Bringing Down the Iron Curtain Expedition reaches Estonia

The Birthplace of Skype

Saddled by Soviet occupation for decades, our cycling explorer finds the modern Estonia is a friendly and vibrant country

Article by Justine Gosling

I bet you didn’t know that Estonia was the birth place of Skype and hotmail? That Estonians political voting is done online? Neither did I…. Like me, before I cycled through on my Iron Curtain expedition, I imagine most people would probably struggle to tell you anything about Estonia. They flaunt some impressive statistics; in 2010 the Estonian government boasted the lowest ratio of government debt to GDP among EU countries at 6.7% according to Eurostat, an almost non-existent public debt and Estonia is considered an innovator in commerce. All rather remarkable for a country who only gained independence 25 years ago and with being one of the least populous member states of the EU with a population of only 1.3 million.

A little history to set the scene first; independent Estonia, along with the other two Baltic states, was illegally invaded and annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 in accordance with the 1939 Molotov– Ribbentrop Pact between Stalin and Hitler. The non-aggression pact between the two powers secretly agreed to divide up Eastern Europe with the three Baltic countries going to the Soviet Union. On invasion the Estonian government capitulated to avoid bloodshed and most of the Estonian Defence Forces surrendered and were disarmed according to the orders of the Estonian government, believing that resistance was suicide.

Estonia was renamed the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic or ESSR and a puppet government was put in charge. From then on, Estonia was considered a republic of the Soviet Union, administered by and a subordinate of the Soviet Union. The three Baltic states, the United States, the EU and the United Nations all stated that Estonia and the other Baltic countries were invaded, occupied and illegally incorporated into the Soviet Union.

The Soviet government severely repressed the Estonian people and executed or deported to brutal Siberian work camps all those who were considered a threat to its power, particularly the country’s political and intellectual leaders. Nazi Germany invalidated the 1939 Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 in Operation Barbarossa, crossing into Estonia and evicting the Soviets. Initially, Estonians welcomed the Germans as liberators but they soon realised that they were another occupying force who would not give Estonia independence. The Soviet forces reconquered Estonia in the autumn of 1944 and continued their oppression, deportations and Russification of Estonia until 1991.

As part of their fight for independence, Estonia participated in the 1989 “Singing Revolution,” an incredibly inspiring peaceful protest of song which I will talk of in more detail in future writings. The Soviet Union recognised the independence of Estonia on 6th September 1991, however the last units of the Russian army didn’t leave until August 1994. Estonia joined NATO on 29 March 2004 and was one of ten countries admitted to the EU on 1st May 2004.

The museum of occupation in Tallinn depicts the repressed lives of its citizens during its years of occupation and how their activities were closely monitored by the Soviet authorities. The brutality of the Soviet occupation behind the Iron Curtain is still there to see when touring the Patarei Prison on the capital’s outskirts. Originally built as a sea fortress back in 1840, it was never fit to be a prison. The conditions for inmates were so inhumane that it was closed in 2004 after Estonia joined the EU when the building and its management was not deemed to be of EU standards.

Walking around the grounds with a guide 11 years later it’s easy to understand why, it looks like it was abandoned decades ago. The paint peel is so extensive it actually looks artistic, the building is crumbling and there are holes in the walls and floors. Nature has acted fast to reclaim the space, trees grow up in the gaps between the metal poles of the bed frames that now have reached ceiling height. The roof fell in long ago. The bannister is hanging off the wall able to support nobody and the concrete stairs are so worn down another step on the step has been created. Large apple trees, now simply bare branches, blossom in spring time directly in front of the execution wall, almost as if they are a floral tribute. The reality is they were a food source planted by the Nazi’s when they used the fortress as a prison camp.

The building is a damp smelling maze of darkness and rubble. It’s intimidating to walk around even now its empty. You can sense the horror that went on here not so long ago. Thousands were tortured, interrogated and executed here. Students were bought here for simply speaking out against the communist regime, teachers for teaching banned Estonian history or a language that wasn’t Russian, others for practising religion or simply being a family member of one who had committed a crime against the communists. These young innocents were mixed in cells with convicted criminals and murders who were the ones really running the prison. Prison guards had reason to fear for their lives and often suffered retributions. Rival gangs fought frequently and controlled not only their area but the prison itself. New prisoners suffered weeks of ‘initiations’ as the gang leader’s new plaything which simply amounted to torture. Many prisoners made successful business whilst behind bars. I walked into the solitary confinement cell measuring no more than two meters squared with no natural light. The number tally of days spent here by one prisoner is still etched into the wall, five. The guide explains that many of the prisoners felt safest here. The elevated wooden walk ways connecting the prisons watch towers has rotted, but I still feel like I’m being watched. As we left it was dark, this is not somewhere you’d want to be left alone at night.

The capital of Tallinn’s cobbled old town has been beautifully restored. Its medieaval architecture and brick city wall is best appreciated from the top of St Olaf’s church 124 meters up, which, from 1549 to 1625 was the world’s tallest building. The town is a maze of cosy underground bars and restaurants with high ceilings and exposed beams. Many restaurants and bars are a little cheesy with their countryside fairy tale decor and over-emphasis on Estonian traditions in the form of music and uniform for its staff. It’s all for the tourists but is forgiven with its friendliness and charm. They like their garlic here, garlic is in everything and I even sampled some garlic flavoured ice cream that was served with strawberries and 4 partially cooked cloves. It wasn’t very nice. Let’s just say after only six days in Estonia I’ll still be safe from the vampires when I arrive in Transylvania in two months time…

The Estonian countryside is beautiful to cycle through, the weather at the time however was not. Every day I was soaked through. Deers frolicked in the fields regardless. You can tell that the winters are very cold here as the fire wood piles were as big as some of the houses. Everywhere I stopped I was greeted with a warm welcome and smile from the locals. On one particularly wet day I stopped by a converted windmill restaurant. The waitress laughed at my state and ushered me upstairs to the open fire to warm up and dry off. She bought my heavy cycling panniers, blankets, a heater, CD player, hot food and drinks up four flights of stairs before I could even take my wet clothes off.

I really enjoyed my time in Estonia, the quaint towns, countryside, history and friendly people made it a pleasure to cycle through. There is barely any sign of its repressed communist past it has tried so successfully to leave behind. I wonder if I’ll say the same about the next country I’m cycling through on my expedition, Latvia. riddle_stop 2


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