Europe still has a secret. Estonia. It is a secret I hesitate to share, for in many ways I covet the country as my own discovery. I know deep down that this sentiment is little more than whimsical poppycock, yet despite any rational analysis, I canít shake this feeling. It is akin to finding a pristine mountain valley (an admittedly inappropriate metaphor for Estonia) all to oneself: I want others to be as fortunate as I have been in experiencing the place, but I do not want them to thereby change my perception of it. Fortunately (or unfortunately), word about Estonia is getting out. Since no degree of selfish interest could not stop this juggernaut of discovery, Iíve decided to join the bandwagon and sing the praises of this tiny jewel on the Baltic.
In many ways Estonia is a paradox. It is the old Europe of mysterious forests, enchanting countryside and rich folklore. But is also the Europe of shimmering skyscrapers (yes, even in the ancient town of Tartu, pop. 100,000!), snappily dressed businessmen in Mercedes and 13 year-olds on cell phones. It is a land of horrendously ugly pre-fabricated Soviet industrialized towns that seem to have deliberately forsaken the human element. But it also has some of the most romantic and attractive, Old World towns on the continent. It is a country where many goods are of exceptional quality and workmanship, but where prices are remarkably low.
The fourteen months that I resided in Tartu as a Fulbright fellow gave me ample opportunity to examine these paradoxes. It readily becomes apparent that the vast majority of the negative physical and economic aspects of Estonia are a direct result of Soviet occupation. I tried my best to make only objective observations throughout my stay, so I can honestly say that I could rarely find a pre-war Estonian structure, which was not aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Unfortunately, I hardly ever found the reverse, a post-war Soviet structure that was attractive. In my comfy university town of Tartu it was simple to pick out where the bombs or artillery shells landed in WWII. One only need to look for an ugly, shoddy, pre-fab cement structure sandwiched between cozy and tidy wood cottages, and there you have it.
Fortunately, Estonians are a people with a powerful sense of history, and this has had direct physical implications. The amount of quality architectural restoration and renovation undertaken since 1991 is extraordinary, particularly in view of the limited economic resources available for such undertakings. Every single week I saw at least one dramatic transformation take place in Tartu. It was as if society and the public spirit were a living, breathing organism, daily healing the long neglected parts of its body. But the process is not one of giddy, naive enthusiasm. The Estonians could never be accused of calculated optimism.
The nation certainly still has significant economic and social problems, but confidence in the rule of law has fostered the belief that these issues will be overcome with time and hard work. Even the issue of integrating Russians into Estonian society is not nearly as pronounced or polarized as one would assume from reading the western press. Certainly, Estonians would like for resident Russians to embrace the culture and particularly the language of their now freely chosen state, but I did not once witness direct animosity in either direction. Indeed, the degree of dual fluency in Tallinn never ceased to amaze me. Most of the Russians with whom I spoke, even if they were only nominally fluent in Estonian, felt fortunate to be living on the western side of Russiaís border upon the collapse of the USSR. It only takes one brief trip to this proud, confident country to discover why. Many may call small nation states in this day in age historical anachronisms. If that they areÖ.well, long live historical anachronisms.