July 01, 2015

Bitter Annexations

When I was growing up, people looking for some no-frills fun-in-the-sun traveled to Crimea in the summer, while those seeking a bit of refinement spent their vacations in the Baltic states.

The Baltic Sea was cold, usually too cold for swimming, but you got a taste of a completely different life, one with little resemblance to the life familiar to your average Soviet citizen. Back then, the Baltic republics served as a sort of surrogate for forbidden Europe. It was cleaner than what we were used to, and the ubiquitous cafes (a welcome change from our usual Soviet stolovayas) were filled with beautifully coifed old ladies sitting at little tables sipping coffee. Picturesque Gothic cathedrals and orderly market squares dotted the city centers, fitting very nicely with our image of what a medieval European city must have looked like. The Baltics offered Soviet vacationers a taste of the exotic.

Yet, at the same time, there was a certain tension in the air. Resort employees might suddenly ignore a question asked in Russian, and dirty looks were not uncommon. Nobody spoke openly about the occupation of the Baltics, but the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the subsequent occupation of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia by Soviet troops supposedly there to defend them, and then the “help” they were given in conducting elections where – surprise, surprise! – the Communist Party prevailed, as well as the deportations and arrests, the resistance and repression, were in the back of everyone’s mind. Vacationers making merry in Jurmala might be almost totally ignorant of these events, but they could still sense the reverberation of history.

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