Estonian Snapshots.

24 Sep

My travel buddy, Eric, and I went to Estonia a few years ago. It’s the most northernly of the Baltic states and only a stone’s throw from Russia.
Snapshot 1 — Father Christmas at the end of the Line.
One day in Tallin, Eric suggested riding to the end of the tram line just to see what was there. So we left Tourist-Tallin, heading north-west, right to the tip of a bitterly cold, bleak peninsula. ( We visited in March.) We trundled through drab suburbs of crumbling, concrete apartment blocks largely inhabited by poorer Russians, left stranded by the fall of the Soviet Empire.
At the end of the line we got out and shivered as we looked out on to the grey, choppy Baltic and a rubbish strewn shoreline, criss-crossed by rusty rail tracks. it was a desolate scene. Then we spotted the green, copper roof of a little wooden church. It was clearly Russian Orthodox.
We tentatively knocked on the door, mostly expecting it to be locked. But to our surprise, we were welcomed in by two babushkas in dark coats and headscarves. It was warm and quiet inside. The gloom was illuminated by flickering candles. We sat in a hushed silence, looking at the shining icons, as the old Russian ladies quietly carried on with their cleaning and tidying. We enjoyed the spiritual ambience of the place.
When Eric and I got up to leave, the two ladies tried to communicate with us in fragments of broken English. They then pressed little icons of St Nicholas into our palms. We were in a church dedicated to Father Christmas!
It was one of those magical moments when we were able to glimpse behind the tourist curtain and forget about ticking off sights. We felt the warmth of a connection with real people, momentarily breaking down the barriers of distance, culture and language that normally separated us.

Snapshot 2 — The Nazis were the Good Guys!
The most interesting museum we visited in Estonia was Tallin’s newest — The Museum of the Occupations and the Fight for Freedom. The “occupations” in question were those of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. Obviously, many Russians would feel affronted at being compared with the infamous nazis. However, from an Estonian point of view, the Soviet conquerers were equally cruel and oppressive, if not more so, and the Soviet occupation went on for much longer, stretching across five long decades. Photos, artefacts and videos tell the tragic story of Estonia’s suffering during much of the 20th century. On the TV screens we watched the terrible tale of conquest and occupations by 2 of the last century’s cruellest regimes. It literally was a mind-bending experience, as it changed my perception of 20th century World Affairs.
Estonia was re-conquered by the Soviet Union in 1940, in a little known consequence of the cynical Nazi- Soviet pact when Hitler and Stalin agreed to carve up eastern Europe between them. The Estonians then suffered mass deportations. Tens of thousands were sent to work and die in labour camps in the frozen wastes of northern Russia. Then there were the disappearances of thousands of people in the middle of the night, never to be seen again. Even women and children were sent to the Gulags. Given this horrendous background, it is not surprising that the Germans were initially welcomed as liberators, when they broke their pact with Stalin and drove the Soviets out of the Baltic states as well as Russian Poland. Many Estonians joined the Wehrmacht to fight the common enemy.
Some museum visiters found this revelation very shocking. They could not accept that the nazi Germans could be perceived as the “good guys”. ” Have the Estonians never heard of the Holocaust?” wrote one outraged Finnish visiter. This person clearly found it difficult to empathise with the Estonian position in 1940. Bringing the Holocaust into the frame, a truly terrible event, that took place mainly in the mid-1940’s and in countries outside Estonia, seems to be missing the point. In fact, Estonia did not have many Jews living within its borders and so never featured in Hitler’s “Final Solution.” The nearest significant concentration of Jews was in Lithuania, two countries to the south.
This Finnish citizen additionally seems to have forgotten that Finland too fought alongside the Germans against the Soviets, because they also had been conquered by Stalin’s armies. The Finns saw an alliance with the Nazis as their best chance for freedom. It is one of those cases where people want to make history “black and white”, but where it stubbornly persists in remaining “grey”.
The Nazi Germans freed Estonia from Russian domination and at first allowed it some degree of local automony. The Germans initially ruled with a lighter touch and so were welcomed as liberators. It was only later, with the shooting of Communist collaborators ( 75,000 of them!), and the forced conscription into the German army , that life under the nazis became more onerous. What an invidious choice the Estonians had to make in the early 1940’s — Hitler or Stalin?
From an early 21st century, British point of view, it seems shocking that Estonia welcomed the nazis and fought alongside them. However, once one learns of the oppressive background of Soviet rule, not to mention the harsh Czarist rule of the 19th century, then it is not so surprising afterall and is even understandable. It goes against the grain to think of the nazis as the good guys, but in this far-away and forgotten corner of Europe, and for a short period of time, they actually were! This for some, may be an uncomfortable realisation to make.

Snapshot 3 — A Glimpse into the 19th century.
Eric and I took the long distance bus to Tartu, Estonia’s second city. We had hoped to visit the best Ethnographical museum in the country but unfortunately visited on the only day of the year when it was closed — Good Friday! The whole place was like a ghost town with only a couple of cafes remaining open.
We wandered the streets, admiring tha traditional wooden architecture and a very tall brick, Lutheran church. Late in the afternoon we were walking down a quiet backstreet flanked by old wooden dwellings.A small dog came out of a gate and started barking furiously at us, baring its yellow teeth. But we walked on regardless. ( it was a very small dog!) As we approached it lost its nerve and disappeared back through the gate again.
As we passed, we naturally looked in. What met our eyes was like a glimpse back into the 19th century! An old, Orthodox priest in long black robes and with a long, black Rasputin-style beard, was standing on the open porch of his wooden house. Beside him stood his wife in a dark dress down to her ankles. The house was old and rambling. It faced on to a yard/garden full of mud, junk and yapping, mangy dogs. It was a far cry from the modern Scandinavian feel of much of Tallin. This was a throw back to the days of the pre-Revolutionay Empire of Czarist Russia.
We only glanced in briefly, but this fleeting experience was like travelling back into another era.

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2 Responses to “Estonian Snapshots.”

  1. Gerry Fenge September 24, 2011 at 5:01 pm #

    Fascinating Stuart! I quite agree about the relativity of good and bad, especially when faced with an Estonian sort of choice. Well done for looking beyond tourist-land – and commiserations on the March weather. I don’t imagine there were many tourists there at that season: maybe that was the attraction?

  2. scrapstu1949 October 3, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    Yes — Historians always strive for objectivity but much of history is seen through subjective eyes. Eric and I like doing: bleak, cold and obscure. Our next trip together was to northern Poland at the end of winter. Estonia and Tallin in particular are popular with stag parties attracted by cheap beer and sex industry. Fortunately the cold kept most of them away in March.

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