Concluding his Eurovisionaries series, Owen Hatherley visits Narva, a city at the most eastern point of Estonia separated from Russia by a river, and the point where two very different versions of ‘Europe’ meet
Since the annexation of Crimea, there’s been much talk of a ‘New Cold War’. If that war has a symbolic border, it’s the bridge over the Narva river, which connects the EU, and the Estonian city of Narva, with the Russian town of Ivangorod. In the doom scenarios of the ‘war’ becoming hot, it’s here that the first shots would be fired. The east of Estonia is overwhelmingly Russophone, and thousands of people here are officially stateless; a casus belli could be easily manufactured. On each side of the river are fortresses, reminders that this river has been a militarised border for centuries. In the week I visited, a NATO summit in Warsaw agreed to deploy troops to the Baltic, to militarise it yet further. As sightseers look out over the bridge, and picnickers sit on either side of the riverbank, Narva-Ivangorod doesn’t look like it’s about to be the theatre of World War Three.
Narva river crossing with Ivangorod on left Narva on right
Source: Owen Hatherley
Narva, like Estonia more generally, is the point where two very different versions of ‘Europe’ meet: Scandinavia, everyone’s favourite welfare-state consumerist utopia; and Russia, proverbially dark yet romantic land of poverty, dictatorship and prefabrication. The city, near the Baltic sea, was founded in the 13th century by Denmark, and then became one of the centres of the Teutonic Knights. Russia built the Ivangorod fortress opposite at the end of the 15th century. Narva as it exists now, though, is the result of the late-17th-century Great Northern War, largely between Sweden and Russia, for control of the Baltic. Before the Second World War, the city, then part of an independent Estonia, consisted of a Swedish-built centre in the Dutch Baroque style, a Swedish-Danish castle, and a Russo-German industrial town; the population was Estonian with large Russian and German minorities. Only some of this survives today – Narva was pummelled by air raids in 1944, totally destroying the Baroque city. What you can see today is a very ordinary Soviet city, yet with the castle complex and the 19th-century industrial areas largely intact. The population, which has fallen precipitously since independence was regained in 1991, is more than 80 per cent Russian, with Ukrainian, Belarusian and Estonian minorities. At the heart of it are those two opposed castles, glowering at each other across a fenced-off, heavily guarded bridge, an exceptionally picturesque image of division and paranoia.
The Baroque city was levelled after war damage, ‘to demoralise the people’
It’s a very long way in spirit, if not in actual space, from Tallinn, the Estonian capital. Though linguistically and socially divided, Tallinn is, along with the Slovenian capital Ljubljana, the most convincingly ‘Western’ and affluent post-Communist capital in Europe. Unusually for the ex-USSR, it has a lively architectural culture. At the Estonian Architecture Museum, a converted warehouse next to the impressive Modernist-Hanseatic blocks of the Rotermann Quarter, I was told there wasn’t much to see in Narva; they had dozens of slides of the Baroque city, but told me it was levelled after war damage, ‘to demoralise the people’.
Narva’s historical politics are tense, as you immediately realise when you arrive at the station, a pretty typical piece of Stalinist Corinthian in limestone, severely dilapidated. Outside is a memorial to the two waves of deportation of Estonian citizens to the Gulag, in 1941 and 1949; the city is 94 per cent Russian speaking, but the memorial is in Estonian. It feels as if it is aimed at the current residents, most of whom can trace themselves to post-war Soviet migrants. Street signs, similarly, are in Estonian – I spotted two bilingual signs in the entire city, outside of shops and information posts.
The streetscape clusters around a miniature Stalinist ‘magistrale’, Pushkin Street, where small yet pompous blocks, with porticoes, towers, loggias and portals somewhere between 18th-century Petersburg and 1930s Moscow mark either side of a pretty, tree-lined avenue. One portal is a little more elaborate, with rich Mannerist decoration – it later transpires this is a transplant from one of the destroyed buildings of the 17th-century city. Then, at Peter Square, you come to both the castle and the border.
Narva Castle with view of high rises in Ivangorod in background
Source: Owen Hatherley
This is looked over by a 12-storey high-rise, an interesting design of prefab storeys capped with a sinister, Expressionist water tower in fluted brick; thanks to the current vogue for people renting out their flats to strangers, this is where I stayed. From there, you can get a view of how Estonia and Russia meet. On one side of the square, are bastions built in the 17th century; on another side, the castle, its entrance marked by a Soviet obelisk to their war dead; and on another, the strictly secured border point. High fences, running right alongside the castle walls, lead to a rectilinear, red brick border post. It is unusual to find a historical fortress that genuinely also doubles as a real, and properly patrolled border. Queues of lorries are a seemingly permanent presence on the backstreets here, but on the weekend when I’m visiting, there’s something else also: Narva Motorfest, where bikers from all over eastern Europe congregate on the castle to drive their bikes in hairy fleets and, in the evenings, listen to some strangely appropriate heavy metal, wholly audible on both sides of the river.
The castles themselves are a great comparison in aggressive/defensive forms. Ivangorod Castle is earlier, a late medieval design perched on a ridge, with high castellated walls and circular towers, sweeping impressively across the river. The slits for archers are aimed right at the squarer, higher Narva Castle, where the Swedish-designed battlements surround ‘Tall Hermann’, a partly reconstructed whitewashed tower with a neat little Baroque opening where you can poke your head out and glare at Russia. Just behind Ivangorod Castle you’ll notice a late-Soviet housing complex which tries to emulate it – a long wall of flats leading to a ‘fortified’ tower. Inside Narva Castle, are exhibitions and the Northern Yard, a little medieval shopping centre with wooden galleries and people in period costume selling food and trinkets; the bikers participate enthusiastically in making pyres for barbecues. Nearby is Narva’s Lenin statue, unusually not demolished or sent to a museum in the 1990s, but moved here from Peter Square. He currently points the way to the portaloos.
Lenin points at portaloos edit
The castles are in good condition, convincingly antique and sinister even without these weekend berserkers. The old town is something quite different. Often, Stalinist regimes were happy to reconstruct old towns – all of old Warsaw, most of old Gdansk and old Dresden, and much of old St Petersburg are a matter of post-war replicas. Here, though, only three buildings from the 17th century survive.
The treatment of old Narva is drastic, verging on urbicide
It is hard to say whether this was to do with their association with the once-dominant Baltic Germans, a move to ‘demoralise’ ethnic Estonians who became a minority in their own city, or simply a utilitarian move, as was the norm in western Europe, to prioritise unpretentious shelter for an small industrial city rather than wasting resources on a historicist fantasyland. But even then, the treatment of old Narva is drastic, verging on urbicide.
The entire city centre is made up of standardised brick ‘Khrushchevka’ walk-up flats from the early 1960s, in an open layout, with scrubby playgrounds and car parks in between. The fragments that survive are sad. There is a chubby, late 19th-century multi-domed Orthodox church, an eerie presence surrounded by factories, and a rustic 18th-century warehouse, converted in 1991 into the city Art Gallery. It has a great permanent collection, awful temporary exhibitions and a heartbreaking room of paintings of the Baroque city, clearly akin to Tallinn’s romantic Hanseatic skyline.
One single historic building was reconstructed: the town hall, designed in 1668 by Lubeck builder Georg Teuffel, with additions by Sweden’s court architect Nicodemus Tessin the Elder. It’s very Protestant, symmetrical, upright and unfussy, and you could imagine it in some more affluent part of the Baltic, a Stockholm or a Hamburg, with its light, pretty tower and swaggering entrance. It’s currently derelict, but opposite is the best new building in Narva, one which deserves better than that faint praise: Narva College, designed in 2012 by Kavakava Architects. It’s the sort of smart, oblique Postmodernism that almost gives the genre a good name. The front elevation, facing the town hall, is a concrete ‘impress’ of the destroyed Stock Exchange, in a similar Swedish Classical style to the town hall; it is a facade, topped by an overhanging concrete roof, and leading behind to a peculiar experiment in angular geometry, with a regular red brick grid interrupted with sprawling, overlapping glazed studios. There was, unsurprisingly, pressure to reconstruct the building ‘faithfully’, but more fidelity is paid here to the complex, scarred city that Narva actually is.
Narva College front facade
Source: Owen Hatherley
Similarly excellent is the Narva Embankment, completed in 2014, an EU-funded endeavour whose openness and public-spiritedness spreads under the blunt, fenced-off post-war bridge connecting to Ivangorod. It is perhaps the best recent public project I’ve seen in all the places visited for this series. Reached via various staircases from the bastions and castles – some historic, some overgrown and informal, some new constructions in Cor-ten steel – it is a generous, comfortable esplanade, lined with benches, chessboards, playgrounds – including a new, fashionably geological Zahaesque youth centre – and, wonder of wonders, a new public loo. It ends at a little beach, and a curious geopolitical freak, where a 1950s hydroelectric station on the Narva side is actually in Russia. Walk up the staircase here, and you’re in the industrial part of the city.
The EU made a dual promise to places like Narva: we can make your cities better, and we can make it easier for you to get out
Once with the interesting accolade of the most industrialised city in Estonia, Narva’s development was courtesy of the long-disappeared Baltic Germans, who were moved to the Third Reich in the early 1940s to populate its ‘Lebensraum’. Several huge factories on Kreenholm Island were built, two textile mills and one bakery, all now either disused or turned to post-industrial purposes. A planned company town was built around this, inhabited by a multi-ethnic, working class population. Around that, a little Stalinist suburb was built in the 50s, with many small Baroque details recalling the unreconstructed old town beyond. It’s the sort of urbanism now favoured, with shops on the ground floor, but these are almost all derelict. As is the grandiose Gerasimov Palace of Culture, marked by a pompous, full-height Doric colonnade. Heroes of the socialist revolutions of 1905 and 1917 are remembered with busts on plinths, standing lonely in a wildly overgrown but surprisingly well-used park.
Source: Owen Hatherley
The company town itself resembles some transplant from the Ruhr, rough and red-brick, with stubby Gothic details, starkly arranged around small squares where residents have hung up their washing – tall tenements for the factory hands, more spacious and decorative blocks for the foremen, and an imperial Baroque residence for the factory owner. The war-damaged tenements were partly spruced up in the 60s, with modern flanking blocks and a wonderful abstract mosaic accompanying the memorial to the revolutionary Amalie Kreisberg. But the emptiness is inescapable, and the haemorrhage of population Narva has suffered is most obvious here, making these memorials to working-class heroism, stood in front of empty factories, incomprehensible and anachronistic.
Doubtless many would prefer the monolithic blocks on the outskirts. These are a Soviet/neoliberal melange, the spaced-out slabs (some based on an elegant design by the great Estonian architect Raine Karp, originally for Tallinn) surrounding retail parks and a baffling quantity of furniture shops. This landscape is continued over the border, for miles and miles, almost interminably. You’ll find very little of the quality of the Narva Embankment out there, and nor will you find the outlet of emigration, so evidently taken by many inhabitants of the city. That’s the dual promise the EU made to places like Narva: we can make your cities better, and we can make it easier for you to get out. One part of that promise was made to Britain, too, and we decided we preferred our towns crap; the other part of the deal led to a hysterical xenophobic reaction, whose consequences we’ll now face. Here, they must regard our decision with the purest bafflement.
- Date entered EU 2004
- Currency Euro
- Population 1.3 million
- GDP $39 billion
- National debt (percentage of GDP) 10%
- Unemployment rate 6.1%
- Life expectancy 76.4 years
- Political leader prime minister Taavi Rõivas (Estonian Reform Party)
- Population 58,000
- Area 85m²
- Population density 690/km²
- Mayor Eduard East
- Ethnicity Russian 88%, Estonian 4%, other 8%
Data source: Wikipedia