Odessa: how Catherine the Great’s idea turned into a booming city.

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Odessa is a city with a very interesting history. A small village until 1794, it was transformed into Russia’s 3rd largest city in only 11 years, on the orders of Catherine the Great (seen here at the top of the monument, standing on an Ottoman flag). She wanted an important commercial port on the Black Sea and decided to named it after the name of the settlement the Greeks had at this very place in antiquity, Odess. Except she thought there were not enough cities in Russia with women’s names, so she feminized it to Odessa.

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At a time when aristocratic status mattered much more than nationality, she asked the French Duke of Richelieu to build her city (this being only 6 years after the French Revolution, I imagine there were quite a few French aristocrats around Europe looking for something to do). His statue is at the top of the Potemkin Stairs, made famous by Eisenstein’s 1925 movie “The battleship Potemkin”. In fact, they used to be called Primorski Stairs, but were renamed after the immensely successful propaganda movie. You may notice that the stairs appear to be wider at the bottom. In fact, they are, by 9 m.

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This was done to create the optical illusion that the stairs were perfectly parallel, when viewed from the top, where aristocrats lived. Also, at the right angle, you only see the landings from the top, whereas from the bottom, you only see the steps.

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The aristocrats mainly lived on what has become this beautiful promenade, Primorsky Boulevard. But the city almost never happened. Shortly after ordering its construction, Catherine died and was succeeded by her only son, Paul I. He hated his mother and essentially attempted to reverse all her decisions and projects. The city would receive no special treatment. So the distraught merchants ordered a shipment of thousands of oranges from Greece and presented them as a gift to the new Emperor. He was so excited by the exotic fruit that, realizing the commercial port was the only way to obtain such fantastic luxuries, he re-established all the special considerations the new city was getting. This story strangely reminded me of the time people I was travelling with bribed a policeman with 2 apples in Mozambique!

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So this new monument celebrating the event is alternatively called “Monument to the Orange”, or “Monument to the bribe”! Continue reading

So I went to Transnistria, I think. Or is it Moldova? Russia? The Soviet Union?

As I made my way out of Moldova and into Ukraine, I had two choices. A direct bus through southern Moldova, or stoping in the internationally unrecognized, self-proclaimed republic of Transnistria, officially known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic. If you know me, or have read a few of my travel stories, I don’t need to tell you what I chose to do.

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It is said by many that in Transnistria, time stopped in 1992. My quick visit allowed me to see that there is a little bit of truth to this, but not a lot.

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Sure, hammers and sickles are everywhere, and the statues of Lenin have not been taken down. I took this one from the profile, because taking it from the front would have been illegal. You see, in doing so, I would have taken a picture of a “national strategic asset”, the Parliament building, located behind. In this regard, time did stop in 1992, when ridiculous rules that make absolutely no sense in the modern world still had force of law. So I used my secret spy training to take a picture anyway.

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And there you have it. Jealous of my shrewd, James Bond like abilities? OK, I will divulge all my secrets. I typed “Tiraspol Parliament” in Google Image and got thousands of pictures. I picked one at random. So random in fact, that I can’t find it again to give credit to the author! Here’s to the law being in touch with reality.

Before I go into how normal Transnistria seems to be, I will write a bit about the “stuck in the past” aspect. All post-communist countries have to deal with the remnants of communist bureaucratic mentality. The worst are probably Russia and Belarus, but Transnistria is not far behind. Because I had little time, I booked a private guided tour to show me around the capital. My three hour tour was really a 1.5 h tour, with 1.5 hour of bureaucracy! First, while I surprisingly didn’t need a visa to get in, immigration involved a lot of paperwork in duplicate (of course it would be hard to require a visa, since the territory has no diplomatic missions, anywhere).

Since my tour guide operates 100% within the law, we went through all the hoops. He had previously declared my expected arrival to the Ministry of the Interior – where he was reprimanded for not giving them sufficient notice (I had emailed him only 1 or 2 days before my arrival) – but now he had to provide them with a paper copy of the bilingual 2 times 3 page tourism contract I had signed; for a 3 hour tour! And the best came at the end, when I normally would have pulled some money out of my pocket and paid him. No, no, no; not allowed in Transnistria. Probably fearing he would fail to declare his income, the authorities do not allow cash payment for such services. So we had to drive across town to a bank, where I deposited the small payment into his business bank account, and all parties involved collected a pile of paperwork in triplicate.

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Driving across town was required because only one bank was opened on Easter Sunday. The fact that the streets were dead on that day of family celebrations certainly contributed to giving the place a strange feel. It also resulted in an interesting incident. Continue reading

Moldova, the European country richer than Sudan. Just barely.

If, like me, you want to travel from Romania to Ukraine, you have two choices: an expensive flight, or going through Moldova. (OK, there is also a direct Bucharest-Kiev train, if 27 hours on a train built when JFK was president is your idea of fun). What’s there to see or do in Moldova, you ask? I didn’t know, and based on my research and my visit, probably not much for the average tourist. But it’s a lot cheaper than flying to Ukraine.129---01

Moldova is the poorest country in Europe, by FAR. Many buildings, like my hotel, have not changed much since the fall of the Soviet Union. The place being empty, the lovely English speaking receptionist let me check-in at something like 7 am. I came to ask for a wake-up call in the evening and it was still her behind the counter. At 6 am, she called my room and when I returned the key, she handed me a packed lunch for my train trip! Quite the work shift!

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Some hotels are doing a lot worse than they used to. Either through economic collapse, or because the communist project never made any business sense outside a planned economy, several buildings in the capital are in a similar condition. That’s the fountains of the abandoned hotel in the foreground, in case you were wondering.

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Another problem is that I visited over Easter week-end. Not the best, but I had to be somewhere over Easter, and it fell here. So I went to the War Museum, and of course, it was closed on Easter Saturday.

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Judging by the exterior displays, I don’t think I missed much. Continue reading

Romania redux: from revolutions to crucifixions.

Since I had replaced my week in Egypt in March with a week in Romania, I though I would travel from Hungary to Moldova as quickly as possible. However, the limited research I did left me with more places I wanted to see in Romania than in Hungary, so I took the slow route, stoping in 3 cities along the way.

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First was Timisoara, the birthplace of the 1989 revolution, where I visited the Revolution Memorial (note the Berlin Wall segment).

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It recently moved into an old army barrack, and let’s just say it’s a work in progress. I signed the required guest registration book, which showed me I had been the only visitor that day. I even met the director, a man who was himself shot and hospitalized for several months on that fateful year. The first thing he asked me was if I came from the French speaking part of Canada. When I said yes, he seemed very proud to be able to offer a French subtitled version of the Memorial’s 30 min video, which I watched by myself using the small conference room’s overhead projector.

The movie confirmed what I had read in Bucharest about Ceaușescu’s 10 minute trial. Most of the violence in 1989 occurred after the fall of the Government on December 22nd. More exactly, 162 people were killed before and 942 after. While it seems obvious in hindsight that the regime had fallen, it was not clear at all for many at the time, and various groups still loyal to the regime committed acts of violence. Some groups of revolutionaries even killed each other, by mistake. The execution of the dictator was to be the sign that this was over, the regime was dead. Right or wrong, it worked. And the risks that because of a show trial they executed an innocent man are quite low indeed.

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This was Victory Square, the day I visited. Mostly the domain of pigeons and Easter celebration vending booths.

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This was the same place in 1989. The reason why the troubles started there was that most people in Romania were completely unaware of what was happening in the world, the State-controlled media avoiding any reference to the fall of the Berlin Wall, or other such topics. But in Timisoara, along the border with Hungary, people were getting TV signals from Yugoslavia and knew of the great upheavals in the communist world. Continue reading

Budapest: a sad history, some cool “ruin bars” and incredible architecture.

Budapest is famous for its ruin bars. Young entrepreneurs had the idea of using abandoned structures not intended as bars or restaurants, such as factories or apartments, and converting them into bars.

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I believe this one, Szimpla Pub, was the first, installed in an abandoned stove factory.

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It boomed and there are now at least 15 around the city. The places are decorated by artists and the owner’s buddies, often using recycled materials. While they still retain the bohemian style, judging by the volume of customers I saw, they could now afford to renovate the place in marble.

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Some seating, made from a vintage East-German Trabant plastic car, sawed in half!

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I explored the places as part of a guided pub tour. Here’s Orsi, the guide, who is enrolled in some graduate degree related to Judaism and also conducts tours of the Jewish heritage of Budapest.  Continue reading

Stepping back in the past: a communist tour of Budapest.

The communism walking tour I went on in Budapest was more of a storytelling, rather than a sightseeing tour. It was given by two guides in their early 40’s, old enough to have lived in communist Hungary, albeit in their teenage years only. They did a great job at presenting the inconveniences of living under the system, the advantages, and the realities of daily life. I certainly realized, visiting North Korea, that even in regimes of which we only hear about horrors, strangeness and oppression, most of the time, most of the people are going about normal daily routines in a very normal and boring way. Hungary was no different, I am sure.

But before going into the good and the bad, I must talk about the ugly. A key year in communist Hungary’s history is 1956. Before that, Hungarians lived under terrible oppression, with constant fear of arrest, arbitrary detention or deportation based on secret denunciations. The ideology of the regime was one of “if you are not with us, you are against us”.

I won’t write a history lesson, but in short, the level of oppression in communist Europe had been greatly reduced since the death of Stalin in 1953 and there was an attempted revolution in 1956 to establish an independent Hungary. The Soviet Union invaded the country, thousands were killed and the revolution was crushed. However, the end result was surprising. Instead of resulting in a harsher regime, like after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, it produced a more liberal regime, known as “Goulash Communism”, and Hungary became known as “the happiest barrack in the socialist camp”! The new Government policy was: “if you are not against us, you are with us”, meaning that for the average folks who were not liberal intellectuals and the like, life under constant fear ceased. Perhaps, for example, identifying as a religious person would be bad for your career, but you wouldn’t end up in a Gulag with the rest of your family.

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The bullet holes downtown were never fixed and instead were transformed into a memorial to the deceased would-be revolutionaries, most killed not by the Soviets, but by the Hungarian KGB.

One of the guide, Agnes, talked of Hungary not as a democracy, but as a “post-communist” country, the idea being that you can change the laws, but you need two generations to change the mentalities. For example, she identified excessive bureaucracy and rampant corruption as two persisting legacies of communism.

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One thing which apparently declined after the fall of communism was entertainment. The socialist regime used to subsidize the arts heavily, live performances were available all over the country, and artistic productions of all kinds were broadcasted on TV. Today, the national broadcaster has moved out of its massive downtown location, into an inexpensive suburban building (apparently a Canadian company bought the building with the intent of transforming it into a luxury hotel). Local productions apparently revolve mostly around reality TV and stupid game shows, and very few live artistic performances are available outside Budapest. So people watch dumb TV all day, especially pensioners.

I think in all former communist countries, pensioners are the ones who got the worst deal. Today in Hungary old age pension is only $375 a month. Of course, none of them built their own equity, the concept simply not being part of the world they were raised and lived in.

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But even the young can feel nostalgia. Agnes showed us the “horrible itchy blue polyester scarves” they wore in some sort of youth league, between the ages of 7 to 11. The activities were not yet focused on indoctrination, but on teaching the kids to work together, something which has gone away for the most part with the fall of communism. The other guide, Aron, recalls his schoolmates staying an hour after school to help him with math, while he would do the same in return for language classes. Today, tutoring is available at all levels in Hungary, but none of it is for free.

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Between the ages of 12 and 15, you wore a red scarf and the tone was more political, but neither Agnes nor Aron attended. But they got ideological games, like this improbable communist version of Monopoly. It contains now funny lines like: “You have read all books by Lenin, move ahead 3 squares”! Continue reading

The land of Chuck Norris: Prague, Slovakia (or so the Germans say).

Slovakia is very much, from the perspective of this Canadian, a “below the radar” country. I would consider myself reasonably geographically literate and fairly well aware of world affairs. But if you had asked me to talk about Slovakia last month, I think that like most Canadians, I could have told you it was half of the former Czechoslovakia, and, probably unlike most Canadians, I could have told you the capital and neighbouring countries. But that’s pretty much it. Politicians? Population? Major industries or economic issues? Even currency? Nope. As it turns out, I am not the only one.

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According to a guide on a walking tour of the city, the German magazine “Der Spiegel” published this photo in 2008 with the caption: “Praha 1968”. The problem? This photo was not taken in “Praha” (Prague), but Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. I walked passed that very distinct circular university building. So even when something does happen in Slovakia, people don’t even realize that’s where it’s happening!

It was taken by Ladislav Bielik, a photographer whose work was never acknowledged during his lifetime. He managed to take these photos and send them to the Free World so that all would know what was happening in 1968. The pictures became immensely well known, but it was only discovered after his death that he was the photographer, a little bit by chance. Since he had remained in Czechoslovakia, he could not risk revealing his identity.

What was happening was that the Czechoslovakian Government had decided to lift restrictions on journalism in particular and free speech in general. Since Communism had never been popular in the region’s countries and had been imposed from the outside, the Soviet Union feared the country might break free from its hold. Furthermore, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev realized that relative free movement behind the Iron Curtain meant that intellectuals from anywhere in his empire could just travel to Czechoslovakia and publish works banned by Soviet censorship. He was also worried Czechoslovakia might go further and decide to open its border with Austria, which could result in an exodus of millions from the previously nearly inescapable Warsaw Pact nations.

This could not be allowed to happen from the Soviet perspective, so they launched a massive invasion of Czechoslovakia, using half a million soldiers and thousands of tanks. Locals reacted by painting over the city signs, so that the invaders, with little in the way of navigational equipment, would never be certain where they were. But of course, since the Czechoslovak Government decided not to resist, this only delayed the inevitable and the Soviets placed a hard-core Communist regime in power and the Soviet Army remained in Czechoslovakia until 1991.

Since I had forgotten a few dates and facts from my visit, I looked them up on Wikipedia and for some reason, had the idea to check the Russian version (through a translation app). It produced this gem:

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The English version: Warsaw pact countries invade Czechoslovakia.

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The Russian version: Warsaw pact countries, including Czechoslovakia, fight “The Rebels”, which in this case happens to be the Government of Czechoslovakia, acting with wide popular support. I think I will be reading a lot of Russian Wikipedia in the next few weeks! Continue reading