Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is cool and quiet this morning. There is a stiff breeze off the Baltic Sea and the sky is grey and overcast. I’m ensconced in a cozy cafe on the Old Town Square that bears a striking resemblance to a hobbit hole, drinking strong coffee nibbling chocolate and eating a late breakfast of a spiced meat pastry that is like a cross between a croissant and a samoza.
It’s a lot of travelling to get here from Vancouver. My adventure began with a bracing water taxi ride from Bowen Island to Granville Island in Vancouver, lumping through a southeasterly wind on Saturday evening. I hopped a British Airways 747 bound for Heathrow and populated largely by old Sikh men and women. Turns out 180 of us on the YVR-LHR flight were heading on to Delhi. It was a good flight, watching the surprisingly good remake of the taking of Pelham 1-2-3 and the surprisingly drawn out Australia. I managed to sleep in all the right places and stay awake in all the right places, and the jetlag was almost completely taken care of.
In London we landed in a bad squall which set the plane into a quiet desperate prayer session, but once we pulled up at the gate, the storm had moved on and an incredible rainbow graced the new Terminal 5. I ran for a connection, got stuck behind a huge group of Japanese travellers going through security and made my connection as the door was closing. The Finnair flight to Helsinki was fun; the video screen showed a shot from the nose of the aircraft on take off and landing, so it was like watching a real time live flight simulator. Not much to see in the dark, but perhaps the flight home will reveal more.
In Helsinki I had a bit of a layover, so I wandered around the airport. It was after 9:00pm when we got in and the late hop to Tallinn didn’t leave until 11:45, so I caught up on Skype – Estonia’s most famous high tech export! – with friends in North America who were beginning their Sundays. Helsinki airport is a lot like Ottawa’s airport. Everywhere I go, northern cities strike a home chord with me.
Noting that the further away I got from Canada, the more English was spoken on planes, I boarded a Finnair commuter flight to Tallinn, which is a short 35 minute jump over the Gulf of Finland. The two cities are only 85 km apart, almost as close as Vancouver is to Victoria. During the Soviet era, Estonians tuned into Finnish TV and radio all the time and were constantly exposed to western culture over the air.
Arriving in Tallinn at 12:30 I was met by my friends Piret Jeedas and Robert Oetjen, with whom Toke Moeller and I are running an Art of Participatory Leadership workshop this week. We drove through town, which in the dark reminded me a little of Winnipeg, and I arrived at my hostel accomodation in the old town. We woke up the landlady who hadn’t been told of my arrival. She was sweet and got me settled in and I quickly fell asleep.
I’m pretty good at dealing with jetlag, but today was a masterful triumph. I awoke at 8am refreshed and ready to go. Today is my day to explore Tallinn a little and hang out and relax. I have spent the morning walking around the old town, seeing some of the places that featured prominently in Estonian history, especially the Toompea, which is the Estonian Parliament. In 1991, a Russian minority protest against Estonian independence outside the Toompea almost became violent when the group broke into the castle and caused alarm amongst the Estonian politicians who were besieged inside. The political leaders called for Estonian citizens to come to their aid and a huge crowd showed up to barricade the Russians inside the castle courtyard. When it came time to let them go, the crownd simply parted and the Russians left. Anger and the threat of violence had been met with non-violence and song, and the singing revolution continued to work its remarkable magic. Here is a video of that day.
This morning I walked around the area that is shown in that video, the parking lot outside the Toompea where the Estonians rallied after the Russians broke in. Just knowing the recent history of that place deeply tuned me in to the sense of Estonia. For a long time I have been drawn to this place, sensing a connection both in the northern nature of the country and the indigenous struggle for freedom from hundreds of years of colonization from Danes, Swedes, Germans and Russians. Estonians I think have always craved their own self-government and cultural sovereignty and it’s clear being here that given the chance to take hold of their country, they have chosen an identity that is fiercely national without being nationalistic, and open minded to the rest of the world and especially the west.
Walking around here it is hard to imagine what it was like when Tallinn was a Soviet city on the Baltic. Near to where I am staying is the old KGB headquarters, a building that is still held in contempt by Estonians. When the Soviet Union was in control here tens of thousands of people were exiled to Siberia, imprisoned or killed, and the KGB and its predecessors took care of all of that. The fact that a mere 25 years ago, writing this blog post would be a dangerous prospect for a Canadian visitor is a testament to how far Estonia has come in embracing democratic freedoms and human rights.
One morning of walking around obviously does not make for a complete picture, and for sure there are lots of complex questions and conditions here with the economy, questions of European union, dynamics between ethnic minorities and relations to Russia, poverty, exploitation and all of the problems that come with capitalism, but the overall sense here is that Estonia has struck a balance that reminds me a lot of Canada. Estonians have lived on this coast as long as Skwxwu7mesh people have lived in Howe Sound – for 9000 years. Language and culture is intact, thriving even amongst the ruins of castles and TV towers built by those who have sought control of this country. Hanging out here, in a hobbit hole coffee shop on the old town square, it is clear that despite it all, they have survived.