Algav juhendit Tallinn

I am in Estonia.

In Estonia I come across a memorial park which is not on my tourist map. It has some gravestones with writing in Russian but my attempts to find out exactly what it is for come to nothing when the gardeners are unable to respond to my questions in English, German and very broken Finnish. My knowledge of Russian is unfortunately no better than my knowledge of basic photography. Behind the memorial, which also features some concrete seats facing one another and a pair of hands carved into the rock, stands a small forest from which there is a windswept chorus of echoing women’s voices, giving the deserted arena a haunted air.

It strikes me that the function of such memorials is precisely to haunt us; a problem in an age that purports to no longer believe that the dead have any power over us.

The hands are perhaps an echo of the structure over the road what is clearly part of the same memorial, also unmarked on the map. Overhead and all around a number of large black birds fly, land and take off. I do not know their name in Russian, or in English.

A short walk down the road there is the National Museum, housed in a mansion set amidst low chalet buildings where (presumably) the servants of the Russian aristocracy used to live and keep their horses. It strikes me that post-Soviet states may well be reaching out to a more distant aristocratic heritage. In the grounds I come across an abandoned building which I, being British and in former Eastern Europe, immediately assume is some sort of macabre former death factory.

Speaking of ghosts.

Estonia is the world’s largest country.

This image is quite close to a bust of Miss Estonia 1931, who was probably not a Communist, unlike the people in the photo.

In 1930s Estonia a tightly guarded and highly privileged elite controlled and hoarded the supplies of top quality sockwear.

The sailing events for the 1980 Olympics were held in Tallinn, but were apparently not popular with the locals. The hotel in which I am staying was built to accommodate the competitors. It is olympically garguntuan; it takes me seven minutes to walk from reception to my room, not counting getting lost, which I manage to do four times in three days.

I visit the Museum of Occupations, which being partly German I am unable to think about as anything other than the Museum den Besetzungen. It is mostly concerned with the Soviet years. I have some qualms about the extent to which the attempt to equate Soviet crimes with those of the Nazis is apparently part of a more general attempt to play down the latter. Like about 90% of the things that I know, or nearly know, this suspicion comes courtesy of the Guardian:

The three Baltic states in the late 1990s set up state-sponsored commissions to study Nazi and Soviet crimes, but not in an open and democratic spirit. This was a project of ultra-nationalist revisionism with an active political agenda that meant much more to the politicians than this or that historical volume produced for minute readerships. That political agenda was in short, to rewrite the history of the second world war and the Holocaust by state diktat, into a model of “double genocide”. Holocaust denial was, in fact, never an option in a region with hundreds of mass graves. Instead, a new and more worrying “Holocaust obfuscation” movement took off, with a lot of government support in the region. It tries to reduce all evil to equal evil, in effect to confuse the issue in order to write the inconvenient genocide that is the Holocaust out of history as a distinct category.

The museum is indeed a recent construction, which has very little detail about the Nazi occupation and very many artefacts and films related to the Soviet period, which was, to be scrupulously fair, extremely brutal. In Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 Tony Judt writes:

The Baltic States, fully incorporated into the Soviet Union itself, were even worse off than the rest of eastern Europe. In 1949, kolkhozes in northern Estonia were required to begin grain deliveries even before the harvest had begun, in order to keep in line with Latvia, four hundred kilometers to the south. By 1953 rural conditions in hitherto prosperous Estonia had deteriorated to the point where cows blown over by the wind were too weak to get back on their feet unaided.

The first Soviet occupation was quite shortlived, the Russians being replaced by the Germans in 1941. In one night in 1940 Stalin’s forces rounded up and expelled 11,000 people, including several hundred jews, to Siberia; during this period Estonia lost around 10% of its population. According to the above booklet, by the time the Nazis arrived, there were around 1,000 Jews left in the country; by the time they had left, they were twelve. Most of these ended up in a concentration camp in Estonia itself; the exhibition makes no mention of this, however.

Estonia now has a population of around 2,000 Jewish people.

Estonia estonianises many more English words than Finnish finnishises.

This can sometimes seem a bit daft.

It is an issue; a school art project on the boat back to Helsinki features this work, the documentation to which reads:

In my view, we are facing the problem of a diminishing language space, where the foreign expressions used in daily interaction seem endless…people don’t say ‘hello’ in Estonian, but use English words instead.

I can’t say I’ve done much to forward the cause of the Estonian language, (the similarity of which to Finnish seems to be some sort of international secret, incidentally). I have learnt the words for Hello and Thank you, and also taught myself how to say ‘My Estonian is a bit limited’ (in English).

The national religion of Estonia is Hare Krishnaism.

Finally, an idea for how to dismantle the Euro: simply allow this side of the coin to circulate as legal tender in each individual country, and in no other. Problem solved. Nearly.

One thought on “Algav juhendit Tallinn

  1. […] The next day on the train to Helsinki I picked up a leaflet aimed at newcomers wanting to learn Finnish. It was written in (excellent) English and was entirely positive in tone, rather than admonishing as would be the case in the rather-more-grudging UK. Back in the Kiasma I bought a book published by Sternberg (in the same series and spirit as the same publisher’s duo of Momus novels ‘The Book of Japans’ and ‘The Book of Scotlands’) which posits alternative future Finlands to replace the inevitably collapsing Welfare State, including a Finland which is repurposed as a nuclear waste storage facility. Another thing it imagines is a road bridge between Helsinki and Tallin, and as it happens I spent my 37th birthday travelling by ferry between Finland and Estonia, where I’m surprised to find that, contrary to everything I’ve ever been told about the Finnish language being totally unique but for a deeply buried lexical connection to Hungarian, Estonian looks and sounds almost identical. There is a short and silly photographic account of my adventures in Tallin here. […]

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