Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

The River Narva marks one of Europe's more conspicuous frontiers: that between the European Union (and the Schengen area) to the west and the Russian Federation to the east. But cultures do not always respect borders and in a visit to Narva, on the Estonian bank of the river, we encounter a city that is very Russian in demeanour.

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The bus clears the last of the Russian border formalities and drives over the border bridge towards Estonia. Below the bridge flow the waters of the River Narva, and to the left there are inviting glimpses through the bus windows of the twin fortresses that preside over the border: the battlements of Ivangorod castle on the Russian side and those of Narva castle ahead on the Estonian bank of the river.

An unlovely web of fences and barbed wire clutters the view. This fierce ensemble is designed to deter those tempted to skip the Estonian customs and immigration checks that lie ahead. People in the Estonian town of Narva are among the friendliest on the planet, and most of them have generally positive sentiments towards their Russian neighbours on the opposite bank of the river. Indeed, many Narva folk come from Russian stock, speak Russian as their mother tongue and have close friends and relations over in Ivangorod.

But Narva finds itself sitting a little uncomfortably by one of Europe’s most tightly controlled frontiers (only the entry points into Britain are comparable in terms of projecting so unwelcoming a demeanour). Were one to travel from Russia’s Pacific coast to Oslo or Lisbon by train, the chances nowadays are that your passport would only be checked at a border such as the Narva-Ivangorod frontier crossing, where the Schengen region abuts onto a non-Schengen country. Narva is thus the outer edge of Fortress Europe. For the Russians on the bus edging up to the Narva frontier post, that means they must secure a Schengen visa for a day trip to the huge Astri shopping complex in Narva.

For those who can obtain a Schengen visa — and particularly a coveted multi-entry visa — the Narva region has become their playground, especially for those from St. Petersburg. Russia’s second largest city is just 130 kilometres away to the east. With an increasingly affluent western-oriented elite in a conurbation of almost five million, nearby areas of Estonia, particularly those which are largely Russian-speaking, have become very popular for day trips and longer excursions. The St Petersburg bus company Baltic Shuttle runs shopping trips to Narva’s Astri mall, and Russian couples and families treat themselves to weekends away at the beach resort and health spa at Narva-Joesuu.


The twin castles, symmetrically defending territory on either side of the River Narva, attest to the fact that this area was long a border region. It was the place where Scandinavian (and later German) interests confronted the Russian Empire. But, curiously, no border had existed here for some time prior to Estonia’s independence in 1991 that recreated the historic frontier. “What about us?” asked people in Ivangorod when they woke up one day to find that Narva, on the opposite bank of the river, was now no longer part of the Soviet Union. A local initiative in Ivangorod in 1998 called for the community on the east bank to be reunited with its Estonian neighbour, but Boris Yeltsin, then President of the Russian Federation, gave the idea short shrift. An earlier referendum in which 97% of voters in Narva expressed a wish to secede from Estonia was also ignored.

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About the authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.

This article was published in hidden europe 35.