laupäev, august 20, 2011

iceland square

Sometimes when I look at photos of rural Afghanistan, down into the verdant valleys where the farmers are growing poppies and the zealots are shouldering rifles, I wonder how that place could exist on the same planet as the suburbs of New York, where some kid in a Yankee hat is stuffing his face with pepperoni pizza and playing games on his Wii, or even some remote jungle village in the Amazon, where an uncontacted tribe is looking up for the first time at a helicopter and smiling photojournalists.

It's August 2011 in all of these places, except it's a very different August 2011. August is the eighth month of our calendar. Two thousand and eleven is how many years have more or less passed since the birth of Christ. But the concepts of time and place here are relative. What is more important is our societies' relationships to time and place, and where we place ourselves on the belt of time.

This is what crosses my mind when I look at the old photographs of Lenin's statue coming down in what is now Iceland Square in Tallinn in August 1991, surrounded by mustachioed Estonians dressed like they stepped out of some 1970s fashion vortex. That door to another dimension has a name: it's called the "Fall of the Soviet Union." We know the looks, the sounds, the characters, the drama. Reagan, Thatcher, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Mitterand, Kohl. It's been replayed so many times in our minds and on our TV screens that we have to remind ourselves where we were on those days 20 years ago. And most of us weren't on Iceland Square.

To me it all seemed rather normal. The late 1980s. The early 1990s. The Intifada. Palestinian kids throwing rocks. German reunification. Teens wielding hammers. Tiannanman Square. Men standing in front of tanks. Armenian earthquakes. Gulf wars. Shuttle explosions. Nuclear meltdowns. Ozone holes. Ruined oil tankers. This was the evening news at the dawn of the era of the 24-hour cable news network. We watched it every night. Suffice to say that in my August 1991, a universe of skater kids, stonewashed jeans, fluorescent t-shirts, I wasn't really surprised by the Fall of the Soviet Union. It was just one of those things that happened.

I can't even conceptualize how short-sighted I was. But when your school has to order new maps every few years to keep up with the emergence of countries that haven't existed since 1940, or 1914, or, in many cases, never at all, you develop a thick skin to geopolitical change. The very idea that the Soviet Union could return though seemed out of the question. All the kings horses and all the kings men, couldn't put Comrade Dumpty together again. Ding, dong, the socialist witch was dead. The whole idea of the Soviet Union by that point was like some stale, moss-covered cracker you found wedged in the backseat of your car. It had passed its expiration date sometime in the late 1980s, if not before. Taking down a statue of Lenin seemed like the most natural thing to do. It was old metal junk. And what do you do with old junk? That's right, you throw it away.

Twenty years later and I am sitting in the former Soviet Union, except I rarely think of it as such. Sometimes in an antique store, a classic Soviet clock or radio will be pointed out to me as a curiosity. I recently enjoyed an exhibition in Tallinn about life in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. Old bookshelves, ancient cars, silly clothes, squeezable meals in metal tubes. So that's how it was back then, before the fabric of Soviet time was torn open, and people crawled out of the vortex, blinded by the neon lights of the West. That's how it was. And now Estonia is part of the West. The "former Soviet republic" era is long over.

Tomorrow is Islandi päev -- Iceland Day. It was proclaimed to coincide with the Republic of Iceland's recognition of Estonian independence two decades ago. President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson will be on hand to celebrate one of the few occasions where his country played a significant geopolitical role in recent decades. But he will also be discussing Iceland's EU accession negotiations with his Estonian counterpart. Talk about a wrinkle in time. Could people have even imagined this future 20 years ago? And can we even conjure up what life could be like in 20 years time? That's what I would like to know.

11 kommentaari:

plasma-jack ütles ...

And talk about injustice - OK, the Republic of Iceland didn't exist prior to the world war, so it's natural that they had to recognize us at some point. But the Danes in August 1991 were like "yeah, we already recognized you guys back in 1921, so just welcome back, we never agreed with the occupation anyway". And during the putsch this Ulleman-Jensen dude publicly told Esko Aho that Finns shouldn't be such pussies about the Baltics. Yet, the Danes don't seem to get as much credit as Iceland does.

plasma-jack ütles ...

*Uffe Elleman-Jensen.

PTI ütles ...

Wasn't Russia second to recognize Estonian independence?

Giustino ütles ...

Yep. Yeltsin's Russia on Aug. 24. The US and USSR did so in early September. A lot of people credit Yeltsin for that, despite what happened later. "If it wasn't for Yeltsin ..." as they say. I'm not sure how Yelstin is remembered in Russia today. When I visited Moscow in May, I saw a lot of memorials to Lenin, but none to Yeltsin. Maybe there is one somewhere.

straight ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
Meelis ütles ...

"Wasn't Russia second to recognize Estonian independence?"
Lithuania was second. On 22th August 1991.

Giustino ütles ...

How long was Yeltsin really in power? August 1991 to December 1999? But I recall him as "out to (liquid) lunch" during the last years of his rule.

plasma-jack ütles ...

Lithuania was second. On 22th August 1991.

If you happen to have the full timeline, could you paste it here?

Doris ütles ...

have you read Vahtre's "Empire of Absurd"? it's a very good read, in English aimed at the Western audience from the insider's view. There are a few stories in there that are just so ridiculous-painful that if you hadn't lived it you'd never believe it. Such as the joke about toilet paper:

two women meet on a street, one of them has a long string of toilet paper rolls over her shoulder. The other one asks:
"where did you get those, it's highly deficit"
the woman answers:
"they had them in the store on the corner and I stood in line for them for 4 hours but I wouldn't bother lining up, I got almost the last ones"
"oh. That's ok I suppose, I don't have a use for it anyways"

Jüri Ruut ütles ...

Timeline of recognitions:

Troels-Peter ütles ...

The case of Iceland is quite interesting. It actually gained full independence in 1917 although it shared its king with Denmark (like 16 countries today share Queen Elizabeth). It just wasn't very preoccupied with foreign politics because it usually made Denmark take care of that, albeit after its own sovereign wishes (like Liechtenstein and Switzerland today). Their common embassies displayed both flags.

So, as Iceland din't get on the train in 1921 it had to wait until 1991.

The then Danish foreign minister Elleman-Jensen writes in his memoirs how careful they were to word the note sent to Estonia in 1991 as a "resumption of diplomatic ties" rather than a "recognition" in order not to question Estonia's legal continuity.

He even claims that it was sent just before Iceland's note of recognition but didn't gain the same attention since it was merely a resumption. However, I have not seen this order of events confirmed anywhere else, so I admit that I usually attribute this to his not insignificant ego.

He also writes quite touchingly about how the three Baltic foreign ministers immediately went on a working visit to Iceland in 1991 and stopped in Denmark on their way back. The Queen had informed Elleman-Jensen that she wished to receive the three ministers, no matter how late.

When they arrived at her summer palace after midnight a full moon shone on the palace yard, and she had commanded the entire life guard company out to salute them, which caused Lennart Meri to shed tears.

Those were the days...