How my holiday in the Baltic reinforced need to support Ukraine, says Christa Ackroyd
But I am on holiday and as I have been reminded these past few days, sometimes the most memorable holidays are not always about getting a sun tan.Just as sometimes purely by accident you find yourself in the right place at the right time. Although there are many who have decided Tallinn, from where I write, is very much the wrong place to be right now.
On average this beautiful medieval city plays host to 300 cruise ships a year many of which have in the past sailed the 300 kilometres across the sea to St Petersburg in Russia. Now for obvious reasons they don’t and for some travellers even being in Estonia is too close for comfort. Bookings are down dramatically even as cruise lines slash their prices for trips to Scandinavia and the Baltic. As a result only 30 ships are due to dock in Tallinn this year. Luckily I was on one of them.
I say luckily because on the very day the President of Ukraine the magnificent, charismatic Volodymyr Zelensky stood shoulder to shoulder with world leaders at the close of the G7 summit in Japan I was given a stark reminder as to why it matters that the world stands firm with him against Putin.
On the day we set sail Liverpool had hosted the Eurovision Song contest when it turned the city blue and yellow. We watched it on board with people from all over the world and very jolly it was too.
It was poignant of course and the UK did Ukraine proud. But let’s be honest it was and always will be an enjoyable bit of fun even if this year it had a particular message of support for the people of Ukraine as we staged it on their behalf. Well In Tallin they have shown their support another way. Because they know all too well what it means to live under Russian control.
At the city’s relatively new Occupation and Freedom Museum the story was a stark one.
Having been invaded by Hitler the Nazi’s boasted it was the first city to be officially declared free of Jews. I have been to Auschwitz. I know of the Holocaust. I never knew it stretched as far as Estonia. And that is what travel does. It opens the mind and educates.
The city’s four and half thousand jews were rounded up and murdered, many of them burned to death in the forest having been forced to carry the wood for their own funeral pyres. But, like Poland, freedom for Estonia at the end of the Second World War was short lived.
As the Nazis, left the Soviets marched in. Under Soviet rule it became illegal to have an Estonian flag in a drawer at home let alone fly one. Suspected resistance members were arrested and sent to Siberia to be worked to death. One first hand account in the museum told the story of a young student so starved of food as he laboured in the cold winter that when a kindly Siberian family took pity on him and gave him a loaf of bread his body could not handle it and he died simply from eating.
Living under the Soviets meant the old country was supposed to be eradicated forever. But of course it was not. Some took it upon themselves to hide books about the homeland. Others met in secret to sing songs at dead of night when they hoped no one would hear. Those who fled to other countries longed to return home but it was too dangerous to go back, just as those Ukrainians living in our country thought the war would be over in a matter of months and are still separated from loved ones as cities are captured and recaptured and their men folk fight on.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Estonia was declared free only thirty odd years ago and there are many who remember what it was like to be occupied for decades. But Tallinn is also home to a hundred thousand Russians many of whom still have family back home where news blackouts and propaganda leave them largely unaware of the truth behind Putin’s war. Which is why to see a makeshift display of unity outside the Russian consulate in Tallinn was so moving, just as it was to see a hundred foot Estonian flag alongside a Ukrainian flag on one of the public buildings. Outside the consulate the city had erected railings not to protect those inside but on which to attach their words of protest some of them from children. A Russian doll redressed in blue and yellow was next to a hand painted sign which read Not All Russians Support the War. Technology was in use with QR codes which took the user to accredited news sites for those who may yet believe Putin’s lies that this is no conflict but an exercise in protection.
I asked one young girl who was adding to the display how such a show of support was allowed outside what effectively was a Russian building. Her answer was simple: “Because people here know the price of having your freedom taken away,” she said. “And they will fight to ensure free speech is never lost again.”
Throughout this trip I have seen many Ukrainian flags flying. In Helsinki they fluttered from every public building alongside the Finnish flag. In Oslo one had been raised alongside the monument to Amundsen in celebration of him conquering of the North Pole. And in Copenhagen a wall opposite the Russian Embassy there had been painted blue and yellow for all to see. This whole trip has been a reminder of what may happen if we don’t back Zelensky. His appearance alongside world leaders was a clear message to Putin whose side we are on and while it may seem strange to suggest the leader of a country at war should receive this years Nobel Peace Prize if it was to be awarded to President Zelensky, as it should be, that would do the same.
In fighting the Russians Ukraine fights for all of us who too often take democracy and peace for granted. Yes supporting Ukraine is costing us money we can possibly ill afford but as the people of Tallinn demonstrated so simply and so perfectly in their home made act of defiance outside the Russian consulate what price freedom ?
If I had been at home this week I may have got caught up in the debate about a so called feud between two day time television presenters. I may have even considered writing about whether a Home Secretary was right to ask a civil servant if she could attend a speed awareness course on a one to one basis and whether that broke the ministerial code. I am glad I have been here in countries so much closer than us to Russia while ending up in one which remembers only too well what it is like to live under its oppressive regime. The rest is insignificant tittle tattle by comparison.