Estonia, new and old

[From Beth] Today we had an early start, with a flight from Bremen, Germany, to Tallinn, Estonia, and a ferry ride back into Helsinki. We had hoped to stow the luggage for a few hours and walk around Old Town again, but the process of getting a shuttle from the airport to the harbor took so long that all we had time for was lunch.

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(This image is really blurry, but I like how it includes the most recent, post Soviet era sky scrapers, with the older buildings in the foreground that have been refurbished to showcase the town’s history).

This city (Tallinn) and its history is really interesting. Its inexpensive booze and spas make it a tourist destination for the Finnish and Swedes, and today it’s billed as Europe’s most high-tech, internet friendly country. It’s history stretches back 10,000 years, although recent events have threatened its economy, natural resources and cultural identity.

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As we rode around with Saara’s uncle last week, it was clear that he had some significant feelings about the Soviet occupation and it’s impact on the country. He showed us rows and rows of concrete apartment buildings (“who would want to live in THAT?”) and talked a little about the Russian immigrants refusal to learn to speak Estonian after more than 50 years in the country.

The Russian minority here makes up about 26% of the population. They face significant discrimination from the majority population. Unemployment among the Russian-speaking citizens is twice as high as for the rest of the population. Russians make up almost 60% of the prison population. 80% of those tested positive for the HIV/AIDS virus are ethnic Russians. The Russian population experiences significantly higher rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse. It’s interesting to think about why the Russians are still here and how much their status may have changed in the last few decades.

Pre World War II, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a secret pact to divvy up eastern Europe between the two nations. During the war, Estonia attempted to remain neutral, but the Soviets and Estonian communist sympathizers forced the country to enter into a mutual assistance pact that allowed thousands of Russian soldiers and their support systems into the country. Upon being formally adopted as part of the USSR, Estonia subsequently lost a quarter of its population, either to war (as Estonians were conscripted into the Soviet army); as citizens immigrated to other countries; or as political miscreants were executed or sent to prison camps.

Soviets moved to Estonia by the thousands, often designating the manor homes of some of the wealthiest citizens as apartments and moving the previous owners out. They built miles of the ugliest apartment buildings you ever saw and reeked havoc on the natural environment.

In the 1980s, the Soviet Union was at war with Afghanistan and its economy was crumbling. At the same time, an Estonian dissident movement was growing as the 50th anniversary of the “Secret Pact” between the Soviets and Nazi Germany approached. There was a major nonviolent protest, then several more during this time, one of the biggest of which was the Tallinn song festival, in which 300,000 people participated. They sang patriotic and anti USSR songs to bring international attention to their plight. Ultimately, this uprising lead to the Estonian government declaring the Soviet occupation illegal, and the peaceful retaking of the country by its native population – without a single death.

One story I find particularly moving is that of the Tallinn TV and Radio tower. The tower is a 341 meter tall structure built to afford better broadcasting of the Russian Summer Olympics. During the uprisings, in August 1991, Moscow ordered its troops to take control of the tower back from the independence seeking government of Estonia. There was a tense stand-off between several hundred Soviet troops and two Estonian policemen who were sent to defend the tower. The officers apparently kept the only elevator from returning from the top of the tower by jamming a matchbook in the doors, forcing the troops to begin to climb the more than 1,000 steps to the top of the tower while the officers reportedly broadcast news of Estonia’s assertion of independence. There are apparently bullet holes in the cement at the base of the tower.

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I have to reflect on my recent exposure to the Boise Community Radio project and their efforts to raise funds to establish a locally operated station in Boise. One of the hallmarks of a democracy is free and open access to information. This is a story about a country re-establishing free and open access to information through song and broadcast media. I find it moving.

That’s it. That’s all I’ve learned so far, that and how to say “excuse me” in six different languages.

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