TALLINN, ESTONIA —The tiny Baltic country of Estonia has come a long way since the success of its Singing Revolution in 1991 that ended the brutal and repressive five-decade rule by the Soviet Union.
Today, this nation of 1.3 million has made enormous economic strides while preserving the charm of its capital, Tallinn. My wife, Grace, and I were in the Baltic region earlier this summer including three days in Tallinn.
Tallinn’s Old World center is surrounded by medieval walls. Lining the cobblestone streets are hidden gems around every corner, including some top-notch restaurants, such as the Olde Hansa that offers game sausages made of bear, wild boar and elk. I enjoyed the smoked salmon and creamy mushroom soup with a local beer, all made with centuries-old recipes.
Estonia has mild summers with 18 hours of sunlight daily and cold, dark winters. When it’s really cold, seven official ice roads are opened from the mainland to nearby islands, some as far as 15 miles away. The goal of the ice roads is to make life easier for the locals. They are open for travelers only during daylight hours. Drivers and passengers are told to keep their seat belts unfastened to make sure that all doors of the vehicle can be opened easily.
Estonia, whose borders include the Baltic Sea and Russia, was dominated by Sweden, followed by two centuries of rule by the czarist Russia, prior to its independence after World War I. As part of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact, the Soviet Union swallowed up Estonia and its Baltic neighbors. Nazi Germany occupied the Baltic countries after invading the Soviet Union in 1941, but the Soviets reoccupied the region in 1944 after turning back the Nazis.
Life was much worse for the Estonians under the communists compared to the Nazis. In World War II, Estonia lost 200,000 people who were executed, killed in action or imprisoned and deported.
Freedom for the Estonians a half century after World War II did not happen overnight. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev took power in 1985, he announced the policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (greater political openness). In 1987, Estonians began a series of massive demonstrations, including the spontaneous singing of traditional songs that had been banned by the Soviets.
In September 1988, a song festival in Tallinn drew a massive audience, 300,000 people. Political leaders were present and there were calls for independence.
On Aug. 23, 1989, the 50th anniversary of the Soviet takeover of the three Baltic republics, nearly 700,000 Estonians linked hands, joining half a million Latvians and one million Lithuanians. The linked hands ran the length of all three countries in a show of defiance of Soviet rule. Over the next two years, efforts to establish independence grew. Without violence, independence was accomplished on Aug. 20, 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Estonians continue to value their freedom. Two of the most interesting museums in Tallinn are the Museum of Occupation and Freedom revealing the enormous human tragedy the Estonians faced for decades and the KGB Museum in the Viru Hotel.
Built in 1972, the Viru Hotel was the first high-rise hotel in the country. All foreign visitors stayed there and an average Estonian person could not enter, except under special circumstances. At the height of the Cold War, the Soviets kept a close eye on visiting Westerners and all 60 rooms of the hotel were bugged. After the fall of communism in the Soviet Union in 1991, the hotel manager uncovered a secret room on the 23rd floor— an elaborate electronic listening control room.
Because of their rapid departure, the KGB officers left listening equipment, files and papers, telling the story of espionage and even uniforms and various devices. (The KGB was the primary security agency for the Soviet Union from 1954-1991. The KGB served as both an intelligence agency and secret police force.) Among the most interesting items in the museum are the tiny electronic microphones fitted into ashtrays and plates so that the KGB could listen to conversations visitors were having in the restaurant on the 22nd floor.
Estonia today is a democratic parliamentary republic with one of the highest adult literacy rates in the world — 99.8%. One of the most technologically advanced nations in the world and the birthplace of Skype, the country has declared Internet access a basic human right.
Public transportation in the capital is free for residents of Tallinn. Estonia has a simple flat-tax system and relatively low taxes.
Estonia’s ethnic breakdown includes 25% Russian, up considerably since World Word II.
About 70% of Estonians speak the Estonian language, which has some similarities to Finnish and Hungarian. Thirty percent speak Russian, and most also speak English.
Before the Soviet era, Estonia was historically a Lutheran nation. But today, it is one of the least religious countries in the world with only 14% of the population saying religion is an important part of their lives.
Despite the positive aspects of Estonian life, poverty remains prevalent. Around 21% of Estonians live under the poverty line (twice that of residents in northeast Indiana), proof that while the Soviet era is over, its effects linger.