Staunton, February 12 – During the Cold War, many students of the USSR who flew from London to Moscow could see from their plane windows how Europe was divided. At night, Western Europe was lit up, Eastern Europe much less so, and the USSR almost completely dark along that route.
Despite all the changes in the east, there is still very much a dividing line in Europe but it no longer runs so much along the path of the Iron Curtain between Western Europe and the Soviet-occupied east but along the border between European countries and the Russian Federation.
One of the locations where this divide is most clearly seen is on the Estonian-Russian border where Narva, the city on the Estonian side, is clearly part of Europe, and Ivangorod on the Russian Federation, equally clearly is not, according to Pavel Mezerin, a émigré activist for the Free Ingria movement (region.expert/promenade/).
The division today is the product of a long history one in which the border has sometimes not mattered very much and at others as now it is the line between two different civilizations. Narva, like Tallinn, was founded by the Danes, and served as a trading outpost more than a military facility. Until Muscovy conquered Novgorod, what is now Ivangorod was the same.
Then, Ivan III made it a military outpost and a dividing line between his kingdom and Europe. In the succeeding centuries, these two places passed back and forth among various powers even though, Mezerin insists, “during all this time, both banks of the Narva River, Narva and Ivangorod, were a single whole.”
After Estonia’s recovery of independence and the demise of the USSR, he continues, “Russia and Estonia were moving in one direction, home to Europe. Both countries built from nothing both a market economy and new democratic institutions. There were common goals and common efforts.” But today, they have diverged and nowhere is this more clearly seen than along the Narva River.
“Estonia is a successful European state, but Russia, having resumed its pursuit of ‘a special path’ at the start of this century, appears to have become seriously lost; “and the Russian-Estonian border region is a clear illustration of this. Today, 30 years after the demise of the USSR, Narva and Ivangorod are two different worlds.”
Moving from one to the other recalls science fiction stories about teleportation. If one starts in Ivangorod, one finds himself in a depressed Russian settlement; but then if one crosses the river, one instantly “finds oneself in a different world, with EU flags, NATO emblems, good sidewalks … and sympathetic young men and women … You are in Europe!”
People in Narva like to walk along the embankment which was build with money from the European Union. It is not just the pride of Narva, “but of all Estonia,” Mezerin says. And it stands in stark contrast to what is just over the river, where the EU also invested money for that purpose but without the same successful end.
As a result of Moscow’s turn away from Europe over the last decade, the Ivangorod side at the rivers edge features concrete slabs and barbed wire. Beyond those are a few nice apartments for Russians who can afford them and who want a view not of Ivangorod but of Narva on the other side. This is no accident, the activist says.
“Looking from Narva to Ivangorod is not a pleasant thing, but looking in the reverse direction is something that far from all can do.” Moscow has restored the Soviet “border zone” rules which require people living closer than 20 kilometers to the borders to get special permission and have it marked in their passports.
As a result, Mezerin concludes, “today when looking at the destruction and barbed wire on the [Russian] shore and reading news about police beatings and confinement of peaceful demonstrations in jail, you think that perhaps there again is an occupation like the one that existed in the 15th century.”