Estonia and Post-Soviet Identity
After my brief adventure in Belarus, I traveled on to Estonia. To me, the interesting thing about traveling to formerly communist countries is how the history is remembered. Of course, memory isn’t homogeneous, but it is social, political, and public. I can only judge a country by the public expression of memory and the brief impression a country leaves on me. With that said, when I arrived in Estonia, it felt familiar. Things were clean and green, with tourists, the euro, tourist attractions, fast food, technology, and an overall “Western European” feel. What is Western European? What does it feel like? In the geography of the imagination, it is globalization, moderated capitalism, predictability, safety, English language, integrated markets, Euro, tourism, tidiness, consumption, freedom, etc. This is all made up. Just a list of stereotypical things that come to mind. To someone else it may mean something else. In contrast, Belarus is part of an imagined Eastern Europe. Imagined Eastern Europe is drab, confusing, uses Cyrillic, corrupt, xenophobic, homophobic, unsafe, poor, undemocratic, less integrated, exotic, etc. No one wants to be a part of imagined Eastern Europe. This seems especially true of Estonia.
So, I arrived in Estonia, somewhat comforted by the fact that people looked and sounded Finnish. Finnish is familiar. There were confused tourists looking for their hotels and hostels. This was also comforting, if only to make me feel slightly more competent. There was a lot of English in the background. English is a little jarring after not hearing it. I could understand what people were discussing in all of its glorious banality. My hostel was in the Old Town of Tallinn, which struck me as a bit like a Renaissance Fair or amusement park, with costumed people, vendors, narrow cobblestone streets, defensive walls, tall churches, and restored medieval buildings. My initial impression was that Estonia has done pretty well since the collapse of communism. It appeared to me to be rather prosperous, technologically advanced, vibrant, and connected. Whatever “Eastern European” is, it didn’t feel that way. My impression was that it went through great lengths to distance itself from this notion of Eastern European.
Of course, for me, one of the joys of traveling to formerly communist countries is to see what is left behind. Thus, my interest is not in how Scandinavian Estonia might feel but the legacy of the Soviet Union. The following are some remnants of communism that I visited.
Linnahall: On my first night in Estonia, I watched the sunset on the gray, graffiti covered remains of the Linnahall, a palace of sports built for the sailing regatta. The 1980 Olympics were held in Moscow and boycotted by the Western world over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. As the United States is STILL in Afghanistan after 15 years, the Olympic boycott (of 65 countries no less) seems a little ridiculous. In any event, a sailing regatta was held in Tallinn and poorly attended. Today, the ruins of the stage are a gathering ground for flocks of young people who seemed to be hanging out, drinking, and socializing. As usual, I felt a little odd, as I was alone-without a drink-or intention to socialize. My interest was watching the sunset over the Baltic sea and enjoying the scenery of pastel painted houses along the shoreline. If communism was entirely forgotten, maybe no one would gather there and the place would be torn down.
Patarei Sea Fortress Prison: On my second day, I toured a Soviet Prison. This is a bit of a misnomer, as the prison operated during tsarist times and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Still, it is pitched as a Cold War attraction, even though it was built in 1828 under Tsar Nicholas I (though it served as a military barracks). The prison was quite photogenic, with colorful graffiti to brighten the dust, rust, and gray. It is terrible to think of the years of torment, death, and isolation inflicted upon the prisoners there. And while soviet prisons may invoke a special kind of awful, no prison is “good” and I don’t know if for the time period, our prisons were qualitatively better. I thought it was interesting that the prison was framed as a Soviet prison. Maybe this was a way to appeal to tourists who want to enjoy the spectacle of “Sovietness” or that something can be Soviet if it is bad. Calling it a Estonian Prison is a little more personal and owns the history more than “Soviet prison.” But, I was told that many of the supervisors of personnel were Russian. And, as it was built under tsarist rule, it really isn’t part of Estonian national history except for the years that it operated after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Laahema National Park: On my third day, I visited Laahema National Park. It was the first park established in the Soviet Union. There wasn’t much “sovietness” to the park, as it featured villages, bogs, dense forest, and German estates. However, within the park is an abandoned Soviet submarine station. Interestingly, submarines would stop here, where they would be demagnetized. I learned that submarines pick up the magnetic fields of the ocean floor, which makes them easier to detect. This was fascinating. The earth’s magnetic field has shifted over time, but the ocean floor is magnetized from other eras in earth’s magnetic history. Submarines become magnetized, which meant they had to be demagnetized through a process of coiling copper wires around the craft and electrifying coils. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the submarine station eventually closed. When it did, criminal or gangster types dismantled much of the machinery and stripped the station of anything of value. What remains are cement docks jutting out into the sea, cluttered with garbage and decorated with graffiti. The fact that this is a tourist attraction attests the fact that Estonians must realize that the history is interesting enough to market.
Murru/Rummu: Finally, on my fourth day, I saw yet another Soviet prison (Murru) near the village of Rummu, as well as a beach that was actually a limestone quarry. Mining operations left mountain sized hills of white sand and a pit of water with flooded buildings. Actually, it was the prisoners who mined the limestone. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the prison was closed and the mining stopped, resulting in the “blue lagoon” beach of a mine pit. The place is a local attraction and it is treated like a beach. The water is very clear and the sand dunes otherworldly. The Soviet history is literally submerged, as buildings and equipment are under the clear, “clean” water of the quarry lake. (I was told it was clean, but I am skeptical that mining produces pristine water) Other tourist attractions visited that day included a Soviet cargo plane and Soviet style city called Paldiski, complete with Krushchev era apartment buildings.
Other observations: Russian was widely heard and spoken, another legacy of communism. I also learned that while Estonians seem to attest to the good relations with the Russian minority in the country, after the collapse of communism Russian speakers could not gain Estonian citizenship unless they passed a language test. As such, the mother of one of the guides I met has lived in Estonia for decades, but is not a citizen because she has not learned Estonian with the competency to pass the test. This seemed quite unfair, especially considering that Estonian is only spoken by about a million people.
Conclusion: It seems to me that Estonia would like to embrace its Western European-Scandinavian-ness (even though geographically, linguistically, and culturally it is neither). Communism is remembered as something foreign, Russian, and imposed upon. Still, there is also a recognition that communism sells. So, there are ample opportunities to tour soviet sites (as I did while I was there). Maybe like a good horror film or tragic story, communism is good for tourist dollars. Thus, it is preserved and packaged. Still, it is not overly embraced nor embraced with kitschy nostalgia. It might be embraced in the same way a hipster (for lack of a better word) embraces the dorky clothes they wore in high school. A hip person might feel a little pride in their Lisa Frank binder or wearing zuubaz for several years after they fell out of fashion. But, embracing the crush on Weird Al Yankovich, thick uncool glasses, acne, infrequent use of deodorant, and F in phy-ed…not so much. (Only some of that list are from my uncool past). That was me…and that was SO not me. Communism- that was me and that was SO not me. Embrace it a little and it can be cool. Embrace it a lot and it is awful. My impression is that Estonia tries to embrace it enough to be cool (unique and not quite Scandinavian) but distanced enough that it is not a part of the national identity.