Narva could only be a border town. It is dominated by its fortress which always defended it, until the 20th century brought aerial bombardment. The Narva River now separates the town from Ivangorod in Russia, and ever-larger border control stations on both sides reinforce this. During the first period of independence, between 1920 and 1940, the frontier was about 8km further east but most Estonians are now reconciled to this new border, although in 2006 it had still not been formally agreed between the two governments. At times of tension in Russia, such as during the currency crisis of autumn 1998, the clear division that the river provides between the two countries is probably welcomed in Tallinn.
When Estonia joined the EU and NATO in 2004, this welcome spread well
beyond Tallinn. Local residents have to be more ambivalent as the population is
almost entirely Russian-speaking and, of the 14 schools in the town, only one
teaches in Estonian. Perhaps this ambivalence is best shown in the statue of Lenin that is still on display in the castle grounds: although hardly in a prominent position, he looks firmly eastwards across the Narva River to Russia. He has presumably abandoned any hope of his ideology returning to the land behind him. Were he able to turn round, he would find a large McDonald's and a German pub serving Irish beer. He would not have been happy to know that, in a petition circulated in September 1998 over the river in Ivangorod, the local population asked to rejoin Estonia.
A rushed visit to Narva can be made in a few hours, as a break en route from
Tallinn to St Petersburg, but it is worth spending the night there to allow for time to visit the town properly. A visit can be extended to include the seaside resort of Narva-Jõesuu.
Narva's history goes back as far as that of Tallinn, as both cities were built up following the Danish occupation in the 13th century and the two cities would witness many successes and defeats in parallel as conquerors and defenders quite rightly saw both as equally important. Close trading links with Britain were established in the late 16th century, during the reign of Ivan the Terrible when large quantities of fur and flax were exported, but Narva would then lose its importance
for Russian goods when it fell into Swedish hands. Both cities would look back to the 150-year Swedish era of the late 16th and 17th centuries as the most benevolent occupation and the most successful commercial era, prior to independence. The architectural legacy of that era in Narva is now restricted to a few buildings as so much was lost in World War II and in subsequent development. Peter the Great realised the potential of Narva as a harbour, just as he did with Tallinn, and
developed it accordingly. In 1700 he lost a battle with the Swedes there but four years later he was able to seize the town and, like the rest of Estonia, Narva would stay in Russian hands until the beginning of the 20th century. The fighting then was as ferocious as it would be in both the First and the Second World wars. No town has suffered as extensively and as consistently as Narva when rival occupying powers have fought to control Estonia. During World War I, Narva's role on the eastern front can be compared to that of Verdun in the West.
In the 19th century Narva quickly developed into a major industrial centre. This was in due course to centre around the Kreenholm Manufacture, a strange
translation that stuck through all regimes until 2000, when the current Swedish owners changed it to Krenholm Textiles at the same time taking out one 'e' from Kreenholm to give the name a more Western flavour. It was established in the 1850s and was soon to employ 10,000 workers. Its founder was one of the most successful industrialists amongst the Baltic Germans, Baron Ludwig Knop. His
constant presence in any new industrial development gave rise to the ditty: 'In any church there is the pope, in any plant there is the Knop.'
In 1870 the opening of the St Petersburg-Narva-Tallinn railway provided a great stimulus to the business but then, in 1872, Kreenholm was the site of one of the first strikes in Tsarist Russia, with workers protesting against the 14-hour day
imposed by management. Workers were again active in the 1905 and 1917
uprisings. Kreenholm's textile production, however, survived under all regimes, winning in the Soviet era the Order of Lenin and the Order of the October Revolution. In 1994, the factory was sold to the Swedish company Boras Wafveri and by 1999 was profitable, selling largely to western Europe, with Estonian management and a Russian-speaking workforce. Some of the lessons learnt came from the first independence period of 1920-40, when the border with the Soviet Union was as closed to trade as is the current one with Russia. At that time the
labour force dropped from 10,000 to 2,500. In 2003 the factory had to start laying off workers again in order to compete with factories in Asia, but in 2006 its workforce consisted of 3,400 employees. Despite making a loss in 2005, the company promised to keep production going in Narva.
The end of World War I would see many battles in the vicinity of Narva but not
actually in the town itself. The success of the Estonian forces in driving back the Bolsheviks enabled them to impose a harsh territorial settlement on the nascent Soviet Union in the Tartu Treaty signed in February 1920. In contrast, from January to July 1944, Narva suffered one of the most intense bombardments of World War II as Soviet forces retook it with great difficulty from the Germans. It became known as ‘Women's City' since so few men survived the battle and the women had been evacuated as the fighting started. Even with massive post-war
immigration, by 1960 the population was 70% female and 30% male. Much of the
town was destroyed, although it is now felt that more could have been restored had the Soviet government wanted to do so. This was in fact considered in the late 1940s, but such plans were later turned down to prevent nostalgia for a pre-Soviet era. Warsaw could have provided a model and the town is now seeking foreign investment to make whatever amends are possible in one or two streets. A modest renovation project has started to repave the square in front of the Town Hall and it
is hoped to rebuild the stock exchange, which also stood on the square and which
will be used as a branch of Tartu University.
The Soviet era saw a return to massive industrial expansion with the construction of a hydro-electric power station and several furniture plants, using the locally mined oil-shale, but with disastrous effects on the local environment. The resort of Narva-Jõesuu, protected from this pollution, appealed to the nomenclature and to the trade unions, so its continued future as a health centre and summer beach resort was assured. The early 1990s, when independence was restored, was an uncertain period in Narva as most of the population found themselves stateless in a foreign country, being of Russian origin and unable to
speak Estonian. Whilst Narva remains poor by Estonian standards, the dire
conditions over the river in Ivangorod and the surrounding countryside reconcile the local population to being cut off from their former neighbours. Each year more can meet the language requirements for Estonian citizenship, and potentially new industrial developments will hopefully reduce unemployment. Kreenholm has shown how a totally Soviet environment can quickly adapt to Western demands. Estonia's accession into the EU caused great problems for the Russian-speaking
community in Narva as border controls on both sides became even tougher than
they had been for the previous 12 years. It is perhaps significant that all the signs to the border are bilingual, not in Estonian and Russian but in Estonian and English. One English word now current in Estonia - 'secondhand' - has more poignancy in Narva than elsewhere. It describes a shop full of goods that no serious dealer would handle so is really a sheltered flea market.
Neil Taylor "Estonia. The Bradt Travel Guide", 2007