The line between the Western and Eastern world has never been static. As a baby boomer, the line of which I was first aware was the Iron Curtain, which cast Russia, Poland, Hungary, and even parts of Germany in the East. Having spent some considerable time over the past few years between the old and the “new” lines, I have concluded that West and East are largely determined, not by political categorization or geography, but by attitude, religious tradition and the need and respect for personal freedom. Ukraine provides a good example of this where, despite the political designation as part of the West, significant portions of the population consider themselves to be Eastern. I will not try to categorize all of the places I have visited, but can comfortably state that, despite its years in the Russian Empire and its Eastern location on the map, Estonia is now and probably always was part of the West. (See map).
Given Estonia’s history and the unfolding events in Ukraine, on my recent teaching visit to Estonia, we expected to find a high level of concern regarding Russia’s intentions. While the individuals we met did voice some concern and held a wide range of views on the subject, the common attitude seemed to be “NATO will protect us, so why worry?” The most concerned individual I talked to was one of my students who was a reservist in Estonia’s military and did not want to be called up. While Estonia has a significant ethnic Russian population, several of the people we met with voiced their opinion on how much better things are in Estonia today than they were when the Soviets ran the country.
Our 2014 teaching assignment to Estonia was at the University of Tartu located in the city of Tartu. Estonia’s second largest city with a population of approximately 95,000, Tartu exists primarily as a university town. Tartu is located in the southeast part of Estonia, less than 40 miles from the Russian border, and has all the energy and charm one would expect from a city whose dominant age group is below 25. But first, a little background.
Estonia – The Place
Estonia is one of the three Baltic States, Latvia and Lithuania being the other two. Both Latvia and Estonia, despite being reasonably well defined geographically, have spent most of their existence as part of someone else’s empire. Estonia borders the Baltic in the North and shares a large border lake with Russia (Lake Peipsi) on the East. Roughly the size of the combined areas of Vermont and New Hampshire, Estonia shares its non-water border with Russia and Latvia. More than a third of the country’s population of approximately 1.34 million lives in the capital city of Tallinn, so the countryside beyond is sparsely populated. The eastern half of the country is comprised of mile after mile farmland and pine forests and is dotted with small towns, most of which have 50 or fewer houses and no commercial buildings. Roughly three quarters of the population are ethnic Estonians, with the remaining quarter comprised primarily of Russians. In neighboring Latvia, by contrast, ethnic Latvians are approaching minority status.
A side note on driving: The roads Estonia are well-built and safe, and there is very little traffic. An international driver’s license is required, as licenses issued by a U.S. state are not recognized as valid. Most surprising is the scarcity of gas stations, which are few and far between, usually located in remote locations, and sometimes have no gas. It is important to note that towns with gas stations are specifically identified on the map. If driving in Estonia – buy gasoline wherever you can!
With regard to energy, Estonia is mostly self-sufficient as a result of large in-country oil shale reserves. Two power plants fueled by the oil from these reserves provide 90% of the country’s power. Several relatively new wind turbines face the Baltic Sea in the North, and biomass plants, which operate like large wood stoves, make use of the refuge of the timber industry. Regular sized wood stoves are used in many homes, and a neatly stacked pile of wood outside a home is a common site. One of my students explained that children in Estonia are taught to stack wood at an early age and that a sloppy wood pile is a disgrace.
Estonia – The History
An active Bronze Age culture existed along the Baltic dating back to approximately 5000 B.C. By 800-900 A.D., people in what is now Estonia were actively involved in trade with the Byzantine Empire and the Arab World. From approximately 1000 A.D. onward, Estonia was a pawn in the power struggles among Denmark, Sweden, the Lithuanian–Polish Commonwealth and, later, between Russia and Germany in a series of wars not generally addressed in college survey courses of European history. Some of the low points (from the Estonian point of view) were the conquest by the Teutonic Knights in the 13th Century, the Livonian War of the mid-16th century and the Great Northern War between Sweden (Charles XII) and Russia (Peter the Great) of the early 18th Century. The people who had the most the most influence, however, especially from an economic and cultural perspective, were the Germans.
One of the side benefits of religion, wars and the concentration of wealth in a few people is the great sightseeing opportunities they provide in later centuries, and Estonia is no exception. Were it not for the Lutheran Church and the German nobility, there would be little to see as a tourist in Estonia. As a result of those institutions, large baronial estates exist throughout the country, several of which are now in the process of being renovated to serve as hotels or resorts. We stayed in a particularly nice estate that was purchased and renovated by an American Artist – Kau Manor. It may not be worth a separate trip to Estonia, but if in the neighborhood, it is worth a night’s stay.
Back to history, when Sweden lost the Great Northern War, Estonia became part of the Russian Empire. Germany, however, remained the dominant financial influence on the region. One of the most interesting developments of this period was the emergence in Estonia of song fests in the early 19th century. These song fests are large gatherings where people sing about the country and its culture. The tradition continues to this day, and we had an opportunity to attend one put on by the University of Tartu student body. There is obvious reverence and pride, especially when the National Anthem is sung. It was, and presumably still is, a way of celebrating the concept of Estonia.
Though its boundaries have been reasonably well-defined for centuries, the Republic of Estonia was first recognized as an independent country by the treaty of Tartu in 1920, after Estonians fought and won a war for independence from Russia. Estonia’s independence was short-lived, however, and came to an end in 1940 when Eastern Europe was divided between Russia and Germany under the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union and was absorbed, again, into the Russian Empire. It was not until 1991, with the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc, that Estonia was again recognized as an independent country. Thus, like most European countries, it took centuries of dynastic warfare before Estonia emerged as an identifiable political entity with relatively static geographic borders. Estonia became one of the first countries in the former East to become a full member of the European Union.
Estonia – Today
The rule of law is well established in Estonia. We had the good fortune to spend some time with a justice of Estonia’s Supreme Court and, thus, got some real insight into the country’s legal system. The Supreme Court has a total of seventeen justices, but most cases are heard by a panel of three. As in most civil law countries, oral argument is rare. The dominance of the rule of law and the corresponding lack of corruption is verified by Transparency International, which places Estonia 28th out of 172 countries in lack of corruption. For comparison pur-poses, the United States is 19th.
Another meaning-ful indication of the lack of corruption and the corre-sponding percep-
tion that a level playing field pro-vides a fair chance for success in a competitive environment was that none of my students wants to leave Estonia. In stark contrast, my students during previous teaching assignments in Russia, Bulgaria and other places often voiced their desire to move to the West. The retention of young people, especially of the caliber I was teaching, bodes well for Estonia’s future.
Estonia gives the general impression of being a prosperous, if not a rich, country. The Estonians are quite innovative and adept at high tech manufacturing. For example, Skype is an Estonian innovation, and there are free Skype stations in the Tallinn Airport. The country, perhaps attributable in part to its relatively small geographical size and relatively flat topography, has 100% wireless coverage. There also appears to be little poverty in the country. In the more rural areas, the homes seemed in good repair and most of the automobiles were of relatively recent vintage. We saw very few homeless people.
The population, unlike many of the other places we have visited, has stabilized and may even be growing. We were told that many young people, especially those with minimal skills and education, immigrate to Scandinavian countries, but that the better educated people tend to stay in Estonia. Our anecdotal observation was that there was something of a baby boom ongoing, as there seemed to be an unusually high number of toddlers, baby carriages, strollers, and pregnant women. This may be due to the fact that we were in a University town with a lot of young people, but it was still extraordinary.
One of the faculty members at the law school had re-emigrated from the United States. His parents left Estonia following WWII, but he returned in 2004 and he is now a dual citizen, married, with two young children. Remarkably, he was able to regain title to an apartment building the Soviets had expropriated from his family, though decades without proper maintenance left the apartment of little value.
Lutheranism is the foremost religion in Estonia, having been introduced by the Swedes and the Germans. The countryside is dominated by Lu-theran churches in various stages of repair, and many are deserted. We attended a Luther-an service on the Saturday night before Easter and there were about 40 parishioners in attendance. This was in contrast to Sunday service we attended in the Russian Orthodox Church in Tallinn the next day (Orthodox and Roman Easter were on the same Sunday this year), which was well-attended. We met, quite by accident, an evangelical minister from the United States who has been coming to Estonia for several years. While we had no way to judge factually, he asserted that the evangelical movement is taking hold in Estonia.
We reached Estonia via a connecting flight from Frankfurt that flew into Estonia’s capital city, Tallinn. Tallinn is beautiful and, for good reason, is a mandatory stop on all Baltic cruises. Its old city has been magnificently restored and is included as a UNESCO World Heritage site. After a cold, wet winter in the eastern United States, we arrived in Estonia just as spring was arriving; the days were a little cool, and with the exception of one day, were beau-tifully sunny. The days were also long, with the sun rising by 5:00 A.M. and twilight still linger-ing at 6:30 p.m. Spring unfolded before us. The trees were only budding when we arrived but were almost in full leaf by the time
We spent a weekend in Tallinn and opted to stay in a bed & breakfast built in the 15th century. It was an intriguing spot with one exception — the stairway and many of the doorways were built for the average size person of the 15th century. This is also true of many of the Old Town buildings. If you are an average size person of the 21st century, the difference will be clear. You will hit your head- often!
Tartu And The University Of Tartu
Tartu is a university town, and with a population of approximately 95,000, is Estonia’s second largest metropolitan area. Between 18,000 and 20,000 of Tartu’s residents are students. Add in faculty, other employees, associated research facilities, and the University is the town.
The University was founded by a direc-tive of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden in 1632, at which time Estonia was part of the Swedish empire. The Univer-sity runs along both sides of the Emajogi River and architec-turally is quite impressive. Many of the University’s buildings date from the early 19th Century, although a few of its buildings (including the law facility) date from the Soviet era and have been, thankfully, remodeled. The center of the town is a large pedestrian-only square, highlighted by the “students kissing” statue.
Our living quarters were in an area of town in the midst of gentrification. Our apartment was recently remodeled, both inside and out, and was easily the nicest living quarters we have had in this program. The neighborhood around our apartment was known as “soup town” because all the streets were named after vegetables. Among other intriguing aspects, there was a brewery with a retail outlet a stone’s throw from our front door. Another intrigu-ing aspect of soup town was Riku, a stray dog who had become a favorite of all the residents. When he died, the neighborhood com-missioned a full-size statue and placed it at his usual spot.
We were extremely fortunate to be in Tartu during student days, which were kicked off with a song fest. The next day brought a parade of all the University’s fraternities and sororities. Although the most active portion of these groups is the current student body, people belong and participate for life. I became friendly with some of the members of Rotalia, which is one of the largest fraternities. The youngest members were 18 year-old pledges, while the oldest members were in their 80’s. Each fraternity and sorority has a distinctive hat. They march through the campus and to the town hall where the mayor is required to drink a beer and then turn the town over to the students for the week. They next march to the University’s main administration building where the President of the University also drinks a beer and turns over the University to the students. Finally, they march to their respective houses and party until midnight at which time they open the door to all comers. My Rotalia friends encouraged us to come, but I am afraid our post midnight party days are behind us.
The rest of the week-long student days is basically a party with various contests, races, fireworks, a night where everyone dresses as a witch. I did miss a contest I wanted to see that challenged students to make the tallest pile of books and stand on it without it collapsing.
I have now refined my course, which is titled “Introduction to International Business Transactions,” to a point where I am quite proud of it. The goal of the course is to introduce students to the world of international business transactions and to stress the importance of those transactions, especially for a small country like Estonia. I had a core class in Tartu of about 16 students, with additional students joining in from time to time to try out their English.
I really enjoyed them. Their English was excellent, and they had no problem correcting me when I made a mistake regarding the local laws. We had an end of class oral presentation session where the reports were concise and creative.
Likewise, the faculty was supportive and friendly. They took us on many excursions, hiking in a forest preserve, visits to nearby estates, and several lunches and dinners. We reciprocated with a formal dinner. It was, all in all, a wonderful experience.
It is impossible to have spent April 2014 fewer than 50 miles from the Russian border and not have an opinion on the events in Ukraine. Moreover, my teaching program has afforded me the opportunity to meet and talk with many Ukrainians. Rufus and I spent two weeks in Dnipropetrovs’k, Ukraine, at the Academy of Customs in November 2010. The Customs service is a uniformed service, and the students at the Academy of Customs are comparable to the officer cadets and midshipmen at the United States service academies. Like our officer cadets and midshipmen, the students in the Academy of Customs are intelligent and patriotic and are receiving a free education in return for future years of service.
We had numerous discussions in 2010 with these students regarding the future of Ukraine. All of them were committed to the fight against corruption, and many were vocal that they felt more comfortable with the Russian way of doing things than with the Western way. Many of them had at least one Russian parent. The east/west split (philosophically) was generally along the east/west divide (geographically) of Ukraine. I provide this anecdotal background because the revulsion towards corruption and the east/west split were active topics of conversations. The current Russian administration may have encouraged and escalated these tensions, but they are not a pretext. I have no trouble accepting that the “separatists” are Ukrainians who believe in what they are saying. I quote from my 2010 article on Ukraine:
[Ukraine] is exciting for many reasons which I will try to explain, but most of all because it is a large, resource-rich place which could become one of the most substantial, richest countries in Europe or dissolve into chaos and sectionalism.
The most disturbing aspect of the current situation in Ukraine is that it was allowed to reach the boiling point. Active engagement and some reasonable solution, maybe even a plebiscite or orderly referendum and certainly a more concerted effort to change the climate of corruption could have led to a solution and avoided the current crisis. In my opinion, the U.S. and other Western diplomats were not paying adequate attention to the situation.
Where To Next?
I am undecided where I will next teach my course. I have been asked to go back to Bulgaria and may well do so, as we have developed close friendships there. We would really like to round out our experience in the former Yugoslavia by going to Bosnia-Herzegovina or Montenegro. Also, teaching in Romania, Albania or Lithuania would be exciting. Perhaps most compelling, however, would be another visit to Russia. My first assignment, almost ten years ago, was in St. Petersburg. It would be interesting to revisit that country and to see how, if at all, attitudes have changed over the past decade.