esmaspäev, september 29, 2008

hetk viljandis

My wife was born 34 years ago in the city of Viljandi in south Estonia -- at least, that's how her mom and dad remembered it. According to the Estonian state, though, she's a child of Tallinn.

Her parents were both registered as students in Tallinn at that time, and so the infant Epp was "born" in Tallinn. To this day, she perpetuates this myth for the sake of bureaucratic continuity. But we know the truth, and the truth is that she is from Viljandi.

For this reason, and others, Viljandi is part of our lives. We go there often, but until recently I had few opportunities to stretch my legs and see the sights. In the past, a trip to Viljandi typically entailed a visit to a hardware store or stopping to get gas. The castle ruins could always wait, there were things to do, places to be on time.

This time was different. Epp was invited to speak to a gathering of librarians from Viljandi county. Young and old, introvert and extrovert, they filled the conference room of the very modern Viljandi library to talk about books. My duty was to do anything I wanted with our daughter Anna for an hour and a half. The director of the library recommended the children's area of the library, but I had something else in mind. I wanted to see the castle ruins.

It was a gorgeous fall morning in Viljandi as Anna and I made our way towards St. John's Church. The streets were alive with people; Viljandi residents are well dressed yet exude normalcy, unlike the dressed-for-success Tallinners. Their goals are quite sane -- visit the post office, go to the bank, meet a friend for coffee. There are few well-heeled parliamentarians to be found in Viljandi and the local academies specialize in folk music and theater. Not a bad place to be.

The first time I visited Viljandi was in the winter of 2003. It was cold and the sidewalks were thick with black ice. I remember seeing a poster for the film Nimed Marmortahvlil -- Names in Marble -- about the Estonian War of Independence. Some teenage thespian had drawn a heart around one of the soldiers on the poster and written "So beautiful" in Estonian on his face. It seemed so normal. I remember feeling that I was in the heart of Estonia; that the foreign world could never intrude on this place; that everything here was as it was supposed to be.

In recent years my brother-in-law Priit, also born in Viljandi (though I am unsure of his "official" place of birth), found himself back in the city of his birth. Of all the people I know, Priit has held the most cool-sounding jobs. At one point, he worked in a pillow company, packing boxes of pillows.

He later moved on to a matchbox company, putting matches in boxes. I could imagine these jobs getting really boring, but there is something about them that reminds me of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. I can imagine poor Priit going to bed after a trip to the pub in Viljandi, haunted by images of pillows.

For some time, Priit lived in one of those rambling wooden apartment houses {see above} that still exist in Viljandi, where the interior looks like something out of a surrealist painting. The staircases were crooked, as were the floors. One had the feeling that should a bird land on the wrong side of the house the whole thing could come crumbling down. But it's still there. That's Estonian craftsmanship for you!

These memories and more flashed before my eyes as I passed the Jaani Kirik, an inviting Lutheran church, towards the first stop on the trail that would take me to the castle ruins -- a monument to General Johan Laidoner. Laidoner was commander-in-chief of the Estonian armed forces during the war of independence and also during the rule of President Konstantin Päts from 1934 to 1940.

The Estonians I know have mixed feelings about Laidoner because of his role in Päts' 1934 coup as well as some of the non-transparent foreign policy decisions that were taken in 1939 and 1940. Following the Soviet takeover, Laidoner was deported to the USSR. He died in a psychiatric hospital in Vladimir oblast in 1953, in the same region where former PACE President Rene van der Linden is rumored to have real estate investments, coincidentally. I wonder how I will ever manage to explain all this to my children. I guess they'll learn about it the same way I did.

Moving ahead, we finally came to the castle ruins.

Three hills feature the ruins of Viljandi Castle which was constructed in the 13th century and destroyed in the 17th century during conflicts between Poland and Sweden. I thought the ruins would be a fun-for-the-whole-family kind of place, where little one-year-old girls could run wild. That is not the case. The stoney paths lead around the crest of three steep hills overlooking Lake Viljandi. The scenery is stunning, especially in autumn, with the shimmering lake and forests of oranges and yellows and greens swaying in the wind below. One does not get views like this in Estonia often.

I passed by polite Viljandi residents who sat on benches chatting and admiring the view. If I lived in Viljandi, I would eat lunch up there every day. The signs that curate the ruins were available in three languages -- Estonian, English, and German. Of all Estonian cities, Viljandi is among the more "German-feeling" and I have encountered several German tourists here in the past, perhaps in town to visit the local kondiitriäri and relive their former glory.

I was almost certain that one of Epp's ancestors had stood on these very castle walls in the past, ready to dump a vat of boiling oil down on an army of fierce intruders. I could sense the sheer horror that the walls of Viljandi fortress must have witnessed. I was very glad that I was visiting the ruins in the present day with my trusty mobile phone at my side to call the librarians of Viljandi county to come to our defense if we needed it.

There are a number of bridges connecting the hills of the castle ruins, and I had to strap Anna into her stroller so that she didn't accidentally careen off one of the larger bridge's sides. In my direction came a horde of school children. Knowing the Estonian language really has its benefits. You can understand all the mean things the kids are saying to one another. The sole female teacher impressively herded the children along, and even had some of them go back onto the bridge so she could take a picture of them with her digital camera.

On the way back to town, I stopped in the Jaani Kirik. I like Lutheran churches. They are plain and peaceful, and I think the church in Viljandi is among the better lit. Inside, I passed a blond woman and child who made eye contact with us to an extent that is unusual in Estonia. I ignored her and took Anna around the church while the woman convinced the caretaker to take a photo of her and her daughter with the altar in the background. For some reason, I thought churches were off limits for photography, but when it comes to photography in Estonia, nothing is off limits.

After they had their portrait taken the stranger approached me and asked how old my daughter was. The mathematical wheels creaked slowly in my brain. What month was it? September. She was born when? In July. 12 months plus two months is what? Ok, 14 months. This inspired some confidence. "14 months," I replied in Estonian. She smiled and told me that her daughter Sofia was 13 months. This was really weird; an Estonian stranger approaching me to talk about her child? It must have been the positive vibrations of Viljandi's Jaani Kirik.

On the way out of the church, I was so overcome by good feelings that I even said a prayer and, after concentrating really hard, I had a warm shiver of positivity, as if the prayer had been heard, the letter had been received, or the blog post published successfully.

Back at the library, the directors presented us with as much as we could eat and drink. Then one presented Anna with a little wooden toy -- a figurine in traditional Viljandi clothing -- a long black coat and hat -- holding a tiny wooden oar. "It's the Viljandi boat man," she said. I held it out in front of Anna: "This," I said, "Is your great-great-great-great-great grandfather." The library director laughed and poured herself another cup of coffee.

neljapäev, september 25, 2008

bad vibes

The other night I was convinced by my ailing wife to make a 4 am trek to the apteek on Tõnismägi to buy some over-the-counter medicine for the common cold.

As I made my way up past the Latvian embassy towards the national library, Tõnismägi park lurked in the immediate distance. I saw the dark trees and suddenly was overwhelmed by a feeling of badness.

It was here where the infamous soldier of bronze once stood, where all eyes were fixed for several days in late April 2007 when Tallinn reopened the gushing wound of its Soviet past. I have to say, I still don't feel comfortable there. I don't want to walk through that park. I did not especially care for walking through it in the past, trampling over the mortal remains of a dozen individuals.

Tõnismägi has bad vibes, and I am a bit surprised that Finnish "scholar" Johan Bäckman has decided to stick his nose in that business. Like some voodoo curse, after insulting just about everything that is sacred to Estonians by predicting the end of their state in his new book, Bäckman found himself the subject of a campaign to disrupt his academic career.

Finns and Estonians of some reputation sought to have the University of Helsinki discipline their reckless scholar Bäckman, equating his denial of Soviet occupation in Estonia with Holocaust denial. The university, though, supported Bäckman, arguing that academics are free to tango with the past, especially the Estonian past, in whatever ways they see fit.

In a way, I guess the university is right. Without the career path of academic vanity, fellows like Bäckman might pursue a less savory, unabomber-like way to contribute to society. Remember, universities are at their core institutions, are they not? Finnish scholars are supposed to recreate the world as they see fit, then publish books that garner wanton media attention in Estonia, right?

Though he is unlikely to be washing plates at a Helsinki cafe anytime soon, Bäckman, like Andrus Ansip and Dmitri Klenski, among others, has chosen to play with the most unpleasant of topics, and must now issue statements in English defending his reputation to cling to any sense of normalcy he may have once enjoyed.

He has fallen prey to the curse of the bronze soldier, where logic is turned upside down and poorly concocted, World War II-influenced metaphors rein supreme. Sadly, for Bäckman, there is no known cure.

esmaspäev, september 22, 2008

say what?

In the impatient world of Estonian politics, voters are getting sick of looking at Prime Minister Andrus Ansip. Estonians are not used to having the same leader for more than two years in a row.

This morning, I drank my morning coffee and read an op-ed by Gunnar Kobin, head of AS Ülemiste City, who passionately explained his reasons for wanting a new government.

In Kobin's world, no current Estonian politicians would hold positions in this "dream team" government of specialists. Banker Indrek Neivelt would be prime minister. Bankers Märten Ross {Eesti Pank} or Erkki Raasuke {Swedbank} could be finance minister. Railroad engineer Raivo Varet would be economic affairs and communications minister, while entrepreneurs Hannes Tamjärv or Enn Saar would find new work at the ministry of education. Actually, qualified candidates could be found for any ministry, Kobin writes.

Kobin didn't name a foreign minister for his new government, but Äripäev editor-in-chief Meelis Mandel wrote recently that Feodor Berman, CEO of BLRT Group, would be the best Estonian-Russian to soothe things over with the eastern neighbor. Both Mandel and Kobin's advice to Estonia? Emulate the Finns. No Bronze Soldiers. No Saakashvili support. Just mo' money, mo' money, mo' money. [Damon Wayans for minister of culture? He's not a citizen, but ...]

Unfortunately, unless Neivelt and Raasuke form the "Bankers' Party" and and defeat the other "banker's party" -- the Reform Party -- in the next elections, forming a new government with Saar's "IT Party," we'll be stuck with the government we have. Most Estonians still hold Reform Party in the highest regard, though I haven't seen any polls with Ansip's personal approval ratings.

There are really only three options for Estonians when it comes to their government.

Option one: continuity. Ansip stays in place until the next parliamentary elections 2011. I find this scenario unlikely, but ... who knows.

Option two: decapitation. Ansip is ousted by internal Reformierakond opposition and replaced by someone more palatable; or he runs in the European parliament elections (against Edgar Savisaar and perhaps Mart Laar) to get out of Dodge City next year, bequeathing the job to a handpicked successor.

Option three: new government. This would be another hodgepodge of political philosophies, pairing Isamaaliit with the Social Democrats and Center Party. I've seen speculation that good old Juhan Parts, the 42-year old former prime minister and embodiment of Estonianness {see above}, could lead such a government.

I wouldn't withhold support for a Parts government, even though he advises that Estonian children be given traditional names, such as "Juhan." But I think many people in the business community are frustrated with their options, and I wouldn't be surprised to see more of them switch over into politics in coming years to work things from the other side. Given some of the thin resumes of the current slate of ministers, having a banker as finance minister might not actually be a bad idea.

kolmapäev, september 17, 2008


If you look at old maps of Estonia, you will only find a few place names that have survived the ages. Tartu was "Dorpat", Tallinn was "Reval", Kuressaare was "Arensburg"*, Rakvere was "Wesenberg", and Viljandi was "Fellin". But even back in the 17th century, Narva was "Narva" and Haapsalu was, well, "Hapsal" ... close enough.

For a long time now, I have wanted to visit Haapsalu. It's a small city of around 12,000 people, located on the northwest coast of Estonia and known for its medieval castle and ornate tsarist-era train station. I cannot explain why it caught my eye, but I had a deep yearning to go. The trouble is that it's never been on any itinerary. There was never a reason to go, so we never went, and when we did go recently it was already mid-September, several weeks past the end of the summer season. Haapsalu is known mostly as a summer place.

Having grown up on the east coast of the United States, I can imagine that summer in Haapsalu is filled with all kinds of pleasant debauchery. Drunken midnight strolls; bittersweet summer romances between store clerks; the simple joys of being human.

But I have to say I was predicting the city to be a disappointment. Most Estonian cities were at least partially destroyed during the Second World War. Either by bombs or guns, Main Street Estonia was decimated and often replaced by ugly Soviet apartment blocks or architectural monstrosities. The eclectic nature of these cities lacks coherence, negating the feeling of being enveloped by a place. It is, in some ways, why Tallinn and Tartu are so popular. They have Old Towns where one can walk and feel as if they are somewhere.

I was expecting Haapsalu to be similarly eclectic, with hints of what it once was but could never be again. Fortunately, I was wrong. As our car turned down Tallinna maantee and headed into Haapsalu, I noticed beautiful house after beautiful house, most of them recently painted with attractive, warm colors. It was like visual candy; I couldn't get enough.

We road straight into the center of town, past the monument of the Swedish boy with a fish in his hands. Up until 1944, Haapsalu was the "capital" of the Estonian Swedes, an ethnic group that lived side by side with the Estonians, yet preserved an ancient Swedish dialect. They are thought to have first migrated to Estonia in the 13th century from southern Finland. In 1944, most of them 'repatriated' to Sweden ahead of the Soviet advance.

Those who remained behind became Estonians until 1988, when they were allowed to form their own cultural associations again. Today there is a modest group of Estonian Swedes, led by a state-recognized cultural council that organizes events for the community. They, of course, receive ample help from the local Swedish business community and embassy.

To understand the odd blending, though, between the Estonians and Swedes, it is best to visit the Ilon Wikland museum. Ilon Wikland was born Mari-Ilon Pääbo in Tartu in 1930, but she spent her summers at her grandparents' home in Haapsalu during the 1930s. She was one of the many refugees to Sweden in 1944, and in the 1950s she began illustrating the books of Astrid Lindgren, including Karlsson on the Roof and the Children of Noisy Village.

Much of her artwork is inspired by her childhood in Haapsalu, and you can literally match the buildings in her drawings with those in Haapsalu. Moreover, Wikland's artwork has now come to be seen as quintessentially Swedish. In this way, Swedes who come to Haapsalu find a village that almost seems more Scandinavian than the ones they know at home.

Wikland's artwork is on display at the gallery*, along with photos describing her childhood in the 1930s. While known to few, one of my favorite of Wikland's books is called The Long, Long Journey. It details her escape from Estonia to Sweden in 1944. Every time I see the images of the little girl packing her bags, I want to cry. I can't help it. I don't cry often, but when I see the helpless child and the shades of blue, it's just ... meh. I've got to choke them back.

Turning down the street from the Wikland museum, we sauntered towards the water until we came to an inviting, wooden house where it was said that Peter I of Russia stayed while he was surveying his newly acquired Baltic provinces during the Great Northern War in 1715. The Russian influence in Haapsalu is mostly sensed in plaques like these that remind us of the restless spirits of that large country that would travel to Haapsalu and feel as if they were at the ends of the earth.

Down the neck of Haapsalu that sticks out into the sea, there is also Peter Tchaikovsky's Bench, where the great composer would spend his summers watching the sunsets and dreaming up musical landscapes of his own creation. They just don't make them like Tchaikovsky anymore, do they. I could see why he preferred Haapsalu. It indeed has a timeless quality; there is a narcotic-like peacefulness that flows through the air.

Haapsalu really started to come into its own during the 19th century as a summer destination, and there is a flavor of the last secure days of the tsars to the place. In 1825, the first sanatoriums began offering mud treatments. The idea is to use the natural properties of warm, Baltic mud to cure people's aches and pains. I haven't tried it, so I'll decline to mock it.

Beyond the Tchaikovsky Bench, we made our way to the Aibolands Museum, the museum of the Estonian Swedes. It was unfortunately closed, and we called up the operators, listed in our tourist brochure {which had said it was open} but, alas, they had returned to their homes across the bay in Noarootsi Parish.

Noarootsi is the last bastion of the Estonian Swedes. Thanks to Estonia's restitution laws, hundreds of the assimilated Swedes in that country found themselves suddenly owners of property in Estonia again in the early 1990s. A few older people have returned, but most have decided to turn their family homes into summer houses, and in summertime the shops in Birkas and Österby are said to brim with "Tack så mycket" and "Hej Där."

Like most great summer places, Haapsalu is home to a plethora of galleries, with an emphasis on painters and weavers. Viewing their work, I again felt the all encompassing air of Haapsalu descend on my being. It was if the multicolored shawls on sale went with the pleasant-colored shop and the stone streets with the castle behind. Some mystical art director was behind it all.

At that moment, I wanted to remake all of Estonia in Haapsalu's image; to make all the old dilapidated buildings shine the way that Haapsalu shined. Even the people in Haapsalu seemed more attractive than on average. I was quite obviously losing my bearings. If I had seen any more gingerbread lattice work or tow-headed women, I might have gone mad.

The last stop on our trek was the castle itself, the Haapsalu piiskopilinnus. The castle was the stronghold of the Bishopric of Ösel-Wiek, a medieval theological microstate that ruled over most of modern Lääne, Hiiu, and Saare counties -- present-day Estonia's west coast. From 1228 to 1572, the area was subject to cold, hard Teutonic bishops with names like Hartung, Konrad, and Winrich. During the Great Northern War, the castle, already damaged by centuries of warfare, was finally laid ruin. Today, it is a gigantic open-air museum.

At some point while walking amongst the ruins of the castle, I became immensely jealous of the people of Haapsalu, the haapsalulased. They did not appear to lead rough lives. Instead, their city park was a sprawling medieval castle. Their front yard was a tranquil arm of the Baltic Sea. Their environment was colored by neat, adorable houses fit for Swedish postage stamps.

As I watched a group of children spin themselves around on a fun-inviting, bishopric-sized playground at the foot of the castle, I came to the conclusion that I, like Tchaikovsky before me, had just come face to face with one of my favorite places.

* see comments

reede, september 12, 2008


I am not sure if you paid attention to this most recent scandal in Finnish-Estonian bilateral relations, but, in summary, it comes down to some comments attributed to President Tarja Halonen.

Halonen told YLE, in regards to Finland's position on the Georgian conflict in the context of Baltic foreign policies, the following:

"It is to the benefit of the European Union as well to have countries that are free of those sort of post-traumatic situations and a country that is relatively cool-headed, matter-of-fact and constructive.

I concur with the assessments saying that Finland positioned itself on the middle ground and perhaps slightly closer to Russia. Finland is not the northernmost Baltic country but the easternmost Nordic country."

It would be justifiable to accuse the Finnish president of a strategy of appeasement towards its large, wealthy, violence-prone eastern neighbor, the Russian Federation. But there is truth in the words of this social democrat, who is decades older than many Estonian policy makers; truth that most people would prefer not to discuss in Estonian political circles.

One truth is that Estonia absolutely does have post-Soviet baggage. How could it not? The second truth is that Finland is looking out for Finland. That is what, as president of Finland, Halonen is charged to do.

There is also a larger truth in Halonen's words. That truth is that Finland creates security for Estonia. The presence of Finnish banks, Finnish industry, Finnish tourists and, overall, Finnish investment, gives the Estonians a sense of security that they might not have otherwise. And so Estonian parliamentarians can raise all the hell they want in relations with Russia, because the blanket of Nordic normalcy keeps Estonia warm and dry.

A lot of people were on edge when riots broke out in Tallinn last year. Some predicted the end of times for the Estonian republic. But I didn't. Why? It wasn't just because of those two NATO planes flying overhead. It was because there is so much Nordic capital here that it would be politically impossible to impose a Soviet-style military occupation on this country again, especially over that controversy.

That hasn't even been an option in Georgia, at least for the moment. Russia's goal was to have a loyal stooge in power in its neighboring country. That is why the Russian objective for Estonia is to create a special relationship with domestic political parties that will basically adopt a Halonen-style policy towards Moscow. In other words, Kekkoslovakia redux.

People might criticize the Halonen line, but Finland is a well-ordered, wealthy country with a diversified economy. Lip service may cost the Finns some pride, but that pride is made up for in capital which, in the end, benefits the Finnish people. The Finns, though, believe they are different, and here is the contrast with the Estonians, who do not see their future through the lens of Nordic exceptionalism. Finns looked at Georgians and saw "them." Estonians looked at "them" and saw "us."

One untruth, though, maybe in Halonen's description of Finland as the "eastern most Nordic country" with regards to its Russia policies. That doesn't jive with the position of fellow Nordic country Sweden on the conflict in Georgia, does it? Wasn't Sweden also pushing for a hard European line? Isn't Denmark similarly friendly to Ukraine and Georgia's NATO aspirations? Finland's stance seems more isolationist than "Nordic." If "Nordic" means being pro-Moscow, then perhaps Finland is not only the easternmost Nordic country, but the only Nordic country, period.

kolmapäev, september 10, 2008

toimii kuin junan vessa

"Toimii kuin junan vessa" -- it works like a train toilet. This is supposedly a compliment in Finland, a land where everything presumably works.

But when I heard this saying today in Helsinki, I couldn't help but think of that train toilet I once came face to face with in Italy that was caked with the abominable stench of humanity. If Finns are thinking of functional train toilets, they certainly aren't thinking of that one!

Like a greenhorn in the big city, going from Tallinn to Helsinki takes your breath away. Tallinn only has some big buildings; Helsinki is mostly made of big buildings. Tallinn is built like an inflatable Scandinavian tourist getaway; Helsinki is built to last. In Tallinn, a sizable percentage of everyone you meet knows someone you know; in Helsinki, you are but a small speck on the impeccably functioning toilet called Finland.

The Finnish and Estonian languages are similar enough that I am tempted to speak Estonian at every juncture. But even trying to speak Finnish can get you in trouble. For example, the Finnish word for "eight" is written as "kahdeksan." The Estonian word for "eight" is "kaheksa." But when I said "kahdeksan" to my taxi driver, who said he spoke "little English," he gave me a weird look and said, "kaheksa?" back at me. I am told that the Finnish spoken around Helsinki is quite similar to Estonian in some respects.

And nobody says "terve" or "näkemiin" -- both of which I use because I equate them with "tere" and "nägemist." In Finland, it's "moi" this and "moi moi" that. "Terve" is for old farts. "Moi" is what the guys from Lordi say to each other when they show up for band rehearsal. In Estonia, a "harbor" is called a "sadam," but in Finland it's a "satama." The tabloids look almost identical, the only difference being the longer, screwier looking headlines in the Finnish editions. I walk into a supermarket and the products are nearly identical; even the bakery sells rice "pirukaat." The open air markets offer up heaps of mushrooms and berries.

Estonia and Finland also share a lot of brands. Estonia is in some ways an extension of the Finnish market; an extra 15 counties, if you will. Finns and Estonians both have R-Kiosk and Anttila and K-Rautakesko and Seppälä and, most importantly, Stockmann. This common commercial environment leads one to feel as if they are still in the same country; just a slightly different part of it.

Finland, though, seems more uniform. The street signs in a city like Turku are all the same. In some Estonian cities, though, including Tallinn, you'll find all different sizes and shapes of street signs, some still bilingual, some not. It's just a mess, and it's a mess that is reflected in the eclectic mishmash of architectural styles that are erected not to serve some greater purpose of Estonianness, but because the developer could save money that way.

If there's one thing that irks my inner pinko, it is the rejection of society, period, in some veins of Estonian thought. It's just mina, mina, mina -- my suvila, my BMW, my shopping center. I'll make my snail tower as ugly as I like it, because it's all about my vision -- screw the city skyline of Tartu! If there's one take home message from this country for Estonia, it's that a little more meie can help make things better for the entire country, which ultimately trickles down to sina ja mina. In other words, the train toilet should work for all of us.

Oh well, forgive me my moment of preachy indiscretion. Maybe 48 hours in Finland is a little too much for someone like me.

esmaspäev, september 08, 2008


"As a strange inheritance from the Soviet era, Ida Virumaa sometimes seems to be an alien in its own land."

These words from Indrek Rohtmets' A Cultural Guide to Estonia rang in my head as our car passed the sign marking our passage into Ida Viru county last Friday. I was looking for signs of something different, because, to most Estonians Ida Virumaa is both so faraway and so close.

The main differentiator in the Estonian mindset, is the ethno-linguistic difference. Only about one-fifth of Ida Virumaa's population of 174,000 belongs to the exclusive category known as "ethnic Estonians."

Needless to say, when I asked a relative in March 2007 why he voted for the right-wing Isamaa-Res Publica party, he said it was to "cancel out" the votes of the Russophone, Center Party-backers in Ida Virumaa. So, enough Russians to set your mind afire with Russophobia is expectation number one.

Expectation number two is that the "industrial northeast" is a post-Soviet petri dish of pathologies; of heroin junkies siphoning bathtub gin across the River Narva; of overworked miners coughing up black and red; of stateless pensioners cleaning their rifles for the day when the red ship returns; of the shocking reality of the Soviet collapse.

But driving through the countryside, I couldn't help but wonder if we had taken a wrong turn near Kunda and wound up in Ireland. Surely, the Clancy Brothers must be somewhere amongst those cottages turning up gentle smoke, whiskey in hand, green on the land, ready to pluck another tune out on the banjo.

Oh, whiskey, you're the devil, you're leadin' me astray
Over rocks and mountains, and to Amerikay!

Along the placid highway, packed with commuters going to places like Sillamäe, Jõhvi, Kohtla-Järve, and even Narva, I was disappointed to find that Ida Virumaa looked a lot like Lääne Virumaa, and, essentially, had the same creature comforts of Selver and Maxima shopping centers and Statoil and Lukoil gas stations as every other place.

As we passed Aseri, the road wound past a wind farm, one of several in Estonia. Several large propellers turned, while others sat silent. The key word of European, nay, global discourse today is energy. Some Estonian entrepreneurs have it in mind to turn Estonia into the next Denmark, using the winds of the Gulf of Finland to take care of the country's energy needs and then some. From what I understand, there have been technical and political obstacles, but, unlike a lot of plans in Estonia, this one has actually been realized. There are wind turbines in the ground; the questions are now how to support their output and where to direct it.

Estonians are gradually coming to the realization that, save some help from Finland, they are mostly on their own when it comes to energy. Talks about building a new nuclear reactor at Ignalina have hit the typical snag in Baltic rim relations -- bickering between Poland and Lithuania. The Finns might throw Estonia an extra connection or two, but if Estonia gets a nuclear power plant, chances are it will be somewhere out in Ida Virumaa.

After about 45 minutes driving along the coast, we finally came to the municipality of Sillamäe, which means "bridge hill," a bit of a contrived name if you ask me; about as believable as a road called Vikerkaar (rainbow) street in Tartu that, you guessed it, is shaped like a rainbow. Such appellations are indicative of the nutty postwar fetish for "modernity."

Sillamäe was though, in its heart and soul, a product of this era. Before 1945, the area was home to a small, Swedish-owned company. After the war, up to 20,000 people were imported to live in a closed city where fuel rods were manufactured for use as energy and weaponry. Today the population is around 15,000 and boasts such streets as "Yuri Gagarin Boulevard."

My expectations of Sillamäe basically coincided with your average Estonians' impressions of the northeast. It would be dirty; there would be flamboyant, bow-legged wimmin' soliciting money for sex; and maybe a couple heroin junkies trying to siphon some bootleg vodka from Russian territorial waters. And everything would be in that scary, extraterrestrial-looking language they call Русский -- the one where the number 3 makes a 'z' sound. When Russians dream, they don't go 'zzzzz', they go '33333.'

These expectations were not to be met. Sillamäe is in decent shape, if you compare it to some other struggling Estonian towns which I hesitate to name {this means you, Jõgeva}. The whole city is a triumph of what is called "Stalinist architecture" -- which sounds like the buildings must be made of hazardous chemicals and corpses. But it's actually quite grand. The buildings are painted a creamy yellow with white trim, the streets are lined with trees, and there's even a 'church' -- actually a townhall -- to top it off.

Used to rambling montages of Scandinavian glass boxes, 19th century wooden ghettos and Khrushchev-era apartment blocks in cities like Viljandi and Rakvere, Sillamäe's uniformity gave it the ambiance of an open-air mental institution, where everything in life, even a walk through the park, had been planned for you by some superior power in advance.

I was told by my guide that, in the late 1990s, Sillamäe really had been the shithole of my expectations, but then a fellow named Ain Kiviorg was elected mayor and cleaned the place up, putting those imagined junkies and prostitutes {in reality, just local people down on their luck} to good work picking up litter and fixing up the joint.

Around the same time, a joint group of Estonians and Scandinavians worked together to cap the local uranium dumping site, conveniently located next to the harbor, with enough clay to prevent further seepage. You see, while the Russians took much of the local industrial equipment back with them in 1994, they deemed themselves to be not responsible for the environmental negligence of "the Soviets."

The port of Sillamäe, nearby, is open for business and business could be good. However, political relations between the current Estonian government and the current Russian one are not, directly affecting not only the transit trade, but every business tangentially related to the transit trade. You'll notice that former prime minister Tiit Vähi, who built the port, has been one of the leading critics of the Ansip government. He's probably slightly annoyed with how his investment has turned out so far, but, barring wars, ports tend to outlast prime ministers, even self-appointed Russian ones.

Well, like any good local boy, Mayor Ain Kiviorg was having lunch at the Cafe Randevuu when we rolled in. The amicable woman behind the counter began the conversation with Estonian niceties and took our order. My guide rustled us up a delicious lõunasöök of chicken schnitzels and french fries, downed with a great beer on tap. For dessert we feasted on vareenikud with jam. As my buzz gained traction, I really began to fall in love with Sillamäe.

"Everyone who visits Estonia should visit this place," I hiccuped to myself. "It's just too unique to pass up."

The streets of Sillamäe were trampled underfoot by throngs of pedestrians. Old ladies, young kids, even those confined to wheel chairs made their rounds. To where they were headed, I had no idea. There are shopping centers fairly close to the center. There's a Hansapank in town. There's even a nice hotel called "Krunk", which is a pretty stereotypically Estonian hotel name for a closed city built during the days of cosmonaut and Hero of the Soviet Union Yuri Gagarin.

"The thing about Russians is they love to walk and be outside," said my guide. "You should see what this place looks like in the first weeks of spring. There are people everywhere."

Despite being surprised by this city of good feelings, though, I began to feel a bit like a sardine trapped in a tin. There were no houses in Sillamäe; only apartment blocks. And there was apparently little privacy to be found in a city of extroverts. You had an outrageous view of the Gulf of Finland, but ... so did everybody else.

I was relieved later when we got to Toila, a city that lays directly west from Sillamäe, yet looks completely different, after a few minutes of driving. The local fish canning factory, despite some wear, looked like it had been airlifted from Reykjavik. "Thank God," I thought to myself. "I'm back in eesti."

In Toila there were few apartment blocks, but plenty of neatly painted private homes, and, at the head of the village, a pristine sanatorium where you could relax in the sauna or ease your aches and pains in the swimming pool. There the sinine-must-valge Estonian flag flapped proudly in the wind.

Most of all, there was no one around. Not a soul, except for the shadows glanced through the windows of the sanatorium or a couple of guys working near the port. "Where is everybody?" I asked my guide. "They're probably all at work," he shrugged.

In Toila, I felt like I had returned to Estonia, but I wasn't quite sure where I had been. Sillamäe, with its Hansapank office and Hotel Krunk, was definitely Estonia, but an Estonia with a very different dynamic. It was, in some ways, like most of this country; a relic of another age given an appealing face lift to meet the needs of the day.

reede, september 05, 2008


If there's one thing I despise, it's journalists lecturing other journalists. But what can I say when so many news outlets have begun irresponsibly reinterpreting the Russian-Georgian conflict through the prism of potential ethnic strife in Estonia.

Among the latest events in the annals of stupidity, a gang of
supposedly ethnic Estonians in northeastern Estonia banded together to declare an "Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic" on the territory of their two farms and request recognition from the Russian Federation. A reporter from Russian state-owned news portal RIA Novosti generously reported the "news."

And the "news" went from RIA Novosti's lips to your ears. Postimees made it the top story on their website. Not only the Denver Post and The Olympian of Washington State in the US reprinted the story, but others followed suit.

"Rumors are circulating, for instance, that two groups of Russians in Estonia will soon try to secede," warns Investors Business Daily.

"The veracity of the report is dubious — 'bourgeois' is not exactly common vernacular beyond the world of Soviet propaganda — but that is not the point. Roughly one-third of the Estonian population is either ethnically Russian or linguistically Russophone," cautioned the Financial, a Georgian paper.

Except that the leader of the "Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic" quoted in the RIA Novosti piece was named Andres Tamm, about the most Estonian name a person can have. How we got from kooky Estonian agrarian communist PR stunt to ethnic revolt in Ida Virumaa, is hard to guess.

The only answer is that somebody took a few pieces of information from an untrustworthy source -- Estonia, Soviet, northeast -- and decided to disseminate news of their own creation. Supposedly, the media has gate keepers. Yet, in this case, the editors were asleep at the wheel. RIA Novosti's mental sewage was released untreated into the rivers of communication.

The new penchant for predicting problems for Estonia based on what happened in Georgia -- which, I remind you, is as far from Tallinn as Barcelona -- has been adopted by some more mainstream media sources though. In several of its recent articles, The Economist has interpreted Russia's actions in Georgia as having ramifications for Estonia's Russian minority.

"NATO needs to reassure all its members, including places like Estonia and Latvia with large Russian minorities, that they are protected by the alliance’s mutual defence guarantees," it writes in a recent editorial. "An alienated minority of stateless people, and tens of thousands who carry Russian passports, are a potential nightmare for the Baltic states and their friends," it writes in another.

Except the Abkhazians and the South Ossetians aren't ethnic Russians, nor do they claim to be. How we got from these Caucasian separatists to "Estonia is next" is almost understandable. 6.9 percent of Estonian residents hold Russian passports. The stateless -- many of them deep in middle age -- certainly have a license to gripe. But one must have a will to separate, plus a separatist movement, before one can embark on the perils of triggering World War III in Europe.

Yet, without so much as lifting a finger, let alone an AK-47, Estonian Russians have been rendered suspected enemy number one in the EU and NATO by English-language media merely by what language they choose to speak to their children.

It's not only disingenuous to infer that they are ready to shatter the sleepy landscapes of eastern Estonia for some yet-to-be articulated, hypothetical, and, in my opinion, meaningless goal. It's also a great disservice to them. The more they are demonized by irresponsible writers, the less possibilities exist for integration measures in this country. Who really wants to be friends with someone from a group that's allegedly out to stab them in the back?

I really don't know. I went to Sillamäe and other places in Ida Virumaa today, and I didn't exactly get the sense of looming conflict over anything except maybe a parking spot in front of the local Selver shopping center. The 'city' of Sillamäe is looking better; it certainly did not live up to the ominous reputation of the Russophone cities of Estonia's northeast. People go to the bank; they go to the store; they go to the park; they go to work. To steal a few words from Dirty Harry, they get up and they put their pants on.

Words to live by.

kolmapäev, september 03, 2008

sarko at the crossroads

Considering all the out of control spin that has come out of the Russia-Georgia crisis, including the bizarre and conflicting statements from the Russian foreign ministry, I figured that one more helping of pure BS wouldn't hurt.

And here is my take on the results of this week's EU summit. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is not happy with his Russian colleagues.

It's not just that Russia set up Georgia for in invasion in August; it's not just that it has illegally recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia; it's not even because more hawkish Europeans are comparing the man who called Parisian rioters "scum" to long-dead British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. {"Peace in our time," they taunt Sarkozy. "Peace in our time!"}

No, Sarkozy is not pleased with Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev because Sarkozy lives in Paris with his chanteuse Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and doesn't take it lightly when his summer vacation is interrupted by a crisis on the non-EU side of the Black Sea.

He probably didn't appreciate it that he had to fly all the way to Moscow and then all the way to Tbilisi and negotiate with gangs of hotheaded politicians with highly unreasonable demands until they signed a six-point ceasefire. And now those unscrupulous Russians have the nerve to have wasted all of his time? They have the nerve to make him fly all the way back to Moscow on Sept. 8 so he can tell them to abide by the agreement they signed just weeks before?!?

People try to make the Russians out to be masters of this game. But there is a strong whiff of improvisation coming out of Moscow. After the EU announced it would suspend talks on a new partnership agreement, the Russians first criticized the decision. Then they praised it. At least they didn't agree on sanctions, the Russian spindoctors said. Putin praised his little lemmings for making a "responsible decision." {Of course they didn't authorize them -- sanctions are a last resort before turning off ones own gas supply in protest.}

Putin may be vain and arrogant, but Nicolas Sarkozy may be as well. And my gut tells me that, deep inside, Monsieur President is more than slightly annoyed. It's not just about international law. It's not just about disproportionate use of force. It's the fact that he has been inconvenienced by Vladimir and Dmitri. We spoke earlier of the Estonians sticking out their feet to trip the Russians on the way to the front of the class. I wouldn't be surprised if, in the future, a few more countries, including France, do the same.

esmaspäev, september 01, 2008

the thin ice

British journalists often come packaged not only with their file of clippings but with individual, ideological worldviews that inevitably bring them into conflict with their fellow countrymen who practice the same trade.

That's why I hesitate to quote two of them in the same blog post, for fear of being avalanched by Anglo negativity. But two journalists, one named Peter Millar, the other Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, both of whom no doubt have loyal readers and mortal enemies, have chosen to view the EU-Russia conflict through the civilizational, rather than values lens.

In yesterday's Daily Telegraph, Evans-Pritchard writes:

The credible Nato line in Eastern Europe runs along the borders of the European Union, from the Baltics to Romania. This pits Russia against a unified bloc of 505m people. Any attempt by Moscow to peel off Estonia or Latvia by stirring up Sudeten-style irredentism among their Russian minorities would be deemed a mortal challenge by the EU's elites.

This is not to criticise David Miliband's impassioned plea in Kiev ... But Nato membership for Ukraine is playing with fire. Some 30pc of the population are native-Russian speakers. The Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts are uprisings-in-waiting along Russia's border.

In the Times, Peter Millar makes an even more overt civilizational argument:

For [David] Cameron to equate Estonia and Ukraine, as he did last week, is stupidity. Estonia’s history, language and culture are markedly separate. Forced into the Soviet Union in the second world war, it has also over the centuries been part of Sweden, and ruled by the Teutonic knights. Its language is related to Finnish.

Ukraine is another matter. Its name comes from Old Slavonicu kraju, meaning “on the edge” – in other words, borderlands. We stopped saying “the Ukraine” to make it sound more like any other country. To Russians it doesn’t.

By posting these snippets from these no doubt controversial authors, I do not necessarily endorse them. However, I find it interesting that both employ civilizational rhetoric to support Estonia's membership in the West, rather than values language. There's no reference to democracy or rule of law. Instead, NATO and the EU are conceptualized as civilizational projects.

It's kind of interesting to know what our British friends are reading.