Gdansk. Daisy takes well-earned rest. And some musings on Putin/Ukraine

We’re on the train back to Szczecin from two nights in Gdansk, so herewith some musings on cycling Poland, Russia/Cold War memories (40+ years since we were both last here) and Putin/Ukraine (I think this is crunch time for Russia).

There are as usual pictures at the bottom of this post (with captions hopefully explaining why they’re included), and first, quite a bit of text.

Knowing now (thanks for various bits of feedback) that more than a handful of friends and colleagues are following our crazy journey, feel free to ignore either the words, or the pix – or both.

And perhaps let us know what might make this blog (even more?) interesting as we reclaim Daisy from generous Warmshowers hosts in Szczecin tonight (thanks Szymon and Kamila) and resume our pedalling back westward tomorrow/Saturday.

First, the ride three days ago now down from Swinoujscie to Szczecin along a vastly bigger body of inland water than we’d expected (the Stettiner Haff in German) and through a green blaze of spring was quite magical.

Track from Vicko to Szczecin 120km nearly

Over 110km of woodland and marginally-touched wetland nature, we enjoyed swans, noisy frogs and relays of equally noisy cuckoos, and (boy, do these things matter) a well -surfaced, long-distance cycle route, co-financed by, yes (like our refurbished train where I’m writing these notes on my mobile), the EU.

In the event, and acknowledging the change of our original ambitious plan to pedal the whole way to Gdansk, we chose not to cycle the Polish section of the Baltic R1 Trans-Europe cycle route but to head south from the border and park Daisy in Szczecin, ready, on return from a train-borne excursion the 600km to Gdansk and back, to continue what should now be an unbroken tandem circling of Germany.

Talking to fellow long-distance cyclists on the way, it was a wise choice.

We’ve been spared, we understand, a 20-km stretch of pure soft sand in which, with Daisy’s loaded weight, we would have got totally stuck, and long stretches of the R1 criss-crossed with tree roots which we very well know painfully neutralise the blow-softening capacity of Jutta’s Thudbuster shock absorber seat post.

After a full month on the road now, and despite all that guilt-inducing help from our Pendix motor, we’re both feeling pretty damn fit for our age, a state of affairs well tested this morning climbing the 405 steps to the top of St Mary’s church in Gdansk.

St Mary’s, the immediate view from our brilliantly -positioned Booking.Com old town apartment in Gdansk.

While it will be good to get back on Daisy tomorrow, our time spent sitting for the necessary en-trained hours on something softer than a Brooks B17 leather saddle, and not having to heave Daisy and her luggage on and out of lifts and across platforms, has been, for us both, no little relief…

Being in Gdansk brought back for us both strong memories of Jutta’s Polish summer working at the West German embassy in Warsaw in 1975, and my own (Mark’s) last visit to the city in November 1981 reporting for BBC radio the final Congress of the Solidarity trade union, weeks before it was outlawed and its leaders interned under martial law.

Needless to say that’s a very long time ago, the equivalent of someone our age now (73/72) recounting, in the early 1980s, their personal experiences of the end of World War One.

I’ve talked about those BBC years on a podcast with Ian Sanders’s Cold War Conversations here, and while so much has of course changed (Gdansk now almost completely rebuilt, and Poland/Eastern Europe democratic for a third of a century), the lessons of history, with Ukraine, feel very very alive.

Gdansk has two exceptional museums which tell the story, one at the old Lenin shipyard where the Solidarity revolution began in August 1980, chronicling Poland’s years of Soviet -enforced communism, and the other underground at the Museum of the Second World War.

Jutta and I have, needless to say, been talking, thinking and musing a lot on the bike (the joy of tandeming is that the conversations never need stop, as we’re so constantly close) about the decades of post-WW2 Soviet control of Eastern Europe.

While I love Russia, Russian and Russians (our grandchildren are after all also half Russian alongside their quarter share of German and English), Russia/the Soviet Union come out of these deliberations very badly indeed.

As well documented at the two museums in Gdansk, Russia has for 100 years now, in large measure thanks to its part in World War Two’s destruction of Nazi Germany, got away with grim levels of violence, against its neighbours and against itself.

Revolution. Civil war. Famines and genocide in Ukraine (and Kazakhstan much less well known). Stalin’s terror. Collusion with Hitler in the violent partition and destruction of Poland in 1939 (echoes in the language of the time of Poland, like Ukraine today, having no right even to exist.)

Violation in WW2 of so many rules of warfare, including rape, pillage and plunder of occupied territories.

Violent suppression of post-war uprisings in East Germany 1953, Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968, the latter two invasions insufficiently in my view recalled in current coverage of Ukraine, as Putin and his generals must have thought in effect they were doing an updated version of the same.

Afghanistan, Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, Syria….

And a political and social system imposed on half a continent that was, at root, built on lies, neglect, and – I need to write a whole piece about this, as it’s so hard to put it into words – an absence of kindness and respect, of humanity, of beauty.

I know my political judgment could at times during my reporting career be wildly off-target, especially in Beijing May 1989 when I thought the students were winning, and then December that year when I got emotionally swept up by the Romanian revolution.

Which is why, with relief, I’m now a psychotherapist and never became a Jeremy Bowen or John Simpson…

But I’ll risk a prediction.

My/our hope is that after this dreadful century for Russia, their overreach in Ukraine is, or will be, their tipping point, their Stunde Null (Zero Hour), as 1945 was for Germany (and in its physically less violent way the Brexit referendum in 2016 will in my view turn out to be for post-imperial Britain), where a nation has to look itself in the mirror, and take responsibility for everything dysfunctional done and experienced in service to an inflated sense of self-importance.

Nations are, after all, just individuals writ large.

As the two of us know from psychotherapy, someone building a life on inflated foundations will, sooner or later (for some perhaps only on their deathbed, but for most, much earlier) come crashing down.

Wherever one looks – in nature, in human spaces like psychology or economics, in how climate and the planet work – there’s a basic and inviolable rule of the universe.

That which is unsustainable will not be sustained.

Talking and thinking about Ukraine as much as we’re doing on this trip (still listening to the unspeakable Vladimir Solovlyov for example many nights a week on Russian state TV, calling as he constantly does for nuclear strikes on London, Berlin, Washington), the arc of politics of which the two of us have been part for decades seems to be bending towards a radical reckoning for Russia.

Russia and Russians have much to answer for, which we know even educated Russians find hard to acknowledge. (Nothing surprising there, perhaps, for Brits who in our own way still find that difficult).

We have to hope that the denouement – the unravelling of Russia’s grandiosity – once this terrible war is won will be as non-violent as possible.

1945 and Germany do set an example. And the defeat of Russia in its current imperial configuration, does need, we both believe, to be unambiguous.

But enough of heavyweight politics. Back to our very personal journey, with some images we hope might entertain and perhaps inform, with captions where useful.

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