By Emily Erdmann
Every souvenir shop proudly displays the 100 logo in their window, and even the local chocolate brand, Kalev, has put a new batch in circulation just for the occasion.
So, I met a guy in a bar (admittedly not the best way to meet good guys, but definitely a good way to meet locals). I can’t pronounce his name, but all you need to know is that he, like so many other Estonians I recently met, loves his country with a fervor that I never would have previously assumed possible. In this centenary year of Estonia’s independence, patriotic sentiment runs high.
I falsely anticipated that Estonian millennials would not be particularly passionate about an independence that was established long before their lives began, but when prompted, they conjured anything but lukewarm sentiments. Everyone I explicitly asked started with some variation of “I’m very proud of my country after all it’s been through.”
A few went on to express their pride in all that Estonia has accomplished since the fall of the Soviet Union, and a couple even went so far as to convey a degree of ongoing frustration with the Russian population. One in particular admitted to harboring ill feelings toward Russians because he had relatives previously deported by them. His animosity reached so far as to hinder his Russian language studies. Despite being required to start learning the language in middle school, he never put forth an effort to retain the material as he was upset by the many Russians who seemingly “[didn’t] care about learning the country’s language where they have been living for 25 years.” He believes they lack a necessary degree of respect for his home country, but they actively choose not to return to Russia because the quality of living is higher in Estonia.
This bitterness seems to be the exception rather than the rule, however, as many of the locals I spoke to were very adamant about their opposition to any degree of enmity so long as the other party respected their independence and traditions. My newly-made Siberian friend informed me that she never had negative experiences speaking Russian anywhere around town. Perhaps this is because economic prosperity forces shop-owners to accommodate the substantial Russian-speaking population that allegedly makes little effort to assimilate. Or, perhaps forgiveness is simply more widespread than rumors had led me to believe.
All throughout high school, I learned a great deal about general European history, but my studies failed to convey the true severity of Soviet occupation. One Estonian tried to enlighten me by saying, “Not sure how much you know about history, but the Soviets were worse than Nazis.” While this is a controversial, complicated subject, it’s a sentiment that is widely held in Estonia today: the branding of any sort of Soviet symbol is in fact illegal.
“How do you like the contrast of buildings twice the age of your country, Soviet era monstrosities, and modern glassy rectangle cubey ugly things?” – My Estonian classmate on Tallinn’s architecture
There is a sharp pain in this country’s history and it serves to make this centennial all the sweeter.
While making small talk on a drive to Old Town, one of my Estonian Uber drivers was touched to find that there were people half-way across the world interested in and celebrating along with him.
A few days later, I had a Scottish driver take me to the airport. He graciously explained his rationale for making Estonia his new home a little over a year ago: taxes are good; higher education is cheap; and, according to him, “Nowhere has perfect weather, so that can’t even be part of the argument.” (Personally, I believe that a consistent 6 hours of sunlight and windy winter coldness classifies as bad weather — but I digress.) He went on to express his excitement for the upcoming month where things will really pick up with the approaching celebration. In just a year, Estonia captured the heart of a foreigner to the extent that he decided to stay permanently.
Viru Bog in Northern Estonia
From young strangers in pubs to elderly chauffeurs, there seems to be no division between generations: the old, the young, and the in-between are firmly held together by the quiet but strong bond of a people who have spent the last 100 years enduring, healing, and growing. The centennial year will definitely be worth watching unfold.
Emily Erdmann is a junior majoring in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. She recently returned from a winter term spent at Tallinn University.