One of our daytime visits was to Paldiski, which as the last outpost where Russian troops maintained an outpost until 1994. Spectacular limestone cliffs on a peninsula overlooked the Baltic and made the outpost a strategic asset for the Soviets in holding Estonia.The base was used as a nuclear submarine base and even housed a nuclear reactor that remained in Russian hands long after Estonia’s independence from the Soviet Union. We arrived in Paldiski after a scary train ride and a considerable hike. The passenger car on the train seemed to shake uncontrollably as it traveled on a single track. In my mind I envisioned a scenario where Estonian dissidents were placed on this train prior to face the firing squad or being forced over the cliffs of Paldiski.
Out of the blue, our seven year-old son asked me over the weekend “what does the Fourth of July mean?” I stumbled a bit in my answer. Trying to stay with why we celebrate and attempted to provide him with some meaning as to why we have a day off to get together with family and friends. From the confused look on his face, my response did little to connect in his terms how declaring our independence from England in the 1776 is the reason why we have fireworks, barbeques and hot dog eating contests.
We are blessed in the United States to have not only generations, but centuries separating today from when the United States were colonies in the British empire. In attempting to answer my son’s question, there is not a first hand reference I can provide to truly relate the notion of Independence or freedom. As I thought about how I could have better answered his question, I was brought back to 1995.
In 1995, Eastern Europe was crawling out from the malaise brought by the fall of the Soviet Union. That Summer I was fortunate to be living in Helsinki, Finland on an internship and cultural exchange following graduating from college. One of the side trips for myself and the other interns stationed in Finland was a long weekend in Tallinn, Estonia.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania make up the Baltic Republics that were occupied by the Soviet Union from 1939 through the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1991. These countries were not set up as satellites, as was the case of East Germany or Romania. They were flat out annexed into the Soviet Union. The history books estimate that up a quarter Estonia’s population was expelled following the annexation and the Soviets repopulated the republic with Russians with hopes of diluting traditional Estonian culture and to keep the lid on nationalistic tendencies.
Estonia is a beautiful country located a short ferry ride from Finland to the North and West, but shares a contentious border with Russia to the East. I have a fond recollection of the Estonian countryside, adorn with tall pines that reminded me of Minnesota’s North shore. As the ferry pulled in to the Tallinn harbor, the onion-shaped domes of the Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral came into view. Someone in our group, it could have been me, made the smart remark “is that the Kremlin?” The signature Russian Orthodox architecture and the medieval Old Town were marvelous gems, but eighteen years later my memories of Estonia are far deeper than the architecture.
It did not take long to understand that this was going to go beyond sight seeing and be a true ‘cultural experience.’ To be polite, post-Soviet Tallinn was lacking the polish of the West. To be less than polite, this house had the appearance of a foreclosure and not a fixer-upper. The infrastructure of the country was in shambles after years of Soviet rule and neglect. Perhaps 35 or 40 years earlier, Tallinn would have been considered newly minted, with cookie cutter apartment buildings and a modern public transportation system. In 1995, the polish was long gone. Like the former owner of a foreclosed home, without the cash or incentive to invest in the upkeep of the public infrastructure, the Soviet Union simply let it rot in place.
The streets were not filled with current European auto brands, but rather occupied by a large number of Soviet-built cars (yes like a Borat car) still limping their way along. The streetcars or trolleys in Tallinn appeared to be broken down buses that were retrofitted with a boom to connect to the overhead power lines. We were off the ferry no more than a half an hour when I had a true “cultural” experience. A fully packed tram car pulled up to the stop. Our hosts motioned for everyone to get on, as there was no guarantee that the next car was going to come soon or at all. We piled into the car, getting up close and personal with the locals. Not only were we uncomfortably packed like rats, there was a stench in the air that told me that the norms of personal hygiene here were different than my experience to that point. There was also a realization that the ability of the car to take us to our destination was also in doubt. Our accommodations for the long weekend were a small school building in Tallinn, where classrooms outfitted with gymnasium mats for beds. The school had running water and showers, but the facilities were not up to Western, and especially US, standards. And to me, those standards included a general expectation that toilets would equipped with flip down seats. 🙂
Our tour included three night admission to a rock festival called “Rock Summer” featuring bands such as Simple Minds and Mike + the Mechanics. The festival grounds shared an seemingly uninspiring name of the “Song Festival Grounds.” The grounds were packed each night with tens of thousands people who were loving every moment, including the strange lineup that included the thrash metal band Biohazard providing the lead-in for 80’s one-hit wonder Simple Minds.
As we discovered many of the local specialties…such as this and this…we began to loosen up and absorb the history of Rock Summer and the Song Festival Grounds. Music and singing is a long held national tradition spanning decades and centuries. Estonians would congregate and sing national songs to show their patriotism. Throughout the fifty years of Soviet rule, Estonians still got together to sing, but were not allowed to sing their national songs or waive their flag, under threat of imprisonment or worse. In 1988, the tide turned.The cracks in the Soviet Union were showing on the fringes, including Estonia. In May of 1988, what was dubbed the Singing Revolution was born.The people attending a small music festival linked hands and sang along with the first of performance of Estonian patriotic songs since the Soviet annexation in 1939. The Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn became center court for the Singing Revolution. In May of 1988 300,000 people gathered there to sing patriotic songs and dared the Soviets to do something about it. Rock Summer continued the non-violent fight that very August despite the real threat of a Soviet massacre to quell the start of the Singing Revolution.
In 1995, Estonia remained in euphoria, no longer in fear of being shipped off to Paldiski or worse. An independent Estonia meant that Estonians could celebrate Rock Summer with infectious joy and without fear. It was clear that the people of Estonia saw their house as a fixer-upper and were more than happy to do the fixing themselves. The new capitalists in Estonia must have found that connecting Estonia with all things American was good business. There were street vendors around the festival grounds selling a number of American themed trinkets that celebrated an Estonian/American friendship. (And they sold things dirt cheap!) The Estonians appeared to view America as a beacon of independence and freedom to which to aspire.
The opening night featured a band called Stiltskin from the UK. At the time, they were a hair metal band hanging on to their fleeting fame in Eastern Europe. They were quite popular in Estonia and the crowd created a scene reminiscent of Moscow version of the Bon Jovi the Dead or Alive video. The crowd near the stage was raucous and yes in the mosh pit there was one guy sitting on a buddy’s shoulders waving an American flag for full display. In between songs, I believe the lead singer of the band said something like, ‘we’re not from America, we’re from the UK.’ Perhaps the guy in the crowd had a case of mistaken country of origin, but I think the lead singer guy missed the point of the gesture. A mere five years earlier, such a gesture would have been a clear taunt of the Soviets and the guy could have been jailed or worse. In 1995 this was a symbolic act in celebration of independence and freedom. The joy and energy in celebrating what this festival represented was infectious and it became clear to me that it didn’t matter who was on stage or what the festival was called or what the name of the venue may have been. This was a spirit of joy in being independent and free.
I think back to the Estonian guy waving the US Flag. When his seven year-old asks what Independence day is all about. His explanation will come quite easily, because he lived it.