NYU Alumni Connect

NYU Alumni Travel: Baltic Sea & Norwegian Fjords, Featuring President Mikhail Gorbachev and President Lech Walesa

A unique opportunity to meet two world leaders during this Baltic cruise promises a deeper understanding of the region's history.

The Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

By Ian Duncan (GSAS '12)

This month marks 20 years since Poland held its first presidential election after the fall of communism, and the NYU Alumni Travel Program's trip to the Baltic next June offers alumni the rare opportunity to meet two Nobel Peace Prize laureates and key figures in the history of that turbulent period: Lech Walesa, the first president of Poland, and Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union.

Alumni will set out on the 120 berth yacht M.S. Le Boreal from Stockholm, heading east to Helsinki and on to St. Petersburg. There, they will have the opportunity to view the collection at the incomparable State Hermitage Museum and reflect on the legacy of the Tsars at their opulent summer palaces. The highlight of the second day in the city is lunch with Gorbachev, including a chance for questions and a meet-and-greet reception. As leader of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, Gorbachev led governmental reforms that eventually led to the end of communism in Europe.

The journey then progresses south to Tallin and Riga, the capitals of Estonia and Latvia, which only joined the European Union in 2004. The next stop is Gdansk, where guests will meet with Walesa for a discussion of his role in ending communism in Poland. The final stage of the cruise will take in Copenhagen and the Norwegian fjords and eventually reach Bergen on Norway's North Sea coast.

Church of the Spilt Blood in St. Petersburg.

Professor Larry Wolff, head of the European Studies Department at NYU and an expert on Polish history, sees the trip as an exciting opportunity to hear firsthand how Eastern Europe freed itself from communism. By 1990, Poland's communist regime had collapsed and Walesa was elected as the first president of the newly free country. "He was a world famous figure," Wolff says. "He was the second most famous Pole in the world at that moment. The most famous was the Pope and he couldn't have been president."

In 1980, as an electrician at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Walesa led the Solidarity non-governmental trade union in a series of strikes and protests against the communist government of Poland. By 1981, the Solidarity movement was gaining popularity and Walesa was elected as its leader. Despite a government crackdown on the union, Walesa's international reputation continued to grow. In 1983, the Nobel committee awarded him the Peace Prize, praising his non-violent approach to working for freedom.

Known for his theatrical presence, Walesa will be a lively guide to his country's past. "The most interesting thing would be to ask him about the 1980s and what happened at that time," Professor Wolff says. "I'd want to talk about what happened in the past, how he evaluates the Solidarity movement in historical retrospect, and the crucial things that made 1989 possible in Poland. He was there. It was the biggest turning point in the history of the late 20th century."

Throughout the trip, alumni will also be privy to the expert guidance of Sergei Khrushchev, a professor at Brown University and son of former Soviet Premier Nikolai Khrushchev. The coming decade will be just as important a period for the nations of Eastern Europe as they integrate with the West and find their role in the 21st century; the cruise offers a unique chance to explore the history, culture, and politics of Europe's eastern and northern fringes.

Wolff believes the opportunity to learn firsthand from figures like Walesa and Gorbachev is especially valuable, and points out that the current generation faces new challenges without the benefit of directly remembering communism and the end of the Cold War. "There's not a single undergraduate at NYU who actually remembers it happening," Wolff says. "While that's strange to me as a professor, it's much stranger that young people in Poland don't remember 1989. There's no way to avoid it, but it means in some sense that the whole period needs to be re-taught as history."

"Baltic Sea & Norwegian Fjords, Featuring President Mikhail Gorbachev and President Lech Walesa" will take place June 9-20, 2011. Please note that NYU's reserved allotment of cabins can only be held until November 29, 2010, and not all price categories are available. After the 29th, rooms are available on a first come, first served basis, and there is already a waiting list.

For additional information about other NYU alumni travel opportunities, visit the NYU Alumni Travel site. To request that your name be added to our mailing list, contact Leslie George at 212-998-6985 or via email at leslie.george@nyu.edu.

For more on the European Studies Department, visit the Center for European and Mediterranean Studies (CEMS) site. For additional information about Professor Wolff, visit NYU's department of history site.