I traveled to Estonia during 2014. Estonia haunts Northern Europe — a country about half the size of Maine. It’s bordered to the north by the Gulf of Finland, to the east by Lake Peipus and Russia, to the south by Latvia, and to the west by the Baltic Sea. Roughly 1.3 million people live there, which is about the same population as San Diego, California.
It was my first visit to Estonia but I had wanted to visit there for decades. My roommate in college was Estonian and she had sparked a flame of affection for it that never extinguished. Helbe believed that knowledge of Estonia’s history was critical to our friendship, and she would spend countless hours reciting to me her evolving understanding of it. Thanks to my gentle friend, my 2014 visit to Estonia decades later was more meaningful than it would have been without her. My memories of her stories are admittedly imprecise, and they reflect imperfect notes scribbled in her presence that mirror shifting shadows of her perceptions and unchanging omissions. But I found drawn to her perceptions — and inconsistencies have rarely bothered me where storytelling is involved.
My clearest memory of her is that Helbe would whisper when she spoke of her former country – partly prayer-like and partly as if to be overheard would invite swift retribution. I had always speculated why she was so soft-spoken, and she explained to me she had grown up in a world where people speak softly so as not to be overheard by political adversaries. Since coming to America, freedom of thought was something she struggled with; freedom of expression was something she did not yet trust.
Early Estonians were similar to Northern Europeans – particularly Scandinavians, she said. These Estonians built massive walled fortresses for protection, many of which still stand today. Helbe lamented that Estonia had been subjected to foreign rule almost continuously, in whole or in part, for about seven centuries. There was pride in her voice as she explained that despite foreign rule and efforts to eradicate them, Estonians have safeguarded their culture, traditions, and language since ancient times.
Foreign rule of Estonia has been dominated by Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Imperial Russia, and communist Russia (Soviet Union, USSR, or simply Russia). I’m not a historian and my roommate’s histories were shared with me before Internet and easy information access could facilitate her memory. The timelines she taught me were her guarded treasures — approximate, inconsistent, and not continuous, and they varied depending on the intensity or meaning attributed to her memories on any particular day. They included haunting and patriotic melodies that caused her eyes to well with tears. Like the formidable walls that surrounded the Estonian fortresses she described, she had created invisible and impenetrable walls around her memories that defied any challenge to them.
What remained consistent throughout her retelling is Helbe’s assertion that people have resided in the area of Estonia since about 9,000 BC – more or less. She had been taught that the first Estonian traditions originated before the Viking Age of Northern Europe, something about which she was fiercely proud. Perhaps between 800 and 1200 AD, Estonians defended themselves against the Vikings and carried out raids of their own. During one such raid, the Estonians apparently captured a Norwegian queen and future king – securing their reputation among Scandinavians as a formidable and courageous people not to be underestimated.
Fast forward to the present where modern historical accounts seem to play out something like this: During World War I, Estonia’s capital city of Tallinn served as the base for Imperial Russia’s Baltic Sea Fleet – deemed critical for defense of its homeland. During World War I, however, there was ensuing chaos when the Bolsheviks (communists) overthrew the tsar of Imperial Russia and shot his family. This had a ripple effect throughout the Baltic Region. Within Estonia, a bloody conflict followed between Estonians who wished to remain part of a communist Russia and those who were opposed to communism. Anti-Bolshevik sentiment initially prevailed.
In 1918, the Bolsheviks fled Estonia as German forces advanced into it. Estonia declared itself to be an independent republic on February 24, 1918, its Independence Day — before advancing German troops could occupy Estonia entirely. Germany ignored the decree and occupied Estonia in its entirety shortly afterward, coming down mercilessly on any Bolsheviks it encountered there. Germany continued its occupation of Estonia until the end of World War I.
As Germany began to pull out of Estonia in 1918 after its defeat in World War I, Russia invaded Estonia to establish communist rule there. As Russia advanced, it was similarly merciless against anyone who had acted against Bolsheviks or collaborated with Germans under German occupation. Estonians — tired of foreign rule and political slaughter — fought back seeking to hang on to Estonian independence. Its war with Russia lasted until 1920. During that time Estonia received help from many allies, including Great Britain, Finland, and the USA. A decisive battle was fought on June 23, 1919, in favor of Estonian sovereignty. The victorious Estonians named the date Victory Day.
Victory Day is celebrated on June 23rd each year and it honors all who’ve sacrificed for Estonia’s independence, not just those in 1919. Victory Day is an important summer holiday in Estonia. Similar to the ancient ritual of night bonfires throughout Estonia that mark its shortest night of summer, Victory Day in Estonia is similarly alight with nighttime bonfires in reverence and celebration of it. But I have jumped ahead in my retelling and Helbe would not have liked that.
Germany and Russia continued to covet access to Estonia’s Baltic coastline and in the years ahead Estonia struggled with maintaining its independence. This was complicated by the fact that many of its citizens were of German or Russian ancestry with strong ties to those countries. European economic crises undermined Estonia in 1934, and in that year Estonia became an authoritarian state. Simply stated, there appeared to be so much paranoia that its government was in jeopardy that Estonia’s leaders ostensibly implemented authoritarian rule in an effort to protect it. Soon after that occurred, Nazi Germany tried to reassert German control over Estonia in 1934, but Estonia resisted its attempts to do so. In 1938 Estonia announced a policy of neutrality in an attempt to protect its coastline and avert conflict with Germany or Russia, and it was a neutral country when World War II erupted in 1939.
Estonia’s neutrality did not last long. Hitler (Nazi Germany) and Stalin (USSR) signed a secret non-aggression pact in 1939 that divided Europe into two spheres of influence: Estonia was part of the Baltic region ceded by Hitler to Stalin. In general terms, Hitler had agreed not to respond to Russian invasions in some parts of Europe (including Estonia) if Russia wouldn’t challenge German aggression elsewhere.
In 1939 USSR battleships began appearing off of Estonia’s coastline and USSR bombers began flying over its capital, Tallinn, despite Estonian protests. Estonia consented to USSR military bases within Estonia in hopes of avoiding war with Russia. Predictably, Russia was not appeased and in 1940 it blockaded Estonia ‘s seaports in a move designed to cut Estonia off from outside aid. Estonia’s situation was desperate because Estonia’s allies were preoccupied with problems of their own. In a move intended to draw attention to its precarious situation while maintaining its neutrality, Estonia sought help through diplomatic channels.
In events reminiscent of the passenger plane that was shot down over the Ukraine during 2014, in 1940 the USSR shot down a Finnish passenger plane departing from Tallinn carrying diplomatic correspondence — killing all passengers on board. The attack diverted attention from other events in the region and complicated Estonia’s efforts to resist escalating Russian aggression. Diplomatic resistance failed and by mid-1940, Russia had essentially seized control of Estonia. Rigged elections were held and Estonia became part of the Soviet Union. Oppression of Estonian citizens by Russia began in earnest, starting with anyone suspected of opposing communism, foreign rule, or having close ties with Germany. More than 10,000 people were reportedly killed in Estonia or sent to Siberian prison or labor camps before year-end 1941, including its political and military leadership. Estonia’s ability to fight back was temporarily undermined.
During the summer of 1941 Hitler’s Germany attacked Stalin’s Russia. Hitler’s attack apparently caught Stalin by surprise and initially Russian troops fled from the advancing Germans. Estonia was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1941. As Soviet soldiers retreated from Estonia, they followed a scorched earth policy destroying everything of value that could be used by the Germans there — and increasing the suffering of the Estonian people. Food, shelter, and supplies became scarcer in Estonia, and Estonians lost access to medical supplies and care.
Apparently, many Estonians welcomed the arrival of Nazi troops –initially believing that Hitler was freeing them from communism and foreign aggression. However, their trust was misplaced and their relief was short-lived. As Estonia began to realize it had merely traded one brutal foreign regime for another, Nazi atrocities escalated. Apparently, the Nazis executed by firing squad about 75,000 people in Estonia for collaborating with Stalin or being communist sympathizers. Thousands of Estonians fled to other countries to escape Nazi persecution or death leaving the remaining Estonian population fragmented and disoriented.
World War II was a dark time for Estonia. Many of Estonia’s people were either killed or fled. By 1942, Nazi Germany had declared Estonia “Jew-free.” In 1943 twenty-two Nazi concentration and work camps had been established in Estonia and the Nazis began importing Jews from other occupied countries to Estonia’s camps. By some reports an estimated 40,000 Estonian men and boys were forced to fight for Nazi Germany beginning in 1943. This created Estonian opposition that was swiftly and resolutely crushed. It’s said that approximately 10,000 Jews brought to Estonia by the Nazis were killed in its camps including men, women, and children. Many mass graves were discovered after World War II in Estonia, some believed to have resulted from mass Nazi executions and others believed to have pre-dated German occupation and to have resulted from Soviet executions.
Helbe sometimes spoke of Estonians who were Nazi sympathizers or collaborators during World War II, and she also spoke of Estonians who were Russian sympathizers and collaborators after that. Many of her family members had died during Nazi or Soviet occupation of Estonia, and although I might imagine the circumstances of their deaths from things she said or didn’t say, she never discussed it. Like others of her generation, Helbe bore the scars of a child raised by war survivors. She also bore their signature resourcefulness to survive and aversion to political hindsight.
It’s an understatement to say that like elsewhere during World War II, atrocious events occurred under Nazi occupation of Estonia. Some ordinary Estonians did unspeakable things. More than half a century after occupation by Nazi Germany had ended, Estonia’s Prime Minister Ansip in 2006 addressed Estonia’s controversial past and said, “It is most regrettable that in collaboration with the occupation authorities, some Estonian citizens participated in such crimes committed against humanity. There is no justification for the participation of anyone in these shameful and morally condemnable acts. It is not important what motivated these people to act in this way. Even if they have not directly shed the blood of anyone, they are nevertheless morally responsible.” My Estonian friend had said simply, “War is Hell and we are all responsible for it.”
After the defeat of Nazi Germany, the USSR re-occupied Estonia. About twenty-three million Russians – about 14 percent of its population — had been killed during the war and their retribution against suspected German sympathizers was fierce and unforgiving. Fearing reprisals from Russia, thousands of Estonians fled Estonia as defeated German troops retreated. In 1949, the USSR deported more than 20,000 Estonians to Siberia. Thousands more Estonians were executed in addition to the deportations. Today annual, national days of mourning are held in memory of these events.
When I lived with my Estonian roommate, it was 1973-1975. Estonia was still a part of the Soviet Union and it was the era of the Cold War between America and the USSR. Helbe was uncomfortable that anything she might say would be used against a loved one who had remained in Estonia and she chose her words carefully. She wrote nothing down of a personal nature. America may have been her home then, but she remained Estonian by birthright and it was who she was. Despite her fluent English and American Midwest appearance, there was something about her that separated her from her American peers; to me, it was a sense that she bore witness to a world that had not been yet experienced by her American peers. Few of her American friends had heard of Estonia during those years; fewer of them still seemed interested to learn about it. So perhaps it was inevitable that Helbe’s closest friends were Estonian immigrants who could share with her their survival stories and search for purpose in them.
Helbe ‘s dream for Estonia in the 1970s was that it would one day be free of foreign rule and return to a state of democracy. She advocated peaceful change, but she would never have described herself as revolutionary. However, in the context of our endless conversations and the way she lived her life that was exactly what she was. Her political expression took shape in the endless retelling of her experiences; her cultural pride shone in her devotion to traditional Estonian needlework; and, her opposition to foreign domination resounded in patriotic songs from her homeland that she sang for me in her native language. Helbe personified the Estonian values of her time: She stood tall against foreign rule in the shadows of political opportunity — shrouded by patience, perseverance, passion, and collective purpose.
Although we had drifted apart before Estonia declared its independence in 1991, I thought of her when Helbe’s dream for Estonian independence was realized. In the decades before that, peaceful demonstrations had been held there that foreshadowed the retreat of the Soviet bear. Most demonstrations had been in the guise of song festivals involving hundreds of thousands of people who sang patriotic songs in the Estonian language that re-kindled the nation’s iron will. Estonia re-gained its independence in 1991 following what is referred to as the “the Singing Revolution.” Apparently, it was Estonia’s music that contributed most significantly to Estonia’s freedom: Beautiful, empowering music that identified a common dream, melded a common voice, healed and united a separated people, and turned dance into political action.
As I walked along the clean, un-crowded streets of Tallinn during 2014, I imagined Helbe’s reflection in the faces of people I met there and I was grateful for the memories she had so painstakingly imprinted upon me so many years ago. The faces of the people I met there reflected her gentle fierceness — a proud, intelligent look that facilitates cautious friendships while establishing boundaries, but at the same time searches for reassurance that Estonia will not stand alone if its sovereignty again is challenged.
And, for me, the possibility of another challenge to Estonia’s sovereignty felt very real as I walked the city streets there – as real as the walls of its ancient fortresses that cast dark shadows across my path. After all, Estonia continues to share an eastern border with the lair of a mighty bear whose wounds from World War II and perestroika have still not fully healed. Indeed, during my time there the prospect of Russian aggression and Estonia’s dependence on Russian trade dominated headlines, chat rooms, and coffee shops; a thread so strong and so adeptly woven that it was difficult at times to distinguish the past from the present and speculation from reality.
True, I was there during uncertain times and escalating tensions between Russia and neighboring Ukraine: Russia had breached Ukraine’s borders; a passenger plane had been shot down in the Ukraine allegedly by pro-Russian insurgents; unauthorized Russian aircraft were apparently flying over Estonian, Finnish and Swedish airspace; Russian submarines were reportedly in places they were not supposed to be; and, President Obama had scheduled a visit to Estonia the day after I was scheduled to leave to reassure Estonia it would not stand alone if Russian aggression towards Ukraine were to spread to Estonia. In this land of white summer nights, evening bonfires, and beautiful music, concern over Estonia’s sovereignty did not seem out of place.
Perhaps what has changed most from the loving memories Helbe shared with me decades ago is that the fortresses of mortar and stone that once defended thisland have been replaced by music and affiliations with allies who value political freedom as much as Estonians do. If I ever have the opportunity to meet her again, I will have to remember to tell her so — and to never again take my own freedom for granted.
PHOTO CREDIT: Estonian XXVI National Song Festival 2014 at Tallinna Lauluvaljak (123rf License)