When Vladimir Putin’s ‘special military operation’ began, and the long amassed forces on the Ukrainian border were finally mobilised, studying Russian suddenly became strangely relevant, especially after how accustomed I had grown to it being considered a ‘niche’ subject. Amid the constant questions of ‘what does this mean for you next year?’ and ‘what about your year abroad?’, there were a few glimmers of if not hope, at least solidarity.
My tutorials swiftly evolved into hour long sombre discussions, nervous questions and most memorably, a toast to the future of Ukraine, washed down by Grey Goose’s finest.
This question of my now completely uncertain future, selfishly I know, nonetheless preoccupied me. My long held and overly romanticised visions of wandering the St Petersburg streets in which the writers I adored had lived and written, were extinguished upon the first tanks’ advance towards Luhansk, Donetsk, Kharkiv and Kyiv. Unsurprisingly, travel to either what was rapidly becoming an active warzone, or to the country now waging the largest war in Europe in 80 years, was swiftly advised against. Nonetheless I did, and to an extent, still do, mourn the experience I never had.
After several months of idle procrastination and naively convincing myself that ‘this is a future me problem’, time inevitably triumphed, and I was left with just weeks to arrange plans somewhere with even just a few Russian speakers. And so, after hours of desperate internet scrolling and endless email chains, I settled on Narva – Estonia’s easternmost city, notable for the historic Kreenholm textile factory, beautiful Baltic landscape and its wire-clad concrete investigation into Soviet Brutalism. The Russian border.
Reaching Narva requires dedication, a full twenty hours from doorstep to doorstep and demands the use of the majority of mankind’s solutions to long distance travel. Weary, unwashed and somewhat disgruntled by the overly severe barks from the not-so-friendly train conductress (a delightful welcome to Estonia), I traipsed out of the vokzal, beautiful amid the communist-era plaza that followed, to meet Aleksei my future colleague at the Narva Art Residency and local ‘fixer’. To my surprise, Aleksei reliably informed me that the ‘Bolt’ app was the best way to get around Narva. And indeed, ranks of turquoise scooters line every other street corner, frequented by the majority of Narva’s under 25s, united in their flagrant disregard for traffic laws and languid pensioners.
My cursory exploration of Narva bore comforting symbols of familiarity in the form of the infamous ‘Golden Arches’, a KFC and bizarrely, countless Sushi restaurants. When I later questioned Johanna, director of the residency and Narva local, on this peculiarity she provided me with the incontestable answer of “Because it’s good!”. Nevertheless, Narva is far more nuanced than any other European city I’ve visited, despite its surface level resemblance. Road signs are in Estonian, yet advertising is in Russian. The architecture, for the most part, is discernibly eastern European yet its people speak Russian. This impression of a dichotomous Narva was made all the more apparent when exploring the border itself.
The concrete behemoth, arguably one of the most geopolitically important borders in Europe today, facilitating one of St Petersburg’s main European trade routes, is again contradictory. The brutal images of destruction with which we have grown used to seeing as a ‘Russian border’ are nowhere to be found. Instead, HGVs sit at a standstill over the serene Narva river. Narva and Ivangorod natives share their mutual love of ribalka, a hobby seemingly indigenous to all middle aged men in this corner of the world. They stand waist deep in the ice-cold current, puffing away on cheap cigarettes whilst the Russian border patrol boat lies deceivingly dormant in the middle of the river – a deterrent to overly keen fishermen. The Ivangorod fortress and Narva Castle oppose one another on their respective banks, the Estonian and Russian flags at full mast. Traffic is slow, but every few minutes another lorry trundles through. Clearly, the naive belief in the efficacy of Western trade sanctions has only delayed this particular stream of traffic. A public cyclepath flanks the river while Russian waterfront dachas, many proudly bearing their own Russian flags lie opposite. A typical depiction of Lenin, his arm outstretched towards Ivangorod, peeks its head over the parapet of Narva castle, a Soviet relic and poignant reminder of Russia’s proximity. A far cry from the BBC’s illustration of a Russian border…
Despite the almost arcadian beauty of landscape surrounding the border crossing, Narva is not however naive to the atrocities taking place elsewhere. Though the war in Ukraine is a particularly delicate subject here, many of the interactions I have had with both old and young, conservative and liberal, have, on the whole, expressed condemnation of Putin’s ‘operation’. Pavel, a 29 year old microbiologist and Narva native, relayed his condemnation of the war to me one evening over a few beers, but interestingly, was firm in his belief that though Putin had, as he put it ‘soshyel s ooma’ (lost his mind), he would ultimately never press ‘the big red button’. Other members of the Narva community have even come together in heroic displays of solidarity with the Ukrainian refugees now crossing the border, with Johanna having housed over 300 refugees since the war began. A particularly tongue-in-cheek and somewhat abrasive Russian native, Sergei, commuted daily from Russia to provide aid and transport to the women and children arriving in Narva – a selfless act despite his poor-taste in humour.
My preconception of Narva as almost another Russian enclave, akin to that of Kaliningrad which lies just a few hundred kilometres south west, was evidently deeply ill-founded…
Though the vaguely threatening Putinist rhetoric in June this year echoes this sentiment of Narva belonging to the same nationalistic sovereign ideal under which Ukraine has suffered for the last 8 months, Europe was equally quick to politicise Narva, with Ursula von de Leyen having publicly visited the residency only last week. The impression elicited from my time in Narva is however, of a city that is neither European or Russian. Instead, it lies somewhere in between, inimitable in this sense, and by the looks of it, destined to a future of vague affirmations of it being both Russian and European. That is, for as least as long as Putin remains in the Kremlin. As the Russian idiom appropriately states: рыба гинет с головы – ‘the fish rots from the head down’…
Image description: The border between Narva, Estonia and Russia