Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts on a Baltic Sea cruise taken earlier this summer.
Our journey began in Stockholm, Sweden, and would end two weeks later in Copenhagen, Denmark. We traveled east to Helsinki, Finland and St. Petersburg, Russia, then headed down the coast of the small Baltic States, and swung west to Germany. We had extended land-based stays in both Stockholm and Copenhagen.
The Baltic Sea and those nations surrounding it have never gained the recognition of its big sister, the Mediterranean. This is unfortunate because the history is rich, with many well-preserved medieval towns. The palaces, castles and churches are among the most magnificent in the world. The warrior Vikings, followed by the Kingdom of Denmark, followed by Sweden, each took turns being the bully on the block. In modern history, Russia and Germany have fought for hegemony of the Baltic region.
The small Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania could do no better than roll with the political and military punches, which came far too often. Large but sparsely populated Finland always punched above its weight. For an excellent analysis of modern Finnish history, read Jared Diamond’s new book, “Upheaval,” which details Finland’s heroic battle against the Russians in the 1940 winter war.
One must be careful in drawing sweeping conclusions about a nation and its people based on short visits, but despite the close proximity of the countries we visited, each was distinctive. The Scandinavian portion of the Baltics is much different from the small Baltic States that were formally under Soviet domination. Sweden remained neutral during the world wars and its historical structures remained untouched. In Russia and the Baltic States the great palaces and churches were decimated and have been rebuilt.
The Swedes appear more reserved and introspective than the Danes. Both countries treasure their Viking heritage and have not forgotten the centuries of war and conquest of one against the other.
The Russians are somewhat arrogant, much like the French, but with awful food. They do not smile often, but then the sun seldom shines in the summer, and the winters are horrific and long in St. Petersburg. Although not willing to vocalize their discontent to tourists, Russian patience with Vladimir Putin appears to be wearing thin as they realize he is no Peter the Great and may not deserve his imperial pretensions. We were fortunate to escape St. Petersburg several days before local election protests erupted in Russian cities.
Russians take pride in selling Americans stuff they do not need at outrageous markups like nesting dolls (of course there is a Steeler version) and amber jewelry. Our favorite tourist initiative was a young girl who ran from bridge to bridge (20 bridges over 5 miles) to wave and dance overtop our canal excursion as it passed under each bridge. By the end of our tour, she was receiving thunderous applause and generous tips.
The Finns are beautiful, artistic people who purchase more live theater and performing art tickets than Americans purchase movie tickets. One of our favorite stops was the open air Helsinki Market, full of salmon cakes, excellent crafts and artwork and a farmer from northern Finland selling his own lingonberry jam.
You get the feeling in Tallinn, Estonia, and Riga, Latvia, that the natives are simply thrilled to have their own small nation states, free of foreign intervention. Both countries proudly fly the NATO flag next to their own as if to proclaim “never again.”
Our port in Germany was part of the old GDR, East Germany, prior to German reunification. The miracle here was how quickly the country was able to westernize the east into one seamless democracy, after years under communism.
Visits to smaller communities in the countryside provided their own distinctive pleasure. Visby, Sweden, and Jelling, Denmark, were towns with centuries-old thatched roofs and local pride in their medieval walls and ancient ruins. In Visby, a medieval festival was in full swing with hundreds of young Swedes in period dress. In Jelling, one of the oldest churches in Europe still stands near the Danish rune stone that first referenced both “Denmark” and “Christianity.” The carvings on the face of this birth stone appear on every Danish passport.
The number of palaces, castles and churches we visited could become mind numbing. My wife’s diary helped us to place each within the historical context of each country we visited. It is admirable that no matter how many times each structure was ravished by fire or war, they were quickly rebuilt as symbols of national pride.
There was much history to absorb and opportunity for further reading. Peter the Great (1672-1725) and Catherine the Great (1729-1796) had a hand in almost all we witnessed in Russia. When one views St. Petersburg and realizes that the city is no older than our major American cities, the amount of splendor is hard to comprehend. King Gustav II of Sweden and Queen Margaret I of Sweden were both nation builders that deserve further study.
If you go, do not take hordes of dollars. The Baltics, sans Russia, are working to become a cashless region. In Sweden, the number of retail cash transactions has fallen by 80%. By comparison, America is at least a decade behind.
Next Sunday: Some of the political implications of the Baltics in today’s foreign affairs.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.