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.

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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.

Enjoyable Series on Europe

Have a look at the British journalist Matthew Engel’s current series of travelogues in The New Statesman

The most recent is Slovenia – the happy country that should be even happier. The previous two in the series are
Travels in Belgium, the dysfunctional, fractured state at the heart of the EU and The slow train to Tallinn, about Estonia.

(Photo is Tallinn, capital of Estonia. Click to enlarge.)