Seeking Scandi-Soviet Estonia

Anybody, no? Nobody wants to see Soviet relics interacting with Scandinavian modernity with me? While others were on the Amalfi coast getting leathery and accustomed to feeling their toes for the first time since the beginning of winter, I decided to delay that much needed thaw and went on a solo trip to Estonia back in May.

I’ve recently developed a fondness for traversing the bleak underbellies of nations with fraught pasts and oscillating uncertainty at present.

Nobody really knows where Estonia is. “It’s a city in Lithuania no?” says one, “That place in Princess Diaries” says another. Estonia is actually Russia’s backyard- west of St. Petersburg, a country in its own right, but revanchist Putin might change that soon.

I thought I’d go and see Tallinn, the UNESCO world heritage capital, before the pariah got his paws on it again. As it was May time, things were (and still are) on fire in Ukraine and talks of further reclamation of political territories were rife in Estonia.

Being in the Baltic, Estonia seems like it would be a task to get to but EasyJet are smart. They know that the relatively budget friendly booze in the country makes it a winning host to the deplorable stag weekend by bum flashing Brit boys.

One hour and at best, forty minutes from Gatwick, Tallinn is yours. When I travel alone I look at the distance of the airport from the main city. Tallinn airport is about a 7km drive from where you want to be. Tallinn’s old town is very medieval and thatchy looking, and you certainly pay the price for that Disney effect.

Absolute fire hazard.

Absolute fire hazard.

So I stayed a 10 minute walk away in the city’s business district: a. I didn’t have to worry about late night booze hounds b. It was a modern high rise building. I like modern high rise buildings.

You can imagine the cast of Beauty and the Beast springing out into song

You can imagine the cast of Beauty and the Beast springing out into song

Estonia in May can be hot or cold. The day I arrived it was a short-sleeved 22’celcius and overnight the breath of winter blew back into the country throwing figures to 8′ celcius. The day after my arrival I was due to go to Lahemma National Park to walk along a bog via Jägala waterfall and a maritime house/museum to have a traditional Estonian meal.

I went with a really cool tour company– but I hate calling it a “tour company” because it was more like a day out with instant made friends.

On our way to the waterfall we go beyond the airport and head east, towards RUSSIA. And I capslock because everything starts to become GREY and BOXY. Stalin’s concrete brutalism flanks our drive. I didn’t get a shot of it because I was too fixated on the overwhelming tightness of the apartment blocks. It was all about cramming everything and everybody during the occupation- curtailing costs, everything was low rise and claustrophobic and still is. But there’s something so epic and jarring about these real estate monstrosities. You really feel the ghosts of the Cold War present- especially with a low lying mattress of clouds above.

We get to Jägala and the fresh mist of water coming off the waterfall is a nice touch. It’s all very damp and soggy and hand crackingly cold.

This isn't Jägala Waterfall, but it looks very similar. The shot taken at Jägala was fuzzed. The cameraman here managed to at least keep it still but angles my friend, angles.

This isn’t Jägala waterfall, but one visited a few days later in western Estonia- they’re both very similar. The shot taken at Jägala was fuzzed. The cameraman here managed to at least keep it still but angles my friend, angles.

It was just for a quickie photo stop (refer to caption) and we were back in the minibus with Jevgeni, a local tour guide (again, ignore the tour and guide bits) and a Japanese couple who studiously carried a notepad and pen, jotting down all the historical info we were fed. It was really sweet and not too ‘try-hard’ until the man asked Jevgeni to slow down so he could write it down in time.

We went to a maritime museum which was actually a house, with residents, who cooked us up a grilled salmon and potato meal with “grandma’s cake.” The former sounds like a standard dish available anywhere but the salmon was from Finland and the best damn pink fish I’ve ever had. Smoky and soft, each time I cut into it, the pieces slid off with the natural oils so beautifully. I love salmon.

The outside of the house/museum. You can see the Scandinavian simplicity here- it's very much a summer destination.

The outside of the house/museum. You can see the Scandinavian simplicity here- it’s very much a summer destination.

It was really interesting when we met the lady of the house/museum. She could easily have been from Sweden- in fact she might have had Nordic roots but, Jevgeni has a more Russian look to him. He’s got a displaced heritage between Russia and Estonia- an amalgamation of the Soviet era. They both spoke Estonian to each other. Estonia sounds like, to unfamiliar ears, a Scandinavian language. A lot of speaking uP AnD DaaaUUUnnn and SkiiiiiPING aLOnguuh. It’s very yodely.

Jevgeni though, plays the Russian station on the radio as we go move across Estonia. This is why it’s fascinating. You’ve got a rather stoic, hard culture at play with a bright, egalitarian and colourful one. If you go to Russia, you’ll see RUSSIA. If you go to Sweden you’ll see SWEDEN. In Estonia, you see BOTH.

The naval gazer in me wanted to go to Lahemma National Park to commune with the wilderness, and not hear anything but a coo from a bird and a plop of water.

The bog behind me. A bog is a marshland or swamp.

Lahemma National Park. I stand in front of a bog. A bog is a marshland or swamp.

Without going into the step by step itinerary of my 5 day long trip, I went to experience the Soviet ghosts of Estonia more than anything. It was a gateway to RUSSIA without having to deal with the bureaucracy of visiting RUSSIA.

The following, best illustrate Tallinn and its vicinity.

An abandoned submarine base built by the Russian military between 1956- 1958. It was used while they occupied Estonia until they fled in 1991- about the time Estonia gained independence.

An abandoned submarine base built by the Russian military between 1956- 1958. It was used while they occupied Estonia until they fled in 1991- about the time Estonia gained independence.

Inside Hara, the abandoned submarine base.

Inside Hara, the abandoned submarine base.

Soviet Scarring

Soviet Scarring

On another day I went to Paldiski, an exclusively small town Russophile place. People genuinely only speak Russian there. It's not even that close to the border. It's actually west of Tallinn.

On another day I went to Paldiski, an exclusively small town Russophile place. People genuinely only speak Russian there. It’s not even that close to the border. It’s actually west of Tallinn.

I climbed a quarry. In the rain water lake is a submerged Soviet factory. in the summer, you can jump off it and swim around.

I climbed a quarry. In the rain water lake is a submerged Soviet factory. In the summer, you can jump off it and swim around.

A hidden cemetary for Soviet-era trainee pilots. Most epitaphs read: "Died serving duty." The average age was 17.

A hidden cemetery for Soviet-era trainee pilots. Most epitaphs read: “Died serving duty.” The average age was 17.

IMG_6408

Two cultures in one. You’ve got the Russian onion dome at the back and the more Euro style architecture in front.

I think it’s important to be uncomfortable when you travel. Going to these odd and warped places just reminds you of how free we are. I know the Soviet era posited an ultimately failed ideology but there’s still that longing for the times when “you always had what you needed. It might not have been in excess, but you had it” reminisce Jevgeni’s parents.

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