In Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, let freedom sing

April 22, 2012

Sacred ground.

That’s what our guide, Magrit, calls the vast open-air theater on the outskirts of Tallinn, the ancient capital of the tiny Baltic nation of Estonia. Here, in the late 1980s, Estonians gathered by the thousands to sing patriotic songs and express their deep disdain for their Soviet rulers. Finally, in 1991, the “Singing Revolution” triumphed, and Estonia became free.

Tallinn, Estonia: How to get there, where to stay, what to do and more


Our trip to Tallinn coincides with a national celebration in that theater, marking 20 years of independence. As we enter the grounds, someone hands us small paper versions of the Estonian flag — horizontal bands of black, white and blue — and we edge our way into the vast crowd and find a spot on the grass. Extended families, including seniors in lawn chairs and babies in arms, are everywhere. A local band is playing a fast-paced tune — who knew that a violin and an accordion could be so stirring? — and folks all around us are waving flags and white balloons. We join in eagerly, hoisting our little pennants on their wooden sticks, sharing briefly in this moment of national exhilaration.

Between songs, a huge screen projects images of Estonians offering their observations on the meaning of independence. An athlete urges expatriates to “come back home [on] a ship of songs.” A poet suggests that “survivors are messengers” and that “through them I can remember the future.” A woman says simply: “Something wonderful has happened here. A miracle, really.”

Then Brainstorm, a rock band from the neighboring country of Latvia, plays a tune with the recurring refrain, “That’s all we have.” I think the singer is talking about love, but he could mean the land.

Or liberty.

Tallinn is a well-protected seaport on the Gulf of Finland, 50 miles south of Helsinki and 200 miles west of St. Petersburg, sitting directly on major trade routes. That’s a blessing, but also a bane. Every power in the neighborhood — Swedes and Danes, Germans and Russians, traders and crusaders — has wanted the port for itself, and over the centuries, they’ve taken turns dominating the Estonians. As a result, the country has been independent for only 40 of the past 800 years.

The Soviets were the most repressive rulers, suffocating the Estonian spirit for two generations after World War II, deporting dissidents to slave labor camps and importing Russian nationals to colonize the rebellious province. “They tried to erase our identity,” Magrit told us.

But they failed. Today Estonia is not only free but prosperous. It’s a miniature country — 1.3 million people occupying a land mass slightly smaller than Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Yet its education and growth rates rank among the highest in Europe. And in 2006, one study named Estonia the freest country in the world (the United States was eighth).

Although Tallinn is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe, it’s not a museum, a lifeless shell viewed at a distance through a glass partition. Nor is it some ersatz “Tallinn World,” rebuilt to resemble the real thing. You can touch and feel history here, by strolling the streets and viewing the vistas, sitting in the squares and praying in the churches, buying the crafts and hearing the music.

Somehow, the country’s dark past hasn’t deadened its future. Estonia is the birthplace of Skype, the software that makes online voice and video conversations possible, and the place is so wired that it’s sometimes called E-stonia. (There are even booths in the airport offering free Skype connections.) As Internet pioneer Marc Andreessentold the New York Times, “The secret sauce of Skype is its engineering team,” which is based in Tallinn. “These are world-class guys, every bit as good as anyone in Silicon Valley.”

We arrived one morning after a ferry ride from Helsinki, and because it was raining, Magrit (we’d hired her for a day through our travel agent in Washington) took us on a drive past blocks of graceful old wooden houses that had been restored during the post-Soviet boom. (That boom abatedduring the worldwide recession of 2008, with unemployment hitting 13 percent, but Estonia is now roaring back, posting a growth rate of 7.6 percent last year, the highest in Europe.) We stopped briefly at the graceful Kadriorg Palace, built in the early 18th century as a summer retreat by the Russian czar Peter the Great.

“He loved it here,” our guide said with a touch of pride. The czar’s palace is a favorite backdrop for young Russians taking pictures on their wedding day. We watched one shivering bride in a sleeveless white dress brave the damp weather for a quick photo op.

Then we stopped by the open-air theater, known as the Song Festival Grounds, during rehearsals for the Independence Day celebration, set for the next day.

Here we sat on a bench and listened to Magrit describe her life and her connection to the “Singing Revolution.” Like most Estonians, she’d despised the Russian overlords. Her family had been in “bad odor” with the occupying powers, and she’d had trouble finding a job as a teacher during their brutal reign. Now in her mid-50s, she works mainly as a tour guide, but 25 years ago she was a practicing rebel.

The national tradition of choral singing dates to the mid-19th century, when Estonians who had no control over their civic life or institutions found an outlet for their patriotic feelings at large outdoor concerts, which were held every five years. During the Soviet period, commissars would check the program for offensive material, Magrit recalled, but at the end of the evening, the audience would defy them and spontaneously sing patriotic songs.

In 1987, as Soviet control began to crumble, groups of protesters started gathering at the festival grounds, belting out long-banned anthems and flying long-buried flags. By September 1988, the singing subversives had swelled to a crowd of 300,000. “We never slept,” Magrit remembered, her voice still tingling with the excitement of those days. “We kept waiting for the crackdown” by the Soviet authorities, but “we kept singing and nothing happened.”

It took three more years to achieve full independence, but as one singer told the BBC: “Repressive regimes can easily burn books or demolish buildings, but it is very hard to stop people singing. Songs were the simplest way for us to express ourselves.”

Tallinn is a great walking city, and the next morning we set out to see the Old Town, which is divided into upper and lower levels. John Quincy Adams, the future American president, was stuck in Tallinn (then called Reval) for three weeks in May 1814, when ice choked all the shipping channels. “The city is very old,” he wrote in his diary, “and built in the Gothic style; the streets narrow and crooked; the buildings generally of bricks, and plastered, and a few of stone. The roofs of houses are of tiles, and in sharp steep angles. . . . One seems to be transported back to the twelfth century in such a place.”

That’s still true. We started with the upper level, dominated by the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a relic of the Russian era, where we noticed an old woman in a head scarf and running shoes kiss an icon and murmur a prayer. She seemed to be Russian — native Estonians are mainly Lutheran, not Orthodox — and according to Magrit, the Russians were always taught that Tallinn “belonged to them.” I imagined that the woman might well have been thinking, “What happened? We were supposed to be the rulers here. Now they rule us.”

The “narrow and crooked” streets Adams wrote about are still paved with chunky cobblestones in subtle hues of blue, gray and pink. And every few feet, history announces itself. Here, a plaque marks where a school was founded in 1240. There, a bas-relief honors Voldemar Panso, a famous puppeteer. Any city that erects a monument to a man like that has a serious sense of fun.

We made our way to a small square called Rahukohtu, which offers a sweeping view of the harbor and the city’s impressive fortifications (26 of the original defense towers survive along with a mile of massive walls). I noticed the painted decorations and elaborate weather vanes adorning the rooftops in the lower town that are hard to see from street level.

Also on Rahukohtu we discovered a shop called Livonia, selling the city’s specialty, linen tablecloths. The company has six outlets marketing the output from a local factory, but this one is a bit removed from the tourist center, and the helpful staff had time to answer our questions and show us their stock. My wife walked out with two lovely cloths, plus napkins to match.

At noon we stopped by the Dome Church, built in the 13th century and adorned with huge coats of arms conveying the power and vanity of the wealthy merchant families, called Baltic Germans, who once worshipped there. An organ recital of Estonian music soothed our spirit and rested our feet, fatigued by hours of traipsing over unforgiving stones.

After negotiating a sloping carriageway lined with artists selling their wares down to the lower town, it was time for lunch. We chose Peppersack, located on a small plaza just off the main square, with a pleasant wooden deck for outdoor dining. We started with a platter of cured fish (herring is a staple in this part of the world), followed by a pork dish swimming in sauerkraut — much spicier than the American ballpark version.

Then it was off to the Great Guild Hall, built in the 15th century and featuring an ornate lion’s head door knocker. Inside is the national history museum, featuring an exhibit called “Spirit of Survival,” a massive understatement. Every invader over many centuries took a bite out of the Estonians, but somehow they were not devoured. They were also not deceived. With refreshing candor, one exhibit admits that the Baltic Germans, the city’s commercial and cultural elite, “regarded Estonians as nothing but peasants and servants.” The natives “were social outcasts with no rights for many centuries.” Not anymore. A walkway outside the museum documents a timeline of Estonian history, and with touching optimism, it predicts that the year 2491 will mark the 500th anniversary of Estonian independence.

Another history museum, focusing on the 50 years of German and Russian occupation that ended in 1991, provides a stark reminder of how rare and recent Estonian freedom really is. When Red Army troops extinguished the country’s sovereignty in 1944-45, people watched helplessly; a nation of 1 million simply could not resist an invader 180 times its size. One exhibit quotes an Estonian leader of the time: “We had to suffer.” Another accuses the Soviet occupiers of “shameless lying propaganda,” but in Estonian eyes, the Western powers were not much better, promising “liberation” from Moscow’s yoke but never delivering. “We were very disappointed in the West,” says one commentator. “We listened to the radio and hoped the ‘white ship’ would come. But the ‘white ship’ was nowhere to be seen.”

When the “white ship” did arrive in Estonia, it came from inside the country, not outside. The saviors were singers, not soldiers, brandishing music, not missiles. As we sit in Town Hall Square on a balmy night, the years of trial and terror seem far away. This place pulses with life: cafes and restaurants, musicians and dancers, people of all ages speaking a dozen languages and breathing the sweet air of an open city. Above it all, atop the town hall, watches Old Thomas, the city symbol, a venerated weather vane.

But you don’t need a weather vane to know which way the wind is blowing in Tallinn today. It blows west, toward freedom.

Tallinn, Estonia: How to get there, where to stay, what to do and more

More from the Europe issue:

St. Petersburg on, um, $2,000 a day

Sinking your teeth into Transylvania

Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University.

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