War in Ukraine: Narva: Europe’s most Russian city in conflict
Tallinn Oleg, who actually has a different name, only comes through the door of the customs building with a blue, bulging backpack, which in these times means the gateway to freedom for many. It is late afternoon on a bitterly cold day in Narva on the Estonian-Russian border. “I don’t want to comment on what’s happening in Ukraine,” says the 35-year-old at first, but after a few minutes he is more willing to provide information. However, he does not want his real name published.
Oleg was born in Estonia and belongs to the Russian minority in the small Baltic country. “I condemn the war in Ukraine, it’s cruel,” he says. He has just returned from a visit to relatives who live in Russia on the other side of the Narva River. He couldn’t talk to his family there about the “so-called special operation”.
The river is about three hundred meters wide. Some Estonians fish in the middle of the river with their small boats. There are no buoys as border markers. A passer-by explains that the fishermen know exactly how far they are allowed to go towards Russia.
Oleg walked across the Druzhba Bridge, the Friendship Bridge, which connects Estonia with Russia. “I wasn’t allowed to take sugar with me, it was forbidden to export from Russia,” he jokes. But he soon becomes serious again. The situation is very tense on both sides of the border, he says. Long queues of cars in both directions are evidence of very slow processing.
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During these times of war, Narva has become a first stop for Russians who no longer want to live in a country where they are not allowed to speak their mind or because they do not want to go to war. However, many of the Russian buses also have people from Ukraine fleeing the war – around 200 a day, according to Mayor Katri Raik.
At times there were hardly any free hotel rooms in Narva. Those who crossed the border late in the evening needed accommodation before most of them continued their journey the next morning to the Estonian capital of Tallinn. What is an escape for some makes the city’s hotel owners happy: they have doubled the room rates since the beginning of the war.
In the city of 60,000, 96 percent of the people are Russians. That is why Narva is also called “Europe’s most Russian city”. Despite Estonia’s 30 years of independence, the previous 50 years of Soviet occupation cannot be denied. Dreary gray prefabricated buildings, factory ruins and empty shops leave an impression of desolation.
Despite total Russian dominance in Narva, there is no overt support for the war in Ukraine. “It has become quiet here,” says Mayor Raik. She is relieved that she has not yet seen a “Z”, the Russian symbol for war, in her city.
“Z” stands for “Za Pobedu”, “For Victory” and is emblazoned on more and more facades and cars in Russia. Red, white and blue flags are also not to be seen in the city, but hardly any Ukrainian ones either. Large posters at the bus stops advertise donations for Ukraine. Otherwise, blue and yellow in Narva only stands for the Lidl market that opened a month ago.
The city is a stark contrast to the capital, Tallinn. There, the seat of government shines in the Ukrainian national colors, and the Russian ambassador has to walk past a sea of protest posters against the illegal attack on Ukraine before entering his residence.
No comment on the war
From the second floor of her office, Mayor Raik looks closely at the border crossing and the Russian fortress of Ivangorod, only about three hundred meters away. A Russian bus, the “Luxexpress”, is just passing the border after a long wait. “At the beginning of the war, many artists came here from Russia,” says Raik. “But most of them don’t stay here, they travel on. Narva is the beginning of Europe, but not the most beautiful city in Europe,” admits the former Estonian Interior Minister.
What the war has made of the people of Narva can be seen on the river bank promenade. Despite the freezing cold, couples, young and old, stroll here. “No comment” is the most common answer when asked what they say about the war in Ukraine.
Artiom and his wife Elena enjoy the sun with their baby despite the minus temperatures. “We feel comfortable in Narva,” says Artiom. He does not want to comment on the war in Ukraine. Only this much: “I am for peace.”
A woman in her mid-forties keeps hitting her chest: “I’m Russian at heart,” she says with conviction. And: “No matter what happens, I’m always Russian.” Can you imagine living in Russia? “No, I’ve lived here for 30 years.” Only Ivan and his wife take a clear position. The retired couple have lived in the Estonian city for more than 50 years. “This is war and nothing else. We are shocked,” says Ivan. His wife nods in agreement.
Many Russians in Narva watch Russian TV. Although the Estonian government has banned the Russian state broadcasters in the cable networks, the programs can be received in the border area via antenna or satellite dish. “The satellite dishes are currently sold out, waiting time is three months,” says Mayor Raik.
Many people in Narva have identity problems, says Raik. “They understand that the war is illegal, but they say: I’m Russian. My country is guilty, but I’m Russian.”
Raik estimates that about half of the Russians living in Narva more or less support Putin. “But everyone wants the war to end as soon as possible.” She doesn’t believe that the Russians will ever be able to call for pro-Russian demonstrations in her city. “Our Russians are the best Estonians.”
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One block away from their office is a van for the Estonian state telecom authority. An antenna several meters high protrudes from the roof. “We measure whether there is interference from the other side,” explains one of the employees. There are regular measurements of whether the Russian side is interfering with TV or mobile phone frequencies, for example. You never know.
The proximity to the oversized neighbor is omnipresent. “It doesn’t matter what we talk about. Ultimately, we always talk about the war,” says the mayor. She is not afraid of an escalation of the war. “We are members of NATO.” That gives security.
She is much more worried about the economic development of her city. Narva had just recovered a little and talked about new industrial settlements. But what will happen now? “We need new jobs,” she says, “we were well positioned before the war, a factory for the production of calcium carbonate was to be built. Now we don’t know how to proceed.”
The city suffers from its geographic location. The country’s eastern outpost seems unappealing for business. There is little besides a textile factory and metal processing.
The unemployment rate is around twelve percent, the average salary is 1070 euros per month. In the capital Tallinn it is 1700 euros. “That’s why a lot of people are leaving,” says Raik. Next week, the mayor wants to speak to Andres Sutt, Minister for Entrepreneurship and Technology. Maybe he can help, she hopes.
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