Popular groups came together in all the Baltic republics to work for democracy and reform. Even the local Communist parties allied with them. In October 1988, Estonia's Popular Front demanded its independence, democracy and decreased immigration of Russians. All three republics dissolved communist institutions. In November 1988, Estonia's Supreme Soviet, their Parliament, passed a declaration of sovereignty which announced that Soviet laws would continue in their country only if the Estonian Parliament approved them.
On August 23, 1989, the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, approximately two million people joined hands in a human chain from Tallin to Vilnius. They called for secession. In November, the USSR agreed to give the Baltic republics economic autonomy.
In spring 1990, Estonians and Latvians elected nationalists in large majorities to their supreme soviets. They reinstated their pre-World War II constitutions and started a transition period in which to negotiate full independence. Estonia led the other Baltic republics in creating a market economy. It abolished subsidies on some important commonly used goods.
In February and March 1991, large majorities in all Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania voted for secession from the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, since Western nations did not want to damage Gorbachev's efforts, they only gave minimal backing to the Baltic independence movements. On August 19, 1991, a coup against Gorbachev occurred in Moscow. On August 20, Estonia proclaimed total independence. On September 6, 1991, Western countries and the USSR finally recognized the three Baltic countries as independent.
On September 17, 1991, all three Baltic countries joined the United Nations. They initiated taking steps toward their nationhood including issuing their own currencies and postage stamps. In 1992, they competed in the Olympics as their own nations. In September 1993, the Pope came to the three countries.
However, the countries competed against each other for foreign investment and aid. Communities which had emigrated to the West became important sources of investment. These communities also influenced politics. Estonia's close ties to Finland helped obtain a large amount of Finnish and Swedish investment. Trading collaboration between the three Baltic countries has remained minor. Each has its own police force and army. However due to the fragile borders between the countries and their strategic location between East and West, smuggling and organized crime in the Commonwealth of Independent States, hereafter referred to as CIS, became problematic.
In 1992, Estonia held its first general election under its new constitution. The conservative Fatherland Alliance which supports nationalist, anti-Communist and free-market policies was victorious. In 1993, the three countries signed a free trade agreement. Estonia and Lithuania were two of the earliest former Soviet republics admitted to the Council of Europe. In 1994, the final Russian garrisons withdrew from Estonia, reducing national uneasiness. In 1995, free trade agreements became effective between the European Union and the former republics of the USSR.
In 1996, an agricultural free trade agreement eliminated all export and import tariffs and quotas on agriculture between the Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. That same year, much resentment was caused by a Russian-US agreement, which removed NATO objections to the stationing of 600 Russian tanks and military near Baltic borders.
In 1997, Estonia and Russia negotiated an agreement which reduced border disputes. Russia acknowledged Estonia's independence but Estonia gave up its claim to two areas, a piece of land east of the Narva River and a larger area at its southern border. Together they totaled 2,333 square kilometers. They had been part of Estonia's land between the world wars, following the signing of the 1920 Tartu Peace Treaty.
During the 1990s, archaeological and historical works, including those which would have been forbidden under the Soviets, began. Estonians want to create an increased national distinctiveness and show their cultural roots. Stability allows objective assessment of the Estonia's past. The government which existed between the two world wars, led by a long admired Estonian hero, is being investigated. In 1999, proof was found in the Moscow archives showing that this leader, and Latvian and Lithuania leaders, was given significant amounts of money from the Soviets in the 1920s and 1930s for the purpose of safeguarding the USSR's interests. In the 1930s, the government became a dictatorship, which included prohibition of all political parties. These occurrences are helping Estonia understand its history.
All three Baltic countries sought NATO and EU membership, partly because of fear of the Russians and also because they wanted economic improvement. In the late 1990s, this led the nations to create a united front which decreased competition between the countries. By 1998, the West did not see Russia as a formidable enemy. In January 1998, the United States pledged to support Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania by signing the US-Baltic Charter of Partnership. This documents the United States support of Baltic integration into Western institutions which includes NATO. In May 1998, the Baltic presidents joined to condemn Russia's political and economic pressure on Latvia. They stated that it was dangerous to their unity and assimilation with Europe. In 1999, Estonia and Latvian joined the World Trade Organization.
In March 1998, Estonia was the first of the Baltic countries to begin direct talks with the European Union (EU). In November 2002, at NATO's Prague Summit, the three Baltic countries were formally invited to join. Estonian politicians were pleased that Estonia's membership was set for 2004. However some citizens doubt that this fast assimilation with the Western European organization will yield the best prospect. There's been organized but unsuccessful opposition to EU membership. In November 2002, the Estonian Market Opinion Research showed that a majority of the population support EU membership. Estonian laws have conformed to EU requirements. This month, a referendum is scheduled for vote. It must meet with majority approval before EU membership can be finalized. We are lucky enough to be here on the day of the election and we experience Estonia's excitement. Estonia was the first country of the former Soviet republics to finalize border agreements with all neighbors.
EU membership requires that the death penalty be eliminated, and Nazi and Soviet criminals be prosecuted. The latter is a touchy subject because of World War II local collaboration. In 1999, at age 79, Mikhail Neverovski, who was a KGB agent and is an Estonia citizen was given a four-year sentence for exiling 300 Estonians to Siberia in 1949. However the other collaborators tried in Estonia have been given suspended sentences.
In their May 2004 issue, National Geographic published an article on ex-communist countries being admitted to the EU. Estonia has received monetary benefits. On the highway between Narva and Tallin, the EU invested millions of euros to upgrade the road. In a town through which the highway passes, where the Soviet military operated a factory which enriched uranium for weapons, the EU invested more than a million dollars to prevent radioactive waste from leaking into the Baltic Sea. The EU is spending approximately twelve million dollars to improve the border crossing to prevent unlawful immigration, drugs and human trade.
Other advantages of EU membership include (1) businesses will experience straightforward access to the large marketplace extending from the Mediterranean to the Arctic, (2) decreases in paperwork and time at customs for processing goods between member countries, (3) greater selection of goods and decreased prices for consumers, (4) workers can go freely between countries when looking for jobs, and (5) membership creates a clear division between the future of freedom and the communist past. The cost for all of this includes adopting 80,000 pages of EU regulations and paying the membership fee. However, at least in the beginning the Baltic countries will receive more money than they will pay.
According to the National Geographic article, 400,000 Russians still reside in Estonia. Most of them are descendents from Russians who were sent by the Soviet Union to force the cooperation of insolent Estonians. During the 1990s, when the Soviet military pulled out of the Baltics, Russians lost their upper hand. While most Russians adapted well, 120,000 who speak little or no Estonian remain and have no plans to return to Russia. The EU has mandated just treatment of this minority as a precondition for Estonia's membership.
National Geographic states that the population of Estonia is 1,351,000 and GDP per capita is $5,300. It has the highest GDP per capita of the three Baltic countries, with Lithuania's at $4400 and Latvia's at $4,000.
After we're back on the road, Sveta takes out a snack, a bottle of vodka and shot glasses. She is excited about returning to Estonia where, in communist times, she vacationed often. Of course, we are excited about entering another country. We toast our arrival. After a pleasant ride, we arrive at the bus station in Tallin and meet our driver. He tells us his name, Tautydas Narusis. We ask him to repeat his first name, so we can get it right. He replies, "just call me Tv". When we protest, he says he likes that name so we agree. We ride to the old city and arrive at our hotel, Hotel Metropol. Tv tells us that tonight he will take us to dinner in a restaurant of MIR's choice and asks us when we would like to go. We agree to meet in the lobby in a half an hour. We are impressed with our hotel. According to our itinerary, the rooms have basic amenities. We find it much nicer than that.
We meet Tv and he drives us a short distance to the restaurant. As he drops us off, he asks us what time he should pick us up. When we ask him why won't eat with us, he says he's not supposed to. We tell him that we'd like to walk back. At first he protests, but we convince him that we really want to do this. People are dining outside as well as in but we decide that we'd like to eat inside. Our dinner has been selected for us. Our only choice is whether we want fish or meat. Sveta and I choose fish and Steve chooses meat. We enjoy dinner but we agree the restaurant and food are quite touristy. Afterward we enjoy our walk back to the hotel. We stop at an ATM machine and Steve uses his credit card to obtain Estonian money, kroon abbreviated EEK. When we travel, we found it advantageous to use Steve's credit card to obtain cash and mine to pay for purchases. This allows us to get the better credit card exchange-rate while avoiding the interest charges incurred when using the same credit card to obtain cash and make our purchases.
We enjoy our short walk from the old city where the restaurant is located to a newer part of the city where our hotel is. Sveta says goodnight to us and we go to our room. Steve and I begin to unpack. A short while later there is a rapid knock at our door. We open our door to a slightly frantic Sveta. She asks Steve to return to the restaurant with her because she left her day pack there. Steve says of course he'll go with her. He grabs his jacket while telling me he'll be back soon.
They return soon enough and Sveta is very thankful because the restaurant staff found her knapsack right away and put it in a back room. She expresses much praise for the nice and conscientious restaurant staff.
We begin our day with a pleasant breakfast at the hotel. It's a buffet with a good variety of food. I especially enjoy the herring and porridge. We meet our guide Mina Puusepp. She begins by telling us some facts about Estonia. The country is changing every day. Modernizing makes it easier to get around. She says that the people of Estonia are connected to the Nordic Scandinavians. The Estonian language is similar to Finnish. There are two popular news shows, first at 9 p.m. telecast from Moscow, then at 9:30 another from Helsinki. The contrast makes viewers skeptical. Estonian humor is similar to that of British. The president says Estonia is like the kayak, reacting well as the wind changes. Moscow and Russia are like a big ship which finds it hard to change course.
We begin our day with a driving tour of the newer city. Peter the Great captured Estonia in the Great Northern War and built Catalina Park. The Kadriorg Palace, which is in the Park is baroque, designed by Italian architect Niccolo Michetti. Construction began in 1718 and completed in 1736. Peter laid three bricks of the palace. Afterwards nothing was laid on top of them so that visitors could admire the bricks that their Czar laid. During the 1930s, the palace became the private home of Estonia's president. With Estonia's recent independence, part of the palace is again the president's home.
Mina tells us that today the Finnish president is visiting. We see many police and military as we ride. Tallinn's population is 400,000. The population of Estonia is 1.4 million. It's comprised of approximately 65% Estonian and 28% Russian. The literacy rate of Estonia is 100%! We see that some of the houses are nice but others are run down. People live in houses but don't fix them unless they're sure that they own them. People from other countries can come to Estonia and claim that a house belonged to their family before the war. Then the house ownership passes to the person who claims it.
We visit the Place of National Singing, also known as the Tallin Song Bowl. In Estonian, its name is Narva maantee. "Estonia My Native Land" is the song which is like their national anthem. In 1869, the first song Festival was held in Tartu. One hundred years later in 1969 it was held at the Tallin Song Bowl. Tartu provided stone and the Tallin people planted 100 trees. The Oak tree is the national tree. The arena is also used for rock concerts. It's an open air amphitheater with a capacity of 150,000 people. In September 1988, during the Singing Revolution, approximately 300,000 people crowded into the arena for a songfest and demanded independence. It's estimated that a half million people were present at the 21st Song Festival in 1990. This was the last major song Festival before independence. Attendees included a large number of Estonian emigrants. Approximately 29,000 Estonian artists performed national songs under the Estonian flag for the first time in 50 years. We found the arena to be beautiful and it was moving to be in this place of great history.
Mina tells us that approximately 70% Estonians want to join the EU. Others, especially those who are older, question that. Since Estonia just became independent from the Soviet Union, why should they want to join another union. We see many billboards with a picture of the Prime Minister and the word "Jah". "Jah" means yes. The signs promote ratification of joining the EU. An election will be held while we are visiting Estonia. As we ride, we see some Soviet style apartments. They don't look too stark.
Summer vacation for Estonian school children lasts for three months, from June 1 to September 1. This is hard for the parents. Since more parents work, they need to arrange child care for three months. Many children go to their grandparents in the country. An average Estonian salary is $400 per month. Estonia wants to increase its population. We ride through a suburban area where private homes are small but very nice.
Thirteen percent of Tallin is park. We pass the television tower. Then we ride by a graveyard with a landscape of forest, reserved for VIP burial. Mina tells us that the fishing industry has died out. Now they eat black bread, potato and sausage, much like German food. Homeowners try to grow their own vegetables. We drive past beach and through the Olympic Village. We stop at the Gulf of Tallinn across from the old city and take some pictures. I find the view interesting, with the contrast of old and new buildings. We see prominent old town spires and roofs just behind more modern buildings. We have a beautiful day, weather wise. We hope that this type of weather continues throughout our trip. We stop at a resort on the beach and walk around. It is a nice modern resort.
We return to the minivan and head towards the old city. I have found this ride quite interesting and Mina's narrative informative. She points out a monument to Soviets who died defending Tallin from the Nazis in 1941 but failed. We pass the library which is quite large.
We arrive in the upper city and begin our walking tour of the old city. Tallinn dates back to the 12th century, although it's believed that the area was settled by Finno-Ugric people in about 2500 B.C. It's estimated that an Estonian traditional settlement has been here since the 9th-century. The upper city is called Toompea. It's a fortified hill on which the ruling class has lived throughout Estonia's history. The Danish who conquered northern Estonia in 1219 experienced tough resistance in Tallin. They were ready to retreat when legend says that a red flag with a white cross fell from the sky into their bishop's hands. They interpreted this as a sign from God and continued fighting, until they won the battle. The Danish built their castle on Toompea. As I noted about Estonia in the history section, Toompea's control changed as often as the power who ruled the country changed.
According to legend, Toompea is the burial mound of Kalev who was the first leader of Estonians. It was built by his widow, Linda. In the time of German control, Toompea became the domain of the nobility and bishop. They looked down on merchants and inferior people in the Lower Town.
We start our tour at the Parliament Building, which is pink. Pink is the color of importing buildings. Even though I'm not a great fan of pink buildings, I find the building attractive. The facade includes the remains of Toompea castle. The original 1219 Danish castle no longer exists, except for three corner towers of the castle built by the Knights of the Sword between 1227 and 1229. Most of the facade is the 18th-century Baroque structure built in the time of Catherine the Great. The Estonian flag flies on top of the tower built-in 1371, named Pikk Hermann. The flag has three colors. Blue is for the sky, black is for the Estonian history and white symbolizes the hope for a better future. The Estonian parliament has 101 members.
Across the street we see the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Built between 1894 and 1900, during one of the many periods of Russian control, it's an impressive Cathedral. Although compared to what we saw in Russia, I find it somewhat unexciting. Since it's a symbol of Russian dominance, it's not too well liked by Estonians. I don't think it quite fits in with the predominance of older architecture.
Next we go to the Estonian cathedral, Toomkirik or Dome Cathedral. In 1233, it was built by the nobility and rich. We see many family crests on the walls. Mina tells us that the bigger crests belong to the less well-known families. At first this seems illogical, but it's actually quite understandable when she explains that this is because the more well known families did not need to impress others. Nobility and rich merchants are buried under the floor. Some of the more intricately carved tombs are above the floor, close to altar.
Lower Town Roof Tops
We return outside, and walk the side of the cathedral where there is a lookout from which we view the lower town. It's a beautiful sight and we enjoy taking photographs. Most of the lower town buildings have red roofs. I love the very picturesque scene. There are a good number of steeples and the craftsmanship is wonderful. Steve has been here before and he's excited to point out some of his memories to me. I really enjoy the experience and the sites, since this was a place I most regretted missing on an earlier vacation.
We head towards the Lower Town which historically has been the home of merchants. We walk down the famous Pikk Street. Pikk means long street and it is appropriately named. It runs north from upper town going downhill to lower town. It's very narrow and picturesque. We see many houses built by medieval German merchants and nobility. Most were built during the 15th century and have three or four stories. The lower stories were used for living and entertaining and the upper ones for storage.
We pass several old guilds, associations of traders and artisans. Most of the guilds were controlled by Germans. The well-known merchants belong to the Great Guild. Built in 1410, it has a Gothic doorway. St. Canulus Guild Hall has statues of Martin Luther and St. Canute on its facade. Built in the 1860s, its members were master craftsmen. The Brotherhood of Blackheads and St. Olaus Guild are close by. We find it interesting that blackheads were unmarried merchants. The name is from their patron Saint Maurice, whose head is between two lions on the buildings facade, built in 1597. St. Olaus Guild was probably the first Guild in Tallinn, founded in the 13th century. Its membership consisted of more modest non-German artisans and merchants.
Town Square Raekoja Plats
At the bottom of Pikk Street we walk through the Pikk Jalg Gate Tower, the only entrance to Toompea until the 17th-century. We cut through the smallest street in Tallin, to get to the town square, Raekoja Plats. The town square reminds me of Prague Center. It is beautiful. On one side of the square we see the Town Hall, the last surviving Gothic town hall in northern Europe. Its tower looks like a minaret, believed to be modeled on a sketch brought back by Vana Toomas, an explorer who had visited the Orient. On its roof peak, there's a weather vane in the shape of a warrior holding his sword. The town hall was built between 1371 and 1404, with the tower added in 1530 to guard the city. At ground level we see arches used as trading places in the Middle Ages.
Access Note on the streets: although most streets are cobblestone, we are finding they have decent sidewalks.
Mina recommends a coffee shop, Chocolatta Gallerii. She says the tours rarely visit it. She takes us to a small alleyway and we're happy because it appears very authentic. It's a bit difficult for me to get into the building since it has quite a few, old stairs. With Steve's help I manage. Mina points out the bathroom, for which we are very happy. Even though it's hardly what I would call accessible, I use it relatively easily. The counter is down another few stairs.
We enjoy coffee, pastries and a truffle sitting outside in what seems like a Paris cafe. Our snack is delicious! We enjoy our walk back to the hotel through the picturesque old town. The old town is everything Steve said it was when I missed it in 2000. Back at the hotel, we take a short rest then leave to meet Sveta, Mina and Tv again.
Our first top this afternoon is at a camera store. We requested to visit it, to see if we could replace Steve's stolen lens. The lenses are expensive but we're happy when Steve finds a comparable one.
This afternoon we visit the Museum of the Occupation . The story of how we chose to see this illustrates just how accommodating we found MIR and most of our local guides. We mention to Mina that we'd rather not visit Rocca-al-Mare, the open air ethnographic Museum of Estonia. Our Lonely Planet guidebook did not recommend this site and we have several other ethnographic museums on our agenda. Mina asks us about our interests and suggests this museum.
The museum is quite new so it's not even in our guidebook. We find it quite moving. We start by viewing the film which tells the story of Estonia from 1939 through 1990. It's interesting but the film could have been condensed or shown in several parts throughout the museum. The displays are horrifying. When we reach exhibits on the final decades of communism, we find it interesting to see a PC from approximately 1982. It came from a school in New England. Mina and Sveta tell us that it's very nostalgic for them. They point out ration coupons to us.
Some of the museum is about Nazi occupation in World War II. At first Estonians welcomed the Nazi, thinking they were liberators from the Communists. Most of the museum deals with the atrocities of communism. Unlike most of the other ex-Soviet countries we've been to, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians view communism as an occupation. There was massive deportation on cattle trains to Siberia. It's estimated that at least 150,000 people of Estonia which at the time had a population of 1.5 million people, fell victim to the Communists régime. These people were murdered, deported, died in camps or fled abroad. Of the 48 former Estonia government officials who were arrested by the Soviets, only three survived. Approximately 26 million books were destroyed.
At the international conference "On Crimes of Communism's" in Tallin on June 14, 2000, Prime Minister Mart Laar, said
"Communism and Nazism are very similar, even at a brief glance…. I am far from comparing Satan and Beelzebub, far from trying to prove one is better, the other worse. Even though one is tempted to do so. The time periods of the invasions and the territories of invaded countries, the total number of victims and other indicators offer tempting possibilities for comparison. But today I want to stress only one comparison between the two most dreadful phenomena in the history of mankind, and this is what counts in the eyes of society and history: One of these phenomena has been declared criminal, and the other has not. I think I am not mistaken in calling this the greatest injustice of our time. This is what prevents many nations and states from creating a final balance of shameful passages in their past that will allow them to start building a new life, purified. This is a deep insult to the victims of communism and to our memories of them." In his speech, the Prime Minister gives a statistic that 20 million people in the Soviet Union were victims of communism. (Source: On Crimes of Communism: Speeches, published by Pro Patria Union and Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation)
Access note: Steve and I found the first floor of the museum to be easy to move around in my wheelchair.
When we arrive back at our hotel, I show Tv my list of Lithuanian family surnames. My father's great grandparents immigrated to America from Lithuania. Before this trip, I had compiled this list in anticipation of trying to learn more about this branch of my family during our trip to the Baltics. I ask Tv if he knows anything about these surnames. He says that only one is Lithuanian and that, contrary to what I hope, names do not indicate which part of Lithuania ones family comes from. The first name on my list begins with "Cz", which Tv tells me is Polish. But, he says, it's not uncommon for Lithuanians to have Polish last names.
Sveta comes down to our room and we decide where to go for dinner. We choose a restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet and the Tallin booklet that Tv had given us. We found Kuldse Notsu Körts nice but it had a somewhat limited menu. We all enjoy one appetizer of cottage cheese, jam and black chips. We eat dark bread, wild boar, carrots, celery, young potato cooked in thick bacon, witches stew (a casserole of onion, mushrooms and potato), pancake dessert, saku beer and old Tallin coffee. The three of us share two main courses and there's plenty to go around. There is music that was partly Irish playing in the background. It didn't quite fit.
We walk back to our hotel through the old town. We see many casinos near our hotel. As we get near our hotel, Sveta tells us that this part of the city has a lot of drunks, Estonia and Finnish men who come on vacation. We remark that earlier in the day four Finnish men were on the elevator with us and they smelled of liquor. Back in our room, we do some wash and go to sleep.
Access Tallin: Frequent curb cuts, wide sidewalks. However sidewalks have narrow gutters which cut across them every few feet. We quickly learn that they are not too bad if rolled over at an angle.
We start today by taking Sveta to the Polish Embassy. She has to see the consulate to get a visa to enter Poland. She was unable to do this in St. Petersburg because by the time she got her visas for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, there was no time left to get one for Poland. Sveta came here yesterday and was told to come back today. Today an official tells her that a visa is not required yet. We wonder why nobody could tell her that yesterday.
Estonia Countryside: Graveyard, 800 BC
Today we're going to Lahemaa National Park in northeastern Estonia. On the way out of town we ask Mina about the large number of empty buildings. She says they are abandoned factories from the Soviet time. Estonia no longer needs to produce the same type of goods in the same way. As we leave the city we pass large groups of Communist style apartment buildings. They are ugly. We see a large powerplant and factories. Once out of the city, we ride through nice farmland.
Our first stop is a graveyard from 800 B.C. It contains 25 graves. Mina tells us they are Viking style and predate organized religion. They're in the middle of a peaceful green field and, to us, this hardly appears be a historical site.
We ride through more picturesque countryside until we reach our next stop, Kiiu Torn. This tower is Estonia's smallest fort, built by the Germans in 1517 AD. Used to defend against attacks from Estonian locals, these attacks occurred only a few times.
Kiiu Torn Tower
It has four levels, each having a room and a toilet. It was built so that the occupants could live there until backup arrived. On the upper levels there are small windows from which to shoot arrows. Steve goes to the upper levels and reports that the rooms look like they would have been comfortable.
I'm not exactly sure when we enter the park. However I guess we're entering about now, so I'll tell you about the park. Lahemaa National Park is Estonia's largest national park. It consists of 480 square km of forest, several peninsulas and bays, 14 lakes, rivers and waterfalls and several villages. All this makes for a very varied composition and is quite different than any national park we've seen. We visit areas of historical interest and cultural sites.
Founded in 1971, Lahemaa was the first national park in the USSR. Some protected areas existed earlier. Those in control believed that a national park would promote feelings of nationalism. Lobbyists used a reference from an obscure decree signed by Lenin which states that national parks are a form of nature protection. It took years of groundwork to obtain permission for the park. Mina tells us that Estonians were able to get money for the national park by citing a passage by Karl Marx about Yellowstone Park which states that it's good for workers to have a national park for recreation.
Next we stop at a manor house built approximately in the 1760s. It has not yet been renovated. When operational the land was owned by a Swedish family and farmed by Estonian serfs. They grew potatoes and made vodka which was sold to Finnish traders, travelers passing by and whoever else would buy it. Oxen were the beast of burden and their feces used for fertilizer. It was a self-contained system. Serfs attempted to escape to the lower town of Tallin. If they could remain there for 101 days, they were free. If they were captured before that time, they had to return to the farm. If landlords were not pleased with a family, the family was kicked off the land. Serfs worked six and a half days a week with only a half day to themselves.
The manor house has been reclaimed by the family who built it and is being renovated. It currently serves as a hotel and restaurant. The proceeds from this business will fund the manor's renovation. The family who owns the manor house lives in Finland. Mina tells us that of all of Estonia's monarchs, Swedish rule was the best for Estonians. Swedish rule was the most "hands off", with the rulers living farthest away. There was more emphasis on trade than domination. We find it interesting to see the building before renovation.
As we ride through the forest, we wonder about the Communist resistance of which we heard yesterday at the Occupation Museum. Mina says that the resisters numbered approximately 50,000. They lived in the brush. Farmers would leave food on the edge of the forest, but would not go into the forest because if caught they would be sent to Siberia. The resistance was called "forest rebels". They stayed close to where they formerly lived because they needed their contacts. If they moved away, they would know no one.
Next stop we visit the "post stop" where mail carriers would stop for rest and to feed their horses. The building has large steps into it. The restroom is well kept. The commercial portion sells food and souvenirs. I buy a pair of earrings. In case I haven't mentioned this, I like to buy a pair of earrings in each country we visit.
Our fifth stop is the restored Palmse Manor House and Park Information Center. In the early 1200s, the king of Denmark gave the land to the Cistercian monks from Gotland who had traveled to northeastern Estonia to convert the people. From 1677 through 1923, it belonged to von der Pahlens, a Baltic-German family. In 1923 it was taken by the state and used as a holiday resort for the Estonian home Guard. After World War II the grounds became a children's summer camp. In 1975, restoration of the manor house started after the founding of the national park. Completed in 1985, this is the first manor house to be totally restored. Mina tells us that in 2002, a foundation named Museums of Virumas took over running the manor house.
We walk around grounds which we find large and beautiful. Ponds were dug for fish breeding. We tour the inside and are told that the right side of the house was designated for use by women and the left side by men. They could only meet in the middle where there was a central hall and a ballroom. The first floor was dedicated to entertaining and is more opulent. The second floor contained living quarters. Steve visits the second floor and says it's nice but not exciting enough for me to climb the flight of stairs. The kitchen was in the basement.
We visit the old storage house which is now a small museum displaying a private collection of antique cars and other modes of transportation, including bicycles from the Soviet era and Hitler's car. We see an early BMW and a Fiat. I enjoy the exhibit. Steve also finds it very interesting.
Lahemaa National Park: Altja Fishing Village
Back in the van, we ride out to the Altja Peninsula. It's a long ride mostly through white birch forest and I find the countryside very picturesque. The roads are narrow but in good condition and I enjoy the time just looking at the countryside. Altja is a fishing village on the Baltic Sea. We see the homes of fishermen. The village is serene and charming. When we stop, I sit on the van seat and watch while Sveta and Steve take the path out to the shore. There is no beach here, just an area of tall grass which leads out to a rocky area that meets the water. Mina tells us that there are not many fishermen left in Estonia because during the Soviet time it was illegal for people to use boats. The Soviet Union feared that people would use them to escape to Scandinavia, so the fishing industry just died.
We stop for late lunch at the fishermen's village. I have salmon and it is absolutely delicious. We ride through a quaint vacation village which Mina tells us is a village where Jewish Russian people vacation.
Lunch at Fisherman's Village
Next we ride to the Captain's village, Kasmu. In the 1920s, a third of Estonia's registered boats were kept in this village. In Kasmu, the buildings are white, big and fancy. In general on the Peninsula, all of the houses are small except for those of the Captain's village. Today the village has mostly summer houses and a hotel. It's also become popular with artists.
Our Lonely Planet guidebook states that at one time 62 long-distance captains lived here. However at the end of World War II, the coastline was converted to a military frontier. A barbed wire fence, 2m high, was installed to prevent villagers from using the beach or Baltic Sea. Mina tells us that in the past, alcohol was smuggled to Finland from here.
We have a nice drive back to Tallin. Until we get close to the city most of the scenery is forest. Once back in our room, we prepare to go out for a late dinner. We decide on the restaurant which features garlic food. On the way to the restaurant, we stop to get money. When Steve goes to get his credit card, he can't find it. Steve walks back to the room to look for the card, while Sveta and I wait in the city square. We're quite concerned because it seems a long time before he returns. He was unable to find the card, so we go back to the room and both look for it. However we have no luck. As we review the events of the last time we got money, we realize that Steve probably lost it when he walked Sveta back to the restaurant where we ate the first night. He was rushing so quickly to get out of our room and back to the restaurant, the card probably fell out of his pocket. However this was two days ago and we pray that whoever founded it has not used it. We pack and turn in.
Neither one of us sleep too well tonight since we're worried about the credit card and what we're going to do for money for the rest of the trip. During the night I remember that when we travel, I carry emergency phone numbers for our credit cards.
This morning's first order of business is to see what we can do about the lost credit card. As soon as I get up, I look for the emergency phone numbers and find one that's good internationally. Steve purchases a phone card and calls Visa. He learns that no one has used his card. When he cancels the card, the Visa representative says that they can send him another one. As he starts to make the arrangements, the phone card runs out of time. Since it's time for us to leave for Tartu, our next destination, he decides that he will continue the arrangements once we get to Tartu.
It takes several hours to drive to Tartu. We ride mostly through forest, seeing an occasional house. It's a pleasant ride and it's nice to see the countryside. We're looking forward to seeing Tartu. It's an old town with a lot of history. Lonely Planet describes it as "the cradle of Estonians 19th-century national revival and is the site of the country's original premier university. The town escaped Sovietization to a greater degree than Tallinn and retains a sleepy, pastoral air." In 1775, most of the town burned down so its architecture is from a major rebuilding after this tragedy.
History of Tartu
In the sixth century A.D., there was a strong settlement controlled by Estonians in Tartu. In 1030, the Russian ruler Yaroslav victoriously attacked the Estonians and built the Yuriev Fort. The Estonians eventually won back control. In 1224, they were conquered by the Knights of the Sword. The Knights built a castle and cathedral and their bishop was moved to Tartu. The town became a member of the Hanseatic League. Until the end of the 19th-century, Tartu was called by its German name of Dorpat.
During the 16th and 17th century, the town changed hands with the rest of the Baltics. Russia, Sweden and Poland-Lithuania each took their turn in control. The time between 1625 and 1704, under Swedish control was the most peaceful. The university was established. In 1704, when the Great Northern War occurred, Peter the Great captured Tartu. In 1708, the Russian forces destroyed the city and deported most of its people to Russia. The Baltic Germans kept their influence and the town continued to speak German until the Russianization of the late 1800s. In the mid-1800s, the Estonian national revival was very active in Tartu. In 1869, the original Estonian Song Festival occurred, with the goal of demonstrating that Estonians songs and singers were equal to German. The Estonian Song Festival, publication of a newspaper in the Estonian language and organization of the first Estonian societies took place. These were important work to raise Estonian national consciousness.
On February 2, 1920, a peace treaty between Soviet Russia and Estonia gave Estonia its independence. The treaty was signed in Tartu. In 1941, as the Soviet forces retreated, Tartu was badly damaged. The Russian troops blew up the landmark 1784 stone bridge over the river. The city was again damaged when the Soviet forces recaptured the it from the Nazis.
In 1993, the Estonian Supreme Court was once again established in Tartu. Tartu University has achieved a reputation as a center of scientific studies and the national leader in technology research and development.
When we arrive in Tartu, we find our guide Krista Pisuke at the University. We visit the student center which is quite modern and nice to walk around. The University was established in 1632 by Swedish king, Gustav II Adolf. With the purpose of training Lutheran clergy and government officials, its design was based on that of Uppsala University. Originally classes were taught in Latin. The University was closed in 1700 and reopened in 1802. During the 19th-century, German became the language used and in 1919 the language was changed to Russian. In the 19th-century, the non-Estonian language became an obstacle in getting support for the Estonian national revival. Late in the 1850s, a population who spoke Latvian joined the national revival movement. For the first-time, they called themselves "Latvians". This assisted in starting the Latvian revival. The University became one of the Russian Empire's leading educational institutions, emphasizing science. This continues today.
Krista and Steve go to the bank to exchange some of our cash. Steve tries again to arrange to get a new Visa card, but several times the phone card runs out of money before he can complete the arrangements. When we consult Sveta about where we should have the new card sent, it appears that we will be in Belarus by the time the card is issued and transported to us. Sveta is concerned about the reliability of the Belarus people who would need to handle it. We decide that we will just have to use the cash we have and my Visa card.
Tartu looks just like what it is, a university town. It has lots of green areas, some monuments and many students on the street. Krista points out that the main building of Tartu University is beautiful. Built between 1803 and 1809, it has Corinthian columns. However it's stuck in with so many other buildings that it doesn't stand out - what a shame. Tartu University has about 22,000 students, one fourth of the city's population. There are 70 academic disciplines. Since the University is in the center of the city, it's very compact. Many of the individual schools are not connected to the University proper.
Krista tells us that Tartu is the oldest town in Estonia, dating from 1030. We see a building under reconstruction. The sign on it says "Be Careful - Building May Fall Down". We admire the Supreme Court as we ride past it. We see a bridge and Krista tells us it is called 'Angels Bridge, Devils Bridge'. Since our time here is only a few hours, we stay in the van and Krista points out sites as we ride by them. We ride by the Theater for the Song Festivals and Krista explains that this is used on the national holiday which is on June 23. We see the Baltic Defense College where they teach military education. Krista tells us that many foreigners come here for military education including Americans.
We see wooden buildings from the 1900s. They have no heat or hot water so they use the oven or the stove for heat. Students rent them because they are inexpensive. Actually, I think that from the outside, these buildings give the town a lot of personality with their varied styles and colors. Some even have art nouveau doors. We pass apartment buildings within the University. These are not for students. We see a few modern office buildings. The town hall was built in 2001. The square is used for theatrical purposes. We pass the Estonian Ministry of Education. It moved from Tallin to Tartu last summer. We see a lot of renovation in the city. I think there is an incredible mismatch of classic style, wooden buildings and communist style buildings with a few very modern buildings sprinkled in. It's a lot to take in so quickly.
It's time for lunch and Krista asks us what kind of food we're interested in. Of course, we tell her good local food. She recommends Püssirohukelder, which was a two level gunpowder cellar. We find it very atmospheric. Steve has an interesting pork with pear dish and I have a tasty dumpling soup. Sveta spends lunch time shopping and meets us at the restaurant with gifts. One of her gifts is a set of ceramic shot glasses. She says we will need them tonight to toast being in a new country.
We leave the city of Tartu and proceed to the border crossing. At the border, Tv hands the official our passports. He gets out of the minivan and opens the back and the storage on top of the hood to show the official our luggage. Within 15 minutes, our passports are back and we're on our way into Latvia. This was an easy border crossing. The first part of our drive in Latvia contains mostly farmland. We see a lot of animals, including dogs and a bull in a pasture. We ride through some forest.
When we reach Riga, we learn that Riga requires special permission to drive into the very old part of the city. Tv drives us to get the card that he needs to drive the van to the hotel, but he makes a turn from the wrong lane and a policeman pulls him over. The policeman explains the wrong turn. During one part of the discussion, it sounds like it's getting quite heated. Afterwards Tv drives to a building and obtains the card. He uses the card to open the modern gate into and out of the old city. He explains that they don't want too much traffic in this part of the city.
History of Latvia
Since so much of the early history of Estonia and Latvia is intertwined, I won't repeat the common details here.
During the eighth century A.D., before the Germans came to Latvia, there was a Latgal fishing village where Riga is today. The Latgal people were also known as Liv. The Vikings traveled to Russia and Ukraine using the Daugava River. Scandinavian and Russian traders and conquerors used the village as a stopping place. Orthodox Christianity moved into some of Latvia and Lithuania.
By the 12th century, people of the Baltics had split into tribal groups and practiced religions of nature. The Livs resided in the northern and northwestern coastal area of Latvia. The Baltic people in today's Latvia were divided into two groups. In the east were the Latgals, also known as Letts, who were subdivided into at least four principalities. In the West the Cours, also called Couronians, lived in five to seven principalities. Periodically the Cours united under one king. In the center, lived Zemgals, also known as Semigallians. These peoples also occasionally lived under one king. The Selonians inhabited the East Center, south of the Daugava.
In the 12th century, German traders first arrived at the Daugava River mouth. In 1201, Bishop Albert von Buxhoevden established the first German fort in the Baltics in Riga. He also founded the Knights of the Sword, making Riga their base for conquering Livonia. Since a large group of the people were Livs, the Crusaders called the region Livonia. By 1207, the Livs were conquered. By 1214, so were most of the Latgals.
The initial German settlements were at the southern edge of today's old town Riga. North German settlers came. Riga became the major city in the Baltics, greatly benefiting from trade between the West and Russia. Initially hides, honey and wax were some of the products traded by Russia. In 1252, Riga's Bishop was elevated to Archbishop. This made him the leader of the church in German held lands which included most of Livonia and Estonia. The struggle for power between the church, the Knights and German merchant city authorities continued. In 1282, Riga joined the Hanseatic League. From 1253 to 1420, the German merchant's maintained some independence.
In the first part of the 16th century, Riga attained prosperity. In the middle of the century, after the Knights demise, Polish and Russian forces struck the city. Between 1561 and 1582, there was a period of independence followed by Polish control. When Poland gained control, it allowed Riga to have a freehand.
In 1582, the final leader of Livonia made Courland and Zemgale, which are today's western and central Latvia, his duchy or country estate and allied with Poland. Denmark took control of some lands in Courland which had been held by the church. By 1629, Sweden forced Poland to turnover Riga and most of Livonia. Latgale in the Southeast, a piece of Livonia, remained in Polish Lithuanian control. This is the reason Latgale is mainly Catholic today. In 1645 , Denmark transferred its holdings to Sweden. Sweden also allowed the area autonomy. During Swedish control, Riga became the second city of Sweden and it expanded outside of its walls.
In 1710, Russia captured Riga. However, the German nobility and merchants stayed in actual control. Riga became an important trading and industrial city and the capital of Livonia. The largest Russian settlement in the Baltics was established in suburbs of the old city while the Germans inhabited the old city. The number of Latvians in the Russian area increased.
Between 1857 and 1863, the city walls were taken down facilitating the free flow of commerce. Riga grew into the world's largest timber port and the third most industrialized city of Russia. Russia's earliest cars were built here. In addition Riga became famous for worldwide exportation of quality Lithuania and Belarusian hemp and flax. With the passage of a rural education law, freed surfs moved from the countryside to the city, working in trade, business and civil-service. They joined intellectual circles. By the 1860s, Latvians became approximately a quarter of the Riga's population. In 1868, the Riga Latvian Association was founded. This organization became the leader of the Latvia national awakening. It's responsible for the national theater, opera and encyclopedia. In 1873, the first Song Festival was held. The opening of the railway connecting Riga to St. Petersburg helped modernize the city, surpassing most Russian cities. Modernization led to new architectural endeavors such as the Latvian University and Conservatory. By the beginning of World War I, Latvians numbered about half of Riga's population.
By 1914, Riga had a population of 500,000 and became an important international port. In 1915, Germany captured Western Latvia and Lithuania. Riga was badly damaged in World War I. Only 181,000 people remained at the end of the war. Most of those who left were evacuated or forced out by other catastrophes of the war.
In all of Latvia from November 11, 1918 until 1920, there was fighting between the nationalists, Bolsheviks and German forces. In January 1919, the Communist Army captured Riga and the Latvian government led by Ulmanis moved to Liepaja where the British provided naval protection. In May, the Germans forced the Communist Army out of Riga. The Germans were defeated by Estonian and Latvian troops.
The Estonian and Latvian troops continued to drive the Communist Army out of most of Latvia. Ulmanis moved back to Riga. In November, an Army of anti-Communist Russians and Germans attacked Riga. The Latvians were victorious. In December, the final German troops left Latvia and the final Communist area in Latgale was won by Latvians.
During land reform of the 1920s and Hitler's call for Germans to return to their motherland in 1939, Germans left Latvia. Between the two world wars, during its time of independence, Riga became the center for Western diplomats, journalists and spies to watch the Soviet Union. A well-known life of nightclubs, restaurants and intellect led Riga to gain its nickname of "Little Paris". From 1934, Ulmanis led the non-parliamentarian government of unity, attempting to stay between Nazi extreme and the political left.
In World War II, approximately 140,000 Latvians were forced or volunteered to join the German military. Others were sent to forced labor. Nationalists and Communists guerrillas fought against the Nazis. From 1941 to 1944, Nazis occupied Riga. The Jewish community was exterminated. From 1944 to 1945, to avoid living under the Communists between 65,000 and 120,000 Latvians fled to the West. Others attempted to do so but were captured and sent to Siberia. The total Latvians lost during the war stands at 450,000.
Under the USSR, Riga became the Baltic leader of industrial and commercial production and an important military center. Thousands came to Riga to work. The city grew outward. Riga gained a reputation as the most western city of the USSR. Liberal arts and music brought people from all over the Soviet Union.
In March 1988, some Latvian government members attended a public gathering to honor the memory of those lost in one of Stalinist deportations. Several sizable rallies were held on environmental and national issues. In an antipollution protest, 45,000 people joined hands along the coast. In January 1991, Soviet forces attacked and occupied tactical buildings in Riga. Five people were killed at the Interior Ministry in Riga. The Parliament was barricaded. Although everyone on both sides remained calm, the West condemned Moscow. On August 21, 1991, Latvia declared its independence from the USSR. The West recognized the declaration. On September 6, 1991, the USSR recognized Latvia's independence. In 1996, formal recognition of Latvian independence by Russia came when Latvia grudgingly gave Russia the Abrene area. This is a 15 km wide by 85 km long piece of territory on Latvia's northeastern border, just south of Russia's Pechory. It's called Pytalovo and was declared part of Russia in 1944.
In June 1993, Latvia held elections to the initial post-independence parliament. Latvijas Celš, which in English translates to Latvian Way, is a moderate nationalist party leaning toward the right formed a governing coalition with Latvijas Zemnieku Savieniba, Latvian Farmer's Union. Birkavs was elected as the prime minister. Guntis Ulmanis of Latvijas Zemnieku Savieniba, great-nephew of the World War II leader, became president and held this office for two terms. In August 1994, the last Soviet troops pulled out. Latvia aspires to become the "Switzerland of the Baltics". However, its largest commercial bank failed and the investments of 200,000 were lost. By the time the crisis ended, 40% of the country's banking system was gone.
In 1995, Latvia commemorated its gift anniversary of its Declaration of Independence by blowing up an uninhabited 19 story radar tower block at Skrunda, which had been a Soviet base. However Russia was able to maintain part of the stations tracking facilities by paying rent to Latvia. In August 1998, the closing of the Skrunda radar operation in Latvia began the final steps toward removing the last Russian military personnel from the Baltics. On October 21, 1999 Latvia formally regained control of this site. The last Russian "military experts" departed and this site was dismantled.
In 2001, Riga celebrated it's 800th birthday and many historical buildings were reconstructed, including the 14th century House of Blackheads. In 2002, Latvia did away with its law requiring those in political office to speak Latvia. This was a requirement of joining NATO. In 2003, Riga hosted the Eurovision Song Contest. This city continues as a major metropolis in the Baltics. Less than half of the people living in Riga are Latvians. Russians number 43%. Most Latvians support EU membership. To demonstrate their support, younger Latvians rallied at a rock concert held in Riga. A large majority of citizens voted to join the EU.
In its May 2004 issue, National Geographic states that the population of Latvia is 2,319,000 and GDP per capita is $4,000. It has the lowest GDP per capita of the three Baltic countries.
Checking into the Konveta Seta Hotel takes awhile. I am not impressed with the staffs' efficiency. We are on the first floor of this three-story hotel. As we walk down the corridor, I see that our room is up approximately half of flight of stairs. We trade rooms with Sveta. This hotel is supposed to have wonderful rooms, but I don't think our room is as nice as our itinerary says.
Before leaving for dinner, we go out to the courtyard behind our hotel. It's beautiful and very scenic. We've chosen a place for dinner outside the hotel and we walk there, Steve pushes my wheelchair. The going is rough because the sidewalks are very inconsistent and the cobblestones roads are the bumpy type. We don't find the place we're looking for. We end up at an Indian restaurant called Ayuredic. We agree that it will be interesting to have Indian food in Latvia. The three of us enjoy it. We walk through the town square on the way back to our room and agree that it is scenic. Once back in our room, we call for extra pillows. It takes two calls and after quite awhile they finally arrive.
We enjoy breakfast. However the restaurant is outside of our lobby, up a cobblestone walkway and stairs. This means that I won't be able to go down to breakfast before Steve is ready.
After meeting our guide, Leva Kalceva, in the lobby of our hotel, we return to the courtyard to take some photographs. I find the courtyard quite picturesque even though there's a car parked in front of an interesting building. Steve, Sveta and I agree that the tall spire which is just beyond the courtyard will be a good landmark to keep us on the right track back to our hotel when later we may walk around the city without our guide. Leva tells us that the spire is the oldest tower in Riga.
Leva tells us some background about Riga as we drive to the city center where we will begin our walking tour. It was founded in 1208. During its history, it was ruled by the Swedish for 100 years, Germany, Poland and Russia. Lutheran churches have pictures of roosters which signify wake up for new life. Catholic churches have clocks. The Germans established the Great Guild for merchants and a Small Guild for craftsmen.
As we begin our tour, Leva points out a pale yellow building with a figurine of a cat on top of the highest point of the roof. The cat's back is arched and its tail points up. She tells us the story of this building. Craftsmen were not allowed to join the Great Guild. A craftsman wanted to join it and he asked how he could achieve membership. He was told to build a large building to demonstrate that he's rich and a successful merchant. He built a building of five stories, but was still denied membership. He put a cat on top of the building and turned it so its tail faced the Great Guild. In the Latvian culture, this shows great disrespect. Eventually the Great Guild granted the builder membership. He turned the cat so its tail pointed away from the Great Guild. The building became a concert hall because the cat is regarded as a musical animal.
Riga Cat Building
After we return home, I read of an interesting European custom which may explain the origin for putting a cat figurine on top of a building. As we learned in Tallin, in years past, grain was stored in the upper storey of buildings. Cats had the role of guardians of the grain, to protect against rodent predators. Building owners provided food and drink, so the cats roamed their roofs.
Leva takes us to the city's three oldest buildings, nicknamed the Three Brothers. These are three residences from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries adjacent to each other. Most of the windows are small and she explains that at the time they were built there was a window tax. As a walled city, Riga had a moat surrounding it. There were 14 towers with only one tower and gate remaining. We walked to the Dome Cathedral which is large and made of bricks. It must be Catholic because I see a clock on the bell tower. It's on one side of the old town's main square. Founded in 1211 as the seat of the Riga diocese, it remains one of the largest churches in the Baltics today. We see the building which houses the stock exchange. It is an interesting example of architecture in a three-story building. Each storey has domed windows and a different type of light brown column. The walls between the columns are off-white.
Leva points out the Latvian Freedom monument built in 1935. Paid for with public donations, it was built on the spot where there had been a statue of Peter the Great. At the top, a bronze woman who represents liberty faces west and holds above her head three stars which symbolize the three regions of Latvia when the monument was built, Kurzeme, Vidzeme and Latgale. Today Latvia has four regions, Vidzeme in the Northeast, Latgale in the Southeast, Zemgale in the center and Kurzeme in the West. The woman on the monument is on top of a tall square column. At the bottom of the column, there is a circle of people who represent Latvian citizens. They stand on top of a cubic base on which there is an inscription which translates to "For Fatherland and Freedom". At the bottom of the statue two live guards stand very still. They only move every hour during the changing of the guard.
We ask Leva how the monument survived communism and she tells us that the Soviets renamed it the Peoples monument. That seemed to make sense because of the group of people standing atop the base. The three stars were said to symbolize the three Baltic republics. It's no surprise that Lonely Planet says that a statue of Lenin was erected nearby. On August 20, 1991 the statue of Lenin was torn down. During the late eighties and the beginning of the nineties, the Freedom Monument served as a focus of Latvia's moment for independence. On June 14, 1987, 5000 people illegally rallied here, commemorating the victims of Stalin's deportations. Other rallies and marches made the monument their focus and it still serves as an unofficial center for lively political debate. In 1992, the Guard of Honor which served at the monument before World War II was reinstated.
Next we go to the State Art Museum. It displays works by Nikolas Rerihas and Svjatoslaus Rerihas which feature Hindu/Indian scenes. They contain a lot of blue colors, which I like. We also see some Russian and Christian works and a display of photography. While this museum is enjoyable, a comment I made to Steve at the Hermitage seems quite appropriate. The building in which the artwork is displayed can make the art seem exciting or ordinary. This building was old and unimpressive but then perhaps just about anything would seem unimpressive when compared to the Hermitage.
We drive down a portion of Latvia's Main Street called Freedom Ave. Leva tells us that it is 7 miles long. She points out the State Archives which have been enlarged to help people find information about property confiscated around 1920. Leva points out the city canal and tells us it runs along the border of the old city.
We're on our way to the city market. Leva tells us that Riga is famous for black balsam and suggests we try it with coffee, because it's too strong straight. The Central Market is actually fives Zeppelin hangers. It's one of the largest markets in Europe. The market was founded in 1201 or, perhaps earlier, as a tiny market along the banks of the Daugava River. During the German crusades, it relocated to within the city. A manuscript from 1330 contains the first written records placing the market close to the Dome Cathedral. In 1570, it moved back to the banks of the river. Under the Swedish, more than 1000 merchants came to trade goods from all over the Baltics. In 1930, it relocated to its present location which is close to the train and bus stations. These modes of transportation replaced the river as the main trade route. Since the market is so large, it was decided to move five Zeppelin hangers from a town in western Latvia despite the large cost. Between 1924 and 1930, the 35 meter high hangers were constructed. They provide central heating for a maximum of 1250 merchants. The Zeppelin hangers were never used as such. With the Soviet occupation, the Riga market shrank for a short time. When Riga was able to obtain produce from other Soviet republics, it returned to its former size.
We park in the garage nearby the market and Leva looks for an accessible way to get down to the market level. She didn't want to use the route that cars drive up. We walk through the market and see mostly food. There are some household goods. We're amazed at the enormity of the market and the variety of products. We buy some small pies, bananas and a butter knife as our Chachka. Since the Baltics are noted for their dairy products, a butter knife seems appropriate. I also purchase moonstone earrings which I think are beautiful.
When Steve is not with me and I'm sitting in my wheelchair by myself, I receive serious looks. We have seen some beggars so perhaps people think I'm one of them. We see a man who is an amputee in a wheelchair and older women with canes. A vendor gives us a sample of honey and pollen which she tells us is full of vitamins and that it'll make me strong. Later Leva tells us that there are so many people using canes in Riga because the cobblestones make walking difficult.
We drive out to visit the resort area of Jurmala, which means seashore. It's located between the Lielupe River and Riga Bay and is a 20 km strip of small towns and resorts. Vacationers have come here since the 19th century. During the Soviet era, 300,000 visitors per year traveled from throughout the Soviet Union. They stayed in boarding houses, vacation homes and sanatoriums. The road between Riga and Jurmala was called "10 minutes in America". Local films of stories which supposedly occurred in the United States were filmed on this road. This is the only highway in Latvia with six lanes.
Jurmala's population is 30,000. Investors from Norway, Sweden, Germany and the United States are financing the rehabilitation of the area. We see many cottages and Soviet buildings. The latter are sanatoriums. Leva tells us that old buildings cannot be torn down even when they're in very poor condition unless they are rebuilt in the same style. Due to the weather in this area paint will only last approximately three years. The Soviet buildings have not held up well. As we've seen elsewhere, it's obvious that quantity was more important than quality.
We have a nice leisurely walk down to the beach. The approach to the beach is a paved ramp, for which Steve and I are very thankful. Leva tells us that the water is very shallow for a long way. I get nostalgic when we see cage rides on the beach. I remember riding these in Manasquan, NJ when I was growing up. There is a good-size line of people waiting to ride. When I tell Steve that I want to get a picture of the ride, he asks why. I try to explain, however before I get halfway through my explanation he says "go ahead, take it."
We walk along the pedestrian walkway. It's not crowded, almost like an autumn day on the Seaside boardwalk, which is close to where we live in New Jersey. On our way back to where we will meet Tv and the van, we see a nice variety of the architecture and I take photographs to show the differences. Some of the cottages have been nicely restored and I find them very welcoming. However others are boarded up. Leva tells us that it is likely that the owners are waiting to make sure the former owner won't return to claim it, or the owners just don't have the money to fix it up.
I find Jurmala picturesque. If I lived close by, I think I would consider vacationing here. Our visit was very pleasurable. We ride back to Riga, passing through white birch just like the many forests we've seen throughout the Baltics. When we arrive back in Riga, the roads are quite trafficy. I observe that the drivers are very polite. When Tv encounters a line of traffic, he wants to change lanes. He puts on his blinker and another driver lets him in. What a difference from our rush hours in the USA. We stop to take a picture of the nice view of the old city from across the river.
Leva points out the industrialized region of Riga which she says is outside the city in the suburbs. We see Soviet houses and factories. The factories have been converted to supermarkets and storage buildings.
Tv and Leva drop us off in the Latvian Rifleman Square. We tell Tv and Leva that we can walk back to our hotel from here so there's no need to wait for us. At first they seem hesitant to leave us, but we point out that we have a good map and since our hotel is just on the other side of the steeple which is quite dominant in the sky, we will have no trouble finding our way. They finally agree to leave. We visit Latvia's Occupation Museum. It's similar to the one we saw in Tallin, with displays on the Soviet and Nazi occupations between 1940 and 1991. It's nice to view the displays at our own pace. We observe that there is not much information about post-World War II. Steve says that the information on the Holocaust is not accurate. I find some of the descriptions of the conditions in which people were forced to live during Soviet deportation quite disturbing.
Just outside of the museum, we see the House of Blackheads, rebuilt in 2001 as an 800th birthday gift to Riga. The building is quite ornate and I like it. The original Blackhead Guild building, constructed in 1344, housed traveling members of the guild of unmarried merchants. In 1941, it was destroyed. Seven years afterwards, the Soviets made sure it was gone by destroying the remains. I find the new building incredible to look at. There's so much detail that I don't know where to begin to describe it.
We returned to our room and take a brief rest. Sveta comes to our room and we choose a place for dinner. We go to the address but find that the restaurant is not where we expect, so we choose another restaurant from our handy Riga guide book. The cobblestones are very rough and I walk for about a block while Steve holds onto me and Sveta takes the wheelchair. Steve goes ahead to scout for the restaurant and he finds it. Kiploka Klogs' specialty is garlic. We all order garlic dishes. The food is very good and we enjoy our meal.
On our walk back to our hotel, we hear music coming from many cafes. The atmosphere is nice and one of fun. We see a lot of people in the streets, yet the streets aren't crowded. During the day, the Latvian people seemed serious to me. However it's Friday night and people appear happier. Some are obviously drunk, but not as many as we observed in that state in Tallin.
Access Notes: In the old city of Riga, curb cuts are rare. Sidewalks are narrow. The cobblestone is much rougher than it was in Tallin. Like Tallin, there are small gutters which run across the sidewalk.
Today we leave Latvia. It was a quick but nice, enjoyable, interesting visit. After Riga, we ride through the picturesque countryside. Houses here are relatively large. Our border crossing goes easily. Tv hands over our passports and they're returned quickly. We're in Lithuania, the country from where my father's father's family emigrated! I've wanted to visit Lithuania for many years. At first, we see mostly cows. Each pasture has a few grazing. After a while we see town houses of various sizes and large factories.
Hill of Crosses Entrance
Our first destination is the Hill of Crosses. From approximately a half mile before we arrive there, we see large crosses. It's incredible, seeming to go on forever in all directions. Actually we estimate that it's approximately a football field in size. I begin to climb the stairs to the top of the Hill. I don't find them too difficult however I want to save some energy for walking around, within the rows of crosses.
I ask Steve to go to the top and if he thinks it's worth the climb to come back and get me. He comes back and says it's definitely a must do. I get to the top and am amazed that there is a valley and another Hill beyond. I prefer not to do that climb, so I ask him if there are more hills afterwards. He says that there aren't and the other side of the next Hill is much like this one. He agrees that I've seen the important parts.
I am just so excited to be here! We spend approximately a half hour looking around. There are crosses of every size, shape and material. I brought from home a small plastic cross that I've had for longtime. I hang it from another cross, just like so many others before mine have been hung. Sveta is just as in awe as I am. Even Steve who is not religious is impressed.
Hill of Crosses Close Up
I read in Lonely Planet that the craft of carving crosses was once a symbol of "sacred fervor and national identity" which began in Pagan times. The oak from which crosses are carved was the sacred pagan tree for fertility. Crosses were carved as offering to the gods. For weddings, food and scarves were hung on the crosses. For fertility, aprons were placed on them. Stories were told of lighting sacred fires on the hill which were tended by virgins.
There are many versions of the Hill's beginnings. According to the pamphlet that we received on arrival, during the fights between Lithuanians and Swardbearers a wooden castle was on the site. The castle assisted ancient Lithuanians in defending the northeastern border of the land. Of course, when Christianity came to the region, the cross became its symbol. During occupation, the cross was always a symbol of hope. In 1991 to 1993, the authenticity of the castle was substantiated when archaeologists investigating the territory uncovered castle remains, a limestone cobbled path going towards the Kuipe River, fireplaces, brass decorations, weapons, pieces of ceramics and utensils. The artifacts place the castle's existence in the 14th century. Following the uprisings of 1831 and 1863, rebels were secretly buried here and mourners began to bring crosses for the perished and lost.
Lonely Planet provides two stories, although it says that there are many more. One legend states that the Hill was built in three days and three nights by bereaved families of warriors. Another account says it was built by a father as a plea to cure his sick daughter.
Both sources agree that crosses began appearing in the 14th century. Following violent anti-Czarist uprisings, many more crosses were brought to the Hill. At the beginning of the 20th century, over 100 crosses stood on the Hill. Lithuanians considered it a holy place and called it Sventkalnis or in English, the Hill of Crosses and Prayers. During Soviet occupation, adding a cross to the Hill became an offense for which one could be arrested. However this did not stop pilgrims from coming to commemorate the thousands who were killed and deported. The Soviets destroyed the Hill at least three times. However each time, it was rebuilt. In 1961, the first annihilation took place. The Red Army bulldozed the Hill, the path leading to the Hill was sealed off and ditches dug at its base. By the next day more crosses had been brought to the Hill. In 1972, again the Hill was destroyed after a student protest of Soviet occupation. The crosses continued to appear and by 1990, 40,000 crosses had been "planted". It's estimated that since independence, the crosses have multiplied probably 10 times. On September 7, 1993, Pope John Paul II visited the Hill of Crosses and blessed Lithuania and all Europe from here. The pamphlet says that "Lithuanian Sanctuary of Crosses became the property of the whole world." In 1994, a sculpture of Christ crucified was built as a gift from the Pope. In 2001, crosses were added to commemorate those lost on September 11. I'm almost in tears when I see the plaque which commemorates that day, but I'm able to take a picture of it. In 2002, the ancient craft of carving crosses was given UNESCO status as a World Heritage tradition.
Thousands of people visit every year and we are so happy to be two of them. It is an experience that I don't think I'll ever forget. On our way back to the minivan, we stop at the souvenir stands in the parking lot. They have some beautifully carved crosses. I purchase one for each of my Christian nephews.
Before we depart from the area of the Hill of Crosses, we make a rest stop. We are introduced to the Lithuanian drink Krupnikas which is half vodka and half honey anise. We enjoy it.
It takes about two hours to drive to the city of Klaipeda, where we will stay tonight. This is Lithuania's third-largest city and it's a seaport which is considered to be the gateway to the Curonian Spit, which we'll visit tomorrow. It's Lithuania's connection to Scandinavia for ferries which carry cargo and passengers. In July of each year it celebrates its nautical heritage with a Sea Festival. For most of its history it was the German town of Memel. It was destroyed in World War II.
History of Lithuania
Lithuanians share their ancestors with Latvians. The publications which I read provide varying time frames about when the Balts most likely came to the area. The earliest date says Lithuania's history stretches back to the seventh century B.C. Evidence of tribe settlements along the banks of rivers and lakes shows this. Lonely Planet says that the Balts came from the southeast in approximately 2000 B.C. Tacitus, an early Roman historian, referred to Lithuanians as excellent farmers. One of the earliest records of Lithuania comes from 1009 A.D. when the Latin name "Lituae", which means Lithuania, appears in a text of the Kvedlingburgh Chronicle. It notes that Archbishop was "hit over the head by pagans in Lituae".
By approximately the 12th century, the Balts had divided into two main tribal groups which practiced nature religions. The Samogitians occupied the west and the Aukštaitiai inhabited the east and southeast. A third group, the Yotvingians or Süduviai lived in the southwest and adjacent parts of Poland. These Balts would be assimilated by Lithuanians and Polish nationalities. Further west between the Nemunas and Vistula Rivers lived the Prussians who were the most Western Baltic people. Still other Balt people occupied eastern Belarus and Russia. These Balts were assimilated by Slavs.
During the 13th century, the Teutonic Order, a group of German crusaders, conquered the Prussian territory consisting of
In the middle of the 13th century, for the first time the leader of the Aukštaitiai people, Mindaugas, united the tribes of Lithuania, into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL). In an attempt to protect Lithuanians from the Teutonic Order, he accepted Catholicism. On July 6, 1253, Mindaugas was crowned king of Lithuania. The first Christian buildings were built in this period. Unity and conversion did not last and Mindaugas was assassinated. It's believed that his assassins were pagans. In 1263, Lithuanian princes led Lithuanians to reject Christianity.
In 1290, Lithuania was reunited by Vytenis who became Grand Duke. His brother Gediminas succeeded him and held the position from 1316 to 1341. Gediminas used the decline of early Russia to expand Lithuania's borders in the south and east into Slav territory, which is today's Belarus. He extended an invitation to Baltic traders and landowners to move to Lithuania. He invited Knights, merchants and artisans to Lithuania and wrote letters to Pope John XXII and European cities. The letters stated that the Teutonic Order's goal was to conquer lands, not to convert people to Christianity. In addition, he protected Catholic and Orthodox clergy. Twice Gediminas tried to become Christian and end Lithuania's cultural and political isolation from Western Europe. However he was opposed by pagan relatives and was unsuccessful in stopping Teutonic Order attacks.
By the middle of the 14th century, German nobles controlled all of the Baltics except for Lithuania. Despite repeated attacks during the 14th century, Lithuanians were able to hold invaders to a small coastal area since it was protected by forests. When Gediminas died, two of his sons inherited the realm. In Vilnius, Algirdas expanded Lithuania's borders beyond Kyiv, today's Kiev. He fought the Tartars and Russians to do so. In 1377, Algirdas died. His son Jogaila succeeded him.
In Trakai, Kestutis, Gediminas' other son, battled the Teutonic Order. Kestutis forced Jogaila out of Vilnius. Kestutis declared himself the ruler of Lithuania. In 1382, Jogaila fought back, capturing Kestutis and his son Vytautas. Kestutis perished in prison. Some believe he was murdered by Jogaila. Vytautas successfully escaped dressed in a woman's clothes. He went to the Crusaders for help. Jogaila wanted to avoid conflicts with the Crusaders, so allowed Vytautas to return and gave him Grodno. Today Grodno is located in Belarus.
Jogaila received conflicting advice from his princes concerning the increasing threat from the Teutonic Order. The Orthodox advocated alliance with Moscow and the growing Russian power. They also advised conversion to Orthodox religion. Pagan princes advocated alliance with Poland and conversion to Catholicism. Jogaila decided to take the pagan princes' advice. This turned out to be a turning point in history. In 1385, Jogaila and the Queen of Poland signed the Kreva Union. This facilitated Lithuania's cultural and economic development while westernizing the empire.
Jogaila married Poland's Princess Jadwiga and created the Lithuanian-Polish alliance, in opposition to the Teutonic Order. Jogaila became Wladyshaw II Jagiello of Poland. He converted to Catholicism. This began Poland's 200 year Jagiello dynasty and 400 years of union between Poland and Lithuania. This nation was a major power and rival to Muscovy, the predecessor of the Russian Empire.
In 1387, the Aukštaitiai were baptized and in 1413 the Samogitians were christened. Lithuania became the latest European nation to except Christianity. In 1397, the first school opened in Vilnius Cathedral. A number of elementary and parish school's followed. Jogaila and Vytautas reconciled. Vytautas became grand Duke of Lithuania when he promised that he would agree to a common policy with Jogaila. In 1398, Tamerlane, the new conquer from Central Asia requested Vytautas' assistance. Vytautas agreed, seeing this as a possibility to expand his reign to the Volga River. In 1399, Vytautas and his army met
In 1398, Samogitia had been occupied by the Teutonic Order. In 1408, the Samogitians fought the Teutonic Order, enabling a final victory by Jogaila's and Vytautas' armies in today's Poland. In 1410, Vytautas, who was also called "the Great", increased Lithuania's control southward and eastward. Under Grand Duke Vytautas, Lithuania's independence within the union with Poland was restored. When Vytautas died in 1430, Lithuania was as large as it ever would be. In the south, it almost reached the Black Sea and in the east, border went beyond Kursk, the center of Kiev. Since Lithuania did not have a large population to inhabit its lands or military power to forcefully rule, diplomatic policy was adopted. Lithuanian rulers allowed captured territory's to maintain their autonomy and Orthodox religion.
Kazimir IV of Poland, who was also Grand Duke of Lithuania, captured the Teutonic Order's Prussian area and made it part of Poland. In 1525, the Order's final grandmaster dissolved the Teutonic Order. He was awarded the Teutonic Order's land as his secular fiefdom within Poland, the Duchy of Prussia. Its size was that of Prussia before Prussia's capture by the Teutonic Order. Königsberg became the capital. This was the natural choice since in 1457 the Teutonic Order had made it their headquarters.
During the 1500s, wars against growing Russia over Slavic lands ruled by the Lithuania occurred. In 1535, when the Livonian Order declined in military strength, Poland and Lithuania became interested in Livonia and Estonia. However, they weren't alone in their interest. Ivan the Terrible, seeking access to the Baltic Sea, invaded first. This started the Livonian war in 1558. It continued for 25 violent years. Next Russia invaded and Lithuania battled Russia for the Eastern part of Latvia and southern Estonia.
Lithuania became closer to Poland due to a need for an ally and the gentry's desire to have as many rights as the Polish feudal lords. In 1569, at the end of the Livonian war with Muscovy, Lithuania and Poland signed the Treaty of Lublin. It created a Commonwealth with the greater power belonging to Poland. Lithuania became the junior partner after the formal union of the two countries. In 1572, the last of the Jagiellon family passed away. The Lithuanian upper-class accepted Polish culture and language while peasants became serfs. The joint country was called Rzeczpospolita or, in English, Commonwealth. The greatest power was given to the Sejm of the Polish nobility which elected the King. The King also became the Grand Duke of Lithuania.
In the 1500s, religious reformation brought conversion to Protestantism. However this didn't last long and Catholicism became the predominant religion and remains so today, in both countries. In addition during this century, agricultural development became more rapid, towns grew, and humanistic ideas spread. In 1547, the printing of the first books occurred. In 1579, Vilnius University was founded. The Statues of Lithuania, also known as the Lithuanian Codes of Law developed. The University and the Statutes facilitated development of Lithuania culture.
In 1592, with the Russian enemy subdued, Sweden and the Commonwealth fought throughout the Baltics. In 1629, the Commonwealth was forced to concede Riga and most of Livonia to Sweden. Only Latgale, in the Southeast remained in the Commonwealth's control.
Battles between the Commonwealth and Muscovy continued to occur. In 1610, the Commonwealth captured Moscow but only held it briefly. In 1617, again the Commonwealth struck the city. In 1654, Russia captured considerable territory from the Commonwealth.
In 1618, the Northern German state of Brandenburg, a powerful state, joined Prussia in royal marriage. In 1660, Brandenburg purchased Prussia from Poland, which was then the ruling force of the Commonwealth. In 1701, the Brandenburg official became the first crowned Prussian king of Königsberg. During the 18th-century, the Prussia-Brandenburg alliance became a major European power. Under Frederick the Great, Königsberg became a military force. It also developed a bureaucratic leaning. Problems developed in the Commonwealth. Splinter groups called for Russian assistance.
In 1772, 1793 and 1795 to 1796, the Commonwealth had become so weak that Russia, Austria and Prussia-Brandenburg divided it up in the Partitions of Poland. Most of Lithuania, the Commonwealth possessions of Latgale and Courland became Russian. And so began intensive Russification, which included a ban on Latin script.
A small piece of Western Lithuania became Prussian. This is the port which extended across northern Poland from Königsberg, within the Brandenburg holdings. In 1794, Lithuania made an initial attempt to get back its independence. It was unsuccessful. In 1812, many Lithuanians volunteered for the French army when Napoleon occupied the Lithuanian city Kaunas. They were motivated towards this because Napoleon had made a proclamation of liberation and self-rule. After the war, Russia levied extra taxes on Catholic landowners and made more Lithuanian peasants serfs.
In 1830 to 1831, Lithuania joined in the Polish rebellion against Russia. Although Estonia and Latvia were governed as separate entities, Lithuania was ruled as part of Russia. In 1832, Russia closed Vilnius University. In 1840, Russian law was forced on Lithuania and the Russian language was used for teaching. Being Catholic became a prosecutable offense.
Although Estonia and Latvian peasants were freed between 1811 and 1819, Lithuanian peasants did not gain their freedom until 1861, the same year that Russia's serfs got their freedom. After serfdom was abolished, a market economy began to slowly develop. Farmers grew stronger and peasants developed into intellectuals. The Lithuanian national movement grew. East Prussia became known as Lithuania minor. Lithuanian publications were printed here and smuggled into Lithuania. In 1863, Lithuania also joined in the second Polish rebellion against Russia. Soon after, thousands of Lithuanians including my great-great-grandfather migrated to the Americas. After suppressing the attempts for independence, the Russian police régime tightened and Russification increased. In 1864, printing of Lithuanian books in traditional Latin characters became banned. Books could only be published in Lithuanian using the Cyrillic alphabet. Books, newspapers and periodicals in Polish spoken by upper class Lithuanians became totally banned. However publishing in Lithuanian occurred in Eastern Prussia and was smuggled into Lithuania. This included the original newspaper in Lithuanian. At the end of the 19th century, the national movement became strengthened by the unpopular Russification. In 1904, the ban on Lithuania press was lifted.
From 1915 through 1918 during World War I, Germany occupied Lithuania. Nationalists hoped that this would improve Lithuanian status. In 1917, although still under German rule, when the Russian February Revolution overthrew the Czar, the concept of total independence became predominant. In September 1917, the German administration allowed the Lithuanian conference in Vilnius. The conference passed a resolution which demanded restoration of an independent Lithuanian state, an elected Lithuanian Council and a standing body chaired by Antanas Smetona. On February 16, 1918, although still under German occupation, the Taryba, the Lithuanian national Council declared Lithuania independent. By March 1918, Russia's Communist government wanted to be out of the war. Russia gave the Baltics to Germany in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
With the German surrender on November 11, 1918, the Lithuanian Republic Government was established. The government of the Lithuania republic was formed on the day of the surrender. From 1919 to 1920, Lithuanian struggle for independence encountered attacks from three sources, (1) Poland, (2) the Red Army and (3) the Bermondt Army, which was made up of Russian and German troops under German command.
Independent Poland sought to reunite with Lithuania or, at least, to take over the Vilnius area in which there was a heavy Polish population. In the latter, control of the Vilnius area, Poland was successful. Polish troops were eventually victorious in Vilnius and forced the Red Army out. However, control went back and forth between the Red Army and Poland. In January 1919, the Red Army instituted a Communist government in Vilnius. On January 3 to 4 1919, Poland took control. The Red Army recaptured the city on January 5. On April 19, Poland recaptured the city, but once again was expelled by the Red Army. On October, 1920 Poland captured the city. On October 10, 1920 Poland took final possession of the Vilnius area. The occupation of Vilnius became known as the "Vilnius issue" and a perpetual cause of tension between Lithuania and Poland. With Vilnius in Polish hands, Lithuania's capital became Kaunas.
On June 1, 1919 after the Peace Conference in Paris, Lithuanian independence was acknowledged. In December 1919, the final German forces left Lithuania. In 1920, Russia signed peace treaties with each of the Baltic republics. Peace treaties recognized independence in perpetuity. On August 1, 1922, the Seimas of Lithuania, which is the Parliament, adopted the Constitution which declared Lithuania a parliamentary republic.
In 1922, sweeping land reform decreased the number of estates, and promoted increase of small and middle size farms. This facilitated agricultural production and exports. Light industry and agriculture adjusted to the changed market and developed more modern structures. The Lithuanian language became used in a comprehensive system of education, the press, literature, music, arts and theater. In 1923, Lithuania annexed the Klaipeda area and the northern region of Lithuania Minor.
In 1926 Lithuania underwent a military coup. Antanas Smetona of the Nationalist Party became leader. His style of dictatorship was similar to Mussolini. As with the other Baltic countries, fear of the Soviet Union was greater than fear of the Nazis. With the Molotov-Ribbentrop nonaggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union, signed on August 23, 1939, Lithuania was given to the Nazi's. In September 1939, Lithuania refused to join the attack on Poland so it was transferred to Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union forced "mutual-assistance pacts" on each Baltic country. The pacts gave them the right to place troops within their borders. On October 10, 1939, the Soviet Union forced Lithuania to sign an agreement in which Vilnius and the part of the Vilnius region captured by the Red Army was returned to Lithuania. On June 14, 1940, the Soviet Union gave Lithuania an ultimatum. It installed a new government and obtained permission for more Red Army troops. On the next day, 100,000 militia moved into Lithuania. On June 17, the People's government, led by J. Paleckis, was put in place. By August 1940, Lithuania was under Soviet Union occupation and Communists won elections. On August 3, Lithuania became a Republic of USSR. Nationalization and purges began. From June 14 through June 18 1941, 7,439 families made up of 12,600 people were sent to Siberia, 3,600 people were imprisoned and more than 1,000 people murdered. It's estimated that 475,000 Lithuanians were killed, deported or fled. Many were children and elderly and many were part of the deportation to Siberia.
In 1941, Lithuania revolted against the Soviet Union as the war against Germany broke out. From June 24 to August 5, rebels declared restoration of independence and instituted a provisional government. Afterwards Lithuania became part of the German occupational unit of Ostland.
As in the other Baltics, the Germans were seen as liberators. Some Lithuanians participated in the massacre of Jewish people and received the reputation for cruelty as bad as or worse than the Germans. Approximately 200,000 Lithuanian Jewish, almost all of the Jewish population, were murdered in camps or ghettos. The same fate became that of other local people and Jewish people brought in from other countries terrorized by the Nazis. Approximately 45,000 Lithuanians were forced into the German military. Others were drafted into forced labor. Resistance, comprised of Communist guerrillas and independence fighters, ensued.
In 1944, the Red Army recaptured Lithuania. Soviet rule took over as Communist Party leaders arrived and created local administration. Mass deportation began again. Statistics show that more than 120,000 Lithuanians were deported. Other sources put the number at 300,000. Between 1944 and 1945, approximately 80,000 Lithuanians escaped to the West to avoid the Soviet Union's recapture. Others were captured in their attempt to escape and sent to Siberia. Between 1944 and 1953, approximately more than 10,000 resistance fighters staged guerrilla warfare against the Soviet Union. The USSR encouraged people of other Soviet nationalities to move to Lithuania as a method of integrating the country into the Soviet Union and facilitating industrial development. Until 1988, political, economic and cultural life was ruled by the Lithuanian Communist Party.
All of the Baltic countries became active in the move for independence in 1988. Lithuanians supported Gorbachev's political and social reforms. In the Late 1980s, Lithuania led the way when its popular movement called Sajudis adopted a Democratic and national rights program. On August 23 1988, the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, in Vilnius approximately 250,000 people assembled to protest the pact. Two million people joined hands forming a chain from Vilnius to Tallin. With the support of the Sajudis, Algirdas Brazaukas became the first secretary of the Central committee. In the March 1989 elections, the Sajudis won 30 of 42 seats of the USSR Congress of People's Deputies.
In November, Moscow gave economic autonomy to the Baltic republics. In December, the Lithuanian Communist Party resigned from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This was a pivotal point in the breakup of the Soviet Union. Lithuania was also the first post-Soviet country to make noncommunist parties legal. In 1990, the Lithuanian Communist Party became an independent party called Lithuanian Democratic Labor Party.
In January 1990, on Gorbachev's visit to Vilnius he was met by a large pro-independence crowd. In February, the Sajudis party captured a majority in the elections of Lithuania's Supreme Soviet. On March 11, this governing group declared Lithuania an independent republic, instituted a new Cabinet of Ministers, and adopted the Provisional Fundamental Law of the state and bylaws. Moscow began weeks of military maneuvers around Vilnius and an economic blockade of fuel. After two and a half months, the Sajudis leader, Vytautas Landsbergis, agreed to a hundred day moratorium on independence declaration. He agreed to talks for independence between Lithuania and the Soviet Union. At this point, no other country had recognized Lithuania's independence.
In January 1991, Soviet hardliners were back in control of the USSR and its troops. Police stormed and occupied strategic buildings in Vilnius including the central publishing house. Fourteen people were killed during the capture of the Vilnius TV tower and approximately 700 were injured. Soviet authorities attempted to overthrow the elected government by instituting a local "National Salvation Committee". Barricades were placed on the Parliament. While the Lithuanian people stayed calm, this captured the attention of the West and their condemnation of the Soviet Union. The threat dissipated, at least for the time being.
In February 1991, over 90% of the voters (76% of all voters) voted for an independent Democratic Lithuania. Under Landsbergis' leadership Lithuania pursued western recognition of its independence. On September 17, Lithuania's joined the United Nations. Meanwhile Soviet military and security forces continued to force conscription, occasionally seized buildings, and attacked custom ports during which they killed officials.
During the August 19 coup against Gorbachev, Soviet Union Armed Forces captured several communication and government buildings in Lithuanian cities. When the coup failed, the troops returned to the barracks. Afterwards the government banned the Communist Party and ordered its property confiscated. However Soviet militia stayed in Lithuania. Removal of these troops became one of Lithuania's top priorities. On September 8 1992, Lithuania and Russia signed an agreement which called for Russian troop withdrawal by August 1993. This occurred as scheduled.
In 1993, Lithuania held its first presidential elections. Within three years, Lithuania's currency, the litas or Lt, replaced the ruble. However economic conditions after independence declined. In the beginning inflation was at 1000%. Thousands of jobs were lost from the inefficient heavy industry of the Soviet times. In 1993, Lithuania became the first Baltic country to open a stock exchange. Between 1995 and 1996, the Lithuania's banking infrastructure buckled. Approximately 400,000,000 Lt went to corruption. By 1996, the inflation rate had decreased to 35% but it was still higher than the other Baltic countries. Lithuania had a very hard time adjusting to free-market reforms. The first round of privatization of government owned business was restricted to Lithuanian buyers.
With independence Lithuania's quarrels with Poland started again. This made Lithuanian try hard to build relations with the Commonwealth of Independent states and focus its attention westward. Lithuania became a member of the NATO Partnership for Peace program. In 1995, Lithuanian became the official language and Lithuania signed an association agreement with the EU. In 1998, the EU forced Lithuania to do away with the death penalty. In 1999, Lithuania began talks with the European Union about membership. Since Lithuania has two nuclear reactors within its power plant Ignalina, one condition of membership is to decommission them. Lithuania has agreed to decommission the first by 2005 and shut down the other by 2009. For this they received a €10 million grant from the PHARE program.
In 1997, Lithuania held a campaign for international monies promoting their low operating costs, inexpensive work force and its location as a transportation hub between East and West. Between 1997 and 1998, large privatization yielded €600 million of foreign investment. This was the fastest growth of investment in the Baltic countries. In July 1998, 60% of Lithuanian Telecom was sold for €544 million to the Swedish-Finnish business group. Despite reporting a loss of €26 million in 1998, in October 1999, a United States energy company bought 33% of Lithuanian oil refinery.
However the Russian economic crisis of 1998 caused Lithuania to fall into a deep recession. Growth declined by 4.1%. Lithuania managed to react well and diversify. By 2000, growth increased to 3.3%. A Scandinavian group made Lithuania's second-largest foreign investment when it put €110 million into Vilnius Bankas. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Lithuania won two gold and three bronze medals. At about this time, the country sent the USSR a bill for €21 billion, which is the estimated price of the Soviet occupation. Agreements with the other Baltic countries, the US and the work to join NATO ensued.
In the early 21st-century, the International Money Fund stated that Lithuania had become "dynamic, liberal and open". The economy became one of the world's fastest-growing. In 2001, GDP growth was 5.9%. By 2001, inflation stood at 2.1%. However the countries unemployment was estimated at 11%. Wages stood at the low monthly salary of €284. This made the supply of cheap, skilled labor attractive to foreign investment. In 2001, foreign investment reached €3216 million. Lithuania joined the World Trade Organization. In 2001, Lithuania chaired the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministries. The Dalai Lama visited Lithuania.
In February 2002, the litas became pegged to the euro, replacing the US dollar to which it had been pegged for seven years. The goal was to facilitate making its exports competitive in Europe. In the third quarter of 2002, GDP grew by 6.8% due to an increase in domestic consumption, expanded investment and confidence. Lithuania's four telecommunications companies invested in new technologies and network development. The Wall Street Journal stated that Lithuania was "the most improved economy in the history of" its Index of Economic Freedom. Economically, Lithuanian had taken the lead of the Baltic countries.
In 2002, Vilnius hosted NATO's Spring Parliamentary Assembly. In November 2002, Lithuania and the other Baltic countries were formally invited to join the defensive alliance. Lithuania views its NATO role as twofold, (1) interpreter between the West and other former Soviet republics and (2) offering military medical officers for peacekeeping missions. By the middle 2002, Lithuania resolved 26 of 31 chapters for EU admission. Lithuania is a leader of the Baltic countries in education. More than 80% continue on to higher education while working full-time.
In its May 2004 issue, National Geographic states that the population of Lithuania is 3,447,000. GDP per capita is 4,400, placing the GDP in the middle of the Baltic countries.
When we arrive in Klaipeda, we check into our hotel, the Europa Palace. It's a renovated historic building in the city center. We find it in very nice. After a brief rest Sveta comes to our room and we enjoy a welcome to Lithuania drink.
Klaipeda Town Square
We walk to the town square. The cobblestones are rough and cars are parked on the sidewalks, making going in a wheelchair difficult. We see some young boys that we estimate are about eight years old. They're asking for money, so we ignore them, of course.
We're disappointed to see that the square is empty of people even though there's a good number of cars parked in it. We guess that they're in casinos. For a shore town on such a beautiful day and in light of the liveliness we've seen in all other Baltic cities, we find that this one is not up to par.
Steve consults our guidebook and finds a good area of the city in which to look for restaurants. We walk to an older part of the city, enjoying the atmosphere. After a while Steve scouts ahead and finds the restaurant Büru Užeiga. There are quite a few steep stairs at the entrance and inside to the dining area. The hostess asks what she can do to help. When we tell her that we're used to this, she smiles, but continues to watch just incase we need her help. I am impressed with her friendliness. We enjoy the atmosphere and a tasty dinner of Lithuanian food. Afterwards we order Krupnikas with tea.
This morning we will have a quick tour of Klaipeda. Our itinerary tells us that Klaipeda is the third largest city in Lithuania and important port on the Baltic Sea.
History of Klaipeda
This region of Lithuania has been inhabited by Baltic speaking people for hundreds of years. Before the German Crusaders arrived, it's believed that there was a fishing village here established by the ancient Balts at the mouth of the Dane River. In 1252, it was captured by the Livonian order. Soon after, the invaders built a fort near the river. In 1328, control was transferred to the Teutonic Order. Klaipeda continued to be a subject of different German-speaking authorities for almost 700 years. Soon after German capture, the town received the name of Memel.
During the 1200's and 1300s, the Teutonic Order and Lithuania were at war. The city was destroyed. It was also captured and ruined several times in battles between German factions. In 1678, the Swedish attacked and Memel was turned to ashes. In the 16th century, the duchy of Prussia took control. Until the 1600s, it was forbidden to build brick and stone houses because such structures would survive an attack and provide cover for attackers.
From 1817 to World War I, Memel was part of the united Germany. By World War I, it had a population of 30,000, half Lithuanian and half German. The Treaty of Versailles made Memel, the northern half of the Curonian Spit and additional areas an international territory. It established an autonomous government and a French garrison was stationed there. Named the Memel territory, it remained as such until 1923 when the Lithuanian military annexed it. In 1925, Memel became Klaipeda. In March 1939, the Nazis captured the territory. They made the harbor a submarine base. In 1945, sections of Klaipeda were destroyed in a bombardment which resulted in Soviet capture. Only eight people survived and remained in Memel after evacuations to Germany and Kaliningrad.
After the war, Klaipeda was rebuilt and populated, mostly by Lithuanians and Russians. It grew into an important Soviet city, with its main industries shipbuilding and fishing. In 1982, the first international ferry was built for military use. It eventually became utilized for trade. In 2002, Klaipeda celebrated its anniversary of 750 years. Most Germans have left Klaipeda, however the architecture style remains. Today it connects Lithuania with Scandinavian by means of cargo and passenger ferries. With a population of 200,000, Klaipeda is 60% ethnic Lithuanian and at least half the population depends on the sea for their livelihood. It's a busy merchant and fishing port with industries of shipbuilding and repair, fish processing plants, canning factories and paper mills.
We meet our guide Sakalas Jahavicius, a professor at the local University. Klaipeda University was established about six years ago. Since then six schools have joined the original so today there are seven faculties. He speaks softly and I asked him to speak louder so I can hear him. I believe he gave us a different history than what I just wrote. I think he said that 13th Century Crusaders wanted to make Klaipeda their capital but failed because Baltic armies defeated them. In the 18th and 19th centuries, timber was the main export because it was cheap and a good quality. In the 1900s, France and England gave the area to Lithuania. The alternative was to give it to Poland, who also sought it. In the 11th and 12th centuries, Lithuania used a type of Russian language. Before that it spoke an ancient language.
Our guide shows us what used to be Lenin Square and tells us that 12 years ago Soviets came to protect the Lenin statue . Next we go to Theater Square. This is the focus of the old town. Historically it was called Hay Square and was a market. On the north side, stands the theater built in 1857, damaged by World War II and restored. In 1939, Hitler stood on its balcony and proclaimed to crowds in the square that Memel was returned to Germany. He also stated that all Lithuanians must leave within 24 hours, as must anyone who does not like Germany's return to Memel. After 24 hours, anyone left would be sent to the concentration camps.
In front of the theater, the Simon Dach Fountain stands. Simon Dach was the 17th century German poet who was born in this city and became an inspiration to a Königsberg group of writers and musicians. The original was destroyed in World War II. This replica was placed here in 1989 by a German society.
Our guide tells us that the first floor of most of the buildings within the square contain shops and workrooms. The second floor is living quarters. In the mid-19th century, a bad fire destroyed wooden houses, so they were outlawed. Bricks were removed from the castle to rebuild, therefore there is no castle remaining today. We ride down some of the streets of the old city. For the most part, I find them quite atmospheric.
In the 17th and 18th century, Klaipeda began shipbuilding. The city was protected by a wall and thick dike. Soldiers lived underneath the wall. Today the acoustics are good so it's used for concerts. The guide takes us via minivan around the other side of the river and explains the sites. It's quite a shame that I cannot hear him and I become frustrated with having to ask him to repeat what he says. After he leaves, Sveta reports that she also was unable to hear him. It's as if he was having a private conversation with Steve. It's unbelievable that he's a university professor. Later we decide that he's either a poor professor or was out partying too much the night before.
After we drop off our guide, we go to the Ferry which will take us to the Curonian Spit. We are quite excited about going there. I have read a lot about it in our Lonely Planet guide book and the following is a summary from the book. The spit is a nature reserve which has a very diverse landscape of sand dunes, beaches and woods. It's 100 km long and 4 km wide at its widest point. The northern 70% belongs to Lithuania and the southern 30% is Kaliningrad of Russia. The Baltic Sea is on one side and the Curonian lagoon on the other. We will sail to the Lithuanian part. In 1991, the Curonian Spit National Park was established to protect the spit, lagoon and the nearby Baltic Sea. Seventy percent is pine forest, inhabited by many types of wildlife. The dunes make up a quarter of the spit and the small part remaining is settled land. The largest industry is tourism which also poses an environmental threat. Some of the population fish for a living.
History of Curonian Spit
A Lithuanian legend says that the female sea giant Neringa created the spit by carrying armloads of sand in her apron to form a protected harbor for the local fishermen and their families, whom she loved. In reality, the spit was formed 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, by waves and winds from the Baltic Sea. Sand built up in shallow waters near the coast.
In the 16th century, deforestation made the sands shift with the strong coastal winds. By the 19th century, sand destroyed 14 villages. In 1768, an international commission began replanting. Reforestation remains a priority of the national park. We see the results with a lot of white birch forests and some pine trees.
In 1999, a hurricane hit and damaged the dunes again. In 2000, it was made a World Heritage site. UNESCO granted $30,000 for repair and to build pathways over the dunes. The pathways serve the purpose of controlling human access, thereby minimizing damage. $20,000 more will renovate 100 traditional fishermen homes.
The sands continue to move. In 2002, they moved 5 1/2 meters north. Unfortunately the dunes continue to shrink. Wind and waves from both sides and people have caused 10 m reduction during 30 years.
Tv drives our van onto the Klaipeda Smiltyne ferry and we leave it to stand in the fresh air and enjoy the ride and view. I always enjoy sailing and this ride I particularly enjoy. As we approach the spit, everyone on the ferry becomes excited.
We're a bit surprised when Tv assumes the role of guide as we reach the spit. He obviously enjoys this locale. When I ask about wildlife, he tells us that occasionally he sees some, but mostly early in the morning. Bears left the spit about 20 years ago because it became too warm. Also they were killed by hunters.
Our first stop is Witches' Hill. Sveta, Steve and I start up the path. We enjoy the carvings of witches, ghouls and devils from Lithuanian folklore.
Since it's a dirt trail and very difficult to push a wheelchair, I walk. Part way up I decide to take a break. I sit on a bench carved from a tree in front of "Pasakorius". To me, Pasakorius looks like a wizard. However later I learn from a plaque that he is a witch. I enjoy listening to the birds while I wait for Steve and Sveta who continued up the path. The leaves on the trees are just beginning to turn colors. There's an inscription on the bench which says that many people like this hill and come in the summer. The wood sculptures were carved in 1980. They are from Lithuanian folklore and the artists' conception of legendary figures. A nice local couple translate the inscription for me since it's not in English. When Steve and Sveta return, Sveta and I stand on either side of Pasakorius and Steve takes a picture of "his two witches on Witches' Hill".
Path to Peak of Vecekrugas Sand Dune
Back in the minivan, we ride through forest. Since Tv said there are elk here, I look for them. Unfortunately, I don't find any. However, the incredibleness of this entire land formation more than makes up for not seeing any animals.
We stop at the incredible sand dune Vecekrugas. It's the highest dune, last measured at 67.2 meters. There is a path up to the top on which there is a look out. The path is like a boardwalk. We take the wheelchair because Tv advises it's quite long. He's a tremendous help because places along the path are amazingly steep. In some places its flat but in others there are stairs.
Once at the top, we all agree that it was worth the trek. It is just awesome, dunes as far as the eye can see! From the look out, we also see pine forest and the Baltic Sea.
We Made It!
Unfortunately, we also see people walking on the dunes. I stay on the look out while Steve and Sveta go down the boardwalk on the other side of the lookout. Being respectful of not causing harm to this fragile environment, they stay on the boardwalk. All of us absolutely enjoy the stop.
Our next stop is at a beach. We see very few bathers. For this time of year, I think that those in the water are quite brave since the water must be very cold. I walk down to the edge of the path and Steve and Sveta go onto the beach.
We make a rest stop and I'm impressed to see that one of the toilets is marked with the international accessible. However it's locked.
We ride through Nida, a resort town. It's not too impressive and we decide not to stop. Further along the road we see more resort communities. On the side of a hill we see a church being built.
Sundial at Parnidis Dune
We stop further along the road at Parnidis Dune, which is 7 km long. At its peak of 52 km, sits a granite sundial with the old Lithuanian calendar. We see evidence of how strong the winds get because the top of the sundial has been knocked down. Tv tells us it was knocked down in a storm two years ago. Once again I find it very nice to look out over the dunes. This dune appears to have a lot more trees closer to the top.
We reach the Kaliningrad border, and find it quite bureaucratic, especially on the Russian side. We're not surprised. At one station, Tv gives the official his paperwork. After awhile, he gets it back with another paper. We ride approximately 10 yards and are stopped again. This official takes the paper that the last one gave us. He looks at it and waves us on. We wonder why we had to take the paper from one official to the next. Ah, the wonderful remains of communism (I say that sarcastically).
The Russian road is narrower and very bumpy. There are a good number of cars parked along the side and people in the forest. Most are carrying buckets. They've been collecting something, probably mushrooms. As we approach the city of Kaliningrad, we're pulled over and a policeman checks our paperwork one more time. Tv says this happens because we have non-Russian license plates. He warns us that this will continue to happen. I find it ridiculous especially since there's only one way into Kaliningrad, through the Russian border. He also tells us that once he forgot a required paper. He gave money to the official who stopped him and was let right through. Perhaps this explains the reason officials stop vehicles. If they catch someone without a paper, they can make a profit.
As we near the city center, we see that Kaliningrad is dirty, polluted and no one seems to smile. Drivers are not nice, like they were in the Baltic countries. We arrive at our hotel, the Hotel Dona. It's nice but quite basic. Our room has a machine outside which frequently clicks on and off. We're concerned about this since Steve is a light sleeper. However when I report it to the front desk, I'm told that it won't do that all night. We're also told that the only other available room is up of a flight of stairs. I find it hard to believe since we don't see any other people around. However we decide to try it for this night.
Tv joins us for dinner tonight while Sveta goes to the public bath. Sveta says that she enjoys seeing public baths in cities other than St. Petersburg. We drop her off there before we go to dinner. When we arrive at the restaurant that we thought we'd like beggar children approach us. They are obnoxious and we ignore them. The restaurant is self-service and once we're inside it doesn't look very nice. We go to a second restaurant, Valencia, and it looks much better.
We have a nice conversation with Tv and we learn a lot about him. When Steve says that he's a very good driver, he replies "of course, I'm a race car driver." He became interested in race car driving when he served as a navigator for his father's car racing. Now his father is his navigator. Car racing is much different in Europe than the United States. One races against oneself with the goal of improving ones time. We ask about his family. He says his older brother is a Web developer. His father is high up in the travel company for which he works. His mother is a housewife.
After dinner, we pick up Sveta. She reports that she enjoyed the bath and didn't mind missing dinner. We go back to the hotel and turn in for the night.
History of Kaliningrad
Beginning in the 13th century and continuing until 1945, Kaliningrad was under German control. In the 13th century, Kaliningrad was captured by the Teutonic Knights. Since I've covered much of that history elsewhere, I won't repeat it. The capital, which is now the city of Kaliningrad, was then called Königsberg. The Teutonic Knights were succeeded by the dukes and kings of Prussia.
Following World War I, Kaliningrad was divided from Germany. Hitler set a goal of reuniting it with Germany. This became a trigger of World War II. In 1945, the Red Army launched a three-month campaign. It was one of the worst of the war. Both sides had casualties of hundreds of thousands.
After the war, the Kaliningrad region became part of the Soviet Union, which closed it to western tourists. Currently it is one of Russia's oblasts or regions. It has its own local assembly which has power over some decisions. It remains answerable to Moscow. In 1992, to improve the bankrupt economy of Kaliningrad, Moscow made it a free economic zone. In 1993, the status was mistakenly undone. In 1996, it became a special economic zone, making local companies exempt from import and export tax. However it remains dependent on a great amount of subsidy from Moscow. In 1997, inflation was 105.5% and the average monthly wage was $120. In comparison, living standards were slightly higher than the rest of Russia and prices were lower than those of St. Petersburg and Moscow. Official statistics state that in 1997 approximately 60% of the population lived below the poverty line. By 1999, the population living below the poverty line improved to 37%. As of 2001, Kaliningrad held the trade position of being more developed than the rest of Russia, but less developed than its European trading partners. With Russia, its main imports consist of oil and other raw material, while it exports processed goods. The population is 78% Russian, 10% Belarusian, 6% Ukrainian and .8% German. Slightly more than 45% live in the city of Kaliningrad.
Today we will tour Kaliningrad. We meet our guide, Olga Solovieca. Olga tells us that the Soviet period is called the "Stone Age" because the Communists used so much concrete. The people of Kaliningrad are concerned about being surrounded by EU members. Before the 1970s, there was not a lot of major housing construction in the city of Kaliningrad. During the 1970s, housing had to be built fast and cheaply. The city of Königsberg was actually three towns.
First we stop at the Cathedral which has been rebuilt from the ruins of the German Gothic Dom, originally built in 1333. Heavily damaged during the war, its reconstruction began in 1992. Olga tells us that it's the main attraction of the city. The Cathedral is shared by different religions. Currently it has two chapels, one is Russian Orthodox and the other is Lutheran. A Catholic chapel is due to be completed in the near future. The tomb of Immanuel Kant lies on the Cathedral grounds. Since his biography is on Steve Short Support Persons web site, www.shortsupport.org, Steve is quite interested to see the tomb. The Cathedral also houses two museums. One is the Kant museum and the second on the area's history.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a famous 18th-century philosopher who was born, studied and taught in Königsberg. He studied the classics, physics and mathematics. Some of his teachings say that there shall be harmony between the inside of a person and the universe, and that every person influences the universe. Many consider him to be the most influential thinker of modern times.
I think that the outside of the Cathedral is a very German looking building. After seeing the tomb, we enter the Cathedral which has no stairs at the entrance because it sank over the years. We enjoy seeing the chapels. Steve and Sveta go upstairs to see the museums. When Steve returns, he tells me that it was mostly history and he saw a lot of swords.
Olga tells us that a choir which tours internationally rehearses here and that she can get us into the rehearsal if we'd like to see them. We would so we go to the rehearsal room. The choir is on break but will be back soon. Olga tells us that they have sung internationally. When they come back, we have a private show given by the four-person choir. It is beautiful!! They sing three songs. The room has excellent acoustics and we are very impressed. Olga tells us that they made a CD and asks us if we'd like to purchase one. We decide that it will make a wonderful gift to one of our family or friends who like classical music. We thank the choir very much for our private show. Although they are not very fluent in English, they appear to understand our meaning and appreciate our praise.
"Monster" from Cathedral Window
From the room in which we heard the concert, Olga takes us to a window and points out a large building outside, obviously built by the Soviets. She tells us that it is called "the monster" and it's easy to see the reason. It's a large concrete building which looks like it could be the head of a monster or a robot. It has two small protrusions on its roof that look like ears. The façade is symmetrically dotted with windows. About three quarters of the way down, the windows are twice as wide as elsewhere on the building and one on each on the right and left sides decidedly protrude, forming the eyes. At the bottom of the building, there is what looks to be a long window in the middle and that's the mouth. "The Monster" was never used because, just before the end of the Soviet Union, there was not enough money to finish it. In the mid-1980s, the Soviets realized that it was sinking into the soft ground. Its name is actually Dom Sovietov, which means House of the Soviet. It's actually built on the east end of the site of the 1255 Castle of Königsberg. On the way out of the Cathedral, Steve points out a picture of a famous math puzzle and Olga shows us one of the "Seven Bridges of Kaliningrad".
When we return to the van, we drive around the center of Kaliningrad. Olga tells us that architecturally the city is a collage. The main street, as in most Russian cities, is called Leninsky prospekt or Lenin Avenue. We see the Kalinin monument. No one knows the reason the city is named for this man. Kalinin was one of the longest lasting politicians, perhaps because he was a great Stalin supporter. However, I think it was more than that because the city was given his name yet he never visited Kaliningrad.
Olga tells us that of the eight original gates of Königsberg, six remain. We ride by the World Ocean Museum which houses a ship that was originally named the MARS and later renamed Vityaz. Originally built by Germany, the ship became England's after World War II. Under reparation, the ship was turned over to the Soviet Union and used for oceanic research. There are two other ships nearby. One ship performed transportation of space vehicles. The other is a submarine.
As we're riding through Kaliningrad, Olga tells us that the city streets are too small, so they're being widened. She says that the city's population is two million and the population of the oblast is one million. We see many people on the streets. During the time of the USSR, 11% of Soviet fish came from Kaliningrad. Olga's grandfather was from a town in Belarus. The town was destroyed during the war. He had been to Kaliningrad during the war and liked it. After the war he remained in Kaliningrad and brought his family there. Her grandmother was sent to Kaliningrad because she was an expert in growing potatoes. Olga studied foreign languages. Afterwards she was sent to a small town outside of Kaliningrad. She didn't like being away from Kaliningrad. She married a man from Kaliningrad so she wouldn't need to go back to the small-town away from Kaliningrad. She said one year was enough and she left him. After World War II, many people of the USSR migrated to Kaliningrad. The oblast has a sizable Jewish population.
Next we travel to the amber mines. To reach our destination, we ride through a lot of forest and farmland, much of which is very good for dairy farming. In the oblast, the climate and fertile soil provided good farming conditions. Demand for farm products has decreased since it's become too expensive to ship to Moscow and St. Petersburg. The two cities used to be the largest buyer of Kaliningrad farm products.
Kaliningrad is the only place in the world that amber is mined. Other countries obtain amber in different ways. It costs a bribe of $2,000 to obtain a job mining amber. The village where the mines are located is called Yantarnaya which means made of amber. Its population is 7,000 to 8,000 and life there is centered on amber. Yantarny produces almost 90% of the world's amber. There are two mines. At the beach mine, the method for mining amber is to remove the top layers of sand/soil because this level is not rich in amber. It's mixed with water and dumped. People stand with strainers and try to catch the amber as its dumped. As the miners continue digging, until they get to blue soil which is mixed with water and sent to the factory by way of a pipe.
Small Amber Mine
Olga tells us that 60 million years ago, there was no Baltic Sea. A species of pine grew on the land where the Baltic Sea now is. Fires burned among the trees, causing them to fall. Glaciers in the area created a funnel. The pressure of the funnel and melting of the glaciers formed the Baltic Sea.
First we go to the small mine. At this site, mining began in the 1970s and should last another 10 years, according to the experts. We see large ditches which look like inverted cones. On top of the beach, we see piles of sand which are cone shaped. Olga says one cone yields two to four kilograms of amber. We ask if when the mining is finished will the piles of sand be used to fill in the holes. Olga says possibly but it's just as likely that the beach will not be restored. Currently there is more mining at the small mine. The mines produce only as much as the factory can process. The factory has enough to process, so there's not much work going on today.
Large Amber Mine
We ride to the large mine which is inland and more interesting. We see vehicles and some people working. Although it's very sandy, we see trees in back of it and some forest around it. We enjoy seeing this mine more.
We go to the museum. Its small but it has a good display of the different layers of sand/soil. We enjoy the souvenir shop. We purchase most of the gifts that we want to bring to family and friends. I decide that they will make good Christmas gifts for the women and girls in our family. Steve finds two pieces of amber with insects from 60 million years ago in them. He decides to buy one for his brother and himself.
Next we go to Svetlogorsk, a nearby resort town with a promenade which is similar to our boardwalks in New Jersey. Although the weather is a bit cooler than I like it, I enjoy our walk on the promenade. I continue to look for a few amber gifts and am successful. In addition to a necklace for my sister Jane, I purchase a pair of white amber earrings for myself.
On the way back to Kaliningrad city, we see a fort built in the 1870s. It's low to the ground. It's actually part of a circle of forts built around the outer rim of Königsberg. When we arrive back in our hotel, we say goodbye to Olga. We've enjoyed her local tour very much. When we go into the hotel, Sveta asks if there's another room available on the first-floor. She's decided to make sure we can get our room changed, since we told her that it was difficult to sleep with the noise in the room. I guess it makes a difference to be able to ask in Russian because they find us another room.
Tonight for dinner we go to a Russian restaurant. The food is very good. We pay approximately $30 for four people. We're especially fond of the mushrooms, since they're very flavorful.
Today we leave Kaliningrad, and all of the grimacing faces. Our next destination is the Lake District in northeastern Poland. Outside of the city, we see many factories. It's obvious that some are no longer being used. A border official stops us just before the official border. The official checks our papers and tells us that we have to get a paper which states the van's mileage so that the border officials can verify that we didn't go anyplace other than what we stated. We follow his instructions. Sveta accompanies Tv and they're able to get the paper quickly and obtain a slip of paper which contains a license number.
We return to the border, hand in the paper and get on a long line. Sveta and Tv leave the van and return in about 15 minutes. Sveta says she talked to the border manager and we can proceed. She estimated 800 vehicles are waiting to cross and told us it could take three days to get to the border on the Russian side. She told us that many Polish people come to Kaliningrad to buy things that are easier or cheaper to get in Kaliningrad.
We thankfully leave the line. When we reach the next official, we hand in the required paper and continue to drive forward, passing other cars. A few times drivers try to cut in front of us. When we reach the next station, officials are processing the car which is two cars ahead of us. It seems to take forever. Sveta investigates and learns that the station computer is down. She's back fairly quickly with an official who compares us to our passport picture. We're stopped one more time. The official asks Tv for something, he hands in a small piece of paper and we're on our way and out of Russia.
At the Polish side of the border, there's also a long line of cars. Once again Sveta talks to an official and, within approximately five minutes, she obtains his permission for us to go to the head of the line. Finally, we're across the border and into Poland! We estimate that our total time crossing at this border was two hours.
We ride through farmland of large green fields. Some of the crops are corn. We pass through picturesque small towns and cities. Most of the houses are small. We're staying in the Masurian Lake District which consists of approximately 3,000 lakes carved by Scandinavian glaciers. The area has many hills and forest and claims to be one of the most beautiful in Poland. The town of Mikolajki, in which we are staying, is on the outskirts. It's a gateway to this area. We reach our hotel, the Golebiewski Hotel. It looks nice although it's definitely a resort complex. Check-in takes a long time and it appears that large groups receive better service.
We meet our guide Jadwige Korowaj. Jadwige tells us that our hotel is built on white fish land. As we ride to our first stop, she talks about the area and its history. In 1226, Polish leaders invited the Teutonic Knights to the area and conflict ensued. Polish and German people, from the East and West, held a meeting to resolve their differences. In 1525, many Catholics became Protestant. In the 19th-century, canals were built between the lakes to transport wood. We pass stone fences. Jadwige tells us that they were constructed because they were inexpensive to build since stones were readily available from the fields. The area has many birds, especially cranes and storks. It's considered good luck for storks to build their nest close to ones house. It means the family will have many children.
Jadwige continues with the history. At the end of World War II, Germans were told to leave. Polish people were instructed to get out of Lithuania or they would become Soviet citizens. They moved to the lake area. In 1989, communism ended. In 1992, high unemployment became a large problem. In June of 2004, Poland will join the EU.
We arrive at our first stop, the Swieta Lipka Cathedral. Jadwige tells us that the Cathedral was built in the 1700s and it's supposed to be the most beautiful in northern Poland. When Pope John Paul II was a Cardinal, he visited the Cathedral to place and bless the crown on the altar. As we approach the cathedral, we see that it is a beautiful large complex surrounded by a high wall with towers at the corners. We drive into the gate and Jadwige gives us a brief tour. We walk down a beautiful corridor.
Swieta Lipka Cathedral
When we enter the church, we approach the altar and one of the clergy motions that we should come onto the altar. A group of clergy is assembling. One of them begins to talk to Jadwige and then speaks to us in English. He tells us that they are about to start rehearsal. He makes sure we're comfortably seated in back of the choir and can see the organ which is upstairs in the balcony at the opposite end of the cathedral. We are treated to a performance by a group of Jesuits. Our new clergy friend tells us that the organ was manufactured in Kaliningrad. He instructs us to be sure to watch the organ during the number Ava Maria. The parts move, to depict and celebrate Mary's Ascension. The music is beautiful and the organ is amazing! We're very impressed with the hospitality we receive in the Cathedral. Later Jadwige tells us that since our clergy friend knows she often leads English speaking groups, he made a special effort to welcome us.
We drive through the beautiful countryside to our next destination, the antithesis of the Cathedral. We're about to visit Wolf's Lair, Hitler's eastern wartime headquarters. On our way there, we pass some bunkers, which Jadwige tells us were built for Communist soldiers and not used by Polish military. On July 20, 1944, an attempted assassination of Hitler failed. A heavy wooden table saved him. In the final year of the war, Hitler led the Third Reich in killing as many people and destroying as much property as in the first five years of the war. I get chills as we enter the complex.
Wolf's Lair is 8 square kilometers. Before it was built, this area was forest and served as a recreational area. In 1940, German forces began constructing the compound. When it was completed, 2,000 people could inhabit this headquarters. At the entrance to the compound, there is a monument to the Polish soldiers who died in nearby minefields. A building at the entrance contains a model of the complex. It gives us a view of what the Wolf's Lair looked like when it was operational.
Back outside, it feels eerie as we walk the dirt paths. The woods are very damp. We see several bunkers. Only a small portion is above ground. I don't go into any barracks but Steve does. They're constructed of thick concrete walls, reinforced with thick wooden beams. When we reach Hitler's bunker, Jadwige tells us it was built to be a maze, so should enemy troops reach it, they'd be unable to find him. We see one above ground brick house. It belonged to Hermann Goering. He didn't like bunkers so he built a house.
A train went right into the compound. It passed through two check stations before it could enter. Hitler left Wolf's Lair three days before the Russians arrived. German troops set up explosives in the compound using dynamite ignited by electricity, so the Russians could not use the compound. Most buildings were destroyed. When the explosion occurred, the area shook so badly that it seemed like an earthquake had hit.
Access: We started our walk on an asphalt path which changes to dirt. Most of the dirt is well packed, although occasionally we encounter some embedded rocks and tree roots. In general, Steve and I agree that it's not too bad for wheelchair travel.
We drop off Jadwige, on our way back to the hotel, . We enjoyed having her for a tour guide. We go back to the hotel and drop-off Sveta. She prefers to use the hotel spa instead of going to dinner. Jadwige recommended that Steve and Tv go into the hotel to ask the hotel clerk to recommend a restaurant in the town of Mikolajki. The clerk recommends Prohibicja. When they get back to the van, they report that that the clerk was rude. When she finally answered their question, Sveta asked her to call the restaurant to verify that they're open and serving dinner tonight.
We follow Jadwige's directions to the area of the town with local restaurants, but we're unable to find the Prohibicja. Tv stops and asks directions from a woman on the other side of the street who is walking her dog. They don't speak a common language but she offers to show him. We have to get to the other side of the street, so Tv begins to back up the van. A policeman stops us and explains that we cannot back up. We have to drive around the block. When we get there, we're happy to see that the woman waited for us.
We find the restaurant and go in. The decor is American movies, including Casablanca, Citizen Kane and the Godfather. We wonder if we found an authentic Polish restaurant. However the food on the menu looks Polish, at least to us. Luckily the menu has an English translation. We drink a toast to Poland and afterwards Tv explains that Lithuanians look each other in the eye when toasting. Otherwise it's an insult. We talk about pets and family. We enjoy the food and pay about $25 for three meals. While I'm disappointed that there are no perogies on the menu, it's a nice dinner. We especially enjoy the cabbage and mushroom dumplings.
When we return to the hotel, Sveta visits us to share tea. We drink another toast to Poland with her. Sveta tells us that she enjoyed the sauna.
We have breakfast in the hotel cafeteria which is very big and somewhat crowded. There's a lot of choices but I don't see anything that appeals to me very much. We're not sorry to be leaving this hotel. While it was physically comfortable, the hospitality was poor.
We're on the road for a while before we arrive in the town of Elk. Before we leave, there are a few things we'd like to purchase in Poland. This town looks like it may be a good possibility to find them. We go into several stores. Most of the products consist of kitchenware and miscellaneous toys and books, not unlike the five and ten stores that used to be common in our home towns. These shops are smaller and their goods are packed tightly, so I cannot stay in my wheelchair. We find our Chachka, a small basket. Since we've seen a good number of baskets in the stores, we think it's an appropriate chachka. We also purchase gifts for our nephews, balls for Michael and Jacob. Since Steve's father's family emigrated from Poland, we think that this will make a nice gift for our nephews. I find the store clerks nice. When one directs her attention to us, Steve says the Polish greeting. However I have had a hard time learning the Polish sounds so I just smile and nod. Back outside, my wheelchair brings some looks from people who are taken aback, curious and perhaps some disapprove. Occasionally a friendly face changes to stern when someone sees me in the wheelchair.
Back on the road we ride through farmland, seeing cows and agricultural farms. After the farmland, we ride through forests where the trees are beginning to turn to fall colors. We make another stop in the town just before the border, to find a restroom. However we have no luck. Steve goes into a small store to buy soda. When he returns he says that the clerk was rude. Overall people have been very nice to us in this part of Poland. Someday we'll come back to see how the rest of the country treats visitors.
When we reach the border, there's a long line. We estimate that the wait is about three hours. Sveta talks to the official who says that we must get permission from his boss to avoid the wait. The boss is at the railroad station. We return to the town and find the person to whom we need to talk. Sveta talks to this boss and he says he'll call the border with permission. She also hunts for a toilet for me, but says it's a hole in the ground. We return to the border and go right through. At the next station, there's a line of approximately 12 cars. We go to the front of line but it's not moving and we wait about 20 minutes. An official arrives and Sveta talks him. She tells us that the shift just changed. There's one car in front of us and it contains a large object, possibly machinery, on its top. It takes quite a while for it to get cleared. The official comes to our minivan which is to the side of the line. Sveta talks to him and finally he gives us his OK.
We stop at the next station, still in Poland. We learn that we don't have a Polish stamp on our passports so they have to do an additional check. Sveta, Steve and Tv go to passport control and get our passports stamped. Next Tv must complete declaration forms on our vehicle. While Steve and I wait in the van, Sveta accompanies Tv. I see another van pull-up. An official who has been walking around, appearing as if he's looking for possible offenders, approaches this van. He makes the passengers empty the vehicle. This is no simple task because the van is packed full of goods. He searches the empty van. The owners repack it and they go on their way. As they're about to leave, another van pulls up.
I see another official walking around who just looks at cars. Tv and Sveta return with the paper and we're on our way once again. Sveta tells us that she used my need to go to the bathroom and that since I can't use any that are on-site, we need to get through the border quickly. Whatever she said, it's certainly got us through faster than most people.
We get to the next station and hand in the paper that we obtained at the last station. Finally we're in Belarus. Earlier Sveta told us that most houses are white, painted or brick and that's what we see. Occasionally we see a house that's painted a bright color. At first the houses are small. Then we pass some new larger ones. We also pass two good-sized developments in the process of being built.
History of Belarus
This history is based on information that I found on several web sites, predominately the web site www.belarusguide.com/history1/history.html, History of Belarus by Jauhen Reshatau.
The earliest evidence of habitation in today's Belarus dates back to the first centuries A.D., although it may have been populated between 100,000 to 40,000 B.C. Information about the prehistoric times of Belarus has mostly been obtained from ancient graves, found within the borders of today's Belarus. The kurgans contained artifacts such as earthenware, weapons, jewelry, clothes and coins from Arabia, India, Scandinavia, Rome and Germany.
In the sixth century, Slavic tribes lived in small communities in forests, or close to rivers and lakes. They were hunters, fishers and gatherers. They began farming, growing crops of rye, wheat, oats, and flax. In villages, families had pets and beekeeping began. Each community had a chief. The people were pagans who worshipped many gods. Trade took place between neighboring lands.
After the sixth century, Belarusian ancestors can be distinguished from other Slavic people. In the northern part, the largest tribe was the Kryvichy, which means "relatives by blood". The Dreulane inhabited today's central Belarus. The Drehavichy lived in the South. In the East, the Radzimichy resided. The Baltic tribe of Yatviags inhabited the northwest. These tribes had similar languages, customs and beliefs, and they became the Belarusian people.
During the ninth century, Belarus fell under the control of Kievan Rus. In 988, after the citizens of Kiev were baptized, Belarusians became Christian along with other Slavic people. Byzantine Christianity is credited with developing culture, building beautiful stone architecture, and creating art and literature. The vecha, or counsel of all citizens of a town and the surrounding vicinity, became the governing body. The vecha selected a prince to command its army. Prince Useslau, also known as "the Magician", ruled as the Prince of Polatsk when Polatsk reached its height of power and wealth.
In 1067, the first mention of Minsk, today's capital of Belarus, occurs in a chronicle about one of the battles. It is called Mensk which comes from the word mena meaning change. 1067 became Mensk's official date of birth. Unfortunately Mensk was totally destroyed in the battle. Although destroyed, it became a marketplace since it was on the crossroads between the Baltics and the South. In the battle, victory went to the Kiev Prince and he imprisoned Prince Useslau. After the Kiev Prince was killed, the people of Kiev released Prince Useslau and made him their Prince. He governed Kiev for eight months and then returned to Polatsk. During his reign of Polatsk, many lands were annexed, including Mensk and parts of Livonia.
The name of Belarus means white Rus. Rus was the name of the Slavic part of Kiev. The granddaughter of Useslau, Euphrasinnia, became one of Belarus' first educators. She founded a nunnery in Polatsk and led the nuns to educate neighboring people. Polatsk began to decline after Useslau's reign. The territory was divided into smaller units and became dependent upon other states.
In the mid 1200s, Mindaugas became Lithuania's King. He and his successors gained control over Polatsk and other territories of Belarus, mostly by marrying their children to the princes or princesses of these territories. The territories were allowed to be partially independent, with their own armed forces, local princes, customs and traditions. Mindaugas became Catholic to avoid war with the Crusaders. However, much of the population remained Orthodox. In 1249, after the Tartars captured Kiev they entered Belarus, but they were not able to reach most of Belarus because of swamps in the South. Mindaugas forced them out.
In 1316, Prince Gediminas ascended the Lithuanian throne. He curtailed the power of Lithuania's territories and increased Lithuanian territories in Eastern Europe. During this time, Belarus history is that of Lithuania. Since I've already presented that, I won't repeat it.
The 14th to 16th century is considered to be the Golden age of Belarusian culture. Belarusian history considers Vytautas' reign and several of the following decades as the era of its greatest cultural growth. The culture distinguished itself from Ukrainian and Russian cultures. Belarusian artists, painters and architects were sought throughout Europe. Written Belarusian was highly developed. In the 16th century, the first books were printed in Belarusian.
In 1517, the first Belarusian Bible was translated and printed in Prague by Dr. Francysk Skaryna from Polatsk. This made Belarusian the second Slavic language in which the Bible was printed. Skaryna's work became an important factor in educating Belarusian people. Education and book printing rapidly spread over Belarus. Schools opened in many towns and books were printed by his successors. Other European countries made use of Belarusian cultural achievements. Russian and Ukrainian church books were translated from Belarusian books. In this era many Belarusian chronicles were written. Young Belarusian aristocrats visited Western Europe and brought the Reformation back to Belarus.
The vecha governing body was replaced by a parliament of two chambers. The population consisted of three groups, (1) shlakhta, or aristocracy, (2) merchants and artisans and (3) peasants. The conditions of the lower groups were better than in Moscow or Poland. Most Belarusian cities were allowed self-government and held elections. All of this attracted oppressed people from other countries. Many Jewish people from Germany and other European countries, and Tartars from the Golden Horde came to Belarus so they could practice their religion and use their language and traditions.
In 1509, Russian troops entered Belarus. Belarusian troops defeated the much larger army and briefly stopped the war. From 1516 to 1549, a continuous struggle for Belarus occurred. This made it a difficult time for Belarusian people. The Belarusian prince promoted the Reformation and advocated becoming Protestant. He founded parishes, schools and gymnasiums with the goal of converting Belarus to Calvinism. He believed that this would shield Belarus from the influence of Polish and Russian churches.
The Polish Jesuits reacted by expanding their activities to strengthen their influence. They founded schools, universities and monasteries. The Jesuits converted most of the population to Catholicism. They recommended an alliance with the Orthodox population, headed by the Roman Pope. In 1595, Belarusians agreed, thinking that this would create a church independent from Poland and Russia. The Uniate, or the Greek Catholic, church was founded. The Jesuits attempted to eliminate all Orthodox customs. This caused a rash of protests and destroyed the idea of Belarusian independence for centuries. Under Polish-Lithuanian control, Belarusian culture hibernated.
As the 17th-century began, Russia was experiencing internal struggles for power. Belarus made use of this opportunity. In 1618, a truce was negotiated. In the land nearby Ukraine, oppressed Orthodox Belarusians began escaping to Ukraine to join the Cossacks. Cossacks were free farmers that did not recognize any power over them. At times, they attacked the neighboring Turkish. The Turks began to threaten Poland-Lithuania with war. The Polish authorities took away many of the Cossacks rights, forcing them to accept the Uniate Church or renting them to Jewish people. The Cossacks revolted against the Polish and their Catholic influence.
In 1648, the largest revolt occurred. Approximately half a million Cossacks defeated the Polish during several battles. The Cossacks were supported by many Belarusian farmers. Some Belarusian farmers started other revolts but were defeated. This war ended in 1654, when the Cossacks asked Russia for help. Russia took control over most of Ukraine and with the Cossacks, occupied Belarus. The war decreased the Belarusian population by half.
During this time, the Swedish began their war with Poland-Lithuania. The Swedish were victorious and started negotiations with Russia to divide the conquered territories. The Polish promised to concede Belarus and Ukraine to Russia. Russia ceased its war with Poland-Lithuania. Polish troops defeated the Swedish and Lithuania defeated Russia, forcing them away from Belarus. Some Belarusians favored Lithuanian independence. However their leader died in the war. In 1697, to kill the resistance, the Polish outlawed the use of the Belarusian language. In 1699, election of Orthodox people to local government became illegal.
In 1700, the Northern war began. The towns and villages of Belarus were destroyed. In 1721, Peter the Great won the war. This made Russia the power of Eastern Europe. In 1768, within Poland-Lithuania, Orthodox and Protestant leadership joined and founded an organization, so the Catholics did likewise. War broke out and the Orthodox representatives requested help from Russia. Russia willingly joined the fighting, since the Czar was always looking to strike a blow to Poland-Lithuania. Between 1773 and 1795, Poland-Lithuania was divided into three territories. By 1773, Russia occupied most of Belarus. In 1793, the rest of Belarus and North Ukraine came under Russian control. Belarus became a battlefield for almost 200 years.
During the war between Napoleon and Russia, both forces marched through Belarus and destroyed it. Napoleon occupied it for a short time and favored his own version of a Belarusian state. He created two states. Lithuania was the territory of Belastok, Grodno, Vilna and Minsk. Belarus consisted of Eastern Belarus, which Napoleon planned to return to Russia should a truce be negotiated. The people of Belarus did not like this arrangement and attempted to unify the two states. However in 1812, Russia defeated Napoleon and began a more severe invasion of Belarus.
To destroy any thoughts of Belarusian independence, the Russians began destroying all Belarusian culture. Russia's official position was that there was no occupation of other countries. They reunited people of the same culture. In 1820, Russia closed the Belarus University in Polatsk. In 1839, Russia declared it illegal to use the Belarus language in churches and schools. They also abolished the Uniate Church which had become a defender of Belarusian culture. In 1840, the Belarusian Code of Laws became outlawed and Belarus was renamed the "Northwestern Region". The economic conditions of Belarus deteriorated as taxes greatly increased and Belarusians became oppressed.
In the 19th century, protest against Russian occupation grew. Beginning in Poland, the protest spread to Lithuania and Belarus. During the 1860s, serfs were freed. They strengthened the liberation movement. In 1863, poet Frantsishak Bahushevich wrote poems about Belarusian history, with the goal of safeguarding Belarusian culture and the hope of someday returning Belarus' statehood and culture. He could only print his books overseas. Other writers joined him and their works became the foundation for continued education and revitalization. In 1863, Belarusians took up arms. Eighty thousand dissenters fought for Belarusian independence, freedom, free education and land ownership by farmers. The leader was Kastus Kalinouski, age 25. He recruited farmers, merchants and artisans. He wrote and published a newspaper which addressed methods of liberation. The revolt spread throughout all of Belarus. In 1864, Russia captured and executed Kalinouski and suppressed the revolt. Many people were hung, shot or exiled to Siberia. Russia outlawed all printing in Belarusian. Some of the surviving Belarusian nationalists, while working for the Russians, continued developing their culture. Political protests by Belarusians did not cease.
Around the turn-of-the-century, poverty was great, especially in the countryside. A million and a half of Belarus' population emigrated, including many Jewish people. The Russian government required Jewish people to live in designated areas, at least 300 km from the Czar. One of these areas was Belarus. During the 19th century, the population of Jewish people increased greatly, growing to more than half in some towns. The cities largely consisted of Russian and Jewish people. Many of the Belarusians remained as farmers in the countryside.
In 1902, the first Belarusian political organization began in Minsk. The Belarusian Socialist Hramada, or Union, printed the illegal works of Belarusians. In 1903, this group held a Congress in Vilna with the goal of creating the autonomous Belarusian republic which would be governed by Parliament. In 1905, Russia had its own problems, so they granted the movement some freedoms. The Union began legally printing a newspaper called "Nasha Niva" or "Our Field". It published the finest of Belarusian poets and writers, starting the careers of artists and politicians.
With the start of World War I in 1914, Belarus once again became a battlefield. The Germans occupied Vilna while the Russians continued their control of Minsk. In 1917, the czarist army was forced out of Belarus, only to be replaced by the Bolsheviks in October. All the Belarusian public organizations came together in the Belarusian Congress to decide the future of Belarus. They declared the independent Belarusian Democratic Republic. The republic was disbanded by Bolsheviks.
In spring 1918, the Germans attacked and drove the Communist forces out of Minsk and central Belarus. In Minsk, the Rada, or Council, of All-Belarusian Congress declared themselves as the temporary power of Belarus. On March 25, 1918, they declared the Belarusian People's Republic (BPR). This consisted of all territories that had a majority of Belarusian people. Actually this was only the central part of today's Belarus. The Parliament declared democracy including the freedom of speech, printing, religion, unions, strikes, personal sanctity, and equal rights. The government began to restore the devastated areas.
Germany did not recognize the republic but since Germany was defeated at the end of the war, that became a non-issue. Belarus remained a target of the Russian Bolsheviks and of Poland, led by Pilsudski. Both countries opposed the BPR and attempted to conquer it. In 1919, Communists declared the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR.), also known as the Lithuanian-Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. Pilsudski advised Belarus that he planned to create a federation of Poland, Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine. Wisely, Belarusian leaders did not trust him. In 1921 after the Soviet-Polish war, the Treaty of Riga was signed. The Soviets obtained the larger part of Belarus and made its capital Minsk. Poland took over Western Belarus. In 1922, the portion of Belarus led by Minsk joined the USSR. The leaders of the BPR escaped to Lithuania.
During the early years of Communist Belarus, the régime encouraged Belarusian cultural development with the goal of creating a population loyal to the Soviet Union. Many scientists, writers and artists returned from abroad and worked to reopen institutions. Exploration of Belarusian culture ensued and Belarusian books were published. In the 1920s, universities and institutes opened. Minsk hosted national and international conferences. Economists began agricultural reform based on Danish and Dutch models. The Belarusian reforms had no resemblance to Soviet collective farming. However personal freedom was limited and Bolshevik ideology reigned. Free press and speech became dangerous.
In the early 1930s, Stalin came to power and repressed all. The first reform of the Belarusian language occurred, with the goal of making it similar to Russian. Russian was labeled "the educated language" and Belarusian dubbed "rude" and "farmers". Many Belarusians forgot their native language. The Belarusian language became used only in the countryside. Other reforms towards the Russianization of Belarus took place.
Thousands of Russian people moved to Belarus, facilitating the Russianization of Belarus. Communist influence was strong since many people were thankful to the USSR for liberating their country from the Germans. Belarusian leaders were captured and killed or exiled to Siberia. In addition, hundreds of thousands of farmers were sent to Soviet concentration camps to make way to create collective farms. During this time, the estimate of people arrested, shot, tortured to death or killed in concentration camps totals over one million. Many of the executions occurred in the forests outside of Minsk.
In Poland, the plight of Belarusians was also dreadful. Polish authorities deprived Belarusians of most rights. Poland closed all Belarusian schools. Belarusian could not be spoken in Catholic churches. Land was confiscated from farmers. Polish people did not say the noun Belarus. Belarusian political leaders and their followers fought to protect their people's rights. In 1927, these organizations were outlawed and many of their members arrested. In 1939, the agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union gave Western Belarus to the USSR. The people of Western Belarus suffered as the rest of Belarus. Almost half a million people were exiled to Siberia.
On June 22, 1941, the German-Soviet alliance ended. Since Belarus was close to the front line, Germany occupied Belarus soon after World War II began. The battles in Belarus were heavy. Belarusians began their underground resistance. Hitler planned to enslave Belarusians and otherwise exploit the country. Nazis carried out mass killings, and the destruction of entire villages and their population. A quarter of the population, 2.5 million people, was slaughtered, including Jewish, Ukrainian and Russian people who were taken to concentration camps. At the end of 1943, Germans changed their policy. They allowed the Belarusian Central Rada to manage internal business. However the Rada was controlled by the Germans.
In 1944 in Minsk, the second Belarusian Rada declared their desire for independence. In the summer of 1944, the Soviet army recaptured Belarus. This only served to restore the conditions to those that existed under the original Soviet occupation. In 1945, the western border was changed, slightly in favor of Poland. Estimates from World War II state that every fourth Belarusian citizen perished. In all towns, major and middle size enterprises were destroyed. Nine thousand villages were brought to the ground. Approximately 380,000 people were exported to Germany as forced labor. Due to its severe losses of World War II, the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic became one of the founding members in the United Nations. With Ukraine, this gave the USSR three seats.
With the help of other USSR republics, Belarus began to rebuild, but many architectural and cultural monuments were destroyed, burned or stolen during the war and never recovered. Minsk was almost entirely destroyed and Grodno was harshly damaged. After reconstruction, considerable economic development and industrialization occurred. Minsk became an industrial hub of the USSR. Many Russians moved to the city to increase the workforce. For decades, nationalist Belarusian politicians were torn between calling attention to Belarusian nationhood or remaining safe in the Soviet family. Belarus developed a reputation as one of the most rigid Communist Soviet republics.
In April 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster greatly affected Belarus. Although the plant was located in Ukraine, the winds blew towards Belarus and Belarus was hit harder. It became a national disaster. It's estimated that 70% of the radioactive fallout was blown to Belarus and turned 1/5 of the country into a zone of radioactive contamination. Approximately 2.5 million inhabitants lived in this zone. Misinformation given by Communist officials exposed the rest of Belarusians to the radiation. The level of cancer, genetic mutation and leukemia increased greatly.
In 1988, the Belarusian Popular Front formed to tackle concerns which surfaced from Chernobyl and the declining use of the Belarusian language. Named "Adradzhenne", it means rebirth. Unrest among Belarusian workers facilitated economic crisis and helped to quicken the end of the USSR. On July 27th, 1990, Belarus issued a declaration of sovereignty within the USSR. On August 25, 1991 in Minsk, the Communist Party issued its declaration of full independence, raised the historical white and red flag, and brought back its coat of arms. In December 1991, the former Soviet republics formed the Commonwealth Of Independent States (CIS). Minsk became its capital.
The country inherited a bad economic situation of high inflation, unemployment and crime. Stanislau Shushkevich, a physicist who had campaigned against the slackness displayed during Chernobyl, became the first head of state. As speaker of Parliament, he worked towards a central position between Communists and the popular reformist movement. During the 1990s, against Shushkevich's resolve, economic change was slow and Belarus Communists renewed many ties with Russia.
Allegedly elected on democratic principles, the first Parliament consisted of 70% former Soviet Communists. Their goal was to give up sovereignty. They elected prime minister V. Kebich. Unable to manage the country's economy, he turned to Russia for assistance. The country signed an economic union. Kebich attempted to convince Belarusians that this would obtain the following benefits: (1) cheap oil and gas, (2) stop inflation by using Russian currency, and (3) Belarus Russian debt would be postponed. This did not happen. Parliament ratified a military treaty with Russia and the CIS, requiring that Belarus participate in military conflicts anywhere within the former USSR. However, Shushkevich managed to prevent some of this, by fighting not to include the paragraph which stated that Belarusian troops would be required to serve outside of Belarus.
Economists and other scientists who opposed this union proposed a different plan to get out of the economic crisis. They suggested initiating market and agricultural reforms, and creating a Belarusian monetary and financial system as the Baltic countries and Poland had done. This would establish a Belarusian custom house and physical border between Russia and Ukraine, and privatization of property. They argued that the history of union with Russia should be a lesson on the disastrous results of cooperating with Russia. Since most people were struggling, they were reluctant to take a political stand. Communist retirees were very active, and the conservative Parliament adopted the union with Russia.
At the first world summit in 1993, Stanislau Shushkevich declared that Belarus was a zone of ecological catastrophe. In 1994, the political environment changed dramatically. The Lithuanian Secret Service arrested and deported two Lithuanian Communist leaders who had been hiding in Minsk. This enraged the Parliament so the members called for an election of Shushkevich's position. On January 27, 1994, Shushkevich was dismissed by a majority of deputies.
Belarus began preparation for its first presidential election, planned for June 1994. Seven candidates began campaigning. However there were too many discrepancies between Democratic candidates and none gained enough votes to make it to the second round of elections. Two men ran in the second round of elections, Prime Minister Kebich and Alyaksandar Lukashenko. Lukashenko became popular with anticorruption and anti-Kebich rhetoric, and nostalgia about the "good old" days under the Soviet Union. He emphasized that he was the only Belarusian politician who voted against the agreement which put an end to the Soviet empire. He promised to reverse high prices, cease privatization, destroy organized crime, get rid of corruption, and develop stronger ties with Russia. On July 10, 1994, Lukashenko, a former director of a collective farm became Belarus' first president. He has kept this position ever since.
In the beginning of his term, Lukashenko changed from being extremely pro-Russian and pro-Communist to criticizing Russia for gas shortages. He advocated strengthening independent Belarus. However, soon his goal of becoming a strong authoritarian leader became obvious. He had no concern for how he achieved this. He initiated presidential vertical power, by putting his representatives in all regions of Belarus. Subordinate only to Lukashenko, they were not required to obey local authorities. He selected agrarians who were from his native region. Their competence was management of collective farms.
After his first 100 days in office, Lukashenko launched an attack on independent mass media. He ruled by decree, ignoring the legislative branch of the government. Any protests by officials resulted in brutal suppression. A group of Democratic officials held a hunger strike in the Parliament building to protest of the upcoming referendum to integrate with Russia. Lukashenko ordered police to beat them and forcibly remove them from the building. He suggested that the Parliament dismiss itself. This was rejected by the Supreme Soviet on the grounds that it was not constitutional.
On May 14, 1995, a referendum authored by Lukashenko had the goal of obtaining approval for his actions and his ventures. It requested approval of four issues: (1) to use the Russian language in Belarus, (2) to replace Belarusian symbols with Communist ones, (3) to allow the president to dismiss the Parliament and (4) to approve economic integration with Russia. Even conservatives agreed that these proposals were against the Constitution. However Lukashenko ran a mass media blitz. The propaganda stated that Belarusian revival was associated with the German occupation of Belarus.
Many foreign observers declared that the campaign violated free-speech. Only 64.7% of the population voted and the referendum won. It's claimed that votes were falsified and instructions on how to vote were bad, especially outside of the cities. The Belarusian flag which had flown on the roof of the presidential palace was torn into pieces. The man who ordered the act signed the flag strips and gave them away as souvenirs. The red green flag of Belarusian Soviet Social Republic was raised at the palace. Lukashenko issued a decree ordering that the flag of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic be flown everywhere in Belarus where the traditional Belarusian flag hung.
The students of Belarusian State University held a rally in support of the traditional flag. Police broke it up, beating and arresting those in attendance. A protest formed with people wearing state pins of the Belarusian flag and the coat of arms. Protesters charged that Lukashenko did not invest in the economy, pay citizens who had been working without wages for months, or do anything to correct Chernobyl consequences. Instead he spent money on replacing stamps, bank notes and official papers with ones that bore symbols of his choosing. In addition, he wasted billions of rubles on a Soviet style military parade on his Victory Day.
Lukashenko held talks with Russia to form a military treaty to oppose NATO expansion. He threatened Western countries with halting Belarus' dismantling of nuclear weapon, unless Western powers provided more money or stopped accepting Belarus' neighboring countries into NATO. On September 12, 1995 two American balloonists were fired upon and killed over Belarus. They had been participating in an international race. Although the participants had permission to fly over all European countries, the Belarus Air Defense believed they were spies. Belarusian officials didn't bother to apologize to America, causing great offense.
In 1996, Belarus and Russia agreed to form a union state. Without merging the two countries, the goal was to strengthen economic, cultural and political ties. In spite of agreements with Russia, oil and gas debt continued to increase. Since an export policy and privatization didn't occur, employers lacked cash and delayed paying wages. Taxation policy to protect Russian markets led to increases on prices of basics. Russian-Belarusian accords have caused a buildup of armed Belarusian forces, while Russia makes strategic plans to expand their empire, opposing NATO and the West. In 1997, 1998 and 1999, Belarus signed additional treaties with Russia. These included instituting Russian customs, taxes, legal tender and defense policy.
Additionally in 1996, Lukashenko's people passed a referendum which increased his power over Parliament and made his term longer by two years, to 2001. In May 1999, another round of elections was held. Lukashenko formed the new Parliament by selecting his colleagues from the old Parliament. He used tactics which made opposition fruitless. In 2000, another round of parliamentary elections occurred. They were boycotted by the little Democratic opposition that exists. This maintained Lukashenko's hold. In 2001, he was reelected. Most observers claim that the election was once again fixed
According to the website www.belarusguide.com, some Belarusians strongly oppose Lukashenko's "giveaway" of their country. They realize that Belarus had once been one of the more promising of the CIS but has become a corrupt country with a bad economy. We did not see any evidence of this ideology. While I don't doubt that it exists, I wonder if people with this belief will ever be strong enough to make a difference.
On our way into Grodno we see block after block of Soviet style apartment buildings. They are all exactly the same and quite ugly. We arrive at our hotel, the Hotel Tourist in the city of Grodno. There are two sets of stairs totaling approximately ten to reach the entrance. We see ramp runners, but they're too far apart and steep to safely take me up in the wheelchair. At check-in, the receptionist and Sveta talk for about 10 minutes. Then Sveta tells us that we have to turn in our medical insurance cards with our passports. When we get to our room, we see that it's quite basic but it's OK.
Tonight's dinner in the hotel is included. Sveta orders for us. For appetizer, we have a cheese, corn and prune salad, chicken with mushrooms, sausage in dough and potato pancakes. Next we're served a Belarusian soup of chopped meat, vegetable with egg and one olive in broth. Our main course is fried salmon with potato. We drink vodka and, of course, we toast our arrival in this new country. For dessert we have blintnies and tea. The meal is all good but greasier than we're used to.
Today we tour Grodno and then travel to Minsk. For breakfast we have a choice of three meals. Sveta does not like any of them and knows that neither do we. She tells a waitress that we want to order something different. The waitress gives her a hard time but eventually Sveta wins the debate. Steve and I are just amazed at the inflexibility and downright meanness of the hotel staff. When we comment on this, Sveta says that it's the Communist/Soviet way. I don't recall what the meal was like, however obtaining it was definitely interesting and very different from what we expect of the hotel industry.
After breakfast, we meet our tour guide, Ludmila Sloscheva. We've been looking forward to touring Grodno because of its rich history and reputation.
History of Grodno
The first history specifically of Grodno appears to be from the Ipatiev chronicles of 1128. Its name comes from a Slavonic word for town and fenced settlement. Located on the Niemen River, it began as a village founded by a Russian Prince. From 1295 to 1296 and in 1304, it saw its share of Crusader attacks.
In 1340, Grodno was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The city did not have any Magdeburg Rights. These rights were the advanced system of old Germanic law which governed over 100 cities during the 13th and 14 centuries. They primarily regulated trade and benefited local merchants and artisans who made up most of the population. Interestingly, Jewish citizens were exempt and conditions often worsened when the Magdeburg rights were put in place.
In 1341, after the death of Lithuania's King Gediminas, his grandson Vytautas took the throne. In 1389, Grodno adopted the Magdeburg Rights. In 1398, Grodno became the second capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Vytautas began building the city in Renaissance style. By 1588, Grodno had two castles, nine Orthodox churches, three Catholic churches, a synagogue and 31 streets. Population was 4,000.
In 1569, with the rest of Lithuania, Grodno became part of the Lithuanian-Poland union. Between 1760 and 1780, Grodno's mayor developed industry and attempted to develop culture. He built medical and agricultural academies, schools and 50 manufacturing businesses.
In 1793, Grodno became part of the second partition of Poland, staying with Poland. In the uprisings of 1794 and 1863, many people of Grodno participated in the conflicts. In 1795, Stanislaus II abdicated in Grodno and the city became part of Russia. From 1801 to 1914, Grodno was the capital of the province with the same name.
In 1920, Grodno became part of Poland once again. It remained part of Poland until 1939. In 1939, Grodno was put under the jurisdiction of the Belarusian republic. In the Belarus language, Grodno is spelled Hrodna. At first when we researched our trip, this dual spelling confused us.
In World War II, Grodno lost almost half of its population. However, since Grodno fell with relative ease, it survived World War II better than any other Belarusian city. Currently it's one of Belarus' largest cities. It's an industrially and culturally important city with a cosmopolitan atmosphere. The population is 300,000. It has a university, medical and agricultural institutions, the Catholic Higher Theological Seminary, institutes of the Academy of sciences, two museums, two theaters, four Catholic churches, four Orthodox churches and a synagogue.
Ludmila tells us that Grodno was founded in 1128, being built as a fortress in the 12th century. Between the 13th and 16th centuries, the city belonged to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In 1795, Russia took over Grodno from Poland. In the early 1900s, Belarus was independent for short time. Sixty to seventy percent of the population is Belarusian, 20% is Polish, and most of the rest is Russian. A small part is Jewish and Lithuanian.
We ride downtown, to the cathedral. On our way we pass a monument of a tank which commemorates the defeat against Germany in 1944. As we near the cathedral, we see the Soviet Square, which is bleak and concrete. It's even more unattractive than most Soviet Squares because it's a rainy day and contains puddles of rain. Catholic Farny Cathedral has an off-white facade with green domes. We don't appreciate the outside since the cloudy sky subdues the colors. We arrive at the baroque cathedral at the end of a service. We feel welcomed by those who greet us. I find the cathedral beautiful. At the front we see three tiers of statues. When we're ready to depart, the cathedral caretaker takes us to a ramp and unlocks the door.
Back in the van, we ride to the site of the fortress built in the 12th century. As we drive to the fortress, the rain is stopping so when we arrive, it's comfortable walking around. Only the wall of the fortress remains and Steve enjoys climbing to its top. It was built with concrete and is probably the oldest example of secular brick architecture in this part of Europe. In the 14th century, the Lithuanian Duke built the old castle, Stari Zamak, inside of the fortress around which the wall ran. The king of Poland, Stefan Bathory, made this his residence. He died here in 1586. In 1795, Stanislaus II abdicated from here. In 1737, Novi Zamak or new castle was built close by in Dresden style. As we pass by, our guide points it out to us. Today it's a museum but we don't have time to go in.
Next we go to the Church of Saint's Boris and Gleb, a Russian Orthodox Church built of stone and wood. Constructed in the 12th century, it's the second oldest church in Belarus and a symbol of Grodno. It sits on the bank of the river and it's visibly very old. Little restoration has been done to the outside of the building. Some workmen are building a monument outside. As we approach, they stop working and stare at us. The walkway to the church is steep and it doesn't look smooth, so we decide not to go in to the church. Ludmila says that the outside is more interesting.
Church of Saint's Boris and Gleb
As we ride back into the city, Ludmila points out Grodno's synagogue which she tells us was built in the 19th century, on the site of the synagogue built in the 18th-century. The synagogue is a large three storey structure that is no longer in use. Only a small Star of David indicates what it is. Before the war approximately 50% of Grodno's population was Jewish. Today many of the Jewish people have immigrated to Germany where they're treated well. Twenty-nine thousand Jewish people from Grodno were killed in the concentration camps. Concentration camps in Belarus numbered 260.
We pass by Oblique Park, built in 1978 to celebrate an anniversary for Grodno. Ludmila points out the wooden houses built by the Polish. She talks about Belarus today. Inflation is high and there's not much foreign investment. Rent is approximately $20-$50 per month. Common people don't buy much because they can't afford it. Belarus is not rich in national resources. Belarus is forced to buy gas from Russia making them dependent on Russia. They're not restricted in what they use but there is a high charge. We see the Lenin statue in front of town hall. There was talk of removing it, but they decided to keep it since it's part of their history. We find that this is a true mark of a country that is not giving up communism. Steve asks Mila what she thinks of the current government. She's very hesitant to say anything and seems almost afraid. When we discuss this later, we decide that since she's only known us for short time, she has every right not to trust us. After all, one of us could be a government agent. People have been known to disappear for saying the wrong thing about the government.
We arrive at Pokrovsky Cathedral, built in 1907 in the shape of a ship. It's a memorial to those who died in the Japanese Russian war. The outside is interesting with a red and white facade with blue domes topped by gold crosses. As we walk up to the cathedral, a funeral is coming out. An old woman approaches us and attempts to give us money. Of course, we refuse it. Another old woman also tries to hand us money and we shake our heads. Later Ludmila tells us that it is a Belarusian tradition for the family of the deceased to give money to those around the church who appear disadvantaged. They believe it will help the deceased. We feel bad since we could have donated it to the church. Mila says don't worry our refusal. Inside we see many icons and we're told that these icons are special. They were carried into battle by the soldiers who believed that the icons would protect them during the war. Back outside, we walk around the grounds of the cathedral. I find them peaceful, picturesque and a nice retreat from communism.
We ride to Vulitsa Savetskaja, where Tv drops of us off at the pedestrian walkway. Many people are in the street. For the most part they seem nice. When we get close to someone, we smile and receive a return smile. When this exchange of smiles doesn't happen, I see looks of concern or stern intrigue. The walkway is cobblestone but Sveta helps pull the wheelchair at the front and it's not too bad. We stop in a bookstore and buy some postcards. We also look for a chachka and I look for some earrings, but we don't find either that are suitable. Mila takes us to a department store, where Steve and Mila take the stairs to the second-floor. Sveta goes off to do some shopping and I sit in an open area. An older woman tries to give me money and when I refuse she tries again. Steve returns and shows me what he bought for our chachka, an embroider hand towel, very typical of the region.
We drop Mila off and began our trip to Minsk. As we start, the weather is still cloudy. We're quite happy when it turns into a sunny day. We pass forests and farms as we ride on the new highway. Thanks to the new highway, it takes us only half the time we estimated to arrive in Minsk. We're staying in the Hotel Minsk, which is supposed to be a four-star hotel. It's nice but it seems more like a three-star hotel. However, more important to us, it's located in the city center, on the Square of Independence.
Since it's early, we decide to go out for a walk with Sveta. We enjoy our walk and continue down to another square. The city definitely has a communist feel to it, with the concrete squares. On the way back, we stop in a few stores and purchase some soda and a small snack. Back in the hotel, Sveta comes to our room for tea.
We're really looking forward to tonight's dinner, with a Belarusian family. Since we're such a small group, we're hoping to have a real chance to learn about city life in Minsk. Home visits are one of the things which contribute to our liking MIR so much. We go to the apartment of Valencia and her husband. It's large with a bedroom, dining room/living room, kitchen, bathroom and an end room. Obviously this is not the home of an average Belarus family. The couple is very nice and the food is delicious. Valencia made all of it. The couple owns a ducha and Valencia grows much of the produce there. I am a little concerned about eating sour cream and uncooked pepper and tomatoes, but I take small portions. We're served an appetizer of eggplant and stuffed chicken, followed by borscht. We drink wine, the main course is breaded veal and potato and we have fruit for dessert.
Let me tell you about the people who make up our dinner party. Natalia Padalko is our local guide and will be with us throughout our visit to Minsk. Elena, an English teacher and friend of the family, joins us. The rest of the guests are Sveta, Tv, Steve and me. Tv did not expect to stay for dinner and when he's invited, he refuses at first. However, our host and hostess will not accept no for an answer. The husband really enjoys having him there, because as far as we can tell he speaks very little English. For much of the evening, he converses with Tv in Russian.
Our host and hostess are very interesting and hospitable. Unfortunately I don't remember the husband's name. He's a retired civil engineer and was Deputy of Roads. Valencia was an English teacher and on the city Council of Minsk for seven years. She said that this was an unpaid job, but rewarding because she was able to help others. From their style of living, it's obvious that although they may not have been paid much, they were well rewarded for their service. They spoke about politics and said that no one seems to support rejoining Russia. For the most part, the Belarusian people support the president. It becomes evident to us that the couple supports the current climate of communism. Whatever their politics, we find them very friendly. It's nice to spend the evening with them and we enjoy it very much.
Today we tour Minsk. Tv arrives late and as were waiting we become concerned. When he arrives, he tells us that he was stopped by the police just to make sure that he had all the required papers.
History of Minsk
The true beginning of Minsk is not known and there are many legends about its name. The city is situated on the watersheds of several rivers which flow to the Baltic Sea. Trading began during prehistoric times. Some believe that the name comes from the word for barter, miena. A folk legend says the name is based on a giant named Menesk or Mincz. He had a mill on which rocks and stones were used to make flour for bread. It fed his army which protected his land and possessions. The stone-flour may actually be the kneading and baking of clay used in brick making and ceramics. These trades occurred in Minsk's early history.
Lithuanians and Jatvyhs came to the area to hunt and gather. During the Dark Ages, they merged with Slavonic tribes and migrated north. They settled in the area of the watersheds. These early Belarusians thrived and founded villages, including Minsk. In the 10th century, during the time of Viking expansion, a Norse prince ruled. He founded the town which would become Minsk. To this day, Belarusian aristocrats distinguish between old Lithuanian and Scandinavian descended families.
In the early years, Minsk history was turbulent. In 1067, Minsk is cited in the records of wars with Kiev. The steep banks of Niamiha and surrounding high hills provided a good defensive position. Public buildings, homes and fortification were built from timber. After destruction in a battle, it became a marketplace on the crossroads between the Baltics and the South. Since I wrote about these battles in the history of Belarus, I won't repeat the details here.
Useslau had been the ruling prince during many of the battles. Although he was taken from Belarus, he returned. An interesting cultural story says that it was the bells of St. Sophia which called him back. The bells of St. Sophia serve as the symbol for Belarusian exiles, beckoning them to return to their homeland. The first uncensored historical opera tells the story of Prince Useslau's return to Belarus. It was performed in Minsk in 1944.
Upon his death, Useslau's principality of Polatsk was divided between his sons. Minsk went to Hleb, who became the first prince of the city. When quarrels weakened the northern principalities, the army of Kiev attacked again. In 1104, Minsk was ravaged. In 1116, Minsk was captured by Lithuanians. In 1119, Kiev forces attacked again killing all men and capturing Prince Hleb and his two sons. The Prince died in exile. The year 1129 brought another attack by Kiev. Afterward the sons of Hleb were sent to Constantinople
In 1146, Minsk returned to Polatsk and Hleb's sons returned. Sometime in the early 13th century, Polatsk allied with the grand Duke of Lithuania, who had invaded Minsk. His nephew was made the prince. Minsk continued as a partially independent principality until at least 1326. Around 1253, the capital of Belarus was moved to another town, 100 km west.
From 1580 to 1633, Minsk enjoyed a period of peace. In 1633, the Russian Czar built a cannon factory. In 1652, the Cossacks rearmed and began hostilities against the great principality of Lithuania. The Russians further built up their forces and attacked. Minsk fell with many other Belarusian cities. On June 30, 1655, Minsk surrendered to the Czar. The population had the choice of accepting the Russian Orthodox religion or being removed from the city, by chain gang or the river. The population was treated so badly that two years later they rebelled. In 1661, Minsk control was retaken by the Russians. Minsk became a center for the liberation of Belarus led by Grand Duke Jan Kasimir. In 1664, he visited Minsk at least three times. He found it destroyed and its people suffering from plague.
Recovery was slow and didn't obtain Russia's attention until the late 18th century. In 1796, plans were made to improve the city's amenities. Public gardens were created near the Svislacz River. The gardens were named the Governor's Gardens. An architect was hired to remodel important buildings such as the city guildhall, the vice governor's residence, the Brasilian monastery which was the school for the gentry's children, the merchant's exchange, the Jesuit College and the Holy Trinity convent in a nearby suburb. The rebuilding was done in neoclassical motif of Western Europe, without incorporating any Belarusian style.
During the early 1800s, Napoleon captured Minsk and left Marshall Davout in control of the city. Locally, Davout obtained strong support and was celebrated at a ceremony given by Bishop Dederko. He confiscated the harvests of Russian nobility as they fled from the city and divided them between the army, civil administration and peasants. He took steps to implement Napoleon's plan to restore the great principality of Lithuania, making Lithuania and Belarus two separate entities. This was popular with Belarusians. Volunteers formed military units. When Napoleon retreated these units fought with great bravery. In November, upon the return of Russia's field marshall, he inflicted few reprisals and proclaimed a general amnesty. However Bishop Dederko was suspended.
Until the uprisings of 1831 and 1863, Russian rule was comparatively mild, except for suppression of the Greek Catholic Church. Russian churches were built at important locations. Churches of other religions were converted to Russian style. In 1839, the Uniate Church was eliminated. For the next 30 years, many of the priests were imprisoned or deported. Latin clergy were expelled and the Bernhadine convent and Church were turned over to Russian Orthodox monks. One church was converted into an army warehouse. Another became the city archive. Streets were renamed to bring back the old Russian order. The names Belarus and Belarusian were outlawed. The retribution for the 1863 uprising was severe for Minsk and its surrounding areas. Thousands of residents were sent to Siberia or prison.
However, in general the 19th-century was a time of peace and prosperity. When the city was not in chaos, industry and arts increased. The Czars had little interest in Minsk and only visited twice. In 1819, Alexander I came to speak to the nobility. In 1859, Alexander II visited. The only permission given to build a Catholic Church structure was for cemetery chapels. Meanwhile grand Russian churches and shrines greatly increased. In 1874, a municipal water system was installed. In 1890, a telephone service opened.
The early 20th-century brought World War I and the Bolsheviks. In 1929, the ninth Belarusian Soviet Congress took place in Minsk. The decision to collectivize agricultural land caused many to starve to death. In 1941, the Nazi army came. Russian troops encircled the city. The Nazis exterminated many Jewish people. Some escaped death, receiving shelter and help from local residents. It's estimated that almost half of Minsk's population died in World War II. Bolsheviks executed and deported those they thought were collaborators.
After its ruin in World War II, the city was rebuilt as the Belarus capital and modern showplace. In size and population, it surpassed the capitals of Portugal, Denmark, Bulgaria and Hungry. It's reputed to be the best example of pure grand scale Soviet planning. With uniform monumental facades softened by wide streets and picturesque parks, it's a worker utopia.
1989 brought public demonstrations to Minsk. Mass rallies occurred in Independence Square and other important points throughout the city. The goal was to demonstrate to the world that Belarus was a nation. As the capital of Belarus, the history of Minsk becomes the history of the country. Since I've written that previously, I won't repeat it.
We begin our city tour with a ride down praspekt Skaryny, Minsk's main street. It's wide and busy. We arrive at Independence Square, the center of the city. I'm surprised that it's covered with dirt and not concrete. It looks as if perhaps there was an effort to do some plantings. It's surrounded by Soviet type, uniform government buildings. Natalia tells us that the buildings were constructed in 1946. She says that the Square is being renovated to make it very beautiful. She tells us that after Soviet time the flag was changed. The current President changed it back, saying that this was the flag when one third of the population was wiped out and it should be kept in honor of them. As we're leaving, we pass a Catholic church, St. Simon Church.
Natalia tells us that the population of Minsk is 1,700,000. It was two million but the birth rate has dropped. The population of Belarus is ten million. Minsk has nine districts. The Central District has no factories. Minsk is a very important railroad junction where the east of Europe meets the west. She points out the KGB building. I guess every ex-Soviet major city has to have one. Minsk has four McDonald's, which based on what we've seen elsewhere seems too few for an entire city.
We ride to October Square which is now called Central Square. I find it more picturesque than Independence Square. Of course, that could be because it's not being renovated. There is a rather nice building on one side. It's white and the front of the building has simple columns. Next we go to the Afghanistan Memorial. It's a pretty, green park. In 1986, it was called Island of Grief and Sadness. In 1988, the name changed to Island of Tears. It has a bridge which symbolizes the one that troops crossed over to reach Kazakhstan, which was part of the Soviet Union. At the end of the bridge there is a white and black monument, which I find attractive.
Back in the van, we ride to the old city of which a small part has been restored. It was rebuilt in 17th and 18th-century style. It seems inconsequential compared to the grand modern city which surrounds it. The buildings are painted in the European custom of the period, using different colors. Because there were no street numbers, a building's color became its address. I find the colors in old Minsk quite pale.
Natalia tells us that in 1975, Minsk adopted green as its official color and was given the honor of being named a hero city. Also in 1975, the city built Yama, the Jewish Memorial. I find our next stop, Yama, to be the most moving of the day. Minsk had a large Jewish population because Russia's Czars wanted Jewish people far from Moscow and St. Petersburg. In the large city ghetto, all children and seniors died. Five thousand Jewish people were lined up and shot into the pit where they were buried. Others were gassed under the guise of being sent to the shower.
The monument contains the pit. Going into the pit is a long concrete strip on which very thin, gaunt people are walking down. The strip is white and in contrast the people are made of a black shiny material. Some seem to be hiding their children. Next to this, a flight of stairs goes into the pit for anyone who wants to make the journey. The site brings tears to my eyes and I become wordless. We stand at the top of the pit in silence. Natalia tells us that the statue was donated by a Jewish artist organization, to show the concentration camp lineup for the gas chambers.
There are other parts to the monument but this is by far the most wrenching. There's a small tower with some flowers at the bottom and trees around it which appears to be something like a gravestone. Not too far from the pit, there is another exhibit which consists of three parts.
On our way to our next stop, we pass a Catholic Church. Natalia tells us that during the Soviet time the church was covered with bricks so people could not see anything of it. In 1991, Catholics who knew of the church made an appeal to the government. The government responded by giving the church back to the people.
Natalia tells us a version of the first mention of Minsk. It occurred in 1067, in the chronicle "Of Bygone Years". The Chronicle is an account of a bloody battle. We pass by the Polytechnic Academy. In 1961 it was state owned. After 1991, most scientists became employed. Belarus' president is investing in sports, not brains. Natalia tells us that he wanted to learn soccer so he built the soccer stadium. Next he wanted to learn another sport, so he built its stadium. Now he's building a library. Does this mean he wants to learn to read?
We pass by the Children's Railroad Station, where only children work between June 1 and September 1. It's 80 km in size and designed to be a positive learning experience for them. Its construction began in the autumn of 1954. Schoolboys built the line, doing the excavation, painting the office, dug flower beds, planted the flower, and installed signs. Others, who were designated to become railway men, studied the theoretical aspects of working on this railway. On Sunday, July, 9, 1955, hundreds of people with their children came to the formal opening of the children's railway.
Next we go to the Komarovsk market. It's similar to many that we've seen on this trip. However I find its entrance area more interesting. It appears to be a sort of playground. I'm not sure whether this is by design or evolution. Colorful concrete, artsy ornaments on poles stand around the borders. Statues are interspersed on the platform. Some are of people and others of animals. Obviously children like to climb on the animals. We watch many who do so. Unfortunately there are a few stairs, to get to the platform.
Natalia tells us that as Belarus cities grew, they encompassed surrounding villages. Some village houses still stand. Especially senior citizens live in them and want to stay. Belarusian schools educate children of ages six to 17 in the same building. Minsk produces very good beer and vodka. In a competition in Los Angeles, Belarusian vodka beat Absolut. Postwar buildings were built by prisoners of war for two years after the war, before the prisoners were released to return to Germany. Minsk has ten state owned hospitals. In the past few years, private hospitals have come to Minsk. Those who have money obtain care in the private hospitals.
Minsk from Hotel Window
We go to lunch at Pechki Lavochki. It's good but too much food. This afternoon we are supposed to go to Khatyn, a memorial to a village that was burned to the ground by Nazis. However it's getting late and the memorial does not sound interesting enough, given the distance we have to travel to it. We decide not to go.
We have dinner at Rakovski Brovar. We enjoy the liebfraumilch wine and food. Since we ate so much at lunch, we eat light for dinner. When we return to the hotel, we go to Sveta's room. She has a view of Minsk and we want to get a photograph of it.
Today we travel to Vilnius, Lithuania. Both Tv and I are excited and looking forward to the city, although for different reasons. Tv is returning home and I am visiting the capital of what was my father's paternal family's homeland. (Have I mentioned this before?) As we leave Minsk, we all agree that we liked it better than anticipated.
We're encouraged when we reach the border, because there's no line. However we encounter a minor delay because one of the vehicle documents has expired. The Belarus official tells us that we have to go back to the border crossing where this should have been corrected when we entered the country. Tv replies that this is not possible because the passengers are American tourists on a schedule. The official suggests that Tv return and we continue on with the vehicle. Sveta talks to the official and he agrees to ignore the discrepancy and lets us go. When we reach passport control, Steve, Sveta and Tv leave the minivan while I sit in the vehicle and look towards the official.
We're all happy to be back in Lithuania! We mostly drive through forest until we get close to Vilnius. As we enter Vilnius, a police man pulls us over. He looks at the papers which Tv has and says "hello". Then he tells us to put on our seatbelts. After the police man leaves, Tv's tells us that all passengers must wear seatbelts.
Tv takes us on a city tour and provides a nice overview of Vilnius. Mostly he shows us the old city. It's obvious that he's happy to be home. As we've read, this city has a large old area. UNESCO declared the old city Europe's largest Baroque Old Town and a World Heritage site. Our Lonely Planet guidebook says that Vilnius has "an underlying oddness that creates its soul." Most of the buildings were constructed after the great fires of 1610, 1737, 1748, and 1749. The builders replaced wooden edifice with stone. During our brief tour, I find the city quite picturesque and interesting. I'm really looking forward to our days here. The Hotel City Park built in 1997, the hotel in which we're staying, is located in the heart of this old city. Tv drops us off and we tell him that he should enjoy the rest of the day and we'll see him tomorrow. At check-in, the clerk tells us that there is a bank open until 3 p.m. We take a brief rest and then head out to change money and see the city with Sveta.
History of Vilnius
Legend holds that Vilnius was founded in 1320's. Gediminas, the Lithuanian Grand Duke, was on a hunting trip. One night while sleeping in his camp he dreamed of an iron wolf, which howled with the voices of 100 wolves. After consulting the high priest of Lithuania about the dream, he believed his dream was a message telling him to build an impenetrable city as forceful as the wolf's howling. Actually, settlements in the area of today's Vilnius can be traced back to 2000 B.C. Some believe that it may have been a trade settlement.
During the 1300s, Vilnius was constructed on Gediminas hill. It included upper and lower castles and homes sheltered by a moat, walls and towers. In 1323, Gediminas invited European merchants, craftsmen and religious people to make Vilnius their home. During the next two centuries, Vilnius attracted people of diverse nationalities, including Slavic, German, Jewish and Tartar.
From 1365 to 1402, the Knights of the Teutonic Order assaulted the city approximately six times. In 1410, the Lithuanian-Polish forces crushed the Knights at Grünwald. This began a period of prosperity in Vilnius when many Gothic buildings were built. Builders reconstructed castles and the church added the cathedral within the lower castle.
Between 1503 and 1522, Tartar assaults occurred. As a result, a protective wall was erected. During the 16th century, Vilnius became one of the largest cities in Eastern Europe, its population numbered approximately 25,000. Buildings in the late Gothic and Renaissance styles were constructed. In 1579, the Polish Jesuits founded Vilnius University. This transformed the city into a center of Catholic Counterreformation. In the 17th century, Lithuania became subordinate in the Polish-Lithuania state. During this time, Baroque architecture became popular.
In the 19th century, Vilnius became a safe haven for Lithuanian and Polish gentry displaced by Russian rulers. Polish national revival became a focus in the city. Poet Adam Mickiewicz of Vilnius became a foremost inspiration. From 1830 to 1831 and 1863 to 1864, Polish uprisings occurred. Even though neither uprising was successful in Vilnius, czarist officials closed Vilnius University.
After 1850, industrialization came to Vilnius. This led to the building of railroads. Vilnius also became a significant Jewish city. In the early 20th century, the population of Vilnius numbered 160,000, approximately 75,000 were Jewish. The city became called "Jerusalem of Lithuania".
In World War I, German forces occupied Vilnius for more than three years. Afterwards bloodshed between the Bolsheviks, Polish and Lithuanian armies ensued. Once it let up, Vilnius became part of Poland. Street names were in Polish and Lithuanians became a small minority of the city's population.
In 1939, when the Red Army entered the city, Stalin made Vilnius part of Lithuania. World War II brought the second German occupation. It lasted for three years. The Nazis slaughtered most Vilnius Jews in the ghetto or outside the city in the Paneriai Forest. The city's population decreased from 209,000 to 110,000. During the six-day battle in which the Soviet Army retook Vilnius, much damage occurred.
After World War II, as part of the Soviet Union development, workers constructed residential and industrial suburbs on the outskirts the old city. Lithuanians from the countryside, Russians and Belarusians moved to Vilnius.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Vilnius became the heart of Lithuania's move for independence from the USSR. In 1989, a human chain across the Baltics formed from Vilnius to Tallin, to protest Soviet occupation. On January 13, 1991, Soviet troops violently assaulted Vilnius television installations. They killed twelve people and wounded many who were trying to defend the television stations. The brutality brought the situation in Lithuania to the attention of the West, igniting the end of Soviet dominance.
Vilnius labored to become a European city as Lithuania's independence began. In 1994, UNESCO made the Old Town a World Heritage site, the largest old town in Eastern Europe. This brought millions of euros to the city, earmarked for renovation.
In 2000, Artüras Zuokas, age 32, of the Liberal Union Party was elected mayor. His reputation was that of being ostentatious. He had extreme plans for the city, of which the conservatives disapproved. He successfully improved the city's position among foreign countries. His tactics included overseas advertising and invitations to potential foreign investors.
In 2002, the European Bank loaned €10 million for new rail links, an Old Town bypass and new highways which connect Vilnius to Kiev and Minsk. Work started to reconstruct the Jewish ghetto. Recent statistics show that the population of Vilnius contains approximately 19% Russians, 4% Polish and 1% Belarusian.
We look for a bank for quite awhile but we don't find any that are open. We start to return to the hotel to obtain more specific directions. We see another hotel, and Sveta goes in to ask about changing money. The staff tells her that there is a bank open just a few buildings away. It's upstairs so Steve and Sveta leave me outside, in front of the building. I watch the people passing by. They look at me, but when I return their look they quickly look away. Young children are friendlier. I often receive a return smile from them.
When Sveta and Steve return, we go to the Cathedral Square. The Catholic Cathedral is a beautiful white building with columns set in front of Gediminas hill. It's a national symbol of importance that was originally built for the worship of Perkunas, the Lithuanian god of thunder. During Soviet times it was converted into a picture gallery. Reconstruction occurred in 1989 and it once again became a religious Cathedral celebrating mass every day. Between 1387 and 1388, the original Cathedral was built with wood. In the 15th century, Grand Duke Vytautas remodeled the Cathedral in Gothic style. Throughout its history, it was rebuilt as architectural styles changed. Its early form cannot be ascertained. From 1783 to 1801, the most important restoration was made. The outside was completely redone in the classic style that we see today. On top of the Cathedra, we see three white brass statues of St. Helene, St. Stanislaus and St. Casimir. They are replicas of the original wooden statues placed there in 1793. In 1956, the Stalinist régime destroyed them. In 1996, they were replaced. St. Helene holds a gold Cross of nine meters. Since the statues can be seen from quite far away, they serve as a landmark. I'm sure we'll find this landmark useful, since our hotel is just across the street from the Cathedral. I consider the Cathedral very beautiful.
The Cathedral sits at the bottom of Gediminas hill, which I hope we'll visit during our tour of Vilnius. Statues surround the Cathedral. On the north side above the main entrance and on the front facade of the Cathedral, we see the religious statues of apostles and saints. On the south side facing the square are Lithuanian dukes. We read that the inside retains some of its original design. Since there is a festival in the square, we decide to save the inside for another day. (Unfortunately, we never get to see the inside because when we decide to go inside, the doors to the Cathedral are locked.)
Lithuanian Folk Festival
There's a stage set up and performances going on. We watch several traditional Lithuanian acts. One is a choir, another is dancers. I find the performances interesting; however I would like to know the meaning of the songs. On the stage, above the performers, hang oversize stuffed mushrooms. Throughout the Baltics, we have found mushrooms one of the tastiest and abundant dishes, so seems appropriate to see them as decorations.
We walk up to the president's palace. The streets and sidewalks are fairly easy to navigate. We pass the University. We go back towards our hotel by way of streets with modern commercial stores on them. Sveta goes into a few but reports that the prices are very high.
The street next to our hotel has been turned into a pedestrian walkway. The walkway is just a portion of a main road. During mid day the road is used by vehicular traffic. There are pillars at both ends of the walkway. When it's time to turn the road into a pedestrian walkway, the pillars are raised, from where they had been recessed the night before. We think that this is an interesting way to manage the transition. We walk along the walkway and Steve and Sveta go into some shops. While I'm waiting for them to return, I see another person in a wheelchair with his family. Based on what we saw during our walk, I find Vilnius a very active, lively city with many people around.
We return to our hotel and take a short rest before dinner. Sveta comes down to our room, and over a glass of wine we decide to have dinner at a Lithuanian restaurant. Steve selects five restaurants that look good to him. Sveta and I narrow the choice down to two. We go to the closest one, Gabi. It's a good choice. Dinner is tasty. We share a herring appetizer. Steve has stuffed cabbage, Sveta has sautéed eggplant and I have baked trout. We all have beer. When we return to our hotel, Sveta comes to our room. She asks us for feedback about our trip, in preparation for the report she will write for MIR. We talk about the high points and low points of our tour. It's a fun discussion and a nice way to the day.
We meet our guide Emilija Paplaitene, who tells us to call her Rita. As we ride to where we'll start the city tour, Rita gives us some background. She tells us that Vilnius is a translation which means wave in a valley between two rivers. In the 14th century, Lithuanians believed in pagan gods. The tower and Cathedral had areas with shrines to worship these gods. Lithuania was the last European country to become Christian. Originally the Cathedral was built in the 16th century. Today's structure was built in the 18th-century, in classic architectural style. After World War II, it was used as an auto repair shop. In 1963, after Stalin's death, Lithuania's president changed it to a picture gallery.
Only one of its halls was used; the others were closed. In 1989, it became the Cathedral again.
Rita points out that there is a ramp into the Cathedral. She tells us that for most of the day the main street of Vilnius is a pedestrian walkway.
Lithuanian Flag Flies on Top of Vilnius Tower
Lithuania's flag has three colors and each is significant. Yellow represents the sun which only shines for approximately 85 days of the year. Green is for the greenery of the forests. Red is for the blood shed in fighting for independence. The castle on Gediminas hill with the flag flying on its top is the national emblem. Seven hundred and fifty years ago, King Mindaugas was the first man to unite Lithuania into one centralized state.
Today Vilnius' population is 530,000. A lot of people are leaving due to unemployment. We pass the presidential palace and Rita points out that it has the country coat of arms on top and 43 flags in front. The president is 47 years old. Last year Lithuania's GNP rose 9.4%. The prime minister is an ex-Communist leader. He holds the most power in the government. In 1647, the first book in the Lithuanian language was published.
Our first stop of the day is in the Jewish section. "Jerusalem of the North", as Vilnius' Jewish Sector was called, was one of Europe's prominent Jewish communities. Before World War II, it thrived. Jewish people came here to absorb spiritual values. We purchase a booklet entitled "Jewish Community of Lithuania". It says that there were more than 100 prayer houses. "Lithuania was renowned for its eminent rabbis, and great Talmudic scholars including Gaon Eliyahu who was one of the most sophisticated Talmudic experts of all times."
According to Lonely Planet, Vilnius owes a debt to Jewish culture. Eight centuries ago at Gediminas' invitation, 3,000 Jewish people settled in Vilnius. In the 19th-century, Vilnius became a center for Yiddish, the European Jewish language. The famous landscape artist Isaak Levitan and sculptor Jacques Lipchitz were from Vilnius. At the beginning of World War I, the Jewish community was at its largest, approximately 100,000. Between the world wars when Vilnius was part of Poland, the Jewish community decreased because of discrimination and poverty. However in 1925, Vilnius grew into the Jewish cultural hub of Eastern Europe and was chosen to be the headquarters of the Yiddish language scientific research Institute YIVO. Schools, libraries, literature and theater grew and prospered. Six daily Jewish newspapers were published.
Nazi and Soviet viciousness destroyed this vibrant community. In 1939, all Jewish organizations, except Communist ones, were abolished. Many leaders were deported. Polish Jews, escaping the Nazis, came to Vilnius. On June 22, 1941, two days after the Nazi invasion of the USSR, Vilnius was captured. During the next three months, 35,000 Jews were murdered in Paneriai Forest outside of Vilnius before the initial Jewish ghetto area was established.
Steve & Rabbi inside Vilnius' Remaining Synagogue
Vilnius had two ghettos. First, the Nazis forced 30,000 people into the Small Ghetto. On September 6, 1941, the Large Ghetto was created. Forty-six days after its creation, the Nazis murdered 11,000 Small Ghetto residents, in one day in Paneriai Forest. Some of the survivors hid in sewers or escaped to the Large Ghetto. On September 1943, general liquidation of Jews was committed upon Himmler's order. Twenty-six thousand people were slain in Panerial Forest. Another 10,000 people were taken to concentration camps. About 6,000 people were able to escape.
We go into Vilnius' remaining synagogue, built in 1894 for the wealthy. It only survived because the Nazi's used it as a medical store. In 1995 it was restored. According to Lonely Planet, an Orthodox community uses it for services twice a day. We meet the Rabbi. He is very friendly even though we do not share a common language. I find the inside of the synagogue beautiful, decorated in vibrant blue with gold and white.
We walk to where the synagogue in the Small Ghetto once stood. It was destroyed when Soviet and German troops clashed. After World War II, a kindergarten was built in its place since during Soviet times a synagogue could not be built. Steve points out a street sign which says Žydu, meaning Jews. It's the name of the street.
Baker Preparing to Go to Market
While walking to the Jewish District, Rita points out that some of the buildings have windows low to the ground and covered by shutters. She says that these were built so that a person inside could hand to a person outside the goods to be taken to the market to sell. I see this happening in an alleyway that we pass. The merchant appears to be a baker.
We walk to the Gates of Dawn in the center of the old city, the only one of the original nine gates remaining today. The city wall was built between 1503 and 1523, according to Rita. On top of the Gates stands a small 18th-century chapel which sits over the archway. The chapel supposedly contains a miracle giving icon of the Virgin.
Back in the van, we ride by the Church of the St. Virgin's Apparition. It's a beautiful building with silver onion domes, obviously Russian Orthodox. We see a lot of green trees around the Cathedral. Rita tells us that in Lithuania green is considered the color of life. During the St. Mary Nativity celebration attendees buy a candle, make a wish and place it in a holder.
We go to the market. Much of it is in the open air. There's a section of meat which is inside. When I find a butcher who looks something like my Lithuanian grandfather, and even a little like my father, I take his picture. Tv has taught me the correct pronunciation of the Lithuanian word for hello, lubas. Today when I say "lubas" to people, I find them to be friendlier than yesterday when I was saying "hello". In general, I find this market very similar to others we've visited during this trip.
Next we ride to Sveta's friend's apartment. It's on the outskirts of the city and unfortunately on the fifth floor in a building built in Stalin's time, so there is no elevator. Steve and Sveta go up while I wait in the van. When they get back, I ask Steve to tell me about his visit and the apartment. He reports that the apartment had a very small kitchen and three other rooms. Two were a decent size, each having one wall about the length of our office (approximately eight feet) and the other about 1 1/2 as large. The third room is approximately the width of our office by half of that. The woman that they visited, Zena Eda, is the mother of a friend of Sveta's. She was very kind and kept offering them food and drinks. She had an open bottle of wine and they each had a glass. When the bottle was empty she wanted to open another one but Sveta and Steve declined her offer. Zena and Sveta talked. During the visit Sveta's friend phoned. Steve said that Zena was very nice. He was impressed by the apartment. It was small but comfortable. Two people lived there. Zena insisted that they take some fruit for me.
Next we go to Trakai. On the way, we pass the Paneriai Forest. Rita tells us it's called death camp. People walked 12 km from Vilnius to reach it. They lived in the camp for two days before they were killed. The camp was the forest. There were no buildings. I get shivers as she's telling us this. We sit in silence for a while.
Trakai is a former Lithuanian capital. Lonely Planet states that it may have been Gediminas' capital in the 1320s. By the late 14th century, it became Kestutis' capital. Castles were built to defend Lithuania from the German knights. Today Trakai is home to the Karaites, a Jewish sect from Baghdad which practices the teachings of Moses and Mohammed. Around 1400, approximately 5,000 descendents of the original Karaites were enslaved by Vytautas and taken from their home to serve as his bodyguards and protect against the Mongols. According to Lonely Planet only 12 families, approximately 60 people, continue to reside in Trakai. This makes them Lithuania's smallest ethnic minority.
Rita tells us that the religion is from the eighth century and based on Judaism with some Muslim tradition. She says that before World War II, there were 32 communities. Today only five remain. I'm not sure whether she's talking about in the world or in Lithuania. Lithuania has 99 minorities. The smallest are Jewish, Karaites and Gypsies. According to Rita, there are 15 Karaites families of 87 people in Trakai. Few marry outside their ethnicity. A large community of Karaites lives in eastern Lithuania. Marriage between the Karaites of Trakai and eastern Lithuania occurs. We see that their houses only have windows on three walls. As part of the Karaite culture, one wall cannot have windows because those who live in the neighboring houses are not allowed to see what the resident family is doing. We go to the Kararite ethnographic museum. It's small with only three rooms but interesting. From what we see in the displays the religion appears to have more Muslim than Jewish influence.
However the original cobblestone remains (unfortunately for Steve pushing me in my wheelchair). The Island measures two acres with the Castle walls approximately one meter thick. As we get nearer to the building and into the fort, the cobblestones make it very tough going. I go inside the fort but stay in the outer courtyard.
Sveta, Steve and Rita head up to the second level. Later Steve tells me that to reach the entrance to the Castle, they climbed up stairs and walked over a bridge covering a moat. Inside there is a courtyard with wooden steps and railings going around it. This was built during the reconstruction. They go into the main chamber which was used for gatherings. There's a story of the king who won the war. To celebrate, he held a party for 49 days.
Castle Inner Courtyard
They went into the family apartments; each was a quarter size of the big room. The smallest was about 15 ft. by 15 ft. The king's wife had two rooms. The inside rooms have displays. A museum contained mostly armor. Steve found the chain armor, which weighed approximately nine kilograms, the most interesting. Downstairs he saw two rooms with coin collections. The coins were of copper and silver from before the 18th-century. They had no numbers, so their value was determined by weight. On the way out of the Castle, they walked back over the bridge and through a long row of apartments which housed the Knights. The inside contained a museum of furniture, tobacco and opium pipes and stamps used for sealing documents. Steve saw a prison for Knights who behaved badly, a room with a pit. Food was lowered to the prisoners. There was a very steep staircase to the room above the pit. This had one section of walls which was not reconstructed. Steve found the original wall interesting. Rita wanted to show Steve more, but he had enough of both the Castle and Rita. He said that after awhile she became overbearing. In general, he found this site "very nice", but much like other castles and museums that we've seen. Since so much was reconstructed with a red brick, he did not get a feeling of authenticity.
Sveta returns to the courtyard before Steve and Rita. I'm happy to see her because I'm getting cold since shade had covered the area where I'm sitting. Since the cobblestone is so bumpy, I didn't want to walk in the courtyard by myself. Now that she's back, I enjoy walking with her. We go to the tables where people are selling souvenirs. However, I don't find anything interesting enough to buy.
Steve and I walk back to where the minivan is parked taking the long way, passing lakeside stands. We're still looking for a chachka and decide to buy a Lumzdelis. It's a flutelike wooden instrument and seems appropriate since yesterday we saw music being performed at the festival. Later we double check with Tv to make sure it's authentic and he says it is. I find walking along the lake pretty and relaxing.
On our way back into the city, we stop at the railroad station to change money. Tv pulls up close by to where a group of teenagers is gathering. I ask if it's a class trip. He tells me that it's military. About half of the people are saying goodbye to others. Some are quite sad. Then one young man assembles the groups for a picture. Those without uniforms step away. I find it obvious that the group is in training, although those saying goodbye are emotional.
Frank Zappa Monument
At our request, on our way back to the hotel, we drive by the Frank Zappa monument. No one knows the reason it was constructed. Lonely Planet states that Frank Zappa neither visited Lithuania nor was he Lithuanian. Neither one of us are Frank Zappa fans, but since it's the only one of its kind in the world, we want to see it. It was built in 1995, two years after his death from cancer, by the Lithuanian Frank Zappa fan club. Before they could build it, the fan club had a lengthy dispute with city authorities.
We eat dinner at Amatininku Užeiga. Our Vilnius guidebook highly recommends it for the atmosphere and Lithuanian food. We sit in a small room with a charming atmosphere. We all enjoy our food.
We walk back to the hotel. The streets are still busy but not overwhelming. Sveta comes to our room and we have fun drinking wine and writing a postcard to the Martins. The Martins are a couple from our Stan trip, who we spent many evenings with, laughing at the events of the day and the crazy people on our tour.
We begin our day having breakfast with Sveta. After breakfast Sveta leaves us with Rita and Tv. The only plan we have for today is to go to the Vilnius archive. Rita was able to obtain an appointment for us, which was unexpected. In the planning of this trip, I had mentioned to our MIR contact that I would like to learn more about my Lithuanian genealogy. MIR found someone who performed some very preliminary research and gave me a list of questions to answer. However I did not know enough of the answers for the genealogy researcher to help. The researcher wanted to know where in Lithuania my family was from. However that's what I most want to learn. I was told that at the late date that I had asked for it, it was impossible to get an appointment with the Vilnius archive. I am delighted when Rita tells us she has been able to obtain an appointment for us.
We go to the Lithuanian State Historical Archives at the appointed time and wait approximately an hour. When the department manager, Neringa Ceškeviciute, finally calls us, I give her the following information. I've gathered some of it from people that I met on our trip.
|Syseskey Genealogy Information|
from US marriage
birth year: 1849
emigrated after 1870
closest to Lithuanian
|Anna||Petchulas||name is Lithuanian||
emigrated after 1870
|Perke||spelling is Belarus|
|Mary||Georme||Jewish name||born January 6, 1850||?|
The manager looks at the spellings of the names, looks them up in a book of Lithuanian names and says that my great great-grandparents names could be from anywhere in Lithuania. She also says that the spellings are Polish but it was not uncommon for Lithuanian people to have Polish names. From 1830 to 1904, the Lithuanian language was not in use. People spoke Russian and spelled with the Roman alphabet, if they could spell, so spelling was often converted based on pronunciation. Therefore the names for which I have the spelling are not Lithuanian names. Unfortunately, the manager is in a rush because she had another meeting to attend, so I was unable to write down the Lithuanian spellings of my forefathers and mothers names. She said the birthdates may not be correct. Dates from that time are often off by one to two years. Also the Russian calendar was two weeks longer than ours so the months and days can be off by two weeks.
She gives me a list of three additional documents to obtain, the passenger list of the ship on which they emigrated, the marriage record from the church in which they were married and the naturalization record. She says that after I have them I can contact her and she can work to do the research to find out where my ancestors were from. Of course, all this is not for free. She gave me the prices of
As we leave the archive, I'm happy we had the meeting but unhappy that I didn't even have time to write down the Lithuanian names. She only looked up Joseph and Anna. I tell Steve that I would like to continue my research with my cousin Chip, when I get home. Chip has done some genealogy research on our family and we shared our knowledge by e-mail. We had invited Chip to come with us on our trip, only to learn that he recently had surgery for cancer so was unable to come with us. On a sad note, I had been in touch with Chip by e-mail when we got home but before I could discuss this meeting with him, he passed away. I attempted to contact his children, offering them our condolences and to take over Chip's research. However I never received a response from them.
Back in the van, Steve and I discuss where we would like to go next. Very quickly it becomes obvious to me that Steve wants to go to Europos Parkas, an open air contemporary art museum outside of Vilnius. For him the main attraction is a maze of televisions. I like the idea of an open air art museum and he's been so patient in support of my genealogy research, so Europos Parkas will be our destination.
On the ride out to the park, Rita gives us a more information about the history of the Jewish people in Vilnius. The anniversary of the liberation of the ghetto is September 23, 1943. From December through July 1944, the corpses of the Jewish people killed were burnt. A group dug underground tunnels as an escape route but the tunnels collapsed and most suffocated. Only 12 survived. One of the survivors wrote about these atrocities.
When we arrive at the park, we obtain a map and a pamphlet. It states that
Europos Parkas TV Maze
When we reach it Steve is enthralled. To me, the televisions look as though they were from the 1960s and they remind us both of the first color televisions which our grandparents owned. They're stacked one on top of the other, approximately 8 ft. high and they form quite a maze. The top of each wall is draped with plastic and we guess this is to protect them from the weather. We walk up and down the paths. So we don't lose our way, I stay behind and until Steve gets his bearings. At one place, a stack of televisions has caved in, so we turn around. Later I read that in the center the maze, there is a statue of Lenin which "symbolizes the absurdity of Soviet propaganda that for over half a century had been implanted in people's minds with the help of senseless TV". We don't make it that far into the maze. For the first time ever, Steve asks me to take his picture and says that at least his mother will enjoy seeing it.
We walk around the park, using the map and trying to identify what we're seeing. A good part of the park is woods and some of the artwork blends in. Paths are packed dirt. According to the map, the park has 71 of pieces of artwork and we find at least one that isn't listed. We have time to find approximately half of the artwork. Paths go in many directions and we don't have time to wander down all of them. To the best of my notes and recollection here's what we see.
Were getting close to the back of the park and I'm getting a little tired of being on my feet. Steve and I are following the map to find and identify the artwork. At first Rita left us alone but now she has joined us. At one point she is moving faster than us and starts to run ahead and identify the works. This annoys Steve and me. Eventually we convey our message to her.
By this time I am really in need of a place to sit for a while. Once again Steve scouts ahead. Finally, he sees a small rest area with some tables and chairs. We take a break and soon Rita joins us and begins talking. At first we have a nice conversation, but soon she starts dominating again. Steve becomes impatient with her, so he says he will go off and look at some things located too far for me to walk.
Rita leaves to get my wheelchair. She returns with Tv pushing the wheelchair and I am happy to get into it. I enjoy sitting at the table in the natural surroundings. Rita wants to move on and asks if she can push me. I ask if she's ever pushed a wheelchair, expecting no for an answer. However, she tells me about her daughter who had osteomyelitis at a young age. Her daughter's affected leg was approximately 15 cm shorter than the other one. She took her daughter to Siberia to have a leg lengthening operation. During the recovery, her daughter used a wheelchair. I am interested in learning about her daughter's childhood, growing up in Soviet times with a disability and I think Steve will be interested in talking to her about the leg lengthening surgery, since this is one of the topics on his web site www.shoresupport.org.
Rita tells me that her daughter attended school, although at times it was very difficult with her walk. After surgery, she had heavy knee rehabilitation of approximately five hours per day. For half of it Rita did exercises with her daughter. During the other half of the time, her daughter did exercises independently. Very little professional therapy was given. She still has minimal hips and walks with a pronounced limp. Rita doesn't provide many details, but from what she says it sounds like her daughter has a responsible job at the University. She works in forecasting in which industries there will be future job growth, .
We start to back to the van, going down the main trail and stopping to see displays which appear interesting to us.
Drinking Structure with Exposed Kidney Pool
I enjoy visiting Europos Parkas. I find most of the pieces of modern art interesting and thought that the setting was beautiful. As we begin our ride back to Vilnius, we realize that we haven't taken a good picture of the Baltic forests we've been seeing throughout our trip. This may be your last chance to do so and the lighting is good, so we ask Tv to pull over.
Our next stop is the main campus of the Vilnius University back in the old city. The University was founded by Jesuits in 1579 at the urging of Stefan Batory, the king of Poland. During the Counter-Reformation, it was run by Jesuits for two centuries and achieved the reputation as one of the greatest centers of Polish learning. In 1832, the Russians closed it. It remained closed until 1919. According to Lonely Planet, its student body numbers approximately 14,000 and the library contains five million books. The University started the world's first Center for Stateless Cultures, defined as cultures without armed forces. These include Yiddish, Roma and Karaimic.
The many varied halls and buildings represent all of the old town architectural styles. Of its 12 courtyards, we only see a few of them. I find the University and its courtyards interesting. However, some of the courtyards and buildings are supposed to be barrier free, but we find that at least as many have stairs as contain ramps. Since we've already done so much walking today, I tire fairly quickly.
When we go back to the van, Tv is waiting for us. He's been shying away from our cameras for the entire time he's been with us. I decide I want his picture in this setting, since we are at the University and he is a student. When I tell him, he still tries to get out of having his picture taken. He says that this is not the University campus where he takes classes. Finally, I guess he realizes that I'm not going to give up my argument and he lets me take his picture.
We return to our room and begin to pack. After a rest, we go down to the lobby to meet Sveta and Tv for our farewell dinner at Frescos. It's supposed to be an international restaurant with experimental dishes. Unfortunately we have a pre-ordered dinner of soup, bread, wine, veal over potato and a small amount of spinach and chocolate cake. It's good but not interesting. We're glad that Tv could join us for our goodbye dinner. He planned to go to class but the three of us convinced him to join us.
We walk back to the hotel, enjoying the city atmosphere. We look for a shop in which to buy the Lithuanian drink krup. It seems to be the appropriate drink for our last night in Vilnius. It takes awhile, but we finally find a liquor store. Sveta continues to be amazed at how low prices are here. When we arrive back at the hotel, the three of us have a farewell party in our room. We reminisce about the good parts of our trip. We all agree that for the most part, everything has been very enjoyable.
L. Stuokos: Street In Front of Cathedral
We get up late and have a cup of coffee since we missed breakfast. We complete our packing. Sveta brings us a banana since he knows we missed breakfast. We leave the hotel and take our last walk around Vilnius to see a few more sites.
We go across the street to the Cathedral, because we want to see the laughing Madonna and its inside. Unfortunately it's locked. Even though It's quiet, I guess theft can be a problem, since the Cathedral isn't open. I find it interesting to observe the quiet streets in the middle of a business day. Even though this part of Vilnius is not as lively today, I still find it exciting to be here. We enjoy our walk through the city. The weather is beautiful, with a blue sky and bright sun.
St. Anne's Cathedral
Next we walk to St. Anne's Cathedral. Built in the 16th century, it's considered the jewel of Lithuanian Gothic architecture. It has 33 types of redbrick. I find it incredible to look at. There's a legend that Napoleon was so impressed with it that he wanted to take it back to Paris in the palm of his hand. The front has three tall spires, each with a cross on its top. Steve walks around the building to find a good angle for picture. Unfortunately the sun is at the wrong angle and we will have left Vilnius by the time it's at a good angle. I take a few shots anyway. Then we walk around to the side, and take a few more. Since the sunlight is at a better angle, perhaps one of these will capture the interesting building.
We continue our walk through this beautiful city on this gorgeous day. Our next destination is the republic of Uzupis. As we walk into Uzupis, we declare that we have seen six countries on this trip.
History of Uzupis
Most of this history is from the web site www.baltkurs.com article Under the Wing of an Angle by Olga Pavuk.
Until the early 1990s, Uzupis was called "The Streets of Death". It was one of the most desolate areas in the center of Vilnius, surrounded on three sides by the Uzupe River with seven bridges that cross into Uzupis. Soon after the war, people moved to this area. It gained the reputation of the most criminal part of the city. There was no hot water and utilities were in the yard. Apparently this still holds true for some of the dwellings.
Approximately 10 years ago, painters, poets and romantic businessmen began moving to Uzupis. On April 1, 1998, it declared its independence, with a coat of arms, four flags of one for each season, and its own borders. The coat of arms includes a picture of a hole in an arm. The hole in the arm symbolizes the characteristics of being overt.
Uzupis has a president, although he was not appointed or elected. One day Romas Lileikis just "woke up and felt himself as president". He states that, "over the past five years the minus of his State has transformed it into a plus… Uzupis is not a self-governing, but a self-reserved authority". He works as a film director and has made four films and released three CDs.
Uzupis holds that "there's enough place for everybody". One does not have to be a resident of the district to become a citizen. The requirement is to share the spirit and traditions, no matter where in the world a citizen may be. Uzupis has 70 ambassadors around the world. Nonresident citizens include Jonas Makas, a Lithuanian film director who lives in the USA and the Dalai Lama. In 2001, on his second visit to Lithuania the Dalai Lama stated that he wanted the sound of the Uzupis Angel to travel around the world. The Uzupis Angel is Uzupis' guardian angel. Her statue stands on a pedestal at the center of the republic. To build the statue, money was collected by the residents. They believe the statue guaranties Uzupis' life as the smallest state in the world. Arturas Zuokas, the former mayor of Vilnius, moved to Uzupis while he was mayor.
Traditions include having a calendar which is different than the rest of Lithuania's. New Year's Eve occurs on March 21, which is the day of the spring solstice. Residents call it a day of mouse traps. They burn their old diaries and do away with their old prejudices. What a nice tradition (at least the latter part)! They celebrate the White Tablecloth Day on the second day of Easter. People bring to the celebration everything left over from their Easter feast. Constitution day, a national holiday, takes place on the first of April. In June, on the eve of Midsummer, bonfires burn on the river. On November 2, the Day of the blackbirds' coops, people gather in the old cemetery to commemorate the dead. According to the web site, "people here still greet each other all the time."
Its constitution, at first a lighthearted protest of rapidly rising property prices in historic Vilnius, is posted outside on a wall on one of the buildings. I laugh as I read some of its 40 articles; I'm moved by a few others. Here's a sampling.
The constitution ends with…
"Don't conquer. Don't defend. Don't surrender."
We walk around the republic and I find it a nice relaxing place. We see a man in an electric wheelchair. Sveta feeds a German shepherd in the yard of an attractive house. We're glad he's behind a fence. It's obvious that some rich people have moved in to Uzupis. The mix of architecture fascinates me. I see artsy but obviously poor apartments around courtyards and beautiful restored homes.
Before we know it, we cross a bridge out of Uzupis. However we go back into the republic and decide to go to a cafe. It's nice sitting on the street just watching people. We share a stuffed pizza and I have a beer.
On the way out of Uzupis, we stop to take a picture of the sign which announces that one has arrived in the republic. It has four symbols along the bottom of it, which represent the laws. Here's my interpretation.
Sign at Entrance to Uzupis
Uzupis demonstrates the fun-loving, arty culture that we've found characteristic of Lithuania. We enjoy our walk back to the hotel. We walk to the market and I buy one last amber necklace, as a gift.
Tv and Sveta take us to the airport. When we go to check-in, we're shocked to learn that SAS has canceled our flight. We're told the there's no power in Copenhagen, the airport where we're supposed to catch our flight home. Steve goes to talk to the ticket manager and gets us on another flight with Lithuanian Air one hour later. This means we will only have 50 minutes to make our connecting flight. Sveta tells us that a SAS staff member will meet us and get us to the flight. We learn that Copenhagen's power was only out for the morning. We wonder why the SAS flight is canceled but Lithuanian Air flight is not. We wait about two hours in the terminal, only to learn the flight is delayed another hour. When it's almost time for boarding we go to the gate door but the gate has changed. Luckily the new one is just down the hall and when we arrive, Steve asks "don't you have early boarding for people in wheelchairs?" The attendant apologizes and walks us into the gate. Despite all the frustration of the changed gate, perhaps it's a blessing. The new gate has a jet way whereas the old ones had stairs.
The flight is uneventful and as we get close to Copenhagen, we inform one of the attendants about our connecting flight and tell her we need our wheelchair right away. When the plane lands, we don't wait to get off last, as we usually do. Even though the flight attendant told us my wheelchair would be available when we landed, is not up from luggage so we wait for it. As soon as my wheelchair arrives, we meet the SAS attendant who tells us that our flight is departing now. We tell her to radio ahead and tell them not to leave. At first she refuses, but we don't take no for an answer. We push her to rush us to the gate and we make our flight. We weren't even the last one on the plane!
When we arrive in Newark, we're so happy to be in New Jersey given all of the difficulty we had getting here. We wait for our baggage, however it doesn't come. A number of other people didn't receive theirs either. We're instructed to go to an office to file a claim. Most of the people are angry, however we're thankful that it's only our baggage that didn't make the flight home.
We loved our trip! We saw a mix of cultures and economic strata. It was wonderful to see our friend Sveta, visit her and travel with her once again. There's no question in my mind that Lithuania was my favorite country to visit. Yet each of the other countries was interesting in their own unique way.
First, I'd like to thank MIR for putting together our great trip. The president and his staff worked with us to build this vacation and included what we wanted to see and experience. We stayed as close as possible within the heart of each city in the best available accommodations. We look forward to taking future trips with MIR.
I give credit to each of the Lonely Planet guidebooks that we used, Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania (3rd edition), St. Petersburg (3rd edition), Scandinavian & Baltic Europe (4th edition), Eastern Europe on a Shoestring (1st edition) and www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations/europe/belarus. Much of the history which I've included in this journal was taken from these books. Lonely Planet is our favorite series of guidebooks. We rely on it not only while we're traveling but also as we're making our decisions on places we want to visit.
Since Steve and I began traveling to countries which were once communist, we've observed that the recovery from communism can often be forecast by what happened to the communist artifacts. Throughout this trip, we've seen this to be true. The Baltic countries each immediately removed their Lenin statues from public display. They've each achieved a capitalistic economy. Most of the people who we saw on the streets seemed happy. Although, through most of their history, each country has struggled for its independence, I felt an optimism and pride in the people I met. I found the historic sites and markets alive and interesting. I would recommend visiting these countries to most people I know.
By contrast, St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad and Belarus continue to struggle in their recovery from communism. Most of the people we saw on the streets did not seem happy. However, I found those we met as part of the tourism infrastructure welcoming and nice. Each of the cities was interesting to visit. Each continues to display at least some of its communist statues and maintains their communist style squares.
Who would I recommend visit these countries? Concerning St. Petersburg, anyone who has an interest in art or history, would most likely enjoy at least a brief visit here. Unless you are very brave person, be sure to hire a knowledgeable and reputable guide. While visiting the city, do not let your guard down. I recommend Kaliningrad and Belarus, only to those who have a specific interest in going to these places. Neither place will be enjoyed by those who seek easy travel. Finally, concerning Poland, I do not think that we spent enough time there to make a valid decision about whether we can recommend this country. I hope that we will go back some time in the future. So, stay tuned, for the continued travels of Mary and Steve!