Posted in Culture

Fragments of a Country

1918-1920

From where I was sitting, that was all I could read on the monument the other side of the square.  1918-1920?  What was significant about those years?  1914-1918, yes, that would make sense.  All across Europe we are used to seeing memorials for those killed in World War I.  But 1918-1920?  I had no idea.

This was my first visit to Tallinn/Estonia and I was sitting in Freedom Square (though I didn’t know that at the time).  1918-1920 was the Estonian War of Independence.  An independence that was short-lived, as Estonia was occupied again only 22 years later (by the Soviets, then the Germans and then the Soviets again), only regaining independence in 1991.

Centuries of occupation, now free at last.  A history that has shaped the people and the way they see the world.

Music featured very prominently in the opening evening of the conference I attended in Tallinn.  How very appropriate for a country that had a Singing Revolution and that boasts one of the largest amateur choral events in the world. And that produced one of my all time favourite pieces of music, “Spiegel im Spiegel” by Arvo Pärt (see – or rather listen – above).  I was very glad we got to experience a strong Estonian influence, before entering the more generic culture of a European conference.

I love hearing Russian.  It’s a beautiful language and I get excited to still understand a word or a phrase here and there.  Here’s one of my favourite words: мороженое.  I love the way it sounds and I love the actual “thing” 🙂  So of course I noticed how much Russian was being spoken around me in Tallinn.  Estonia has always had a Russian minority but after being incorporated (if that is the right word…) into the Soviet Union, the government initiated a “population transfer”  (sounds kind of harmless…) which means that now about a quarter of the population are ethnically Russian.  After independence in 1991, about 30% of the population suddenly found themselves without citizenship in any country (though that figure is now down to about 8%).  So many big (political) and small (personal) stories here!

There is so much more: the fascinating mix of Scandinavian and Slavic influences – the high tech country (Skype was invented here!) with free wifi everywhere – honey beer (not sure there’s any deeper significance but I liked it :-)) – more glimpses into history: discovering the plaque below and Iceland being thanked for being the first country to recognise Estonian independence in 1991 (again, on both counts I had no idea!).

Fragments of a country, a culture, a people.  As with any jigsaw, each piece just raises more questions and promises more fun exploring.  Hope I get to go back soon to unearth more fragments and to see more context for the ones I already “have”!

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