Biking the Baltics

How have the Baltic states changed since the collapse of communism?

June 7, 2003

How have the Baltic states changed since the collapse of communism?

The first moving objects on the Russian side of the Lithuanian frontier are white-tailed brown deer. Two of them bolt off through the birch and pine forest located on the sea coast side of the road I am riding on.

This bolt of activity disturbs the great tranquility that pervades this 60-mile sand dune, which extends like a long neck out into the Baltic Sea.

Most of this remote region was closed to visitors during Soviet times. The environmentally fragile Courland Spit, as it is called, is a protected habitat on both sides of the border.

The Lithuanians — who own prime real estate in the town of Nida — are actively promoting tourism. The Nobel Prize winning author, Thomas Mann, spent his summers here from 1930 to 1933.

His spacious thatched roof cottage, which sits on a hill that overlooks the lagoon side of the spit, is a popular museum.

Nida's steady return to the prosperity of 80 years ago is in stark contrast to the neglect — and absence of facilities — that is found on the Russian side.

The first village, Rybachi, is a dilapidated place of rutted dirt lanes, cottages without paint, a derelict Soviet-era community center — and unemployed people on street corners. They are busy drinking in mid-afternoon.

Rybachi's redeeming attraction is its church — built in the 1870s. It is one of only a handful still intact from what was, until 1945, German East Prussia.

As I pedal on, it starts to rain. By the next village, Lushnoj, a storm has gathered. I take refuge in a bus shelter and am joined by a youngish man with a heavy pack. His name is Andrey Khalaim.

He is 26, a PhD biologist, who's been traveling 36 hours from St. Petersburg by train and bus. He is on his way to Rybachi, where he will spend three months at the scientific station there.

Andrey tells me the real attraction of Rybachi is nothing man-made — rather it is the abundant bird and sea life, the freshness of the air and the village's relative remoteness. At his regular job in St. Petersburg, Andrey earns 2,000 rubles per month, half of which goes to rent. The ruble trades at an exchange rate of 30 for each dollar.

After the weather clears, we head our separate ways. The once vibrant German resort town of Kranz — now called Zelenogradsk — sits at the southern end of Courland Spit. It, too, is desolate and dispirited. Everything — except for a single modern hotel — is run down.

A large workers' resort, under construction at the prime seafront location when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, stands unfinished and has been fenced off. Only a handful of people stroll the sandy beaches where waves roll in from the open sea.

It's apparent — after only a day in Kaliningrad oblast (district) — that almost everything German was obliterated in the early decades of Soviet rule.

Not only were tens of thousands of Germans ethnically cleansed, all traces of their several hundred-year presence were expunged as well.

The German-language inscriptions on the buildings were also removed. Even the grave stones are gone.

That Kaliningrad faces an identity crisis is an understatement. Stalin demanded — and got — this part of East Prussia with its fine ice free port, as war booty at the Potsdam conference between the war victors in 1945.

This region of over one million people remains Stalin's gift to Russia. Germany — in view of its repeated acts of military aggression in the area — has foresworn any territorial claim.

But that does not mean the West has not fast encroaching on the area. When Lithuania and Poland became EU members on May 1, 2004, Kaliningrad was surrounded by the European Union.

In fact, travelers on buses and trains leaving Kaliningrad bound for Russia proper now have to have special permits to cross EU member state Lithuania.

I spend a morning in Kaliningrad city with two pensioners who scrape by on under $80 a month. From them, I learn why Kaliningrad clings to its Soviet past.

Most visitors here wonder why the main street is still called "Lenin Prospect," which intersects "Soviet Prospect." Lenin statues remain as they were. In fact, the district's second city is Sovietsk.

The pensioner, Mikail, who is 77 and retired from the military, says these leftovers from the Soviets are the only history Kaliningraders have.

What are they to do otherwise, he asks, go back to the German names as if this were not part of Russia?

Riding south from Kaliningrad toward Poland, one is struck by the sense that this region is slipping economically — just as the neighboring post-communist states advance.

In Lithuania, rural people are still very poor. Tractors are uncommon. And yet, people own their farms now — and they often work the fields late into the evening and on weekends.

In contrast, in the Kaliningrad district, with the same fertile countryside, family farms are few. After 80 years of czarist serfdom and communism, many Russians living outside Moscow still have very little sense and little interest in owning private property.

Even institutions like the church, which serve the Lithuanians and Poles so well, are fragile and new.

Still, Russia and Kaliningrad have opened to the world. People are warm and generous to travelers — even though they have little in material possessions. Border formalities are professional — and courteous.

At least fear is gone from Russia. But the era of economic self-interest and improvement has not yet arrived. What a difference a border makes.