Sometimes when I look at photos of rural Afghanistan, down into the verdant valleys where the farmers are growing poppies and the zealots are shouldering rifles, I wonder how that place could exist on the same planet as the suburbs of New York, where some kid in a Yankee hat is stuffing his face with pepperoni pizza and playing games on his Wii, or even some remote jungle village in the Amazon, where an uncontacted tribe is looking up for the first time at a helicopter and smiling photojournalists.
It’s August 2011 in all of these places, except it’s a very different August 2011. August is the eighth month of our calendar. Two thousand and eleven is how many years have more or less passed since the birth of Christ. But the concepts of time and place here are relative. What is more important is our societies’ relationships to time and place, and where we place ourselves on the belt of time.
This is what crosses my mind when I look at the old photographs of Lenin’s statue coming down in what is now Iceland Square in Tallinn in August 1991, surrounded by mustachioed Estonians dressed like they stepped out of some 1970s fashion vortex. That door to another dimension has a name: it’s called the “Fall of the Soviet Union.” We know the looks, the sounds, the characters, the drama. Reagan, Thatcher, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Mitterand, Kohl. It’s been replayed so many times in our minds and on our TV screens that we have to remind ourselves where we were on those days 20 years ago. And most of us weren’t on Iceland Square.
To me it all seemed rather normal. The late 1980s. The early 1990s. The Intifada. Palestinian kids throwing rocks. German reunification. Teens wielding hammers. Tiannanman Square. Men standing in front of tanks. Armenian earthquakes. Gulf wars. Shuttle explosions. Nuclear meltdowns. Ozone holes. Ruined oil tankers. This was the evening news at the dawn of the era of the 24-hour cable news network. We watched it every night. Suffice to say that in my August 1991, a universe of skater kids, stonewashed jeans, fluorescent t-shirts, I wasn’t really surprised by the Fall of the Soviet Union. It was just one of those things that happened.
I can’t even conceptualize how short-sighted I was. But when your school has to order new maps every few years to keep up with the emergence of countries that haven’t existed since 1940, or 1914, or, in many cases, never at all, you develop a thick skin to geopolitical change. The very idea that the Soviet Union could return though seemed out of the question. All the kings horses and all the kings men, couldn’t put Comrade Dumpty together again. Ding, dong, the socialist witch was dead. The whole idea of the Soviet Union by that point was like some stale, moss-covered cracker you found wedged in the backseat of your car. It had passed its expiration date sometime in the late 1980s, if not before. Taking down a statue of Lenin seemed like the most natural thing to do. It was old metal junk. And what do you do with old junk? That’s right, you throw it away.
Twenty years later and I am sitting in the former Soviet Union, except I rarely think of it as such. Sometimes in an antique store, a classic Soviet clock or radio will be pointed out to me as a curiosity. I recently enjoyed an exhibition in Tallinn about life in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. Old bookshelves, ancient cars, silly clothes, squeezable meals in metal tubes. So that’s how it was back then, before the fabric of Soviet time was torn open, and people crawled out of the vortex, blinded by the neon lights of the West. That’s how it was. And now Estonia is part of the West. The “former Soviet republic” era is long over.
Tomorrow is Islandi päev — Iceland Day. It was proclaimed to coincide with the Republic of Iceland’s recognition of Estonian independence two decades ago. President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson will be on hand to celebrate one of the few occasions where his country played a significant geopolitical role in recent decades. But he will also be discussing Iceland’s EU accession negotiations with his Estonian counterpart. Talk about a wrinkle in time. Could people have even imagined this future 20 years ago? And can we even conjure up what life could be like in 20 years time? That’s what I would like to know.