University Towns – Göttingen, Marburg and Giessen (and Kassel)

Between Goslar and Bonn, I passed through a set of small university towns in central Germany that were once the seats of minor dukes and princes – indeed, if Bonn had not become the capital of West Germany it too would have been one of these small university towns. They’re all pleasant, but I found Marburg particularly lovely.

 The first I came to was Göttingen, on the main rail line south from Hannover to Frankfurt – there’s no bypass and virtually every ICE high-speed train stops here, so it must be one of the best-served stations for its size anywhere. It was almost unscathed in World War II, but even so there’s not a lot of medieval architecture here. But there are lots of bookshops and fly-parked bikes, and more young people smoking than elsewhere – a typical university town.

Kurze Strasse, with the Roman Catholic church of St Michael

 The university has an interesting history – it was founded in 1734 by King George II of Britain (also Duke of Hannover, of course) to be a centre of the Enlightenment, and the first students arrived in 1737. Great mathematicians such as Carl Friedrich Gauss, Bernhard Riemann, Hermann Minkowski and David Hilbert taught here, and a group of poets that had studied here in the 1770s were known as the Göttinger Dichterbund (Circle of Poets), studying folksong and paving the way for Romanticism. The poets Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano met as students in Göttingen, and in 1811 Achim married Clemens’s sister Bettina, who became the leading muse of the German Romantic movement; she knew everyone, from Goethe to Beethoven, but it was Antonie Brentano, wife of their half-brother Franz, who is perhaps the leading contender to be Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved (a couple of days later I was at Beethoven’s birthplace in Bonn and investigated this).

 Then in 1837, the Göttingen Seven were seven professors who protested against Ernst August I’s suspension of the Hannoverian constitution, and were fired – they included the brothers Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, famous for publishing collections of fairy tales, as well as teaching the new discipline of German Studies (Jacob was also the university’s head librarian).

 A century later, the Göttingen Eight were among the world’s finest mathematicians and physicists, including Leó Szilárd, Edward Teller, Max Born and Eugene Wigner, but being mostly Jewish they were driven out in 1933 in a Nazi crackdown on ‘Jewish physics’; having emigrated to the United States they played crucial rôles in the development of the atomic bomb (the great mathematician John von Neumann had already left). Göttingen was a very Nazi town, so I dare say they reconciled themselves with having to move away. There are also eight Nobel Prize winners in the city cemetery, including Otto Hahn, Max Planck and Max Born. Hahn’s collaborator Lise Meitner was nominated no fewer than 48 times for a Nobel Prize, but was always ignored. The modern university currently houses five of the eighty Max Planck Institutes.

 Göttingen was also known for its law faculty, which in the nineteenth century accounted for over half of its students – future chancellors Otto von Bismarck and Gerhard Schröder studied law here, as well as Prince Metternich, Chancellor of Austria, and the poet Heinrich Heine. The philosophers Wilhelm von Humboldt and Arthur Schopenhauer also studied here briefly.

 There are a lot of plaques on buildings commemorating other notables who passed through, including Alexander von Humboldt, Bunsen, Goethe, Franklin, Coleridge, Brahms and Joachim, and Sándor Kőrösi Csoma, a Székely from Transylvania who produced the first Tibetan–English dictionary and grammar. It’s a hard-working university, without distractions such as duelling, which used to cause a lot of trouble in Heidelberg (which I visited in 2016, but didn’t manage to blog about) – here the most exciting tradition is just climbing up to kiss the Gänseliesel (Goose Girl) statue after successfully defending a PhD.

 The university has half a dozen museums and botanic gardens, and there’s also the Städtisches Museum Göttingen (City Museum); but I didn’t manage to visit any, partly because it was a Monday and partly because of various refurbishment projects. The main building of the City Museum is closed, but there may be something to see in the Hardenberger Hof building around the corner on the Ritterplan. The University Ethnographic Collection is closed for refurbishment (a shame – it houses the Cook/Forster collection, brought from the Pacific islands by Georg Forster, who sailed with Cook and became a professor at Kassel, not far to the south), but it looks as if the Zoological Museum, which closed in 2018, has reopened. You can (pandemic permitting) visit the Museum for Sepulchral Culture, which sounds fascinating, but it will close for renovation from 2022 – it covers death, burial, mourning and remembrance across the world’s cultures, and will also look at suicide, euthanasia and organ donation, for instance.


St Jacobi
St Albani

 There are some attractive churches: the most important is St Johannis, on the market square (rebuilt as a Gothic hall church between 1290 and 1350, with its choir extended in 1792), which has two mismatched towers, but St Jacobi has a massive 72 metre-high tower that dominates the old town. St Michael has been the city’s Roman Catholic church since 1789; it was designed to be anonymous, but in 1893 the present façade and tower were built; and in 2014 the interior was reworked in a beautifully minimalist white style (there’s a modern memorial to Edith Stein, the first saint of Jewish origin, who studied in Göttingen in 1913-5). There’s another couple of nice Gothic hall churches, St Albani (if you can catch it open) and St Nikolai, which is the university church but is only open on Saturdays. On the art front, there are both university and public museums, which should be worth checking out too.


From Göttingen it was a short hop (just eighteen minutes) on an ICE high-speed train to Kassel – but this stretch of the NBS high-speed railway will be closed for repairs from 24 April to 16 July 2021, as outlined here. Kassel Hauptbahnhof, the original main terminal station, has been superseded by Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe, a concrete box on the through lines in the western suburbs. Regional trains still run through to the Hauptbahnhof, but not the long-distance trains. Steam train enthusiasts will know Kassel as the site of the Henschel locomotive works, Germany’s largest.

 In fact, one of Kassel’s main attractions, the Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe, is a bit further west from the new station – it’s a landscape park, laid out by the Landgraves of Hesse from 1689, which is now on the World Heritage List. Initially in the Baroque style, it was later adapted to the less formal English style, finishing with the Great Waterfall being added in 1826.

 At the foot of the hill, towards the city and the station, the Schloss Wilhelmshöhe is a large Neoclassical pile (built in 1786-98) that was Kaiser Wilhelm II’s summer residence; heavily damaged in World War II, it reopened in 1974 as an art museum (there are quite a few Rembrandts, as well as Dürer, Rubens, Hals and Van Dyck – I shall have to return). In the city centre, the Museum Fridericianum, founded in 1779 in another neoclassical palace, is claimed by Wikipedia to be Europe’s first public museum, but as any good Oxonian knows, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford was founded in 1677. It hosts contemporary art exhibitions, and in particular the documenta festival, held every five years (next in the summer of 2022). Art works from previous documenta festivals are dotted around the city, notably ‘7000 Oaks’, a piece of land art by Joseph Beuys. There’s also the Caricatura cartoon museum, in the Hauptbahnhof.

 Kassel was heavily bombed in World War II and then captured in vicious house-to-house fighting in April 1945, and rebuilt with modern buildings, so there’s little else to see that’s historic, and I didn’t stop this time.

The Rathaus

With a regional train it took an hour and a quarter to get from Kassel to Marburg, which I found quite delightful. Having spent a month in the flatlands of northern Europe, finding a town on a hill with a castle at the top was a rare treat. It’s quite a steep climb up (stop in the market place to look at the Rathaus, built in 1512, and other half-timbered houses), but the views are worth it.

 St Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-31) moved here after her husband Ludwig IV of Thuringia died on crusade when she was just 20; she was known for her charity, following the teachings of Francis of Assisi, and setting up hospitals for the poor in Eisenach and Marburg. She was strictly controlled by her sadistic confessor, Konrad von Marburg, who was a ferocious persecutor of anyone accused of heresy; she died at just 24, and he was murdered two years later. The Order of Teutonic Knights adopted her as a patron and built the Elisabethkirche (see below) to house her tomb, which became a major pilgrimage centre until the Reformation, at which point her relics were removed by the protestant Landgrave.

 Marburg was the residence of the Landgraves of Hesse until 1567; the university was founded in 1527 and still dominates life here, so it’s fitting that it occupies the castle that dominates the view. It’s the oldest university still operating that was founded as a Protestant institution (though now secular, of course); in 1529 there was an important meeting of Luther, Zwingli and other reformers here. Marburg then became a backwater, escaping development for a couple of centuries, and was then rediscovered by the Romantics in the nineteenth century, since when it has been treasured for its medieval townscapes. It was a designated hospital town in World War II so escaped bombing. The university was always important however – Otto Hahn and the Brothers Grimm, whom we met in Göttingen (above) studied here, as did Hannah Arendt – she was taught by Martin Heidegger, an important thinker but also a Nazi, which may have helped her explain Nazism (‘the banality of evil’) after the war.

 There are six university museums, of which the Museum der Kulturgeschichte (Museum of Art and Cultural History) in the castle is the most interesting, covering local archeology and history and the urban and rural lifestyles. There are medieval frescoes in the chapel, and the Fürstensaal is a beautiful Gothic hall. There’s some religious art here, but the main art museum is down in town at Biegenstrasse 11, in a large purpose-built building mainly displaying German art since the sixteenth century. Nearby is the modern Marburger Kunstverein, with temporary shows by contemporary artists. The main church is the Elisabethkirche (1235-83, with towers finished in 1340), one of the earliest pure Gothic churches in Germany (along with the Church of the Virgin in Trier, which I’ve written about here) and a precursor of the Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral), which as usual I visited as I changed trains on my way home – it’s amazing, and huge. It was the burial church of the Landgraves of Hesse until the Reformation, and after World War II General Paul von Hindenburg, the president of Germany who brought Hitler to power, and his wife were buried here, in a gloomy corner. The golden shrine of St Elizabeth can be seen here, as well as some fine polychrome wooden altars.


From Marburg a very scenic railway follows the Lahn valley to Koblenz, passing through Giessen, another small university town which was heavily bombed in 1944, with most of its historic buildings destroyed. It also has an old university, founded in 1607 as a Lutheran alternative to the Calvinist University of Marburg; the playwright Georg Büchner studied here and Justus von Liebig, one of the founders of organic chemistry, taught here from 1824 to 1852 (and the university is now named after him). He transformed the teaching of chemistry and pioneered the chemical study of foods and fertilisers; he was familiar to me as the scientific director of the Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company, established in 1865 in Fray Bentos, Uruguay, which I know well. The militaristic Prussian state was also largely responsible for creating the modern scientific research university, and Giessen expanded from 1880 (and admitted women from 1900); the most important figure from this period was Wilhelm Röntgen, Professor of Physics from 1879 to 1888, who won the first Nobel Prize for Physics in 1901 for the discovery of X-rays.

 The city centre is pretty bland nowadays, but the old and new castles have been well reconstructed. The Altes Schloss was built in the first half of the fourteenth century and became the Museum of Upper Hesse in 1905; it was destroyed by bombing in 1944 and didn’t reopen until 1980; the half-timbered Neues Schloss was built in 1533-9 and it and the adjacent Zeughaus are now used by the university. The museum also uses two rebuilt houses on the west side of Kirchenplatz, the half-timbered Leib’sche Haus, which was built in 1350, largely destroyed in 1944 and reopened in 1978, and the eighteenth-century Wallenfels’schen Haus; they’re now linked by a bridge, but in theory you want the Leib’sche Haus for local history and folklore (with costumes, tobacco pipes, a loom and models of half-timbered structures) and the Wallenfels’schen Haus for archeology and ethnology (from Greek and Roman artefacts to Buddhist bronzes, thangkas and a mandala). The Altes Schloss displays arts and crafts and some historical paintings; the museums are free, but information is only in German. The university’s botanical garden, the oldest in Germany still in its original locations, is also free and open daily (not in winter, at least during the pandemic). There’s also a Liebig Museum, in the former guard house, which seems to be well worth visiting.

The Altes Schloss

Hildesheim, half-timbering and the Harz

Heading southeast from Hannover, I visited Hildesheim, an historic city full of half-timbered houses (Fachwerkhäuse), then Wernigerode and Goslar, also known for their half-timbering, and the Harz mountains (hey, enough of the halliteration. Ed). It was my first time in this area and it was something of a revelation. Half-timbering here is not the cosy black-and-white of Cotswold cottages but a multicoloured riot up to six storeys high – most of those in Hildesheim were rebuilt after World War II, but Goslar and Wernigerode were pretty much untouched. (I found Hildesheim too easily confused with Helmstedt, not too far to the east, which used to be of passing interest as the last stop in West Germany on the rail and road routes towards West Berlin.)

 Hildesheim is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, not because of the half-timbered houses on its beautifully reconstituted marketplace, but because of two fabulous Romanesque churches, the cathedral and the even more impressive St Michael’s. A bishopric was established here in 815 by the Holy Roman Emperor Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, and the cathedral was built in 852- 872 and rebuilt in 1010-20, after a fire in 1046, and after 1950. The wonderful cast bronze doors, depicting scenes of Adam and Eve (the Fall of Man) and the Life of Christ (the Salvation of Man), were added in about 1015 by Bishop Bernward. There’s also a very unusual bronze column, with a spiral relief depicting the life of Christ – this was made for Bernward in about 1000, but for St Michael’s, and was moved to the cathedral in 1810 after the parish of St Michael’s was dissolved. In the crypt beneath the altar you can see the beautifully decorated St Godehard reliquary, but there are many more treasures in the Cathedral Museum on the south side of the cathedral and the cloister. In fact, for many the most famous treasure is the Thousand-Year-Old Rose (now over 1,200 years old), which seemed to have been destroyed in the air raid of 22 March 1945 but was flowering again by 1947. Now it covers the full height of the outside of the east-end apse; signs seem to indicate that you need to go via the museum (and pay) to see it, but in fact there’s a perfectly legitimate way into the cloister near Bernward’s Column. In the centre of the cloister is the chapel of St Anne, the first Gothic building in Hildesheim (c.1320), which is bare and thus usually open.

Despite all its treasures, the cathedral’s interior is not especially striking,
whereas St Michael’s should knock you over with its superb ceiling painted with the Tree of Jesse (Christ’s family tree). Built in 1010-33 on the site of a monastery founded by Bernward (who was buried in the crypt), it’s a great example of Ottonian Romanesque architecture, named after the Emperor Otto III, whose tutor Bernward was. Even after the Reformation, the Benedictines were allowed to continue worshipping in the crypt; this remains the case today, although in the nineteenth century the church was used as a hay store and then as part of a mental hospital housed in the monastery. It was almost derelict, and then was burnt down in the 1945 air raid (the ceiling and other treasures had been removed); the postwar reconstruction followed Bernward’s original design as far as possible.

 Between the two churches, the Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Muzeum is a leading museum of global archeology and antiquities, with a particularly good collection of Egyptian relics, brought back by a banker who spent much of his career in Cairo, as well as Chinese porcelain and Peruvian artefacts. Another branch is the City Museum in the Knochenhauer-Amtshaus (the Butchers’ Guildhall), the largest of the rebuilt half-timbered houses on the Markt – you have to walk through a restaurant and go upstairs. There are good displays on the city’s history; captions are in German only (I did notice that the Hanseatic cities, and Berlin, are far more likely to have bilingual information), but nothing could be clearer than the construction of the Spitzboden or attic at the top.

  There are many more rebuilt houses, some with elaborately decorated stone windows, in the centre, and other attractive churches; but the most authentic houses, untouched in the war, are to the south on Brühl, Godehardsplatz and Kesslerstrasse, finishing at the charming Masonic Hall (built in 1663, expanded in 1822, and restored in 2011). Also to the south is the basilica of St Godehard, also built in Romanesque style in 1133-72, which has a striking setting but a fairly plain interior, apart from a nineteenth-century fresco in the choir; however there’s talk of it being added to the World Heritage List.

 Moving on to the Harz Mountains, my jumping-off point was Wernigerode, a small town in Saxony-Anhalt (just over the border into what was the German Democratic Republic) which is also known for its half-timbered houses. To be honest I didn’t much like it – it was very crowded, on a Saturday, seemingly with coach parties from Berlin, and it felt a bit tacky to me. Having said that, there are some quieter, unspoilt corners with half-timbered houses from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

 It’s the northern end of the Harzer Schmalspur Bahnen or Harz Narrow-gauge Railways, which run through the mountains linking the towns of Wernigerode, Nordhausen and Quedlinburg with 140km of metre-gauge track. Some new links have been built to create a functional public-transport system, but it’s best known abroad for the branch to the top of the Brocken (1141m), the highest peak of the Harz, and for the surprisingly powerful steam locomotives that operate many of its trains. These are mostly 2-10-2T tank engines, built in the 1950s, although pre-war steam locomotives and indeed diesel railcars can appear for special events; there’s plenty of specialist rail-fan coverage of the trains, so suffice to say that I had no problem taking my folding bike up  to the Brocken. It did seem odd that because of the pandemic the HSB was not taking online bookings, which is surely the wrong way round. The ride up through the beech forest was great, but at higher levels, the conifer forests have seen a lot of logging; the summit is above the tree line and lived up to its reputation for bad weather, with fog and a cold wind.

 The Brocken has also long had a reputation as the meeting place of witches (as in Goethe’s Faust), and Goethe and the poet Heinrich Heine came here (as well as Peter the Great of Russia, supposedly) and have trails named after them. Another aspect of the local folklore is the Brocken spectre, the huge shadow of a person cast on a cloud, with the head often ringed by a rainbow halo, which was first described here in 1780. After World War II, the border between East and West Germany ended up about two kilometres to the west, the entire border strip became a closed area which has turned out to be a great boon for wildlife, and the summit of the Brocken was a base for electronic spying on the West. Since the fall of communism, and the reopening of the Brockenbahn in 1991, it has become a popular tourist destination again. I cycled down, on a concrete track at first, but then on paths that were too rough to ride on (first with stone, then with roots) as I came around the Eckertal reservoir to the dam, straddling the former border. From here it was a quick run down to the attractive spa town of Bad Harzburg, and then across to Goslar.

 Goslar caught my attention because it was on the Germany map of my Rough Guide to Europe, supposedly stranded at the end of a railway southeast from Hannover – but the matching text had been cut. With my experience of brutal cutting by the Rough Guides editors, I was fairly sure that it would actually be a nice place and well worth a visit. And so it proved. I don’t know if it’s true or fair, but in Wernigerode I had a sense that I was only seeing Ossies from the former East Berlin visiting the same places they’d visited when it was East Germany, much like people who only ever go to Blackpool; there was none of that in Goslar, which felt more open.

 It’s another place that’s on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, not just because of the historic townscape, with perhaps 1800 historic houses, but also for the Rammelsberg mine and the Upper Harz Water Management System, in the hills to the south – created by medieval monks, this was massively expanded from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries to hold water and channel to the mines (see below).

 Metal ores were mined in the Harz from the third century AD, and in about 968 the Emperor Otto the Great opened a silver mine at Rammelsberg; the settlement of Goslar, a couple of kilometres north, was first mentioned in 979. In 1005, Henry II built an Imperial Palace (Kaiserpfalz), rebuilt by Conrad II from 1025, which became one of the main power bases of the Saxon rulers until 1250. After this, Goslar became a Free Imperial City, a member of the Hanseatic League, and immensely wealthy thanks to its mines (Gose, a sour wheat beer, was also developed here, although it’s been associated with Leipzig for the last couple of centuries). The town then became a bit of a backwater as part of Prussia; hunkered down here in the cold winter of 1798 Wordsworth began writing The Prelude, and the cathedral was demolished in 1820 (only the north porch survives, as the chapel of St. Simon and St. Jude, across the park from the Kaiserpfalz). Goslar escaped bombing in World War II, so many half-timbered wooden houses survive here, along with several attractive churches.

 The main church now is the Marktkirche, just off the market square; built in 1151 as a Romanesque basilica with three naves, a smaller version of the cathedral; a Gothic choir was added in 1295, and it was widened to five naves in 1334-6. Inside, it’s worth seeing the stained-glass windows, the remains of a mural (circa 1440) , a bronze font (1573) and a pulpit carved with biblical scenes (1659); and there are great views from the north tower. The market square is also lovely, with the Rathaus on the west side of the square worth visiting to see the stained-glass windows and the frescoes in the Huldigungssaal (Hall of Homage); when I was there it was closed while a new World Heritage information centre was being fitted out for opening in spring 2021 (pandemic permitting) – at which point the tourist information centre on the east side of the square will presumably close.

 The Rammelsberg mine closed in 1988, after about 1,020 years of activity – initially copper ore was the main output, followed by lead, zinc and above all silver. The buildings were saved from demolition and turned into a museum, and it became part of the World Heritage Site created in 1992. The mine had been expanded by the Nazis and most of the surface buildings date from this period; as well as technical exhibits, there are displays on the mine’s cultural history and a modern art gallery, plus a range of underground tours, including a twelfth-century gallery and one on a mine train.

 In the mountains to the south, the Clausthal ponds were created in about 1318 to provide water to drive waterwheels and pumps for these and other mines; sixty of the original 107 are still managed, as part of the Upper Harz Water Management System sector of the World Heritage Site (added in 2010). Walking routes have been created along many of the water channels, and tours can be arranged from the Upper Harz Mining Museum in Clausthal-Zellerfeld. This sector also includes the Walkenried monastery, which dates from 1127, when Cistercian monks came from France, bringing the Gothic style of building to northern Europe; the abbey church itself, dating from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, is in ruins, but other buildings can be visited, including a museum and the chapter house, now used as a parish church.

 This is another place where I have unfinished business, to enjoy the towns of Hildesheim and Goslar in non-pandemic times, and to spend more time hiking and cycling in the Harz.

A bit Cornish? slate-fronted houses in Goslar

‘The Border’ – a review

I’ve never been to Russia, which may seem strange in someone who has at times specialised in Eastern Europe and formerly Soviet countries, but I’ve met more than enough Russians in the neighbouring countries. They talk a lot about the Russian soul, which in practice seems to mean wanting me to join them in a vodka-based search for oblivion, rather than good cheer. But when I heard that Erica Fatland had written a book about Russia as seen from its neighbouring countries I was interested! It soon turned out that, unlike me, she spoke Russian and had spent time there, writing a book on the Beslan massacre as well as Sovietistan, about the Central Asian ‘Stans (including Uzbekistan, which I have also written about in my way.

 She spent 259 days (over a two-year span) making a virtually complete loop through all fourteen countries that currently border Russia, including a cruise along its Arctic frontier; I have only been to China (in 1983), Georgia, Ukraine, Poland, Estonia, Finland and Norway, as well as the formerly Soviet states of Armenia, Moldova and Uzbekistan, which don’t actually border Russia.

 The first chapter of her tour was actually the last to be undertaken, when she finally managed to find an affordable cruise through the Northeast Passage, from Anadyr to Murmansk. This also touched on the Russian involvement with Alaska, another place that I’ve had plenty to do with, having spent two winters there and updated several editions of the Rough Guide to Alaska and the Alaska chapter of the Rough Guide to the USA. This is very different to the rest of the book, and both interesting, covering a part of the world that few of us have been to, and entertaining, with its account of her fellow passengers. It’s also the most environmentally engaged part of the book – even two decades ago it was clear that the poles were warming up far faster than the equator, and of course it’s the lack of sea ice that now makes it easy for ships to travel through the Northeast Passage. And there’s the regular mention of the rusty oil drums that were left everywhere by the Soviets.

 The next section, on North Korea, is a bit too similar to other accounts of organised tours of the paranoid dictatorship – she does it very well, but for the most part we’re drifting away from the Russian theme here. Chapters on China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, similarly, are very well-done history lessons with lots of detail of wars with Russia, but they don’t reveal much about Russian character or culture.

 Then we get to Georgia, which Fatland has said is one of her favourite countries – and it’s one of mine, too, for the same reasons – food, wine, scenery, and above all the sheer joie de vivre of the Georgians. The food on much of her journey must have been hard going for a vegetarian, but here Fatland would have been able to live off the fat of the land… But I don’t think Georgians dislike Russians as much as she says they do – yes, they loathe Putin and his régime, but they will almost all say that they have no problem at all with Russians themselves – partly because Russian tourism is very important economically. I also disagree about ‘the most famous monastery in Georgia’ – surely that’s Davit-Gareja (ok, a group of monasteries) rather than Gergeti, which is certainly the most iconic church in Georgia, but not much of a monastery.

The Gergeti Trinity Church, by Mary Holzer

 The Ukraine section is excellent, with interesting visits to the remnant of the Swedish community and to the secessionist Donetsk People’s Republic; her account of Crimea is based on a visit nine years earlier, before its annexation by Russia – I was there back in 1991, but again I agree with her that, like Georgia, ‘Crimea had everything’, scenery, culture, beaches and beer. On the other hand, there’s only fleeting coverage of lovely Lviv.

 As for Belarus, she finds some interest in the dullest of countries – I was interested that Lukashenko once dragged out his annual speech to seven hours and twenty minutes, because Fidel Castro had famously set a record by droning on for seven hours and ten minutes (although Fatland doesn’t mention this). The Chagall museum in Vitbesk was closed, as was the Rothko museum in Daugavpils, Latvia – I feel her pain. The three Baltic states are also familiar ground well covered, and she makes a brief detour into Poland because it surrounds the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Another detour via the Åland islands, between Finland and Sweden, is new and interesting.

 It’s easy to forget how close to the Soviet Union Finland once was (politically and economically), and how carefully they walked that tightrope between keeping some independence and not offending the bear next door – there was a huge Soviet military base west of Helsinki until 1995, the year that Finland joined the EU and began to remodel itself as a modern Scandinavian social democracy. Finland has not joined NATO, but in 1996 it began to participate in peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and then Afghanistan. And from Finland Fatland actually crossed the border into Russia, with a visa-free cruise to Vyborg, once Finland’s second city and now ‘sad and worn’.

 Norway is the only one of Russia’s neighbours that it has never been at war with – in other words her home country, the last one described in this book, is the one with the best relations with Russia. Even so, the paranoid deportations of the Stalinist era affected the Norwegians on the Kola peninsula too; and this area of Russia bordering Norway is, by her account, the most polluted place in the world, due to a filthy nickel refinery and dumped fuel from nuclear submarines – this is now being cleared up, but by NATO countries, not by Russia.

 One could argue that she should also have gone to Iran, as it faces Russia across the Caspian Sea (and Alaska and Sweden do get mentioned), but I think we can give her a pass on that. But I just finished reading Fifty Miles Wide, by Julian Sayerer, about cycling in Israel and Palestine, and Israel is a country that has been heavily influenced by Russians – more or less anyone in Omsk or Tomsk or indeed Donetsk who feels that his or her life is a dead-end can claim to be Jewish, and these people have little interest in sharing Israel with Arabs.

 Fatland quotes the father of Norwegian social anthropology, Fredrik Barth, who said that you can only see yourself, your people and your culture in relation to “the other”. It is at the border with the unknown that identity and cultural differences arise. Perhaps the people of the countries that Fatland travelled through had a clearer sense of themselves by comparing their history and culture with those of Russia, and maybe she does too, but for me this was largely a history lesson – most of it was fairly familiar to me, but most readers will find a lot here that is new and interesting. Of course there’s the endless litany of Stalinist atrocities, but if it’s any comfort, it’s clear that the very worst of all were carried out by the Nazis. In any case this is an entertaining and perceptive account of these countries in their own right.

The Border by Erika Fatland, Quercus Books, 2020, translated by Kari Dickson (first published in Norwegian as Grensen by Kagge Forlag in 2017).

Details details

There was clearly a bit of a delay between the first publication in Norwegian and the translation into English – footnotes have been added to bring it up to date, although they don’t cover the recent election and protests in Belarus. Fatland or her editors do have a bit of an issue with big numbers 

on p.106 ‘The unification of East and West Germany … is estimated to have cost between one and a half and an eye-watering two billion euros.’ In fact it’s estimated at 2 trillion euros. Two billion seems like NOTHING at all in our Covid-19 world, where Joe Biden’s relief package is worth US$1.9 trillion and Apple is worth US$2 trillion.

on p.119 ‘Two and a half million passengers travel on Chinese trains every year’ – it’s more like 2.5 billion.

on p.273 ‘on February 25 million people marched’ – one million, I think, on February 25.

and on p.381 ‘Nikishyne, between seven and eight hundred kilometres north of Donetsk’ – in fact it’s between seventy and eighty kilometres.

 and some editing/ translation issues –

on p.226 ‘By the end of the 1950s, Russians were in the majority in Kazakhstan and accounted for more than forty per cent of the population.’ – no, that’s a plurality, not a majority.

on p.291 ‘there’s a clear view from Shusha to Stepanakert’ – so she obviously means that the Azerbaijanis were shelling the city, not bombing it.

on p.370 ‘winter 1942’ and on p.527 ‘winter 1943’ seems to mean early in the year, whereas I’d expect it to mean the end of the year.

on p.392 ‘strike camp’ should be ‘set up camp’ or similar.

on p.518 it was Turkey, not Italy, that was allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I!

And just a couple of typos that I noticed – ‘Kakazhstan’ (p.227) and ‘A dead solider’ (p.381).

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