Teised meist

Üle tüki aja sain lugeda artiklit Eesti kohta mis rääkis asjadest nii nagu nad meil on. Tom Bissell’i artikkel The New Republic ajakirjast on lugemist väärt. Kuna tegemist on registreerimist (tõsi, tasuta) vajava kohaga siis refereerin seda artiklik siinsamas.

Siinkohal tänud Giustinole viite eest

FUN ON THE BALTIC RIVIERA
Rolling Estonia
by Tom Bissell
© The New Republic

The paths available to nations coping with the grim and often sanguinary legacies of communism are few. There is the Russian way: Retain, defend, and celebrate the most singularly awful aspects of communist rule. There is the Uzbek way: Swap the name of the Uzbek communist party for the People’s Democratic Party of Uzbekistan; carry on forthwith. There is the Vietnamese way: Preserve communism’s ceremonial, revered-elders overlay; disown most of the economic advice. And there is the Chinese way: Change everything, admit nothing. In light of all this, it is sadly difficult to imagine a post-communist nation achieving governmental transparency, an uncorrupted economy, and lives for its citizens untouched by the tentacles of a busy secret police force.

But consider Estonia. I had been hearing of the amazements of this nation and, in particular, of its capital, Tallinn, for some time: an Old City whose preserved medieval architecture functions as a Gothic time machine; a friendly populace with an enterprising work ethic (the Internet phone service Skype was an Estonian company, bought last year by eBay for more than $2 billion); a good-naturedly hedonistic nightlife; and a number of excellent restaurants. I once had the rare honor of being mugged three times in one day in one former Soviet capital–the last coming at the sticky-fingered hands of the police themselves–so, when looking over a Lonely Planet guidebook, the first place to which I usually turn is the “Dangers & Annoyances” section. While warnings abound for its Baltic neighbor Latvia (“It definitely pays to be streetwise here”), Estonia rates no admonitions at all.

The twentieth century was not kind to Estonia, providing it with both Nazi and Soviet occupations. Yet, while its history as an independent nation-state has been sporadic and brief (it spent several centuries under Russian and, before that, Swedish rule), Estonians themselves form one of the oldest extant cultures in Europe. A people closely related to the Finns, Estonians have existed in what is today called Estonia since the time of Cheops. Estonia was recently rated the sixteenth-least corrupt country in Europe, far ahead of any other former Soviet state and better than founding EU member Italy. Its bow-tied and owlishly appealing president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves–a Swedish-born ethnic Estonian who grew up in the United States–has been known to speak of Estonia forming “a Huntingtonian subcivilization different from both its southern and eastern neighbors.”

In September, I traveled to Estonia–and found what appeared to be paradise. In Tallinn’s airport, passing through customs took seven-and-a-half minutes. Compared with any other European capital, or even any midsized U.S. city, traffic was laughably light. Mercedes-Benz 350s and Lexus SUVs prowled the cobbled streets of Tallinn’s truly lovely Old City. Technologically, Estonia seemed like a planet from a Flash Gordon serial: Clicking on my AirPort icon just about anywhere I went in Tallinn resulted in a Homeric catalog of free wireless providers, and I learned that newspapers can be purchased from vending machines with a cell phone and that voting can be done online via a national-identity card. Tallinn’s striking Museum of Occupations, which details Estonia’s dreary experiences under Nazi and Soviet rule, was rigorously detailed and scholarly while, at the same time, admirably restrained. (It also treated frankly the matter of many Estonians’ collaboration with the Nazis.)

As for Tallinn’s nightlife, it seemed genuinely fun and welcoming–if, that is, one could overlook the drunken Scottish men giving one another comradely punches in the face on their way to the next strip club. One night at a disco, a woman, for whom the phrase “out of my league” had been invented, waved me onto the dance floor to join her for an encore of “Welcome to Estonia,” a popular local anthem sung to the tune of James Brown’s “Living in America.” Tallinn boasted what I can say were–without fear of hyperbole–the most jaw-droppingly beautiful women I have ever seen in my life. (One Estonia-boosting tract cheerfully explains: “The concentration of beautiful and interesting women in Estonia is apparently among the highest in the world.”) Perhaps relatedly, the one time I was approached by a young Estonian looking to unload some drugs, the narcotic in question turned out to be Viagra.

My last night in Tallinn, a cash machine captured my bank card. While I pounded on the screen, an Estonian man approached, whipped out his cell phone, called the bank’s 24-hour help line, and arranged for me to pick up my card the next morning at the bank’s main branch. I thanked him, not quite believing my card would be there. The next morning, I turned up at Hansapank to find at the help desk a six-foot-two-inch Estonian Amazon so glowingly blonde she appeared to be irradiated. I made sheepish mention of my plight, upon which she smiled, reached into her desk, withdrew an envelope, and, after a cursory scan of my passport, handed me my bank card.

Nevertheless, I wondered: Was Estonia’s stylishness actually some geoeconomic version of keeping up with the Joneses of the Western world? I was told more than once in Tallinn that the luxury sedans tooling around the city were, in many cases, piloted by people who could not afford them. I had noticed Tallinn’s many bookstores and art galleries, but, when I actually spoke to some Estonian writers and artists, I was told that the nation’s literary and art circles, while lively, were often as cliquish and status-conscious as a SoHo loft party. The story of Skype, the pride of Estonia, is also more complicated than that of a brainy Estonian phoenix rising from a heap of Soviet ash. Skype originated when a duo of Swedish investors came to Estonia in search of cheap programming talent. So, while the talent was local–and Estonians did indeed write the code–the funding and the idea behind that funding was not.

Thus, a couple of months later, I went back to Tallinn during the winter to discover a meteorologically literal darkness at noon. I was forced to note, for the first time, that Tallinn nearly shares a line of latitude with Iqaluit, the capital of the Canadian Arctic territory of Nunavut. The city’s stripped trees stood against an unrelentingly sunless gray canvas. Drizzle was constant; it had apparently begun raining two weeks before I arrived. Tallinn’s main square was decked out to look like one of those dispiriting little U.S. towns where Christmas is celebrated year-round. The people of Tallinn themselves were glumly hidden within designer winter coats as puffy as soufflés. The clubs, cafés, and restaurants where I had so enjoyed myself had names that now seemed desperate and effortful: Bar Bogart, Hollywood, Stereo.

I sought out Scott Diel, the editor-in-chief of Tallinn’s City Paper, the Baltic region’s must-read English-language magazine. Diel, a former Peace Corps volunteer once stationed in Estonia, has spent ten years living in the country, and I hoped he could revive my flagging admiration for his adopted home. Estonia, I told him, was without question the most pleasant and most advanced of the former Soviet republics–but could beating out Kazakhstan and Armenia really be considered that wondrous?

“The stuff you see in the press about Estonia,” Diel told me, “about the Miracle Republic–most of it really is true. Estonia’s unofficial goal is to become one of the five richest nations in Europe.” Could that happen? “They’ll never be richer than Switzerland, but it’s not impossible to imagine that they’ll come close. Estonia is still pretty homogeneous, with a government that agrees on the core issues. That’s Estonia’s secret. It’s not that divided. Estonia wants to be Western.” Diel’s biggest impetus for staying in Estonia, he told me, other than his predictably lovely Estonian wife, was “lifestyle.” But, when I expressed some curiosity about possibly moving with my girlfriend to Tallinn, Diel advised: “Make sure she comes in the summer.”

Estonia, I initially thought, had managed to forge a real place for its ethnic Russians–unlike many former Soviet republics, whose ethnic populace sneers at the Russians with whom they grew up. Today, 26 percent of Estonia’s inhabitants are ethnic Russians. Yet, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western nations had to urge Estonia not to expel them. Estonia didn’t offer most of its Russians automatic citizenship; Russians born in Estonia before 1992 have to pass a language test and suffer questions about Estonia’s new constitution. This sounds much easier than it is: Estonian is a Finno-Ugric language–which means that, other than Hungarian and Finnish, it has no widely spoken relatives–and the U.S. State Department ranks it as one of the world’s more difficult languages. (“You have to be really smart to be Estonian,” one Estonian told me.) Many Russians have refused to take the citizenship test, and a good number of those who have still don’t fully identify as Estonian. “Russian children,” an émigré Estonian businessman named Jüri Estam wrote recently in City Paper, “are being raised in Estonia in the spirit of denial.”

In one of Tallinn’s central parks stands the Tõnismäe Monument, which is home to a bronze statue of a Soviet soldier. This was thrown up during Soviet times to commemorate the “liberation” of Estonia from Nazi rule on September 22, 1944. In actual fact, the Soviets crushed the five-day-old independent government of Otto Tief and shot or dispatched to Siberia most of his ministers. The statue is, today, an annual gathering place for Tallinn’s Russian population, most of whom refuse to acknowledge the reality of the malign and unwanted Soviet takeover–perhaps believing, however subconsciously, that Estonia remains a Russian colonial possession. This feeling is not mutual. Most Estonians loathe the statue–Estam was actually arrested in May when, during a counterdemonstration, he crossed a police barricade in an attempt to display the national flag of Estonia in what he calls “a respectful manner”–but the Estonian government refuses, for some reason, to remove it. Some claim this is because many within Estonia’s parliament are unduly influenced by Russians; others maintain that the politics of confrontation is simply not the Estonian way. All of which meant that the tolerant ethnic wonderland I had wanted to see on my first visit was in fact riven by some depressingly familiar complications.

“Estonians would kill me for saying this,” Hillar Lauri, a Canadian-born ethnic Estonian who relocated to Tallinn in 1991, told me, “but it is essential to the Estonian psyche to say that we are not Russian. And this country is about proving that Estonia is not Russia. How do you prove it? By working harder, by reforming, by changing.” Near-Shoring, Lauri’s Tallinn-based company, does accounting for non-Estonian businesses operating in Estonia. His work, combined with his Canadian upbringing, gives him a panoramic view of both how far Estonia has come and how much further it needs to go. “Any area that is state-regulated,” he went on, “is corrupt. Hospitals and health care are terribly unreformed areas. … But it takes time. There are a thousand Soviet mindsets that linger.”

“Estonia was an independent republic between the two world wars,” Andrus Viirg, the director for Foreign Investments and Trade Promotion for Enterprise Estonia, explained to me. “This mentality has helped us because of the existing memory of a market economy and democracy. The cultural closeness to Finland also helped. We were able to watch Finnish TV. No territory under the Soviet Union had this opportunity. After regaining our independence, it was very easy for the government to proceed with Western ideas.”

Nations may or may not get the governments they deserve, but Estonia’s has been stable and occasionally inspired. Its first independent president, the reform-minded Lennart Meri, did much to create Estonia’s vaunted democratic transparency. Meri, who died in 2006, referred to politicians who got rich while in office as “scum on the surface of the state cauldron” and once held an apologetic press conference within a public toilet when he learned that a Japanese diplomat had complained about Estonia’s then-appalling (though typically Soviet) public restrooms. Meri’s 2001 successor, Arnold Rüütel–a former communist widely renowned for the snores he pulled from audiences while speaking–had a mildly scandal-plagued tenure as president, but, even under his decrepit hand, Estonia joined the European Union and its economy grew at a rate of around 6 percent per year. Ilves, the current president, is widely admired, and his fondness for polymathic rhetoric has made it clear there will be no looking back. The Estonian economy, Viirg told me, especially in terms of foreign investment, “is very strong.” Most of this investment–eleven billion euros between 1992 and 2005–has come from Sweden and Finland. “If we start calculating foreign investment per capita,” Viirg went on, “Estonia is [one of the very] strongest performers among the new EU member countries.” Estonia’s GDP growth is currently running at 10 percent per year, which places it in the ranks of China and India, with virtually none of those countries’ festering social ills.

It should be said that, even during Soviet times, Estonia had what was by far the highest standard of living among all the Soviet republics; it was where Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn went to complete The Gulag Archipelago in peace and quiet. Its success, then, is not really all that surprising. What is surprising is that Estonia suffered occupation by two of the twentieth century’s most monstrous regimes and, rather than succumb to the sickness of totalitarianism, developed some rather potent antibodies. In Estonia, the secret police basically no longer exist; most of the investigations headed by KAPO, its internal security force, are focused on software piracy rather than dissidents’ e-mail. Beyond the velvet ropes of its exclusive nightclubs, Estonia might not be the most exuberant place on earth, and its winters may be the atmospheric equivalent of a Bergman film, but it is blessed in many more important areas. Estonia’s greatest blessing might well turn out to be the degree to which its hard-won liberty has heightened the awareness of what its people can now freely achieve in this world. In the decidedly unmessianic Estonian air is something I have not sensed in my own country in a long time. It feels, in a word, sane.

TOM BISSELL is the author of Chasing the Sea, God Lives in St. Petersburg, and The Father of All Things, which will be published in March.

Teised meist