Robert Hampton

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8th May 2011

The Past in a Foreign Country
Posted by at 4.15pm | No responses | Out and About

The Victory Column in TallinnThis is part 4 of my Tallinn blog. Read part 1, part 2 and part 3.

Yes, I’ve run out of Tallinn puns. Never mind.

Wednesday was our only full day in Tallinn and we were determined to make the most of it. We headed down to breakfast, which excitingly was served in the railway station’s restaurant. The breakfast itself was (as hotel breakfasts often are) not particularly special, being your bog-standard help-yourself buffet, but it was adequate to start the day.

We headed first towards the the Occupations Museum, dedicated to Estonia’s history between 1940 and 1991, when the country was occupied by the Soviet Union, then Nazi Germany, before the Soviet Union invaded again. This small museum contains numerous artefacts from this fifty year period of oppression – everything from army uniforms to cars to Josef Stalin-themed matchboxes.

The Estonians were subjected to a brutal regime, with thousands deported to gulags or “purged” during the years of Stalin’s rule. A policy of “Russification” saw restrictions on Estonian culture in favour of a homogenous Russian identity; the authorities even tried to place restrictions on speaking the Estonian language. Although the regime began to be relaxed slightly from the 1960s onwards, it was not until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 that Estonia was able to re-establish independence.

Photograph of exhibits in the Occupation Museum, TallinnBy the end of it, I wanted to give the Estonian nation a collective hug. My impression of the Estonian people was that of an intelligent, rich culture all of their own. Yet for fifty years they were forced to live under an atmosphere of suppression and fear. Independence from the Soviet Union was declared on 20th August 1991. This means any Estonian aged 20 or over was born into an occupied country. This is not some academic topic from a history book – these are relatively recent events, and the effects on the national psyche must surely still be felt today.

The museum is only small so we spent just over an hour there, but I felt strangely moved by what I had seen. If there is a positive side to the story, it is that Estonia seems to be recovering quickly from the deprivation of those years and is now facing a bright future. Its economy is recovering and it is a full-fledged member of the international community, having joined NATO and the EU in 2004. It is also rapidly developing its own way of dealing with the past, with the recently built Victory Monument (pictured at the top of this blog post) existing as a lasting reminder of Estonia’s lasting freedom.

Picture of Tower Cafe / WalkwayLeaving the museum and walking back into the Old Town, we encountered an odd walkway structure in the city walls. A chalkboard tantalised us at the entrance.


A walkway? Delicious wines? How could we refuse?

The staircase up to the walkway itself was steep and narrow, at least until we got halfway up, when it became even narrower and steeper. The handrail was a piece of rope which didn’t feel entirely sturdy, and the roof was low. There’s a lot of whingeing in the British press about “‘Elf and Safety Nazis”, but I think objections in this case might have been valid.

Halfway up the stairs was a landing, where a young man in traditional Estonian folk costume greeted us. On the desk in front of him was a sign “ENTRY 2 EUROS”.

Andrew and I exchanged glances. It was a bit of a sharp practice to sting us for an entry fee halfway up. The building’s management had sussed (correctly in our case) that people would be embarrassed to turn back. We were, indeed, too sheepish to argue, so paid our €2 each and continued up.

Photo of Andrew on the WalkwayThe Walkway itself was fairly unimpressive (although some nice views were to be had). A tourist down below shouted up to us, asking what was up there. After we told her that it cost €2 to get up, she decided not to bother.

The promised café was a little kiosk at one end of the walkway. The aforementioned hot wine was bubbling away in a little urn, so we duly asked for two glasses.

“Ten Euros please.”

Ouch, again. Well, at least we can safely that the Estonian people are embracing capitalism with gusto.

Tallinn Hot WineActually, to be fair, the hot wine was very nice. I’m not sure exactly what was in it, but it tasted sweet and there were obviously some sort of spices in there. It’s not the same as mulled wine that we have here, but it was delicious in its own way. And, on another cold and wet day, the warming effect was most welcome.

As Andrew and I sipped our wine, we discussed our plan of action for the rest of the day: namely, to visit Kiek in de Kök, one of the medieval towers which now houses a museum, then to have a poke round Tallinn’s harbour. Finally we wanted to explore a little bit of Tallinn’s nascent gay scene.

Suitably warmed up, we headed back down. Going down proved a little harder than going up, and we very cautiously climbed down the steep, winding staircase. Andrew went first, mainly because I wanted him to elbow out of the way anyone we met coming in the other direction. However, despite the confined space he was able to turn around and take an unflattering photo of me negotiating the stairs.

Yes, thanks for that Andrew.

Photo of your humble webmaster struggling down a medieval staircaseThe morning had proved to be an excellent exploration of Tallinn’s varied and often chequered history. Would the afternoon be just as special? We headed to Kiek in de Kök to see what that place had to offer.

To be continued…

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