We have spent several lazy days in Tallinn, the exact details of which I am sure you aren’t too interested in hearing about. Since we had chopped Finland out of the big itinerary, we decided to do a day trip to Helsinki via ferry. We booked an early morning outbound and late night return. Billy Bragg sings “The most important decisions in life are made between two people in bed.” When 5:30am rolled around, after a night of bad sleep, we completely punted Finland and went back to sleep. Maybe not the most important decision we have made so far, but it sure felt good.
Basically, we’ve slept in every day, eaten breakfast for lunch and watched Game of Thrones before bed…sometimes in the middle of that we do something cool…which is what I’ll tell you about now.
This week, we spent a couple of chuckle-free hours in Occupation Museum. The Occupation Museum is not about jobs…but about misery…so, it could be about jobs…but it’s really about the military occupation of Estonia. All 52 years of it.
**warning** there are no pretty pictures in this post…just depressing, important history. I will not judge you if you skip to the end for some cute John Levy action.
In August of 1939, Russia and Germany signed a 10 year ‘non-aggression’ pact, which included a secret little segment of “one for you and one for me”, where they chopped up most of Eastern Europe into “sphere’s of influence”. The Soviets got Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and some chunks of Poland. After the end of the Nazi invasion of Poland, the Soviets started bullying Estonia into letting them establish military bases in their country. When they said no, the Soviets started questioning Estonia’s neutrality and forced them to sign an agreement allowing the Soviets to establish military bases on Estonian soil for the duration of the European war, not to mention host 25,000 Soviet soldiers. As soon as Estonia signed, the Soviets got Latvia and Lithuania as well and whole Baltic was involved. Sphere of influence accomplished! As everyone knows, once you own all the colors, you can start building houses (and afterwards, hotels!) which is exactly what the Soviets did…expect replace houses with mass deportations and hotels with the destruction of Estonian culture.
6 months later, the Soviets decided to go for the full military rule via a puppet regime of native Estonians…3 months later, they punted that plan and got their hands really dirty. They established a new political party (made up of Soviet communists) and rigged elections to get them in office. Voters were presented with a list which only included members of this party, no opposition movements were allowed to sign. Which is genius in it’s simplicity. I believe this was also how Le-Anne Valvano won Martin Middle School’s 8th grade Student Council President elections, but I may be wrong.
Thus began the two year occupation of Estonia by the Soviets, during which the new government had mass deportations of “enemies of the people” and instituted the Russian language as the only working language. They called this process Russification, which is a silly sounding word for such an unforgivable act. Estonians, and natives of the other Baltic states, were deported to remote, scarcely populated areas or labor camps. Remember those jokes you made when someone get’s assigned to a shit project and you refer to them as being sent to Siberia….yeah, that’s what we are talking about. Bloody awful. Many people were sent off to serve in the Soviet army. It was so awful, that when Nazi Germany invaded Estonia in July of 1941, Estonians welcomed them with open arms as they were thought of as liberators. It was hoped that the Germans would reestablish national governments. Seeing how the Nazis are such reasonable people, this worked out just as you would imagine; 4 years of annexation of Estonia to the Third Reich where “suitable elements” were assimilated and “unsuitable elements” exterminated. 25% of Estonian Jews were considered “unsuitable elements” and only 10% of Latvian and Lithuanian Jews survived the war. 10%!!!!!
Incredibly, for the majority of Baltic people, German rule was less harsh than the previous Soviet rule had been, and Estonians signed up to fight for the Germans in their war for Europe. This created a situation in which you had Estonians who were sent off to fight for the Soviets two years earlier, fighting their own country-men who had just signed up to fight for Germany.
Nazi occupation lasted until the Baltic Offense of WWII in 1944, where the Soviets tromped back across Estonian borders and kicked the crap out of Germany, which hastily withdrew their forces, shouting to the Estonian’s over their shoulders “you got this, right?” They didn’t have it. After re-occupying all of the Baltic States, the Soviets re-implemented their Russification tactics, now with a fancy new name of Sovietization and a sexy new twist. Instead of overtly attacking Estonian culture and religion, they achieved control via large-scale industrialization…giving everyone jobs, tons of cash and lowering prices. Now, they still carried out massive deportations to eliminate resistance, the deportations from 1944-59 were much larger than before. In 1949 alone, 90,000 Baltic nationals were deported. The total numbers have been estimated at over half a million; 124,000 in Estonia, 136,000 in Latvia and 245,000 in Lithuania. They were allowed to return in 1956, however many did not survive their trip to Siberia. The grandmother of one of our tour guides came back, but without her legs. There was lots of pro-Stalin songs, parades and statues raised. You could tell by the video that even the people who were benefiting from all the extra cash weren’t really into the Stalin songs.
Over the years of 1950-1970, the Baltic states became a huge center for industry for electronics and textiles. Housing complexes that were lost during the war weren’t rebuilt until 10 years later, and were intended to last for about 50 more years, for Russian occupants only. These towers are still standing today (gulp!) and contain about 30% of the population of Tallinn. Our tour guide grimly joked “Any day now…we hope there won’t be an earthquake soon…” in 1970, 40% of the population were non-native Estonians. The farmers were out of luck, as they didn’t get as much investment from the government.
Starting around 1973, the seams of the Soviet rule started to slowly unravel. The leaders after Stalin didn’t have as much hutzpah, no reforms were made to correct the problems and when Gorbachev took over in 1985, the revolutions and the dissolution of the Soviet Union was only 6 years away. What was it like living in Estonia during this time? Well, sovietization was still going strong in the 70’s, Russian language was required in school and there were a lot of shortages of food and consumer products and a distaste in the mouth of most Estonians, who were growing more vocal and unchecked. It was only in 1989 that Estonian was once again declared the state language and they gained the right to veto laws in the Supreme Soviet courts. During this time, there was still only one communist party up for elections, but there were multiple candidates to choose from, which started leaning towards the people vs. the party. At this point, Estonians were not calling for independence, just autonomy and economic independence. However, one year later, pro-independence candidates received the majority vote and the Estonians declared independence.
It took a year for Russia to unclench it’s fists from Estonia’s shirt, and they didn’t do so willingly…but there was too many other issues Russia was dealing with at the time…their whole deal was collapsing around them. On August 28th, 1991, Europe welcomed the independence of the Baltic states. 2 weeks later, the Soviet Union begrudgingly agreed, although it would be 3 more years before Russian troops would withdraw. In fact, the last Russian soldier left Latvia in 1999.
52 years of occupation. 52 years.
My intention of this post was not to spew out a history lesson, but the story is so captivating, I couldn’t help myself. Estonians keep asking us “Why are you visiting here? Did you even know we existed before you came?” It’s not said with anger, but with sincere puzzlement. No, we didn’t know much about Estonia before we left. We knew that most Americans don’t put it on the Europe itinerary, which is why it went on ours, along with Latvia and Lithuania which we will be visiting over the next two weeks. I’m so glad we came here and stayed here for longer than 3 days. I don’t think any of the above would have sunk in unless we spent the time to get to know the land and a couple of it’s people.
The day was not all doom and gloom…we also saw Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel which was delightful.
I leave you with the only uplifting photo that can be taken at the Occupation Museum. We did some jolly things the next day, which I will write about very soon.