Sunday, June 21, 2015

Stranger in a Strange Land

The day had started early, though not early enough to catch the 4:00 AM sunrise of Tallinn’s near-white nights. Still, the air was crisp with the day’s new beginnings and the sky alight with the sun’s first rays of a long midsummer day. There were clouds on the horizon pregnant with the threat of rain, but for now the sky’s pallet of warm yellows and hazy pinks dappled the cobbled streets in delicately fresh light. Six days into my trip to Estonia, I had come to know the spidery streets of its capital well. Weaving in and out of narrow alleys in Old Town, I moved among sleepy-eyed city-goers on their way to open shop for the day. Soon, a few hours after I had departed the city, the winding medieval streets would be abuzz with tourists and locals excited about the coming holiday festivities – a muddle of Russian sightseers, school-aged children in uniforms, and restaurant solicitors dressed in what seemed to be costumes borrowed from Medieval Times (dinner and tournament). But the imposing city walls, monstrous stone structures built and rebuilt from the 13th Century, would contain the crowds from spilling into the rest of Tallinn.

In truth, the city, just shy of 500,000 inhabitants and containing approximately 32 percent of the entire country’s population, is divided into two parts. Inside the walls and towers stood Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of beautiful Gothic buildings. Unlike the soaring Gothic cathedrals of France and the later Perpendicular Style of England, Tallinn’s architecture borrows from the sturdy designs of Germany and Scandinavia brought through the northern crusades. Speckled amongst the medieval town stands many 18th Century neoclassicist buildings -  like the imposing Town Hall in the center square. These buildings, painted in harmonious pastels of blues, greens, pinks, and yellows appear as an unexpected mix between traditional wooden structures of the Nordic countries, manor styles of Germany, and the more familiar neoclassicist designs of the United States and England. Passing through the gate of Old Town thrusts you hundreds of years into a much darker future. Here, the buildings soar higher in concrete slabs, most a product of the Soviet occupation during the Cold War. While there exist a few modern buildings on the main street, the majority of the newer city’s grid is scarred with bloc apartment buildings and imposing hotel facades. In the morning mist, I make my way through hundreds of years of history, from old into new, to meet a bus that will take me two hours east to the border of Russia.

Over the course of the day, I visited five communities in eastern Estonia, Mustvee, Raja, Kolkja, Kasep√§√§, and Varnja to experience the traditions and culture of the minority Russian Old Believers. The trip took us through stunning natural landscapes of marshy mires and dense forests of tall, impossibly thin trees jutting into the sky. With a few stops along the way to admire the sandy beeches of Lake Peipus, the fifth largest lake in Europe, and bog paths of the north, we finally arrived at our destination. The Old Believers are a sect of the Russian Orthodox religion that separated after 1666 as a protest against the church’s reform measures. After the schism, many Old Believers faced persecution, torture, and execution, and thousands left Russia altogether. Today, Old Believer community’s exist in the peripheries of the once expansive Russian Empire, from the far north of Siberia to these communities in Estonia, which number around 2,000 believers. For an outsider, the religious differences between Russian Orthodox and Old Believers seem slim. There are different hand gestures when making the Sign of the Cross, and Old Believers reject any changes of liturgical texts and rituals. The inside of the churches are brightly colored with popping rainbow hues and a massive wall of gold-embellished icons. The interiors of their homes, shown to use through a local museum, are simple, with wooden furniture and many icons hung in the corners. Their daily lives resemble those of many other secluded religious enclaves. Their clothes modest and covered, their hair and beards long with tradition, their rejection of modern appliances strong, and their rejection of outsiders in the community even stronger. This goes so far as not allowing non-Old Believers into their homes, and serving neighboring Old Believers with a separate set of dishware for those who are perceived to be unclean. The Old Believer’s main source of income is agricultural, selling thousands of kilos of onions each summer to other Estonians and Finns on the sides of their roads or in larger cities.

My week-long stay in Estonia, from Tallin in the north those these Old Believer communities down to Tartu in the south, seemed like a never-ending negotiation of different cultures and traditions – so much so that it was difficult to pinpoint a particular Estonian identity. Born from a long history of occupation dating back to the 12th Century, Estonia has passed through the influences of Denmark, Germany (both the crusaders and later the Nazis), Sweden, Finland, Poland, and Russia (both the Tsarist empire and Soviet rule). Although Estonia saw a brief independence between the two World Wars, it has only been a completely sovereign nation since 1991. Such a past has not only produced a challenge in constructing a nationalist historical narrative for the country, but it has also complicated what it means to identify as a modern-day Estonian. The food I had resembled much of what one finds in Eastern Europe – heavy soups, meaty stews, and (of course) a scouted-out Georgian restaurant. But equally popular were fresh fish dishes reminiscent of Scandinavia and German sausages found in beer halls.   

The museums I visited, though none specific to the country’s history as a whole, echoed this history
of occupation and re-occupation. My first morning in Tallinn I made my way to the Town Hall for a newly installed exhibit, “Art Rules: Brueghel, Cranach, Durer, and Rubens.” An impressive collection of artwork from 15th to 17th Century Northern and French artists, the works came together to highlight the breadth of subjects tackled by the European Old Masters. Frivolous pictures of monkeys in gallery spaces and jovial peasant winter festival scenes by Brueghel were hung next to much more ominous etchings of death and war by Durer. Housed in the old Town Hall, visiting the exhibit also provided striking views of the building’s interior, with magnificently painted ceilings and powerful, exposed wooden frameworks.

Taking a walk out to the harbor of Tallinn, I spend the rest of the afternoon at the Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour Museum. Housed in a huge Seaplane Hanger – abandoned for years in the Soviet era and taken over by a dubious Russian presence after independence – the museum has recently opened up as a wonderful interactive space to learn more about maritime vessels and what role they have played in Estonia’s military, commercial, and leisure development. The exhibits, hung from the
ceilings and accessed through suspended walking planks, zigzagged between sailboats and seaplanes, maritime radar technology and large Soviet-era guns. They explained the forces of nature through hands-on games and painted a narrative of the many wars Estonia has seen through multimedia panels of historical video footage, descriptive information, and personal account from men at sea. My favorite part of the museum (perhaps because of my chosen travel book about the sinking of the Lusitania) was the chance to explore the submarine hung from the ceiling. Subarine Lembit was, until 2011, the world’s oldest still-in-water submarine. Built in 1936, the submarine were in service in the Estonian army during World War II and then sailed under the red communist glad during the Soviet era. Going below deck through the maze of sleeping, control, and torpedo compartments was mesmerizing, and gave me a newfound appreciation for the unclaustrophobic comforts my travels permit me. Keeping a nautical theme for the day, my companion – a fellow Carnegie Junior Fellow from DC who now works in London – and I spent the late hours of the afternoon at a local beach, enjoying the sun and submerging in the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea. Upon our return to Old Town, I took advantage of the drier weather for a run around the city walls, which took me through part of the Garden Festival – a path of uniquely curated architectural landscape and conceptual plots of flowers, shrubs, and placed objects. My favorite was the “Plant Olympics,” where some thirty-odd countries were represented by native vines racings on wires towards the finish line (the US was winning).     

Making the most of my time before having to take part in the Nordic Geographers Meeting, I made my way to the first tour slot at the Kiek in de Kik Tower and Museum to explore the labyrinth of bastion passages the run underneath the city. Originally built in the 1670s as a military measure to safely move solders and ammunition from tower to tower, the tunnels – much like the rest of the sites I visited – reflected the patchwork history of Estonia. Left largely untouched through the 18th and 19th Centuries save for a few prisoners, the 20th Century saw the tunnels refitted into bomb shelters during World War II. After the war, the Soviet occupiers modernized the tunnels with electricity, running water, ventilation, and phones in case of a nuclear attack. As the Soviet Union began to lose its economic and political legitimacy, the tunnels transformed into a hideout for Western punk culture that was slowly permeating through the Iron Curtain. After the collapse of the USSR, homelessness and unemployment surged in the city, and consequently the tunnels became a home for many poorer residents of Tallinn until it became a museum a few years ago. Each section of the tunnel was curated by the museum to reflect a different time period in its history (complete with eerie mannequins in gas masks and a sleeping homeless man). The trip ended with an equally uncanny slow-moving train ride through the remainder of the tunnels to show the possible future of the tunnels – aptly described by my cousin as a dystopian post-Communist Disney World ride.

After reemerging into the light from the tunnels, I departed Old Town to the Sokos Hotel in the new
part of Tallinn. Climbing up to the 22nd floor, I entered a secret set of stairs with a small tour to the unmarked 23rd floor – whose existence has only recently emerged in the hotel’s history. There, two rooms were hidden from the public eye for use by the KGB. Marked by a suspicious sign on the door that reads “Nothing to see here,” the interiors of the rooms are preserved as they had been left in the 1980s. Through the objects, the rooms tell a story of surveillance of hotel guests (particularly returning Estonian expatriates), foreigners, and radio signals intercepted from Scandinavia. Leaving the secret eyes of the Soviet Union behind, I traveled still further out of the city center to visit the Art Museum of Estonia: Kumu, a pleasantly surprising endeavor into Estonian aesthetics. Housed in a starkly modern building, the collection combined elements of German Expressionism’s bold colors, Nordic art’s heavy use of folklore and mythology, and more contemporary satirical conceptual artwork.

After the Geographers Meeting, I spent the end of my trip in Tartu, the second largest city in Estonia. Where Tallinn is seen as the political and financial capital, Tartu is often considered the country’s intellectual center. It is home to the University of Tartu, founded in 1632 by King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. The city itself resembles the Old Town of Tallinn, with its mix of Scandinavian, German, and medieval architecture (though less of a Soviet influence). Most of my time was spent at the University grounds, including a visit to its main museum and the observatory, converted into a museum a few years ago. Each museum visit was incredibly informational and included a number of interactive exhibits, where I learned about the development of the study of physics, chemistry, medicine, and astronomy.

On my final evening in Estonia, I met up with a few conference goers in a Soviet building converted into a retro bar. Our conversations drifted from topics of the conference to our impressions of the country to finally rest on the subject of migration, a topic on the minds of many publics throughout the European Union. When asked about the proposed plan to relocate 1,000 refugees to Estonia, those native in the group immediately rejected the proposal. Tainted with xenophobic language, their responses were a glaring refusal to allow any migrants into their country – particularly those from Syrian and other war-struck countries of North Africa and the Middle East. The comments took me by surprise. They echoed the responses of the Old Believers when asked about the UN refugee proposal for Europe. What then I attributed to the insular nature of these traditional border communities, I soon came to understand to be the feeling of the overwhelming majority of Estonians.

Since the start of the Civil War in March 2011, an estimated nine million Syrians have been displaced, either taking refuge in neighboring countries or as internally displaced persons within Syria. Just shy of 150,000 have declared asylum in the European Union, and member states have pledged to resettle a further 33,000 Syrians, 85 percent of which has been promised by Germany. While the majority of migrants end up in refugee camps in neighboring countries like Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, these camps have become overcrowded and under resourced. As conditions become more and more dire, thousands are attempting to make the perilous journey to Europe. These crossings are treacherous, and often result in tragedy – last year alone more than 3,000 people died at sea. Those who do make it to Europe often arrive in Italy and Greece, where EU rules require them to apply for asylum.

Human rights groups and lawyers argue that protection and accommodation conditions in Italy and
Greece are inadequate for so many seeking safety. The EU proposal was created to spread out and relocate refugees further north across Europe. And yet, in spite of the need to help those seeking asylum from war and destruction, many European leaders and citizens, from London to Tartu, have adopted an intolerant stance against providing legal access for refugees. Using discourses laden with references to the ‘other’ and not wanting unskilled Muslims in their country, their remarks hold little truth to the realities of the composition of Syrian refugees and the resemblance they share not only to Estonians, but also to Europeans at large.                      

There have been few times in recent memory that I have had to stand up and walk away from a conversation; and yet, in the midst of a conversation ablaze with nationalist rhetoric and racist comments bleached of an affection of humanity, I excused myself from the table.

By the time I left, the soft drizzle of early evening had become a steady rain, covering the streets with puddles and forcing young couples to run for the shelter of overhangs and doorposts. On the walk back to my hotel, I thought of the week I had spent learning about a country rich in diversity of influences, and rich in the solom memory of being occupied. I thought of both the pride Estonians had in their unique culture that combined so many different national traditions from the Nordic countries and Germany, but equally a deep scar on how occupation brought oppression and desolation to the country. To me, it seemed perplexing, even incomprehensible that a country so intimately aware of both the joys of multiculturalism and the despair of war would wholeheartedly reject refugees in desperate need of help.

While most of my posts are crafted in an encouraging disposition about the places, communities, and lessons I learn while traveling, as I board the plane back to England this morning I am left struggling to find optimism. The lines for refusal I heard while there were all too familiar to those uttered during World War II to reject millions of Jews from entry into safety. The historical circumstances differ in each case, but the need to support and aid suffering humans into safety is no different.    

My misgivings about the world today are not so much born from my trip to Estonia, but are underscored by it. Domestically in the Unites States, here in Europe, and in the world at large there is a desperate need to look past the delineations of belonging we have made for ourselves – nationality, race, income, religion – to embrace an understanding that we are all part of one humanity. In my travels, my work, and my personal choices I try tirelessly to heed that need. And yet, I am left at a loss when it seems so many adopt the opposite viewpoint. Seventy years ago, leaders and publics around the world made the decision to turn inward and close their doors to the most vulnerable victims. And for that, we all paid the unimaginable cost of eleven million lives. As I look forward to refugee decisions in Europe and beyond, I pray that we do not make the same mistake again.