Introduction to Estonia
“Make fun of the man, not of his hat” – Estonian Proverb
Estonia is a small country in Eastern Europe, the northernmost of the three ‘Baltic states’, the other two being Latvia and Lithuania. It is bordered by Latvia to the south, and Russia to the East. To the south across the sea is Finland, and in fact the Estonian capital Talinn is directly across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki, Finland’s capital. Unsurprisingly, most of them speak Estonian except for many of the 25% minority population of Russians. One of the requirements of Estonian citizenship after the fall of the USSR was that of being able to speak and understand the Estonian language. This applied even to Russians who had been living in Estonia all their lives, and given the complexity of the Estonian language, many are still not citizens. The Estonian language is actually only spoken by about a million people, 300,000 less than the population of the country.
It is fascinating looking up Estonia on a map – I’ve rarely looked at this area of Europe, when scanning the globe I’ve obviously hopped on from Germany and Scandinavia straight to Russia. Looking at the long land border with Russia, it is easy to see how much influence it’s large neighbour has had on Estonia.
Estonia’s most prominent geographical feature is its long coastline – over 2,000 miles – and more than fifteen hundred islands. Estonia’s largest islands, Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, are popular holiday destinations, where visitors find a beautiful region of pine forests and juniper groves, old windmills and 19th century lifestyles. The islands are very rural, and have been largely untouched by modern developments. Those looking to get lost in nature will find themselves happy here. Throughout the country, Estonia is widely forested, with almost half of its land area covered in forest. Driving on any road out
As if over 2,000 miles of Coastline were not enough, Estonia also has several large lakes, the biggest of which is Lake Peipus. The lake is the 5th biggest in Europe, and forms a significant length of Estonia’s border with Russia. I don’t know why it should, but it seems a strange thought to have a Lake divided in two with half in each country (while it is the biggest transboundary lake in Europe it is by no means the only one however). Lake Peipus is known historically as the site of a major battle in 1242 when Russian troops defeated the Teutonic Knights. This wasn’t a naval battle however, it was fought almost entirely on the frozen surface of the lake, and has been known to history ever since as the Battle on the Ice.
Estonia is about twice the size of Wales, and if it were a US state it would be the 10th smallest by area. Despite its diminutive size it is not a crowded country – it only has a population of 1.3m, a third of which live in the capital city, Tallinn. By global standards, Tallinn is a small city, but it makes up for that in other ways. In 2011 it was European Capital of Culture, and it has been named one of the top 10 digital cities in the world (it was in 7th place, just behind San Francisco/Silicon Valley). It’s also steeped in history, and breathtakingly beautiful. The old town of Tallinn looks like something straight out of a fairy tale and is rightly a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
History of Estonia
Reading over the history of Estonia I am struck over and over by the same thought: those poor Estonians! They have been almost continuously fought over throughout their history. The history of the country reads something like this.
They were just trying to make a go of things when…
X invaded and took over. They fought hard to gain their independence then…
Just when they managed it they got taken over again, this time by Y.
X invaded, kicked Y out and took over. Estonians rebelled and got 5 minutes of peace, when…
Repeat many time over.
You think I’m kidding, but I’m really not. I thought other countries like Bulgaria and Croatia had it bad, but they were practically in heaven compared to this. The effect on Estonians was obviously not good, the Barons and the important Merchants were fine but most them weren’t Estonian anyway, the peasants and serfs however had a very rough few hundred years. Things got better for a while when the Swedes took over, then worse again under the Russians, until 1804 at least when Tsar Alexander I started giving the peasants more rights.
Fast forward a hundred years or so, and after nearly a millennia under foreign rule, Estonia achieved independence in 1918. It lasted a little over twenty years, until the outbreak of World War II when Russia took over again, then Germany took over, then back to Russia. During the Cold War, Estonia was firmly under Soviet rule, until the fall of the Soviet Union, when Estonia broke free – by the wonderfully Estonian means of singing! It joined the EU in 2004 and in 2011 it celebrated a landmark in its history when it had achieved its longest continuous run of independence in its history – twenty years!
Estonian Folk Songs
One of the most remarkable things about Estonia is that the Estonian language is only spoken by about 1 million people, approximately 800,000 in Estonia itself, and the rest are Estonians living abroad. With such a small number of speakers you would expect songs and stories in their own language to be quite limited, however that is not the case. Estonia has one of the largest collections of folk songs in the world, with written records of over 133,000 songs. That is an incredible number for anywhere, let alone such a small country. Songs were originally in the traditional runic form, but in the 18th century this changed into more rhythmic folk singing, now called the “new folk songs”. Both are still sung today. Folk songs were passed down from parents to children throughout the generations and covered every conceivable topic – that would be of interest to a rural Estonian farming family anyway! Songs gave energy to people when working, and fostered a communal spirit. They expressed joy and sorrow, and everyone conceivable emotion. They also told stories.
One song I rather liked was the Herring song, which told a sort of creation story. According to the story, the herring used to have legs and live on dry land. It used to destroy rats and other vermin, much like people keep cats today. One time there was a big new ship carrying a large supply of salt, a very expensive commodity in those days. There was a herring on board to catch the rats. This particular herring really liked salt, and started to chew into the sacks of salt and eat the contents. One day however it accidentally chewed its way through the ship’s hull, causing it to sink. Neptune, the god of the sea, was angry at the herring and said that from that day forward, the herring would have to live in the sea as punishment. After the ship sank, all the salt was released into the sea, and that is why the sea is salty.
Folk songs have always played a big part in the lives of Estonians, and they continue to do so today. Every five years, Estonia’s capital Tallinn hosts the Estonian Song Festival, one of the largest amateur singing festivals in the world. The festival has been going since 1869, and today has more than 30,000 singers performing, and an audience of 80,000. As well as Estonians, choirs from all over the world come to take part, painstakingly learning the songs in the Estonian language. The Estonian Song Festival takes place at the purpose built Festival Grounds, which today also hosts concerts from world famous artists such as Elton John, Madonna and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers to name just a few.
When the Soviet Union fell, there were revolutions in many of the countries that had been behind the iron curtain. When you think of Revolutions, you think of tanks rolling in, riots and bloodshed, and a whole lot more. In Estonia however they had the Singing Revolution, when Estonians gathered at the Festival Grounds and around Tallinn to sing patriotic songs in protest at the Soviet Union’s occupation of their country. On September 11 1988, a massive song festival called the “Song of Estonia” was held. More than 300,000 people came together which was more than a quarter of all Estonians. It was during this festival that Estonians officially declared their wish to throw off the Soviet yoke and become independent. Within three years, they had achieved their independence, despite everything the Russians threw at them, without bloodshed.
When choosing a place to explore in Estonia, you quickly realise that when it comes to towns or cities, there isn’t much to choose from apart from Tallinn. No other place in Estonia has a population of more than 100,000. I also get the impression that, apart from some of the islands, places in Estonia that aren’t Tallinn are more the preserve of locals rather than tourists – or if there are tourists they are probably from neighbouring countries or really intrepid explorers. This is good for my purposes, as it is easier to get a sense of place.
I have decided to plump for Estonia’s second city, Tartu, which I suspect most of you haven’t heard of. Neither had I. Tartu has a population of just shy of 100,000, and houses the University of Tartu, Estonia’s oldest university, as well as the Supreme Court of Estonia and the Estonian Ministry of Education. The presence of the university, established in 1632 by the King of Sweden, makes this a definite university town, with all the vibrancy that brings along with it. To highlight the point, there’s a lovely fountain statue of two students kissing under an umbrella in the centre of Tartu in front of the town hall. Apparently there are often lots of young couples emulating the famous Kissing Students! If kissing students aren’t your thing, there’s plenty of other statues, including a large bronze pig and an anatomically correct father and sun, with everything on show! Apparently touching the statues bring you luck…
There’s many other things to do in Tartu, including a renowned science museum, a toy museum and a beer museum with the chance to see a perfectly maintained 19th century brewery, as well as being able to try a few samples of course! If you fancy something a bit different you can always visit the KGB Cells Museum, a history of the KGB in Estonia, and life in Estonia during the Cold War.
After spending time in a KGB cell, you are probably after a stiff drink or two and maybe a bite to eat. Believe it or not you could do a lot worse than the ‘Pussirohukelder’. This establishment is in an old gunpowder cellar – you can eat soup out of large round bread bowls (cannonballs), and beer is served in 1 litre mugs. Bizzarely, the place is also in the Guinness Book of Records for having the highest ceiling of any restaurant in the world. At least you won’t bump your head! If you want somewhere a little quainter however, then the Hansa Tall – yes it is Hansa Tall, not Hansa Hall – could be what you are looking for, with an “authentic Estonian interior”, a “good view of older Estonian culture” and “delicious farmer-style cuisine”.