teisipäev, detsember 28, 2010

firing king kong

Blogger Flasher T of Antyx has an excellent rundown of the latest scandal to hit Edgar Savisaar, mayor of Tallinn and leader of the Centre Party (Keskerakond), the second largest party in the Estonian parliament.

In that post (and in other media) it is strongly hinted that someone within Savisaar's own party might have tipped off the Estonian secret services to Savisaar's attempts to procure money from Russia to finance the party's campaigns in the March 2011 parliamentary elections. Flasher also insinuated that the secret services were pressured to leak to story to the press. Savisaar has denied any wrongdoing, and still looks set to lead his party in March.

That might be good for the Centre Party in the short term -- Savisaar is still their most attractive candidate and biggest vote getter -- but in the long term, it is becoming more obvious that the man needs to go. SDE's departure from the Tallinn city coalition following the scandal did not exactly cause a political earthquake -- their share of the city government was small -- but it was a symbolic move, one that will remind Savisaar of the challenge the Centre Party would have in forming a parliamentary coalition. And the Centre Party cannot rule the Estonian parliament alone. It needs partners.

The inability of Centre to form a coalition ultimately hurts its voters. If the Reform and IRL parties really represent the interests of those who have benefitted most from neoliberal/conservative economic and social policies, then Centre and SDE should represent the losers (and there are a lot of them). In order for the losers to change the current policies, the power in parliament would have to reverse. That would require a center-left coalition, yet such a coalition is impossible as long as Savisaar stays in power. At the same time, it would be hard to get enough votes to form such a coalition without Savisaar's name at the top of the list.

It's likely that no one within the Centre Party wants to tell Savisaar that he has to go. Too many people owe him for their political careers. It would be like firing King Kong. At the same time, they must know that if they ever want to form a coalition in the Estonian parliament, they'll need a new leader.

kolmapäev, detsember 08, 2010

the mock outrage

Now that the "secret" contingency plans to defend the Baltic countries in the event of an attack have been "leaked" by Wikileaks and splashed across the pages of most global media outlets, a curious exchange of diplomatic doublespeak is underway.

It goes like this. Officially, NATO does not see Russia as a threat. But if the alliance has drawn up new contingency plans in case of a potential Russian attack on its members, then it does see it as a threat. Or maybe not. Here's Estonian Defense Minister Jaak Aaviksoo to explain:

Commenting on the US Tallinn Embassy cables published by Wikileaks, Minister of Defense Jaak Aaviksoo said neither Estonia nor NATO have reason to consider Russia an enemy. Speaking on ERR radio, Aaviksoo said that drafting plans was a natural part of all defense endeavors. (courtesy ERR)

It's just natural to prepare for an possible attack, even if your neighbor officially poses no threat, though they recently held war games on their side of the border simulating the seizure of your country, right? Well, the Russians are naturally offended by the mere idea that there would be plans to defend Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania from an attack. Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to NATO, said that Moscow "must get some assurances that such plans will be dropped, and that Russia is not an enemy for NATO."

What infuriates me about this is how everyone has to tiptoe around Moscow. "Ok, Baltic States, we'll give you your contingency plans, but you must promise not to talk about it." Best not to offend the Russians. They are nuclear armed and unpredictable. We wouldn't want to actually let on that should Russia attack NATO member states, such actions might compel the alliance to come to their defense!

It appears that Russia still has a bit of a Baltic problem. According to their foreign policy, they have a "privileged interest" in the post-Soviet space. As the Baltic countries were once (unwilling) parts of the Soviet Union, that would seem to consign them to Russia's sphere of influence. However, the Baltic countries have joined the alliances of the West and therefore cannot be considered part of such a privileged sphere. I mean, Estonia will adopt the euro in a matter of weeks. Could it get any more obvious? They have left the "post-Soviet space," which would behoove Moscow to treat them like other European countries in the region, Finland, Sweden, and more recently, Poland.

On many levels, Estonian-Russian relations are just as normal as in those other countries. Russian tourists visit Estonia in droves. Cultural relations are humming along. Business relations tend to be good, when the politicians don't screw things up. But that's just it. The key obstacle to improvements in relations is political. A Russian foreign minister has not visited Estonia in the past 19 years! The Russian elite apparently cannot find the will to normalize relations, and yet they demonstrate mock outrage when "secret" contingency plans to defend the Baltic countries are published.

It's almost as if the Russians prefer to use the Baltics as a stumbling block in their relations with NATO.

teisipäev, detsember 07, 2010

early christmas present

British newspaper The Guardian has published this December 2009 US Embassy cable out of Tallinn, noting the Estonians' welcoming of the decision to expand NATO contingency plans to cover Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Paul Teesalu, director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Security Policy Division, is quoted as calling the decision an "early Christmas present."

Global media outlets have already published NATO's "secret plan" to defend the Baltics in case of Russian aggression. To me, this seems like old news. I've known about the contingency planning for months, for so long that I can't even remember where I found out about it. I have no special security clearance.

This article provides some more detailed information that I didn't know before: "Nine Nato divisions – US, British, German, and Polish – have been identified for combat operations in the event of armed aggression against Poland or the three Baltic states. North Polish and German ports have been listed for the receipt of naval assault forces and British and US warships."

Also interesting is from where the resistance to the contingency planning came. There are the usual suspects: "Attempts [in the past] ... to push through defence planning for the Baltic were stymied by German-led opposition in western Europe, anxious to avoid upsetting the Kremlin." The Germans were later assuaged to back the planning to reassure the edgy Baltics, on the condition that the Baltics agreed to the reset with Russia. But the Poles at first were also hesitant to expanding contingency plans to cover the Baltics. "They did not want the Polish plan to be diluted or held hostage in case other allies opposed adding the Baltic states."

esmaspäev, november 29, 2010


I keep checking WikiLeaks for the horde of secret diplomatic cables out of the US Embassy in Tallinn. "Local demagogue known for shady real estate dealings!" "Wealthy chocolatier may have connections to organized crime!"

No such luck. Just more about Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran, and Israel. *Yawn* Guess they haven't caught on yet that Estonia is the center of the universe.

This week, the group seeks to release 251,287 leaked US embassy cables, 610 of which are out of Estonia, though they aren't up yet. It's prompted mass media coverage and fiery op-eds about freedom of information in the 21st century. I am sure all journalism majors out there will be writing about this for their senior paper. I personally am neither a friend nor foe of the effort. They got me with this line though:

Every American schoolchild is taught that George Washington – the country’s first President – could not tell a lie. If the administrations of his successors lived up to the same principle, today’s document flood would be a mere embarrassment.

George Washington? I see we've headed back to the Enlightenment. It confuses my cynical 21st century soul. I keep reading that line over and over again and shaking my head and looking at the photo of WikiLeaks' enigmatic front man Julian Assange wondering if I've slipped into some forgotten episode of The X-Files where Crispin Glover has been cast as an Andy Warhol-lookalike computer hacker.

While I am, like everybody, keen to learn more about US policy, I would also appreciate if WikiLeaks provided more information on other countries. Because of its access to those cables, global interest, plus perhaps the prevalance of English, the bulk of the material seems to be about the US. As an American, I have to say, not fair! An international media organization should provide more content than that. In other words, where are the confidential Russian cables, Julian? We in Estonia await more.

laupäev, november 27, 2010

how very european

Been back in Eesti for few weeks, but so busy, busy, busy with finishing my book that I haven't had time to write anything.

Being back in Viljandi, I was struck by how European it is. My first impression was of a cartoon when I saw was younger, where Charlie Brown goes to France and winds up sleeping in an abandoned chateau (and plenty of Viljandi still has that "abandoned chateau" look). And Snoopy, dressed as the World War I Flying Ace, goes to the pub every night and has a root beer.

Here's the film, Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don't Come Back!!) (1980) I guess I am dating myself!

In Kuressaare, too, I kept having that itchy, "Where am I? Europe?" feeling. Something about the crooked lanes, colorful facades. This was driven home by the fact that the hotel in which we stayed was largely designed for Russian tourists. I wonder how they even get to Kuressaare. By private plane to Arnold Rüütel International Airport? The first 10 or so channels on the TV were Russian channels, loud boisterous, lots of snappy dance numbers and game shows with flashing lights and masses of people. Very interesting to watch, especially when you stepped outside into the quiet order of Kuressaare in November. Maybe it was the lengthy Danish rule. Dunno.

Besides the Russians, the city is dense with Swedish and Finnish pensioners. In fact, my impression of Russians is now based on sexy pop groups and chaotic game shows, and my impression of Finns and Swedes is now based on old people who enjoy mud treatments. I know it isn't so, but seeing is believing!

Now to the maps. There's been some persistent chatter on this blog and others about to whom Estonians are most related to genetically, as if this has some bearing on politics, preference in soft drink, fondness for repetitive accordion numbers. Here is a review of a study from a year ago. In it you can see that the Finns (and the southern Italians) truly are the genetic weirdos of Europe.

When it comes to relatives in Europe, the Finns' closest cousins really are the Estonians and the Swedes. Enlarge the map above, and you will see the Swedes and Estonians drifting away from the genetic arch of Europe towards the Finnish oddballs. However, they have different starting points. The Estonians starting position is closer to the Russians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Poles, while the Swedes are closer to the Germans and Austrians. But here you can see that the Estonians are not as closely related to the Baltic and Slavic populations as those populations are to one another. I am not sure why this should interest us. Geneticists make these maps to trace the heritability of human disease, not to make political arguments or comment on emotional disposition. But, anyway, look at all those shapes, blue circles, red triangles. Eye candy!

pühapäev, november 07, 2010


What did I expect from Los Angeles? Dragnet, Joe Friday, Frank Gannon, the Virgin Connie Swale, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, hot dogs, Ice Cube, Venice Beach, Big Kahuna burgers, guitar solos, Emilio Estevez, gin and juice, rollerblades, the OJ Simpson trial, afros, boob jobs, Michael Jackson's doctor, Melrose Place, Liz Taylor's dead husbands. What I got was a lift to the Los Angeles Estonian House courtesy of an Estonian woman with a Pakistani name.

By that point, I was afraid I had completely forgotten the Estonian language,but it comes back to me with Saima, rushing in, and it occurred to me what a peculiar thing it is to know more than one language. I've been on what accounts to a book tour for most of this year, and I agreed to present at the LA Eesti Maja. It's in a single-story, pueblo-like structure in one of the city's neighborhoods, and neighborhoods are the skeleton key to understanding Los Angeles, but I can't remember in what LA neighborhood the Estonian House is situated. Something something "Hills" or "Park" or "Heights" maybe.

Inside, it was like the New York Estonian House, the dim lighting, the flags, the portraits of Johan Laidoner and Konstantin Päts, Lennart Meri and Toomas Hendrik Ilves "Rüütel didn't send us one," a gentleman says. Then the dolls in national costume, the choirs, the Saku beer, the imported issues of Kroonika with the photos of national "celebrities" and their love lives. The Estonian press is so starved for material you can tell them almost anything and they'll report it. Faux Esto Celebrity: "I don't feel well today. Maybe something I ate. Can we do the interview tomorrow?" Estonian Tabloid: "Faux Esto Celebrity Ill!" Stranger on Los Angeles Street Approaching Faux Esto Celebrity Clutching Imported Estonian Tabloid: "Hey, esse, are you feeling okay? I read you were sick, bro"

Yes. It's a pity I haven't joined forces with the Estonian comedy troupes, even just to heckle them, because by now because all book tours basically become standup comedy routines. The return of Seinfeld. Cue the popping, synthetic basslines. Cue Kramer. Cue Newman. I ramble on about the foundation of the publishing house, the struggle to finish a book -- and it's my first book, ok -- but the audience doesn't want to hear that, they want to hear funny stories about meat jelly. "It's clear and it jiggles and it has something in it. They tell me it's 'meat and it's delicious.' I ask, 'what kind of meat is it?' and then I ask, 'from what part of the animal?'" "That's good," they roar. "Now tell us about blood sausage!" And I tell them.

Estonians are so polite. I am afraid to cuss in front of them for fear that they might blush. And, you know, a lot of them are quite short, sturdy and round: the little people. Maybe the Hobbit comparisons aren't off their mark. I really like when an Estonian is even taller than me, someone like Jaak Aaviksoo, you know, and you talk, and the Estonian leans in like Lyndon Johnson to hear, just to let you know that they may wear ties now, but their forefathers carried battle axes. It is in the midst of the polite Estonians that I become acutely aware of my Mediterranean hilltop peasant roots, dirt that cannot be scrubbed free. What do the singing elephants think of me?

And here's the calendar I've been waiting to see, the one with the photos of Estonians in military uniform, German military uniform. It hangs innocently on the wall and I suppose there is nothing wrong with it, to those who will listen, except the conscripted soldiers are smiling like they actually are having a swell time under foreign military occupation. "It was a great time," they say, "they gave us these cool uniforms, neat guns, three squares a day." There's something very hazy and peculiar and Los Angeles about the whole scene, like they really shot the photos somewhere up in the smog of the Hollywood Hills.

The Estonians don't talk about the calendar though. They offer you food, they offer you beer, they offer you coffee, they want to talk about languages and lives and the coming of the euro. Everyone is so polite. Why are they so polite to me? I look around at the faces in the room and they all look similar, the Uralic eyes, the Teutonic ears. They are all related, they've been together for a long, long time. From the marshlands to the mesas, from the Läänemeri to the Pacific Ocean. And this is the end. There is nowhere else to go. The kids speak Estonian, but the grandkids? I tell them I am disappointed in LA. I was expecting to see Angelina Jolie. "I'll go call her," a gentleman says and walks out the door. "Angelina will be right over."

Cue Cesar. My college roommate enters with his gal Jenna, she of the Cheviot Hills/Culver City borderlands. Cesar used to take half-hour showers screaming Del the Funkee Homosapien lyrics from our eighth-floor window. Now he's the real thing, a hip hop John Travolta. Cesar's got shoulder-length black hair, a faint mustache. He doesn't look like he comes to the Estonian House often, but is here now, and he's here because of me.

From the Estonian House to the Hollywood Cemetery. Dia de los Muertos. Horns, drums, skulls, sombreros, puppets, portable toilets, glowing lights, altars, beef burritos, skeleton earrings and pipes, Frida Kahlo badges, dresses and braids, sugary churros, painted faces, t-shirts that read chicano and chicana, and at its beating heart, the furnace of death, the Mexicans.

Mexican chicas are as beautiful as Estonian plikad, their superb beauty in part because of what the geneticists call "admixture." The chicas are toasting the dead out in Hollywood, they celebrate death, they're playing death on the radio. Muy delicioso! "What should I get Epp? I don't want to scare her." "You've got to get her something with skulls," Jenna answers, a cigarette hanging from her lips. "Then she'll really know you've been to LA." And I like the city, I like the day of the dead because just as there is something to being Estonian, there is something to being Mexican. But what does it mean to be American? "What do you want for breakfast?" Jenna asks the next morning, groggy. "Mexican or Hawaiian?" What does it mean?

teisipäev, oktoober 19, 2010

the next prime minister (after the next one)

The Estonian Social Democratic Party (Sotsiaaldemokraatlik Erakond) selected a new leader last week. Sven Mikser, 36, a former defense minister, has now pledged to lead his party to victory and take his rightful place as prime minister in Stenbock House. In 2015.

Mikser's political pedigree is a bit like SDE's itself. For the first half of his public life, he belonged to Edgar Savisaar's Centre Party (Eesti Keskerakond). Then, in 2005, he left the "green monster" for SDE, where he quickly became one of the party's top candidates.

Several SDE leaders have a similar background. Both Centre and SDE emerged from the Estonian Popular Front in the early nineties, but SDE has been more able to form a coalition with right-wing parties, most recently one in 2007 which lasted until the party was expelled from the government in 2009. The main obstacle to reconciliation between the more politically similar Centre and SDE has been the leadership style of Centre's Savisaar. Following the municipal elections last year, former SDE leader Jüri Pihl led the party into a coalition with Centre in Tallinn.

Pihl stood again for the party leadership last week but was ousted by those supporting Mikser. It is now his unenviable duty to return the party to its ideological roots, steering it away from its negative image as a "poodle" for the conservative and liberal parties, while dealing with the 800-pound gorilla of Savisaar's Centre Party.

The Estonian electorate tends to favor the conservative and liberal parties in parliamentary elections. One reason for this is that they have mostly been in power since 1991. That gives them the advantage of experience and the ability to take credit for everything Estonia has achieved. But with high unemployment, Estonians are also edgier than they were during the boom years. And with most of Europe still climbing out of recession, the ability to just head to the UK for work isn't there anymore.

The appearance of a candidate like Mikser who has the experience of conservative or liberal politician but who speaks to their economic interests might convince voters who have traditionally voted Reform or Isamaa to choose SDE, and it might sway some younger Centre voters to ditch their candidate for someone fresher.

But it is an uphill battle. Most Estonian voters I have encountered are pretty uninformed when it comes to left-wing politics. They refer to social democrats as "socialists," which, in their mind, might as well be communists or anarcho-syndicalists. This is why SDE's website has for months, if not years, been playing a clip that lists Tony Blair, Tarja Halonen, and Olof Palme (not Daniel Ortega, Fidel Castro, and Lê Duẩn) as social democrats.

Will Mikser realize his goal of becoming prime minister in 2015? It could happen. On one hand, he lacks the experience of the Ansips and Laars and Savisaars and Pihls of Estonian politics, but, on the other hand, he doesn't have their baggage either. He also happens to have an impressive command of the English language.

teisipäev, oktoober 12, 2010

who is running europe?

When you are into geopolitics, you may catch yourself feeling like a nerd with an odd hobby.

When other people get together, they argue about sports. When you get together with your friends, you argue about undersea gas pipelines.

Fortunately, there are other geopolitics junkies among us. Stratfor, the US-based global intelligence firm, is one of many that gives us our badly needed fix. A recent piece by Marko Papic, entitled "NATO's lack of strategic concept" delivers.

The central thesis of the report is common knowledge. The NATO alliance is internally divided over its future. The "Atlanticists" want to focus on so-called "soft security" threats: terrorism, cybersecurity. "Core Europe," defined in the piece as Germany and France, wants to trim down the alliance and seek consultations with Russia and the UN. The "Intermarum" countries, which run from the Baltic to Black Seas, would like to see NATO as a European territorial defense force, a security guarantee against Russia.

Who is strongest? According to Papic, the odds favor Core Europe, and especially Germany, the continent's "political leader." The emergence of Berlin as the most powerful capital in Europe was the "logical result of the Cold War’s end and of German reunification, though it took 20 years for Berlin to digest East Germany and be presented with the opportunity to exert its power," Papic writes. "Europe’s fate in May 2010 amid the Greek sovereign debt crisis hinged not on what the EU bureaucracy would do, or even on what the leaders of most powerful EU countries would collectively agree on, but rather what direction came from Berlin. This has now sunk in for the rest of Europe."

Berlin now wants to use the current crisis to "reshape the European Union in its own image," Papic writes. Meanwhile, Paris wants to "manage Berlin’s rise and preserve a key role for France in the leadership of the European Union." Atlanticist countries, traditional wary of a strong Germany like Denmark and the UK, are strengthening their ties to the US, perhaps in light of this.

Where does Estonia fall in this scheme? Papic has the country pegged as an Intermarum state, but I would say Estonia also behaves like an Atlanticist country. While Estonia is very keen to see a NATO able to fulfill its Article 5 obligations, Tallinn does host the alliance's Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence. Estonia is also committed to the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, where its troops serve alongside British and Danish and American ones in some of those countries' most dangerous territories.

What are the reasons for this ardent Atlanticism? One could certainly point out that the president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, was educated in the US as an example of close ties between the countries. But Estonia has deep historical links to traditionally Atlanticist countries. America's non-recognition policy kept the country alive on paper for close to 50 years. Denmark and Iceland were the first countries to recognize that restored independence, and I always conceptualized Estonia's membership in NATO as being similar to Denmark or Norway or Iceland's membership in the alliance.

So Estonia is partially Atlanticist. It has a cyberdefense center and troops outside of NATO's original theater of operations. But does this even matter when Germany is intent on reshaping the EU in its "own image"? One has to wonder what this even means. For Estonia certainly has drawn close to Berlin since it reemerged as a free country on the map of Europe. When Estonian lawmakers were given in the early 1990s the choice between adopting old civil law, which was based on tsarist law, or to make new laws, they voted to copy much of their civil code from one country, Germany. When they introduced their new currency, the kroon, they pegged it to the deutschmark, and later the euro. In a few months, Estonia will share the same currency with Germany, and 16 other states.

One can go on and on like this, selecting choice details to construct the image of a post-1989 Germany that was bent on dismantling Yugoslavia and digesting it piece by piece and turning the Baltic Sea into an inner lake of Europe, two geopolitical goals that were shared by earlier German statesmen, by the way. Average Germans will fervently deny that their state is bent on continental domination, but if that is the case, how did their state come to dominate the continent?

Estonians similarly would protest that their accession to European and transatlantic organizations had little to do with Germany. But Germany is at the heart of most organizations they have struggled to join. It's also among most recent in a line of great powers to have designs for the Baltic region. And the genius of Germany's rise, when you think about it, is that no one even sees it. So try flipping it around. Imagine an Estonia in a military alliance with the Russian Federation, a member an economic and political union with the Russian Federation, a part of a free travel area with the Russian Federation. It sounds ominous to our ears, in part because of history, in part because we have now become accustomed to the opposite.

Estonians and other countries in the Intermarum are always cautious about German-Russian deals. But Estonia is in the same military alliance as Berlin, it is the same economic and political union with Berlin, and it soon will have the same currency as Berlin. This begs the question: has there already been a deal?

pühapäev, oktoober 03, 2010

furious anger

Coming from New York, I usually give The New York Times a pass. Compared to the wildly popular (and yellow) tabloids like The New York Post or the New York Daily News, or even the The Wall Street Journal's preachy editorial page, it retains a semblance of clarity.

Unfortunately, the Times' recent coverage of the Baltic region continues to disappoint. At first I excused it as the fault of having a correspondent cover the Baltics from Moscow. But excuses have turned to disappointment, which has led to disgust and finally anger. Particularly worrisome is a article that appeared this week on Latvian parliamentary elections.

It's not that the writer, Michael Schwirtz, has his angle wrong: Latvia's economic woes have made Harmony Center, a party with ties to Putin's United Russia, more popular. I won't argue with that. But the language in which he coaches his account of Latvian politics since 1991 is suspect.

First, Latvia is tiny. "Unable to physically uproot the country from its tiny plot next to Russia, they sought to integrate as deeply as possible with the West." The dimunutive size of the Baltic countries, particularly when compared to Russia, the largest country in the world, is an attribute that is constantly recited by American journalists. Why? I think it is because by explaining away Latvia's smallness, American readers don't have to feel responsible for knowing where it is. But would The New York Times call Denmark tiny? How about the Netherlands? They are both smaller than Latvia. And Latvia is three times larger than Israel, something to think about when you consider that miniscule country's, um, tiny territorial conflicts.

Second, the article presents the foil of the West as something to which Latvia does not exactly belong. "The crisis, which hit harder here than anywhere else in Europe, shattered Latvians’ illusions of the West as a bastion of easy wealth and eternal prosperity." The West suffers a significant economic crash and Latvia suffers a tremendous economic meltdown, but they are not one and the same? Swedish banks bail out Iceland and Latvia in the same year under similar conditions, but somehow the crisis that is most similar to Latvia's doesn't even merit mention in the article. And, wouldn't you know it, but Iceland's crisis brought a left-leaning constellation of parties to power. It's not even fodder for an article: that's a whole goddamn PhD dissertation right there. But The New York Times doesn't connect the dots.

Third, the localization of history. "Despite Soviet and many modern Russian claims to the contrary, it is a period that the local populations consider an occupation." On June 18, 1940, Mr. Schwirtz's own paper's headline read: "Red Forces Speed into Baltic States; Push Occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania." The lead was, "Soviet Russia, which won important military concessions from Finland by war, was rushing troops and tanks tonight to new Baltic bases seized from Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania by ultimatum." Ooh, occupation, troops, tanks, seized by ultimatum? There are no weasel words in there, are there?

How is it possible that The New York Times can ignore its own reporting from the time in question? It took me three minutes to pull that from the online archive. And it's not like the United States government doesn't take a stance on the matter. This July, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Welles declaration. "This milestone document supported the Baltic States as independent republics at a critical moment to ensure their international recognition and facilitate the continued operation of their diplomatic missions during 50 years of occupation," Clinton stated.

Then there's the rehashing of Latvia's citizenship laws. "When they gained independence, the new Baltic governments enacted policies that alienated and oppressed the Russian-speaking population." This is just terrible. It's like he lifted it from a Russia Today or ITAR-TASS article, or maybe just a Russian foreign ministry press release. First of all, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania all have different policies regarding citizenship, not to mention minority rights. But look at the highly subjective language Schwirtz uses: "alienated", "oppressed." If he wanted to be taken seriously at all, he would have qualified it: "some say that Latvia enacted policies that have left them feeling alienated and oppressed." Then he would merely be reporting, which is his job, instead of editorializing.

Finally, a return to the script: "Latvia’s president, Valdis Zatlers, who has the power to appoint the prime minister, has vowed to ignore the candidacy of any politician who does not plan to continue Latvia’s Western course" paired with these final words of wisdom, contained in a quote: "We need to work with [Russia] in economy and culture. They have everything; they have gas and they have oil."

To me, it appears that The New York Times has taken the Ukrainian story and tried to apply it to Latvia. It's the dreaded "post-Soviet" line, where all off the former Soviet republics eventually fall under the control of Moscow. I think this is actually comforting to some Western journalists, because it allows them to excuse their laziness with grand ideas that they don't actually understand. The decoy of the Soviet Union or Russia as an anchor of regional stability is from a historical perspective quite laughable, but Western journalists keep falling for it, because it allows them to extricate themselves from tricky debates over Crimea or South Ossetia or Latvian citizenship laws, "quarrels in far-away countries between people of whom we know nothing," to borrow a line from one British prime minister. Better to leave it to the Russians. I mean, they have everything: both gas and oil.

Interestingly, Latvia managed to deviate from the script this week. Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis's center-right coalition was reelected. As Schwirtz wrote about Harmony Center yesterday, "the party appeared to make some gains on Saturday, but its hopes of a big win and a reversal of Latvia’s Westward tilt were dashed."

Read more:

"In Search of Jackboots" by Scott Diel (ERR)
"Foggy at the Bottom" by Edward Lucas (The Economist)
"Watching Clifford Levy" by Vello Vikerkaar
"Tiny Post-Soviet Journalism" by Kris Rikken (Blue, Black, and White Alert)

neljapäev, september 30, 2010

max laossoni suusad

I always found it a little sad that Vyacheslav Molotov died on November 8, 1986. Had the Old Bolshevik lived five more years, he could have seen his old pact with Joachim Ribbentrop come undone. In this alternate reality, I imagine how Molotov is awakened one morning in his pajamas in his penthouse suite at the top of the foreign ministry in Moscow to be informed by a nervous aide that the Kremlin has recognized the independence of Estonia. "It can't be," Molotov whispers from his bed upon hearing the news. "It just can't be."

Several Estonian Bolsheviks did live to see independence restored in their country. One was Max Laosson, a Communist Party functionary who was notorious for a 1950 speech in which he accused former "June Communists," like Nigol Andresen, Johannes Semper, and Hans Kruus, of bourgeois nationalism. The result was a purge of the pre-1950 Communist elite, which ended for many in sentences of 25 years plus hard labor.

Born in 1904, Laosson lived until 1992, long enough to see the birth, death, and rebirth of the Estonian state. I imagine him in some Tallinn apartment, distressed by what he's seeing on his television. It's November 7, 1991, and there's no parade. Laosson keeps hitting his TV with his cane, hoping the parade will come on.

Laosson's name came up about a month ago in Kuressaare, the capital of Saaremaa. Our friend Mele was telling us of her childhood in Kingissepa, where she lived on Kingissepa Street and attended the Viktor Kingissepa School, named, like Kuressaare, for the famed Estonian Communist. From 1952 to 1988, Kuressaare was called Kingissepa, and in little Mele's world, all was red. "My aunt knew Max Laosson," she recalled suddenly. "We have his skis."

In that moment, the old Communist became real. When he wasn't accusing people of bourgeois nationalism, Max Laosson found time to ski. He had watched them all fall: Kruus and Semper, and, before them, Tõnisson and Päts. Estonian domestic political history in the 20th century was like some kind of Shakespearean tragedy: the murders, the suicides, the "accidental deaths." In a land of rotating masters, someone could always be found to serve the new boss. When it came to the Bolsheviks, that someone was Max Laosson.

Those were the days when Estonian political life was passionate and dangerous, a time when someone was always plotting something. The dark memories of betrayal still stalk Estonian political discourse to some extent. While all officials serve the Estonian state, but there is always the insinuation that so-and-so is on the Kremlin's payroll or is in bed with the CIA or is a puppet of the Bilderberg Group or the Knights of Malta. The Singing Revolution gels society, but the 20th century political history, the Shakespearean tragedy, picks it apart. Who was your grandfather? Who was your grandmother? Whose side were they on?

Don't ask, don't tell. People around me talk about Swedish politics and American politics and British politics, but few care to talk about Estonian politics, and parliamentary elections are but months away. In person, Estonians tend to keep their politics tucked away in the closet with Max Laosson's skis. Eighty years ago, this country's politics were scatterbrained and firebrand. Today, they feel kind of dull.

neljapäev, september 16, 2010

the best offense

An interesting opinion piece by the central and eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist. According to the writer, security in the Baltic region has actually increased more under US President Barack Obama's administration than it did under his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Still, there is the perception about some leaders in the region that Obama's "reset" policy with Russia has lessened the importance of Baltic issues in transatlantic relations. Being a Democrat, the Obama administration has been portrayed as soft by critics on the right since before he was even sworn into office. John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN, and others have consistently drawn a parallel between Obama and former President Jimmy Carter, for instance, who is generally not recalled for his adroitness in international relations.

The "Democrats are weak on national security" talking point can be traced back at least to the 1950s, when Eisenhower lieutenants, like then vice president Richard Nixon, attacked their Democratic opponents as being soft on Communism, and security in general. It has been trotted out in every election since then (and will be again in 2012). An argument could be made that conservative lawmakers, the allies of the US right in the Baltic region, have similar prejudices against Democrats today. They recall fondly the Reagan administration, though there is less nostalgia for the George H. W. Bush administration.

As an American who lives in Estonia, I often wonder exactly how US interests, European security, and local political issues will balance out. From my American perspective, I think it is obvious that the United States cannot completely dictate the Estonian-Russian relationship to Moscow. In some big ways, it does, by pledging to defend a Europe "whole and free." But, remember that twice in the 20th century, American soldiers were dispatched to die in European wars. It is in the US' interests to prevent that from ever happening again.

When it comes to the minutiae of the relationship, it is up to the Estonians to make their warm peace with the Russians. The US maintains its policy on the Baltic region, but that does not in every case correspond to reciprocal moves by the Russians. In other words, looking to Washington to solve your problems is a false hope. Don't expect Hillary Clinton to bring back Päts' regalia.

Obama has also been criticized for dabbling in realism. The embrace of realism by US geopolitical thinkers could be seen as a threat to Estonian foreign policy, which is tied up in the idealism of international organizations: the European Union, the OECD, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and so on. Being a small state, Estonia has attempted various international positions (neutrality was one), but has recently settled into a combination of the two main IR schools: joining and working within organizations to its benefit when the opportunity arrises, attending Russian May 9 celebrations when invited.

What intrigues me about the piece in European Voice is the extent to which northern European security is obscured. It mentions Russia's Ladoga 2009 military exercises. It neglects to mention that Lake Ladoga is closer to Finland than it is to Estonia, and was the scene of multiple military conflicts that involved Finland (and before it, Sweden). Yet somehow, Finland manages to exist in a mental gray area for both Western and Russian geopolitical thinkers. The fact that one could even mention a Ladoga military exercise and draw implications for, say, Estonian security and not Finnish security, given the history of the region, exemplifies this mind trick. It's almost as if the Finns have developed some kind of invisible force field that protects them from future "what if" scenarios. The only question, is if Helsinki is willing to sell its secret defense machinery to Tallinn.

esmaspäev, september 13, 2010


R-Kiosk is a Finnish convenience store chain that has expanded south into Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and beyond. As of my writing this, there are more than 700 of the yellow and blue shops in Suomi and around 200 outlets in Eesti.

There is pretty much something to read for everyone there. Barbie magazine? Got that. Fashion? Take your pick. Home improvement? Get your drill ready, and speaking of which, there is a healthy pornography section too.

But when considering the languages of the magazines in our local shop relative to the demographics of our community, things get more interesting. At the R-Kiosk in town, Estonian publications obviously dominate, and there is a reason for that. Of the 55,657 people who live in Viljandi County, 52,499 (94 percent) consider themselves to be "Estonians." The second largest ethnic group are the Russians (1,901 people), followed by Finns (493 people). A quarter of the reading material in the R-Kiosk in Viljandi, though, is in the Russian language, and, at last glance, the store only contained one measly Finnish-language magazine. To round it out, there was also a sizable selection of German, French, and English magazines the last time I checked.

From a national perspective, this makes sense. A quarter of the Estonian population is Russian, right? But from a local perspective, I was kind of amused by it. Standing there, looking at all the Cyrillic on the wall, you would think that the Viljandi R-Kiosk served a bilingual community. Viljandi, though, is a monolingual place. While my daughter attends school with and is friends with children whose parents speak Russian at home, all of those children are fluent in Estonian. I speak Estonian, the Swedes I know in town speak Estonian; put any foreigner in Viljandi, and he or she will eventually become an Estonian speaker. I should add here that my daughter learns two "foreign" languages at school -- Russian (spoken by the neighbors) and English (of which she is a native speaker). She is in first grade.

I do wonder how magazines and books are ordered for Estonia's R-Kiosks, based on my experience. I wonder how they are ordered for its Apollos and Rahva Raamats and other purveyors of reading materials. Who decides how many Estonian language newspapers will be available in a shop versus Russian language newspapers? Who decides how many Finnish magazines will be on display? On what grounds are some languages included and others excluded? Do the R-Kiosks in Pärnu and Narva carry the exact same titles as the one in Viljandi? I hope not. That would be silly.

kolmapäev, september 01, 2010

kooli aeg

Estonian children's culture is so saccharine it will make your belly ache, replete with songs about everything wholesome and good, sung with gusto in a pre-pubescent soprano.

Christmas is typically the epicenter of such youthful clamor, but September 1 is a close competitor, for on September 1, school officially begins, and that means that children must look smart, stand with a straight back, and sing until their parents' eyes grow dewy with nostalgia.

It's not so military actually, but I can see it now, the same way I can see the blue, black, and white flag flapping in the air, a gentle breeze blowing across the land, the sun warm, the blue heavens tantalizingly close, and the children singing it all along, singing about how happy they are to be in school and how much they adore their teachers. I still can't believe it, but it's true: Estonians actually like school.

Our neighborhood in Viljandi is run by wild children. These kids are like outlaws from the Wild West. Each one has got a nickname, a scar, an agenda. "Hey kid, want to hang out later?" one pint-sized gunslinger will say to the other. "Come by my house and knock at my window at night. I'll still be up." And they really do it, like Tom Sawyer, like Pippi Longstocking, like The Little Rascals. It's so ideal, you would almost believe, given the local architecture, that you had stepped through some porthole to the 19th century. Then one of their cellphones rings.

I asked the little rascals today though how their first day of school went. Usually, their posture is sluggish, their manners coarse. But mention school and they change automatically, almost uniformly correcting their posture and clicking their heels together. "Hästi!" the little outlaws smile, beaming from the question. They are excited. They are ecstatic. They have been waiting for it all summer. Oh kooli aeg, oh kooli aeg, millal Sina tuled? they sing like angels. Mul on valmis juba pliiatsid ja suled.

On the way to the opening ceremony at my daughter's school, I was informed that my t-shirt was not appropriate for such an event. "You sure you want to go looking like that?" my wife asked, an eyebrow arched to drive the point home. And so I changed into a sober-looking lightweight black sweater. "Much better." You've got to take September 1 seriously. It's an important day. The start of a new year, a new school year. The flags must be whipping in the wind. The lumepallisupp should be frothy. I stand at attention and think back to my own school years. The freshmen on LSD. How so-and-so got an abortion and whats-her-name killed herself . Then I try to push it all out of my mind. "Why do I always focus on the bad?" I ask myself as the children sing and smile. "I'm tired of being bad," my eyes finally grow dewy. "I want to be good."

teisipäev, august 31, 2010

black comedy

Just passing this along:

Americans needed for Estonian feature film „Kormoranid“

We are looking for Americans or foreign people looking like Americans who would be interested of participating in a new Estonian feature film „Kormoranid“. The role will be to play companions or follower of an evengelist. No dialogue lines, we just would like you to move around on a stage and play happy Christian people.

The shooting takes place on the 1st of September in Tallinn, in Nokia Concert Hall from 10.30 – 12.30 and 21.00 – 22.30

The film „Kormoranid“ is a black comedy about a rock band which was famous in Estonia in 1970s and they are trying to make come-back nowadays. This is a funny story about the guys who never die of rock´n ´roll even though they are already 50 years old.

The directors are famous and well known Estonian film-makers Andres Maimik and Rain Tolk. They have also made the box office hit „186 kilometers“ („Jan uuspõld läheb Tartusse“).

Our team would be very very thankful if you could come!
If you are interested, please let me know as soon as possible and I will talk about the details.

Eva Kübar
„Kormoranid“ casting
+372 53 820709

laupäev, august 28, 2010

life in fiction

This is the part of our radio broadcast where we interrupt your usual programming to bring you the following message from our sponsors: Epp Petrone's debut novel in English, Around the Heart in Eleven Years, available now at an online store near you.

Officially, and personally, this is my favorite book from our publishing firm Petrone Print, but it was a bittersweet, sometimes bruising experience for me as an individual, because it is Epp's story, and Epp's story obviously has hooked me in a way that no one else's story ever did or could. I'm an addict, in other words, a junkie husband.

Its most terrifying moment? For me, it's when Jura, the Russian sailor, leads his kidnappee to a hotel and lays some currency down at the reception desk. "A room for two please."

Its most sensual moment? The sands of Gran Canaria blowing through the windows with the morning breeze. The island, that island, the volcanic magnet, bringing you in and blowing you out. It stays wih you.

Its most ridiculous moment? The voice of our young heroine as she tells the Slovenian arms dealer at a hotel in Minsk that she doesn't feel well, and won't be accompanying him to lunch.

Its most brainwashing moment? Listening to Harri Hommik, the itinerant peddler, as he explains the intricacies of fish breeding and how wars are good for genetics. If you listen long enough, you'll start to believe him, and if you listen even longer, you'll start thinking like him.

In the end, it all comes back to Eve Kivi, the Estonian sixties sex kitten. She recently gave an interview where she calmly informed the journalist that fresh sperm is her beauty secret. Other than some obvious questions -- where does a 70-year-old woman obtain regular access to fresh sperm -- I felt pangs of deep respect for Eve Kivi, because she was brave, brave enough to say the things that most people don't say, to tell, in her own way the truth.

I respect the truth, because we all live the truth but often conceal it from one another. And so I respect and encouraged this book, even if some of it is rough going, because to me, Epp's story is not just her story, it is the story, in different ways, of many people, and it needs telling. We, at least we writers, need to tell the truth. Only through these coded texts called books can we reach other humans in need. Books are like life preservers. I feel as though Epp, with this book, has crafted a whole lifeboat of a book. From her jagged wanderlust brought on by a tormented loneliness, she has finally assembled something sturdy, something that cannot sink.

But, speaking of the truth, is it all really true? Names and details have been changed, sure, and I have to squint at my own lines in the book for them to appear to be wholly mine. Officially, it is a travel novel: fiction. For me, this novel is the truth as reflected in a funhouse mirror of memory, and this book is at its core about memory. What is true and what is remembered falsely and what is just fiction? People want so badly to put everything in little boxes, but life is unfortunately one big oozing, slithering, gelatinous mess of sensations.

The Estonian title of the book is Kas Süda on Ümmargune? - "Is the Heart Round". We played with many English-language titles for the book and none seemed to fit, but Epp liked this title, a play on the classic Jules Verne adventure novel. I think the reference to Verne, and an earlier era of continent hopping, suits it perfectly.

esmaspäev, august 23, 2010

täis kuu

When I woke up, the sounds of some distant party were still ringing in my ears. I heard laughter, music, loud toasts, the clinking of glasses, the run of silverwear on plates, but all the time far away, far, far, far away, and yet close, just downstairs, but some place else. Where was it? When was it? Was it just a dream?

I opened my eyes. A full moon. The light shone brightly through the second-floor window of the Haapsalu Children's Library. My bed lay just below it. Nearby, my wife and children sighed in the darkness, sound asleep. I kept thinking about the music. The music and the fact that I was spending the night in the house where Gorchakov was born.

From 1867 to 1883, he served as state chancellor of the Russian Empire, but in 1798, young Alexander Gorchakov was born in the small seaside town of Haapsalu in a building that now houses a children's library, along with a room dedicated to Ilon Wikland, the Swedish Estonian illustrator who is something of a patron saint of Haapsalu. The walls to the upstairs office are covered with Nordic Council posters, and Ilon's corner is filled with her books, some in Estonian, the others in Swedish. The furniture is a sunny blond, the carpets a Baltic blue, and outside the cream-colored building, its roof tiled red, is Iloni aed: Ilon's garden, filled with comically oversized slides and swings.

Haapsalu is whimsical, rambling and child friendly. In fact, the first three people I met that day were children: two boys and a girl. When they heard me speaking English to my daughter, the little Haapsalu girl whispered to the others: "I think he's speaking Russian!" "Not Russian!" I informed them. "English." "English?" Oh, how fun it was to think that to their little Estonian ears, Indo-European Russian and English sound similar. A short while after the little girl fell. "I need a band-aid," she moped and showed me the tiny scrape on her elbow. When I fixed the band-aid in the right place a few minutes later, she kept on playing as if nothing had happened. For kids, band-aids have special healing powers.

That was Haapsalu during the daytime, when it's harmless. At night, it's different, not harmful, but dark, shadowy, hypnotic. You cannot help but stare at the moon and hear music. You look at the castle walls and think of the Valge Daam. You lie awake, your covers to your nose, and stare at the white ceiling. Maybe you just have an overactive imagination, you tell yourself, but then you pause: when was the last time you heard music like that? When was it? Your query brings back no valid response. You look up out the window at the angular shadows in the moonlight that fit into Haapsalu's puzzle-like, ancient downtown. Then you close your eyes and you try to sleep.


Estonia's western periphery is pocked with secrets. At the windswept, western-most end of Hiiumaa, I spied Urmas Paet, the foreign minister, walking in the rain. As he neared the coast, where rough seas hammered the rocky beaches, I turned my back on him just for a second. "You should go say, 'Tere Urmas' to him," the wife encouraged. "Do you think it really was him?" I double checked. "Of course it was Paet," she confirmed. Then I looked back towards the coast and Paet was gone. Vanished. Where to? That small, wooden, sea-weathered barn by the trees? What would the Estonian foreign minister be doing in there? Perhaps a secret passageway lies below? A hidden meeting place? Was Ansip in the barn too? Laine Jänes? "Maybe he just wants to get away," the wife shrugged. "Foreign ministers need to get away too."

In Hiiumaa, you encounter Hiiu humor, the "Hiiu" denoting that any given local joke will not be funny. A blacksmith friend here convinced us his wife was Hungarian. We later met this bird from Budapest only to praise her amazing Estonian skills. "She speaks like a native," said the wife, mouth open. The Hungarian lady meantime seemed confused. "Wait, you actually believed me?" said the blacksmith. "You really believed my wife was Hungarian? She's from Tallinn, of course." And why wouldn't we have believed him? He told us she was his best friend's sister, that he had seen his Hungarian friend die in Yugoslavia and later taken the girl as his bride. It was such a romantic story but it wasn't true. It was just "Hiiu humor" after all, a reference to the island's peculiar sense of humor, which, I'll add again, is not funny.

The residents of Hiiumaa and the residents of Saaremaa have something of a rivalry. The Hiiumaa islanders are criticized for their oddball brand of humor and general lack of seriousness. The Saaremaa islanders are skewered for being uptight workaholics. In their hearts, they are both survivalists, self-reliant last action heroes. I am still a Long Island boy, remember. I expect a gas station on every corner, a pizza joint on every street. Not in Hiiumaa. Not in Saaremaa. The Estonians are individualists. They live and die by D I Y. The Hiiumaa blacksmith told me that the electricity has a bad habit of going out on his island. He's prepared for everything, because every Estonian has to be prepared. He can only rely on himself, on his own wits, because there is no gas station on every corner, no pizza joint on every street. This brings us back to the main question: Why do so many Estonians still prefer wood heating? Because they fundamentally distrust civilization. I determine this as our ferry leaves Sõru harbor for Triigi on the northcoast of Saaremaa. They know that if the electricity goes out, they've still got an axe and there are plenty of trees around.


It's fitting that I have crossed water several times during this full moon, for the moon controls the tides and we are, after all, made mostly of water. The moon tugs at me. It makes me more aware, more reactive. The wind tends to whisper, colors bounce out of the wood, and womens breasts careen in and out of focus like forbidden planets. The full moon. I feel vaguely unhuman when its pull is at its strongest, like something is not quite right, something I should hide from the others. And then, as I turn a windy lane in the dark, I find the metaphor I'm grasping for: I feel like Michael J. Fox's character in Teen Wolf, and lament that I never tried to surf on the top of a moving car.

What happened to my youth, Gorchakov? Where did it go? Thirty is the adolescence of the middle aged. A friend, two years my senior, once was tormented by his wasted youth. "So much cocaine," he sobbed. "So many lost opportunities!" In comparison, one could say I have accomplished a lot in my three decades, but the spectre of a human high water mark still lurks in the distance. Then again, my wife's publishing career didn't take off until she reached the Jesusy age of 33. And Gorchakov wasn't state chancellor until he neared his 70th birthday. "Age ain't nuthin' but a number," Gorchakov whispers to me through the breeze. Then he commands me to return to his birthplace. "They have laid out some delicious porgandi pirukad for you," he's again cheerful. "Free coffee!"

At the library, I spoke with the director about Gorchakov, naturally. She seemed buoyant, satisfied, content, like most people in Haapsalu. "Oh him?" she smiled, "he probably wasn't even born here."

"Then why is there a sign on the wall outside?"

"This was his father's official residence. He was probably born out in the countryside, in Taebla, perhaps."


So much for sleeping in the house where Gorchakov was born. But the pies were tasty. The coffee was delicious. And the music? What music.

teisipäev, august 10, 2010

karmoška plahvatus

It's a human being out of his element. A hangover the day after consuming handsa homemade vodka. An awkward dialogue in a shop with a clerk who speaks Seto, a tongue that could either be a dialect of Estonian or a language in its own right -- the jury's still out, and the arguments yea and nay are inherently political.

I am an adaptive type, but when in Setomaa, I sometimes feel like I am being pushed and pulled, squeezed back and forth like a local musician's karmoška. I don't know what I am doing, I don't know where I am going, and I have absolutely no idea what they are saying. Setomaa. It's a completely foreign place to me, and I say that as an American who lives in Estonia.

Where is Setomaa? Setomaa is a sliver of land that straddles the Estonian-Russian border. The shape of the land is one of thick forests, sea-like fields, and rolling hills. Setomaa is different. It feels wild, untamed, while much of Estonia has a bit of a royal hunting grounds aesthetic, with its orderly fields and state forests. The official point of demarcation between Lutheran Eestimaa and Orthodox Setomaa is the Piusa river, which, coincidentally, runs about a kilometer northwest from our country house. Offically, we are on the Seto side but the border here and between Estonia and Russia in general is like most borders, porous, impossible to truly delineate, populated by bilinguids and free thinkers, people who are used to saluting contrasting regimes.

I would add that Setomaa is the forgotten backyard of both Estonia and Russia. Politicians go there to scare up extra votes and maybe indulge themselves in its cultural idiosyncrasies, but the region is of little real geopolitical significance; there is no oil shale, no ice-free harbor, no gold. While Estonia is led by Tallinn, which is shy of 300 kilometers northwest from Setomaa, Russia is led by Moscow, which is about a thousand kilometers away. Setomaa itself is, forgive me, devoid of significant human development. There are no gas stations, for instance, between Värska, on Lake Pihkva/Pskov in the east, and Vastseliina, at one time a frontier outpost of the Teutonic Order on the west, nor are there major opportunities to procure material goods. Instead, you will find small "villages" of farms, and sometimes even just three families will comprise a village. And in these villages live Seto people, who are not Estonians.

To be an Estonian these days means increasingly to simply hold Estonian nationality. To be an Estonian, one must own the latest technology, consume the domestically produced products, and be attentive to the national debates as broadcast from Tallinn. The Estonian language, once a great source of ethnic pride, has become commoditized, generic. It's the language of politics, of economics, of sweepstakes and one-time offers and lotto jackpots. If archaic Seto language is homemade apple juice in a jar, then Estonian language is a multivitamin fluorescent fruit drink in a plastic bottle. If Seto is a choir of old ladies singing runo songs in Obinitsa, Estonian is a topless DJ spinning electronic beats in Pärnu. The Estonians are from the Skype-struck future. The Setos themselves are from somewhere that seems vaguely like the past. And who are these Seto people anyway?

They are goddamn party animals. I am sure they would like to put on like they are hardworking types, the real salt of the earth, but for every hammer lifted in Setomaa, several liters of handsa vodka are consumed. For every fence mended, several loaves of local sõir, a soft cheese spiced with caraway seeds, are digested. If there is an opportunity for Setos to throw a party, they throw one. They'll blame the poor condition of some of their homesteads on the economy or the break up of the Soviet Union, but the real reason is that most days they hang around outside singing, playing tunes on the karmoška, drinking handsa, and arguing about what makes a Seto a Seto, or how võro kiil -- the southern Estonian dialect-language spoken north of the Piusa -- is different from seto kiil.

The Setos call Estonians tsuhknad, which is related to the old Russian word chud, indeed, Lake Peipsi is known to Russians as Chudskoye ozero. It's not a term of endearment, but not an insult either. Instead, it denotes a sort of polite, aloof, clunky northern person. Setos and Russians see Estonians the way Estonians see Finns. I imagine that to Setos, an Estonian is the kind of person it might take several shots of handsa or several helpings of homemade beer to start having a good time. From the Estonian viewpoint, the Seto are wayward Estonians in Russian national costume, linguistic relatives but bohemian to a fault. There is a touch of envy there too, as if the Seto have preserved the traditions that the Estonians themselves have lost.

Of course, I am exaggerating. My impression of Setomaa are forged mainly from attending events big and small, a local wedding, an annual gathering. The latest one, Setomaa Kuningriigi Päevad, held in Mikitamäe last week, witnessed a parade of the Seto "army," where brigades of men and women armed with shovels and hoes and other implements of destruction marched before their newly chosen ülemsootska, King Ahto Raudoja, and vowed to politically unite Seto lands on both sides of the border. Raudoja, age 35, is a piece of work, a living legend. Known throughout his kingdom for his ironic sense of humor and his Cossack dancing ability, he is now the face of Setodom.

Some might look at Estonians and Setos and judge them to be basically the same, and they are. In fact, Setos are Estonians, in that they hold Estonian nationality, play the lotto, sunbathe in Pärnu, do everything else the Estonians do. But still, I have attended song festivals in Tallinn. I have attended weddings and funerals in Estonia proper. I am familiar with Estonian culture. And so maybe I have some ability to compare Setomaa and Eestimaa and to say it's a little different. Seto society is conservative, old fashioned, but still not wholly exclusive. One can, given time and dedication, join this lump of humanity. Such people are called isetehtud setod -- self-made Setos.

What do you need to be a self-made Seto? Well, you need your own talo, or farmstead. You also need to befriend a Seto in the know who will guide you along the way. He (or she) will instruct you as to where to put your religious icon, how to cut your pork with a spoon (as Setos don't use forks), and how to make sõir a magic ingredient in most of your cuisine. Your Seto guide will introduce you to people in the 'hood so that they know you are kosher. You may not be a real Seto, but at least you know a real one. To fit in, you'll also need a Seto flag, Seto national costume, and your own Russian accordion, the karmoška, to play during festivities, which always seem to be happening.

I haven't bought into the whole package yet, but I did succumb to making Zetod my favorite band. These guys, four kids from Värska, have mixed traditional song with blue ska beats and rock'n'roll guitar hooks. When they get going, they can really shake a concert hall. There is a bit of pagan thunder to their sound, so I would compare them to Led Zeppelin, the English rockers who mixed Celtic lore with Delta blues. A Seto friend disagrees. He thinks Zetod are the Creedence Clearwater Revival of Estonia, bringing back that oldtimey born on the bayou funk that is lacking from the Estonian Top 40. Either way, I am a fan. Their new disc is called Lätsi Sanna -- in Estonian, I believe it's Läksid Sauna, in English it should be "Went to the Sauna." It's perfect music for when you are lost, driving through some unpaved country road at night, low on gas, trying to get back to your talo.

It's fitting that I found my way into Seto identity via the music, because I actually know something about music. I don't know much about anything else. A number of alien-looking spiders have esconced around our talo, and I had to ask my Seto guide Mart if they were poisonous. You could call me paranoid or just cautious, but I sincerely don't know. I don't know about spiders and I don't know about well water and I don't know about electrical wiring. I am, you could say, a Seto know-nothing.

I wonder, though, about the locals' gung-ho approach to life. On the road, I mostly drive the speed limit, tend to avoid spoiled foods, and prefer metal, factory made ladders to the wooden, homemade ladders that are common in Eestimaa and Setomaa. One could call such cautiousness cowardice. Others might call it common sense. I bring to your attention the fact that the average Estonian male's life expectancy (68.7) is among the lowest in the European Union, and is 11 years behind the average Estonian female's life expectancy (79.5). Why is that? It's not because of smoking and drinking and eating too much sour cream: it's because Estonian, and presumably Seto, guys get killed in accidents, doing really stupid things.

Here, I pause to spit three times over my shoulder and knock on wood. Setomaa has claimed me as a music fan and property owner and kindred spirit. I do not wish for it to claim me as anything else.

esmaspäev, juuli 26, 2010

folk you

Who knew Estonia had so many "dirty hippies"? At least that's what my curmudgeonly punk-rocking friends would call them. From some unknown well in the mists of Estonia's bogs spurted forth this month enough natty dreads and nose rings to fill a small city. And of all Estonian cities they chose this one, Viljandi, in which to congregate.

Well, they were invited. They were promised music -- at a price -- and access to alcoholic beverages. There was also food, lots of it. During the Viljandi Pärimusmuusika Festival, also known as the Viljandi Folk Music Festival, held here over the weekend, decent food was to be savored and enjoyed, and all of it a five-minute walk from my house. If only the food vendors could stay on. If only there was a an ice cream jahutus punkt ("cooling station") operational from noon to midnight every day, right there, next to the Johan Laidoner memorial. If only.

It's good the concertgoers left though. Despite the music, the food, the cosmic vibration, things got a bit too wild outside our window on Saturday night. I heard drunk Estonian guys trying to pick up foreign girls, their voices echoing in the cobblestone streets: "Hey prrretty girrrls! Wherrre arrre you going? You look verrry nice!"

Each morning I woke up to a heavy metal concert broadcast from someone's massive car sound system on the lake. Estonian heavy metal is noxious: I can't get into it, never will. The muddy growling, the repetitive trashing of electric instruments. But if you attended the Meestelaulutuba ("the mens' singing room") then you'd see that traditional song and Estonian metal are linked. Estonian guys have deep voices. When they sang together, some drinking beer already at 11 am, the floor of the room vibrated with the all-bass choir. A typical verse:

Läksin metsa puida tooma/Läksin metsa puida tooma. ("I went to the forest to get some wood"). The bold denotes when the chorus of voices sing together with the song leader.

As they went around the room trading verse about leaves and forests and the sea, I started to nervously formulate my own lyrics, fearing I might have to lead the room in a song. Something like:

Üleeile läksin ma Selverisse/Üleeile läksin ma Selverisse. ("The day before yesterday, I went to the supermarket").

Fortunately, I didn't get to try it out this time. Maybe I'll work up a whole regilaul ("runo song") about shopping at Selver for my next male singing experience. I left half way through because I had no idea what we were singing. I did learn some sexual metaphors though. Who knew that metsakaev ("forest well") could be such a loaded term? Don't bring that one up in the presence of grandma. I wonder what the Estonian ladies sing about in private.

So, Estonian folk culture is like anything else. It has its good sides and bad sides. Good sides are probably the singing and the clothes. Runo songs are ancient and interesting: it's a literary language in its own right. One verse we sang was about the Swedish king ... and the last time Estonia had a Swedish king was 300 years ago. Estonian folk costumes, at least for men, can be extremely accessible. All you need is a pair of medieval-looking workman's clothes with a folk pattern on the neck and a skullcap and you're set.

But what's bad about Estonian folk culture? The dancing. Estonian folk dancing is like the final question on your tenth-grade math final. You keep looking at the equation, trying to reduce it to something less complex, but no matter how much scrap paper you use, you just can't solve it. That was me trying to comprehend the mix of line dancing and polkas that comprised the Estonian dance taught at a festival workshop. Dancing in such conditions is dangerous. Do not polka if you have not polkad before. Someone could get hurt. Believe me, I know.

This amuses me, because I really enjoyed dancing to the Habana Son Club. They did a salsified version of "Sunny," which was closer to the Boney M. '76 version than Marvin Gaye's '66 rendition. See, I know pop trivia. I used to work in a music store. I know music, but I don't know how to polka. And I could dance to a lawless Cuban rhythm but not an Estonian one. Or maybe there were Cuban laws, ones I understood innately as a former denizen of the Western Hemisphere? The more I thought about it, the more Estonian dancing seemed like a social activity, an clever way to get to know the opposite sex, while Cuban dancing seemed to operate on an entirely different spiritual level. There seems to be a religious quality to Latin music that is absence from the valley of the polka, or maybe I just haven't done enough polkas yet to get to the next level.

The festival happened to coincide with a full moon, and it was an evil, yellow one at that. Lightning and thunder twirled around Viljandi Lake almost every evening. The seemingly non-stop parties lasted until 5 am. Walking around, unshaven, dressed like Kalevipoeg, I kept thinking about David Crosby, not Stephen Stills or Graham Nash or Neil Young or Roger McGuinn or Chris Hillman, but Crosby, and only Crosby. He was there in a way, counseling me about how to escape a gathering of the tribes unscathed. Of all people, Crosby would know how to survive an event known colloquially as "Folk." Crosby's folk days were colored with mind-altering substances and licentious women and Hells Angels and did Viljandi Folk not differ ? Mind-altering substances? Check. Licentious women? Check. Motorcycle gangs? Check. I imagined a new bumper sticker for concertgoers. Rather than, 'What would Jesus do?' attendees could ask themselves, 'What would Crosby do?'

The most obvious answer is, "get high," just like everyone else. But beyond that, I think that Crosby and other prophets of the sixties milieu would manage to extract something profound and borderline divine from the naked squalor of music festivals. In the face of 21st century e-oppression, forced to be available to all around the clock to provide any service at any time, I managed to mostly disconnect for a few precious days. In spite of the trash, in spite of the heavy metal campers, in spite of the drunk hooligans, there is something redeemingly positive about Folk, which is why it has been a successful draw for 18 years, even here in Viljandi, this country's very own Glastonbury or Roskilde or Coachella.

Which doesn't mean that I don't despise drunk hooligans. Nothing like being told to Mine ära ("go away") by some idiot who, upon observing my public use of the English language, decided to make it known that he was a supporter of a homogenous, vanilla Estonia.

"Mis asja?" ("What do you mean?") I responded to the idiot.

"Mine ära!" he repeated.

"Kust? Viljandist või?" ("From where? Viljandi?") I asked.

"Üldiselt," ("In general") he grumbled.

My wife took me by the hand as we walked away. "Those people are really dangerous," she whispered in my ear. Were they? I wanted to ask the idiot if he was Estonia's last Nazi. He probably wasn't, but his presence did behoove me to get away, from him. I wondered how he felt about the Austrian yodelers and Cuban conga players and Irish fiddlers and all the others who had taken over his town, at his own people's invitation no less. How did he feel about the Hungarians and Poles and Spaniards and Somalis who had come to conquer Viljandi's hills and valleys. I felt encouraged by it. Moved. Empowered. Bring them all to Viljandi. Come tattoos, come nose rings, come squalor and empty beer cans and accordions and bagpipes. Come bad pickup lines and carrot smoothies. Come to Viljandi. Rescue us from the tyranny of the idiot. Infuse this provincial town with diversity, cleanse it with noise, like fluoride to teeth, soap to skin, seawater to natty dread.

esmaspäev, juuli 12, 2010

elu tulnukana

Sometimes I can't believe I am only 30 years old. Thirty. It sounds so young. But I don't feel young and I also don't feel old. I feel timeless, placeless. I feel like one of the UFO-like molecules that go zipping by your plane window over the cloud cover in the North Atlantic. Something catches your eye. You stare out at the wing and swear it was there. But it's gone. Gone, gone, gone. Nothing but a memory of something you once thought you saw, something you can't even bother to describe to the person seated next to you.

I'm in Viljandi now, and all I can say is that it reminds me of Tallinn and Tartu and just about every other Estonian place: the mishmash of medieval castle ruins, 1920s villas, Stalinist eyesores, and weeds growing through the cracks in the pavement. One guidebook I flipped through referred to Viljandi as a "gem," and our little part of it is certainly quaint. I informed Epp that we should make a coffee table book, a photo essay of Viljandi's spectacularly painted wooden doors. It would be called Viljandi uksed. I told her we could make "alotta money" (as my Virginian grandma puts it) on the book, but she was unconvinced.

Since my arrival, I've spent some time at the beach, maybe the only American there, but not the only foreigner: there were Latvians too and a Chinese couple. The radio played a very soulful version of "Proud Mary," so Ike and Tina were also there, at least in spirit. In Tallinn, the tourists somehow annoy me, but in Viljandi, I welcome them with open arms. I think this place is so bland, so homogenous, safe as milk, but everytime I go to the Tegelaste Tuba restaurant, there are people speaking English.

It was surreal to see so much life in what even Estonians consider a smaller town. At the beach, there was some kind of dance class going on: Estonian women were bobbing and weaving and kicking to Spanish pop music. The beach was thronged with naked torsoes. There was even a towering diving platform where young crazies could launch themselves into the lake. I began to realize that every tiny hideaway in Estonia has its own story to tell. You can drive through these places a hundred times and never actually know them.

I've been out of Eestimaa for exactly a month. When I left the mosquitoes were eating me raw, but now the heat seems to have tamed even the most insolent of summer's creatures. Instead it's just hot, all I do is sweat, all I do is drink. Our bedroom window faces the sunrise. The sun dries the sand in the corners of my eyes. I easily drink a bottle of water before I get out of bed, one of many I will consume during the day. The heat doesn't seem to bother the neighbors though. They don't need liters of water, for I am convinced that Estonians can survive on but coffee, beer, and strawberries. Estonian children meantime require only one thing to keep on moving: jäätisekokteil - "cocktails" of ice cream blended with fruit juice. I imagine that every night, all over this country, the children lie snoozing, dreaming about that one special thing.

Like a naive anthropologist I observed the tanned locals at the beach. I took note of the different types: the blond Scandinavians, the dark Inuits, the rolypoly Germanics. Estonia is both diverse and uniform. I've been to too many genetics conferences these days. I am aware of the perils of cosanguinity. And safe as milk Eesti is not so intimidating. Horror stories about intolerant Estonians abound online, but not one gave me nor has ever given me an awkward look. These people just don't care.

For me, at least, there are very few places in Estonia where I could even minorly feel "in danger," and here I think of a young Tom Hayden and the other "freedom riders" of the United States, traveling to Mississippi in the early 1960s to "get their asses kicked for civil rights." That was dangerous. Estonia in comparison is pleasant, genteel. At least until you see some middle-aged loser wearing a Panzerdivision commemorative t-shirt at the supermarket. I've heard the term "self-hating Jew" before. I gather such people are self-hating Estonians.

Here in Viljandi, I can't figure out if I'm in western Estonia or central Estonia or southern Estonia. It seems to network with Pärnu but also with Tartu. I guess it's its own thing or even the dreaded middle of nowhere. But Tallinn is nowhere too. And leviathan Finland? The navel of nothingness. Tallinn is to Helsinki as Viljandi is to what? Oulu? But Oulu has over 100,000 people. I can't keep up. Why even bother to compare? To many, cities are judged by the sum of their restaurants, hotels, boutiques, and museums. People take great pride in the place in which they live. When I was in New York, I met a gentlemen who was trying to sell me on Harlem. Harlem! Harlem! They've put up new apartment buildings, but kept the old, charming brownstone facades, he said. They've even retained the doormen.

"Do you really need a doorman?" I asked him. He had a pencil-thin mustache and suspenders. A real zoot suit riot.

"Of course you do! I mean, who else would get the door for you, or let you know if someone's left you a package?"

I took aliking to the Harlemite. He entertained me. I could imagine us as neighbors, sitting on a doorstep, swapping stories.

"Can you believe when I was in Mexico, a lady from Michigan asked me if I had seen any Olive Gardens there?" the Harlemite informed me. "I was like, 'Lady! You're in Mexico! You have your pick of great food and you're looking for an Olive Garden?' See, when my wife and I go on trips, we like to eat at the real authentic places. But people from Michigan, they go anywhere, even Rome, and they want to eat at an Olive Garden. You can't really hold it against them though. That's all they know."

Savory New York provincialism. I loved it. I'm so happy for that fella in Harlem. He seems to get out so much he needs a doorman to collect his packages. But me? I am an exile. Tallinn, when I lived there, was the apartment, the tram, and the office. Tartu on most days became my house and the local supermarket. Viljandi hosts the cultural college, which means that acting and musical talent finds its way to town; indeed I had a disarming experience at a Tagaq concert here, one that convinced me that it might not be a bad place to set up shop for awhile. But will I really go to those concerts? Maybe Viljandi will just wind up being our apartment and the lake. I mean, I wanted to be in Estonia during the winter so I could learn how to cross country ski, but the only thing I did in Otepää was consume some meatloaf at a local tavern. I bought into the idea of a Seto retreat so I could go hiking in the woods. So far I've painted and stained a lot of wood, but the forests have eluded me.

That's just how it is. Reality never matches your expectations. Every place I move I dream of different futures, but new ones always present themselves anyway. And, besides, I've no time for concerts. I've got things to do. I must finish a long-delayed master's paper on Estonia's June Communists, listen to Baden Powell and Vinicius de Moraes, and work on the second installation of Minu Eesti, trying the impossible, to marry Woody Allen and Rick Steves, in between slipping down to the lake for a dip.

Not a bad start really for a stranger like me.

neljapäev, juuni 17, 2010

seitsekümmend aastat

From left to right, Neeme Ruus, Johannes Lauristin, Karl Säre, and Andrei Zhdanov. The month is June, the year is 1940, and these enthralled men are watching a demonstration of workers pleading for the formation of a new government.

Estonia dates its occupation from June 1940, 70 years from this week, when uninvited Soviet troops poured across the border, Soviet navy blockaded its ports, Soviet airforce shot down its planes, and hired protestors made their point to the sitting Estonian government abundantly clear that the days of making any autonomous decisions on Toompea were over.

The script had been approved by Leningrad party boss Zhdanov and fellow Soviet emissaries to Latvia and Lithuania weeks before. Demonstrations to remove the governments, followed by the appointment of Soviet-dependent decision makers, followed ultimately by appeals to join the fraternity of Soviet republics. And it all happened on schedule. Like clockwork, demands were made to the Baltic governments in mid June, new governments in office by the end of the month, fresh (and rigged) elections by mid July, and synchronized appeals to Moscow for incorporation that were mulled over and affirmed by the first week of August. In less than two months, the Baltic countries had been swallowed whole, seemingly by their own hands.

By some accounts, the decision to incorporate the Baltic countries into the USSR had been made in February, by other accounts in April. The spring of 1940 was incredibly messy for European countries big and small. When Ruus, Lauristin, Säre, and Zhdanov looked down on those protestors for hire, Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and a swath of France had been occupied by the German Reich. Britain looked forward to a summer of aerial bombardment. America was still gazing at its Depression-hit navel, some of its financiers pondering the wisdom of their investments.

Some argue that Hitler egged Stalin on to do something as brazen as incorporate these three countries into the USSR. But then, as now, Moscow's great leaders saw what the other great powers were doing in Europe and Asia and didn't want to miss out on the opportunity. It was a classic case of, "Everyone else is doing it, so why can't we?" And keeping up with the Joneses, meant taking out the Estonians.

The Estonian state was brittle, anyhow, isolated and ripe for the picking. President Konstantin Päts carried out a political coup in 1934 ahead of an assured electoral defeat to the quasi-fascist Vaps, who yearned for a strong hand to guide them through the turmoil of the Great Depression, and traded Estonia's democratic soul in the process. The Estonian left splintered between those who would cooperate with Päts and those who wouldn't. Neeme Ruus, a young social democrat, was one of the radicals in his party who wouldn't. In 1940, he needed a job. Zhdanov decided he could be minister of social affairs in the new, progressive Moscow-friendly government.

Towards the end of the thirties, Päts tried to liberalize the outcome the '34 coup and move the country towards eventual, at least partially free elections. In this new climate of openness, he pardoned Vaps and Communists alike. But after sitting for, in some cases, 14 years in Estonian prison for their role in an attempted 1924 coup, Estonia's reds had no warm feelings for the regime that had just freed them, and at the same time were not yet up to date on the bloody purges that had recently taken place in Russia that had claimed the lives of so many of their fellow revolutionaries. Johannes Lauristin was such a comrade. In 1940, he needed a job. In August, he became chairman of the council of people's commissars of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic.

On June 17, the Estonian government gave in to all Soviet demands. Any other option would have been suicide, they determined, both tragic and ironic when you consider how many of them died in Soviet concentration camps or at the wrong end of the firing squad. Some of them did kill themselves. The outcome for Estonia was still the same. As the month rolled on, Päts himself became the puppet president of a puppet government. His presence added an air of legality to a takeover forced at gunpoint, for if there had been no army pouring across the border, no naval blockade, and no political demands from Moscow, then there would have been no Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. Päts even posed with the Soviet ambassador for a group shot in mid July. The Soviet ambassador toasted the Tartu Peace Treaty of 1920. He pledged the undying respect of Moscow for Estonian independence.

Several days later, the freshly elected, handpicked, Moscow-friendly Estonian parliament, again barricaded by tanks on Toompea, with Red Army soldiers looking on, voted to join the Soviet Union. But in their zeal to bring Estonia under complete Soviet control, the puppet masters in Moscow forgot many details. Estonian constitutional law was essentially ignored in the effort to keep the Baltic countries on schedule, so the manner in which the Republic of Estonia joined the Soviet Union was inherently illegal, though Päts, himself a lawyer, signed his name on the documents, perhaps knowing how well it might stand up in some distant court, in an alternative reality where Nazis did not parade down the streets of Oslo and Copenhagen and Paris, where bombs did not fall on English cities, and where the actual wills of peoples were taken into account by more powerful authorities. Besides, Päts was certain that Germany would attack Russia. The two lovers were simply incompatible. The Estonian president is said to have expected the break up to take place on any day in the summer of 1940. Then, he perhaps reasoned, it would be a whole different ballgame.

Päts was ultimately right, but his forecast was off by a year. By the time the Germans actually did show up, he was sitting in a Soviet prison, and he would die in a Soviet hospital a decade and a half later. By the time Päts had died -- supposedly hospitalized because he still claimed to be the president of Estonia -- Stalin was dead, Zhdanov was dead, and Neeme Ruus, Johannes Lauristin, and Karl Säre were but faded memories for Estonians who had seen so many regimes come and go, so many men appear and disappear within such a short period of time.

Ruus was shot by the Germans in 1941. Lauristin allegedly went down on one of the ships during the Soviet evacuation from Tallinn. And what of Karl Säre, that diminutive Communist operative who also needed a job in 1940, and became first secretary of the Estonian Communist Party? Like Ruus, he later fell into the hands of the Germans and was transferred to Denmark to stand trial for murder. After 1943, he was never seen from nor heard of again.

Ruus, Lauristin, Säre, Päts. They all put an Estonian face on the Soviet takeover of their country, signing off on decisions made in many cases by the party boss of Leningrad. Estonians today still wait for the rulers in Moscow to personally acknowledge the moral sewer of 1940, the geopolitical slime in which they lost their independence. For them, it's a kind of compass -- a way to gauge their neighbor's intentions. It drives Russia's rulers mad to have something like that expected of them, for in an era when they are trying to regain some confidence, the last thing they desire to do is to personally apologize to some pipsqueak former province.

That's Russia. Few countries have easy dealings with it. But within Estonia, the people have ever since had to deal with the local face of the June "revolution." They have to deal with the reality that they too played a role in the forfeiture of their country. Today, one wouldn't be surprised to see the descendants of all these families, most of them still prominent, drinking in a pub. They are professors and politicians and bureaucrats. One is even a former first lady. All claim to love Estonia, and nobody would ever question that loyalty or adoration. On occassion, it seems like the past never happened. Your best bet to even read about it is to go scrounging around used furniture stores for discarded Soviet history books. Today, 70 years later, it is June 1940 that seems like an alternative reality. It is the nightmarish faded black and whites of the takeover that drift into obscurity. And most young Estonians probably know little of this past, and are content not to know.

Sometimes I wonder if they are right.