If you had only been free for 44 of the last 800 years, you’d be in a bad mood, too. Get out a map and look at Estonia and the neighborhood it is located in, and you can guess who was in charge over those 800 years. Some of the invaders like the Danish were fairly kind and brought culture and constructed many of the buildings we admired today. When the Finns were in charge, they were linguistically and culturally familiar to the locals. But when those Russians were around, people felt petrified, poor and imprisoned. After 22 years of freedom between World War I and World War II, they had a sweet taste of how life could be, but then the Soviets were the worst of all.
When we were here last the country was still part of the Soviet Union. I had been taking language lessons onboard our Russian cruise ship and was eager to use a few words on the locals. No one spoke English here then, but the lady at the post office let me know in no uncertain terms that the Russian language was not welcome here.
Tallinn is an amazing port to visit full of medieval buildings many 600 years old. They are colorful and beautifully maintained and restored. I’m guessing that the photos we took today convey that quite well. But our 45 year old tour guide who had participated in the freedom movement as a teenager, couldn’t stop talking about how awful life had been under Communism. You might think she was just a bitter person, but when we got to the main square I was accosted by a one armed man about my age, who wanted me to know in his best broken English, just how much he hates the Russians.
About a third of the population is Russian. For the most part they have not blended in well. They attend their own schools and keep to themselves. From the impressions we got here today, everyone hates them so much, it’s a mystery why they don’t just go back to Mother Russia.
Estonians share many qualities with other northern Europeans. Our guide described them as morose, depressed loners, especially during the long dark winters. The Soviet occupation had made them fearful to speak and they became paranoid and suspicious. When someone would ask her, “How was your day?” The answer would be a terse - normal. When we were inside one of the beautiful churches, she pointed out how the pews all had high walls. You went inside with your family and did not commune with any fellow worshippers. She said no one wants to live in Tallinn city. They come there to work, but the Estonian dream is to live in a single family home, surrounded by land so they don’t have to come in contact with other people. Even though they can’t afford them, Estonians drive cars rather than taking advantage of the free transportation their current socialist government provides. In a car you can be alone.
When we asked about sports, she said this tiny country of 1 million+ had won three gold medals at the last Olympics in skiing, but they were not good at any team sports. They are not interested in being with other people and camaraderie. They much prefer solo sports.
After World War II everyone who was an intellectual or had wealth or property was sent to Siberia. Over 700,000 Estonians vanished during those early years. Even though they had been a sea faring people with an extensive coast line, the Russians did not permit anyone to get near the sea. Finland is only fifty miles away and they were afraid that the Estonians would try to flee to the west. One month after the last Russian troops left the country and Estonia was finally free at last, a ferry carrying 1,700 came open on both ends and sank in about twenty minutes in the bitterly cold Baltic. Nothing was ever proved, but these are a suspicious people.
Under Communism everyone had a job. Our guide was assigned to the lab in a dairy where she was supposed to test the milk. She quickly learned that no one cared if she ever did, so she sat around all day just like her fellow “workers.” Since this attitude was endemic, nothings was produced; there was nothing to buy. Her dad wanted to make some improvements on his home. He hired recently released prisoners with construction skills and they stole all the materials needed for the remodeling. These materials were not available to be bought legally. He had cash from his career as a professional weight lifter. The Communists valued athletic talents so he was better off than many. These are not behaviors that would be condoned today, but what you did to survive.
After independence, our guide learned English and her skills got her jobs with American NGO’s. She couldn’t get over how friendly they were. They were always smiling. She said if she saw an Estonian smiling she would think they were stupid or drunk. When she went out to eat with the Americans, they would offer her tastes of their food. She couldn’t believe it. “I eat my food and you eat yours.” However, she has a 12 year old son and she said that his approach to life is totally different from hers. He is so friendly and open she is always worried that he will bother someone and get in trouble. It has only been 22 years, but as a member of the EU, Estonia is working hard to get over its national trauma and try enjoying life.
Whenever we travel I see things that are better than they are in our country and things that are worse. But being here really made me appreciate how fortunate our lives have been.