Andrew Stuttaford, NRO contributing editor
t is playtime now in Tallinn. The brief, bright northern summer has transformed the Estonian capital into a city of outdoor cafes, tourist buses, and long, lazy strolls. At night, if you can call it that, music bursts out of the bars and clubs, bouncing off old town walls, and echoing down winding streets still lit by a sun that seems never quite ready to set. Add to the picture some of Europe's most attractive architecture, a vista of church spires, merchant houses, and impressive medieval fortifications and you have, for once, a city that really does deserve the label "fairytale."
But, as with all the best such tales, reality is not quite what it seems. A good portion of the old town is, in fact, a reconstruction, the product of years of careful rebuilding, a restoration made necessary by Russian bombardment towards the end of the Second World War. The country's prosperity is also less than Tallinn's glow may initially suggest. Estonia's current economic recovery, the most impressive of any former Soviet Republic, is the product of hard work and free-market economics, but it remains, inevitably, uneven. Outside Tallinn, much of the country remains trapped in post-Leninist torpor, while even in the capital itself existence is tough for many, particularly if they are old, dependent on a hopelessly inadequate pension, and wondering where it was that their lives had gone.
A new exhibition located, with characteristically blunt Estonian reproach, a hundred yards or so from the Russian embassy, gives part of the answer. It commemorates the 60th anniversary of the mass arrests and deportations of June 1941, an episode of totalitarian savagery that still haunts this small Baltic nation. The black mourning banners announcing the exhibit flutter in the breeze. They are dark reminders of a cruel past, a haunting contrast to the bright skies, pale stucco and cheery advertising of contemporary Tallinn, basking in the summer sun.
To enter the exhibit hall is to return to that past. Walk into the lobby and find yourself in a gray dawn, feet crunching on a gravel path. It was the last sound that many deportees were to hear in what they mistakenly thought was still their familiar, normal existence. It was the sound of visitors, but who was it, they must have wondered, so early in the morning? Secret policemen, their victims were soon to discover, prefer not to do their work in the full light of day.
The exhibit's second room, an old dining hall by the look of it, gives the background to the tragedy. On its stone floor, strangely, there are patches of illustration, faded signs of the zodiac, a relic, perhaps, of some earlier avant-garde daubing. They must have proved impossible to erase. In a way, that is appropriate. All around the room are relics of another modernist experiment, Soviet Communism, the future, the world was once told, that "worked," the future that, in June 1940, rolled into Tallinn on the back of Red Army tanks, and left an indelible stain on the history of Estonia.
It was to be the end of the country's pre-war independence, a brutal return to the foreign rule that had characterized this land for over seven hundred years, a return made worse by the fact that of all Estonia's alien rulers, the Soviets were the worst, barbarians with a Plan that had no room for small, inconvenient nationalities. Estonia's First Republic passed into memory and into myth; it was, as older people sometimes still refer to it, "the Estonian time," a lost Eden, a moment in the light no more durable, in the context of centuries of oppression, than the short Baltic summer. And yet its memory endured, preserved by the Estonians as a reminder to themselves, if not to an indifferent world, that they were still a nation. In Tallinn's museums you can still find lovingly preserved consumer products from the 1920s, chocolate bars and tins of coffee, resplendent under glass, poignant souvenirs of an outraged sovereignty.
You can see that same clutching for the past at the deportation exhibit. There is evidence, that all-important proof, of Estonia's inter-war existence prominently on display. Drawn from home movies and news reels, jerking images of farmers, factories, picnics, politicians, parades with too many flags and all the other clumsy baby steps of a new nation flicker and shine as they are projected against the walls of the old banqueting hall.
Across the room, there are reproductions of the doomed republic's newspapers from 1940-41. They reflect the end of independence. In June and July, 1940 the front pages could still boast a few advertisements, for Alex Rahn's radio store, for example, or "Isis Kreem" ointment, but these suggestions of capitalist prosperity already have to coexist with pictures of arriving Soviet satraps, 'elections' where the communists win over 90 percent of the vote, and the first calls for Estonia to join the USSR. By August the same year, the advertising has gone, and so has the republic's independence. Free Estonia is mutated into the 'Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic', the latest recruit into Stalin's gargoyle Union. The headlines now jabber of progress, proletarians and production. The only significant information is what they leave out.
On June 14, 1941, the front page of the principal Estonian newspaper featured a photograph of rowers on a canal in Moscow. There was no mention, of course, of the real news that day, the simultaneous arrest and deportation of people across all three Baltic countries. Ten thousand were deported from tiny Estonia alone, of whom one third (counter-revolutionaries, I'm sure) were under the age of seventeen.
The Tallinn exhibit tells some of their stories. There was Niina (guilty!), arrested at 14, and Juula (guilty! Her brother was a philatelist, and thus, it was explained, a British spy). As for Ebba Saral, well, she was a criminal too dangerous to be confined to a mere cattle truck with the others. They put her on a sofa on a flatcar and, surrounded by guards, she rode into hell "like a queen." She and her husband (a professor guilty!) both perished. There is a photograph of his grave, and copy of her death certificate, grudgingly issued nearly half a century after her execution. Fittingly, it is in Russian. This is, sadly, not a rare story. In the first year of the Soviet occupation a total of sixty thousand Estonians (four percent of the population, the equivalent of around eleven million Americans today) were deported, conscripted or murdered.
Two doors then lead from the exhibit's main hall. It is not much of a choice. One door leads to "prison," the other to "Siberia." "Prison" is an assembly of iron doors and a nightmare reconstruction of a squalid Soviet jail cell. "Siberia" displays homemade tools and rough-hewn luxuries, the former essential for existence, the latter for sanity. There are group photographs of the deportees, stoic in the tundra, dumped into a wilderness and left to adapt or to die. Some of them even managed to survive and so, miraculously, did the dream of freedom. An independent democratic Estonia finally reemerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union in August 1991.
Understandably, this new Estonia has applied to join NATO. Russia's arrogant, disturbing opposition remains one of the best reasons to agree to the request. George W. Bush appears to sympathize. Speaking recently in Warsaw, he said that, "All of Europe's new democracies, from the Baltic to the Black Sea" should have the chance of NATO membership. It was, for the peoples of the former Soviet bloc, a marvelous moment. In Western Europe, needless to say, the political classes were not quite so sure. To many of those folks, the real threat lies elsewhere. Sweden's prime minister, a Social Democrat by the name of Goran Persson, marked Mr. Bush's arrival in Europe by calling on the European Union to build itself up as an alternative to American "domination."
Of course, Swedish Social Democrats know a thing or two about "domination." Not long after those Red Army tanks rolled into Tallinn, a few weeks, perhaps, after the day that Ebba Saral was taken to her death in the East, the Swedes (the government was led by a Social Democrat then, as now) decided to do something about Moscow's Baltic land grab. And what they did was give it diplomatic recognition, one of the first two countries in the world to do so.
The other was Nazi Germany.