kuidagi mõnus sügisene tunne

GOOD TO BE BACK as well. It’s not at all bad weather, far from it, the sun is out, the air is cool, there’s a kind of sweet, autumn feeling about, kuidagi mõnus sügisene tunne, and the market is full of berries, yellow potatoes, beans and even mushrooms, big, floppy beautiful ones. I got a good batch of blackberries, my favorite, but watch out, they stain. Tallinn. I guess I belong here, how natural it felt to just glide back into place at a cafe, pull out a pen or a keyboard, jot down some thoughts or type out a column. I’m a savage perfectionist as a writer. I write plenty of mediocre claptrap that never sees the eyes of the world. Long-winded essays that meander, go nowhere. No dialogue, no story.

Story is of the utmost importance though. Story is everything. Here begins another chapter of my story after a good long soak in the United States, where I re-acclimated, only to have to switch back into Estonian again (how funny, I have been writing in Estonian all these weeks, but to actually speak it again feels forced, stiff, not fluid). I’ve spent so much of my life here though it’s in my bones one way or the other. Those potatoes. Those piles of red and black currants. I know why the local people love them. The lines of girls behind the counters and they are so pretty with their yellow straw hair. This not in some lecherous way, they’re just beautiful. What a special, funny little place.

good to be away

I’VE BEEN AWAY for a week now and mostly acclimated to New York life. The famed ‘accent’ (oh-moi-goo-awd) is still jarring and strange (where did they come up with that one?) and there is this odd very newyorkese habit of both seeing one as the center of it all and colorful provincialism. New York is global and provincial, like us all, like us all.

There’s a local mats culture of guys with scruffy hair and pickup trucks. Supposedly, we must fear the wrath of these ultra-American road warriors or they will give us the Trump family for another four years. At a local graduation, a balloon popped in the hot sun, and the students looked around uncomfortably and tugged at their sweaty collars.

Estonia though is not only a nation, it’s a large extended family, with the rivalries, inborn competitiveness. “Anything you can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than you.” If the neighbor has 10 sheep, then, my god,  I’ll succor and nourish 400 of them! You call that tiny thing a bagpipe? This here is a bagpipe. So you got your photo taken with Tom Hanks? Well, I got my photo taken with Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise. So there!

It is my great fortune to not be a real part of that great warring family. I have the luxury of disappearing to New York, where no one knows anything about me. The anonymity is wonderful, dreamy, and yet frightening too. I know none of the neighbors. I know no one in the shops. This is how you wind up with these nightmare stories of kidnappings, murder, people who live with two thousand cats. No one knows what’s going on right next door. We are all from other places: Italy, Ireland, Japan, Israel, Ghana, Australia, India, Bangladesh, Turkey (many), Haiti, China (many more). Many amalgamations.

No one knows what is going on right next door.

These are the trade-offs, I guess. You trade anonymity for the security of knowing that, if someone steals your bicycle in Tallinn, there were at least five witnesses, two of whom are related to the culprit. One wonders what happens in smaller nations, like Iceland.

Perhaps one steals his own bicycle up there?

everybody goes to moscow nowadays

ON ONE HAND, some kind of “normalization” with the regime in Moscow is good for Estonia. For over 20 years, Estonia has existed as a kind of gray area in the Russian mind, and much of that time has been spent airing historical grievances (as the Second World War passes into history). Meantime, we get to see how Mr. Putin makes effortless trips to Helsinki without a similar ratcheting up in public anxiety. For him, it’s just biznes.

Kaljulaid is a bit different from her predecessors. Ilves came out of the exile community. Rüütel was a Soviet-era politician. And Meri was the son of a prewar diplomat, who was also deported as a teenager. Kaljulaid, not yet 50, comes with less historical baggage. She can represent her state, because she has spent her entire adult life within in that state. Historical arguments are somehow superfluous.

Remember — this is where Estonia wanted to be. Estonia wanted to become a normal, European nation state. It wanted the Soviet era to fade into the distance and talk of continuity with the country established in 1918. It’s also worth noting that many of the accouterments of independence were established in the late 1980s, that is, before 1991. The restoration of the flag, the reversion to Estonian as the sole official language, the rehabilitation of prewar historical figures: all of this happened before August 1991.

Prior to Putin’s “greatest catastrophe,” Estonian independence was being restored.

As others have remarked, the threat to Estonian statehood is no longer existential. Estonia will not be annexed at some later date, at least under current conditions. However, the specter of “Finlandization” looms. People should be worried about censorship, people should be worried about a media that self-edits so as to not offend “the Eastern neighbor.” That goes for offending local Estonian politicians as well.

What good is freedom, if you can’t really be free?


echoes of eighteen

A CENTURY SINCE the end of the Great War, but the unraveling of Europe’s old empires at its finish — the Austro-Hungarian and Russian, especially — continues to haunt this peninsular landmass. It’s actually why you see these issues with nationalist governments, not only in Hungary and Poland, but also in Russia.

Russia’s issues with its neighbors mostly date back to this key period between the October Revolution (November 1917) and the Treaty on Creation of the USSR (December 1922). It was in this period that the modern borders of Ukraine, for instance, were drawn up, presumably by the Soviet leadership. Stalin himself no doubt played a role in creating this new “republic” that was never intended to operate independently from Moscow.

In 1991, this republic became independent, and was recognized as an independent state by the international community. But nobody knew what Ukrainian independence would mean. It is only now, nearly 30 years later, that this state is beginning to assert itself as an independent entity. Following the protests that ousted Yanukovich in February 2014 the state was put on a new, nearly irreversible trajectory, especially after Russia occupied and annexed Crimea.

Any political leader that came to power in Ukraine would have to defend Ukrainian sovereignty. But since Russia had annexed a part of Ukrainian territory, no political leader could emerge that would recognize that annexation. There simply is no way for Ukraine to “return” to Russia’s sphere of influence anymore. The West nominally supports the old borders, but what is really happening is that these two states are now finding their actual balances of power. Russia thought it would advance quickly west, perhaps linking its mainland with its outpost in Transnistria, with a defeated Ukraine suing for peace. Several years on, and Russia is still mired in the Donbas. A new line of control emerges.

Estonians look on this situation uncomfortably. Its original border with Russia was not drawn up by Stalin, but rather agreed to via a treaty with Lenin in 1920. It was only after it was occupied by the Soviets again in 1944 that Stalin conducted some cosmetic surgery on the eastern border. Historically, most of the land within Estonia was part of two duchies or governates — Estland and Livland.  The city of Narva, however, was for a long-time part of the Petersburg Governate, and parts of Setomaa in the southeast belonged to Pskov. Narva is an interesting situation because of its Russian super-majority.

Yet among the Russians of Estonia, it’s not language or culture that apparently counts most, but living standards. Russians can and do live anywhere in such enclaves — in London, in New York, in Israel — and that does not mean that the Russian Federation needs to annex Brighton Beach or neighborhoods in Tel-Aviv or London.

The Baltics have always been an interesting, exceptional case when it comes to post-Soviet affairs. They were full-fledged European states that were occupied and annexed at a fraught moment in history, when German Luftwaffe planes were bombing London while ground troops swarmed into Denmark and France. I have long thought that if the Soviets had secured cooperative but democratic governments in the Baltics in 1940, then NATO would have never arrived at its doorstep. This would still be “neutral” territory.

Unfortunately, Russia’s fatal flaw has remained its out-sized sense of importance. Over and over again, the great Russian Bear has been undone by his immense yet fragile ego.

Hindsight is 20/20 as they say. In little over a year, it will actually be 2020. Imagine that.


Bomba Calabrese, essential ingredient for tatrapuder Petrone style

IT’S BEEN A WHILE, but I had something to share. My aversion to some traditional Estonian foods has become the stuff of legend, but I’ve worked my way around with a few ingredients from the Mediterranean. I often eat tatrahelbed  — buckwheat porridge —  though — even without maple syrup — and soolast, salty, savory — but with my own additions.

One ingredient I add to my morning bowl of buckwheat porridge is küüslauk, garlic. Just one clove, thinly sliced will do. I add it to the porridge raw — it cooks through on its own. I also never put milk in my porridge, only ample helpings of salted butter (või soolakristallidega, produced by Saaremaa). This gives the porridge a rich texture. On top of this, I dash some cayenne pepper. This gives it that extra necessary kick.

That’s not all though. At some restaurants, you can order buckwheat with capers, onions, and a fried egg. I prefer to add slices of fried halloumi cheese to the mixture. Finally, for the really adventurous, pick up a jar of red hot Bomba Calabrese from Selver. This is an imported pepper spread — I guess is the right term for it — modeled on the piccante sauces of Calabria in Italy (the home region of the Petrones, for what it’s worth).

It includes Calabrian chili peppers (peperoncino), olive oil (of course), artichoke, eggplant, sun-dried tomatoes, and all kinds of other good things. My great grandmother Maria taught my mother how to cook, but Maria was from Puglia, where the local cuisine isn’t as hot. Still I have acquired a taste for spicy Calabrian food, and this stuff will clear out those sinuses. So a tablespoon of Bomba Calabrese in your tatrapuder is just what you need. Just don’t forget the garlic and salted butter. You’ll be sweating in no time.

ancient estonian land

estonia map.jpg

I came across this map on the wall of the Taarkataro cafe in Obinitsa, which is in Setomaa, this rather interesting border region separating, in some people’s minds, Estonia proper from Russia proper. For centuries, the Piusa River formed a boundary between the lands of the Estonian and Livonian Governates and the lands of Pskov. Those on the “Estonian” side became Lutherans, attained a high level of literacy already in the 17th century under Swedish rule, and developed a different kind of relationship with authority from those on the “Russian” side, who became Orthodox and remained illiterate deep into the 19th century. In some ways, the Seto people who lived in the border region were similar to other Finnic peoples in the Russian Empire who were not historically under Swedish or German rule, such as the Mari, Udmurts, Komi, Moksha, etc. They thought of themselves as one ethnic group within the greater Russian Empire. The border here, as most borders, has always been in flux. Many note that much of what is now Estonian “Setomaa” was, until 1920, always under Russian administration. Looking at this map, though, I noticed that a small village on the other side of Lake Peipsi, the “Russian side,” was apparently part of Livonia for some part of history. This is called “Soztinez” on the map, which dates to the 1790s. According to Google Maps, there is still a settlement there, but I cannot find a name for it. I wonder how many people there know that they were once part of the provinces that later became Estonia.

what everyone always wanted



I SAW THIS news item on ERR and felt like saying something. President Kersti Kaljulaid sent a congratulatory message to Putin in the even of his re-election. Some people are obviously not thrilled by the Estonian head of state congratulating the Russian president, who has been in power for more than 18 years and runs an illiberal country. Russia’s recent botched assassination in the UK certainly has left a cloud of gaseous stink over any relations with the Kremlin.

In times like these though, when it seems that Estonia is becoming “Finlandized,” I remember that Estonians actually wanted that to happen 30 years ago. The drive for independence was for a) national preservation; b) material gain; c) to achieve the same successes of their Finnish neighbor. They wanted to be a free country, as free as Finland.

Bringing about political changes within Russia weren’t at the top of that list, though there is a strong argument that they might increase Estonian security. That being said, any kind of political collapse in Russia could have an opposite effect. It could actually lead to a full-scale European war across the east. I recall something that Finnish President Tarja Halonen said in the prior decade about Finnish-Russian relations. “We’ve never had it so good.” The reality is, in her lifetime, which started at the peak of the Second World War, up to the moment she uttered it, the Finns probably hadn’t had it so good. It does leave one feeling a bit uneasy. It’s not easy to bite your tongue all the time. It feels dishonest.

itching for eestimaa

Sketches-of-Estonia-_-kaas-220x322Hi there! Tere päevast! This blog is largely ignored as I work on various projects, which is unfortunate. However, the archive is quite good. I think that for me, as a writer, many of the things that once seemed odd or noteworthy to me became mundane or routine as I acculturated to Estonian life in the years 2007-2017. So it doesn’t make much sense for me to post here anymore. Most of my regular work as a columnist appears on my other blog North!

I urge you to check out my new book Sketches of Estonia. A new collection of columns and unpublished pieces, called Mirror Man, is set to appear later this year. My life these days is still deeply Estonian and sometimes I do still wonder at the curious ways of these adorable and prickly people from the north. Mostly I am at the Rohelise Maja Kohvik ja Pood in Viljandi writing. So if you stop in, feel free to disturb me and we can go to the garden, weather permitting, and share an espresso!

wana eesti raha

The first currency of the Estonian Republic was the mark. It was introduced in 1918 and tied to the German ostmark. It remained in circulation through the late 1920s, at which time the kroon became the new currency. I have heard interesting anecdotes about Estonian children finding stacks of old 1000 marka or 100 krooni bills stashed away in attics during the Soviet era, and presenting them to their parents and grandparents who just shrugged as if they really had no recollection of seeing them before. Interesting that the Estonian mark was once pegged to the German ostmark, just as the reintroduced kroon was once pegged to the Deutsche Mark and later the euro, before full euro adoption in 2011.

It is a good example of the centrality of Germany’s influence on the Estonian state.

head aega

Head aega! This is the all-purpose Estonian goodbye. It is more sincere than the forced nägemist which implies that you might see the person again, and though you most likely will, there is the possibility that you won’t. (There is also the presumption that you might actually want to see the person again). Then there is the androgynous nägemiseni. I once used this with my friend Mart, but he blushed a bit and said, “Justin, men don’t say nägemiseni.” That’s nägemiseni. It’s for little girls. Yet head aega! It just means, literally, “good times.” Isn’t anyone worthy of good times? I can still hear Nile Rogers’ chinkalink guitar on Chic’s old disco hit “Good times/These are the good times/A new state of mind/These are the good times.” The funny thing is that for the Estonians, head aega is something an older serious person would say to you. The cry of the old men. For Americans, it sounds like leftover stoner. “Good times, man.” “Same to you.” Like you should be munching on chocolate chip cookies in the corner of a college keg party in Connecticut listening to Chic. Not that I know anything about that. Gotta run now. Head aega!