City Essay Series: Tallinn

Stepping Into the Future

/ by Ilmar Taska

Walking along Tallinn’s gothic medieval streets, you feel like you are traveling in time. The present is marked only by the occasional modern sign – familiar trademarks of the global world. Tallinn first appeared on maps of Europe in the 11th century. It later became an important Hanseatic town, known as Reval – a sea harbor traversed by the Northern European trade route. Over the ages, Estonia’s capital has been conquered by the Danes, the Swedes, the Germans, and the Russians. The European Union has brought to the city a sense of well-being and security, and war has not been waged on its streets for quite a long time, even though Estonia’s restored independence has been brief. We have belonged to various unions: those of trade, military, and state. To this day, we are still healing the marks of Soviet neglect upon our façades. By now, most historical buildings have received facelifts and cosmetic surgery. Yet, in the city center, one can still find a number of structures where ownership disputes arose – structures smelling of decay, where paint peels from rotting boards. They are scars from the war years; from the times when Tallinn was passed from hand to hand, and sovereignty was only a memory or a dream.


Systems came and went. The priorities were borders, place, and belonging; not the people living here and their actual desires. In large families, the very smallest have little say in things. The tiniest have to speak loudest to be heard; to be noticed. So have we Estonians yipped like little dachshunds, only to trot briskly on our little legs at the back of the pack.

In the Soviet Union, people felt a national inferiority complex, in spite of the fact that they were a part of one of the largest countries in the world – they didn’t have the latest fashions, the latest vinyl records, and were unable to travel abroad. In the European Union, we have rid ourselves of this complex. We may shop until we drop in our pan-European shopping centers and travel abroad on ships, as well as planes. Even so, we are still worried by the smallness of our state, our population, our total land area, and our decision-making capability in issues that affect our fate. We worry about whether our electronic vibrations will travel from Tallinn to Brussels, or will dissipate in the waves of the Baltic Sea.


Once the western border of the Soviet Union, we are now the eastern border of the great European Union; all the same, we are unsure how strong it is, or whether we are capable of maintaining it.


In the 1970s, Carlos Santana and Gato Barbieri played a famous a song titled “Europa.” There was a sweet dreaming or yearning to the jam. Now, the dream has been overshadowed by sadness. Or should the song now be played on different instruments, in a different style? Should it be revived to fanfares or a marching beat?


My 92-year-old mother, who once attended the Tallinn French Lyceum, sometimes sings “La Marseillaise” in the mornings – just as she did back in school – in order to brighten up the Internet searches of her active retirement years. She reads, amazed, about a new goddesses of liberty, like Marine Le Pen. My mother was born in Paris, because my grandfather – an Estonian diplomat – was serving at the Estonian Embassy in Paris at the time. Later, my mother did not enjoy switching schools every three years, one bit. For even before World War II, children enrolled in good schools were condescending towards foreign children, who spoke their language poorly. While attending school in Stockholm, she was even teased by the offspring of members of the royal court. My grandfather was a proponent of Coudenhove-Kalergi’s Paneuropean Movement, and anxiously observed the rising nationalism in various European countries. His diplomatic career came to an early end when the Republic of Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union, as a result of secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In the last surviving photograph of him, he is posing as protocol chief, together with the Estonian president and the Soviet ambassador, as they warmly shake hands. Nevertheless, that handshake did not spare him from a trip towards the Ural Mountains in a cattle car, even before the fighting began. His next post was as prisoner in a Gulag camp. Stalin’s cleansing of the Baltic buffer zone was methodical. The obliteration of nationality was to begin straight from its brain – the cultural elite and intelligentsia. As a result, my father (an architectural student) and paternal grandfather (simply an innocent artist) rode the same train cars to Siberia. The first deportation trains that departed on 14 June 1941 were filled with intellectuals of Estonian nationality, as well as of Russian and Jewish nationality, living in Estonia.


Could the deportation be called a “migration,” or simply a change of residence?


The Soviet KGB plotted its relocation policy well. Some were taken away, others were brought to replace them and ensure the “correct” mentality in the buffer zone (i.e. to intermix the populations). After World War II, Estonia’s population changed by 1/3, as a result of deportations and immigration. The country had become the western border of the Soviet Union. Now, Europe as a whole has become a western border.


Poet of the Week
Valentina Neri
Little Red Riding Hood

In your bowels swallow my mutiny.

My sin abdicates to obey your cruelty

No one must see, hidden

through the modest redness of my hood

My desire of evil.

No one must understand

Your enchantment  upsetting my senses

Your wicked soul that will give me my womanhood

I yearn for punishment

I want to be a victim

I am your longing for evil.

I knew it all! About the woods… about the wolf…

And now I am meeting you:

You cannot disappoint me.

Be what you’re not

There is no hope for you

Seduce me slashing through my body with the frenzy of your claws

Scratch me by the sweetness of your lies

Swallow me…do not spew me!

Swallow me.

Swallow my misunderstood loneliness

Swallow my inept nonentity.

Hurt me, really hurt me badly

So badly as to be understood,

So badly as not to be hurt anymore.

So badly as to become someone

In the dark wood of hypocrisy

To be someone

At last.

In the late 1930s, all of Europe’s larger and smaller nations held negotiations with Stalin and Hitler, while peaceful alliances gradually transformed into ones of a military nature. Secret additional protocols of Stalin and Hitler's scheme severely affected the course of Europe, and of Estonia. Amidst the war, in 1944, Churchill visited Stalin in Moscow, to divide up Europe once more. A scrap of paper preserved from their meeting bears the scribbled words “Greece,” “Hungary,” “Romania…” The parceling out of Europe was finished after the war ended, which I describe in my novel, Pobeda 1946 - A Car Called Victory. Overnight, allies became enemies and the Iron Curtain suddenly divided family and friends. I’ve been told that my novel is highly topical and a little before its time, in regards to Brexit. In the work, one British protagonist ponders at length the worrying new borders and departures. And the year was only 1946.


Today, the blood vessels on Europe’s arms are bulging as well – demarcating new boundaries, expanding passport checks. This, even on the picturesque bridge connecting Sweden and Denmark, which one used to be able to cross unnoticed, and without stopping to admire the view of the sea.


My grandfather, the proponent of Von Coudenhove-Kalergi, would roll over in his grave, if he heard of Brexit, or any other new intended “-exit.” He would no doubt be troubled by the fate of Europe. To him, European unity was the continent’s unshakable foundation for guaranteeing peace.


Brexit will certainly also have positive effects on the young, but already calcified system. The uniform of bureaucracy will start to pinch every growing organism, but it’s better than a military uniform. Especially when seen from the tower that holds Estonia’s flag, high above Tallinn. We are not surrounded by the Brexit island’s placid sea, nor does the Gulf Stream deliver warm air to us. A few hundred kilometers away lies an eastern border, across which an icy wind blows all too frequently. We are the European Outpost. Russia, looming behind us, has also been that, in a historical sense. Famed Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky once claimed that Russia’s historic mission was to defend European culture from the Mongol-Tatar yoke. Not all influences act only as yokes. Today, we are enriching the European Union with cultural influences from all corners of the globe – from Syria, Libya, Ukraine, and elsewhere.


Perhaps it would be better to end the wars, for as long as they carry on, the swells of refugees will only continue, as well. According to the Deutsche Welle program “Conflict Zone” (3 August 2016), the European Commissioner of Migration is putting forward policies that very few citizens desire. Altogether, 23 EU Member States are having difficulties meeting their obligations. Migration is often controlled, and facilitated, by human traffickers.


What do nations want on the EU’s eastern and western borders? Is it the same thing? It appears that a quest for a sense of security prevails on the eastern border, while at the opposite end, it is the quest for independence in an ever-more-global world.


In reality, nations are composed of people who want to be noticed; who want the voice of their wishes to pierce the din caused by featureless freeways.


Against the backdrop of this almost homogenous noise, in the stream of strangers’ speeding cars, people have lost their direction of travel; their place in societal transportation, which is becoming more and more sparse. At one time, people were able to express themselves on a village street or a public square, and their call would carry across a marketplace. Now, those voices have turned into electronic clicks; their signature lost in printed font. Their money has likewise turned electronic, intangible. It’s easier for youth to acclimate to the values of the virtual world; to come to terms with a digital signature; or to find identity on their blog. For older generations, losing their national features, local dialect, or village community is very difficult. They feel as if they no longer possess value; that they have been ground out through the gears of the system. They do not matter, and their voice cannot project to Brussels from towns like Paide or Maribor. If they can’t be heard anymore, then they can’t have rights anymore, either. At least that’s how it seems to them. The lines between their home and the organs of EU power in distant countries have been severed. They are like blood vessels affected by ischemia; cut off from circulation. This sense of exclusion also puts pressure on their sense of security. Does the person serve the state, or the state the person? If Estonian strawberries don’t grow to EU standards, then we’ll stop growing them and move to the city, and if we don’t have enough money for an apartment in the actual city, then we’ll move to sleeper suburbs, where we become even more excluded or anonymous. The sense of disconnect only rises. Populist parties alone offer consolation with their criticism and promises. Hitler also promised Deutschland über alles! to the German people in the throes of economic crisis, but liquidated a large part of the population and the country before long. Mussolini boosted the spirit of the Italian people with the invasion of Ethiopia, while Stalin skillfully employed Marxist ideas, when he established his regime and government of terror, purging millions of people (including first-generation communists) in the hunt for “enemies of the people.” There were equals, and there were some more equal than others. The equals could stand equally in cues, while the more-equals could make their purchases at the Kremlin’s store. In Luxembourg, members of the EU Commission can also enjoy discounts in restaurants, both in their own neighborhood and the city center. Where do the privileges begin and end?


Dis-ease and dissatisfaction are rising along with the flow of refugees, stoking nationalist sentiments and opening ears to the ideas of populists, both local and foreign. Oh, how different that perspective seems, at home and abroad.


I’ve considered this so much while traveling in various European cities, as well as studying in Moscow and filming in Hollywood. In an unfamiliar environment, we feel ourselves at the grace of strangers; on the testing grounds of human tolerance. Every country has its own manner of closing off in self-defense; every professional field has its national elite. What should be done to break through these defenses and become one of their own; a “local?” I’ve found myself wondering this, time and again, from when I was just a little boy.


I was the child of deportees. I was not treated as a local in Soviet Estonia, Moscow, or Stockholm. Even in America, a land of immigrants, it is hard to belong to the right group. Even there, you haven’t gone to the right school; have lost your childhood friends. It’s always us vs. them. The fate of being born amongst a particular group of people; of being a part of a particular society, nation, language, faith, collective – what is that? Is it a choice, or is it chance? How difficult it is to see this from an outside perspective, or spot it reflected in the eyes of the stranger across from you. The harder things become in Europe, and the greater the number of refugees, the harder it will be to comprehend this; to see things with a clear gaze; to see the person across from you with your own eyes.


In 2017-2018, the Republic of Estonia celebrates its 100th birthday. I walk across the cobblestones of medieval Tallinn and strive to recall the future. There’s something to be found in historical thinking that will create the future. It’s possible for us to avoid the mistakes of the past, because we carry the past in our own DNA, as we move towards tomorrow. It’s worth reminding ourselves of this, in order to escape discovering a new bicycle and riding it into a ditch. New paths stretch before us: our own path will also be straighter, if we don’t forget that the world is round, and seen from space, the European continent, along with the whole planet, appear very small and friendly.


Translated from Estonian by Adam Cullen

Ilmar Taska

surprised the literary world with his autobiographical novella Parem kui elu (Better than Life) in 2011. In 2014 he won the Estonian annual literature prize for his short story Pobeda. His short story collection More beautiful than life (Skönare än livet) was a critical success in Sweden in 2014. In 2015 his short story Apartment for Rent was selected as one of the best European short stories, to be published in Best European Fiction 2016 (Dalkey Archives Press).

In 2016 his novel Pobeda 1946 (A Car Called Victory) is a critical success in Estonia. The fact that it crowned Estonian`s bestseller list of fiction for several months surely says something also of its reception.

In the midst of these achievements, other creative muses have bowed down before Taska’s talents, which have already earlier reached far beyond Estonia’s shores even to Los Angeles, where has co-written and produced a film for 20th Century Fox. Taska is a multifaceted Renaissance man, active in the film, theatre, art and literary fields.

Ilmar Taska is a unique phenomenon of literary landscape, an Estonian writer who can truly be considered international in terms of of his work, since the breadth of his talent reaches beyond the boundaries of conventional writing.

Ilmar Taska`s stories have been translated into English, Swedish, Danish, Latvian, Russian, Chinese and Bulgarian. Next year his novel is coming out also in Finnish by WSOY (Bonnier).