Saturday, 3 July 2010

All new things

Written 29th June

So, we are really on our way north now!

A new atlas section (scandinavia and the baltics) -  our last one and the only one where the pages are currently not covered in orange (van dwellers on-the-road-snack-of-choice, popular regions where we spent a lots of time are more juiced than those we skipped through... :) ).  

A new time zone - it is still light in the sky gone midnight, which means we stay up too late and wake up late. But that's ok, there'll be plenty of daylight later on so we won't miss anything...

And, most excitingly, we are now above the 54th parallel (somewhere about level with Middlesborough - definitely 'oop north' then ;) ).  

So, 18 parallels in 5 weeks, only 18 parallels to go and about 4 more weeks of white nights at Nordkapp in which to get there... But we have less 'across' and more 'straight up' in the general plan and anyway, Rafi checked and from where we were in poland, it was only 44 hours of continuous driving to get there... And that includes the Tallin-Helsinki ferry crossing... Easy then :)

And a whole new, and again, previously unconsidered country and yet another evil oppressive occupying power to get to grips with... But more on that later.

It is funny but even only a few miles in,  Lithuania was already somehow completely different from Poland.

The roads are wider for a start - although people are not so crazy about overtaking here as poland -  - and the road markings are subtly different.  There is also a lot of completely unnecessary tyre squealing by boys in generally quite ordinary cars.

And despite the AA warnings, they are much better signposted than other places we have been (spain, greece...)

We were also back to proper rural just on the border.  Only 10 miles in we saw a man scything and later on a woman milking a lone cow into a bucket in the middle of a field.  Although no rustic haystacks here, technology has arrived in the form of plastic haybales.  It is funny what changes across borders, I think I prefer the tall hairy yetis and long shaggy dougal's of southern poland and romania though.

A brief stop in Druskininkai first.  A spawling leafy park of a town - couldn't see the town for the trees -   which, despite being c200km from the nearest coast, is the salt water spa resort of Lithuania. 

We stopped only to find the Grozio Saltinis, apparently also known as the Fountain of Beauty, a drink from whose waters promises eternal beauty.  Well we'll have some of that then! 

At 52g of salt per litre of water, I fear I may only get a very small sip of eternal beauty but I washed my face and splashed water around a bit for good measure so we shall see...  No demonstrable change as yet but i'll keep you posted... :)

The real reason for our trip to Druskininkai, was Gruto Parkus, some 8kms outside, a display of communist era statues.  

After the fall of communism, the many statues glorifying the communist leaders and ideals which were a mandatory feature of every city, town and village were torn down.  Some were destroyed, some beheaded and left as figures of derision and fun, and many were shut away in warehouses.  Unable to continue this expensive storeage, the government invited tenders as to what should be done with them.  Most of the applicants  wanted serious museums and public money with which to establish them but one guy, Lithuania's self-styled 'King of Mushrooms', a communist turned highly successful millionaire capitalist mushroom and berry farm owner, asked just for the statues and promised millions of his own money to set something up.  No prizes for guessing who won :)  And so, in 2001, a controversial park - known unaffectionately by the locals as 'Stalin World' - was set up in the vast grounds of his house and mushroom farm.

And, whilst I can understand those who protested (and they were legion) about seeing these figures of oppression standing once more, the park has been done really well.  There is no question of glorification of the communist era here.

<  History Break  >

It turns out there is a whole new period of recent history and a whole other oppressive regime of terror about which, I now discover, I am woefully unaware.  Skip this if you are better educated than me... 

Lithuania as a single entity - the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was born from the union of several disparate tribes in 1253 and by the 15th century, both alone and through various alliances with Poland, it was one of europe's largets empires, stretching east and south to Kursk and the Black Sea respectively.   

But the same invaders - the Russian, Prussians and Austrians - and the same division agreements which erased Poland, stamped all over Lithuania and for c150 years it all but disappeared, swallowed up by Russia, with Vilnius becoming a bastion of Polish culture and anti-russian feeling, as well as 'the Jerusalem of the North', as described by Napoleon, an important Jewish centre.

After WWI and the Russian revolution, and whilst Russia's attentions were focused on its own internal turmoil, Lithuania successfully declared independence.  Although this was short-lived and incomplete as Poland was still fighting Russia on Lithuanian soil resulting in an armistice whereby Vilnius remained in Polish hands.

In 1939-40, the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression agreement and the at-the-time secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, gave Lithuania and the other Baltics to the USSR and the Soviets moved in in force.  

Hitler's reneg on this agreement put Lithuania once more on the frontline of someone else's war and it was occupied by the Nazis from 1941-45 who set about their now familiar quest for jewish and general extermination, killing over 300,000 people, mostly jews, in local concentration camps.  Until 'liberation' came in the form of the Soviets defeating the Nazis.

Which is about where the you start in the first exhibition at Gruto Park.

By now, we are so conditioned to thinking 'boo nazis, evil baddies', that the automatic mental response is 'yay soviet liberators, you must be the goodies!'  until you read on and realise it was a case of rock and hard place; frying pan, fire for poor Lithuania.

The Soviets had started their quest for communist world domination and national subjugation in 1940, by organising mass imprisonment or deportation to russia of  any intellectuals, free thinkers, clergy, teachers, land owners and farmers (approximately 40,000 people) who might disagree with them.  Censoring and/or destroying most literature and education and outlawing all clubs, libraries and associations other than those for the promulgation of the soviet message.  They also held rigged elections to demonstrate that the Lithanians 'wanted' communism - only approved communist candidates could stand for election and there were no ballot controls, in at least one region, 91% of the total electorate were recorded as having voted but somehow the communist party also recorded supporting votes from 95% of the total electorate. Hmmmm at least do your maths and rig the numbers feasibly if totally falsely! 

And, having kicked out the Nazis, they just carried on as above.

<  /   history break  >

The park is set in woodland with the various statues in separate glades with plaques about the individuals, who they were and, in most cases what atrocities they committed.  As I say, no question of glorifying the communist leaders and ideals here.

A lot of the history was actually that of russia and the communist party evolution rather than lithanian history specifically - well it was largely one and the same anyway - which was good for us, uninformed as we were.

And it sorted out some fundamental gaps I had:  Lenin? Stalin? which one's which?? And who was this Marx guy anyway??

Yes, that basic!  Shocking isn't it! 

<   History break 2  >

For those equally ill-informed as I.

Karl Marx - lots of hair, around mid-late 19th century.  Got kicked out of native germany for general dissidence. Landed up in london and wrote Das Kapital in which he set out the ideals and fundamental basics for a communist utopia.  Not personally evil (as far as I know) but believed national power would come from repression of individuals.

Vladimir Ulyanov aka Lenin - Ming the Merciless lookalike with piercing stare and pointy goaty.  Born in 1870, variously imprisoned and exiled in and from native Russia for general dissidence.  Hi-jacked the anti-tsarist liberal revolution in 1917 with a coup by his Bolshevik Communist Party, and instigated civil war between 1917-1920 during which Tsar Nicolas II and family were murdered.   Defeated all resistance to create the world's first Communist state, following marxist principles.   By the time he died in 1924, Russia was the founding and most powerful member of the newly established Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).  Believed in stamping hard on all resistance and opposition.  Not a nice man.  But not as bad as the next one.

Joseph Stalin - mustachio'd Saddam lookalike.  Despotic meglomaniac - is there actually a prescribed 'look' for this??  Took Marxist/Leninist ideas to a whole new and genocidal level.  Expanded USSR by forcibly absorbing 14 neighbouring states, industrialised the nation, successfully fought off the Nazi invasion and won the war on the eastern front through sheer determination and forcing his army to stand firm in terribly harsh conditions.  Had, by the time he died in 1953, established the USSR as a nuclear superpower.  Very, very not a nice man.

And to complete the set:
Kruschev - eventual victor, in 1957, of the power struggle resulting from the leadership vacuum after the death of Stalin.   Somewhat of a reformist, at least set about denouncing Stalin to distance Communism from his atrocities.  Removed from power in 1964 by party as deemed to be erratic.


some others - turnover in quick succession of two others who lasted a year and then died.

Gorbachev - began a period of reform (Perestroika) in 1985 in desperate attempt to maintain fragile grasp of control of USSR in face of economic stagnation and resultant crisis from previous administrations.   Failed. 

1989: it all goes to shit.  In no particular order: Berlin Wall falls.  Ceausescu overthrown.  Polish Communist Party voted out of power.  Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia leads to resignation of Communist Party.  Hungarian Communists surrender their monopoly on power. The Baltic Way protest in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia - an astonishing human chain of people stretching c600kms from Vilnius in the south to Tallin in the North all calling for independence.

1991:  It's all over.  Baltics independence,  starting with Lithuania.  Total collapse of USSR and communist party

So there you go.  simple!

<  /  History  break 2  >

And I will certainly never forget what Lenin looks like now!  It may have the moniker 'Stalin World' but it's Lenin's image which is dominan everywhere , presumably because the communists themselves took most of Stalin's statues down in the Krushev years.

Guarded by gulag-style watch towers and also including an incongruous petting zoo and adult-sized playground -

I haven't been on a seesaw for ever, what fun!

- people feared it would be some kind of soviet disney - his original plans to 'deport' visitors the 120 kms from Vilnius on crowded cattle trucks was veto'd as being in bad taste (although we did actually think that the Auschwitz-Birkenau shuttle bus transport missed a trick in that regard, maybe its an idea for another generation...) but it isn't that at all. 

It is a very well put together and thought provoking memorial, with interesting displays, 

to how things really were and testament to what this country has been through in what may be living memory now but will all too quickly become a past which should not be forgotten.

Oh and randomly, we have met yet another cycling Brit.  A welh guy called Paul who is spending a month after finishing university to cycle round eastern europe before joining the marines in Sept.  As you do.  Less than a week in to his trip, he arrived in Riga, cycled to Vilnius and was having a quick sculpture break before heading to poland.  His plan is to get to Dubrovnik, through Serbia and by way of Budapest and Kiev ( What??? I'm sure that's not the most direct route! There may be a train involved...) in a month.   Crazy.

He preferred Vilnius to Riga - although apparently narrowly escaped an altercation with some lads in a bar as to quite why they had been buying him drinks all night and what they expected in return..., a story which I suspect will grow in the telling as the scar fades :) -  and bought a nice present for his mum in Vilnius.  A lovely pot which he has now realised he has to lug across europe for a month d'oh!

He's quite upbeat about his plans and fairly easy about seeing where he ends up - "oh yeah, you have to remember that a big day for me is 150kms.  You guys probably do 800 or so"  err I think not! :)  by dint of sheer determination, goal focus and lack of stopping, we reckon that both cyclists we have met so far are averaging higher speeds than us, or at least more miles per week :) -  and we wish him well on his big adventure.  

Oh, and in coding news - success!  My little puzzler now solves 'hard' puzzles too!  'Very hard' are going to be somewhat more difficult though....

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