Saturday, July 10, 2010


From Helsinki I hopped aboard the express ferry (which, surprisingly, was cheaper than the standard, slow ferries) to Tallinn across the Gulf of Finland. Despite zipping across the water at some 60km/h the waters of the Gulf were as still as a mill pond, giving the crossing an otherworldly feel. And although the physical Gulf is only some 80km across the difference between Finland and Estonia is far greater. As soon as I stepped off the ferry I could sense that I was in an ex-Communist country - I don't know exactly what it is, perhaps the slightly overgrowing vegetation or the liberal and unimaginative use of concrete pretty much everywhere; either way, I have seen enough of it whilst in the Czech Republic to recognise it as soon as I see it.

Ethno-linguistically the Estonians are related to their northern, Finnish neighbours, and also share some of the latter's abruptness and standoffishness: I have learnt not to ask an Estonian how they are feeling unless I am prepared to really, honestly, find out. Although never really conquered by Germany (except for a short period during WW2) there is a strong German influence in the city as it was, for most of its history, essentially a German town, having been a major depot of the Hanseatic League (honestly, I swear, they're following me around). In fact a wander round Tallinn's old town is like being transported to Central Europe, with its well preserved Gothic buildings eerily reminiscent of many a provincial Bohemian town. At the other end of the architectural spectrum are the ghastly remains of Communist power and hegemony: Stalinist grand works; swarms of sprawling tower-blocks; giant heavy-industry complexes that now lie dormant; and abandoned secret (now not so secret) military bases that are gradually being reclaimed by mother nature. Wandering amongst the ruins of the latter, in places such as Paldiski, a town that was off limits to all but the inhabitants during Soviet times, makes you realise how far we have come since those grim times.

Communism has, of course, left a deep scar on Tallinn and Estonia, and it is impossible not to notice it, be it in the large Russian minority who form a separate population within the country and who rarely mix and interact with the Estonians, or the many memorials, museums or even personal stories of the hardships and deportations brought on by the occupation. But that is also now firmly in the past and Estonians can make fun of the Soviet times and look forward with relative confidence as the country has managed its capitalist transition better than most and will be adopting the Euro from next year (although possibly not the best timing for that as far as they are concerned).

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