Two imposing fortresses separated by a river. In the border town of Narva, Estonia, Europe and Russia almost touch each other. Half past ten in the evening. There is hardly a breath of wind, you only hear the sound of water. On one side of the river the Estonian flag flies over Fort Hermann. On the other, some 200 meters away, stands the medieval fortress of the Russian city of Ivangorod. In Narva, two civilizations look eye to eye.
For several years now, the European Union has given hundreds of thousands of euros to the two cities so that they can develop a pedestrian path on each bank. Two walks that were to harmonize the landscape and stimulate tourism. Today, in Narva, one can walk almost eight times further than on the other side, on a path lined with fountains, benches and lampposts; searchlights illuminate the whitewashed walls of Fort Hermann. On the other side, the fort of Ivangorod, its Russian cousin, draws a dark spot in the darkness. “It’s been like this for years,” loose a passerby.
In Narva, the city “where Europe begins”, only 6% of the population is of Estonian ethnic origin, say the figures of the Estonian authorities. Less than half of the inhabitants are of Estonian nationality. On the other hand, more than one in two has Russian roots, and almost all of them speak Russian in addition to Estonian. The 53,000 Narveans have navigated all their lives between two worlds.
“We can say less and less”
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the border town has been swept up in the storm. Estonia firmly maintains an anti-Russian stance and welcomes Ukrainian refugees with open arms, many of whom arrive in Narva via Russia. Here, war is a delicate subject.
“A lot of families are torn about Putin”, says Igor. Sitting on a bench, he tries to take a few more puffs on what remains of his cigarette. The morning sun shines brightly, above us hover a few seagulls. “I’m a sailor and I spend weeks at sea. Every time I come back, I notice how war has changed the city. I am very worried. Each time, we can say a little less. So I prefer to keep quiet.”
Nearby, Ivan, in a black leather jacket and cap, is fishing for perch with three companions. “When we are lucky, we even catch a salmon”, slips this man of fifty years. On the other side of the water, six Russian fishermen are also trying their luck.
From his bench, Igor looks in their direction. “I am Russian. But I spent my whole life in Narva and I don’t feel connected to Russia. I can’t say the same for my parents, they support the war. We decided not to talk about it anymore. And I don’t let them babysit my kids anymore. My wife is a primary school teacher, she knows all too well how propaganda gets into those little heads. In his school, there are more and more children who have fled Ukraine. People quarrel. It depresses her so much that she wants to leave, to leave as far as possible from Narva.”
Ivan smells a fish on the end of his line. “Too bad, this perch is too small.” He throws his zebra catch back into the water. “My mother is Russian and my father Estonian, he said. At home, at home, we don’t argue: what Putin is doing is wrong. Otherwise, we don’t get too involved in politics.”
The remains of a flourishing city
In daylight, fortresses lose much of their allure. Narva is above all a sleepy border town where time seems to stand still. The Soviet buildings are separated by small parks whose games