Monday, December 10, 2007

from Tallinn, Estonia: Russian moments

Clouds roll in, then retreat. Time to go outside, to walk, up and down well beaten Tallinn paths and to think about it all. Especially about the Russian presence here.

It’s Sunday and so I set out for a park. A big deal park here: the Kadriorg Park, along with the 18th century Kadriorg Palace—a gift from Peter the Great to his sweetie. She was to become an empress eventually, but you have to wonder if it was worth it, considering the sleeping around she had to do (not of her own choice) to rise from servant to empress. Life is about finding ways to cope.

I take the tram to its last stop. I know I must buy a ticket on the tram, but where? I walk back and forth in search of a conductor. No such person. The tram driver sits behind a glass partition. I ask one of the passengers – sorry, but where are the tickets? A finger points to the driver. I hand over 15 KR and she slips me a ticket. Next challenge: where do I “cancel” it? This is standard East Europe stuff: cancel, or risk arrest. Or huge fines. Or both.

I slip my ticket into what appears to be a cancelling machine. Nothing happens. Flip it over. Nothing. Everyone in the entire tram is staring at me. I shrug and rehearse the “I tried” defense in case a controller hops on board.

Only at the very end of the ride do I figure out that I used the wrong cancelling machine. Should’ve aimed for the other one. Who knew.

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Have I mentioned that Estonian people appear to be…reserved?

The park is nearly empty. And so less significant than, Warsaw’s Lazienki! But, maybe that’s me, jostling for my own people and their contributions to posterity in this corner of Europe.

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Katerina’s little nest egg is lovely though. It’s a museum now, with international art. Nice paintings. Best are the portraits of the Tsar-folk, including Katerina and her Peter.

A group of young girls is having a museum birthday party. Cool! Better than Fast Forward (Madison’s roller skating venue)! A museum person enchants them with Katerina’s treasure trove of essentials. They giggle. I giggle. They move on. I linger.

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The little palace is close to the sea and so I take a stroll toward the water. There is a monument, with an inscription in Russian. I read the words, but I cannot place the commemoration. Ships? Lost hope? On the part of the Russians? Here? I ask someone nearby and he explains: it’s a monument to commemorate the loss of the Russian war vessel that traveled between here and Helsinki in 1893. Sinking ships, sinking powers of dictatorships, is that all in the past?

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The Baltic waves hit the shore gently. The water looks unwelcoming. I know this is unfair. It’s the Baltic, for God’s sake, not the Mediterranean. And it’s December. And a gray December at that.

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The birds jump waves, artfully, playfully. I watch. In a few days the deep freeze is coming. I’ll be gone by then. In any event, this is plenty cold for me.

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On my way out, I pause at the old Coffee House (it’s part of the estate. So it’s old). I drink a good Russian style tea and eat with great pleasure a poppy seed pastry. Better than great! A flood of sweet childhood memories hits me. Of dense, sweet poppyseeds, of warm caf├ęs, of life in this part of the world.

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I head back to the Old Town. Or rather, new Tallinn in old quarters. I pass children skating in the shadows of St. Nicolas church.

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And still, there is the Alexander Nevsky cathedral, looming over us all. Staring down at the city that dared defy the Russians. And now, a Santa dangles from a townhouse and children skate and the indications are that all’s well here, in Estonia. Leadership crises and political corruption notwithstanding. I should talk... I’m from Poland after all.

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I want to spend the afternoon at the Museum of the Occupation. When I first heard of it, I thought, incorrectly: oh, it’s about World War II. I’ve since found out that the museum documents the Soviet occupation – from 1940 until 1991.

But I cannot find the Museum. I ask one Estonian looking couple. No, we’re not Estonian. No clue. I ask an older woman. Surely she is a local. She is that. She answers in stern Russian – ya nye ponyemayu ( I don’t understand). She walks on. I could have persevered, in Russian. I’m okay with that much of it, but I let it go.

Is it hard to be Russian in Estonia? What if you once believed in the Soviet Union? What if the ideology (if not its leadership) appealed to your sense of fairplay? My family was like that. It was a long time before they gave up and walked away from it all. I had left home by then.

The Museum is so painful! An independent nation (finally!), vowing neutrality during the war, then aligning itself with the Nazis with the hope of preserving its nationhood, then finding that not Germany nor the Red Army would support a free state. The war years and those immediately after are like a confusing nightmare where you don’t know which person will stab you first. Except we know the real outcome – Estonia becomes part of the Soviet Union. At the very beginning of the war, the Germans struck a deal with Stalin. Sort of like handing over Katerina to Peter the Great. Here, you take Estonia.

I watch news clips. Survivors, recalling this period of occupation. It’s not the Russians we despise. It’s the government!

Well yes, sure, I understand the distinction. And yet, the Russian families came to this place to find a better life in this conquered land. They didn’t come to Estonia. They came to the Soviet state of Estonia. Who can sort this stuff out now?

I look at the row of suitcases.

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They once held the belongings of those who sought to escape. From the Germans, the Russians…

And in the basement, I see the old statues. Torn down from the streets of Tallinn just in the last decade. Fallen heroes of the Soviet Union.

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I walk back to the old town. A trolley bus rattles past. That and the tram cars – staples of transportation in post-war Poland as well. The buildings I pass – Same design, same windows. Same street signs, too, as those back home.

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I’m back at the Christmas Market now. And now I hear it everywhere. Russian. Only Russian. Yesterday, my ears were picking out Estonian. Today it’s Russian.

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A Russian here must learn Estonian to gain citizenship. A vast number remains here without citizenship. Estonian citizenship brings freedom of travel abroad. But Estonian citizenship means that you need a visa to enter Russia. What if your friends and relatives live in Russia?

I head for a sauna at a nearby hotel. So uncontroversial. I sit and I count the minutes. Saunas always make me feel as if I am one step from suffocating. I walk out when I can’t take any more of it. Maybe it is why I find them so comforting. I survived. Still breathing. Yay.

But there’s one more chapter to this day. I have picked Troika, a Russian restaurant, for dinner.

A woman croons the melodic ballads of Russia. Vodka? The waitress asks. I deliberate, then pass. I’ll drink the Georgian wine from Tbilisi, I tell her. I traveled there once. With my father and mother. When that country, too, was a Soviet state.

I eat meat dumplings and Vladivostock catfish. And boiled potatoes. I ask for some veggies or a salad and I’m given a huge plate of pickles, with honey and sour cream for dipping.

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Yes, I eat it all. It’s food as I remember it. The food of Eastern Europe. Some drown their worries in vodka. Me, I eat dumplings and catfish and pickles.