Things That I Have Learned In Eastern Europe (or the former Soviet Union)
“The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility.” Vaclav Havel
I have traveled around Eastern Europe a few times before I was a blogger or ‘photographer’. This was not one trip. It was earlier in the tourism stage of these countries and I’m sure things are a lot different now. This is what I remember.
There is something not warm and fuzzy about being in countries of the former Soviet Union. Especially countries that sent so many innocent people to concentration camps before that. The vestiges of communism are still there. The first thing you notice in Budapest and Prague is that people don’t smile. (a train in Budapest)
“If you need directions, ask young.” Most of the older generation do not speak any English. The young are trying to be modern. But they have missed the sixties, seventies and eighties. The music went from folksongs and communist anthems to rock and roll. The results are sometimes odd. Same with the clothes.
Shopping streets were emerging like Vaci street in Budapest with chain clothing stores where once there was State Grocery no.19. Things cost more and consumerism has definitely hit these countries. Keeping up with their neighbors is harder these days. There is still a lot of black market profiteering. But slowly a middle class is appearing. (tagging in Budapest)
After the fall of Communism, Eastern Europe was faced with the problem of what to do with all those Lenin, Marx and Engels statues. Several of the finest minds of the time got together in St Petersburg in 1991 to thrash out the quandary and it was decided that every city would display them in their very own tacky sculpture park. There is Fallen Monument Park in Moscow, Memento Park in Budapest and Grutas Park (known as Stalin’s World) 130km south of Vilnius. There are Museums of Terror in many of these eastern European cities showing their treatment in the time of the Soviets. (Statue Park in Budapest )
Lithuania was my first Baltic Country.. During the Holocaust around 95 per cent of the Lithuanian Jews were murdered, the highest percentage in Europe, many by local collaborator-killers. There is a Genocide Museum in Vilnius in the old KGB headquarters. It was occupied by the Gestapo during World War Two for the deportations and later the Lithuanians suffered there under Stalin. In Eastern Europe I found the Lithuanians the most friendly and most open to talk about stuff. I wasn’t prepared for that. It is hard to understand. ( a street in Vilnius Lithuania)
Trakai castle surrounded by Lake Galve is about an hour out of Vilnius. All the brides come on the weekends to take photos. There were many because if you don’t get married on a Saturday, the neighbors start counting the months.
Palanga is the busiest summer resort in Lithuania and the traffic on a Sunday proved that point.
Riga, Latvia has the largest collection of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe. This is designed by Max Eisenstein (father of filmmaker Sergei.)
Rumbala, which is 10 kilometers outside of Riga, is where 25,000 Jews were murdered during WW2. Rumbala and Babi Yar (in Kiev, Ukraine) were the two biggest massacre killings in Eastern Europe until the death camps. This was the only Jewish Holocaust memorial in the original Soviet Union.
Parnu, Estonia is an elegant beach town with depressing Soviet architecture.
Estonia is between Latvia and a ferry ride to Finland. ( 43 miles away, yes I was there) The influence of their Nordic neighbors is very noticeable, in the spelling, the food, and the design. Talinn, the capital of Estonia is a blend of a historical Baltic city and cool Nordic food and fashion trends. The former KGB headquarters are now the Hotel Viru. I did major shopping and eating here. The Wall Of Sweaters is fun for everything wool and located on the old city wall by the Viru Gate. The leather stores from Italy have better prices here. (Talinn, Estonia, cathedral of Alexander Nevsky, sweater wall)
Prague is considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I have been there twice. It is called the Paris of the East. There is culture, history, five-star restaurants and hotels. The Charles Bridge connects the old town with the Mala Strana and is one of the most iconic structures in Prague. (Art Museum and Charles Bridge)
The Jewish Quarter dates back to the thirteenth century. The Old New Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in Europe in Gothic thirteenth century style. It is in use today. The Old Jewish Cemetery was established in the first half of the 15th century. it is one of the most important historic sites in Prague´s Jewish Town. The oldest tombstone, which marks the grave of the poet and scholar Avigdor Karo, dates from the year 1439. Burials took place in the cemetery until 1787. Today it contains some 12,000 tombstones, al though the number of persons buried here is much greater. It is assumed that the cemetery contains several burial layers placed on top of each other. (Prague Cemetery)
Leadership in these countries has not been great. Decades of totalitarian rule damaged the way people in power think and behave; and the harm has not been repaired.
The mindset of the younger generation is everything anti Communist or anti the time of the Soviets as they say. Under Communist rule, the State was responsible for everything – even for little things. Today people must make decisions and take responsibility for them – not an easy task for those who have been raised to follow, not to lead.