Riga, Latvia

Thirty years ago this month some two million people joined hands forming a human chain across all 676 kilometers of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The cinematic stunt was the Baltic cri de coeur for freedom. We visited KGB museums in both Tallinn, Estonia and Riga, and I’ll have a piece on the progress the Baltic states have made away from Communism in my next Three Quarks Daily column.

We’ve moved on to Ukraine now. I’ll leave you with these three photos from Riga for now:

These are hangars down along the Daugava River built by Nazi Germany for zeppelins. Since the whole zeppelin thing didn’t take off, they now house the central market.

A portion of the iconostasis at the Riga Nativity of Christ Orthodox Cathedral, dating from the late 1800s, on the lovely Esplanade park. The Soviets used it as a planetarium and restaurant.

Riga’s town planners were generous with their green space. Here are flowers in Kronvalda Park.

This slow trip around the world began in April and has comprised Vietnam, Thailand, Finland, Russia, Germany, Poland, Estonia, Latvia and, currently, Ukraine. Collected photos are here.

Tallinn Today

After more than two months at Lake Saimaa in Finland, we’re back on the road, having taken the Viking Express ferry across the Gulf of Finland yesterday. Ahead, one full day here in Tallinn, Estonia today en route to Riga. It’s high holiday season and Tallinn’s famous old town, in the background of this shot, is full of tourists. Today’s plan: a visit to the KGB museum on the top floor of the Sokos Viru Hotel, the mid-rise building on the right.

On the Road: In a Tough Neighborhood

My column at 3QuarksDaily as it ran on Monday:

On The Road: In A Tough Neighborhood

In the middle of the night of March 24, 1992, a pressure seal failed in the number three unit of the Leningradskaya Nuclear Power Plant at Sosnoviy Bor, Russia, releasing radioactive gases. With a friend, I had train tickets from Tallinn, in newly independent Estonia, to St. Petersburg the next day. That would take us within twenty kilometers of the plant. The legacy of Soviet management at Chernobyl a few years before set up a fraught decision whether or not to take the train.

Monitoring stations in Finland detected higher than normal readings. The level of iodine-131 at Lovisa, Finland, just across the gulf, was 1,000 times higher than before the accident, according to the German Institute for Applied Ecology.

Russian authorities reported the accident in the media, and I think they felt self-satisfied for doing it, but Russian credibility had burned down with Chernobyl’s reactor 4. Any more, people thought the Soviets, as Seymour Hersh said about Henry Kissinger, lied like other people breathe. And as usual, solid information was hard to come by.

A news agency in St. Petersburg reported increased radiation, and the Swedish news reported panic in St. Petersburg. A lady in Tallinn that day told me her mother had called from St. Petersburg and they were closing the schools and sending children home to stay indoors. The Finnish Prime Minister fussed that seven hours passed before the Russians told him. It was frightening.

No one believed the plant spokesman when he said on TV, hey (big Soviet smile), no problem. No one trusted the Russians.

•••••

In the same way that provincial Balkan towns had never thought of themselves as national capitals (like Podgorica, which became the capital of Montenegro, and Ljubljana, the completely delightful capital of Slovenia), Tallinn was, had been since Soviet occupation in 1940, an outpost, a modest administrative hub, though far more architecturally charming than Soviet in its medieval center, with round stone guard towers and ancient walls all around.

Back then, in 1992, there just wasn’t that much of it. Tallinn was far smaller than its close neighbor Helsinki, itself only half a million. As usual when Soviet Communism got hold of a place, the difference between Soviet Tallinn and free Helsinki was night and day – in that order – even though they are unidentical twins, only 50 miles apart across the Baltic.

The Finnish-built Viru hotel where I stayed (“Viro” is “Estonia” in Finnish) is the tall building in the background of this photo. It was just about the only place foreigners stayed, and something of a mild Estonian legend. The Viru opened in 1972 and adventurous Finns (whose language is similar enough to Estonian that they can understand one another) crept over to have a look at the Soviet way of life.

Naturally, for the Viru’s first twenty years the KGB spied on guests.

Continue reading

Basic Geography for Politicians


The Three Baltic States


The Balkans

Le Monde reported last week (here’s an English report) that when Baltic leaders Dalia Grybauskaitė of Lithuania, Kersti Kaljulaid of Estonia and Raimonds Vējonis of Latvia met at the White House with Donald Trump on April 3rd of this year, the president chastised the leaders “for starting wars in the 1990s that lead to the break-up of Yugoslavia.”

It’s not unreasonable for lay people to confuse the Baltics and Balkans. Both regions are made up of small countries at the periphery of Europe. But one might hope that the American president had been briefed (forget about his reading on his own) a little more closely. Especially since one of his potential briefers, his wife, was born in Yugoslavia.

Maps from Wikimedia Commons.

If You Know the Words Zapad & Suwalki…

… you’ll enjoy the photographic essay, Inside the Suwalki Gap by Timothy Fadek at RoadsandKingdoms.com. It’s a nice orientation to the region where the quadrennial Zapad (“west” in Russian) Russia/Belarus military exercise has been underway for two days now.

The photo above is Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. The only border between the Baltic states and another NATO country is the 64 mile wide Suwalki Gap, where Lithuania touches Poland. See more Poland and Lithuania photos at EarthPhotos.com.