Russia’s military assault on Ukraine has shocked the world, and it has had a profound impact on the security situation in the Baltic Sea region. The Swedish, Estonian and Latvian sites that we examine in the Cold War Coasts project are entering a new, unexpected development phase.
In Sweden, the awareness of Gotland as a strategically important island in the Baltic Sea has been heightened, and the prospects for Russian forces to occupy Gotland as part of a potentially escalating military conflict has been discussed openly in Russian media. However, accounts of Gotland’s shifting pasts often fail to take into account the complexity of its military history and how current developments tie into centuries of local experiences. In a longer essay, published in Svenska Dagbladet, Cold War Coasts project leader Per Högselius seeks a more nuanced discussion, attempting to strengthen the historical awareness about Gotland among the general public. Read the essay here.
Kõik Lahemaa militaarpärandi päevade jututoad ja ekskursioonid filmiti üles ja on nüüd viimaks Youtube’is vabalt järele vaadatavad. Soovitame soojalt! Laiemat külma sõja tausta avab Kaarel Piirimäe, Robert Treufeldt räägib Suurpea-Hara kompleksist lähemalt, Tarvi Velström räägib Hara sadama arendamisest ning MTÜ Parim Paik Suurpeal! fantastilised naised Asta Kivi, Õnne Arba ja Anneli Lamonova maalivad meie ette värvikaid mälupilte sõjaväeosast, siis kui see oli veel tulvil inimestest ja defitsiitsest kaubast. Aleksandr Zaitsev räägib kõigest sellest, mis jääb Hara lahel vee alla. Tasub vaadata, kui teid huvitab, milleks kõigeks on hea ajakiri Ogonjok, miks Reet Linna nuttis, mida tegid piiritsooni rikkujad kartsas, kes külastas Lahemaad salaja Moskva olümpiamängude ajal, kuidas nõukogude piirivalve aitas tulevasi eesti piirivalvureid ja milliseid Lenineid maalisid sõjaväes kuulsad Eesti kunstnikud. Aga see ei ole veel kõik!
The video recordings from the Lahemaa military heritage days are finally online for everybody to look and listen. Three days cover a variety of topics from the general outline of the defense systems during the Cold War, the infrastructures of the Hara-Suurpea complex, but also everyday life in the border restriction zone. Most of videos are in Estonian, with the exception of the talk by Aleksandr Zaitsev, the diver who worked at the bottom of Hara Bay, who speaks in Russian.
All is set for the Lahemaa Military Heritage Days in Hara. Just look at this beautiful poster (there a great advantages in collaborating with the Academy of Art)! These are going to be three days of exciting talks on the actual military infrastructure, but also life and art in and around them. Quite a lot is known and documented about the actual military infrastructures and the natural ecosystems that have formed around them, not the least through the European Green Belt initiative. In Estonia, the military and ecological heritage of the border zone has been extensively mapped by Prof Kalev Sepp and his group at Estonian University of Life Sciences. But much less is known about the lived experience of negotiating these border zones and off-limits areas. Some earlier inventories of Lahemaa village landscapes mention the village swings or dance floors being replaced by Soviet army light-casters or other border infrastructures. Submarine testing had en inevitably strong influence on the traditional fishing practices. Yet these are fragmentary bits and pieces while many everyday practices – such as dance evenings with the soldiers or vodka with the officials – remain uncollected. The memories of Russian speaking local communities in Estonia are particularly sketchily documented, despite a major surge in oral history initiatives all over the former Eastern bloc. We hope to change that – both the July event and the material collection will be bilingual, including both Estonian and Russian communities.
The event will be also filmed and parts of it will be uploaded for everyone to see. We’ll share the links when the material becomes available. Meanwhile, seize the opportunity to register for the event until July 25!
Now that Estonia is out of quarantine and public events allowed, the time has come to make plans for summer. ColdWarCoasts is starting an ambitious collaboration with Ave Paulus from Environmental Board of the Republic of Estonia for gathering oral histories in the border zone in today’s Lahemaa National Park. On the final days of July, Cold War military heritage days will be held at Hara Submarine Base in Estonia, in cooperation with the Environmental Board of the Republic of Estonia, NGO Hara port, citizen societies MTÜ Parim Paik Suurpeal!, Juminda Poolsaare Selts and Eru Lahe rannarahva Selts, as well as Estonian Academy of Arts, Tallinn University and ICOMOS Estonia.
For the Cold War Coasts and it sister project in Tallinn University, this event will be an opportunity to make a contact with the local communities and start collecting their lived memories of the submarine base and the relations in the border zone. Ave Paulus from the Environmental Board who has worked together with the communities for years is a crucial person for establishing this contact for us. We invite all people who have memories of the site – both Estonian and Russian-speaking residents – to join us in a round of talks and reminiscence on July 29th.
The Cold War Coast day of reminiscence in preceded by a day of lectures on the Cold War, the whole physical infrastructure of the area as well as the actual work carried out in these military sites, followed by and excursion to Juminda, Loksa, Suurpea, Pärispea and Turbuneeme that all form a part of the same military complex. The third and last day is dedicated to art in Soviet military installations, mostly made by conscript artists, and will include reminiscences from the artists themselves as well as discussions why it is important to preserve this art as heritage. All through these three days, a team from the Estonian Academy of Arts will be carrying out art conservation works at Hara. These two days are hosted by the Environmental Board and Estonian Academy of Arts, respectively, and Cold War Coasts is happy to have found such an inspiring company.
BBC.com featured today a video piece on “Estonia’s ‘corona island’“, as they put it, that is, island Saaremaa that finds itself completely cut off from the mainland under the harsh COVID-19 measures taken in Estonia.
Whether or not it is nice to label an island a ‘corona island’ because there are many diagnosed cases, is a topic of its own. At the moment of writing, Estonia had one of the highest testing rates per 1 million inhabitants (#10 worldwide), while the deaths per 1 million are not of the same range, nor the amount of people needing emergency care. But the situation for the health care on the island is of course strained and the everyday life gravely disturbed. For an island that today lives largely off tourism, this will be a hard summer.
Saaremaa is not the only Estonian island that is off limits for non-locals: only locals can access Hiiumaa, Vormsi, Muhumaa, Kihnu (The Isle of Women, according to the Guardian, New York Times, Al Jazeera and other foreign news outlets) and Ruhnu. Pretty much the same islands that were off limits also during the Soviet period. Cutting off the Estonian islands from the mainland not only keeps the virus off the mainland, but it also keeps the mainlanders off the islands. With most of non-essential business closed and people working online, going to “nature” has become extremely popular. You can find three Estonians per every peri-urban blueberry bush – and many of them grow in formerly restricted border zones, now often designated as Natura 2000 nature protection areas. Without restrictions, the flux of mainlanders to their summer houses on the islands would be sure to suffocate the islands’ healthcare system that is not meant to receive such numbers of seriously ill patients.
Interesting for Cold War Coast in this sad story, is how cutting off the islands from the mainland Estonia revokes Soviet-time memories of the border zone – something very briefly mentioned even in the BBC video clip. The crises had barely began when people started to joke: it is like the Soviet times – you can’t get to Finland by boat, you are not allowed to visit the island and there is no toilet paper in the shops. During the Soviet period, visits to island were possible only with special permits. For land rats like myself, this meant having an island resident friend who sent a special invitation. My family went once, not to Saaremaa, but Hiiumaa, and despite being a kid back then, I still remember the border control checking the permits. This remained my only experience with document control at a border until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cold War memories are further spurred by masks that we were so often drilled to take on and even fabricate ourselves from gauze in a discursive exercise against a nuclear attack (where they would be completely useless). Sweden in the West is once again this political other where people for some reason move around freely.
It is of course not only in the Estonian memories where a global crises triggers Cold War memories. Cold War has shaped discursive practices both on Western and Eastern side for half of a century and it is surely one of the reasons why many governments find it difficult to speak of a global danger without evoking war metaphors (cf Joseph Masco, “Bad Weather: On Planetary Crisis” from 2010). An imagination of a global pandemic is often not so different from the imagination of a global nuclear war, where the invisible enemy spread by foreigners threatens to kill us all. Right wing US media has even found it necessary to emphasise that the country’s nuclear war capacity has not been reduced by the virus.
For Cold War Coasts project, the island lockdown means that our field work on border zones is postponed to unknown future. But given the mnemonic effect that the isolation measures seem to have, it is perhaps not only bad news. Perhaps many memories resurface because of relived isolation? We hope that the virus will remain under control and the islanders can soon share their memories with us.
The most recent example of how the Cold War seemingly is reinvigorated in the Baltic Sea takes the form of US economic sanctions against companies that are involved in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline.
Nord Stream 2, like its predecessor Nord Stream 1, enables Western Europe to import more natural gas directly from Russia without the disturbances that for many years have characterized Russian-European gas flows via Ukraine and Belarus. This has made the Baltic gas pipelines, the first of which was taken into operation already in 2011, highly controversial in large parts of Central Europe, not least in Poland and the three Baltic countries. Poland’s foreign minister back then, Radosław Sikorski, famously dubbed Nord Stream 1 the “Molotov-Ribbentrop Pipeline”. The Nordic countries, for their part, worried about the potential environmental consequences of laying a steel pipeline carrying huge volumes of methane under high pressure at the bottom of the Baltic Sea – especially so in view of its already critical ecological state. There were also fears, on both western and eastern shores, that Nord Stream was a kind of Trojan horse, a dangerous military object on par with the multitude of military infrastructure that, ever since the world wars and the Cold War, covers much of the Baltic Sea countries’ territorial waters. This imagination grew further when the pipeline company stated that it wished to erect a “service platform” in the waters off the Swedish island of Gotland. That platform gave rise to public outcry and in the end did not materialize. But the pipeline did.
US sanctions against East-West infrastructure projects have a long history. The current sanctions are strikingly reminiscent of controversies that played out around other East-West natural gas pipelines during the Cold War. Several US governments repeatedly tried to prevent East-West pipelines from being built, first in the years around 1960 and then, during the Reagan administration, in the early 1980s. I have written about this in my book Red Gas: Russia and the Origins of European Energy Dependence (2013). The actual result of the attempts to disrupt the pipeline projects has usually been to cause tensions between different Western countries and, in particular, between Western Europe and the United States. The pipelines themselves have always materialized anyway. It is likely that the result will be much the same this time.
As a matter of fact, the US sanctions appear at a strange point in time, because Nord Stream 2 is already more or less completed. Only 160 km of its total length, 2460 km, remains to be lowered, the rest is already there, resting on the sea bottom. Nevertheless many actors feel so threatened by the geopoliticization of their activities that they instantly disrupted all work on the pipeline. A friend of mine in Norway was perplexed to see the large pipelaying ship “Pioneering Spirit” anchored up during Christmas in the port of Kristiansand, just outside his house. There it would remain while awaiting further decisions on how to proceed.
Today Russia’s energy minister Aleksandr Novak told journalists that the new plan is to bring in another pipelaying vessel to complete the project. The only problem is that this ship is currently in the Russian Far East. And so a variety of non-Baltic regions – from Norway’s Atlantic ports to the distant Pacific – are becoming part of the Baltic political drama.
Cold War Coasts project leader Per Högselius is back from a trip to St. Petersburg, where he, among other things, visited Russia’s magnificent Central Naval Museum. Russia, of course, has a naval history on several different seas, but the Baltic Sea has always played a central role and it’s no coincidence that this museum is located in St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg, Imperial Russia’s capital for over 200 years, was founded in 1703, in the midst of the Great Northern War against Sweden, on what was at that time still officially Swedish territory.
Over the centuries – especially from 1554 to 1809 – Sweden and Russia fought numerous wars against each other. In 1609-10 Sweden’s army even entered distant Moscow, while a century later, in 1719, Russia military attacks caused havoc in the Swedish archipelago, burning numerous coastal towns. The battles fought at sea, especially in the late 18th century, have become subject to famous marine paintings, now at display in regular art museums but also the Central Naval Museum and its counterpart in Stockholm, the Swedish Maritime Museum.
However, Sweden and Russia have also cooperated in the naval field. Especially in the late 19th century, Swedish inventors and engineers – such as Ludvig Nobel, later on more famous for his key role in Russian oil production – played important roles in the Russian military-industrial complex, developing new types of weapons and setting up new military factories in St. Petersburg and elsewhere. Moreover, Russia became a major importer of Swedish weapons. Some of these – like the anti-torpedo cannons pictured below (made at Stavsjö bruk, not far from Norrköping) – are now at display in the Central Naval Museum in St. Petersburg.
The museum’s real show-piece, however, is an original Russian submarine from 1881, built by the Polish-Russian inventor Stefan Drzewiecki (1844-1938). Drzewiecki impressed the to-be-emperor Alexander III with his ingenious and bold ideas and designs, which to most people at the time must have looked like science fiction. These vessels were the first serial-produced submarines in the world. Fifty copies were produced, some of which were shipped by rail to Sevastopol on the Black Sea, while the rest remained in the Baltic, where they were put to protect the Kronstadt naval base. In 1884 Drzewiecki managed to introduce battery-driven engines, and the vessel displayed at the museum (pictured here below) was one of the submarines that were retrofitted for battery-electric propulsion.
It is thus in the 1880s that we find the historical origins of the Russian submarines that, a century later, caused havoc in Swedish territorial waters, either in real life, like in Karlskrona in 1981, or in the Swedish imagination. It remains to be explored how Drzewiecki’s submarine designs were further developed over the decades, and how technology transfer from elsewhere contributed to shaping the more modern vessels that, still today, remain the most iconic artifacts of all in the militarized waters of the Baltic Sea.
On 27 October 1981 a Soviet submarine, often referred to under the designation U-137, ran aground in the Swedish archipelago near Karlskrona, the main Swedish naval base. The event shocked many Swedes, and it became one of few occasions during the Cold War when Swedish and Soviet naval forces actually met. The fear of an enemy attack from the opposite shores of the Baltic had been strong in Sweden since the late 1940s. U-137 turned these fears into a material encounter with the enemy.
Ever since, the spectre of Soviet and Russian submarines has continued to haunt the Swedish naval forces and the people who live in or visit the archipelago. The Swedish military has, on numerous occasions, stated that it has spotted one or the other submarine in the country’s territorial waters. But the borderline between reality and imagination has always been thin, being shaped by the lingering memories of U-137.
Today’s Svenska Dagbladet tells the story of how the Swedish navy on 21 October 2014 intercepted a coded radio signal in the outer Stockholm archipelago of Stockholm, in the sea just east of Huvudskär. At that time the navy was already active in the area, following earlier indications of enemy activity in Swedish waters. The navy had received calls from locals who had spotted unusual movements in nearby waters. Inevitably, anyone old enough to have experienced the U-137 events back in 1981 associated any strange appearances in the archipelago with a possible Russian submarine. In the 2010s the return of such vessels to Swedish coastal waters did not seem that far-fetched, because diplomatic relations between Sweden and Russia had been notoriously frosty for some time, and Russian military activity in the Baltic Sea was clearly increasing.
The signal from Huvudskär was taken as unambiguous evidence of a foreign submarine operating in the archipelago. Head of Sweden’s armed forces Sverker Göransson called a press conference, telling stunned journalists that he was 100% certain that “a smaller submarine has violated the integrity of Swedish territorial waters”. Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist commented: “The violation that has occurred is brutal and serious”. Both Göransson and Hultqvist, both born in the 1950s, had been young men back in 1981, and they still remembered the shocking images of U-137 on ground off Karlskrona.
However, it subsequently turned out that the coded signal came from an advanced meteorological buoy located in the waters off Huvudskär. As it happened, the Swedish weather service SMHI was in the midst of a mission to repair it. In this connection its repair ship, M/S Fyrbyggaren, communicated with the buoy through radio signals of a kind that were very similar to the ones that the Swedish navy was just listening out for. Two Swedish submarines were at the time hidden in the southern reaches of Stockholm’s outer archipelago, actively listening and looking day and night for any signs of the enemy, which they thought was hiding in Swedish coastal waters.
Events of this kind are likely to recur in the years to come. They are immensely popular in the Swedish media, mysteriously capturing the Swedish imagination in a way that few other things do.