Even though I live in a post-socialist country with ruins of the state-command economy to be found just around nearly every corner, I have a hard time digesting just what this Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic entity was and, in general, what Communism meant.
The perversions of Stalinism terrify the soul, but they are still abstract. Even if one is to meet old survivors of the deportations and the GULAG system, they are still old and crooked, shadows of the youthful faces in black and white photos they hold out with wrinkled hands and say, "This is me. This is what they did to me."
The cultural divide between my partner and me is wide in some respects because of this, but can still be bridged. She remembers the one, two, three succession of Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko; my geopolitical memory fades in at the moment that Gorbachev takes over. My first-hand knowledge of the Cold War is of its end game. Still, a recent documentary opened my eyes to the reality that, even in the 1980s, there may have been seven time zones between the New York metropolitan area and Eesti NSV, but there were some things young people shared, namely Dallas and Knight Rider.
Disko ja Tuumasõda (Disco and Atomic War) is a film by Jaak Kilmi and Kiur Aarma that investigates the role that Finnish TV played in encouraging pro-Western attitudes, or even Western identity, among Estonians beginning from the 1950s until the late 1980s. The narrated film relies on a combination of reenacted scenes, old photographs and news reels, interviews, and, of course, great clips of JR Ewing getting shot and Michael Knight talking to his car KITT -- a jetlagged (or inebriated) David Hasselhoff even shows up for a special appearance in Helsinki!
"Have you ever seen Dallas?" she asks.
"Have I ever seen Dallas?!" I respond.
The basic answer to the question is yes, I have seen Dallas. The longer answer is that the program is tattooed on my mind, that I know the theme song by heart, I can even see the aerial images of Texas circa 1980 that were used in the opening credits. To this day, I use the intrigues of the Ewing family as a moral compass for life. You don't want to be like JR, right, you want to be like Bobby.
"Yes," I finally tell her. "We watched Dallas."
The odd angle of this story is that, in the old days, Estonians weren't supposed to be watching Finnish TV. Moscow put pressure on both the Finns and the Eesti NSV leadership to put an end to the Nordic capitalist contamination of pure communist minds south of the Gulf of Finland. And the poor guy who was ordered to put a stop to Estonians watching Dallas was Karl Vaino, first secretary of the communist party of Estonia from 1978 to 1988.
Even in old news clips, Karl Vaino comes across as a hapless bureaucrat that would love to comply with Moscow's orders if only they were possible. Stop Estonians from watching Finnish TV!, the geriatric hardliners in the Kremlin bark. Vaino, a yes man, tells them that, yes, he will. The only problem is how. Among the more creative scenarios dreamt up include building some kind of metal divider in the gulf to block the signals coming from Espoo. Such proposals are earnestly discussed by the party leadership, but later abandoned when it turns out that they make absolutely no sense!
And here is where a new understanding of the Soviet system comes into focus: local bureaucrats with no domestic legitimacy being ordered by central authorities with no domestic legitimacy to carry out orders that border on the absurd. And they say yes, of course they do, even if it's impossible, the Karl Vainos of the Soviet Union said yes, cracked down on smouldering dissent, and then continued to ignore the social issues at hand, right up until the whole rotten tenement of a state came crumbling down.
In the end, the only one who sees through Vaino is Gorby himself who arrives in 1986 to be briefed by Vaino and then to go out and tell the media at the airport with the aura of a movie star that the loyal local bureaucrat must be doing a bad job because he says everything in Estonia is ok and it's so obviously not. In the end, Vaino is replaced by Vaino Väljas and he retires to Moscow (where he still, at nearly 87 years of age, lives). He gives one filmed interview to German media where he is asked what precipitated the restoration of the Estonian state. Vaino's answer? Finnish television.