photos by Bruce Sterling
First things first: oh, you world travelers, for pleasure or for work, never, ever fly Baltic Airlines. First they will stiff you by making you pay sixty euros to carry regular-sized hand luggage. You will note their particular eagerness to pounce on innocent non-Baltic travellers, especially haplessYankees with credit cards.
During the flight you can expect to be charged for the air you breathe, since they don’t even give free water.
Finally, god forbid if something goes wrong with your flight and ticket, for Baltic Airlines will gladly maneuver you into buying a heavily-priced new one. Fleeing home via Baltic Airlines beats prison and deportation, but not by much.
Decades of Soviet occupation leave some deep cultural habits. Despite the proud independence and nationalism of the three independent Baltic republics, it hasn’t been that long since 1991. It’s hard to find any mishap in Estonia that isn’t some blamed on Russians. If the roads are bad (and they are bad enough to burst tires), it’s the Russian roads. When the coffee is lousy (the imported Italian coffee is quite good), then it’s the communist coffee. If the storks are too big and dangerous, it’s because they were bred to an ungainly size by the Russians.
I lived under Communism, but not the Soviet kind. The Estonians saw the real deal hard core of totalitarianism, the kind with mass deportations, mass shootings and mass hunger. That kind of regime doesn’t leave mere “traces” in society, it leaves trenches. The Estonian nationality barely escaped being one of Europe’s submerged or even extinct nations. Well before any Soviets showed up they were gleefully trampled by Swedes, Poles, Danes — back when they were harmless pagans, they were even massacred by Christian Crusaders.
In the seventies in Rome, I once took part in a magazine called “La Citta di Riga,” an Italian pun which refered to the capital of Latvia and also meant “the city of lines.” This conceptualist magazine was an art project through which period artistic luminaries such as Francisco Clemente, Alighiero Boetti, Achille Bonito Oliva, Fabio Mauri, Umberto Silva, etc, wanted to change the world. Since this was the 1970s, concepts were considered more important the materialist objects or political policies. “The City of Riga” was a distant, romantic place for these Roman radicals of the Cold War days, a city carrying the flag of the globalist artsy utopia.
At the time, I was the only one in that group who came from a communist country. Most dissidents from the Soviet bloc had a keen understanding of the conceptual differences between alternative culture and the rigorous strictures of their daily lives. But I had my ticket back to Belgrade, the non-aligned way station that was half Moscow yet half Paris. I, too, could treat Riga as a mythical city of drawn lines, instead of a grim urban kolkoz where unruly ethnic populations were mixed, matched and eliminated at the whim of Stalin.
Our Estonian literary festival in Tartu was full of stories, often stories where Siberia loomed as large as Siberia actually is. It seemed that most every family had lost relatives to Siberian exile: a parent, a grandparent. A woman poet vividly explained how, during her childhood, her mother was deported. After years of absence a stranger returned: she had no teeth nor hair, but only wrinkles and bones. Our poet said: this is not my mom, my mom was a pretty woman! Until this day she writes patriotic poetry, due to that sense of horror and guilt towards her mother and her country.
At the same festival, a dissident Russian historian passionately described how Russians fail to deal with their impossible past, much preferring to hide the darkness under the carpet. In Russia, history is an instrument of power, rather like Russian courts where there is no presumption of innocence, so only the guilty show up. When it comes to historical crimes like the Estonian deportations, however, nobody was there, nobody is guilty, nobody is responsible and nobody remembers. However, this convenient denial and falsification is a poor counsel for peoples who still have to live together in the world, and who tend to repeat the mistakes of their parents. This story is obviously well known in both the Baltics and the Balkans. It’s distressing to hear that some story told in a small, Finno-Ugric language, yet on such a colossal scale. It’s especially painful when told in the clear words of the victims, rather than the rambling evasions of the perpetrators.
The Prima Vista Tartu literary festival is keen on the appreciation of words. Words are cherished, and the event was held within the handsome library of the famous university of Tartu. E-Stonia, the country where Skype was invented, has free internet everywhere. Obsessed as I am with wifi, I checked it obsessively, and I always found that connectivity flowed like water. What a contrast to benighted nations like Italy and Britain, where free Internet is associated with terror and fraud for the benefit of rapacious and conniving phone companies. In E-Stonia, the dark prospect of an Internet takeover by global copyright lords brought the population into the streets. “Respect existence or expect resistance,” say these shy and softspoken people, who know what human rights abuse looks like, no matter what mask it wears or what shape it takes.
Someday even the cruel dictatorship of Baltic airlines will be relegated to the ash-heap of history. Occupy Air Baltic, and give a free return ticket to all!