In the earlier installments of this story, we covered the nature of the trip and the ports of call with a little history of each. We had guides in each Capitol city (all women except for the brief return drive through Copenhagen). 3 of the 5 primary guides grew up and lived under Communist Socialism behind the Iron Curtain. They are all natives of the countries that we were in except for the lady in Denmark who was born in the U.S. Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th Century philosopher/ theologian who was the subject of Bishop Willimon was a Dane living in Denmark when it had a state supported (required) religion – a denomination of the Christianity. Denmark now has other religions. That Kierkegaard had a hand in that transition is highly likely although for reasons that we don’t often hear in freedom of religion discussions in the U.S. The guides each had some personal stories to tell that related to politics and political systems that provided food for thought. In this installment we will recount some of their comments that I found thought-provoking.
As I mentioned, our Copenhagen guide was from the U.S. She has apparently lived in Denmark for some time and likes it. Her Mother also lives there and she is, we were told, benefiting from Denmark’s elder care programs including housing and medical care. Our guide also seemed to appreciate the religious freedom that the country now supports.
The guide on the return trip from the ship to the airport talked about Denmark’s history of political systems that has evolved from a monarchy to today’s universal suffrage democracy. He said that in between, they had a constitutional monarchy that allowed voting only by people of a certain income level, who paid taxes and owned assets. He said he thought that it was basically has been good except perhaps today they have gone too far down the democratic road to the point that everyone votes on everything and it’s hard to get enough agreement to do anything. (He didn’t elaborate on that.)
Our guide in Berlin grew up and in East Berlin. She told stories about people trying to go to the West after the wall went up. It was obvious that the wall was meant to keep people in, not out. She didn’t have many gook things to say about the German communist government. She lived in one of the common apartments and said she liked her neighbors. Her comments on collective farming were good. Today she said that although the land is privately owned, they have “cooperatives” which she thought accomplished much of the good that collectives did. She was glad when the wall came down and unification happened. She said that the East German government was “full of hypocrisy” and she did not like that but she hadn’t given up on all of the ideals – she liked the idea of equality.
Our guide talked a lot about the history of the country, but not a lot about politics. Estonia was a province of imperial Russia until WWI. It was independent between the wars, but was attacked and conquered by the Soviets in 1940. It gained independence from the USSR in 1991 and free elections were held in 1992, but the Russian troops were not withdrawn until 1994. She said things like buildings and infrastructure were not well maintained during the Soviet period. (That is a familiar story, we have seen and heard similar things about E. Germany and The Chez Republic, etc.) The old city today seems nice and in good shape. Our guide took us in several churches and in one she said that although she is a “pagan”, she has respect for the Christian Church because it helped feed her children in a time of need when they had nowhere else to turn. She also said that she took her children to church some because she wanted them to learn good moral and ethical values.
Our guide in St. Petersburg for both days was Katya. She had taken guide training originally before perestroika when guides were fewer, tours difficult to get, and the guides closely controlled on where they could go and what they could say. After the fall of the communist government they went back for retraining and learned a different version of history. She spent more time talking about history than she did with personal comments. But she made it clear she thought Stalin had been “evil”. I’m not too sure exactly what she thought about his successors except that they weren’t as bad. She said that the maintenance of the city is better now. We saw lots of high-rise apartment buildings. The ones built in the Soviet era looked mostly like boxes, the newer ones had more style and looked nicer. However she commented that the older ones were nicer to live in than they looked from the outside. Life, she said, is much different today than what it had been. Most property is privately owned. They provided long-term tenants the opportunity to acquire title to their homes. Younger people are better off today, but the older generation that had counted on government support in retirement were hurt because in many cases they did not have the savings that they needed.
Historically Helsinki became connected to Russia in the 19th Century when it was named a Grand Duchy after the Napoleonic wars. As such, it was allowed a wide-ranging autonomy. In 1906 an elected parliament was established and Finish independence was proclaimed in 1917. In November of 1939 – shortly after Germany invaded Poland – Finland was attacked by Russia. Our guide told us that their struggle against Russia lasted through most of WWII. She said they were not able to get help from the U. S. or the British because the they were allied with Russia against Germany. She then said they were approached by the Germans and for a short time, agreed to an alliance. The Germans wanted help in their battle for St Petersburg and Finns decided the alliance with the Germans was not a good idea and ended it. After the war, however, she said the Allies treated them as part of the Axis even though they had never done anything to help Germany. Today, the Finns seem closely aligned with Sweden. There is a ferry that runs between Stockholm to Helsinki daily.
Back on board ship, our stop in Stockholm was canceled due to bad weather. A disappointment. But in the last two days at sea, we had 3 more lectures from Bishop Willimon on the life and writings of Soren Kierkegaard. Although Kierkegaard was a Christian theologian, he apparently believed that the state established Christian church was not a good thing for Christians. His reasons why are different from most separations of church and state arguments that I have heard. But they are interesting and likely have ramifications for other aspects of political systems. But we will save my discussion and thoughts on this until the next installment of this story of how I spent my late summer vacation.