I had been underground exploring the old Bastion Tunnels that were dug below the cobblestone streets of Old Town Tallinn, seeing how they ran along the city walls and learning the ways in which they had been used over the years. To be honest, the tour is a little hokey, but the engaged visitor can indeed learn a good deal about how Tallinn was founded and built over the centuries. And it did put one very important thing in perspective for me: While much of Old Town Tallinn dates back to the 11th century, it is the last hundred years of history that might be the most mind-blowing.
I surfaced from the underworld, greeted by a brisk, sunny afternoon. Estonia has over 300 days of clouds every year, yet there wasn’t so much as a formation in the sky (I seem to have a knack for experiencing aberrations… I bring rain to the desert). From across the Town Hall Square (featured in photos below), I spotted my friend at one of the cafes that spill out into the square. It has been there for centuries, but the past few generations of Estonians haven’t exactly been able to enjoy it to its fullest.
At least, not until recently. The Estonians declared their independence for the first time in the modern era in 1918, but Stalin and the Soviets had other ideas when they arrived in 1939 and stuck their flag in the ground. In 1941, Hitler and Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, crossing into Estonia and occupying the country until 1944 when the Soviets were able to recapture it.
What happened next is what makes the history so interesting (and horrifying). For the next 45+ years, the Soviets would control Estonia. Unfortunately, the Russians were not exactly “hands-off” kind of people. They immediately deported wealthy Estonians (among others) to places like Siberia and Gulag, and the remaining households were “collectivized,” meaning land and homeowners were stripped of their property rights and private farms were combined to produce food for the entire city. Many Estonians risked their lives to flee to Finland or Sweden as this was all happening. Some made it, other’s did not. Those who stayed behind, I’m sure, were constantly contemplating escape.
Why? Because it was that bad. One of the “coolest” things about this history is that senior citizens are not the only source of a story – those as young as their late 20s and early 30s can share tales from their childhood that make growing up in North America seem like another planet (and it also made me feel like a total shithead for classifying any of my middle-class problems as problems). Living in a communistic society sounds great when considered in an ideal world, however the system was far from being fair and equal.
For example, any homeowner who was not deported from Estonia was forced to share their property with immigrating Russians. One young woman I met recalled her experience as a young girl, her family forced to share their five-room house with four Russian families. Don’t picture fun and friendly communal living – the Russians were not shy about establishing hierarchy. In this woman’s particular case, the incoming families used her grandfather’s books as toilet paper and cut down all the fruit trees in the backyard. Just cause they could, she said. And you could forget about “getting away”: Under Soviet rule, the borders were sealed and no one was allowed to travel. “It was like a prison,” the woman recalled.
Other memories she shared were more colorfully candid. Long lines at food and clothing stores limited most forms of variety, and anything “fun” came in boxes from foreign lands. Relatives that were able to escape would mail back clothes and other items, such as fruit and bubble gum. This woman remembers having her first banana at the age of 12, and also the way in which she used to share the gum her uncle sent her as a child. From her mouth it would go into her friend’s, and when it was time to hit the sack, she would stick it to the nightstand and continue chewing it the next morning.
This way of life continued until 1987 when Estonia began a four-year “singing revolution,” in which choirs across the country used radio, television, and public performances to inspire and spark a political movement to regain their independence (you can read more specifics here). During the same time period, citizens of the Baltic region formed a two-million person chain across Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as a peaceful sign of strength and pride against the Soviet occupation. Estonia regained its independence in 1991. It’s acceptance into the European Union in 2004 marked a huge achievement in terms of both its independence and protection against future occupation.
Phew – holy crap, right? When I was 10, I was knee-deep in Ninja Turtles, and Big League Chew was how I pretended to be Lenny Dykstra. Old Town Tallinn is majestic in a lot of ways (as I wrote before, it looks like it should be on top of a wedding cake), but it was when I stopped moving that it all really sank it, when I began to realize that my admiration went far beyond the Medieval churches and stone walls.
At the table with my friend in the square, I ordered a large beer. The buildings that surrounded us were colorful and old and had looked down upon many people, and there I was in the thick of it all, watching the people walk through the square on a day that my friend nailed perfectly as being reminiscent of “spring skiing weather,” sunny yet brisk. I felt lucky to be having the beer, to be a part of this new chapter of Estonian history.
I thought about the grandparents of the woman I had recently interviewed, who grew up with freedom, suffered through three occupations, and now have lived to see their freedom restored. I thought about those born in the 1940s who got their first taste of freedom at the age most Americans hit their mid-life crisis, the one that results from the boredom and disappointment that comes along with following a set path.
Well, I’ll give it to the Estonians – they sure haven’t wasted any time. Did you know that Skype was invented in 2003 by Estonian developers just 12 years after they gained their independence? Isn’t that inspiring? And how lucky are we North Americans to have grown up in a world where we could travel and explore, express our ideas. For an Estonian born in 1950, their first opportunity to travel outside of the country would have been when they were 41!
Now that you’ve had your history lesson, kids, I’ll post a photo essay in the next few days to give you a larger glimpse of Old Town Tallinn – some eye candy to go along with that bubble gum. For now, here are some photos of Town Hall Square in Old Town Tallinn, Estonia: