One of the first articles I ever wrote for this blog was about my first time in Estonia back in 2013, during which I fell in love with the country. I felt that having two separate posts about Tallinn on here wouldn’t be particularly convenient for the reader, so I decided to take down the old one, and write a completely new post for my series on my latest trip to the Baltic countries.
“Going to Estonia had been pretty high up on my list of things to do for a while before I finally made it there. Though my visit was short, I tried to make the most out of it and I think I largely succeeded. Still, a second, longer visit is currently in the works.” That second visit took place in June 2016. It was actually shorter but just as enjoyable.
Estonia was the first former Soviet Republic I ever visited, and is a country that had attracted me ever since I first started becoming acquainted with Soviet history due to its resiliency and defiant spirit—yet there is so much more that makes Estonia a very special country! Sure, its UNESCO-listed Old Town is one of the most beautiful and best preserved medieval city centers in existence, but everything from its flea markets to its unique language are just as attractive. Estonian is a Finno-Ugric language closely related to Finnish, Karelian, and, to a lesser extent, Hungarian. It is only spoken by a little over a million people. And no, Estonian has nothing in common with Latvian or Lithuanian.
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If you’ve read my articles on Lithuania and Latvia you know what’s coming. It’s time for a grossly condensed overview of Estonia’s history!
The Estonian people lived throughout much of their history under foreign domination, be it German, Danish, Swedish, or Russian. The small Baltic nation first declared its independence in 1918 but didn’t manage to actually wrest it from the baltische Landswehr and the Russian Soviet Republic until 1920. Independence didn’t last long. The three Baltic States were given to the Soviet Union in a secret protocol of the Hitler-Stalin (or Molotov-Ribbentrop) Pact from 1939, and in 1940 they were formally annexed into the Soviet Union following bogus elections. The Nazis occupied the country from 1941 until the Soviets returned in 1944. That means Estonia, just like its neighbors to the South, experienced a double occupation.
In Estonia, environmental concerns and nationalism gave way to demonstrations protesting phosphorite mining and the Hitler-Stalin Pact in the late 1980s. The Baltic tradition of singing provided a stage for dissent and the Estonian Song Festival became an important place for its public display. Estonia regained its independence on August 20 1991.
Like in neighboring Latvia, history continues to play a very important role in Estonia. The Soviet period, particularly under Stalin, left a deep imprint in the soul of the country—and continues to be highly contentious today. Still, Estonia is a country that looks forward. Culturally closer to Northern Europe, Estonia is an IT powerhouse and has gone lengths to offer its residents free internet access, which it guarantees as a human right. It is also the first country to introduce e-residency.
One of the things you have to see whenever you go to Estonia is Aljosha, the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn. It’s in the Military Cemetery close to the bus station, but used to be in the city center. A walk through an old cemetery with endless rows of Russian graves, recognizable by their Orthodox crosses and tombstones engraved with portraits of the deceased, takes you to the site where the Bronze Soldier was relocated in 2007.
The monument to the soldiers of the Red Army who fell in the Great Patriotic War is a controversial symbol of the Soviet occupation of Estonia—a very sensitive subject in the Baltic Countries. Russians still make up a large part of Estonia’s total population, and the relocation of the statue from the city center to the Military Cemetery sparked riots by the Russian minority.
Though Estonia was already home to a sizable Russian minority before the annexation of the country into the Soviet Union in 1940, hundreds of thousands of Russian workers from other Soviet Republics were sent to the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic after World War II. This, combined with the fact that the local Estonian population had been decimated by deportations and war, changed the ethnic, linguistic, and cultural makeup of the country. In some areas of Estonia, such as in the East (particularly in the city of Narva), ethnic Russians can account for over 80% of the population—and make up about a fourth of the country’s total population.
Tallinn’s city center is incredible. As soon as I crossed the medieval walls of the Old Town I felt like I was in a different world. Thin, tall Hanseatic houses tightly packed together line cobblestone streets, with imposing towers and barbicans standing watch over them. Musicians playing medieval tunes in the city center are not a rare sight.
Estonia was controlled by the Danes (the name Tallinn translates into Danish Town), the German Teutonic Order, the Swedes, the Russians, and the Soviets—and they all left a strong imprint in the city’s architecture. The medieval church of Saint Olav stands tall and offers a commanding view of the city, and up on Toompea Hill, the Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral reminds visitors of the city’s past under the Tsars.
Just outside the Old Town are three sites that I can only highly recommend you visit: the Patarei abandoned prison, the abandoned Soviet concert hall Linnahall, and the Russian pub Three Lions. They are all within walking distance from each other. Patarei is something straight out of a Resident Evil game, and is seriously creepy.
Linnahall is an abandoned Soviet modernist structure by the water, and going there to marvel at its decaying opulence over a beer or two to the sound of seagulls is quite the experience.
Three Lions is a proper Russian bar: Russian music, Russian patrons, Russian beer. Its decoration breaks the kitsch barrier, with murals of lions resting in the African sun. Trust me, it’s cool.
There are a lot of flea markets all over the Baltics, but the ones I saw in Tallinn were my favorite, especially Balti Jaam. If you keep your eyes open in Estonia, you’ll find a lot of World War II militaria for sale. There are a lot of shops in the city center selling World War II artifacts, and you can find everything from medals to daggers and guns for sale at flea markets too.
Balti Jaam was temporarily relocated, but there are many other flea markets that you can and should check out—even if you don’t intend to buy anything. Pictures are usually not allowed, but you might be able to take a few good shots nonetheless.
Estonia is a small country in which different worlds collide. A third of the language’s vocabulary is said to have been influenced by German. In Estonia, you can find Medieval and Soviet buildings not far from one another, and Estonians have a reputation for creativity when it comes to music and literature. It is beautiful, modern, and rich in history—and one of my favorite countries in the world.
Have you ever been to Estonia? What was your experience like? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Thanks a lot for reading. Hope you enjoyed this mini-series on the Baltic States. Please subscribe and like me on Facebook to help Between Distances grow!
Really great and informative post! I hope to visit Tallinn in the near future, so this has been extremely helpful. I really like how you’ve included your historical knowledge in this post. It gave me a good understanding of the significance of what I was seeing in the photos.
Glad you enjoyed the article!
I just took a quick look at your blog and can already tell that it’s right up my alley. I’ll take some time to explore it after I get out of the office here in a bit.
Greetings from Berlin, Seb
[…] Next up: Estonia. […]
Great article Seb! I always love your history bits. And of course I love Tallinn 🙂 I think Balti Jaam has been torn down now, so good thing you managed to get those shots. Patarei really is somewhere people should visit, before they decide to shut it down – go, go, go! Have you been to Maarjamäe Memorial? That is a good one for Soviet buffs. I went there this summer, will do a post on it when I have time. It’s sadly also in ruins.
Thanks a lot, Suvi! Apparently Balti Jaam was only relocated. Hope it’s back in the same location next time I go to Tallinn!
No, never! I’ll have to check it out next time. Looking forward to reading your post about it!
I was told that I should visit Tallinn, and this post is making me want to go.
Good, you totally should! 😀
Really enjoyed your post. I’ve been to Tallinn too and have just put a destination guide live on my blog https://worldwidewanderingblog.wordpress.com/2016/08/11/tallinn-estonia/ would love your thoughts!
Thanks a lot! Glad you liked it.
I’ll take a look at it tonight after work.
Greetings from Berlin, Seb
[…] it actually felt closer to other cities in the former Eastern Bloc, particularly Szczecin but also Tallinn and even Riga. What these cities have in common is that they all belonged to the Hanseatic League, […]
Nice post ! Good mixture of your insights and some historical facts. I ‘ve been there last year. I had never thought I liked it that much. It’s still on my list 😀 I want to see the west coast which is supposed to be amazing. Maybe I feature in the interview. Talk to you soon!
Thanks a lot, Svenja! Glad you liked the post. 🙂
I love Estonia so much and am actually thinking about going there for the third time next month!
And yeah, I’d also like to check out that part of the country and go island-hopping.
Talk soon! Seb