Posts Tagged ‘Estonia’
View of the lower old town, from the upper old town. Tallinn is one of the most perfectly preserved medieval cities in the world – most of it still in day to day use as shops, offices and apartments, with a few buildings converted to museums. Come to think of it, one of the things I loved about my mother’s home town was its museums – almost all very small. Few took even an hour to go through, even at a very leisurely pace. And they were so inexpensive, I went to ones I normally would not have been interested in, like the mine museum – yes a museum dedicated to land mines…
Not sure these rooftops tell much of a story, but given their age and what they have been through and witnessed over the centuries, I am sure they have some tales to tell.
Ever wonder what happens to all those statues that get toppled when the people rise up and finally get rid of their hated dictator? Yes, we’ve all seen them come crashing down – they make great TV bites – but what happens after the crowds have gone home?
Not sure if I am in a Baltic or Lavatorial frame of mind these days, but this was another little surprise I encountered on my way to do my unmentionable business. The Estonians opted to place these tributes to Lenin and Stalin guarding the loo in the basement of the Occupation Museum in Tallinn. In a museum that was depressing by its very nature, it was a brilliant sparkle of light and a credit to the Eesti sense of humour.
(I wrote an article about this museum last year which you can read by clicking here.)
Those not able to stand here in person remembered it as clearly as I do now. I remember their memories, too.
This is a street in Tallinn, Estonia. My extended family still lives there. Most Estonians were enslaved as serfs under the Germans, Swedes and finally the Russians from the 13th century until they were freed in 1819. Being considered property meant that most excellent records were kept and so we have a thorough genealogy to the late 1600s.
I know their names, when they lived and died, how many children they bore – they beat in my veins and my heart and my memory.
Not sure what took me so long to get to Tallinn. I had wanted to visit ever since I was a little girl and my grandmother told me stories about Estonia. She made it sound so magical, so different from the world I knew in the Bronx – and having finally made it there, I can declare unequivocally that Tallinn and the Bronx are as opposite as north and south or cold and hot. The Bronx of my childhood was war-torn and terror ridden. The Tallinn I finally got to see was possibly even more idyllic than grandma had described.
The museum is set in a mostly residential neighbourhood near the old city – a modest glass building, reflecting its surrounds, with a very small sign indicating what it houses. Once inside I was immediately struck by the suitcases – hastily packed by people who knew they would probably never return, packed with the items they treasured most for a journey with no return ticket.
I stood there quietly, wondering if one of them had been my grandfather’s. Elmar Hiiesalu had hastily packed just such a bag when he was forced into the Soviet army, when the Russians finally overcame the Nazis.
Most of the exhibits were devoted to Estonia’s endless struggle to be free. It has been alternately occupied by Danes, Germans, Russians and Swedes for most of the last millenia – the fate of a tiny country – with less than a million people. Ironically, the culture survived largely because the Estonian people were forced into serfdom and so preserved their language and customs.
But in 1918, when Russia was busying herself with the Revolution – Estonia, along with neighbouring states, Latvia and Lithuania, declared itself a free, sovereign nation. Here is a photo of President Konstantin Pots at the 20th anniversary of the republic in 1938. Pots was my grandfather’s boss – he was his personal secretary. Grandpa didn’t make it into this photo, no doubt tending to some important detail. Many of my relatives were involved in government work, including the then mayor of Tallinn. If they weren’t forced into the army or sent to Siberia, they went to prison. You went to prison for being the wife of a politician.
Which brings me to the truly chilling part of the visit. The doors. Click the thumbnails for a larger look.
These came from various prisons around Estonia where political prisoners were held, including members of my family. Something so very gruesome about these cheerfully painted doors – you would never find them on a movie set – only in real life. Just being near them, I could hear and feel the misery and sorrow they contained – I had the sensation of wanting to wash them.
Yes, that is Lenin and Stalin, flanking the entrance to the toilets – women on the right, men on the left. A couple of spare prison doors behind them. If you look at the full-size photo, you will note the statues are damaged – this is from when they were toppled when Estonia declared its freedom again in 1991.
Various other disgraced Communists – Russian and Estonian, were strewn about the basement floor, along with toppled monuments and Soviet era iconography. The hatred the Estonian people felt for their occupiers is palpable nearly twenty years after they were removed from power.
To be honest, the emotions were so raw, it was truly painful being there. After an hour and a bit, we really couldn’t take any more and decided to walk up to the upper city. This monument made me smile…
I was but a lass of 18 when I read “The Fountainhead” and was swept away by Howard Roark’s incorruptable rightness and the unusurpable power of architecture to define who we are. I’ve mellowed, wisened, thankfully matured with age – but my fascination with architecture in all its forms continues. Especially new architecture in old places.
This precinct in Tallinn, Estonia was particularly fascinating. It’s a small country, just over a million people, so there are no Trump Towers like you find in New York or Atlantis Hotels of the Dubai variety. Everything is small – human scale – nothing god-like. I was quite fond of this angular projection sprouting from the entranceway to these buildings. The man in the photo is about 5’6″ – so we have a bit of scale.
Even more interesting is this block of flats (which I shamefully chopped the top off.) No, it’s NOT a wide-angle lens – the building is leaning like that. Not sure what the plan is, other than a whimsically leaning tower of Tallinn. But you will note the turn of the century sandstone building beside it… There were dozens of them in the area and this one received a rather generous and subtle renovation.
But what the heck is going on here??? Three mini-tower extensions! Who thought this up? And who said OK? I’m not sure I hate it, but I’m pretty sure it’s architectural miscegenation. But as curious and inexplicable as these things were -
To be fair, the whole area was full of experimental pieces – and whilst the Old City is virtually unchanged from the middle ages, there do need to be spaces for contemporary living and working.
Here in New Zealand, a very new place, anything over fifty years old is considered heritage. It’s a silly policy that results in a lot of law breaking. In Tallinn, these 100 year old buildings are virtually new.
In the meantime – I think it does the job. And I love those streetlamps.
A more magical Estonia tale – a visit to Lahemaa woods with my cousin Kaupo and his wife Kadri. Estonia is a tiny country, and these woods are tucked up in the northeast corner – getting close to the Russian border. Though they have been ‘managed’ i.e. harvested and replanted, this particular stand of trees has been here for 1000 years or so. During the soviet era, it was off limits to visitors and has only recently been reopened to the public – so it has had a good long while to get back to its ‘natural’ state.
It was a chilly day in late September – this close to the Arctic circle, autumn begins promptly and the cold sets in. We had a quick lunch at a local traditional restaurant. I am pretty sure these restaurants are not considered typical eateries – where you’d go on a Friday night with your mates – but I could be wrong… we went to several, which served traditional fare, bear sausage, sour milk, and ham chopped into everything… I must learn to photograph my food more often… in any case, it was a large wooden hall, with long tables and benches – warm and cosy. And the food was fast and friendly. I passed on the sour milk in favour of local beer. Some things one must be raised on. The stuffed wild animals on the walls and little woven decorations lent a certain otherworldly touch.
This was followed by a leisurely hour or so at a restored manor house. The owner of this house and his family owned the surrounding lands, upon which the serfs lived. (Serfdom was a form of bondage or slavery where the person belonged to the land. So if the land changed hands, so did the serfs.) Tallinn, the capital, was always a major port in the Hanseatic League – it was never really Estonian until the twentieth century – run by the Germans, Russians or rulers of the day. We were rather enamored of the soviet era vehicles and large stuffed game wandering around the place.
It was off in the country where the Estonians kept the old ways, traditions, songs and language alive. My family, whom my cousin has traced back to the 1600′s, belonged to land around a similar manor – in western Estonia.One little thing that blew my mind as we meandered around was the symbol for the Estonian Post office! This is virtually identical to the symbol used in Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49,” used for the ancient, secret W.A.S.T.E. postal system integral to the story. It is one of my favourite books – one of those that ‘changed my life’ during my most impressionable years, and which I still love reading again and again. And there it was – maybe it was just where I needed it – I don’t know…
It did set me up for Lahemaa Woods. I could tell as we neared, it was full of secrets. And – according to Kaupo, also full of bears and wolves! For the full photo-story - click here. Or if you just want to look at the photos, check out the gallery below. One of these days I’ll tell that story here – but this is not the day…