Anna Markova: Narva is not a single-issue city

Anna Markova.
Anna Markova. Source: Anastassia Volkova

Narva has had to live in a state of constant change, and change isn't always good. Hence also Narva residents' mistrust of new things, of swift decisions and of "strangers." In the meantime, however, a fragile "common" has been sought and also carefully built in Narva as well, Anna Markova writes.

I was born into the two child-family of an engineer in the mining town of Kohtla-Järve in the late 1980s. Since childhood, my father introduced me to both good music and the magical world of photography, and my mother always supported me in all of my hobbies and ventures, no matter how silly. In high school, I was involved in all kinds of extracurricular activities — anything that would remotely spice up life in a small town.

Like most Ida-Viru County youth, I also dreamed of getting out and heading for the lights of the big city. I went to Viljandi. As fate would have it, however, after graduating from Viljandi Culture Academy I ended up in Narva instead. "Well, not for long... I suppose I can for a bit," I thought at the time. Until that "bit" had imperceptibly turned into a year, and then two, and by now a dozen years.

Over 12 years living in Ida-Viru County and working at Narva Museum, Narva College and then back at Narva Museum again, I've run into a lot of stereotypes both in town and outside of it.

Within the city, the prevailing attitude has been "It's boring here, absolutely nothing ever happens here, there are no prospects here whatsoever," and outside of it, what I've tended to hear is that "Narva doesn't even want to be part of Estonia, absolutely no one is welcome here, absolutely no one here wants any kind of changes whatsoever."

Not all of these observations may be unfounded. For a long time, Narva remained hidden, so to speak, along Estonia's eastern edge, just trying to survive its twists of fate and status somehow. Raised to the ground in the war, deprived of the former beauty of its "Baroque Pearl," largely cleaned out of its former residents and filled with new ones, as though a no man's town had built itself a new identity.

Then the major business that had served as the engine of the city was closed down, and a rapid exodus of residents followed. Narva has had to live in a state of constant change, and change isn't always good. Hence also Narva residents' mistrust of new things, of swift decisions and of "strangers."

Let's be honest, one of the most common stereotypes about Narva is that people here don't love Estonians. Humans' basic instincts are simple: we are afraid of what and whom we don't know. Without dialogue, direct contacts and joint undertakings, you still tend to stay away from the foreign.

Even I, an ethnic Russian girl who attended Russian school, didn't fully understand until I'd entered a pro-Estonian and Estonian-language environment that someone can be either good or bad regardless of their ethnicity or native language. What's important is whether they're even willing to try to find a common language and way of being with those different from themselves.

A fragile "common" has been sought and also carefully built in Narva for years. Mistrust and a fear of failure are a legacy of that search.

Tensions accompanying [the launch of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine] in February escalated in the second week of August in Narva even further, shaking the foundations of "suspension bridge" between Narva and the so-called Real Estonia that had been the carefully designed and painstakingly built, splinter by splinter. Both sides have been hurt, both sides feel sadness and fear, because for some reason we don't talk about what troubles us until it's too late. Yet it is precisely communication and critical thinking skills that make humans human.

Community growing, taking on new colors

Last week, babushkas out catching the last of the summer sunshine on a city bench in Narva complained to a minister in town for a visit: "Young people are leaving here in search of a better life." So they still think, but in reality, a lot of active young people have returned here in recent years that have acquired an education and new experiences elsewhere and broadened their worldview. They come back home, back to this city at once as though desolate and yet so cozy in its incompleteness and playful eclecticism.

Young professionals come to Narva because it's "different and exciting" here. Challenges are cool. The community here is growing, taking on new colors and shades and getting increasingly stronger.

I'm a photographer. Through a lens you can more distinctly and clearly see the varied shades of human emotions, capture sparks that go unnoticed by the naked eye and as well as moments that bring people together. These are common human and universally understandable emotions — moments of joy, sadness and pleasure. These aren't dictated by language, ethnicity, skin color or social status. All that matters is the feeling.

Like children who haven't yet learned to speak and yet can understand how to play together, culture has the amazing ability to unite complete strangers. After all, someone with whom you've laughed or danced together with to the same rhythm isn't quite a stranger to you anymore.

Station Narva. Source: Anna Markova

Four years ago, the Tallinn Music Week team decided to come to Narva to organize a festival. In Ida-Viru County and Narva, in an unusual format, with performers that were rather unknown here and on stages of different sizes and with various content throughout the city. But unlike many others, they didn't come here to put us in our places, so to speak, and convert us to a new faith, but instead immediately recruited people to participate and work together.

This week, Station Narva is being held for the fifth time already. Over the years, two teams from two different cities have become such good friends, argued and made up, gotten to know one another's cultural peculiarities and, most importantly, worked together. Been together. This festival is one big adventure into the world of meaningful teamwork and communication uniting and between nations. It will breathe new life and bring new discoveries, new faces and inspiration to our city. Not just for a couple of days during the festival, but between festivals as well.

Once earned, you've found friends for life

Bringing people together through shared experiences is in my opinion one of culture's fundamental tasks as well as its most impactful result. Dialogue based on positive experiences can build strong bridges between people, cities and countries alike. Yes, perhaps Narva residents aren't the most quick to open themselves up to all things new, but believe me, once you're "theirs," then you've earned yourself the most faithful friends for life.

To quote a verse by [singer-songwriter] Jaan Pehk, who will be playing an intimate show in a bohemian apartment in Kreenholm at this year's Station Narva, "Dear friend, I respect you. You know this feeling will remain."

Two Jaans will be coming to perform in Narva this year, actually — Jaan Pehk and Meisterjaan. They don't sing in the language that most of us here speak on a daily basis. But we understand them perfectly. Other artists from all over Estonia, Finland, England and the long-suffering Ukraine will be coming as well.

Come and walk along the riverfront promenade, visit the castle with its modern interactive exhibit, run into bats in the bastion tunnels or tour Kreenholm, the textile industry giant of its time. Ask the owners of the boat sheds in Narva's "Venice" if the fish are biting. Enjoy the captivating silence of the Resurrection of Christ Cathedral and take a selfie in front of the famous "5 Kroon" view.

Narva is full of exciting discoveries. Narva is so much more than just a single-issue city. You can find several reasons in Narva for all of Estonia to feel proud. It's time to get to know it as well as one another better.

Anna Markova is a permanent member of the Station Narva organizing team as well as photochronicler of Narva's European Capital of Culture candidacy process.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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