Across the Russian border, looking back

  • 2007-09-05
  • By Joel Alas

HIPPY HOSPITALITY: On a recent trip to St. Petersburg, Joel Alas discovered that young people in Russia have much in common with their Estonian counterparts, despite a lack of understanding on both sides.

TALLINN - I packed two bottles of Vana Tallinn liquor for my trip to St. Petersburg. One was for the hosts who had invited me to sleep on their floor. The other was to offer as an appeasement for the police, border guards or other members of Russian officialdom who were bound to hassle, arrest, fine or rob me. That's how it works in Russia, isn't it?
But propaganda, I discovered, works both ways. Russia isn't nearly as scary a place as Estonians seem to think it is. And Russians have a very twisted view of Estonia and its history. Yet the similarities between the young people of both countries override any of the differences that might exist.

Meeting the community
"I hope they're home," I said to my friend Colin as he pressed the buzzer. We stood outside a sturdy peach-colored apartment building, far cheerier than the average Soviet housing block. Through the intercom came the sound of a man imitating a chicken. "Privet?" I responded cautiously. The door clicked open, we trod up the flights of stairs.
Dima was waiting for us at the door. Small, wiry, a messed mop of hair, lively eyes that pierced a pair of glasses. His smile revealed a top gum void of teeth, aside from one sharpened and silver-capped canine. He let out another chicken squawk as he showed us through the apartment, sparsely furnished. Well, no furniture at all, actually, aside from a few rugs and cushions on the floor.
"We are a kind of community," Dima explained as he took us on a walk through the neighborhood.
"What brings you together?" I asked.
"Freedom. Free-thinking. Music."

We had found Dima and his community on Hospitality Club, a Web site where people offer to host weary travelers. Colin and I had couch-surfed this way through Estonia, but were wary of using the system in Russia after being warned of the arduous guest registration system. Police, we were told, constantly stop tourists to check their registration card.
Dima smiled a toothless grin when I told him of my concerns about Russian officialdom. "When you become worried about a problem, that is when it occurs," he said sagely. "Police only stop you if you think they will."
He was right. We stopped thinking about police, and they somehow disappeared for the rest of our trip.
On a bus traveling into the town center, Dima pointed out various large and deteriorating buildings he had marked as potential squats. He was looking for a home for the community, one where they could host music and art events and workshops for meditation.

We stopped on a pretty canal bridge to meet Andrei and Sasha, two of Dima's housemates, both consummate fire twirlers. I couldn't help but think how similar these boys were to my hippie friends back in Tallinn. They discuss escaping to the woods to visit a dacha, hunt for mushrooms and take a sauna. I could have been overhearing a conversation between Estonian young people.
"How many people are there in Russia like you, with your mindset?" I ask Dima.
"Thousands, hundreds of thousands," he said with glowing eyes.

The Fascism question
Back at the apartment, the doorbell never seemed to stop ringing. Every few minutes we were introduced to a new arrival. They sat on the floor to share vodka, sipping from a tea cup while crunching on raw cloves of garlic.
It took several hours, but finally the conversation turned to Estonia and the Bronze Soldier riots.
"My uncle was there, he said it was very scary, the Estonian police were crazy," said one boy with relatives in Tallinn. " I think Estonia is a very fascist country."

There it was, that word. Fascism. So often repeated by Russian politicians and press. Does anyone even know what it means anymore? But say it often enough, and the young people will start to repeat it.
"When I visited Estonia, I could see that all the people there hated Russians," the same boy went on, "But Russia did so many good things for Estonia. It built the factories and the roads. Before the war, Estonia was nothing, a poor country, and Russia helped it. Why do they hate us?"
"Estonia wasn't poor," I told him. "It was very prosperous. Before the war, Estonia was richer than Finland."
"No, it wasn't," he replied with conviction.

"Yes, it was," I insisted, but I see a look of disbelief stretch across his face. It's not his fault he thinks this way. If this is what they're taught in school, it's no wonder there's so much animosity between the two countries.
Another boy told us of his difficulties in trying to get a visa to visit Estonia to visit relatives.
"If I go to the Finnish embassy, they give me a visa no problems. When I go to the Estonian embassy, they ask all difficult questions. 'What color is your relative's hair?' The Estonian government is crazy."
They're not crazy, I said, they're just scared and cautious.

"Why are they scared of me? I have done nothing to them. I just want to visit."
He told how he is looking forward to Estonia joining the Schengen visa zone, which will ironically make it easier for Russians to enter. I can't help but think of the benefits of greater interaction between the young people of both countries. A bit of mutual understanding could go a long way.

The Nashi question
There was one thing I was burning to ask about before we left. I'd noticed a security pass hanging on a hook in the apartment. On it was a photo of Sasha, and across the top in bold letters was printed "Nashi." I was puzzled. What was a freethinking bohemian like Sasha doing at an event hosted by the belligerent nationalistic youth movement Nashi 's a group that has been compared to the Hitler Youth?
Dima explained with a smile as we packed our bags to leave. "He's not with them, he's …with us. He only worked at one of their meetings as a cook."
I'm suddenly relieved, and ask what he thinks of Nashi.

"They are zombies. They are brainwashed to think the same way. It's a way to get a job, to get money, to rise into politics quickly," Dima says, and tells us about how the community used to share a building with an organization that received government funds to research how to use music and videos to spread modern propaganda messages.
"Will it work, this brainwashing?" I ask.

Dima shakes his head. "It won't work. When people have low self-esteem, when they are angry, it hooks them. If you keep your heart and mind open, there is nothing to hook."
We crossed back into Estonia, minus our bottles of Vana Tallinn. There'd been no officials to bribe, despite the horror stories so often repeated. Both bottles of liquor went to our hosts. Russia isn't such a scary place, we discovered. And hopefully our friends learned the same thing about Estonia.