Life on the edge - Issue 78 - Magazine | Monocle

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At ground level this doesn’t look like the physical frontline of a great geo-strategic standoff; for a start, people are fishing in it. This kink in the Narva River, at the eastern extremity of Estonia, is one of few places where the EU directly abuts Russia: a bridge over the rippling water links Estonia’s third-biggest city, Narva, with the smallish Russian town of Ivangorod.

To be reminded that the current exchange of sanctions between the EU and Russia is only one battle in a long conflict, look up. The river’s banks and crossing point, the “Bridge of Friendship”, are dominated by two vast, glorious fortresses. Estonia’s flag flies from Narva Castle, built in the 13th century during the Danish empire to keep the Russians out (the EU being only the latest of many supra-national entities to have incorporated Estonia over the centuries). On the other bank, the Russian banner flaps from Ivangorod Fortress, built in the late 15th century to deter threats from the west.

We plan to drive south through the EU’s Russian-speaking hinterlands, attempting to figure out whether the people along here are good Europeans or potential fifth columnists furtively hanging portraits of Vladimir Putin above their fireplaces and preparing their spare rooms for Cossack infantry. Since Crimea fell in March there have been fears that the Russian populations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania might provide the pretext and/or means for Putin to test Nato’s commitment to Article V of its treaty: the “all for one, one for all” clause. In September, President Obama visited Estonia and declared that “the defence of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defence of Berlin and Paris and London”. But would he really go to war with Russia to save Narva, whose citizens speak Russian and to which few Americans could point on a globe?

In a modest office with views towards Narva Castle and Russia beyond we meet Tatyana Patsanovskaya, 33, vice-mayor of Narva. She acknowledges that there is enduring irritation with Estonia’s rugged language laws. All streets and shops are signed in Estonian and 15 per cent of Narva’s citizens exist in a semi-stateless limbo denoted by the so-called “grey” passport, indicative of a failure to meet the Estonian language requirement for citizenship (no small obstacle as Estonian is one of those anomalous European languages, like Finnish, Hungarian or Basque, which has little relationship with any other).

Nevertheless, Patsanovskaya doesn’t rate Moscow’s chances of inflaming resentment on this front. “Maybe before [Ukraine],” she says, “people thought about Russia as a motherland. But the last few months have shown what can happen. Now it’s more, ‘Please don’t come here and protect us.’ I think Russians in Estonia now appreciate Estonia more.”

One would hope so; better to have ended up living next door to the bear cage than inside it. Since independence in 1991, Estonia has become steadily less distinguishable from a clean, peaceful extension of Scandinavia. Russia has remained obstinately Russia. Across the hall we meet Vyacheslav Konovalov, 46, Narva’s international adviser. Among his responsibilities is managing Narva’s relationships with its twin cities – which include, he notes with an incline of an eyebrow, Donetsk.

“We concentrate on local politics,” says Konovalov. “We co-operate with Ivangorod on the other side of the river. There are 400 people who commute from Narva to Russia every day, mostly to work in the Hyundai factory. We’ve made special arrangements for them.” Asked about the language issue, he shrugs. “It’s especially difficult for older people,” he says. “Less so for the young. There’s been a process of integration for decades now. It was more rigid in the 1990s. Council meetings had to be in Estonian, which nobody spoke. When they tried to enforce it, the council just had another meeting before the meeting, in Russian.”

From Narva we head back west a short stretch before dipping south, pausing at the Kuremae monastery where visitors ladle holy water into plastic flagons. We then make for Vasknarva at the northern tip of Lake Peipsi. Here the border with Russia barely exists; from the edge of Vasknarva you’d only need wade through a few dozen metres of swamp to defect. On the Russian side there is a watchtower giving every impression of being long-abandoned.

The drive south around Lake Peipsi is quietish. Though it seems impossible that anywhere in a country so tiny could be described as remote, the only signs of life for hours are occasional settlements of wooden holiday homes. Many who live along here are Old Believers, a sect that split from the Russian Orthodox church in the 17th century in some fabulously tedious dispute over liturgical texts. Some Old Believers are pretty hardcore: unkeen on technology, strangers and, judging by the eerie stillness of their villages, the outdoors.

Some are hospitable. In Kolkja we meet Konstantin Avvo, 51, one of many smallholders who farms onions that flourish in the black soil of Peipsi’s shores. “I’m not quite an Old Believer,” he says as he doles out apples from a basket. “At least, not baptised. But my wife is and my family are mixed. It can be a closed society. A lot won’t drink or smoke, or have their pictures taken.”

The questions we’re here to ask about the national identity of the people who live along this road have started to feel kind of irrelevant – an impression Avvo confirms. “I counted people here for the last census,” he says. “When I asked their nationality, Russian or Estonian, almost all said ‘Old Believer’.” Further south, in another one-street village, we visit an Old Believer meeting house that looks like a modest church on the outside and a pastel-tinted fantasia of stars and icons inside. Its cust-odian is Zoya Kutkina, 80, who comes to meet us by bicycle (due to Old Believers’ abstemious habits they tend to live long and healthily). As recently as a decade ago, says Kutkina, a retired doctor, she wouldn’t have let foreigners into the building. But the regular congregation is down to about 15 and they rely on donations from tourists. Not that they see many.

It feels not only a long way from Russia but from anywhere. Even a chance encounter with an Estonian border guard, refuelling his smart Finnish-built patrol boat at a wharf prior to heading out along the maritime frontier on Lake Peipsi, fails to crackle with tension. “The Russians patrol, too,” says Constable Pohla. “But we don’t get in each other’s way.” We ask what he’s looking for out there. Smugglers? “You’d need to be pretty stupid to smuggle here. The lake is wide and there are many easier crossing points. It’s mostly just Russian fishermen who sometimes drift the wrong side of the line.”

We drive on into the night surrounded by tall forests, unaided by any signs or streetlights; a neon crucifix glowing from a church in the woods acquires the qualities of a hallucination just by being something that isn’t darkness. South of the lake, where Estonia’s land border reconnects with Russia’s before we head into Latvia, our driver Indrek pulls over and conducts some anxious cross-referencing of satnav and map. It was around here, two days after President Obama assured Estonia of the West’s protection, that an Estonian police officer, Eston Kohver, was seized by Russian troops and delivered to Moscow to face espionage charges. “I do not,” says Indrek, “want to end up in Russia by accident.”

Our overnight stop in Latvia is Daugavpils, an industrial city of convincingly hidden charms. Its downtown shopping mall could plausibly be marketed as a pre-Glasnost Soviet theme park, offering an impressive array of terrible clothes and worse food. Daugavpils is known, if it is known for anything, as the birthplace of Mark Rothko. A newish gallery dedicated to the painter is the heart of a major regeneration project in its vast, semi-derelict fortress district, built under Tsar Alexander I from 1812 and abandoned by Russia in 1994.

Inga Goldberga, 48, the Rothko gallery’s marketing specialist, says that before they opened last year nobody had ever bothered to print a tourist map of Daugavpils. Latvia is the most Russian of the Baltic states and Daugavpils, we are told, is more Russian than most of Latvia. “It’s not like Riga,” says Ineta Logina, 40, who runs a shop dedicated to goods from Latgola, the region surrounding Daugavpils. “People here have bigger families and are culturally much more Russian.”

Everything in her shop, however, is labelled in Latvian. “It’s the law,” she says. “And most people here can speak and read Latvian. Maybe 10 per cent don’t because they’re old or for ideological reasons.” At the offices of Latgales Laiks, a newspaper that prints separate editions in Russian and Latvian, journalists concede that Moscow’s Ukrainian adventure has touched the lives of their readers but only in prosaic, economic ways.

“Daugavpils is a transit route to Russia,” says reporter Jelena Ivancova, 33. “A lot of that has stopped because of the sanctions. Local dairy and metal producers had Russian clients and now they don’t and a lot of people are connected with the railway, which isn’t as busy.” Their view that Moscow would get little mileage from stoking annoyance about the official invisibility of the language almost everybody here speaks is echoed at the Slavic Philology department of Daugavpils University (whose current students include, incidentally, eight US soldiers taking a crash course in Russian who appear as delighted to be introduced to us as soldiers usually are to journalists).

“This is not Donbass or Crimea,” says Anna Stankevich, 60, head of the department. “I have never heard talk of separatism here. My friends and family, and local intelligentsia, look at Ukraine as far away on many levels.”

Everybody we meet in Daugavpils reiterates the line that it is a happily multicultural, multilingual city. It might well be true. It’s certainly what people in Sarajevo said in 1991. Pondering the possibility that people who live next door to Russia may be less paranoid about it than people who live on the other side of Europe, the North Sea or the Atlantic Ocean, we drive on to Lithuania.

This would be the obvious point at which to describe the scenery in Lithuania but – and we did look – there isn’t any. Its border with Russia is to the west, where it cradles the enclave of Kaliningrad; to the east it is insulated by Belarus. Lithuania also has the smallest ethnic Russian population of the Baltic states: just 5.8 per cent of its 3.5 million people, as opposed to around a quarter of Estonians and Latvians. But Lithuanians don’t need long memories to recall direct Russian intervention. In January 1991, in one of the final spasms of a dying Soviet Union, 14 people were killed when Red Army tanks rolled into Vilnius. “Of course people are concerned,” says journalist Kotryna Sokolovaite, 30. “Our nation has been conquered many times: by Poles, Russians, Germans, Swedes and Crusaders. They all came to ‘save’ us. I know people who have left already. Some are even talking about buying weapons.”

On the bar of one Vilnius restaurant there is a dishful of apples on offer, part of the surplus from Russia’s ban on EU food imports. In Lithuania, as in other Eastern European nations heavily reliant on exports to its unpredictable neighbour, there has been a good-humoured campaign to encourage people to step up domestic consumption. A note tucked into the basket reads: “An apple a day keeps Putin away.”

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