The summers are short, but intense when Narva-Jõesuu fills up with hundreds of tourists. The windy beach becomes multicoloured, the parks with old-school benches aren’t deserted any more, the wooden arbour fills with empty beer bottles. In autumn the streets covered with crispy fallen leaves are rarely disturbed by a human’s foot, the beach resorts are closed. Then, the whole atmosphere of this small beach town is kind of like a melancholic dream, only randomly interrupted by the activities of modern life, such as the supermarket or the newly built spa hotel.
Narva-Jõesuu is a small Estonian seaside resort town on the coast of the Gulf of Narva (Baltic Sea), in the mouth of the river Narva.
Hence the old Russian name of Narva-Jõesuu is “Ust’-Narva” (mouth of river Narva) and it is still often used by the Russian-speaking population of the town. By the way, Russians form the majority of the population: river Narva is a natural frontier between the large, monumental Russia and small but proud Estonia.
Narva-Jõesuu first became the resort place for St. Petersburg inhabitants in the 19th century, when the notables first noticed the place and started to build magnificent rich villas in the area. The reason was simple – proximity to St. Petersburg, combination of a mild sandy beach and pine forest; besides, the place just became fashionable.
During the Soviet times Leningrad (the Soviet name of St. Petersburg) families were also spending their holidays in the busy resort town with a nice beach. The disastrous 1990’s brought a lengthy crisis – nobody knew what would happen in the future and many Russian families sold their country houses in the beloved place. Only few steady people managed to save their homesteads. Ust’-Narva became Narva-Jõesuu, the state border separated the former half-Russian resort town. The complicated process of visa execution has turned those in St. Petersburg who kept their houses in Narva-Jõesuu into real enthusiasts. Their strong desire to live in this Estonian town when the Estonian-Russian political relations are so strained is a kind of a peacekeeping action.
My family is one of those who kept their houses. Ever since I can remember, I spent my summer vacation in the mouth of Narva. I observed the strange changing of this town from a former Russian beach resort to the dead end of Estonia. “Why did your family keep the house after the Perestroika years?” – I asked five St. Petersburg families in Narva-Jõesuu.
1. A Long and Hard Procedure: Lidia Verb and her Husband Michail
A tidy fence circles a well-set brick-red country house built in the 40ties and 50ties of the 20th century. Two families (both from St. Petersburg) live here in summertime. I find my way to the remoter part of the building. Lidia waits for me. She is a gay and cheerful old lady that likes to dress up and to make a fuss about everything. Her husband, Michail, has grown a paunch and grumbles – but it doesn’t prevent him from being a tender friend to his wife, to dedicate poems to her on birthdays and not only then. He is a lecturer on aesthetics in St. Petersburg Pedagogical University. At first Lidia asks me to keep the interview a secret from Michail but later she calls him to narrate several details and he willingly obeys.
Lidia: We bought the house by good fortune. In the summer of 1975 I took a holiday in Sillamäe (a small industrial town about 10 km from Narva-Jõesuu), the time in the beach resort was paid for by reading public lectures in Narva (a bigger town not far away from Narva-Jõesuu). There, in the resort I met my former student Valentine. She intended to sell her part of a country house in Narva-Jõesuu and amiably allowed me to pay it off over nine years (big sums of money rarely happen in our family). However it did happen, the house became ours. We haven’t changed anything in the floor plan; only light renovations were made. Our part of the building consists of a bedroom, sitting room and two verandas; the first floor belongs totally to our neighbours. There is also a wooden cottage on the territory that we have recently reconstructed.
I have liked Narva-Jõesuu since the first day – the view of the seaside, pines and fir-tree that grow just on the territory. But my two daughters, Ira and Lena, didn’t understand me. Only when Iliusha, my grandson, was born in 1977, they started to come here. The neighbours were discontent because the child cried – he was just a two-month-old baby by the time. Later, when three more children were born, our limited home space became too small for all the family. But in 1988 Lena moved with her family to America and our other daughter, Ira, built a cottage in the suburbs of St. Petersburg in the 90ies. My granddaughters, Kira and Ksenia, are the most frequent guests in the house now.
The time when I was working and living in Estonia (1989-1999) is a very important period for me. When High Narva Pedagogical School was opened (the institute for teachers in Russian-speaking schools) I was invited there. The school consisted of 4 departments and I read lectures in all of them, I have also been a pro-rector for scientific research. Yet in 1999 all the education in Estonia was changed to be in the Estonian language and the school was reorganised into a branch of Tartu University.
While working in Estonia I wanted to get an Estonian permanent resident card, but my request was rejected. Now we have to get visa every half year in the Estonian Consulate in St. Petersburg, this procedure is hard and long. The 90-day visa can be given only once every 6 months and only to the owners of a house. Their closest relatives can get only a 30-day one. It’s only possible for me and my husband to spend the whole summer holiday here, our children and grandchildren come for a week or two once a year.
2. Home – with a Capital H: Ksenia Siposky and her Daughter Dina
The green wooden house stands at a distance from the road, an unfamiliar person would not be able to find it immediately. Number 16 Nurme Street, is inhabited by three St. Petersburg families all at once. Sipovsky, Orloff and Shuleshko have been the owners of this estate for half a century. The house was constructed before the Russian Revolution, at the beginning of the 20th century. There used to be a tennis club situated there. When digging, the inhabitants of the country house still find fragments of hard court covering in the soil.
The Sipovsky family is big and friendly: 13 people get together in a rather small space (one third of the house, 4 rooms) at times. But most often only Ksenia’s family is there: her husband, daughter, son, Ksenia’s father Andrej and her mother Margarita.
Ksenia: My grandmother, Irina Vasiljevna, bought the house at the end of the 50ies. She was a lecturer in economics at the university. Our family has a long-established pedagogical tradition: my great grandfather was a dean of the Faculty of Philology, his father too – a dean, professor of history. As for myself, I graduated from the Faculty of biology, received my PhD and now I’m a professor at the medical college. My sister, who is 8 years younger than me, will defend a dissertation at the Faculty of Law soon.
All members of the family have a completely different attitude towards the house in Narva-Jõesuu. By the way, I perceive this place not as a resort, where I have a rest, bath and get some sun. It is a “Home” for me (with capital letter) where I do live. In St. Petersburg our flat is situated on the ground floor, and the feeling, atmosphere of the places is rather similar. Switching between these two homes is effortless; life for me isn’t divided into “city life” and “country life.” During the last years I spent the summer holidays in Narva-Jõesuu, the weekends and, more rarely, winter holidays. That’s possible because my holidays match the student’s ones.
Normally, my 11-year-old daughter Dina stays with me, she has many friends here – natives from Narva-Jõesuu and Narva – she can spend whole days in their company in the streets. Though we try to do home schooling with Dina every day. Both children and I play the piano in St. Petersburg – it is too wet in the house to keep the instrument here.
For me the most pleasant pastime in Narva-Jõesuu, is housework and gardening. The question of the repair, reconstruction of the house constantly bothers us, yet I’m the only person in the family who desires to work here and who has leisure time to spend the whole summer here. The others come for a week or two, they do nothing and it’s normal. I would have done the same in their place. Yet it is unfair to dump all the troubles on me. That is why the progress of repair is slow and insignificant. Last year we changed the electric wiring – only in our part though, so fire is still highly possible.
The first period of my life in Narva-Jõesuu was in my early childhood and my next visit took place 30 years later, in 2000. In the 90ies it was my father who kept the country house for us – nobody wanted to come to Estonia. He also was a rare guest in Narva-Jõesuu and yet still he wished to save the property. I consider that was a right decision – I like most of all that it is another state now. The safety of life, comfortable infrastructure, the sea – you know. The summerhouses in the suburbs of the St. Pete can be devastated twice a year – even the doors and the electric connectors are usually robbed. Here at least the town is peaceful.
3. A Period of Decline: Anna Orloff
To reach the part where the Orloff family lives, I have to walk around the house. The feeling is like being in a dwarf’s village or hobbit’s house. Everything is small, pretty, clean. The lady matches brilliantly for the household: not tall, pretty, talkative.
Anna: My granny bought our part in 1958, directly from the previous owner, an Estonian lady. As a child, I spent long school holidays here. Now the visa is often too short (45 days) for an adequate summer rest. In general, I would say that Narva-Jõesuu is going through a period of decline right now and it can be felt. If before the Perestroika the citizens of St. Petersburg were the majority of the summer population and the population was more than enough, now the population is smaller and mostly consists of Narva citizens.
4. House or Museum? Maria Shuleshko
Maria was always considered by her parents a light-minded person, frivolous and unreflecting. Recently she divorced with her sixth husband and now she is actively looking for the next on the internet. Maria is an ironic person – she accepts that the idea of internet-dating has turned out to be not very successful, smiles and tells the stories of the old house.
Maria: Our part of the building and the territory around the house was bought by my grandfather. After my mother’s death the house was formally registered in my name – this is kind of my parents’ heritage. My sister Anna, who also is a fan of Narva-Jõesuu and spent all the summers of her childhood and youth here, now permanently lives in Australia.
The house inside is full of history. Part of the furniture is as old as the house is and the head of Narva-Jõesuu town museum has, for several years, been asking me to donate the museum our collection of carved wooden chairs. Ineffectively. These chairs are also the part of sweet memory of my mother…
5. This is Painful: Lubov Fedorova
This time, the front of the building looks towards Raja Street – in Estonian that name means “Garden Street”. The weird fantasy of the inhabitants chose this name for the street most removed from the centre of the settlement, although the number of gardens is no bigger than on other narrow streets of Narva-Jõesuu. This house is known to all elderly locals because of Lubov’s father, Ivan. This domesticated old gentleman, now almost blind, built a good dozen of the houses in Narva-Jõesuu in the 1950’s.
Yet my interviewee is Lubov, Ivan’s daughter, who can be considered to be a representative of St. Petersburg in this household. Her story is unlike the other 4 stories before.
Lubov was born and grew up in Estonia in Soviet times. She and all her family are Russian-speaking. Lubov left for Leningrad (St. Petersburg) at the age of 17 – to study. After marriage she put away ideas of returning to Estonia.
Lubov: The house that you’re looking at was built by my father when I was 5. We settled in Estonia (before that we lived in Belarus) because my father was invited to take part in a Makarenko system school. You know – when children do work with grownups and are studying at the same time. The plots of land were given to the teachers.
I finished secondary school in Narva, and then I studied in St. Petersburg to become an engineer-economist. I got married to my colleague, Slava. Last year, I visited my home in Narva-Jõesuu with a visa that’s only valid for 45 or 60 days. Every year there is a chance that the duration of a visa can be shortened or that it can even be refused. This is painful. By the way, my father lives here alone, he needs care.
Last year my father, Ivan, tried to solve the problem of care in his own way – in a rather unexpected way! Our neighbours are two women, the old lady Polina and her daughter, whose children have already grown up and left the house. Polina is a little bit younger than Ivan and she lost her beloved husband about six years ago. So imagine – my old papa has proposed marriage to Polina! She refused, of course, but the town had a topic to discuss through the winter.
Pictures taken by the author