A Visit To Narva

I’ve had this article in a tab for a couple of weeks. It’s a long read, and I wanted to enjoy reading about the history that kept Russia’s trade on its northern edge – Arkhangelsk and the Barents Sea – rather than Narva and the Gulf of Finland. I thought that the history would be interesting, but I also hoped that the article might treat today’s competition between the new port at Sillamäe, twenty kilometers west of Narva, and Russia’s Ust-Luga – more established, but also more icy in the winter.

Alas, that article remains to be written. This article contains a bit of history: The Brits wanted Russian furs, and that trade wound up being through Arkhangelsk rather than Narva. Not much said about what internal Russian or British issues contributed to that outcome.

Most of the article is the author’s portrayal of Narva as a Russian, rather than Estonian city. It is based on her walk around the city and checking out a supermarket. What she finds is typical of border cities. OMG, El Paso is Mexican because you hear Spanish spoken frequently and they have typically Mexican foods in the supermarkets!

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Stanley Foundation Collects Nuclear Adventure Stories

Last fall, the Stanley Foundation held a meeting in Santa Fe to collect stories of nuclear adventures. It was great fun, with us old talky folks and younger enthusiastic listeners. I met a number of people I knew only through social media!

They recorded some of us old talky people and have just published a number of recordings.

Here’s my story of my adventure in Estonia.

And here’s the whole project.

Their pull quote from my story:

It was was an enormous tailings pond, 1 km long & .5 km wide. Right on the Baltic… It was set on a base of cambrian blue clay. The problem of having all those tons of material on it was that the whole thing could just slide into the sea.

I am so proud of what the Estonians have done, pictured above. The green area is the stabilized tailings pond. And one of the things that the Estonian government wanted was economic development, hence the growing port around it.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

Cleaning Up One Of The Soviet Union’s Messes

If you’ve followed me for a while, you’ve probably seen parts of this story. A longer version was posted for a while, but then Stanford University cleaned out all websites that used Drupal, so it’s gone now.

This week I refound a video that I like because it explains a lot about the Silmet rare-earths refining plant at Sillamäe, Estonia.

I became involved with Sillamäe in 1998, when NATO wanted Los Alamos to hold more of its Advanced Research Workshops with the recently independent states that came out of the Soviet Union. We held an ARW in Tallinn in October 1998 on how to remediate the kilometer-long tailings pond from the plant.

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Jaan Kross

Jaan Kross is one of my favorite writers.

He lived in Estonia under Nazi and Soviet occupation. He survived six years in the Soviet Gulag.

He wrote his novels under the Soviet occupation. They are historical novels with more relevance to today than I ever expected during the times I walked by his apartment in Tallinn.

Elizabeth Braw writes about his life and novels.

In The Czar’s Madman, which was published in 1978 and has become Kross’s most famous novel, he tells the story of Timotheus von Bock, a Livonian (early Estonian) nobleman who is a friend of the czar and has promised to always tell him the truth. The czar, alas, can’t stand to hear the truth and throws von Bock in prison. By feigning madness, von Bock manages to get released and has to spend the rest of his life pretending to be mad. Even so, he manages to compose a manifesto addressed to the nobility, calling for an overhaul of the country’s governance. The czar’s agents have an inkling of what he’s up to and constantly hunt the manuscript. 

His novels criticized the Soviet occupation without ever referring to it directly. People live their lives under dictatorships rather normally unless they anger the regime. Kross pushed the limits and remained safe.

But Kross never forgot how dangerous it was to say the things he did, albeit it in the disguise of historical fiction. After a relatively free period in the 1960s, Soviet repression in Estonia worsened again, and Kross was once more overcome by the urge to defect. ‘At one point, he was supposed to give a speech at the writers’ union congress in Tallinn,’ Eerik recalled. ‘He was seriously contemplating standing up and, rather than giving a speech, asking for permission, there on the stage, to leave the Soviet Union with his family.’ But, once again, he decided against it. In The Czar’s Madman, after making the same decision, Timotheus von Bock explains that, ‘I want to be a nail in the body of the empire’. But, as ever, the Soviet censors missed the clues.

I suspect they missed the clues because the novels were written in Estonian. Both Russians and Estonians believe that Estonian is the most difficult language in the world.

Read the whole thing. It’s a lovely tribute to a man who did his best.

Credit: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

As Estonia Passes 100, Tallinn has Successfully Integrated Nearly 90 Percent of Its Ethnic Russians, Experts Say

Russia has gotten a lot of mileage out of claims about ethnic Russians in the Baltic States. Those claims become less true with every passing year. Paul Goble reports that most ethnic Russians in Estonia are now loyal to Estonia, even if they speak only Russian.

That’s consistent with what I saw in the early 2000s. Many ethnic Russians who were uninterested in Estonian citizenship were older people who wanted to stay where they had always lived and did not care about voting or a passport to travel. They are dying off now, and more and more ethnic Russians have grown up in a free Estonia, part of the European Union.

Estonia Considers Its Monuments

Estonia’s Justice Minister, Urmas Reinsalu, said early in January that the government could take down the Soviet war memorial at Maarjamäe because it is falling apart and it is not on the official list of historic monuments. This led Prime Minister Jüri Ratas to suggest that the entire area, which includes a German cemetary and a memorial under construction to the victims of Communism, be designated a historic area.

The Soviet Union built many war memorials across its territory, particularly to commemorate World War II, or the Great Patriotic War, as they call it. I find those monuments moving; they are, after all, memorials to people who died in wars and who had families who grieved them. I’ve been to the Maarjamäe memorial a few times. Read More

Links – January 5, 2018

Happy New Year! Twenty years ago today, I came back to work after the holiday to find a faxed invitation that began my Estonian adventure. Top photo: The marker for the Sillamäe tailings pond cleanup, 2011.

Demonstrations continue in Iran. Donald Trump is determined to tweet about them. As usual, his tweets are not helpful but rather inciting. Here’s an article by two people on opposite sides with respect to the nuclear agreement. Here are some good suggestions from (gasp!) a Republican. How to ensure that Iran never starts reprocessing. Read More

Links – December 11, 2017

How a war with North Korea might play out. The price of war with North Korea. Excellent long-read backgrounder from Jeffrey Lewis on the history and strategy of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program (photo from here). More background, and denial by US of facts on the ground. The reentry vehicle on the North Korean ICBM.

According to this, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that North Korea is ready to talk. That’s from Friday. I haven’t seen any followup.

Bad Idea: Resuming Nuclear Testing.

The looming end of the INF Treaty.

Eerik-Niiles Kross: Estonia’s James Bond.

Comparing China’s situation to the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1991.





Sillamäe Again

Here’s a light but crabby post for a Saturday. Fits my mood.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Sillamäe, Estonia, and more thinking about it. So when a publication screws up the facts, I feel a need to respond.

This time, it’s Atlas Obscura doing a remarkable job of stuffing errors into a short article. Read More

A Different Time

After the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the directors of the nuclear weapons laboratories on both sides quickly got together to work on securing nuclear weapons and the materials they are made from. They were supported by their governments. NATO helped. The cooperation was a marvelous thing to see and to experience. I had a small part in dealing with leftover Soviet nuclear problems.

In 1998, I traveled to Estonia to help deal with a former Soviet uranium-processing plant. I’ve written up my experience. Siegfried Hecker, the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and a primary mover in the lab-to-lab cooperation, has collected the experiences of many participants in a two-volume set, Doomed to Cooperate. He has also set up a website for more information, which is where my story appears.

Check it out. The top photos are mine, of one part of the site in 1998 and in 2011.


Cross-posted to Balloon Juice.