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.

8 kommentaari:

Doris ütles ...

Early post-war (=stalinist) architecture is luckily actually relatively pleasing for the eye. Tartu centre is rebuilt mainly in the stalinist style and unless you 1)know a lot aobut architecture 2)know exactly which buildings survived the war (town hall, university main building, leaning house...) 3)know to look for the tell-all sickle and hammer on the facade of the building, which you usually just look over, never realising WHAT the thing on the wall is... you'll generally not realize that most of Tartu town hall square is actually post-1945 :)

As for what you felt in Sillam2e is in miniature what you can feel in London, Paris, Berlin or any other European city that has very suddenly gone through a growth period (read: has suddenly become very wealthy) and the powers that be in that country have decided to use the opporunity and show what they've got. the result is big imposing buildings, wide alleys, uniform houses, all that shebang. In different countries, different styles (Paris and London very 19th century) of course, but the feeling underneath is the same.

Rainer ütles ...

This is one of the most enjoyable posts by you yet, G.

Kudos (Y)

PS I personally prefer Stalinesque to Stalinist when it comes to naming architectural styles.

martintg ütles ...

It's a pity that the birth rate is so low in Estonia. All of Estonia's problems could be solved if all couples have at least 3 kids, 4 would be even better. After one generation the demographics would be better, the economy would grow, old age and retirement would be more secure. Look at the Netherlands, their country is smaller than Estonia, but they have ten times more people, so there is definitely room to grow in Estonia

Doris ütles ...

yah, but in the Netherlands they have made having babies financially a very serious thing. You get 3 months maternity leave, no "parent salary", there's no room in any daycare centers and if there is, it's so expensive that it takes half of one person's monthly salary. It's not at all the paradise everyone makes it seem to be :P

there are other redeeming factors though. Such as bacon and syrup (sp?) pancakes.

Wahur ütles ...

Sillamäe is classic stalinist era post-box town - i.e. closed, single-purpose military-scientific-industrial town. It was no-go zone for an ordinary people. And probably the count of people with scientific grades in Sillamäe exceeded that of the rest of Estonia.
I believe it should be protected by Muinsuskaitse - similar towns in Russia are most probably in ruins now and Sillamäe might easily be purest surviving Stalinist (or Stalinesque) town. And its nice, even if a bit creepy for those who know the background.

Kristopher ütles ...

I noticed one big difference in what came with my druzhba/sõpruse schnitzel in Ida-Virumaa. The thick-cut tomatoes and cucumbers were of course the same, but the carrot salad was without exception "morkovka" -- the coriander, garlic and oil version. In Lääne-Virumaa, it would have been grated carrots with juice and bits of pineapple or something - more Estonian.

Sharon B ütles ...

I've heard that concept of siphoning liquor across some body of water before - not applied to Russians or drug addicts per se, but, if I remember correctly, American booze runners from the "deep south".

The thing is - I don't get it. Sure, it's supposed to be some stereotyping thing that points out just how degenerate these people are (they siphon elicit alcohol in by veritable gallons! Such a very shocking thing in these times of prohibition!), but the entire concept is just bizarre.

Surely, the plumbing needed to adequate convey clear spirits across a wide body of water without irredeemably corrupting the "goods" would be prohibitively expensive? Wouldn't you need to be exceptionally well off and industrious to pull off such a feat? Especially when it would be so much cheaper and easier to set up a still in your back yard and steal a sack of potatoes?

And, what crazy people on the other side of the large body of water would have the resources to make gallons and gallons of alcohol - in quantities great enough to make the whole siphoning process physically work - and stupid enough to send them under water via a system of pipes that could fail at any moment?

What kind of degenerate reprobates would be wealthy enough and clever enough to actually make this work? What kind of insanely wealthy, yet clearly insane people would join them in this scheme?

Giustino ütles ...


My riffing was based on stories like these from The Baltic Times [Nov 14, 2007 edition, subscription only]:

An argument outside a bar in the northeastern city of Kohtla-Jarve during the Nov. 10 weekend ended in a hand grenade blast in which miraculously no one was hurt. The blast went off at a bar in Kalevi Street where a row broke out between two men, according to prosecutor Antti Aitsen. “One of the parties in the conflict, Alexey, 33, carried an (anti-personnel) F-1 grenade, which went off for reasons not yet established,” said Aitsen. The suspect is now in police custody.

Yet another operation in which criminals have been pumping bootleg alcohol from Russia into Estonia through a hose underneath the Narva River was discovered and shut down on Nov. 12. The Estonian Border Guard said that Russian customs workers in Ivangorod caught a local man red-handed pumping hundreds of liters of alcohol through the hose. The incident is at least the fourth such operation to be shut down since 2004.