17.07.2007 - 24.07.2007 22 °C
Travelling to Tallinn and then St Petersburg was like being the adjudicator where the big brother and little brother are having a fight and we have to decide who is in the wrong. When Estonia entered into the EU in 2004 I think they celebrated most out of all of the former eastern-bloc countries - finally they were part of a wider European community and would have support to retain their independance from their big brother neighbour, Russia.
Earlier this year after 15 years of independence, Estonia decided it was time to move a Soviet monument from the centre of the city. Soviet rule was not something the Estonians liked or wanted (and since having independence they are now experiencing a booming economy) so listening to their side of the story, moving the monument and the reminder of Soviet rule seemed like the logical thing to do. Russia on the otherhand took great offence to the monuments relocation and retaliated by attacking key Estonian government websites, in the worlds first cyber war.
Fascinating stuff!! We thought the Estonians were just super paranoid claiming without doubt that the attacks came from Russian government IP addresses and figured that upon getting to Russia we'd find that this would surely be denied by the Russians. In the first of many major cultural suprises (differences) we've experienced in Russia we learnt that the cyber attack on Estonian government sites was not at all denied, but a source of pride for the Russians.
The bribing system
We've been lucky enough to avoid having to pay any "fines" (bribes) during our visit in St Petersburg, but they are an accepted part of every day life over here. From anything like avoiding having to do national service, to getting your desired mark at university (regardless of how smart you are) to selling produce on the streets, a bribe works.
It would seem fair to us that a small country like Estonia would have good reason to be paranoid and super meticulous at their border controls, but we found that the Russians take paranoia to a new level. Crossing the border from Estonia to Russia was like a scene out of a WWII movie. As everyone gets off the bus to have their bags x-rayed, the border guards make the bus driver open up the engine to inspect inside, along with inspecting all the way under the bus with mirrors. This paranoia is not just at borders, but at the metro stations also, where it is illegal to take photos of the metro. (and yes, this is a rule that is enforced!). Not taking photos of key milatery sites and embassies I can understand, but the metro?
All of these cultural 'suprises' have contributed to us having a fantastic time in St Petersburg. It is a very beautiful city that buzzes to the early hours of the morning as the summer "white nights" continue. Everywhere you turn there is a beautifully elaborate palace, church or building and we have loved learning about the history and very different way of life of this colourful place.
Next stop (and our last!) is Finland.