How Estonia Preserved Its Culture

Recently, my wife, Allyson, and I landed in Estonia, a tiny, little-known nation tucked away in the northeast corner of Europe just south of Finland. Although my parents were Estonian, I had never visited before. Now, I was seeking my roots. For the first day we walked in Tallinn’s Old Town, captivated by one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals with church spires, thick battlements, towers and narrow cobblestone streets. I was thrilled to hear the Estonian language and see signs in Estonian.

Old Town is known for its well-preserved and authentic Hanseatic architecture.

The next day, a relative pointed to a stately Gothic house. “That was the former KGB headquarters,” she said. “This street was the most feared place in the city.” It was a reminder that most of Estonia’s history has been spent under the heel of invaders.

Estonia has a Nordic culture and its language is similar to Finnish. Estonians are educated and enjoy music, literature, and nature. But with a small population (about 1.3 million) situated in a much-coveted location, the country has seen many battles and conquests. The ruins of castles and fortresses are everywhere. Until 1991, the nation enjoyed freedom only between 1920 and 1940.

Hans Tammemagi

Narrow cobblestone streets cut through the capital town.

Once in a while we caught glimpses of this sad past. Some cemeteries contained memorials to those who perished as Russia invaded in 1941 and again in 1944 and implemented a brutal campaign of ‘Russification.’ Many Estonians were killed or shipped to Siberia, and those who were able, fled to the west. Estonia lost about 25 percent of its population during the war, a devastating impact. The terror returned in 1949, with more than 70,000 people sent to Siberia.

Russia sought to transform Estonia and the other 13 conquered nations, including Latvia, Lithuania, Armenia, Georgia and the Ukraine, into a permanent part of their empire, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. One goal was to create a new Soviet citizen, homo sovieticus, a Russian-speaking person who believes in communism and devotedly follows party dogma.

Moscow ruled with an iron fist. Russians were forcibly settled into Estonia, and today they comprise about 26 percent of the population. Religion was banned, property confiscated, farmers forced onto large collectives, food and consumer goods became scarce with long line-ups a way of life. The KGB spied on everyone, and dealt harshly with the ‘guilty.’ A soul-destroying grayness settled over the land. For 50 years, Estonians lost their freedom and watched their culture being destroyed.

In the meantime, the Soviet system was rotting, primarily through corruption and mismanagement. When Mikhail Gorbachev introduced glasnost in the late 1980s, independence movements and protests broke out in many Soviet republics. In Estonia, remarkably, the protests were peaceful and centred around a major song festival. It was called the Singing Revolution.

Suddenly in 1991, the Soviet Union broke apart and all Soviet republics gained their independence.

I spoke with the head of the Estonian Embassy in Canada, Riho Kruuv, who explained how Estonia has made enormous political and economic strides since 1991. “We have embraced technology, which offers a great ability for expressing oneself and achieving one’s full potential.” In Estonia, voting is by Internet. Skype was invented there. WiFi is everywhere.

Kruuv is also proud of progress in the economic sphere. “Estonia has little national debt while the rest of Europe is in financial disarray,” he said. Economic growth is one of the highest in Europe. The country has a flat income tax of 21 percent. “Perhaps it’s due to our practical Nordic character,” he mused.

My relatives explained that Estonia has worked hard, almost obsessively, to protect itself from future Russian threat. Estonia joined NATO and the European Union and has built strong ties with the west, including tapping into the talent pool of those that fled. For example, the Estonian president was born in Sweden and raised in the USA; the head of the central bank grew up in Canada.

As Allyson and I witnessed while touring the country, color has returned to the land. Art is flourishing and songs are sung. It’s a happy place with hope and aspirations. And tourists are starting to flock there.

We pieced together how Estonia managed this almost miraculous transformation. First was love and pride in one’s language and traditions, and Estonians seized every opportunity to celebrate and promote them. Motivation was key, and for Estonians it came from the realization that this might be a final opportunity; darkness might descend again. An important factor was avoiding corruption. This kept spirits high and ensured resources went toward re-building the country. The Nordic characteristics of practicality, honesty and compassion were crucial.

The last evening in Estonia, we reminisced about our trip. It had been heart-warming to meet relatives and feel part of a larger family. Allyson and I had also enjoyed the history, the fortresses and old stone ruins. Cultures and languages, we realized, are treasure chests of knowledge that contribute to the richness of all society. That tiny Estonia has managed to preserve its traditions and is now blossoming seemed incredible. I realized that love of country is one of those intangible but real emotions. I was proud to be Estonian.

Hans Tammemagi

In March of 1944 Russia invaded Tallinn’s Old Town and Estonia by dropping bombs under “Russification.” Markers like this one throughout the town remember those who perished.