I grew up during the Cold War. I believed what we were told in America about the imprisonment of dissidents behind the Iron Curtain. When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, and the truth was even more fully told, we had proof of the “menace of communism.” Russia may have participated in the liberation of many countries after World War II, but go to Buchenwald Concentration Camp some day and visit the mass graves there from the Soviet Era.
Recently, Sally and I joined friends Randy and Diana Wright on a tour of most of the countries bordering the Baltic Sea, including many former “satellite” nations of the Soviet Union. In addition to very traditional tours in some cities, we were intentional about taking a “Solidarity Movement” tour in Poland, seeing the Gdansk Shipyard where Lech Walesa led a workers revolt against the repressive Communist regime. Even on a pleasure trip, I want to do something more than see pretty sights!
The best sightseeing outing ever was a retro “Soviet Era Tour” in Tallinn, Estonia, where we were greeted by a uniformed comrade who required that we answer questions justifying our existence and credentials before we were allowed to get on the Soviet Era conveyance. I was allowed to board the bus because, as a writer, I could be helpful as a propagandist to the KGB. Others “tourists” (who had paid good money for this privilege) weren’t so lucky and had to march in circles until they demonstrated they could be obedient servants who did as told and asked no questions.
Our tour guide claimed the bus had no brakes: “Soviets need no brakes. We only go forward.” That turned out not to be true, in more ways than one. The bus did stall and passengers had to get out and push. Funny.
This excursion, which was an option less than ten percent of our small ship’s passengers chose, was billed as “The Tallinn other tours don’t show you.”
Our first stop was at a huge prison where political prisoners were housed, including our tour guide’s grandfather, for being too capitalistic (owning too many cows). His next-door neighbor was also imprisoned there for flying a flag from the pre-Soviet Estonia for fifteen minutes. His neighbor was jailed for five years and his grandfather was eventually shipped to Siberia, and died there. “Our family was nothing special,” he said. “Every family has similar stories.”
Treasure your freedoms, Americans!
We were also taken to a sad, decrepit, run-down “cultural center,” the Great Guild Hall. Behind it statues of Lenin and Stalin had been discarded, now ignored and surrounded by woods and weeds.
Estonia is beautiful, a thriving country with a robust economy. Would you rather live there or in Siberia? During the Soviet Era, Russians poured into Warsaw Pact and Baltic Sea territories and many stayed. So Estonians are very worried about what is happening in Ukraine. They fear it could happen all over again in their homeland.
On a tour of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, the tour guide took us through the former “Throne Room” of the Tsar. She mentioned that it had been used recently for an important governmental function. Someone asked if Putin had sat on the throne. Her answer: “ No. Not yet.”