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New Europe

Day Eighty-six: Tallinn to the Latvian border

Latvian border 
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BBC budget cuts begin to bite at the Latvian border.
Michael Palin - New EuropeLater in the afternoon the King of the Setu drives round to talk to us. King Ritzier, a handsome young man who in his national dress looks a bit like an estate agent appearing in a pantomime, seems tired. I sense from him that the good days are over. The Setu were farmers and their culture, he explains, drew its strength from the woods and the forests. This pagan tradition has been diluted over the years and Christianity mixed in through the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. The re-drawing of the border has divided the Stoma, as they call their land, as never before and their Russian roots have made life in Estonia a little more difficult.

I leave the singing Setu with admiration and a little sadness. They're a small group with no big friends.

It was the Soviet occupation that began in 1944 that turned the Estonians so bitterly against their mighty eastern neighbour, and at Vaster Rosa, a village close by the Latvian border, is a network of tunnels and dug-outs that were built by the Forest Brothers, a resistance network that kept up a guerrilla campaign against the Soviet army for almost twenty years after the Second World War ended. Moving by night and under cover of the great Baltic forests, they blew up bridges, attacked convoys and generally stung the Russian bear wherever possible. The authorities reacted by deporting over 20,000 Estonians to Siberia, whilst bringing in thousands of workers from other parts of the Soviet empire to keep the country running.

Accompanied by a son of one of the Forest Brothers, now a portly and prosperous farmer, I climb a low hill (quite a phenomenon in a country whose highest point is less than 1,000 feet) onto a ridge covered with holes dug 10 feet into the earth. These claustrophobic timber-lined chambers often sheltered entire families. We squeeze down into one of them. It's a cool and refreshing retreat from the mosquitoes and the thick summer heat, but almost impossible to imagine living down there for months, let alone years. My friend showed me one of the reasons why they were able to bear this troglodytic existence - a large bottle of a clear grappa-like liquor, which was the Forest Brothers' secret weapon. They jealously guarded its quality, which could only be tested by the imbiber pouring a glass, sticking his forefinger into it, then passing his finger over a candle. If a flame burnt around the finger then it was the real thing. Still smarting from the leech holes in my side, a charred finger seems a small price to pay and after a couple of glasses I don't feel anything anyway.

Not far along the road we come upon what must surely be one of the world's most peaceful border-crossings. The silence only broken by the chatter of birds and insects and the very occasional, almost furtive, car. The name of the crossing, Ape, seemed strangely suitable in the middle of a forest.

On two long poles above a modest cabin fly the blue, black and white stripes of Estonia, with the flag of Latvia, white stripe on a dark red background, fluttering alongside. The combined population of both countries may amount to only half that of London, and yet they take their independence seriously. Beyond Ape lies a new language, a new currency and a whole new history.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Eighty-six: Tallinn to the Latvian border
  • Country/sea: Estonia
  • Place: Vaster Rosa
  • Book page no: 207

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