Today we fly into the heart of European Russia, as far as the capital city of Moscow, and then head west all the way to our destination of Berlin, Germany. It's more than 1,500 miles, so let's get started.
We fly east from Helsinki and cross the border into Russia, the world's largest nation in terms of land area. At 6.6 million square miles, Russia is roughly twice the size of the United States. Today called the Russian Federation, this massive nation of 144 million people stretches across about 5,500 miles and encompasses 11 time zones. It goes all the way out to the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea, where it borders the U.S. state with Alaska. So we're actually neighbors!
Russia's history is long and complicated. What we now call the European part of Russia emerged from wars more than 1,000 years ago with a people called "the Rus" settling the area between Scandinavia in the north and the Byzantine Empire in the south. Christianity was adopted in 988, and Moscow became a power center as headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church. During the medieval era, for more than 250 years power was consolidated in the Grand Duchy of Moscow, ruled by a group of families known as the Grand Princes. These were succeeded by more autocratic figures in the 1500s such as Ivan III, who tripled the size of Russia and laid the foundations of the modern state, and Ivan IV (known as Ivan "the Terrible"), the first ruler to be crowned as "Czar," or king-like monarch, a term derived from the Roman "caesar."
The Romanov family took control of Russia in 1613 and ruled as Czars for the next three centuries. Under them, the Russian Empire continued as a land where a very wealthy aristocracy exercised almost total control of a large and impoverished peasant population. Efforts were made to establish connections with European nations to the West, most notably the founding of St. Petersburg in 1703 by Peter the Great. The Empire survived great threats, including Napoleon's failed attempt to conquer Moscow in 1812, a campaign depicted in Russian composer Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," often heard at American 4th of July concerts. At the same time, the Romanovs gradually extended Russian influence east into Asia, taking control of large areas spanning thousands of miles across the continent, and all the native peoples living there. In that sense, Russia and Asia have a similar history to how Europeans settled North America, although with Russia the process was from West to East.
Expansion brought more conflict. The Romanov grip on power was greatly weakened in 1905, when Russia lost an ill-advised war with Japan, just then emerging as a modern nation. (The treaty ending this war was signed in Portsmouth, N.H.!) The turmoil of World War I contributed to the Russian Revolution, in which the Romanovs were overthrown in favor of Communist system of government championed by revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. Russia soon became the leading state in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, a group of states with communist/socialist style governments that prevailed for most of the 20th century. Under Josef Stalin, Russia and the United States were allied against Hitler's Germany during World War II, known to Russians as "The Great Patriotic War." After that, Russia and the West turned into great rivals during what became known as "The Cold War," with each side vying for supremacy until the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991 in favor of reforms to allow more personal freedom. There's a lot more about Russia's sprawling history in today's Pilot Log links.
Russia is the first country on our trip where a different alphabet is used. Called the "Cyrillic" alphabet, it shares a common ancestor in the Roman alphabet used in English, but also blends in letters from other sources, including the Greek alphabet. Some letters are the same as ones we use, but have different sounds: in Russian, the letter "р" is actually our "r" sound, "с" is our "s" sound, and "н" is our "n" sound. So "ресторан" is Russian for "restaurant".
Our route today takes us over Russia's two great cities: St. Petersburg (a short flight from Helsinki) and then Moscow. Along the way, we'll meet some of the great personalities of Russian culture and science. St. Petersburg, located on Russia's short Baltic Sea coastline, served as the Russian Empire's capital and home of the Romanov czars for more than 200 years, from 1712 to 1918. It was founded in 1703 (making it younger than Boston and New York City) as a "window on the West" by Peter the Great to strengthen ties with the great European nations of the time. The Romanovs gradually built the city into a show piece of aristocratic ambition, with immense palaces and churches. Lined with canals, the city was the center of the Russian intelligentsia in the 19th century. Famous author Fyodor Dostoyevsky set his great novel "Crime and Punishment" in the streets and apartment houses of St. Petersburg.
In World War I, Czar Nicholas II changed the city's name to the more Russian "Petrograd". After the Russian Revolution, it was renamed "Leningrad" after the leader, who moved the capital back to Moscow in 1918. As Leningrad, the city became the target for an extended siege during World War II, when German troops cut off the city from the rest of Russia for three years, from 1941 to 1944. More than 1 million trapped citizens died during the siege. But the city never surrendered, its spirit symbolized by Russian composer (and Leningrad resident) Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7, a musical call to arms played in the bombed-out city by starving musicians. Smuggled to the West, it became a symbol of resistance against the Nazis. Shostakovich, wearing a firefighting helmet, made the cover of Time magazine. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian government returned the original name of St. Petersburg, although Moscow remained the capital.
For nearly a thousand years, Moscow has been the center of Russian life and culture. Today the Moscow area is home to about 20 million people, making it the largest city in Europe. At the heart of Moscow lies the Kremlin, originally a fortress on the Moscow River that over many centuries became an administrative center and a symbol of the Russian nation. A walled complex of spectacular churches and ornate halls, the Kremlin is next to Red Square, a large public space dominated by the rounded domes of St. Basil's Cathedral.
One thing about Moscow, and most of Russia's vast interior, is that it's so far north, and far from the moderating influence of any ocean, that winters tend to be long and cold and snowy. But that doesn't affect the nation's taste for ice cream, which remains popular all year round, even in the dead of winter. Why? Because many Russians believe that the best way to feel warmer is to eat something cold. This different way of thinking is worth keeping in mind when you consider Winston Churchill's famous description of Russia: "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."
As we head west, we'll fly over the nation of Belarus, an inland nation with a total land area of approximately 80,000 square miles, or about the size of all six New England states together. Under control of Russian czars in the 19th century, after the Russian Revolution of 1917, Belarus spent seven decades as a constituent republic of the Soviet Union. It was especially hard hit in World War II during the battle between Germany and the Soviet Union, when more than a quarter of the nation's population perished, including nearly all of the nation's substantial Jewish population. When the USSR dissolved in 1991, Belarus declared independence, but in 1994 came under the control of Alexander Lukashenko, an authoritarian ruler who remains in charge today, making him Europe's currently longest-serving head of state. To learn more about Belarus, check out the links at the end of the pilot's log.
And just to show that barriers in aviation are broken all the time: the first known around-the-world flight by an all-Belarusian crew was made only in 2018, in a Cessna 182 Skylane modified to hold extra fuel. Flying easterly first over Russia and then the United States, their 30-day, 20,000-mile odyssey involved 10 stops and passed over our home state of New Hampshire before crossing the Atlantic, just like we did!
Belarus is culturally similar to European Russia, and so is often overshadowed by its gigantic neighbor to the east. During the Soviet era, the central government in Moscow installed many ethnic Russians in positions of power so that Russian culture and language would predominate. As we continue flying east, the same practice was followed in our next nation, Lithuania, one of three smaller countries often called the "Baltic States." Lithuania, along with Latvia and Estonia, were forced to be part of the Soviet Union during World War II, and afterwards were governed for decades as client states of Moscow. Their independence in 1991 helped lead to the break-up of the Soviet Union. Since then, each has turned to the West, joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the European Union, and embracing a free market economy.
With the three Baltic countries, we see remnants of how much of Europe for centuries was divided into many smaller kingdoms and principalities. Boundaries were always changing as battles were fought and territories won or lost. At one point in the Middle Ages, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania encompassed nearly half of Europe! Over time, and especially in the 19th century, culturally similar states gradually came together to form larger nations we know today, such as Germany and Italy. But some smaller ones, such as the three Baltic states, stayed out of that process, making Europe home to a number of small but proud nations, in some cases smaller than our own state of New Hampshire.
Still, like most nations, the Baltic States have their early aviation heroes. One famous pair of aviators was Steponas Darius and Stanley Girėnas, two Lithuanian-American World War I veterans who in 1933 attempted to establish a new world's record for distance in a single-engine aircraft by flying their specially outfitted Bellanca CH-300 plane, the Lituanica, 4,500 miles nonstop from the U.S. to Lithuania. Darius was famous in the 1920s not only for his piloting, but also for introducing basketball to Lithuania, which went on to become the national sport. Departing from New York, the pair almost made it, but the Litunanica crashed under mysterious circumstances in Germany about 700 miles from their destination. For a time, the pair were memorialized on Lithuanian banknotes.
Our next country, Poland, has a long history of coping with armies and military campaigns due to its central location in Europe and its flat geography along the nation's north coast. It was Hitler's unexpected invasion of Poland in 1939 from the west that sparked World War II. But Poland has a long and proud history of innovation and accomplishment. In the early 1500s, Polish astronomer Nicholaus Copernicus was among the first scientists of the Enlightenment to conclude that the Earth revolved around the Sun (instead of the opposite), and that Earth was one of several planets. In first half of the 19th century, Polish composer Frederic Chopin wrote music that established the piano as a mainstay of classical music and which is still played today.
Warsaw, which we're flying over, has been Poland's main urban center and capital since the 16th century. It's a huge city, today home to nearly 3.1 million people, but it was almost completely destroyed in the latter stages of World War II, when the advancing Soviet Army caused Hitler to order the city razed to the ground. Poland was among those nations that took the brunt of Hitler's ambitions to remake Europe as a German-ruled empire. Nearly all of Poland's 3 million Jews died in Nazi concentration camps, while many ethnic Poles were deported and used as slave laborers. These story of these tragic times is preserved in the ruins of the concentration camps, which still stand today as a silent testament to the Holocaust.
After World War II, Poland remained under Soviet control while the nation slowly recovered. Economic stagnation led to a "Solidarity" labor rebellion starting in the late 1970s. The Catholic Church, a powerful force in Polish life, added strength to the growing protests in 1978 with the election of Pope John Paul II, a Polish archbishop and outspoken critic of Soviet rule. Poland regained independence in 1989 and has since implemented free market economic reforms; in 2004 the nation joined the European Union.
Poland's legendary aviators include Capt. Stanislaw Jakub Skarzynski, who shocked the world in 1933 by flying a small Polish-built touring plane, the RWD-5bis across the southern Atlantic from Senegal to Brazil. The flight took 20 hours 30 minutes (17 hours 15 minutes over the ocean). Capt. Skarzynski crossed 2,225 miles, establishing a World Record for a Category 2 tourist plane (weight below 1000 lbs), and he did it all while wearing a formal dress suit (with hat) rather than the typical pilot outfit of the time. The RWD-5bis remains the smallest aeroplane ever to have flown the Atlantic non-stop on this route.
Continuing west, we fly over the forests and fields of Poland's central plain until crossing the border into Germany, where we quickly reach Berlin, the nation's capital and largest city. As the capital of a nation defeated in two major 20th century wars, Berlin's recent history is a complicated puzzle of competing ideologies, destruction, and eventual renewal. For centuries, it's been a world capital of culture, commerce, and achievement. And for aviation enthusiasts, it's notable as the site of history's first large-scale air-only military action: the Berlin Airlift 1948-49.
To understand Berlin's recent history: after World War II, Germany was divided by the Allies into four occupation zones: America, French, British, and Russian. The Russians, who had reached the German capital of Berlin first, assumed control of the eastern part of Germany, which includes all the territory around Berlin. The city of Berlin itself, however, was divided among the four Allies into quadrants, with the whole city itself surrounded by the eastern part of Germany under Russian control.
At the time, Russian dictator Josef Stalin began imposing Soviet-style government on eastern Germany and its portion of Berlin, instead of the open-style democracy favored by the Allies. This caused great tension in war-torn Berlin, where the citizens were not sure what kind of government would prevail. Finally, Stalin closed off access to East Germany (and the entire city of Berlin) in an attempt to win firm control for the Soviet way.
With road and rail links severed, residents of the non-Russian parts of Berlin faced a dire lack of supplies. To aid them in standing up to the Russians, the U.S. and Great Britain organized a campaign to deliver by air massive quantities of supplies on a level that had never been attempted before. Known as the Berlin Airlift, the Allies staged round-the-clock convoys of flights to bring the citizens of Berlin everything from candy to coal. The effort went on from June 1948 to September 1949, when Stalin reopened the borders and the blockade ended.
The conflict didn't stop there. The Soviet part of Germany became East Germany, a totally separate nation from the rest of Germany controlled by the Allies, which became West Germany. In Berlin, the Soviets prohibited people from their sector of the city from freely traveling into the Allied portions. To stem the tide of people abandoning their part of the city, in the early 1960s the East German government erected a guarded concrete barrier. The Berlin Wall became a symbol of the clash between Soviet-style authoritarian rule and more open Western democratic free enterprise. The wall only fell when East and West Germany were finally reunited in November 1989 as the Soviet Union was disintegrating.
All of this took place in the city we're now circling over. For aviation enthusiasts, Berlin is noted for several historic airports. Easily spotted from the air is Templehof Airport, which Hitler envisioned as Berlin's major international gateway, erecting a monumental terminal and hangers in the 1930s; the field was closed to air traffic in 2008, but the buildings remain. Tegel Field, a relic from the Berlin Airlift, continues to serve the city, as does Schönefeld Field. All existing Berlin airports will eventually be closed following the 2020 opening of a brand new international airport, Berlin Brandenburg, south of the city.
So welcome to Germany! You can find out a lot more about this nation, which boasts one of the world's largest economies and some of the world's best beer, in the links below. For now, let's prepare for our landing at Tegel Airport and prepare to explore one of the world's great cities.
Resources to learn more about today's flight: