Thursday, April 10, 2008

From the Baltic Sea


I write this from a ferry on the Baltic Sea -- the MS Victoria I, more of a cruise ship than a ferry, really, with a cabaret theatre, a casino, four restaurants, hundreds of sleeping cabins, a massage parlour and sauna, and free wireless internet. The transition to efficient Europe is nice after 16 days "roughing it" in Russia.

Since my last update, I spent a couple of glorious days in St Petersburg, Russia's imperial capital where the Neva River meets the Gulf of Finland. I toured the famous Hermitage art museum and also the fascinating Museum of Political History, in the building that served as Bolshevik party headquarters from March to August 1917.

At the St Petersburg Institute of History, I asked professor Boris I. Kolonitskii about the Russian revolutions of March and November 1917. I asked how Leon Trotsky, who had languished in a Nova Scotia jail in April 1917 and not set foot in Russia since 1906 -- could lead a military uprising and seize control of the Russian state:

"It's not a kind of conventional war, revolution. You don't have to be a military officer to have a military uprising. These men were professional revolutionaries. They had prepared for revolution their whole life long. They studied the French revolution. They studied Marx's writings on revolutions. They were much better trained for this particular situation than any army officers were.... The Bolsheviks had broad public support."

My last night in Russia, I partied at a unique art space called the Loft Projekt, sipping sweet red wine with the organizer Egor and a group of Russian artists.

From there, I caught an train to Helsinki, Finland. The sophisticated urban design and efficient tramway system alerted me to my presence in the European Union. It was sunny but cold -- requiring a winter jacket for the first time since Vladivostok. I visited a fortress on a nearby island and walked through the attractive downtown and pretty waterfront parks.

I caught a ferry across the gulf of Finland to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. I ventured through the winding cobblestone streets of the 1000-year-old city. At a bar called Woodstock, away from the tourist traps, I ordered a plate of sour cream, herring and potatoes, and struck up a conservation with a photographer named Alo. It was his 23rd birthday, I later learned, and we passed the evening drinking beer and discussing Estonian culture and politics. Tension between ethnic Estonians and ethnic Russians had escalated a year ago into a riot and the ransacking of large portions of the old town.

Today, I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at my guest house then ascended 258 stone steps, to the majestic spire of a cathedral overlooking Tallinn and the Baltic Sea. I explored the old town then met Alo and his friends Gerry and Jaan at a quaint cafe. We passed the afternoon chatting as they fixed a bug in my mini-laptop (Tallin is a high-tech capital of Europe, located on a fibre-optic trunk cable that has produced some of the world's cheapest internet rates, a proliferation of wifi "hotspots" in the town and countryside, and the web giant Skype).

I am now on this ferry to Stockholm. While sitting in a plush lounge, I met an Afghan student named Farzhad, who fled the Taliban two years ago and immigrated to Sweden. We discussed the Canadian occupation of his country. "I have worked with Coalition troops," Farzhad tells me, but expresses the belief that foreign intervention has complicated the situation. He points to the irony of American policy in the region. "The Americans helped the Talliban get into power [in the 1990s against the Mujahadeen]. Before that, they supported the Mujahadeen against the Soviets." "It's monkey business," Farzhad says.

My journey is nearing its end. Quite the trip!