Saturday, April 11, 2020

From ‘To the Baltic with Bob’ by Griff Rhys Jones

[on a boat] Sometimes, the fainter light was closer than the brighter. Sometimes a small and distant light would suddenly rush upon you and pass close by, the light itself rocking on what was now a black cone, speeding by a few yards away and back into the night. Sometimes the light that had begun to worry you, seemingly hovering aboard an obstacle and about to collide, gradually resolved itself into a star, millions of miles away and hanging low in the sky.
So at night, on a boat, you stare. You stare ahead, opening your eyelids wider, frowning hard……….peering into the black. After a while, your forehead hurts and your eyeballs ache and the back of your neck goes tense. And, you remember the chilling fact that a large boat can charge up from its hidden place on the other side of the horizon to be on top of you in seven minutes.

The Kiel Canal was built in the nineteenth century for strategic reasons. Germany wanted to be able to get her battleships into the Baltic. It was designed for, and still took, big ships, but of course the canal was largely redundant now. Real big ships were too big for it in the modern world. In fact real big ships could no longer enter the Baltic at all. The waters of the Kattegat were too shallow for ocean-going bulk carriers to pass through the Danish entrance and the canal was now far too small.

‘Why do you think, Griff, that I drive that battered old thing?’…………’Here, in Denmark, I could not be seen driving in a top-of-the-range Porsche or Ferrari, even though I could easily afford one. Danish people don’t like anybody to show off.’ ………The Danes do have an enormous social conscience and they pay massive taxes to support it. It is part of the fabric of their society. After the Napoleonic Wars, when they backed the wrong side and were mercilessly punished, losing Norway, bombed by Congreve rockets and shot to pieces by Admiral Nelson the Danes became a small nation and the conscience of Europe. …….Danes are very proud of their tolerant history……Hence the flags, and the patriotism. …..Spare, modern, practical and uncomfortable, that was Danish: nothing frilly or ornamental, please.

Danes are immensely proud of Denmark. This is because they are the most sophisticated of the Baltic nations. I was told this not only by the Danish, but also in Estonia, Sweden and Finland, without a trace of irony. Nobody said, ‘They think they’re the most sophisticated’, as we British might about the French. It was taken as a matter of course. Denmark looked south. A Finnish sound engineer solemnly told me that the Danish had much more in common with Italy than the Arctic circle. ‘They even drink more espresso coffee.’

At the beginning of the last millennium, the woods and bogs of Pomerania cut off the wilderness of Estonia and Latvia. There was no settled government up there. The fjords and bays were populated by individual pagan tribes. Russian hunters had come out of the east, via Byzantium, working their way to Novgorod. The Vikings came from the west by boat. Close behind them, the Teutonic Knights roved up from the south. These particular, ruthless crusaders helped establish trading posts, and a dominant class of expatriate merchants to rule them, but outside their walls it remained every man for himself. It was a lawless wild west of northern Europe. The Russians, the Germans and the Swedes have fought for control of the area ever since. Estonia and Latvia achieved their independence only in 1991.

The history of Russian involvement with the Baltic is the history of Russia’s urge to move west, to become European. St Petersburg was built by Peter the Great to modernize his country, to leave the exotic, Boyar Moscow behind, in the past…… But it only ever became an outpost. The real Russia stretched away across the steppes to the edge of Japan.

In the eighteenth century foreign visitors were struck by Russian stoicism. St Petersburg was a city of appalling disease and grinding poverty. Sixty out of every 1,000 people were expected to die every year, because they lived on top of a festering cesspit. Crime was inevitable and punishments were draconian. Things got considerably worse in the nineteenth century. Dostoyevsky himself was thrown into the dungeons on the island …………He was kept in solitary confinement in a cell that regularly flooded with the sewage-laden waters of the Neva.
Executions were so commonplace that the people on one side of the town could hardly be bothered with the beheadings taking place on the other. The visitor from London, used to high levels of public interest in this sort of thing, put it down to the Russian ability to absorb suffering. And, by any account, St Petersburg has been a city of suffering.

We were passing through by far the most exquisite scenery we had yet seen on the journey…….The southern coast of Finland, the northern coast of the Gulf, was dotted with over 80,000 islands. And every one was beautiful.
The border had moved back and forth along this fragmented shore many times in the last 1,000 years. The Swedes had been beaten back home by Peter the Great. For 300 years Finland had been part of Russia…..Russia had only let go of this wonderland, where the tsar had yachted, in 1917, where the Finns negotiated their independence with Lenin.

Finland’s entire history, like that of so many of the small countries of the area, had been driven by a wholly justified fear of its neighbours. The disputes, the civil wars, the blood-letting, even the internal political geography were caused by the aggressive policies of Russia, Germany and, before them, Sweden.

He [said] ….. ‘The Danes look down on the Swedes, who look down on the Finns, and the Finns look down on the Estonians, and the Estonians look down on the Latvians. And the Lithuanians, I’m afraid, are right at the bottom.’
And everybody still feared the Russians, if not for their military intentions, then most certainly for their criminal intentions ………..[gangs coming over]