Travel can be edifying. My recent journeys in the Baltic and Scandinavia certainly were. Reflecting on the sights, sounds, and memories from them has brought me a new perspective on how deeply we humans are attached to war.
Journeys perhaps sounds too expansive, for most of these were but excursions, skimming the surface of the surface, although I fear the cream had not risen to the top. In fact, I pray that the cream—the best of the people and their cultures—had been missed, dismissed as unimportant, or regarded as sacred and hidden from all but the most discerning.
In order for the ordinary traveler to receive a visa to visit Russia, one has to be with a tour group. My wife and I chose a 2-day excursion in St. Petersburg, where we would see some of the country’s most splendid art, architecture and wealth concentrated in formerly exclusive buildings, constructed by generations of the ruling elite, before the Russian Revolution. The splendor of the palaces, museums and churches was unimaginable, even when you’ve seen photographs. (Even so, I’ve posted a few, so you can get an idea.)
Traveling by tour bus to the suburbs, we saw some of the industrial sectors, and prefab housing hastily constructed after World War II, where many Russians now live. These, along with similar construction erected in the decades since, reminded me of the now-demolished Cabrini-Green, Chicago’s infamous public housing, which long had been riddled with neglect and crime. In St. Petersburg, this type of housing was the norm, and while our guide, Larissa, shared some of their details, she did not imply these were bastions of crime. On the contrary, I could hear pride in her voice when she shared that after the decimation of their city and its inhabitants by the Germans, women were, of necessity, the ones who created these structures for the countless who had been left homeless by the war.
(This is not the earliest version of prefab housing.)
For those unaccustomed to the wide disparity between immeasurable wealth and “getting-by” that most in the world experience, the contrast between these sites was eye-opening. For those of us who are US citizens, and had assumed that the Soviet Union had been comparable to the US in ways other than military might, we were in for quite a shock. We learned snippets of what life was like under Soviet rule: back then our guide had waited months to be able buy a new pair of shoes, because supplies were so limited. When she could, not only did she have no choice of color or style, she had to buy whatever size was available. Whatever size was available.
In 1991, with the end of the Soviet era, individual citizens could own property, which previously had been forbidden. Even then, when driving a 20-year old car and being pulled over by the police, she worried about what she had done wrong. They simply wanted to see her vehicle, as they were unfamiliar with most car makes and models. In 1991. Yet today, one could walk into a store and find items for sale similar to what one would find in discount retailers here.
I am sharing my impressions as an introduction, so you can have a brief sense of St. Petersburg today. In the few pictures above, you can see evidence of great wealth, but the vast majority of this has been through restoration projects, which accurately reflect the original circumstances and status. In The Hermitage and the Palaces, many of the paintings and removable art had been safely hidden, but virtually all of the gilding has had to be restored to its pre-World War II splendor. I am not certain when the rebuilding of these monuments of wealth began, but it seems the country invested in these monuments rather than in the average citizen’s condition. It was not just the concentration of wealth, but beauty in the exclusive sites that struck me: from the outside, the average person’s home environs (pictured above) looked destitute of any sense of style or art.
The other prominent feature in her landscape, and the point to my post, are the war monuments and tanks. Again, as a US citizen, and hence someone for whom the very concept of war has meant fighting on and for other people’s lands, the valorization of warfare through the prominent display of its weapons and victory monuments on public thoroughfares is unfamiliar. Hard to imagine, in fact. So too, here in the US, the wounds of war are not displayed on buildings or hidden as landmines in unplowable fields. Certainly, if one wishes to see war weapons and monuments, they are not hidden far away. But they are not usually displayed on one’s daily commute to work.
During our brief excursions in Finland and Estonia, guides shared some about the series of occupations, political maneuverings and war-time alliances, victories and defeats, and subsequent independence of each of these countries. In Helsinki and Tallinn, there were a few remaining indicators of the war, but the sense of pride in their independence pervaded each community. And it was in contrast to those previously occupying forces that this independence shone.
An additional excursion in Sweden brought me a new level of understanding about how deep, long and wide humankind’s fixation with war has been. We traveled to the island of Gotland, in the Baltic Sea, off the coast of Sweden. We spent most of our time in Visby, the ancestral home of my Motherline (my mother’s mother’s mother immigrated to the US from there). Likely occupied since the Stone Age, the original city of Visby, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is surrounded by a ringed wall (read: fortification) built in the 12th century. Its recorded history, like that of St. Petersburg, Helsinki, Tallinn, and many other European cities, is filled with tales of conquest and capture by various pirates and/or kings.
Exploring the Gotland Museum, I was drawn to and intrigued by the picture stones. These monuments have been found across the island, and subsequently many have been gathered for display in the museum. I had seen pictures of one of them before our trip, and was hoping that more like this awaited me.
While there certainly were more stones with ancient symbols and hard-to-discern intent, more recent ones—in contrast—were rune-inscribed with the explicit tales of men: plundering and harrowing journeys, in other words, war and conquest. All but one of those with runes had no mention of women, and few from this era pictured them as well.
It is difficult to put into words the depth of sorrow I felt viewing these magnificent picture stones. Here, where I hoped I would find a connection to my Motherland (vis-à-vis my connection with some of my ancestors, and peoples before who were connected to this land), I instead found the most unambiguous evidence of war for eons and eons. And not just a battle, but war as a way of life. A way of life in which women were likely invisible. Unrecorded, uncounted, not considered, taken for granted.
Long familiar with the worldwide lack of recorded history of women and our lives, it was not this that troubled me so deeply. It was seeing there, writ large on these carved boulders from centuries and centuries ago, the sense of pride these people felt in being warriors. My people. And echoed in the voices of the guides, speaking to me in present tense, was that same sense of pride. Their pride was perhaps not in being warriors, but in the restitution of their country’s independence. Of being victorious. There is no victor without a victory, and the frame we have used to describe victory has, for too long, been one of victory through bloodshed, domination, usurpation = war.
Despite the fact that my twin brother enlisted right after high school, and after serving in the Army has worked in the defense industry for over 30 years, I still see myself and many like me removed from the experiences and consequences of war. With the elimination of the draft in 1973, those recruited into the US military have disproportionately been people of color and/or from working class or poorer families; yet another dividing line. A recent Tweet reminded me that like nuclear weapons, war is often not in our lives, yet is still in our world.
I have been a peace activist, in my heart at least, since the Vietnam War. Too young to protest at that time, I have only infrequently joined protests; although I have felt in alignment with many who have been on the front lines. And in my lifetime, there has been no shortage of reason to protest. More recently I have come to understand more about the global transnational corporate rape of our planet, but intuitively I have known to support those that have resisted it for decades.
From what will we derive our pride when wars are ended? We will not be able to grab the banner of victory, and raise it high above our heads, signifying our superiority over those we consider interlopers/intruders/conquerors. Perhaps it is not war we love so much, as it is the adrenaline-fueled assertion of our pride and supremacy when we have wrested what we believe to be rightfully ours—our lives, our loves, our culture, our land—from those we regard as the Others.
In a way that I hadn’t before, I see the journey to peace, never certain and certainly not easy, weighed down further with the burden of our pride, our attachment to winning. Oh, I so wish that others could see the inestimable cost of that burden, and pledge to find other means to a new sense of honor and dignity.