hidden europe 16

Divided by a common border: the Narva river region

by Nicky Gardner


Rivers are often the great links between nations. Not so the Narva River which divides Russia from Estonia. We review life in this border region and look at how the Saimaa Canal, on the frontier between Finland and Russia, might offer a good model for the Narva river area.

I know the Lake Peipsi and Narva River region well. It is one of those areas in Europe that just deserve a visit. I would like to claim that I have seen the lake and river from all angles, but sadly it is just not the case. My knowledge of these waterways is very one-sided. For this is a border region par excellence: the eastern shores of Lake Peipsi - shown as Lake Peipus on some maps - belong to Russia and the western side of the lake is Estonian territory. Ditto for the river that links Lake Peipsi with the Gulf of Finland (and thus also with the Baltic). The west bank is Estonia; the east side is Russia. My explorations have taken me hither and thither along the lake's Estonian shores: through rich green forests and reedy marshlands to villages like Varnja and Kasepää where ultra-conservative Old Believers live on a diet of fish and onions. You might even believe for a moment that you are in Russia as you tiptoe past the onion racks for fear of waking the dogs that snooze in the summer sun. The snatches of small talk heard through open windows are all in Russian. But this is still Estonia.

Stand on the banks of the river in the Estonian town of Narva and look over the river to the great fortress at Ivangorod on the opposite bank. Around these stern walls, Muscovites tussled with Swedes in the late fifteenth century. In more recent times, German troops vied with Soviet soldiers to secure this strategic stronghold. And now the gaunt walls of Ivangorod preside over the chaotic antics that take place on the bridge over the Narva, where trucks queue to run the gauntlet of officialdom that divides the European Union from Russia.

I am told that inside the walls of the fortress at Ivangorod there are two handsome churches. But I have never seen them, for I have never crossed the border bridge to Ivangorod. It is a simple bridge: three concrete spans that divide two Europes.

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