Sunday, March 30, 2014

Petr Pan

Earlier today, Krasimir and I caught a matinee performance at the Mahen Theater.

We went to see the Bohemia Ballet from Prague perform Petr Pan.    

Normally, everything we go see is at the Janáček Theater so this was a nice treat.  The theater is absolutely beautiful.  It's smaller than the Janáček Theater but very posh.

I was a little nervous about the show.  A ballet about Peter Pan, and a matinee to boot, meant that there were lots of children.  But Everyone behaved, even me.  The performance was great.  I can't wait to see what's next.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Bohumil Hrabal

Today would have the 100th birthday of Bohumil Hrabal.  He was a writer and and actor.  Many Czechs regard him as one of the best writers of the 20th century.

He was born on 28 March 1914 in Brünn, Austria-Hungary, which today is Brno, Czech Republic.  He died in Prague in 1997 at the age of 83.

Some of his poetry was removed from circulation 1948 and two of his books were banned in 1970 by the communist government.  He tried to steer clear of politics but I think that was easier said than done in Czechoslovakia.

His two best-known novels were made in to movies.  In 1968, Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Watched Trains) won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.  In 2006, Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále (I Served the King of England) was released.

In 1996 he was awarded the Czech Medal of Merit, First Grade.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Russian Federation

Russia is officially known as the Russian FederationРоссия is the largest country in the world, stretching from Northern Europe to the Caucasus and from Eastern Europe to Asia.  It covers 1/8th of the world's inhabited land area.  It's larger than Pluto!  It spans nine time zones and borders Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia and North Korea.  The Russian exclave Kaliningrad borders Lithuania and Poland.  Russian shares maritime borders with Japan, Canada and the USA.  It is home to almost 143.8 million people.  The capital and largest city is Moscow.

Peter the Great proclaimed the Russian Empire, the 3rd largest empire in history, in 1721.  His reforms opened Russia to Western Europe.  Catherine the Great further expanded Russian territory into Central Europe and to the Black Sea.  Eventually, Russia colonized Alaska and even established settlements in California.

©To Discover Russia

Serbia and Russia were allies and when the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, Russia was pulled in to WWI in 1914.  In February 1917, the Russian Revolution overthrew Czar Nicholas II.  The October Revolution overthrew the provisional government and in 1922 Vladimir Lenin created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the world's first socialist state.

The Soviet Union consisted of 15 republics.  The largest was the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.  Russia contained over half the entire Soviet Union's population and dominated the USSR.

Mikhail Gorbachev's liberal reforms in 1985 led to nationalism and numerous independence movements.  In 1991, the Baltic republics declared independence and later that year the USSR broke in 15 independent states.  Boris Yeltsin became the first directly elected president in Russian history.  Throughout the 90s there was a major economic crisis, problems with corrupt privatization and an increase in poverty and violent crime.  Plus a war in Chechnya.  In 2000, Vladimir Putin became President.  In 2008, Dmitry Medvedev became President and Putin once again became Prime Minister.  In 2012, they switched roles.

©Watch Mojo

The country is officially a federation and semi-presidential republic.  The President is the head of state while the Prime Minister is the head of the government.  The Russian Federation is made up of 46 provinces, 22 republics, 9 territories, 4 autonomous districts, 1 autonomous province and 3 federal cities.

Russia is home to 160 different ethnic groups but ethnic Russians make up over 77% of the country's population.  These groups speak some 100 languages but Russian is the only official national language.

Worldwide, more than 150 million people speak Russian as their native language with many more, especially in former Soviet republics, speaking it as a second language.  Russian is one of the United Nations' six official languages.  

Seventy years of communism put a damper on religion.  However, today the two largest faiths are Russian Orthodox and Islam.

Vladimir Putin has said that "the break-up of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century."  It looks like things are being put in place to put the pieces back together again.  Russian citizenship is now available, in as little as three months, to Russian speakers who have lived in any former Soviet republic for three years.  Some countries, such as Estonia and Ukraine, do not allow for dual citizenship so this complicates things.  The Duma, the lower house of parliament has now made it easier for Russia to annex territory.

Russia claims to have a right to intervene in former Soviet republics to protect all Russian speakers.  This was used to invade Georgia in 2008 and to recently annex Crimea.  Hopefully, diplomacy will prevail and a peaceful resolution will be found soon.

Russia recently passed an anti-gay propaganda law which has a huge impact on the LGBT community there.  Here's a YouTube video I found that gives more details about it.

©VOA News

The currency is the Ruble ().
Russia is one of the places that I've always to visit but have just never had the chance.  For one thing, most people need a visa and the procedures to obtain a Russian visa are a pain in the arse.  Expensive too.  However, you can take a ferry from Helsinki to St. Petersburg which allows for a 72 hour visa-free visit.  Let's hope that things calm down so that my parents won't worry too much about my visit next month.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Republic of Estonia

The Republic of Estonia is the smallest of the three Baltic countries and is located between Latvia and Russia.  Across the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Finland are Sweden and FinlandEesti includes 1,520 islands and, in total size, is a little smaller than New Hampshire and Vermont combined.  As one of the smallest countries in Europe it is home to 1.3 million people.  Tallinn is the capital and its largest city.

Estonia had been ruled for centuries by Denmark, Sweden, Germany and the Russian Empire.  After WWI, it gained independence in 1918.  In 1940, it was annexed by the USSR and became the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic.  The non-violent Singing Revolution led to independence in 1991 and the last Russian troops left Estonia in 1994.

Today, Estonia is a parliamentary republic.  In 2004 it joined both the EU and NATO.  In 2011, the Euro replaced the Estonian kroon as the official currency.

Estonia is one of the most online counties in the world.  Wi-Fi is everywhere and it was the first country in the world to allow citizens to actually vote online.  Without Estonia there would be no Skype.

Like Czechs, Estonians are among the least religious people in the world.  The largest religious denominations are Evangelical Lutheran and Russian Orthodox.

At 18, all males have compulsory military or civil service for 8 - 11 months depending on education.

Estonian is the official language.  It's a crazy language.  Nouns and pronouns have no gender, verbs have no future tense and there are 14 grammatical cases.  The closest language is Finnish and they only understand around 40%.

During Soviet times, many Estonians were arrested, killed and/or deported.  The Soviet Union brought in many Russian speakers.  Russian was encouraged as the unifying language across the USSR so Russian speakers had no incentive to actually learn how to speak Estonian.

When Estonia regained its independence, citizenship was granted to those who could prove family ties prior to 1940.  Those Russians who came to Estonia between 1941 - 1991 were permitted to gain citizenship but had to pass an Estonian language test.  Those "Russian" Estonians who did not receive citizenship are non-citizens and are not entitled to an Estonian passport.

Instead they hold an alien passport which does not allow them the same travel privileges as other EU citizens.  They are also not allowed to vote in national elections.  Ethnic Russians make up about 25% of the population (more in Tallinn and the east) but many do have Estonian passports.  There are about 95,000 non-citizens.  While I'm sure that most Russians can't get a passport because they can't speak Estonian, can the exam really be that difficult?  I get that Estonian might not be the easiest language to learn, it can't take 20+ years to become proficient enough to pass a test.

Estonia is part of Schengen so those with Estonian passports need an expensive visa in order to visit Russia.  Russia permits those with the alien passports to visit without a visa which is one reason why many people retain the alien passport instead of getting an Estonian passport.  Estonia does not permit dual citizenship.

Russia's claim that it has a right to protect Russian speakers must be an alarm for Estonia.  Russia used this argument to invade Georgia in 2008 and more recently in Crimea.  Russia could use the same argument about Ethnic Russians in Estonia.  The key difference is that Estonia is a NATO member so trying to annex parts of Estonia would be considered an attack on all NATO countries. 

On our upcoming trip to Tallinn, we plan on taking a day trip to Narva which is in a predominantly Russian area on the border.  Here's an interesting video I found on YouTube that talks about the border town.
©Deutsche Welle

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Crimea vs. the Sudetenland

Russia has annexed Crimea from Ukraine.  This brings up bad feelings in Czechland because the rhetoric sounds way too familiar.

Vladimir Putin's claim is that Russia has a duty to protect ethnic Russians.

To many Czechs, this sounds like the same argument that Hitler used to occupy the Sudetenland in 1938.

Hitler claimed that Nazi Germany had to protect ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland.  The west allowed the Nazis to annex the territory in hopes of maintaining the peace.  Not long after, the Nazis took over the rest of Bohemia and Moravia.  Then came World War II.  Let's hope that the west doesn't allow Crimea to be dealt away like the Sudetenland was.
Crimea vs. the Sudetenland

Saturday, March 15, 2014


The Baltics are the three north European countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.  All three had been part of the Russian Empire from the 18th century but became independent following WWI.  In 1918, all three declared independence and fought against Germans and Russian Bolsheviks.  In 1920, independent Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were recognized.

In 1939, the Soviet Union forced the three counties to join mutual assistance pacts which permitted the Red Army to establish military bases on Baltic territory.  Then in 1940, all three countries were invaded, had rigged elections held and were annexed as new Soviet Republics.  Mass deportations to Siberia began in 1941.  

©Nomedia Productions

When the Nazis invaded, many Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians saw the Germans as liberators from Soviet rule.  Under the Nazis the deportations and mass killings continued.  The Red Army reoccupied the Baltics in 1944-45.  Following the war, the Baltic republics were colonized as Stalin moved in large number of Russian speakers.

There was massive civil resistance against the Soviet Union during the late 1980s.  In 1989, two million people formed a human chain, called the Baltic Way, that stretched 600 km (373 miles) from Tallinn to Vilnius


In 1991, the Soviet Union recognized the independence of the three Baltic countries.  The last Soviet troops left in 1998.

As of 2004, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have joined the EU, Schengen and NATO.  Estonia and Latvia have also joined the Eurozone.

The Baltic countries currently have language and/or citizenship issues with the Russian populations.  Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian are the respective official languages.  After independence Lithuania granted citizenship to everyone automatically.  

In Estonia and Latvia, however, citizenship was only granted if one could prove family ties prior to WWII.  Otherwise, naturalized citizenship was offered provided successful completion of a language test.

©Russia Today

Those ethnic Russians who do not posses citizenship have non-citizen passports which don't entitle them to the same travel freedom as other EU citizens.  They also have limited voting rights.

©Russia Today

Friday, March 14, 2014

Republic of Finland

The Republic of Finland is in northern Europe and borders Sweden, Norway and Russia.   It is often considered part of Scandinavia although it really is part of the Nordic region.  Suomi is the 8th largest country in Europe.  It's a little smaller than Montana and is home to around 5.5 million people (about the same as Atlanta).  Helsinki is the capital city.

Finland was a part of Sweden from the 12th to early 19th century.  After 1809, it became part of the Russian Empire until, the Bolshevik Revolution when, Finland declared independence in 1917. 

The Soviet Union wanted Finnish territory and the two countries fought in the Winter War of 1939 - 1940.  From 1941 - 1944, Finland fought alongside Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union.  Following an armistice agreement with the Allies, Finland pushed the Nazis out of Finland from 1944 - 1945.  In order to maintain independence the country was forced to give up 10% of its territory and pay huge war reparations to the Soviet Union.

Today, Finland has one of the highest per capita incomes in Europe.  It joined the EU in 1995 and is a member of Schengen and the Eurozone.

The two official languages are Finnish and Swedish although only about 5.5% actually speak Swedish.  The Finnish language is only distantly related to Hungarian and Estonian.  The grammar is beyond belief.  I can barely handle Czech's 7 cases.  Finnish has 15 grammatical cases.  Oh hell no! 

The Åland Islands are a part of Finland but are an autonomous, demilitarized zone.  By law, the islands are exclusively Swedish-speaking.

Finland has an extensive social welfare system and it shows in its educational system.  Every teacher in Finland is required to hold at least a master's degree and teachers are given the same respect as doctors and lawyers.  Only 10% of applicants are accepted to teacher training programs.

Children start kindergarten at 6 and begin the first grade at 7.  Teachers only spend around 4 or 5 hours in the classroom per day.  There is almost no homework or exams.  There is one mandatory standardized test at 16.  The first real test students have to deal with is the university entry exam.  Despite all of this, Finnish students score among the best in the world in math, science and reading.  Here's a video I found on YouTube that talks about Finland's exceptional system of education.

I guess things are good between Finland and Czechland.  On February 11th, an honorary Finnish consulate opened in Brno and in the Spring another honorary consulate will open in Ostrava.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

15 Years in NATO

Today was the 15th anniversary since Czech Republic joined NATO. 

NATO is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  The organization came about after WWII.  It is a military alliance where all members agree to mutual defense.  An attack on one NATO member is considered an attack on all members.

The alliance is headquartered in Brussels.  

Back in 1949, the alliance began with 12 members - Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the USA.  

Greece, Turkey and West Germany joined in the 1950s and Spain joined in 1982.

Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined in 1999 becoming the first former Warsaw Pact members to join the alliance.

Seven new members joined in 2004 - Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and SloveniaAlbania and Croatia both joined in 2009.

Today there are 28 members.  Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia are all in the process of joining as well.  Georgia is another aspiring member.  Given the problems in Crimea, I'm sure that Ukraine wishes it was currently a member.

Macedonia fulfilled the requirements to join at the same time as Albania and Croatia, but its membership was blocked by Greece over the country name of Macedonia.    

Here's a NATO video timeline I found out on YouTube.
I also found a video from 2011 showing Czech NATO troops training police recruits in Afghanistan.


Update: Montenegro joined in 2017.
Update: 2019 is the 20th anniversary of joining NATO.

Update: 2019 - Here's the Czechia is NATO - We Are NATO video.


Update: North Macedonia joined in 2020 becoming the 30th NATO member.

Update:  September 2022 - Here's a short video I found on YouTube about how a country joins NATO.


Update: 4 April 2023 - Finland became the 31st member of NATO.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Belfast Tour, Northern Ireland

On Saturday morning I took another bus tour but this time up to Northern Ireland.  This tour was a highlights tour of Belfast, along with some other scenic points up north.  From Dublin, it's only a couple of hours north to Belfast. 

There wasn't any border check between south and north.  The only differences were the road signs.  In Ireland, all of the signs are in both Irish and English and the distance is in kilometers.  In Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the UK, everything is in English and listed in miles. 

Belfast is the largest city up north and the second largest on the island.  It's the UK's 18th largest city.

There are hundreds of political murals in Belfast and the vast majority of them promote either republican or loyalist beliefs.

One of our first stops was at the Eileen Hickey Museum.  It opened in 2007 and is a Republican museum staffed by volunteers.  The museum is quite powerful and shows Northern Ireland and the Troubles from the Catholic, Republic point of view.

The peace walls are intended to keep the peace between Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods.  They run over 34 km (21 miles) across Belfast.

What's unbelievable is that more walls have gone up since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.  It's difficult to comprehend how two Christian groups, Catholics and Protestants, have to erect barriers to deter violence between each other.

The current plan is to remove the walls by mutual consent by 2023.

Belfast City Hall was built in 1906 and was renovated in 2009.  On one side is a Titanic memorial.  Here's a Rick Steves video I found on YouTube which gives some Belfast highlights.

©Rick Steves

The Titanic museum opened in March 2012 at a cost of £77 million (~$129 million).

We then journeyed to Downpatrick to visit Down Cathedral.  Here we saw the grave of St. Patrick who is credited for bringing Christianity to Ireland

Our next stop was the St. Patrick Centre where we learned more about Ireland's patron saint.

Then it was on to Dundrum, a small seaside village, which is home to the remains of a Norman castle.  The castle dates back to the 12th century.

After a few photos we started to make our way back to Dublin.  Along the way we stopped to see the Mourne Mountains which is the largest mountain range in Northern Ireland.

This was another long day trip.  We drove around 500 km (311 miles) and saw quite a bit.  It was a good introductory visit to Belfast.  Next time, I want to spend a couple of days in Northern Ireland so that I can fully explore Belfast and perhaps try to see things from the Protestant point of view.  I also want to visit the Giant's Causeway which is only a couple of hours away.