Estonia and the Russian World

As noted in my essay a couple of days ago, I returned home to Brussels from St. Petersburg, in two steps: by bus to Tallinn, followed by a forty-eight hour stay there before resuming my trip by plane. For reasons unknown, the only bus service to Tallinn departs Petersburg at an ungodly 6.30 am and the only direct flight from Tallinn to Brussels departs at the same ungodly hour. Hence, we decided to break the trip and allow for some recovery in between. This also provided an excellent opportunity to explore further the questions that arose on our brief stop in Tallinn on our way East: namely how to reconcile the country’s Russophobic notoriety at the national government level with the omnipresent Russian speakers on the streets of the Old Town and among all the personnel of the hospitality industry whom we encountered.

The New York Times regularly features Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas’ anti-Putin pronouncements as she vies with her colleagues in Latvia and Lithuania for leadership in the sanctions crusade. For its part, Russian state television airs footage of Estonians removing Soviet war memorials as proof of the hostile intentions of their neighbors.

The reality of relations between Estonia and the Russian World is more complex, as my little two days of exploration showed. But then again, as I knew well before this, though all three Baltic States are lumped together by Western media as a bloc in the EU that is and has long been pressing for anti-Russian policies, their domestic treatment of their Russian speakers differs greatly.

In what follows, note that I use the term “Russian speakers” rather than “ethnic Russians” because the population in question largely settled in the Baltics during the post-WWII Soviet period and included many from Ukraine and Belarus who shared the language with their ethnic Russian fellow settlers.

The most egregious violator of the human rights of their Russian speaking residents is Latvia, where the percentage of Russians holding Latvian passports at the time of national independence in 1991 was 40% or more. Latvia then stripped of citizenship all those who had settled in their country after 1939, effectively making 300,000 Russian speakers stateless. They also subjected these Russian speakers to restrictions on their property rights and on employment possibilities, including the levels to which they could rise. Effectively Latvia installed an Apartheid regime which they maintain to this day, whatever mouth honor is given to “European values.” Moreover, Latvia also tolerates fascist parades honoring Nazi collaborators from WWII, similar to the Bandera movement in Ukraine. And it has closed down public and church schools that conduct classes in Russian. Given the country’s shortage of teachers generally, this means that many students learn their lessons in the broken Latvian of their native Russian speaker educators.

The least friction with its Russian-speaking minority is in Lithuania, where Russians never counted more than 15% of the population and where another significant minority, Polish speakers, also had to be tolerated.

Finally, there is Estonia, which has 320,000 Russian speakers among a total population of 1.3 million. And those Russian speakers are concentrated in the national capital, Tallinn, where they constitute a substantial majority of the 426,000 population there. Inescapably, the city government in Tallinn is not aligned with the anti-Russian policies of the national government.

So much for statistics. How did my experience of two days in Tallinn reflect or contradict these generalities?

Without further ado, I say that I found two parallel worlds – ethnic Estonians and Russian speakers. They each seem comfortable with themselves, with no obvious complexes and rather little intercourse.

Our hotel the first night was the famous and unique Hotel Viru, just a couple of minutes walk from the Old Town. This 23 story building towers over the city. In Soviet times it was the best hotel in the city and I stayed there when passing through on business in 1990. Today it is owned by the leading Finnish hospitality company Sokos. It has been renovated to high international standards, though one typically Socialist feature of architecture has remained, namely the main dining room where breakfasts are served in the morning and where a cabaret show is offered on some evenings. The seating capacity must be several hundred, so that it is not the place for a romantic dinner. But it serves tourist groups very efficiently, which is fine for those stopping in Tallinn on their way to the cruise ships putting in at the nearby port.

The Viru was doing good business during our stay. At breakfast nearly all places were taken. Not a Russian to be seen or heard. The hotel receptionist confirmed my hunch: 90% or more of the guests are Finns, who take the two hour ferries from Helsinki to enjoy a low-cost vacation trip; the remainder are ethnic Estonians. My point is that Tallinn is receiving a good share of its tourist visitors from outside Russia, but they travel their own separate route from the Russian groups and individual tourists.

The Viru is also just a five minutes’ walk from Estonia’s cultural holy sites, the Concert Hall and the Opera-Ballet House. I call them holy sites, because they were built the year following the end of WWI in what was unmistakably a political statement of the newly independent Estonia, that it owned its high culture.

By good luck, the opera house was performing Tosca on our first night in the city. The hall was only two-thirds sold and we easily got fifth row orchestra (stalls) seats at the very democratic price of 32 euros each. The production was good, both vocalists and the orchestra. Happily the stage décor and costumes were simple and non-intrusive. But our attention was on the audience: 100% ethnic Estonians judging by the chatter we heard in the café – buffet, which was heavily frequented.

The food and drink on offer in the opera café was very traditional: high quality smoked salmon sandwiches and little cakes, while sparkling wine was the best selling beverage. Most of the audience was provincial in dress. They could just as easily have been opera-goers in stodgy Ghent or Antwerp. The opera house, which seats perhaps 600, is in impeccable condition, perfectly maintained and with all essential conveniences such as elevators for the mobility impaired and 21st century toilets.

In the adjacent building, a very Estonian event was planned for the evening of the 9th, which we sadly would have to miss: a special concert celebrating the upcoming 85th birthday of the Estonian-American conductor Neeme Järvi, who has had an outstanding career at home and abroad in both Europe and the USA, where he presently resides. His family constitutes a musical dynasty in the country, which punches above its weight in musical culture.

My argument for parallel worlds of ethnic Russians and Estonians is borne out by our visits to two of the most important tourist sites in and around Tallinn, both former palaces dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries, when what we now call Estonia was part of the Russian Empire: the Kaila Joa Schloss Fall museum-hotel and the Kadriorg Palace Art Museum.

The Russian essence of these attractions is not something overlooked or distorted by official Estonia. Even today Russian “occupation” of Estonia describes only the post-WWII period. Even today, these magnificent cultural monuments from tsarist Russia are substantially supported by the Estonian national government in the frank recognition that Estlandiya (as the territory was known following its conquest from Sweden in the Northern War) was a jewel of the Empire. In the mid-18th century, Revel (present day Tallinn) was the largest seaport in the Empire. The mineral water spas of the city and its environs attracted emperors and empresses including Elizabeth and Catherine II, extending into the first half of the 19th century during the reign of Nicholas I. In this regard, today’s “cancel Russia” movement has had zero impact on Estonian domestic policies pertaining to culture and the arts.

This reasonableness or common sense behavior of Estonians matches what I discovered on an earlier day visit to Tallinn five years ago during a port stop on a Baltic Sea cruise. We visited the city history museum and found in the entrance hall the disarming statement that in the past 2,000 years prior to the post-Soviet independence in 1991, the lands comprising modern Estonia had known political sovereignty only for the twenty year interwar period ending in 1939. The summary history for visitors went on to say that the native peoples of this land, the ethnic Estonians, had been farmers primarily, and they had lived under a succession of foreign overlords: German, Swedish and for the last two hundred years, Russian. This sobering truth necessarily is an antidote to any nationalist fever which might otherwise spoil the interethnic relations today.

The Schloss Fall museum-hotel situated at Keila Joa, about 32 km along the coast southwest of Tallinn is unique in more than the dimension of Russian-Estonian consciousness. I was persuaded to go there by my wife, who is a full-blooded representative of the Russian intelligentsia as well as a card carrying member of Petersburg’s Union of Journalists. Keila Joa resonates among her peers because the “castle” there symbolizes the intertwined relations between Fighters for Liberty and Defenders of Autocracy, between the Decembrists and their persecutors in the first half of the 19th century and beyond. The story of the castle is the story of two fabled families, the Benckendorffs and the Volkonsky’s.

The builder of the castle, Count Alexander Benckendorff, was a bemedaled officer in the Napoleonic wars. Benckendorff was born in Revel (Tallinn) as a member of the Baltic Germans who were long in the service of the Russian throne. His place of birth explains his decision to build a family residence at a very picturesque point one kilometer from the Estonian coast, overlooking the fast moving Keila river and a dramatic six meter high waterfall. The 20 hectare property is today open to visitors, who can enjoy trails in the forest.

Count Benckendorff was a close associate of Alexander I whom he served as aide-de-camp. When, following the death of Alexander in December 1825, a contingent of officers revolted, seeking to replace autocracy with constitutional rule, Benckendorff was the officer in charge of putting down the insurrection. . He subsequently had responsibility for trying and sentencing the “Decembrists.” Several were executed while most were sent into domestic exile in Siberia, where they remained for decades and were known for spreading education and Enlightenment to their remote part of the Empire. Among them was Major General Sergei Volkonsky.

In the new reign of Nicholas I, Benckendorff became his close advisor and was appointed head of the political police, or Third Department of His Majesty’s Chancellery, a post he retained for life. However, in the years following his death, under guidance of his widow, the family intermarried with the Volkonsky’s and ultimately the property passed into their hands, where it remained until the Revolution. A scion of the family is well known in Estonia today as a singer and stage performer.

Be that as it may, the buildings on the site were gutted after the Revolution and remained in a dilapidated state until 2010 when the Estonian government approved a formula by which the complex would be totally restored by private investors for dual use as a commercial hotel and also a state museum. The result is extraordinary: visitors to the castle are treated to the home-like comfort of being able to touch everything. You can seat yourself in the well upholstered divans and armchairs of the ground floor rooms to quietly contemplate the interior design and reproduction paintings of Russian officers who fought in the Napoleonic Wars and other imperial statesmen. These are reproductions of originals in the State Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg, as is plainly noted. Some of the furniture is antique.

The castle building was designed in the Gothic Revival style by the young architect Andrei Stackenschneider, who was then serving as an assistant to the chief architect of the St. Isaac’s Cathedral in Petersburg, the Frenchman Auguste de Montferrand. Later in his career, he became in his own right a well known architect of important palaces and townhouses in central Petersburg.

The completion of the castle in 1833 was marked by a visit from the emperor Nicholas I himself. During his stay, the guests were treated to the performance of what was immediately approved as Russia’s national anthem, God Save the Tsar, written by another multi-functional young courtier, Alexei Lvov.

As a further commentary on Estonia’s relations with its Russian World past and present, I note that the private investors in the reconstruction of the castle complex were three: two Russians and one Estonian. The Russians sold out their shares three years ago, and the complex now is owned fully by the Estonian partner, who is an interior decorator by profession and the owner of the Luxor furniture stores that you see in Tallinn and elsewhere in the country.

For all of the above reasons, given the rich history of the site, it is well worth considering not only a day visit but placing a reservation to spend the night. Accommodations in the 21-room Keila Joa hotel can be reserved on booking.com, on tripadvisor.com and from the Schloss Fall website.

The Kadriorg Palace has occupied an outstanding place in Estonian history both under the tsars and during the country’s period of independence, when it served alternately as the residence of the President and as an art museum. Construction was begun in 1718, a decade after the military victory over Sweden that transferred these lands to Russia. The palace, which was intended as a gift to the Empress Catherine (hence the name in Estonian) was completed in 1725, the year of Peter the Great’s death. As Wikipedia informs us, between 1741 and 1917, the palace housed the civilian governor of the Governorate of Estonia. After WWII, the palace definitively became an art museum, though the buildings were neglected and were in bad need of renovation at the time of Estonia’s independence in 1991.

The renovation work was supported by the government of Sweden, which was at the time heavily involved in the Estonian economy and particularly in the banking system. The palace reopened to the public in 2000 as the home of a specific part of the Estonian national art collection. The ground floor displays the extensive and high quality paintings of European art, in particular Dutch canvases of the 17th century which were widely acquired by royalty and connoisseurs throughout Europe in the 18th century and beyond. The second floor displays the much smaller collection of Russian art, though I emphasize that the works are of high quality and very representative of important art movements in Russia during the 19th and early 20th centuries. There are serious paintings here by Korovin, Aivazovsky, Kustodiev, Petrov-Vodkin, among others. None has been taken down or turned to the wall.

I close out this sharing of impressions from our stay in Tallinn with a couple of remarks on my visit to one of the largest shopping centers in the city, the Ulemiste Centre, near the airport. It is just across the road from the hotel where we spent the second and last night of our stay in view of our early flight departure the next morning.

Well designed, handsomely executed, this shopping center seems to be doing well. The large parking area was nearly full and there was a good crowd of shoppers circulating inside. Every one of them speaking Russian. Well dressed, relaxed. If you want a picture of successful integration of a minority population into national life, this was it.

Oh, yes, one more thing: television. We found in our hotel room that Estonian state television also broadcasts in Russian. That channel provided us with good, entertaining films in the original sound tracks, whether English or Russian. It was a pleasure to watch a Russian channel that is not weighed down with war reporting.

If Kiev treated its Russian speaking minority in any way like what the Estonians have done, there would be no war today and the world would be pulled back from the abyss of Armageddon that presently drains the joy from our lives.

Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book is Does Russia Have a Future? Reprinted with permission from his blog.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2022