One of my first bosses out of college was an engineer; a country boy from central Kansas. We were a project engineering group with no particular tie to politics or political systems. However, I had concluded that he was an astute observer of the “human condition” before I heard him state an opinion of political systems. On this subject, he liked to say, “The best form of government is a benevolent dictatorship”. Of course he would quickly add that “The problem is that benevolent dictators don’t tend to stay benevolent”. He would make this statement and stop, leaving it to the listener to understand why an otherwise intelligent, native, and loyal American would say that any kind of dictatorship was the best form of government. There is, I decided, a perfectly logical and reasonable explanation for this that we will come back to in due time.
But first; the purpose of this installment of this story is to provide an overview of our vacation trip as a background to what generated the thoughts that provoked a post on this subject. The first of the four C’s alluded to in the title are Cruise and Capitol. As I mentioned in the first part, the cruise we had booked was titled a “Baltic Capitol Cruise” by the Norwegian Cruise line providing this opportunity. The Capitols involved were Copenhagen, Berlin, Tallinn, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, and Stockholm (we did not make the Stockholm stock because of bad weather). In addition to the cruise line we had a travel tour company involved – Educational Opportunities (EO). The travel company put our group together – a total of about 80 people from all over the U. S. EO made all the reservations and set up all the on-shore excursions that we did except one in St. Petersburg which we booked through the cruise line. They also had a retired Methodist Church Bishop, and former dean of the Duke University Divinity school accompany us to provide four “educational” lectures. His name is Dr. Will Willimon, and although he retired from the Alabama Bishop position, he still teaches a full course load at Duke. His subject for his lectures was Soren Kierkegaard. He was a 19th century Dane; a philosopher and theologian who has been called “the father of existentialism”. His ideas are also apparently thought by some to be the reason that Denmark today has religious freedom. So while he was not a political thinker, his ideas obviously intersect with politics. And in case one hasn’t noticed, at least half of the shore excursions involve Capitols that have been involved with both Socialist/Communist and Western Democratic style governments in the last 40 years.
So it was difficult to avoid political thought and philosophy even if one wanted. What follows is a brief re-cap the places we were and what we learned about the history of each area. Also there is a little information about our guides in each location which may be useful later in putting their remarks and opinions in context.
We had probably the most time in this city. There was some time on our own at the beginning, then a formal half day tour before we sailed, and some time with another guide including some additional sightseeing on the way from the ship to the airport at the end.
Copenhagen was a monarchy, but today is a constitutional democracy. They are a European Union member but are not on the Euro. Having their own currency may be good for them given current events but it is inconvenient for us tourists. Our guide on the first day was born and educated in the U.S. but now lives in Denmark. The second stop we made on out tour was an area with an interesting looking church building which she told us was a Church of England building that would not have been allowed in the old days of State sponsored religion. In the same area we saw the Queen’s royal yacht, which was just back from a state visit to a place I have forgotten. We were told that although the country still has a monarch, she has no authority except th represent the country in state relations.
We had been in Berlin before, but this was the first time we had a guide for the day who had grown up and lived in East Berlin from the end of WWII under communist rule until the wall came down in 1989, and unification took place in 1991. We had her for a long day – 9 or 10 hours – with the opportunity to ask questions. Germany is of course in the EU and on the Euro and most observers think that the future of the EU depends a lot on what Germany is willing to do.
Estonia was a Russian province of imperial Russia prior to WWI – between the wars it was independent. It became part of the Soviet Union in 1940, but with perestroika, it became again independent in 1991. The first free elections in 50 years were held in 1992. Estonia joined the EU in 2004 and switched to the Euro in 2011.
Our guide was a native of the country having lived there before and after it regained its independence. She has children; is a self-confessed “pagan” who admires and has feelings for the Christian church because it provided help – in terms of food and other things – for her kids, when they needed it, and there was not other help available. She also said she and her children attended church when they were young because she was interested in them having good moral and ethical values and there was no place else to go. She also said that Pagans are religious – I’m still mulling that one over.
St. Petersburg, Russia
The city was originally built as a “planned city” by Peter the Great in 1703 as a window to Western Europe. It was called the “Venice of the North” by Goethe. It was the capital of Russia for a couple of centuries and is the major Russian access to the Baltic Sea. Today it is the second largest City in the country.
Our guide, Katya, was perhaps the most, friendly, knowledgeable, humorous and fun guide we had on the trip. She is a native of Russia, and started her training as a tour guide prior to perestroika. She had some interesting “before and after” stories and observations.
Prior to 1917, Finland was a protectorate of the Soviet Union. In 1917 it obtained full independence. In 1939, at the beginning of WWII, Finland was attacked by the Russians. They held out, single-handedly, against the invasion. Today they are a member of the EU and on the Euro. Helsinki is a beautiful and apparently livable city – at least in September. I’m not so sure what it would be like in January.
Our guide was a native Finn and obviously proud of her country and its independence. She is old enough to be aware of, and perhaps remember, some of the difficulties the country had during and after WWII.
Back in Copenhagen
At the beginning of our trip, we saw a lot in the city, but missed the “Little Mermaid”. Since there was ample time between the ship and when we needed to be at the airport, we had the opportunity to see her and some other sights we had not seen earlier. At this point we had a native guide who recapped the evolution of the Danish government from a monarchy to today’s democracy and had some interesting thing to say about that.
In the next installment, we will recount some specifics of thought-provoking comments from the guides as well as Dr. Willimon’s lectures.