Crossing the line

By Andrew Matheson

Land borders can be a bit of a novelty for New Zealanders.  We’re much more used to arriving at airports after a long flight, and queuing to go through passport control before popping out into another country.  In Europe, borders are much more part of everyday life.  People cross them without much thought — to go to work, do some shopping or simply for a better cup of coffee.

It wasn’t always like this.  Borders were once much more of a barrier, but at the same time constantly changing.  People lucky enough to go on this year’s cycling tour of Sweden and the Baltic states will visit three lesser-known gems of Europe: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.  These small countries have been washed back and forth by the tides of European history.  And while they are now proudly independent and progressive nations, over centuries their borders have moved around at the whim of conquering powers.  The countries have even disappeared at times.  Sometimes people have changed countries simply by staying at home — it’s not so much that they crossed borders, but rather the borders crossed them.

This is far removed from our experience in New Zealand, and makes for a richly diverse history.  Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are quite distinct in culture, history and language.  They do, though, share a lot of common history — rule by German barons, domination by Poland and Sweden, before Russia conquered them.  For all three countries the 19th century was one of uneasy peace under Russian domination, with nationalist cultural and political movements increasingly speaking out against Russification and for more political self-determination.

The 20th century saw almost continuous chaos and repression — Russian control, then independence, then Soviet annexation, occupation by Nazi Germany, and back to Soviet control again.  Even after the horrors of WW2, more than 40 years of Soviet rule saw further deportations, collectivisation of land and economic failure.  Resistance was suppressed by strong military control.

Gorbachev’s reform and openness policies lifted the lid on suppressed national feelings, and even before the Soviet Union collapsed the three Baltic countries began to demand autonomy.  Popular protests from 1987 onwards culminated two years later with more than 200,000 people forming a human chain between the three countries’ capital cities.  You can see markers to show where this took place.

Despite a military crackdown by the Soviet Union in 1991, all three Baltic states took advantage of chaos in the Soviet Union to declare full independence, which was soon recognised internationally.

A quarter of a century has passed since the three countries regained their independence.  A whole generation knows of the period spent as part of the Soviet Union only from history books and accounts from their parents and grandparents.  Since independence the countries have looked west, not east, embracing a market economy and ties with ‘the West’.  All three countries are now members of NATO, the European Union and the free-travel Schengen area.  They all use the euro.

But Russian influence didn’t end with independence in 1991.  Each of the three countries had — and still has — a large Russian minority population, mostly a result of Soviet planned migration after World War 2 to provide an industrial workforce and alter the demography of the area.  Russia is still a dominant neighbour, and these countries are truly the EU’s borderlands.

Cycling through these small countries will give you a close-up look at these new-but-old European nations.  You’ll get an insight into how shifting borders have shaped them and their citizens’ lives.  Living on some islands in the remote South Pacific has its disadvantages, but stable borders do make for a much simpler life.