On 12 March 1990, during the year covered in last month’s “The Way it Was” feature, the Estonian Congress, an unofficial but popularly elected body representing the Estonian nation against the Soviet Union, announced the restoration of the Republic of Estonia. Exactly a year later, a nation-wide referendum about independence from the USSR returned a vote of 78% in favour of secession. In a country with more than 30% of the population that was ethnically Russian, that meant that the Estonian vote must have been almost unanimous. Why was—and is—Estonia so determined to assert its independence from its giant neighbour?
Part of the answer lies in the determination which Russia has shown, over three centuries, to destroy Estonia’s independence. Peter the Great succeeded where Ivan the Terrible had failed, and took control over what was then called Livonia and Ingermanland after defeating Charles XII of Sweden at Poltava in 1709.
It took war, a Revolution and more war to loosen the Russian grip. The Estonian Republic was formally constituted in 1920. But it lasted only twenty years. In 1940, under the terms of the infamous secret clauses of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Russians returned and initiated the darkest period in the country’s history. Today, most Estonians consider it to have been worse than the Nazi occupation. So did Time magazine, just a month after the event. In an article published on 19 August 1940, Stalin’s invasion of the Baltic countries was described in these terms:
“Norway under the Nazis still manages to be Norway, and even Poland keeps a species of impotent nationality in its Government- General. But the Russians do things differently. Last week, as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia officially became Russian Republics Nos. 15, 16, 17, liquidation of their nationalism began. Hundreds of men were arrested, including all leaders of former regimes that the OGPU could lay hands on. Tribunals were set up to try and punish ‘traitors to the people.’ Traitors to the people included not only active opponents of sovietization but all those who have fallen short of their political and economic duties, including the political duty of voting their countries into the USSR in recent elections. Those who failed to have their passports stamped for so voting may be shot in the back of the head.”
Some months ago, I met a senior official in the Estonian Embassy in Moscow, and she told me that the new Republic’s national aim, now that it is free of Russian control, is “just to be another boring Scandinavian country”. But this is hardly possible. Life in Estonia can never be boring, living as it does on the edge between Europe and Russia. It has been a battleground between east and west since 1208 when the Brotherhood of Knights in Christ first came to spread the gospel of peace and forgiveness by means of sword and battleaxe.
Over the succeeding centuries, Estonia was variously owned, partitioned and exploited by the Teutonic Knights, the Danes, the Swedes, the Poles and the Russians. It was the German traders of the Hanseatic league who left the greatest mark in the towns, while the descendents of the Teutonic Knights shaped much of the countryside.
By the ninteenth century, many of the German landowners had become active supporters of the native Estonian culture and language. Though that began to change in the 1880s when Tsar Alexander III initiated a policy of Russification of the Empire’s outlying parts, the mortal threat to local culture came only with the Soviet occupation in 1940. This is vividly illustrated at the Museum of Occupations in Tallinn. The plural refers to the German occupation which interrupted the Soviet one between 1941 and 1944.
If asked to compare the two, everyone I met on my recent trip gave much the same answer. “On the whole, German soldiers behaved politely,” one young lady said to me, reporting her grandmother’s eye-witness account. “They took what they wanted, sure, but they paid for what they took. The Russians just helped themselves to everything, without paying. And then they burnt the house down.”
Sadly, Soviet chauvinism has not entirely died. A small example will serve to illustrate the point. Estonia was not permitted to have a national footbal team within the Soviet Union. It therefore proudly started one in 1991, and has improved to the point where it is is now ranked 94th in the world. (They’ll be overtaking Scotland soon!) In 2001, the Russian national team travelled to Estonia for the first time to play a friendly match—at least the Estonians treated it as a friendly match. The Russians has other ideas.
First, many of their supporters arrived in vehicles decorated with the slogan: “хозяева вернулись” (“The owners have returned”—key that into YouTube to see an example). Then, when the Estonians won the game 2-1, the Russian supporters rioted. It was this event which led to the formation, for the first time, of a riot squad within the Estonian police.
It is understandable that the Estonians want to eradicate all traces of Soviet control. An interesting example of that effort is going to happen next year when, as I noted in the Travel piece, Tallinn is going to be European City of Culture, 2011. The theme is going to be “Tallinn from the Sea”. The reason is that it is still a novelty to be able to view the country from offshore. During the Soviet occupation, it was forbidden to own a pleasure boat, and the whole beautiful coastline, with the exception of a few designated beaches, was closed to the public. People were not permitted to swim in the sea except under supervision. The authorities went to the lengths of ploughing the non-designated beaches every night so that footprints in the sand could be detected in the morning and followed with sniffer dogs.
Whole towns were closed to Estonians, including the port area of Tallinn itself. One such town was Pilduski, the small, sea-side resort where Arthur Ransome lived shortly after the Revolution with the lady who was to become his second wife. He had met her when he was a journalist in Russia and she had been Trotsky’s secretary. In the early years of the Estonian Republic, the two of them spent their free time learning to sail in old boats which Ramsome bought off the quayside in Tallinn. He wrote about how they pottered around the coast, with innocent casualness, in Racundra’s First Cruise.
One of the Baltic German Manor Houses
Despite the fact that he preferred to live outside Russia, Ransome was one of those Western romantics who believed the Revolution to have been a good thing. But one wonders how he would have reacted had he seen the Soviets move into his little town in 1940, confiscate every boat, expel every Estonian, close the area completely and build a submarine base. Later, two nuclear reactors were installed, which the locals learned about only after the Soviet Union collapsed.
Next year will be the twentieth anniversary of that collapse, and Estonians will be celebrating the return of their independence. By the end of the year, the new Republic will have lasted longer than the first one did. Floreat Estonia!