I was leafing through Geert Mak's In Europe: Travels Through the 20th Century, and I read the chapter on Riga, which is loosely about the Baltic countries, with great interest.
Mak traveled around Europe in 1999, and even back then the discourse in the Baltics was as hung-up on the past as it is today. My interest was piqued when Mak, and interviewees cited in the book, consistently referenced Estonia's Scandinavian orientation.
According to Steven Johnson, the former editor of the Baltic Times who was quoted, Tallinn would forever be a "Danish village," Riga an East-West German trading port, and Vilnius, an eastern European metropolis ala Warsaw and Minsk. "Danish village, eh?" I thought to myself.
Outside of Estonia, Denmark is perhaps the European country I know best, as I lived there in 2001 for four months. Once asked at a party in Tallinn to summarize the differences between Danes and Estonians, I fixated on the Danes' Scandinavian elitism, versus the Estonians' lack of self confidence.
The Danes are still a bit irritated that they don't run the world. If they did, they'll assure you, everything would be much better. But the Estonians never speak of running the world. They know it's not up to them, and so they cast their lot with others. The Danes think of themselves as equals, nay, leaders in the Nordic world. The Estonians think of themselves as a kind of supplement to Scandinavia.
That being said, both countries are equally proud; arrogant even. When TH Ilves and Mart Laar went on their "Estonia is a Nordic country" roadshow back in '99, the Balts balked at the Estonians' self-importance. "They think they are better than us," they opined. That's right, they do, and if you explore the Estonian worldview, you'll find they think they are better than everyone else, too.
The Finns? Inbred drunks luckier only in size and history. The Swedes? Pompous windbags, but preferable to the Russians. The Russians? They think cockroaches are lucky. The Germans? Land-hungry morons. The Latvians? I don't know any Latvians, do you know any Latvians? In this atmosphere, to be all other nations is to be in someway cursed. To be Estonian may bring with it undesirable baggage, but it is worth it when you are the smartest and best little country on Earth.
And, so, how interesting that I realized that Mr. Mak and Mr. Johnson were kind of right. The Danes and the Estonians had something in common. Just as the Danes think that everyone should adopt their egalitarian social welfare state, the Estonians believe that it is only a matter of time before everyone realizes the genius of their flat taxation policies and e-governance. It's pure nordic paternalism; Danmark and Eesti know best.
And if there are problems, well, there aren't actually any, because you are in Denmark/Estland, where everything is perfect, or at least as good as it can get given the circumstances. Danes will tell you that their society is open and tolerant. But in private they confess that they have no idea how to integrate people who wear head scarves and torch buildings when cartoons of their prophet are published in Danish newspapers. And, so, they ignore it. "Oh yeah, the cartoon scandal," they sigh dreamily. "I seem to remember reading something about that."
The Estonians have the nerve to tell you that there is no discrimination in their country, although of course there is; there is discrimination in every country. Paris is occasionally in flames and you can get stabbed in the Netherlands for making a film, but everything in Estonia is as it should be; and if it isn't, it's somebody else's fault. "Ah, yes, the cyber attacks," they say aloofly. "I remember seeing an article on that in Wired magazine."
Still, Tallinn is not Copenhagen. There are not enough bicycles, not enough jazz festivals, not enough guys selling sausages on sticks. But there are plenty of northern individualists riding around in expensive cars. And if you ask them in which direction they are headed, they will assure you that it is the right way.