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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

The Way It Was

Ian Mitchell (all at sea)

I spent the month of August 1989 as the guest lecturer aboard a small but luxurious cruise ship, the Illyria, which sailed round the Baltic, giving me a fascinating insight into Eastern Europe as it stood three months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The ship carried only a hundred passengers, mostly US citizens, with varying degrees of interest in their surroundings. The entrepreneur behind the trip was a tall, white-haired Swede, Lars-Eric Lindblad, who was determined that his customers should be educated in the realities of the emerging Europe. We sailed from Copenhagen to Rostock in East Germany, then on to Gdansk, Riga, Tallinn, Leningrad (as it was then called), Viborg and Helsinki.

Rostock was the only depressing place we visited. It was obvious that, just as the Germans do freedom in an impressively ordered way, they also did slavery in an impressively disciplined way. Grey hopelessness was efficiently qualitycontrolled by the Stasi.

But the sun came out, both metaphorically and literally, when we reached Gdansk. We saw the memorial to the Solidarity strikers who had caused the first crack in the Communist façade in 1980. I even saw their leader, Lech Walensa, hosing down the family microbus in his garden early one summer morning as I sat in the back of a Mercedes taxi with some of the more curious Americans on our way out to look at Hitler’s Bunker, the famous Wolfsschanze, at Rastenburg in East Prussia (as then was).

The genial trade union leader, with the trade-mark moustache, seemed as happy as the crowds of tourists we later saw camping in the birch and pine forests surrounding the place from where Hitler and his henchmen guided the war on the Eastern Front. He had done this from one of half a dozen single-storey bunkers which had twenty feet of reinforced concrete above them. This made them almost indestructible, which is why they are still there. What is not there is the hut in which the Officers’ Plot reached its sadly unsuccessful climax in July 1944, when Count von Stauffenberg tried to kill Hitler with a suitcase bomb. It destroyed the building but not the Fuehrer. Today the foundations are reverently preserved as a memento of desperate times.

The rest of the tour was just as interesting to me, though not to all the passengers. A successful young lawyer from Los Angeles complained to Lars-Eric after the city tour of Riga: “We could have got round that town in 15 minutes if Ian Mitchell had not asked so many questions.”

Perhaps the nicest place we visited, where the dark shadow of Communism seemed lightest, was Tallinn in tiny but beautiful Estonia. On the Toompea, the inner heart of the Hanseatic Old Town, the Estonian flag was flying proudly. Guards wearing Estonian arm-bands were patrolling the main square outside the baroque building where the Estonian Supreme Soviet sat twice a year. Clearly the Wall, as it were, was crumbling from within.

Leningrad was much as it is today, but that was unusual. Everywhere else the sense of change was palpable. We were the first foreign passenger ship to dock in Viborg since Stalin took over Viipuri (as it was until 1940) after the Winter War and gave it back its Swedish name. We were received courteously, if cautiously, by the authorities, who negotiated for perhaps half an hour before Lars-Eric was allowed to step from the bottom of the gangway onto the cobblestones of the quayside. We were all aware that it was a historic moment.

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