Jan/Feb 2016 Travel

Letter from Estonia: Past, Future, and Present

by Christopher Thornton

Artwork by Karen Fox Tarlton

Artwork by Karen Fox Tarlton

The Search

I turned over the coin, still gleaming in my hand. On one side was the engraving designating its value at one euro, on the other a map of Estonia, the newest member of the euro zone, the world's premier economic club. Despite its recent woes and imploding economies from Spain to Greece, the euro zone still shone with luster for countries emerging from much darker economic shadows. The newly minted Estonian euro had been given to me by the change agent at the docks in Tallinn after I had stepped off the ferry from Helsinki—a crossing almost as new on the Estonian scene, taking the long view of history, as the Estonian euro itself.

Just a couple of decades ago the two-hour journey would have been life threatening, if not impossible, not because of the icy waters of the Baltic Sea that separated the two countries, but the much more frigid Cold War dividing East and West. Despite the hazards, some Estonians did attempt to flee to the West this way, usually in rickety fishing boats and under cover of night, and a few even succeeded, while others either drowned or were picked up by roving police patrols, their fates unknown. But for over 20 years the "war" had been over. Ferry passengers were now trucking dolly loads of Saku beer from the docks of Tallinn to the bars of Helsinki. For bored passengers with euro coins rolling around in their pockets, there were slot machines to play and bottles of Johnnie Walker to buy in the duty free shop (Red or Black or even the pricey Blue), bourgeois indulgences unimaginable in an earlier generation.

Since the collapse of communism Estonia has lurched westward, and since its adoption of the euro, it can rightfully call itself a full-fledged member of "modern" (read, Western) Europe. But appearances are often more deceptive than revealing. A step inside the Old City walls of Tallinn presents a more uneven picture.

Tallinn's Old City is one of the best preserved in eastern Europe. On the other side of the ancient walls, a web of narrow lanes radiate from the medieval square, leading to St. Olaus's Guild Hall and the house of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads, the 13th-century Dominican monastery and the White Bread Passage, where journeymen's apprentices hustled palettes of freshly baked loaves in the shadow of the Church of St. Nicholas, where one of the most well-known works of medieval art, the multi-paneled Dance of Death, is displayed at the back of the nave. But along with the euro, a more modern world has penetrated Old Tallinn's thick walls, revealing a city and country caught in a bit of an identity crisis: globalization—also one of the signatures of "modern" Europe—has come to Estonia.

As the sun sets over the rooftops (well after ten o'clock in the middle of a Baltic summer), Estonian women in peasant frocks serve elk soup (2 euros per bowl) at a cavern-like tavern on the ground floor of the city hall. On the other side of the cobblestoned square, more Estonian women, younger and swathed in bright orange saris, try to woo diners onto the terrace of the Maharajah restaurant. Along Pikk Street, central Tallinn's main thoroughfare since the 13th century, the California Tex-Mex Cantina and Hell Hunt bar share retail space beside souvenir shops selling postcards and thickly woven hats and sweaters.

The images were so disjointed that I thought a climb to the top of the town hall's clock tower would offer a clearer view of today's Estonia. Instead, the picture was only blurred further. Ripples of red tile roofs extended to the city's walls, but a mile to the east, the gleaming top of KUMU, Estonia's new museum of modern art, could be seen rising above the treetops in Kadiorg Park.

The next day I decided to walk out to the museum, which would also be a walk through Estonian history. I left the showy Viru Keskus shopping mall just outside the Old City and headed east along Narva Mnt, passing the 20-foot-high windows of department stores displaying the summer fashion line to passersby. I was looking forward to poking into a Soviet-era workers canteen that was still in operation as a working-class diner, but it had gone upscale—tablecloths now covered the tables and the menu board out on the sidewalk advertised a linguini and clam lunch special. Further along, a tiny cupboard of a museum displayed furniture and other bric-a-brac from the 1930s, and then came the entrance to elegant Kadiorg Park, named for the 18th-century palace built by Imperial Russia's Peter the Great after he conquered Estonia in the Great Northern War. A few hundred feet away was the gleaming, aquiline façade of KUMU, as architecturally at odds with the palace and the park as I.M. Pei's glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre.

Lying in KUMU's shadow was one of Tallinn's most important historic sights—the cottage where Peter stayed in the summers while contemplating making Tallinn the capital of his emerging, westward-looking empire. After two years traveling through Germany, France, Belgium, and working for six months incognito as an apprentice in a Dutch workshop to become more acquainted with the ways of this more "enlightened" world, Russia's great modernizer saw that the direction of progress was westward rather than eastward, and Tallinn was about as far west as he could go. His challenge lay in persuading the backward peasantry to share his view.

I spent the rest of the afternoon touring the museum, taking in the works of Estonian artists, mostly from the second half of the 20th century. But it was also a peephole into the major events and art movements of the last 100 years, represented on the canvases hung on the museum's walls. The images drew from the influence of the 19th-century impressionists, the works of cubism and postimpressionism that opened the 20th century, the age of Soviet-inspired social realism, and there was even a touch of neo-romanticism—flower-filled meadows shining under puffy clouds, throwbacks to a romantic age that was never as romantic as the artists wished to portray. Then came the dark periods of the Nazi and Soviet occupations, when the world, awakening to the scares of the nuclear age, was thrust into the modern era. But all these depictions of Estonian culture and history were a jumble, a mélange of overlapping artistic styles and socio-political influences that had their ebb and flow, and, in the case of Estonia, dependent on the rise and fall of neighboring powers. On the way out I asked the woman at the information desk, offhandedly, how many of the paintings would have been banned in Soviet times.

She looked at me with arched eyes: "Why, almost all of them."

The walk to the museum and the floor-by-floor tour clarified nothing, so the next day I tried traveling a little deeper into Estonia's past. I took the number 6 bus out to the Estonian Ethnographic Museum, 10 miles from the city center, where dozens of buildings representing the rural life of Estonia had been relocated to an idyllic site of fields and forest beside the Baltic Sea—a scene much like one hanging on the walls of KUMU. Along the way I struck up a conversation with Nina, a woman of about 30 who lived in one of the western suburbs of Tallinn. She was only a child when the communist system collapsed, and with it the institutions and way of life that had governed Estonian life for almost half a century. I thought she might offer some insight into the current state of things that could glue these fragments together.

"Don't let this fool you," she said as we passed the sparkling new office buildings and shopping malls of central Tallinn. "Not that much has changed. That will take generations. We are still Estonians."

I asked her to explain.

"Our character. We've always been reserved, some would say withdrawn, but we've had to be."

Why, I asked.

"It's the environment. Think of it. For nine months of the year it's cold. When summer comes it's so short. So for us life has always meant struggle. If it isn't against the foreign powers that have dominated us, then it's nature itself. So we've been conditioned to look inward, not outward. The outside world isn't always so pleasant. We find our pleasure and peace inside, in simple things."

I knew she was on to something and wanted to hear more, but we had arrived at our stop, she to switch to another bus to take her the rest of the way to her suburban home, I to move on to the museum that could be seen as a monument to Estonia's struggles, the struggles that according to Nina had produced this "reserved and withdrawn people" who spent their lives fending off the cold and domination of foreign powers. But even here symbols of the "new Estonia" had appeared. Beside the bus stop was Tallinn's Audi dealership.

I spent the afternoon roaming the grounds, peeking in at 19th-century farmhouses and fishermen's shacks, windmills and schoolrooms and wooden churches. Teenage girls in peasant costumes gave needlepoint demonstrations and tended the counter of the general store. A peek around the back of one of the thatched-roof shacks revealed a mountain bike, stashed till closing time, when the temporary farmwife could make a quick exit along the museum's rutted dirt roads. But for a few hours the illusion of a life free from the intrusions of the modern day remained intact. The waves of the Baltic Sea lapped at the shores as the summer breeze blew across the water. Wildflowers had sprouted in the gardens and along the fences and hedgerows. I was walking back to the entrance after enjoying a few hours of rural bliss when suddenly the ringing of a cell phone burst from an apron pocket.

Finally things were clear. Riding the number 6 bus back into Tallinn, crammed among rowdy teenagers and nuzzling young couples headed to the Old City for a night on the town, I thought of the timeline stretched across the wall of Tallinn's History Museum. It delineated the country's history into clearly marked phases, each demarcated by key events from the prehistoric to the modern day. There was the arrival of Christianity in the 12th century, the Danish conquest and the Reformation, then the Livonian War, which led to the carving up of the territory between the Poles, Swedes, and Lithuanians, then the arrival of the Russian Empire and a brief period of autonomy under the first Estonian republic before the Nazi occupation, and finally, in 1994, the departure of the last Soviet troops following independence. But this kind of scholastic clarity only exposed the thinnest of illusions. Viewed from the level of human experience, history, as it is lived, is a much messier affair, chaotic and full of contradictions. And the crafting of identity is even more challenging, a relentless work-in-progress constantly challenged by evolving times. To witness a society in transition is to recognize that there are never any "clean breaks" with the past, never any "turning of the page." The ink always bleeds through, never completely dry, staining the pages while writing a new story that never finishes.


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