Survivor: Estonia

View toward harbor from Patluki, Tallinn

It may sound like the title of a reality show, but it was never a game. The little country of Estonia has survived years of brutality.

More than ten different foreign powers have ruled Estonia during the last eight hundred years. The name of Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, means “Danish Town.” The Danes sold Tallinn to the German Teutonic Knights, who lost it to the Swedes, who lost it to the Russians.

In 1917 Estonia declared its independence from Russia. Freedom didn’t last long. The Russians occupied Estonia again in 1940, the Nazis in 1941, and the Russians again in 1944. The country didn’t regain its independence until the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Fifty-one straight years of harsh occupation.

Estonia has barely tasted freedom.

Merchants' houses, Tallinn

One can forgive the Estonians for feeling a bit like abused shelter dogs, timidly settling into their new homes.

They must have watched nervously as their next-door neighbor and former occupier Russia recently took back Crimea.

Estonia ranks much lower on the World Happiness Report than its Nordic colleagues. While attempting small talk with a store clerk, I offered, “Tallinn has an interesting history.”

“Not much of it is good,” she said. “But we survive.”

Dancing with death

Tallinn is just a fifty-four-mile ferry ride across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki. Upon landing in the harbor, I hired a taxi to the hotel and was glad a did. I avoided a long walk with luggage on the most massive cobblestones I’ve ever seen. Ankle-breakers. “Free foot massages,” they are called.


I dropped my laundry at Top Clean in the lower level of the Keskus shopping mall next to the bus station. The Russian woman was not happy about taking it. “You want it yesterday, I suppose?” she asked.

I was just hoping to get it back at all.

Although ethnic Estonians are related to the Finns, forty percent of the population is Russian, remnants of the USSR’s effort at Russification. The country still struggles to effectively incorporate its large Russian minority.

Estonia is a little smaller than Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Its population of 1.3 million makes it one of the smallest members of the European Union and NATO. A third of the population lives in Tallinn.

Saint Nicholas Church, Tallinn

Tallinn’s Old Town, founded in 1248, is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in northern Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has most of its original wall and twenty-six of its original forty-six towers. The Old Town is really two towns, Upper and Lower, separated by a cliff.

I started my tour of the Lower Town at the harbor and passed through Fat Margaret Tower, which guarded entry into the town during medieval times. I walked up Pikk (Long) Street, which was once lined with the warehouse-homes of the German merchants of the Hanseatic League.

The Hanseatic League dominated sea trade in northern Europe for five hundred years. They set up trading centers in ports throughout northern Europe, built ships and docks, and organized armies to protect their commerce against pirates. Tallinn was one of the league’s major hubs, especially from the 1300s to the 1500s.

Tallinn’s most powerful and wealthy Hanseatic guild members belonged to the Great Guild. Only married men could join, as marriage demonstrated a deeper commitment to the community. Nearby on Pikk Street was the headquarters of another guild, the Brotherhood of the Black Heads.


The Black Heads were bachelors. If a fire broke out in town, the more expendable Black Heads were called out. When a Black Head got married, he could then join the prestigious Great Guild and improve his position. (Black Head refers to Saint Maurice, an early Christian martyr from Africa.)

The German merchants attended Saint Nicholas Church, built in the 1200s. In 1944, while Tallinn was occupied by the Nazis, the Russians bombed the city. The church was mostly destroyed and its steeple knocked over.

However, one of its prized possessions was saved—a painting from the late 1400s, Bernt Notke’s Danse Macabre (Dance of Death). The painting portrays skeletons dancing among mortals of all walks of life, popes, kings, and paupers, and reminds them all that death is inevitable.

Maiden & Kiek in de Kök towers, Tallinn

Vamping for tourists

I walked up the steep Short Leg Lane to Toopea (Upper Town). Near the top is an original stone tower with a giant door, one of only two that allowed passage between the Upper and Lower towns. The nearby towers are called Maiden and fun-to-say Kiek-in-de-Kök.

Tallinn is revered by the Danes as the birthplace of their flag. According to legend, the Danes were losing a battle on this very spot when, suddenly, a white cross fell from heaven and landed in a pool of blood. The Danes were inspired and went on to win. The Danish flag features a white cross on a red background.

I visited the fanciful Russian Orthodox Cathedral with its multiple domes, glittery icons, and smoking candles. Estonia is the most secular country in the world, possibly due to its long domination by the Soviets. Few attend these amazing churches. Across the street is the medieval Toompea Castle, now Estonia’s parliament building.

Before taking the Long Leg down, I paused at two viewpoints, Patkuli and Kohtuotsa, for a look over the town, the towers, the church steeples, and the cruise ships in the harbor, busy shuttling tourists back and forth to the Old Town.

Russian Orthodox Church, Tallinn

Back in Lower Town, I people-watched for a while in Tallinn’s broad Town Hall Square, lined with cafés, cluttered with vendors’ tents, and swarming with tour groups from the ships.

The Town Hall dominates the square. A pharmacy dates from 1422 and claims to be Europe’s oldest continuously operating apothecary.

Against the wall near Viru Gate is a lineup of stalls full of knitted goods, few of which, if any, are knit by Estonian grandmothers using natural fibers. In the doorways of most of the shops are life-sized matryoshka dolls, dressed like Estonian peasants.

A tacky little tourist train rumbles over the cobblestones. Restaurant wait staff in corny period costumes pitch passersby on the street.

Old Town Tallinn, I think, has just stepped over the line between historical village and theme park, but it is hard pass judgment. The populace has been down for so long. Finally allowed to participate in free enterprise, they are revelling in the opportunities.

Kannel player, Museum of Estonian History, Tallinn

Skyping to prosperity

Estonia is making the most of its recent entrée into capitalism. The country has one of the fastest-growing economies in the European Union. I noticed businesses in Tallinn proudly fly the EU flag next to the Estonian flag, something I haven’t seen elsewhere in Europe.

Tallinn has been listed among the top ten digital cities in the world. The country has the highest number of high-tech start-ups per capita in Europe, which, of course, has led to it being dubbed the “Silicon Valley of Europe.” An international cybersecurity center, Estonia is the home to the NATO Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence.

The communication app Skype was developed in Estonia.

As a result of its recent prosperity and its historical yearning for civil liberties, Estonia indexes high in living standards, economic freedom, education, and press freedom on the Human Development Index, published by the UN.

Estonian Parliament, Tallinn

Staying alive

A plaque on a building on Pikk Street indicates it was the headquarters of the KGB during the Soviet occupation.

Suspects were interrogated and tortured in the basement before being shipped to prison camps in Siberia. Now, newly renovated, the building contains bright modern apartments available to rent.

Estonia had the bad luck to be stuck between two imperialist powers, Russia and Germany, and their iron-fisted leaders, Stalin and Hitler. The entrance to the Museum of Occupations (note the plural) is piled high with suitcases, a reminder of the people who fled or were forced to leave Estonia.

During the Soviet Union’s occupation in 1941, thirty thousand people were taken from their homes, often in the middle of the night, and sent to Siberia in cattle cars. Under the Nazis more citizens disappeared. After 1944, the Russians sent another thirty thousand to prison camps. Tens of thousands escaped to the West or into the woods. In all, Estonia lost a fourth of its population during the occupations.

Matryoshka doll, Tallinn

In one of the museum’s films, Estonia’s leader sadly conveys to his people over the radio that a country of a million can’t stand up to a country of a few hundred million.

“We will have to suffer,” he said.

Singing for freedom

Estonians repeat, “Happiness is being alive,” no matter how miserable their existence. Often, they sing it.

The country has held huge singing festivals regularly since 1869, featuring choirs of thirty thousand and audiences of over one hundred thousand. The Estonian Song Festival is one of the largest amateur choral events in the world.

During the Soviet occupation, singing festivals provided Estonians an opportunity to preserve and celebrate their language and traditions. (Symbols of Estonian patriotism, such as songs and flags, were forbidden by the Russians.)

Town Hall, Tallinn

In 1947 composer Gustav Ernesaks set an old poem, Mu Isamaa On Minu Arm (My Country Is My Love), to music.

Estonians defied Soviet authorities and performed it. It soon became the unofficial national anthem.

In the 1980s, as cracks began to appear in the USSR, Estonia’s nationalists became increasingly brazen.

In 1988 one hundred thousand Estonians gathered at a festival for five straight nights. They held hands and sang protest songs until daybreak.

At various festivals throughout the summer, patriotic songs were sung spontaneously by the crowds—public displays of civil disobedience.

Singing fuels Estonian pride. In September 1988, at a massive song festival in Tallinn, three hundred thousand people, nearly a third of all Estonians, gathered and sang together.

Town Hall Square, Tallinn

In 1991, the USSR folded and Estonia regained its independence without bloodshed.

This inspirational and moving story has been told in a documentary, The Singing Revolution.

The movie’s trailer (here) is itself quite stirring.

Estonia’s singing, its survival tool, has been called “the music that saved a nation.”

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