Estonia is Culture-Mad and Who Can Blame Them?

Estonia seems to enjoy being perched between the Baltic countries and Finland. Its language is Finnic, but not mutually intelligible with any other of the other odd languages in that dysfunctional family. I got the distinct impression that Estonians prefer to compare themselves with Finns rather than their Baltic neighbors. Esties enjoy a high level of education, a reputation for being reserved, a good school system, a much higher GDP per capita than Latvia and Lithuania, and a thriving cultural scene eagerly supported by state policy, to the extent that funds permit. All that’s missing, a few of them joked with me, was an Estonian Nokia.

The ferry trip from Helsinki to Tallinn is splendid. You begin with this amazing panorama at the Helsinki Ferry Terminal:

helsinki ferry port terminal

And then get on an Estonian-flagged ship. The Estonian flag is blue, black and white, cool Nordic colors:

hel leaving helsinki on estonian ferry

Finland taxes hard alcohol at a high rate, so plenty of Finns take booze cruises to Estonia, where prices are much lower. This means that ferries are basically floating malls and complexes of bars, but you can still fight your way outside to see some of the dramatic scenery.

There are a few distinct bits of Tallin. First, the Old Town, which is compact and built on two distinct layers, with the Parliament house on top of a hill called Toomea. It’s a nice old town with narrow, winding streets climbing up and down hills, but it has the sort of artificiality you associate with these places: There’s not much there except for souvenir shops, restaurants, and kiosks. I got the distinct impression that it fills up with drunken Finnish tourists during the summer. Estonians don’t like being the cheap-booze getaway destination of choice for Finns, but they grit their teeth and accept it, since it brings in significant cash.

The area around the Old Town has a number of streets with charismatic crumbling old wooden houses:

est house on endla.JPG

The other beauty spot is the Kadriorg Park, site of a Baroque castle and gardens:

Also in this park is the Estonian national art museum, called KUMU for KUnstiMUuseum. It’s in a fine modern building by Pekka Vapaavuori, opened in 2006, with the long walkways and slice-shaped architecture that are getting to be clichés for contemporary-art museums these days. Cliché or not, it’s a spectacularly successful and inviting building. It cost $50 million, which would seem to be a staggering sum for a nation of only 1.3 million people. This shows you how dedicated Estonians are to culture.

You won’t find many masterpieces of European art here, but the curators have done an outstanding job presenting Estonian art and culture. The permanent exhibition devoted to art during the Soviet Occupation is particularly interesting, since it’s basically also a history lesson in adaptation and resistance. It introduced me to the term “Soviet Pop”, which is just what it sounds like. There were also interesting photorealist works, and a number of moody, slightly eldritch paintings and sculptures. A selection:

There’s a strong German influence in Estonia; the word for ‘artist’ in Estonian is ‘Kunstnik’, which never failed to crack me up. Estonia is nominally mostly Lutheran, although only 14% of Estonians go to church regularly. Like all the Baltic countries, Estonia has a sizable Russian minority, mostly of people who were moved there to “Sovietize” the Baltic SSRs and their descendants.

The official description Estonians give of this problem to outsiders is carefully and diplomatically framed. The occupation of Estonia by the Soviets is portrayed as illegal and unjust, but Estonians seem to not want to look like they’re obsessed by historical grievance (unlike certain nearby nations who will remain nameless), and discussion of the occupation and the current status of the Russian minority is couched in euphemisms, at least among the class of Estonians who speak fluent English. Of course, this careful reticence is also driven by the fact that Russia, which has 378 times the land mass of Estonia, is highly concerned about the treatment of the Russian minority (to put it diplomatically), and the EU also monitors Baltic countries’ treatment of the Russian minority.

Outside of the beauty spots, Tallinn looks like the somewhat-more-prosperous-than-usual Eastern European country it is. Shopping centers are cheap, warehouse-like buildings thrown up in the early 1990s. The typical pattern holds: public areas and building exteriors are often shabby-looking, because Eastern European countries never really developed an economic infrastructure for keeping these places tidy and modern-looking; there wasn’t enough money for that. The flat I Airbnb’d in was pristine and newly-remodeled, but the apartment block it was located in wasn’t, and the entry way was an obstacle course of crude, dangerous concrete blocks and crumbling stairs erected by some state contractor in 1974 who obviously didn’t give a shit.

Unlike in many Eastern European countries, though, you get the sense that Estonians are quite aware that some bits of their country still needs a bit of sprucing-up, and they’ll be getting around to it once their economy begins generating enough surplus wealth to support an nationwide infrastructure of architects, landscape designers, building renovators, park-management specialists, and urban planners. The talent and the love of culture is there; the money will soon follow.

Estonian bookstores are as interesting as you’d expect. and feature a surprising number of English-language books on Estonian culture, folklore, and history, written by Estonians in nearly-flawless English. My favorite find was a small pamphlet on Estonian folklore and traditions, which are as interesting as you might think. I plan on scanning it in and posting excerpts later. For now, here is the text from the back:

2018-05-06 12.31.24

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