Peter Curman

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How it all started...

A heaven for meetings, creation and free thought

To visit the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators on Gotland is still to climb on board that Russian ship – Konstantin Simonov – that took us all around the Baltic Sea in the historical year of 1992. We were some 300 writers and translators, booksellers and publishers that for two weeks decided to become seamen in order to get to know each other and recover what war and totalitarian politics had stolen from us. On board the ship we held seminars on poetry and cooperation and in the harbours we had readings for the public in city halls and theatres. It was fantastic to hear so many voices and languages! For decades an ugly political fog had prevented us from seeing and meeting each other. Our common sea had been a locked door. Only the fish could swim without restrictions from one side of the sea to the other. Now, in this historical moment, we all wanted to share the freedom of fish! Our Baltic Sea should unite us and not keep us apart!

But what made all this happen? How could more than 300 writers from the Baltic Sea countries suddenly organize themselves and rent a big ship – not only in their dreams but in reality? My answer is: it was history itself that took us on board this Russian ship; we were indeed hitchhiking with history!

Truth is seldom where you want it to be, and it is often paradoxical. My first memory of the very idea of a writers´ cruise dates back to 1988. As chairman of the Swedish Writers´ Union I was invited to the Writers Union of the German Democratic Republic (i.e. East Germany) to sign an agreement on literary exchange between our countries. But as some writers were not permitted to take part in the proposed exchange, I refused. We could simply not sign an agreement with a writers union that did not respect freedom of speech. We had a very sad farewell dinner in Berlin my last evening.

–Why did you come here all the way from Sweden just to refuse our offer? We live around the same sea! We should not fight each other but cooperate! Why don’t we meet on a ship for a cruise and get to know each other? These inspiring words were uttered by the union´s secretary Gerhard Henninger. For him it was perhaps a dream in his wine glass but to me it was a brilliant idea. When I came home I wrote a letter to him asking him to take an initiative. No response. The idea was much too crazy or premature.

But I could not forget. Next year came the turning point of history: in 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, and the Baltic states liberated themselves. Anything was now possible. In Moscow I met with the chairman of the Writers´ Union of Leningrad at the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Boris Pasternak. I brought up the idea of a Baltic cruise, and chairman Vladimir Arro immediately agreed.

Back in Leningrad he took the initiative to the first international meeting with the writers unions in the countries around the Baltic sea to discuss how to realize this project. Also the Mayor of Leningrad, Anatolij Sobtjak, gave his full support. But history again intervened: a group of officers revolted against Gorbachev and locked him into his house by the Black Sea. Was the old Soviet Union coming back? But the crises ended with the breakthrough for the fragile new democracy and Boris Jeltsin declared the birth of a new era standing on an army tank outside the White House in Moscow.

On the 25th of February 1992 "Konstantin Simonov" pulled out from the harbour of the former city of Leningrad, soon renamed Saint Petersburg, for a cruise that lasted for two weeks. On its way round the shores of the Baltic sea the ship visited the harbours of Tallinn, Gdansk, Lübeck, Copenhagen, Visby, Stockholm and Helsinki before it returned back home. The cruise was the result of the impressing will and energy of a great number of decisive individuals and the good will of some politicians who understood us. I have mentioned Anatolij Sobtjak but I can also name Mats Hellström, today the Governor of Stockholm but in 1992 Minister of Baltic Affairs in our government. Also the Swedish representative in Ars Baltica, Göran Löfdahl, did a great job to secure our budget. Many private sponsors in Russia, among them Mrs. Ludmila Putina, made important contributions to finance the cruise. However, there is one person whose name will always be associated with international writers´ cruises, both the one in the Baltic Sea and the following cruise that took place in the Black Sea and the Aegean in 1994. Her name is Ewa Kumlin, a lady with an iron will, and the tenacity of a super diesel engine; she was the driving force of our projects! Thanks to her efforts, we managed to find all the sponsors and supporters that we needed to convert our dreams into reality. Finally, we should never forget the Governor of Gotland, Thorsten Andersson, who invited us to continue our Baltic cruise ashore on Gotland. Thanks to his and his compatriots´ efficiency – and among them I remember the local writer Clas Engström who totally convinced us to accept the offer – we found the beautiful site that was inaugurated in 1993 by the Swedish minister of culture and named the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators.

The importance of the Centre can not be overestimated. It has also become the model for other similar centres in Europe and elsewhere. In 1994 a new writers´cruise was organized in the Black Sea and the Aegean that resulted in The Centre of Three Seas on the Greek island of Rhodes. These two institutions are genuine international centres and operate therefore under the patronage of UNESCO. It is important to stress that the centres do not differ between writers and translators since they belong to the same literary family. The Baltic Centre has also played an important role for the peaceful development in our region and has become an international haven for meetings, creation and free thought.

Stockholm, 14 March 2005

Peter Curman

 Peter Curman, Fatburstrappan 18, 118 26 Stockholm, Sweden
  © Peter Curman 2012