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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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Colleagues, friends, lovers of dynamism and rusty cogs. I have struck winter in St Petersburg, having been caught out in the first winter snows of the season, somewhat of an about turn from the tequila sunrises on the beach in Thailand. Fewer lady boys too. In any case, I have ventured from here after my Russian visa expired onto the bucolic seaside capital of Tallinn, Estonia. At least I wish it were bucolic, latest weather reports have the high at 6 deg C and a low of -2 deg C. Positively tropical…

Moscow. The capital and a massive conglomeration of wealth, power and Soviet-era apartment blocks radiating outwards from the historic, and current, heart of the city, the Kremlin, I couchsurfed with Katja and Nastia, and the traditionally Russian male Yevgeniy in the 17th floor apartment which overlooked a park set aflame by the morning sun and glowing sunset. My days in Moscow were spent riding the comprehensive, gloriously mosaiced and resolutely symbolic Metro. They say (I always wondered who this ‘they’ were) the Metro is one of this highlights of a trip to Moscow and they aren’t wrong. Fearsome war-era Soviet women scything wheat with a proletariatian determination, ecstatic factory workers polishing the latest impractical tractor design and Lenin with his jutting chin and broad forehead leading the country ever onward into a utopian future. Merely by swimming in the sea of commuters in this triumph of Soviet wartime engineering I felt uplifted and ready to throw off my capitalist shackles.

Kremlin. The red brick walled fortress dominates the centre of the city, surrounded by appropriately massive buildings on all sides. It contains the residence of the President of Russia and previous Soviet leaders. Outside it n a small marble block-like bunker, the waxy marionette of Lenin lies, inspiring few and fascinating many. Inside, the government buildings lying tantalisingly close, barring only the serious looking policemen. Stepping lively to avoid frequent cavalcades of black tinted government Audis zooming in and out no doubt bearing hookers, drug couriers and members on the FTA negotiating subcommittee on Zambian cross border trade. There are a clutch of cathedrals with spectacular frescos and imposing walls of icons as well as the Patriarchs residence (head of the Russian Orthodox Church). Talk about separation of State and Church…

I visited the Armoury – the storehouse of Tsar crowns, gold, emerald, ruby, pearl, sapphire, diamond et al encrusted illuminated Bibles, chalices, silver platters, Fabergé eggs and imperial bric-a-brac. Getting blase about treasure is tough but I managed it. The artifacts which most impressed me most were the Imperial carriages. Enchanting concoctions of lacy gilded wood, improbably arched with rich scenes painted on the doors – something straight out of some fairytale with bewigged footmen and haughty Empresses. Glorious.

Art. Being a self-confessed avoider of shopping, the boutiques and shopping malls filled full of leggy, stiletto wearing society ladies with heavyset bodyguards appealed not. This, in addition to the fact that Moscow is one of the most expensive cities in the world, directed me instead to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. A world class collection, especially of impressionist and post-impressionist works. I also made it to a sculpture park described by Lonely Planet as moody. I made the most of the opportunity to take obscene and inappropriate photos of me and the statues. Also made it to the New Tretyakov, Russias’ premiere contemporary art gallery which introduced me to paper architecture, one of the coolest styles I’ve ever come across. I visited Sparrow Hill at dusk and saw the night skyline of Moscow. An interesting city awash with wealth as well as those struggling to get by on salaries insufficient for the cost of living. I departed my hosts after cooking them a meal and passing through three (3!) steel doors to get to the elevator to embark via train to St Petersburg.

Saint Petersburg. The history of imperial Russia is more alive here than anywhere else in Russia. This was the seat of the royal court and is described as Russia’s window to Europe and the west (that being a perennially popular topic of travel writing, together with the duality of Russia’s character between East and West) and it really is. It was designed to Tsar Peter the Great’s orders to move the capital away from the sneaky Muscovite nobility, to encourage Russia to embrace new European ways of thinking and provide Russia with its first port after chucking out those dastardly Swedes who had dominated the area for ages. It was designed to resemble Amsterdam’s canals so is riddled with them. St Pete’s is a truly beautiful city and has retained its role as Russia’s leading centre of the arts and social development. Lenin started the Bolshevik revolution in then Petrograd in 1917, Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Putin all grew up here. It is built at the mouth of the Neva river and is laced with canals which gracefully flow past the houses of aristocracy and the monumental facades of palaces. The wealth of the largest country in the world was concentrated here for over 200 years and it shows.

The Hermitage. This is the mother of all art galleries, being the largest in the world. It is housed in the clutch of former palaces of the Tsars and Tsarinas along the Neva and to me the building was as interesting as its contents with spectacularly lavish chambers, halls and galleries dripping in rococo gilt, gaudy eclecticism and classy neoclassicist style. Highlights for me were the Flemish masters including Rembrandt, the impressionist collection including Cezanne and Monet and the Italian masters including one of Michelangelo’s only 14 paintings and the only one of his statues outside Italy. The place is truly massive and after six hours I had only seen about half of it. Go there if you have the chance.

Russian Museum. This wonderful place absorbed me for four hours, housing only Russian art and also outrageously huge. The obvious point to make is that both museums had decent head starts when the Soviet state confiscated the vast art collections of the nobility and wealthy when they came to power. It’s not stealing if we say it isn’t. Other highlights including getting stuck on the island after 2am as the bridges all raised to allow ships up the Neva, the incredible inside of the royal cathedral, St Isaac’s, the Peter and Paul Fortress and of course the State Political History Museum (hmmm). I moved couches halfway through from the hospitable Dasha to the bohemian self-proclaimed squat of Yulia and her merry band in the center of the city which was fun. St Petersburg is the coolest city I’ve been to yet. It has a vibrant beat, European sensibilities, and a fondness for history. Pity about the weather!

Privyet comrades! I have arrived safely and eventually in the land of the Russkies. I am on my way to Moscow tomorrow from Kazan the capital of Tartarstan, an autonomous region of Russia full of fierce Tartars. I have passed a very pleasant few days in Yekaterinberg (it’s near the exact geological border between Asia and Europe) in the custody of Couchsurfer Ilona and feel ready to blaze ever westward towards Europe and the splendiferous cities of Moscow and St Petersburg.

Trans Manchurian. Due to my debauched lifestyle alluded to previously I caught the Trans Manchurian instead of the Trans Mongolian (though the extension did allow me to watch the ABs trounce the Wallabies in the company of two Aussies- Sean and Julian, ah life is sweet). The train wends its way north from Beijing through Manchurian cities such as Shenyang and Harbin and crosses the border into Russia east of Mongolia. This was an epic journey of 66 hours which passed in the delightful company of Paul, a Wellingtonian who had been teaching English in China. He was in the next compartment so he swapped over and we reminisced over politics, art and the all important question of who will become Auckland’s next super Mayor.

Train neighbours Rosa, Anya and Larissa kindly invited us to a traditional Russian lunch as we waited (total 10 hours at both border towns) for the bogies to be changed on the carriages (the Chinese rails are narrower than the Russian ones so they lift the entire train and put new wheels on them). Lunch consisted of borscht, salad, blinis, fish cakes and mashed potatos and of course a bottle of vodka.

The landscape was incredible – first some desolate tundra with dejected looking grasslands aware of the impending winter, closer to Russia the taiga starts up with neverending stands of forests, autumnal golden leaves scattering from silver barked birches, flashes of burgundy, rusty yellows, patches of the first snows sheltering in shadowed nooks, a bright blue sky and then the southern end of Lake Baikal. The wooden planks of the little cottages which flash by are weathered and warped from the cold they endure but also gaily decorated with fretwork adorning the eaves and brightly painted window shutters and doorframes alongside well-tilled vegetable patches filling in for insuffucient pensions and also, perhaps, providing a continuing connection with the land.

Irkutsk. This is the gateway to the Lake Baikal region and also has an interesting history (early revolutionaries against the Tsar in 1825 were exiled here) with it being core to the Russian expansion westward. I stayed at the Baikaler Hostel hosted by the excellent Masha and Anastasia, and oddly met someone who had worked with my old company in Auckland!

Lake Baikal and Olkhon Island. The lake is the world’s largest fresh water lake by volume and the deepest (1642m) and also incredibly holds 20% of the world’s unfrozen surface fresh water! What a place. I stayed on Olkhon for three nights and had an amazing time. Truly spectacular scenery. The island has about 2,000 residents and being there in autumn was great – forests and fields, horses and susliks running free and how about that serenity?

Stayed at Nikita’s Homestead and suffered the banya, met some wicked travellers (FINally met a Finn!) and made a trip to the north end of the island with English speaking Denis and Nadya (who incidentially invited me back to their place in Irkutsk to feed me Kamchatka caviar) and had a wonderful bonfire on the beach at freezing midnight with the crew – Seema, Masha, Sandy, Annti and others. Unlimited buffet including omul, the everpresent ‘fish of the day’. Sad to go as it has been one of the most beautiful places I have seen yet. Shame about the disrespect many Russian tourists have for the place though, empty vodka and beer bottles litter the beach and the roads.Will canvass this later.

And for those of you interested, yes it is Siberia and yes it is cold. Not quite freezing weather yet but for almost half the year, from mid-October until the beginning of April, the average temperature is below 0 °C in Irkutsk and Lake Baikal freezes over.

Yekaterinberg. Having decide a nonstop train ride to Moscow was a bit too far, I arranged to crash in Yekat. after a fun 50 hour ride. I was stuffed with food by adventurous Marina, Anni and Irina. They did their best with smoked omul, homemade strawberry jam, chocolate nuts, sausage, chicken, cakes, biscuits, tomatoes, pickled cucumbers and sunflower seeds. I also braved the dining car with Marie and Jean-Francois from the island. Contrary to common perception, I was not invited to drink flagons of vodka by every second Russian. Maybe next time.

I ended up in Yekat. with Ilona, who is studying linguistics (translation and interpretation). She was incredibly hospitable – I decided to offer my services as a guest speaker in their class lecturing on the difference bettwen kiwi and kiwifruit, the meaning of ‘rattle your dags‘, and why Maori don’t eat people anymore. A roaring success even though the interpreter had trouble translating ‘poo’, confused ‘bro’ with ‘bra’ and decided ‘sweet as’ was better as ‘sweet ass’. Ah the life of an interpreter 😉 I was also shown around by a mad hatter array of Ilona’s friends of whom I will say are incredible people and I wish them all to come travelling as soon as possible!

Yekaterinberg itself used to be the centre of mining administration in the Urals so has a long and glorious history. Interestingly  the constructivist architectural style had a beginning here, though I struggled to see the ‘tractor’ allegedly depicted by one monolithic block. Yekat. is also notoriously the site where the Romanov Tsar and his family were murdered. Given the renaissance of religion in Russia (er, I mean the Orthodox church…) the site where the Tsar was knocked off is now honoured by the Church on the Blood. A knack for names those bearded monks have…

Kazan. One more overnighter to just one more UNESCO site – the kremlin (meaning fortified city) in this muslim state. Nicely tarted up for the 1,000 year celebration of the history of the city in 2005. The area has a very interesting history which I have not the time to share. Suffice it to say that the place is oldy worldy, has more mosques than churches and the rat beauty show I attended in the main musuem was more wierd than gross. The giant snail called Princess being a personal highlight. Also saw a collection from the St Petersberg Hermitage on Greek heroes which was cool.

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

it gets down to about -40deg in winter