Hitting the Beach on the Baltic Sea in Estonia

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Located on the eastern coast of the Baltic SeaEstonia has a coastline of 3700 meters.   Surprisingly, the Baltic is not very salty and rather shallow, so it is warmer than you would expect.  I’m not saying its bath water warm, but it’s not Lake Superior cold.

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We traveled from Helsinki to Tallinn by boat in about an hour and a half.   During the Cold War with Finland so close, the Soviet Union zealously guarded its western coast and Estonia became heavily militarized under communist rule.  They were afraid people would defect.  Also, large parts of the country were off-limits to all but the Soviet military.

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With Finland so close,  most of the sea shore was declared a “border zone” meaning they were heavily fortified and citizens were prohibited from entering the water.  They monitored the sand to see if there was tracks headed out that did not return.  Most beaches were forbidden for Estonians. No one could even travel to the beach on a summer day for some fresh air, non-residents required a permit to visit them.

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Our guide told us that under communism this beach had barbed wire, concrete block observation posts (which must have been freezing in winter), other armaments and patrols.  Today, they are hugely popular in the summer.  Cool young Estonians and families flock to them to swim, play, cook out, camp, and watch the sunset.

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It probably didn’t help that the Soviets had one of their three nuclear submarine training facilities not far from there in the city of Paldiski.  Its nuclear reactors functioned continuously for twenty years.  In addition to the nuclear submarine training center (complete with a full-scale model of a nuclear submarine with working nuclear reactors), it was a support base for the Soviet Baltic Fleet‘s submarines and several other large military bases.  A former sailor on a submarine said “I’ve seen the whole world, just not above the water.”

 

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The Soviet Union brought hundreds of thousands of Russian migrants to Estonia to assist with their militarization.  This forced migration resulted in an increase of about half a million people in 45 years!  The Soviets built Soviet-style buildings apartment buildings for them.  The styles are nicknamed after the Premier in power at the time of construction.  Apparently you want to live in a Stalin or a Khrushchev and not a Chernenko or a Gorbachev (they were actually General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and/or President of the Soviet Union, not Premier), because the quality of the building materials degenerated. By the end, it was pretty shoddy.  Once our guide pointed it out, it was easy to see the difference and tell when they were built by their state of decay.

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The Soviet Union brought hundreds of thousands of Russian migrants to Estonia to assist with their militarization.  This forced migration resulted in an increase of about half a million people in 45 years!  The Soviets built Soviet-style buildings apartment buildings for them.  The styles are nicknamed after the Premier in power at the time of construction.  Apparently you want to live in a Stalin or a Khrushchev and not a Chernenko or a Gorbachev (they were actually General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and/or President of the Soviet Union, not Premier), because the quality of the building materials degenerated. By the end, it was pretty shoddy.  Once our guide pointed it out, it was easy to see the difference and tell when they were built by their state of decay.

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After the end of the “Cold War” the facilities passed to Estonian control in 1994 after the last Russian troops left the country. These Russian Immigrants were given the choice of returning to Moscow or remaining.  Many chose to remain in their apartment blocks in former military towns; they’d spent most of their lives there and didn’t want to leave their home.  As a result, today there are pockets of people who haven’t integrated into Estonian society, don’t speak Estonian and don’t have employment as the bases closed.  Ethnic tensions linger and it is a significant problem for Estonia.

 

From it.wikipedia.org

 

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A Hidden Soviet Air Cemetery in an Estonian Forest

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We saw some pretty cool sights in Estonia outside of Tallinn.  The Soviet’s had large air base in Estonia.  Between the base and the cluster of buildings that formed the town servicing it, a cemetery is located back in the woods.  It’s obvious that they are the graves of airmen.

A large majority of the graves were unmarked.  Our guide hadn’t figured out why.  There is some ethnic tension between Estonians and the Russians who were moved here by the Soviet Union to towns where Soviet military facilities were located.  After Estonian independence, many of these Russians stayed but have not integrated.   Did they have plaques on them that widows took with them when they returned to Russia after the Cold War?  Were the names and dates so secret that they were intentionally unmarked?  Did the missions not “officially” exist?  I had a lot of questions that our fantastic guide couldn’t answer.  He hadn’t found any ethnic Russians who would talk with him about it.  I joked about going door to door.  He told me if they wouldn’t talk to an Estonian, they sure as heck weren’t going to talk to an American.

Czechoslovakia’s History Under Communism

While we were in Prague, we visited the Communist Museum. Czechs seem to have put their post-communist energy into looking (and moving) forward and not looking back at communism. Even so, signs of their time under communist rule are unescapable.
In the 1946 elections, communists got more votes than any other party and their chairman, Klement Gottwald, became Prime Minister. He was an alcoholic, syphilitic, anti-democratic and more than happy to take orders from Stalin.
In 1948, 12 non-communist government leaders resigned as a protest, believing their resignations would not be accepted. They were.  Communists took complete control of the government and Czechoslovakia fell under the strong influence of Moscow.
There was forced collectivisation of industries and the government carried out a currency reform that rendered savings worthless.  The Czechoslovakian secret police’s repression was powerful.  People fled the country, were imprisoned and/or executed.
As you can see from the poster, Czechoslovakia supported North Korea.
This translates to “Watch Border Zone Entry Only Allowed”.
In 1968, there was a battle between hard-line communists as a group wanted liberalization to a less strict version of communism. Reforms for the end of citizen’s surveillance by the secret police, the end of censorship freedom of assembly and expression ensued.  It is known as the Prague Spring.  The Soviet Union feared the Czech Republic would leave the Communist Bloc, the spreading of liberal communism and unrest, the loss of control and an opening of borders with the West.
In 1968, the Soviet’s and other Warsaw Pact countries invaded in a large, well-executed and well-planned operation. The plastered over bullet holes are still visible on the facade of the Czech National Museum because the builders used a lighter color of plaster in their repairs.
In January 1969, student Jan Palach, set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square to protest the invasion.  His funeral turned into a major protest against the occupation.  Protests were unsuccessful and a clampdown followed.  The Communist Party was thoroughly cleansed of any liberalizing members after the Prague Spring, kicked half a million members out of the part and dissolved all organizations that had supported reform.  Censorship was strict and Czechoslovakia’s sovereignty was limited by the Soviet Union.  The cross in the pavement marks the spot where Jan Palach and others died.
Wenceslas Square filled with protesters, again for protests marking the 20th anniversary of Palach’s death criticism of the regime escalated.  This time, the Soviet Union under Gorbachev didn’t react violently.   The ensuing confrontations with police were one of the catalysts for the demonstrations that preceded the fall of the communism with the Velvet Revolution 11 months later.

The museum contained a segment of the Berlin Wall which fell not long after.
 
When we were there Wenceslas Square still contained piles of memorials to its first post-communist leader Vaclev Havel who died in December 2011.