Once again I bring you back to Eesti Maja on 34th Street in Manhattan. The interior decor is wood paneling, and the photos of the people on the wall, most which date from the 1930s, reveal round, unhappy-looking individuals, that look pretty Germanic in dress and attitude. And I was thinking about Eesti Maja and how German it felt, and how Germanic Estonian cuisine can be, and how the layout of the tri-color Estonian flag follows a pattern set by Germany, and started thinking about why it felt old and somehow "non-Estonian" and then it hit me.
The Estonian House is a time capsule, from the 1930s, when Estonia was still "Germanized." The Estonia I have lived in and known has undergone "Nordification." When I think of Estonia, I think of expensive niche products, national parks, modern Nordic-style office buildings, cross-country skiing, and lots of people in trendy north European clothing blabbering away on cell phones. This obviously wasn't the case in the 1930s. Nokia was just a Finnish town then, not a Finnish empire. And Nordic fictional archtypes like Pippi Longstocking and the Moomin trolls didn't even exist.
And again, it hit me -- did "Nordic" even exist before 1945?
When I am reaching back through my rudimentary knowledge of history I came to the assessment that no, it didn't. It wasn't until the post-war era, the era that Tove Jansson published the first Moomin books (1945), and Astrid Lindgren published the first of the Pippi series (1944), Thor Heyerdahl set out on the KonTiki expedition (1947), and Ingmar Bergman began his famous film career (1946) that Nordic identity began to emerge. This was also the time that the northern countries - which had actually been divided by political squabbling throughot the 19th and early 20th centuries, began to seek new partnerships through the recognition of Iceland as a republic (1944), establishment of the Nordic Council (1952), and, more recently the creation of the European Union, and the repositioning of Sweden from a pacifist monarchy to the center player in the "Northern Dimension."
Sweden, or Kalmar - the name given to the short-lived union of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden - seems to be in a period of growth in international influence. Instead of relying on hard power though, it relies on "soft power" - diplomacy and business. The "Nordic ideal" is being diseminated as we speak every where a person has access to an Ikea, or anyone that corresponds with their friends using a sleek Nokia phone, or relies on the convenience of Skype, a thoroughly Nordic and joint-Danish Estonian project - to communicate with those far from them.
Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish businesses seem to own the majority stakes in most of the Estonian economy, and, likewise, it appears that their values are being distributed, albeit slowly.
Make no mistake about this, the process is a major, major, major event in Estonian history. This is on par with the Teutonic Knights bringing Christianity and syntax in the 13th centuries, or the Russian tsars trying to convert Estonian peasants to orthodoxy. This represents a new era in the reorientation of Estonia. When I think of "Estonian" books to buy my daughter, I automatically now think "Moomin" or "Pippi." Though they are foreign - sort of - they at the same time appear to be hers. They are Estonian. Or rather, Estonia is no longer just Estonian. It is Nordic. It belongs to a larger cultural area.
This kind of reemergence of the Nordic empire may also be much more than just the success of Ikea or Nokia - it is propelled by tangible, and agreeable, cultural ideals. And it makes me wonder if it was the decline of Russian ideals that led to the downfall of the Soviet Union. Was it the emergence of culture centers WEST of Estonia that led the country back into the Nordic fold. Likewise, was it the decline of the culture that had once produced Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Tchaikovsky that led to the inability of the Russian Empire to keep neighboring countries oriented to Moscow and St. Petersburg? Was it the silencing of expression during communist rule that ultimately led Estonia west, where it was predisposed to be biased due to common religious and alphabetic symbolism?
Most likely it also has something to do with the fact that when the Estonian leadership was decapitated in 1940, the "thought leaders" of the Estonian republic set up an exile government in Stockholm. The "country", despite the efforts to include it in Soviet culture, became based in Sweden. The nation's surviving founders learned to speak Swedish. They adopted the Swedish way of life In fact many of them remain there to this day. And this was just one more link to the emerging Nordic culture.
There has been talk in the past of changing the Estonian flag to reflect this new culture. It seems a little too soon to throw away such a great national symbol. However, as evidenced by the baby-bib above, the reality is that even if some old symbols remain, if places like Eesti Maja exist as time capsules, the nation has become irreversibly altered - not just since 1991, but ever since it became, via Finnish television and the ex-pat community, part of the remerging Nordic landscape.