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2003-10-21 Estonia

The deep Russian bass is chanting as though through a long resonant tube, scarcely surfacing for breath. The choir of virginal voices responds from a gallery behind in four-part harmony, overlapping the cantor's hypnotic monotone. I am surrounded by scarved ladies, old and young, who are crossing themselves frantically ad lib.

 

The men are equally devout, but somehow more still. Golden icons glint all around, candles flicker in every alcove, and tall imposing bearded men in ornate golden robes line the altar steps, some hearing confessions throughout the proceedings. A soaring girl soprano descant adds another heavenly layer to the already rich texture. It is a solo voice, but not that of a teenaged choir member, for beside me stands a gesticulating little old lady with a white head-scarf who has been transported to a higher level.

 

A voice which belies her frail old body is the final straw in my holding it all together. Tears stream down my face. Many are wiping away tears, as the words are from their hearts and the music is in their souls. The devotion of these people is overwhelming. It is Sunday, I am in the onion-domed Alexander Nevski cathedral in Tallinn in Estonia, and I happen upon a Russian Orthodox "Adoration of the Eucharist" - a spiritual experience never to be surpassed.

 

As part of a three-day Baltic cruise, we had travelled from St Petersburg to Estonia. St Petersburg has a huge history for a city so relatively young. This was my second trip to witness it's unique beauty. Even more impressive than the Louvre or the Uffizzi, the Hermitage's 400 rooms with 3 million exhibits is a challenge, and after a while one becomes blase about the priceless treasures.

Lavish rooms filled with Rembrandt, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Picasso, Van Gogh and Monet mean that in time, sadly, if one doesn't recognise the name, one accelerates to the next hall looking for a bigger name. Lunch that day was largely liquid, which is highly unusual for this amateur drinker, and so after three neat vodkas, the fourth may as well have been 'toilet duck'!

 

Outside, the once splendid Nevski Prospekt (St. Petersburg's O'Connell Street) is in need of a lick of paint and seems to be trying desperately to become European, but it's people are grey and wan.Matryoshka dolls are available on every street corner, in hundreds of styles from Beckham to Bin Laden to the Simpsons. A little girl begs for rubles, but all we have in our bags is fruit, and so we give her an orange and a banana. She runs excited to her mother. In a second the mother is feeding the banana to her other starving baby while the little girl savours orange nectar.

 

We pass the pure gold dome of St. Isaacs, past the glinting golden spire of the Peter Paul Fortress, along the canals to the impressive Church of Spilled Blood (like St.Basils in Moscow), and then head back to the ship. The customs are strict and unsettling. A band perform to herald our farewell, but they have forced smiles and are counting our dollars on the quayside before we even leave.

As we sail away on our 6-star ship, it is as though we are putting our fingers up at this society of extremes. We never even had time to see the other remnants of Romanov rule, and yet we have witnessed wealth like never before. Like my visits to the Kremlin and the Vatican, I am again sickened by the imbalance in society.

 

Van Gogh never earned money from his now priceless paintings. If the Hermitage sold even one of them, or even a Titian or a Rubens, it could 'Dulux' the whole of Nevski Prospekt, or better still house and feed it's homeless. It still seems to me that some Russians are being dragged kicking and screaming into the West.

After the mass in quaint Tallinn, we feed ourselves on wild boar and honey beer. The sun is shining, and so are the people. These countries are steeped in history, the music has a deep sadness, and yet, we can't help but notice that Estonia retains it's history alongside what is best from the West. The strongest of the three Baltic states, Estonia seems to have got it right.

 

More information about Tallin: http://www.tallinn.ee/