Travel Stories »

Face-to-face with revisionist history in the Baltics

Despite throwing off the Hammer and Sickle for the 12 EU stars, the three Baltic states still have a hard time leaving the past behind…

Estonia made headlines at the New Year as the small former Soviet Baltic state become the latest country to officially sign up to the Euro. It was a move not so much informed by economic necessity, but far more by symbolism. This is not unusual in Baltic Europe, where each of the three newly independent countries (and another littoral; Poland) have been keen to foster national identity and breaks with the past. This trend has also seen leanings to erase one painful symbol of the recent past – the Hammer and Sickle, with another…

Three years ago Tallinn was again in the headlines when riots sparked across the small Estonian capital over the fate of a statue in honour of the Soviet soldiers who fought against the Nazis in World War II. For Estonians, Soviet means one thing: Russian, and World War II equals occupation and loss of the statehood the country briefly held in the inter-War years. It doesn’t take much probing in Tallinn for a traveller to be able to extrapolate the feelings that Estonia and the Estonians hold about this period in history – on one of the cobbled streets high in the walled Old Town sits a small bronze plaque erected in memory of the Estonian servicemen who gave their lives fighting with the Kriegsmarine – the Nazi Navy, ostensibly to prevent Soviet occupation.

Despite a slick PR machine presenting Estonia as the modern, Internet-savvy capital of the world (cf. Skype et al), barely below the surface this sympathy toward the past in general, and Nazism in particular, runs clear and deep. For example, when the then-Justice Minister Rein Lang (his first name coincidentally being the German for “pure”) celebrated his 50th birthday party with a Nazi-themed fancy dress party in the Pussirohukelder bierkeller, Cabinet members thought little of drinking the night away giving straight-arm salutes in front of giant swastika. Prime Minister Andrus Ansip defended the party, calling it “truly anti-fascist.”

If being truly anti-fascist involves openly embracing the symbols and behaviour of fascism, then it is a trend which filters down to the street. One beer cellar in the old town off Raekoja contains a room plastered in pictures of Esstonian [sic] defenders of the Fatherland, which we were only seated in after the proprietor had first established our party wasn’t Russian. Or outwardly discernable as “ethnic”.

With the damage done by Ryanair deliveries of stag parties, it is hard to blame the small Tallinn bar scene of being wary of foreigners, but you would still expect on given menus in three languages one to be in English. Boasting greater proficiency in Russian than either Estonian or Finnish, I ordered in the former colonial tongue in one downtown restaurant – only for our party to be refused service and told to leave. “You speak English, but use Russian – why do you insult us?” Perhaps if I had ordered in German, everything would have been fine, and while I always strive to learn the basics of the language of any country I visit, there is the feeling that walking into a bar in Tallinn and ordering a beer in Estonian is the equivalent of doing the same in Welsh in Cardiff.

However, Estonia’s sympathy toward Nazism as a counterpoint against Communism is nothing compared to the attitudes of its southern neighbour, Latvia, where Nazism is not only revered, it is publicly championed, most openly in an annual March 16 parade held by the Lettland Legion – veterans of the Latvian formation of the Waffen SS. It is an incredible sight to behold in an EU member state.

If your visit doesn’t coincide with the spring goose-stepping festivities, a highlight of a trip to Riga is the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia: 1940-1991 (MOL) – an unparalleled exercise in revisionist history and basically a sulk that the Nazis didn’t win dressed up as crude exhibits. I’d first come across the museum while working in the parliament in Berlin, to which to celebrate EU accession the Latvian government had donated a series of its photos showing Latvians fighting alongside the Germans. Either no-one had checked up on the contents of the exhibition, or the Germans had been sold on another example of “true anti-fascism.”

Few museums anywhere in the world match the MOL in giving an insight into the psyche of a country’s populace, in this case the half of the population that Riga extends citizenship and the full complement of basic human rights to. Two especially memorable citations from the exhibits on display are the following (paraphrased): “Obviously, it was much harder for the Latvians to deal with the sanitary conditions [having to defecate in an oil drum] as they were a much more civilized and advanced race than others [principally Jews and Russians] in the prisons,” and “Thousands joined up to the Latvian army, but only at the end of the war did they realise they had been fighting for the Nazis” – that one in an article which in the same board stated “they were given German Nazi uniforms within a week of joining [the Latvian army].”

In a belated attempt to divert international attention away from Latvian Legion Day, Riga has recently begun holding “Blonde Parades” – a statement the cameras of the western press find far more agreeable. While blue eyes and blonde hair sit very well with Latvia’s Weltblick, the irony of the parade is that the majority of participants come from the country’s large Russian minority (the treatment of which should have been enough alone to prevent Latvian EU membership), many of whom have been relegated to almost camp-style working conditions in Riga’s plethora of striptease joints.

Apart from relative levels of outward female beauty, dress is the marker to spot who is Latvian-Latvian, and who is a Russian “non-citizen”, with the “natives” using their newfound freedom to wear the huge ridiculous wool jumpers favoured by Finns and other northern social democrats and the matching hats (the type inseparable from Australians doing Europe in winter) – democracy apparently extending the right to wear stupid hats, if not to kepis (out of doors). Pay a visit to JÅ«rmala on the coast and you will find no such restraint – where there is a wallpaper of graffiti swastikas protesting at what is seen as Jewish excess in ownership of resort properties along the beach.

In the third Baltic state, Lithuania, such displays are now less prevalent, if not unheard of. Perhaps this is due to economic pragmatism at government-level which amounts to a see-saw policy of cosying up alternately to Moscow and Warsaw. However, this didn’t spare me the tales of driver who I hitched with down to Vilnius, who was unrelenting in his mission for me to leave his van aware of all the evils of Jews, Russians, and – in particular – Jewish-Russians.

Lithuania’s key drawing point for tourists is a statue to Frank Zappa, who himself was once accused by Jewish lobbyists of anti-Semitism in his work – coincidence or magic? Meanwhile, the country’s primary role in World War II was to not be as horrifically scared as neighbouring Belarus, perhaps in part due to the unmatched zeal that the nation’s formations exhibited when carrying out pogroms. This itself was partly due to a history wrapped up in German influence, and the belief that the Soviet invasion has been executed by the Jewish faction in the Bolshevik government, sentiments which extend to the present day, when the country’s Museum of Genocide Victims is the name of the KGB Museum and not a mention to the near total extermination of Lithuanian Jewry. However, although prominent politicians in Lithuania have in the past taken past in pro-Nazi parades and functions, it is still the capital of the three where there is least overt sentiment in society and on the street.

Despite not having been as important to the outcome or legacy of the Second World War as sites in Belarus and Poland, there a few places where the two ideologies which clashed in the mid-twentieth century can be seen so clearly, and the trends exhibited along the Baltic Sea coast can perhaps be said to offer a greater insight to that period in history to the interested traveller than even Berlin. Just don’t sew a Russian tricolour or a Star of David onto your backpack…

Leon Addie