Fun on the Baltic Riviera.

By

is the author of Chasing the Sea, God Lives in St. Petersburg, and
The Father of All Things, which will be published in March.

The paths available to nations coping with the grim and often
sanguinary legacies of communism are few. There is the Russian way:
Retain, defend, and celebrate the most singularly awful aspects of
communist rule. There is the Uzbek way: Swap the name of the Uzbek
communist party for the People's Democratic Party of Uzbekistan;
carry on forthwith. There is the Vietnamese way: Preserve
communism's ceremonial, revered-elders overlay; disown most of the
economic advice. And there is the Chinese way: Change everything,
admit nothing. In light of all this, it is sadly difficult to
imagine a post- communist nation achieving governmental
transparency, an uncorrupted economy, and lives for its citizens
untouched by the tentacles of a busy secret police force.But consider Estonia. I had been hearing of the amazements of this
nation and, in particular, of its capital, Tallinn, for some time:
an Old City whose preserved medieval architecture functions as a
Gothic time machine; a friendly populace with an enterprising work
ethic (the Internet phone service Skype was an Estonian company,
bought last year by eBay for more than

$2 billion); a good-naturedly hedonistic nightlife; and a number of
excellent restaurants. I once had the rare honor of being mugged
three times in one day in one former Soviet capital--the last
coming at the sticky-fingered hands of the police themselves--so,
when looking over a Lonely Planet guidebook, the first place to
which I usually turn is the "Dangers & Annoyances" section. While
warnings abound for its Baltic neighbor Latvia ("It definitely pays
to be streetwise here"), Estonia rates no admonitions at all.

The twentieth century was not kind to Estonia, providing it with
both Nazi and Soviet occupations. Yet, while its history as an
independent nation-state has been sporadic and brief (it spent
several centuries under Russian and, before that, Swedish rule),
Estonians themselves form one of the oldest extant cultures in
Europe. A people closely related to the Finns, Estonians have
existed in what is today called Estonia since the time of Cheops.
Estonia was recently rated the sixteenth-least corrupt country in
Europe, far ahead of any other former Soviet state and better than
founding EU member Italy. Its bow- tied and owlishly appealing
president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves--a Swedish-born ethnic Estonian who
grew up in the United States--has been known to speak of Estonia
forming "a Huntingtonian subcivilization different from both its
southern and eastern neighbors."

In September, I traveled to Estonia--and found what appeared to be
paradise. In Tallinn's airport, passing through customs took
seven-and-a-half minutes. Compared with any other European capital,
or even any midsized U.S. city, traffic was laughably light.
Mercedes-Benz 350s and Lexus SUVs prowled the cobbled streets of
Tallinn's truly lovely Old City. Technologically, Estonia seemed
like a planet from a Flash Gordon serial: Clicking on my AirPort
icon just about anywhere I went in Tallinn resulted in a Homeric
catalog of free wireless providers, and I learned that newspapers
can be purchased from vending machines with a cell phone and that
voting can be done online via a national- identity card. Tallinn's
striking Museum of Occupations, which details Estonia's dreary
experiences under Nazi and Soviet rule, was rigorously detailed and
scholarly while, at the same time, admirably restrained. (It also
treated frankly the matter of many Estonians' collaboration with the
Nazis.)

As for Tallinn's nightlife, it seemed genuinely fun and
welcoming--if, that is, one could overlook the drunken Scottish men
giving one another comradely punches in the face on their way to
the next strip club. One night at a disco, a woman, for whom the
phrase "out of my league" had been invented, waved me onto the
dance floor to join her for an encore of "Welcome to Estonia," a
popular local anthem sung to the tune of James Brown's "Living in
America." Tallinn boasted what I can say were--without fear of
hyperbole--the most jaw- droppingly beautiful women I have ever
seen in my life. (One Estonia-boosting tract cheerfully explains:
"The concentration of beautiful and interesting women in Estonia is
apparently among the highest in the world.") Perhaps relatedly, the
one time I was approached by a young Estonian looking to unload
some drugs, the narcotic in question turned out to be Viagra.

My last night in Tallinn, a cash machine captured my bank card.
While I pounded on the screen, an Estonian man approached, whipped
out his cell phone, called the bank's 24-hour help line, and
arranged for me to pick up my card the next morning at the bank's
main branch. I thanked him, not quite believing my card would be
there. The next morning, I turned up at Hansapank to find at the
help desk a six-foot-two-inch Estonian Amazon so glowingly blonde
she appeared to be irradiated. I made sheepish mention of my
plight, upon which she smiled, reached into her desk, withdrew an
envelope, and, after a cursory scan of my passport, handed me my
bank card.

Nevertheless, I wondered: Was Estonia's stylishness actually some
geoeconomic version of keeping up with the Joneses of the Western
world? I was told more than once in Tallinn that the luxury sedans
tooling around the city were, in many cases, piloted by people who
could not afford them. I had noticed Tallinn's many bookstores and
art galleries, but, when I actually spoke to some Estonian writers
and artists, I was told that the nation's literary and art circles,
while lively, were often as cliquish and status-conscious as a SoHo
loft party. The story of Skype, the pride of Estonia, is also more
complicated than that of a brainy Estonian phoenix rising from a
heap of Soviet ash. Skype originated when a duo of Swedish
investors came to Estonia in search of cheap programming talent.
So, while the talent was local--and Estonians did indeed write the
code--the funding and the idea behind that funding was not.

Thus, a couple of months later, I went back to Tallinn during the
winter to discover a meteorologically literal darkness at noon. I
was forced to note, for the first time, that Tallinn nearly shares
a line of latitude with Iqaluit, the capital of the Canadian Arctic
territory of Nunavut. The city's stripped trees stood against an
unrelentingly sunless gray canvas. Drizzle was constant; it had
apparently begun raining two weeks before I arrived. Tallinn's main
square was decked out to look like one of those dispiriting little
U.S. towns where Christmas is celebrated year-round. The people of
Tallinn themselves were glumly hidden within designer winter coats
as puffy as souffles. The clubs, cafes, and restaurants where I had
so enjoyed myself had names that now seemed desperate and
effortful: Bar Bogart, Hollywood, Stereo.

I sought out Scott Diel, the editor-in-chief of Tallinn's City
Paper, the Baltic region's must-read English-language magazine.
Diel, a former Peace Corps volunteer once stationed in Estonia, has
spent ten years living in the country, and I hoped he could revive
my flagging admiration for his adopted home. Estonia, I told him,
was without question the most pleasant and most advanced of the
former Soviet republics--but could beating out Kazakhstan and
Armenia really be considered that wondrous?

"The stuff you see in the press about Estonia," Diel told me, "about
the Miracle Republic--most of it really is true. Estonia's
unofficial goal is to become one of the five richest nations in
Europe." Could that happen? "They'll never be richer than
Switzerland, but it's not impossible to imagine that they'll come
close. Estonia is still pretty homogeneous, with a government that
agrees on the core issues. That's Estonia's secret. It's not that
divided. Estonia wants to be Western." Diel's biggest impetus for
staying in Estonia, he told me, other than his predictably lovely
Estonian wife, was "lifestyle." But, when I expressed some
curiosity about possibly moving with my girlfriend to Tallinn, Diel
advised: "Make sure she comes in the summer."

Estonia, I initially thought, had managed to forge a real place for
its ethnic Russians--unlike many former Soviet republics, whose
ethnic populace sneers at the Russians with whom they grew up.
Today, 26 percent of Estonia's inhabitants are ethnic Russians.
Yet, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western nations had to
urge Estonia not to expel them. Estonia didn't offer most of its
Russians automatic citizenship; Russians born in Estonia before
1992 have to pass a language test and suffer questions about
Estonia's new constitution. This sounds much easier than it is:
Estonian is a Finno-Ugric language--which means that, other than
Hungarian and Finnish, it has no widely spoken relatives--and the
U.S. State Department ranks it as one of the world's more difficult
languages. ("You have to be really smart to be Estonian," one
Estonian told me.) Many Russians have refused to take the
citizenship test, and a good number of those who have still don't
fully identify as Estonian. "Russian children," an emigre Estonian
businessman named Juri Estam wrote recently in City Paper, "are
being raised in Estonia in the spirit of denial."

In one of Tallinn's central parks stands the Tonismae Monument,
which is home to a bronze statue of a Soviet soldier. This was
thrown up during Soviet times to commemorate the "liberation" of
Estonia from Nazi rule on September 22, 1944. In actual fact, the
Soviets crushed the five-day-old independent government of Otto
Tief and shot or dispatched to Siberia most of his ministers. The
statue is, today, an annual gathering place for Tallinn's Russian
population, most of whom refuse to acknowledge the reality of the
malign and unwanted Soviet takeover--perhaps believing, however
subconsciously, that Estonia remains a Russian colonial possession.
This feeling is not mutual. Most Estonians loathe the statue--Estam
was actually arrested in May when, during a counterdemonstration,
he crossed a police barricade in an attempt to display the national
flag of Estonia in what he calls "a respectful manner"--but the
Estonian government refuses, for some reason, to remove it. Some
claim this is because many within Estonia's parliament are unduly
influenced by Russians; others maintain that the politics of
confrontation is simply not the Estonian way. All of which meant
that the tolerant ethnic wonderland I had wanted to see on my first
visit was in fact riven by some depressingly familiar
complications.

"Estonians would kill me for saying this," Hillar Lauri, a
Canadian-born ethnic Estonian who relocated to Tallinn in 1991,
told me, "but it is essential to the Estonian psyche to say that we
are not Russian. And this country is about proving that Estonia is
not Russia. How do you prove it? By working harder, by reforming,
by changing." Near-Shoring, Lauri's Tallinn-based company, does
accounting for non-Estonian businesses operating in Estonia. His
work, combined with his Canadian upbringing, gives him a panoramic
view of both how far Estonia has come and how much further it needs
to go. "Any area that is state-regulated," he went on, "is corrupt.
Hospitals and health care are terribly unreformed areas. ... But it
takes time. There are a thousand Soviet mindsets that linger."

"Estonia was an independent republic between the two world wars,"
Andrus Viirg, the director for Foreign Investments and Trade
Promotion for Enterprise Estonia, explained to me. "This mentality
has helped us because of the existing memory of a market economy
and democracy. The cultural closeness to Finland also helped. We
were able to watch Finnish TV. No territory under the Soviet Union
had this opportunity. After regaining our independence, it was very
easy for the government to proceed with Western ideas."

Nations may or may not get the governments they deserve, but
Estonia's has been stable and occasionally inspired. Its first
independent president, the reform-minded Lennart Meri, did much to
create Estonia's vaunted democratic transparency. Meri, who died in
2006, referred to politicians who got rich while in office as "scum
on the surface of the state cauldron" and once held an apologetic
press conference within a public toilet when he learned that a
Japanese diplomat had complained about Estonia's then-appalling
(though typically Soviet) public restrooms. Meri's 2001 successor,
Arnold Ruutel--a former communist widely renowned for the snores he
pulled from audiences while speaking--had a mildly scandal-plagued
tenure as president, but, even under his decrepit hand, Estonia
joined the European Union and its economy grew at a rate of around
6 percent per year. Ilves, the current president, is widely
admired, and his fondness for polymathic rhetoric has made it clear
there will be no looking back. The Estonian economy, Viirg told me,
especially in terms of foreign investment, "is very strong." Most
of this investment--eleven billion euros between 1992 and 2005--has
come from Sweden and Finland. "If we start calculating foreign
investment per capita," Viirg went on, "Estonia is [one of the
very] strongest performers among the new EU member countries."
Estonia's GDP growth is currently running at 10 percent per year,
which places it in the ranks of China and India, with virtually
none of those countries' festering social ills.

It should be said that, even during Soviet times, Estonia had what
was by far the highest standard of living among all the Soviet
republics; it was where Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn went to complete The
Gulag Archipelago in peace and quiet. Its success, then, is not
really all that surprising. What is surprising is that Estonia
suffered occupation by two of the twentieth century's most
monstrous regimes and, rather than succumb to the sickness of
totalitarianism, developed some rather potent antibodies. In
Estonia, the secret police basically no longer exist; most of the
investigations headed by kapo, its internal security force, are
focused on software piracy rather than dissidents' e-mail. Beyond
the velvet ropes of its exclusive nightclubs, Estonia might not be
the most exuberant place on earth, and its winters may be the
atmospheric equivalent of a Bergman film, but it is blessed in many
more important areas. Estonia's greatest blessing might well turn
out to be the degree to which its hard-won liberty has heightened
the awareness of what its people can now freely achieve in this
world. In the decidedly unmessianic Estonian air is something I
have not sensed in my own country in a long time. It feels, in a
word, sane.

By tom bissell

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