I am drafting this post sitting in the largest cathedral in Vilnius, Lithuania.  I have to say that even for an atheist, there is nothing to stir the emotions like sitting in a church with soaring pillars and flying buttresses (just for F.) listening to the stirring sounds of a choir singing the exquisite choral strains of Dvořák. From here I leave for Poland and its capital Warsaw. *Warning*, slightly longer post but I think worth reading.

Ack! So being the trusting being that I am I lent my camera to a guy in the hostel in Riga who had his camera (indeed his entire bag) stolen earlier in the month. Coming back from my days jaunting (ever tried it?) I came across a sorry-looking guy in the hostel bar, explaining the camera had been ripped out of his hand in the middle of Riga’s busiest shopping street!

After two hours in the Italian restaurant next door to the station to await the inspector (three wine carafes down), we entered Riga’s KGB/Soviet-chic central police station opposite an attractive translator and a leathery police inspector with bizarrely festive nail extensions – all very surreal (maybe the wine). I dislike the atmosphere of police stations in general. It’s as if the ill luck of legions of suspects and crime victims have seeped into the linoleum floors and industrial wallpaper.

Some obscure Latvian drama is playing in the background – ignored by all protagonists except for quick glances by the inspector from time to time. Translator wearing a police blue coloured jacket. Signing a completely unintelligible document in Latvian. T. waiting outside in the corridor sipping awful coffee. Fluorescent lights. Slam. Fin.

Riga. Riga is the capital of Latvia and has a population of 700,000  out of a total population of 2.2 million. It’s the largest city in the three Baltic countries. Riga’s prime attraction for many is its vibrant nightlife (and by extension the beauty of its women and British stag parties). In addition to the bars though is a beautiful old town mostly car-free with ancient Hanseatic guild buildings.

There are museums, art galleries, churches and cobblestone streets. Unfortunately much of the old town was destroyed in various wars especially WW II which explains the elevator in the highest bell tower of the cathedral. Great view from the top though. Outside the old town they have the world’s largest collection of German Art Nouveau buildings.

Like both Lithuania and Estonia, Latvia had horrific experiences under Nazi and Soviet rule and therefore Latvians are also intensely proud of their independence. There are concentration camps you can visit but I didn’t feel quite up to it. In the event, virtually the entire Latvian Jewish population of over 60,000 perished in the Holocaust.

Vilnius. Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania and the European Capital of Culture in 2009 and have really come to the party with a massive program of events as well as restored public monuments. It’s a very beautiful city (known as one of the greenest in Europe) and has a long and glorious history. There are a plethora of museums here to visit and many buildings of historical interests including a veritable cornucopia of churches; Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran. Interestingly, Lithuania was the last country in Europe to be converted to Christianity from paganism, having a bad habit of martyring monks.

The defining event in recent history, as in all the three Baltic states, is unequivocably their independence from the USSR. The trigger event was the Baltic Way protests involved a human chain reaching almost 600 km from Vilnius to Tallinn. The days before independence (1990) had the potential of being far bloodier than they eventually were given the statement by the USSR Central Committee, “Should they achieve their goals, the possible consequences could be catastrophic to these nations. A question could arise as to their very existence.” As it happened, more people died in Lithuania fighting Soviet forces in the January Events than in the other two Baltic nations.

My host U. took me to Trakai, a very nice town west of Vilnius with a restored castle in the middle of a lake, amber souvenirs and home to a pleasingly obscure ethnic minority of Karaims. We returned to the bus stop and just as we arrived a fight had broken out between three shaven-headed louts and a middle-aged blocky man who had apparently refused to share his cigarettes with them. Kicked and hit, he held his own despite 3 to 1 odds and not one of the thirty odd onlookers (mostly older women to be sure) coming to his aid including YT. Never have I felt the lack of any martial art training so keenly. What was more bizarre is that after someone called out that they had rung the police, the thugs stopped attacking and even shook the victims hand and with shoulder clasp! Police arrived and I think they caught the villains. I must stress though, it was no worse than happens every weekend in Auckland’s CBD.

It reminded me of a event in Beijing when I was there, 200m from our hostel, where a man went insane and stabbed 14 killing 2. This is two weeks before the most sensitive event of the year in China (60th anniversary of the Chinese Revolution) with legions of police. Day after, armed police in every hostel/hotel lobby and SWAT police on every street corner. Talk about bolting the stable door. Point being we are cossetted in our cotton wool suburban lives unaware of the sharp edges of our society all around.

Russia and the Baltics. I felt somewhat abashed when it was pointed out to me the pain that my Communist Party t-shirt potentially gives to people. Similarly the resurgence of old Soviet propaganda posters and other kitsch that glorifies a regime which murdered more people than the Nazis. In fact the questions arises, why should we be more offended by Nazi symbology?

The catalyst of this thought was brought home to me by my host who asked me to watch a gripping documentary called The Soviet Story. It encapsulates the whole reason why, by and large, the Finns, Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians not of recent Russian descent (immigrants after WW II), do not like Russia. If the NZ government can apologise to the Samoans, Chinese and Maori, can’t the Russian government apologise on behalf of the Soviet terror machine? In fact, what is worse is the way Russia is playing with historical revisionism, today. Scary. The rise of a new fascism in Russia? Not unthinkable. 

In one winter alone in the Ukraine in 1932/1933 around 7 million Ukrainians died from a man-made and augmented famine. War crimes were committed by Soviet soldiers and hundreds of war criminals are still living in Russia today hailed as honourable veterans. The documentary notes, ‘no-one wants to believe that their ancestors were simple criminals’. Further, the fall of Communism inflicted a national humiliation on Russia – belief in the heroic deeds of the past have allowed modern-day politicians to fashion a new strong post-Soviet Russian identity to replace Communism. But. The majority of Soviet dead before, during and after WW II were inflicted by the State, not on the Eastern Front. You might say the Nazis got the idea of the Holocaust, the practicalities you understand, from Stalin.

The Germans have come to terms with the crimes of the Nazis, Russia has elected to collectively minimise the facts and move on (archives opened during Yeltsin years have now been closed).  The scars on the psyche relating to their Soviet histories are very deep in the former SSRs. Russia has not confronted its dark corners of its history. When I travelled through Russia, the way the mass media, politicians and the education system whitewash the past is disturbing. I hope that the fantastic Russians I have met on my trip are able to objectively assess my opinion. I truly enjoyed Russia but those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

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