Finally I am getting around to recapping my September adventure in the Baltics. The trip happened because I decided that sure, it’s a brilliant idea to fly across several national borders just to meet a blogger friend for a few drinks! I will get to that bit of a good time over the next four posts, but first I wanted to get out of the way what was probably some of the worst travel experience I have ever had: having to deal with virulent anti-Russian sentiment that permeates the region.
It’s not that it was entirely unexpected. The relationship between the Balts and the Russians in the post-Soviet era can be described as tense at best. In fact, while buying the plane tickets I had even joked that I would be flying into hostile territory. What surprised me was how strong, open and often hypocritical was the expression of Russia-hate.
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Let’s start with a short recap of Latvian history as narrated by the cheerful guide of the Riga walking tour: For thousands of years Latvia was a great and prosperous land. Then came the Russians and ruined everything. Today everything good you see in Latvia (Riga) is Latvian; everything bad is the fault of evil Russia and evil Russians. Poor Latvia. The end.
This was delivered with utmost earnestness of someone who wasn’t even alive when the USSR came apart, let alone bothered with non-selective reading of history (particularly the parts where the Poles, Germans, and yes, Balts of different stripes have tried for centuries on end and with mixed results to take over Russia).
The icing on the cake (or in this case more like insult to injury) was the downright reverential treatment bestowed upon Germany and the Germans in our tour group by the same guide. Germany is wonderful! We love Germany! What’s that you say about Nazi Germany playing a direct role in the Soviet occupation of the Baltics? Never heard of it! **EMBARRASSED GASP** What’s that? A pre-World War I monument commemorating centuries-long German oppression of Latvia? OH MY GOD I AM SO SORRY GERMAN TOURISTS, PLEASE DON’T LOOK AT IT WE LOVE GERMANY!
You’d think I’m exaggerating for effect, but this is pretty much verbatim, with several parts recurring many times throughout the three-hour excursion. Especially “evil Russia/evil Russians” – that’s right, not USSR or Soviets, nuance or history be damned.
Funny note about the German tourists: they were having none of this socio-historical blindness. Two German ladies, whose parents probably fought USSR in World War II, actually called out our enthusiastic story-teller on Latvia’s treatment of its Russian population, which makes up more than a quarter of the country, and nearly half of Riga, the capital. Fun fact: ethnic Russians in Latvia are often relegated to the status of second class citizens, or rather not citizens at all. Let’s say you’re a nice 70-year old granny, born in Latvia to Russian parents who moved to Latvia from elsewhere in USSR in 1940 or later, you’ve lived in Latvia your whole life but only learned to speak Russian? You’re sh*t out of luck where your citizenship status is concerned, unless you’d started taking Latvian language classes at the tender age of 50. Good times. The German ladies were very pointed in their questions and statements, our guide had no rebuttals and squirmed uncomfortably, and I felt a swelling of warmth for Germany like only a Latvian could.
Three hours later I was ready to drink away the stress of this emotional S&M travel experience. Naturally, Linda knew just the spot(s). Like world-weary pilgrims we wandered from one watering hole to the next, striking up conversation with locals, expats and tourists alike. When the inevitable “where are you from?” question rolled around, Linda’s answer was usually met with loud cheers of “YAY IRELAND!,” while I ended up on the receiving end of chilly stares and “ah…”’s. “Yuppp….,” I would reply, and take another swig. I didn’t need their judgy company, Linda was party enough for me.
Now, I have been a Russian in America and an American in Russia, and a bit of both as a study-abroad student in Europe around the time US invaded Iraq, so association with some kind of “evil empire” wasn’t new to me. It could definitely get uncomfortable at times, but it had never turned outright hostile or nasty. So, while what I was feeling in Riga wasn’t pleasant, but neither was it bad enough to define my whole Baltics experience. Little did I know that the worst was yet to come.
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The lowlight of the trip came as I was enjoying a perfect dry vodka martini at a lounge on a top floor of a swanky hotel overlooking all of Riga. Linda and I attracted the attention of a group of 5 European lads – a Dane, a Dutchman, a Norwegian, a German and a Swede, I believe, all in town for a long weekend BFF getaway. All grown-ups, educated, professionals. The conversation started up pleasant and flirty, rounds were bought, stories shared. Then came My Favorite Question: “Where are you from?” “Russia,” I answered and exhaled, resigned to the upcoming awkwardness and judgment.
The reaction defied all my expectations. “Russia? Russia is so bad. Why is Russia so bad to all other countries? And Putin. Putin is evil, so evil, pure evil. Putin is more evil than Hitler. Hitler really wasn’t that evil actually, he is only viewed as evil because he is culturally misunderstood [um…]. And anyway he only killed 6 million people [sorry, WHAT?!] while Stalin killed 40. And Putin is more evil than Hitler.”
This was the Dane, and he would. Not. Stop. For anything. Linda and I tried to change the subject, to anything else, but he was relentless. No, we have to talk about Russia, we have to talk about Putin. And by talk, he meant rant, never caring about my personal story or history, nor the answers to the questions he posed about Russia — and answered himself a moment later. Even his friends could not rein him in when they finally had enough (and that took awhile, because for the most part they were nodding along). And no, he wasn’t drunk.
It was at that point that I just couldn’t take it anymore, and mumbling some excuse, practically ran away from the table so that I wouldn’t break down in sobs right then and there. I felt the kind of gut-wrenching pain that I did not know words of a total stranger could bring. And yet they did.
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For the rest of my stay in Riga I was Anna, a banker from New York. Everybody ate it up. Everybody loved me. Linda could not believe the change in attitude – except she has been bearing witness to it all for two days.
I was still Anna, a banker from New York, when I arrived in Tallinn, Estonia, the following day. And I was still a very authentic New Yorker on my walking tour of Tallinn, where I got to hear all about how for thousands of years Estonia was a great and prosperous land, until the Russians came and ruined everything. Today everything good you see in Estonia (Tallinn) is Estonian; everything bad is the fault of evil Russia and evil Russians. To be fair, I did get made fun of as an American once – when our bubbly and cheerful guide pointed to a church and said that it’s older than my country. She then smiled widely and told me that they love Americans in Estonia, and Obama was in town two days before, it was all very exciting.
I did not break cover until a nice German struck up a conversation with me over dinner. But that’s a story for another day.