THE ESTONIANS WORRY ME SO. They worry me so because they are so worried. “Are we next?” they think. To which, I mouth, but do not utter aloud, “Get over yourselves.”
Part of it is just me talking myself out of worst-case scenarios. But the other part of it is true. Estonia was never that important in the real world game of Stratego. Even Peter the Great was a bit surprised when he won it off Sweden three hundred years ago, something like, “Huh, what’s this?” He had only wanted Ingria, and yet wound up with Estonia after defeating Sweden’s Rambo King Carl XII, a sort of imperial freebie, the way a Chinese take-out restaurant upon receiving a large order might throw in an extra quart of wonton soup.
But what about all of those wars, all of that tragic history? It is true that throughout the years many armies crisscrossed Estonia, but what people forget is that most of the time they were heading somewhere else. Sometimes they were on their way to Saint Petersburg (under its various names). Other times, they were driving to Berlin. Yet they rarely — if ever — went to Estonia just for the sake of going to Estonia. Which is not to say that Estonia is unattractive. Not at all. It is a lovely country, and Tallinn has a magnificent Old Town, with one of Europe’s oldest continuously running apothecaries, where you can view and photograph medieval medicinal cures, like mummy juice and deer penis, but … even with such delightful trappings, most visitors tend to stay for just a few days before going somewhere else. That’s just how it is.
And that should make us sleep more comfortably at night, right? We should be able to curl up like that little cute bunny in Goodnight Moon and drift off into dreamland without mistaking that noisy truck in the alleyway for an invading tank like I used to when I lived in Tallinn, and Tartu, and Viljandi. Or, I’d hear a crackling sound and look out at the hills and think, “Oh, no, it’s started again …” when it was just fireworks, or hear the hum of a convoy down by the lake and run over to check it out, just to see it was the local hillbillies racing their leased cars around on the ice.
Call me paranoid, but I bet I’m not the only one with such an overactive imagination. The US is sending jets to patrol Baltic airspace, in part to calm those jittery nerves. Still, I have to ask, if Ukraine is being dismembered, and people seem to feel the Baltics are under some existential threat, then what does that portend for the rest of Europe? Because, like I said, Moscow never took over Estonia just for the sake of taking over Estonia. They always took over Estonia on their way to taking over something else. If you are worried about Russian troops marching through Tallinn, might as well imagine them in Budapest, Prague, and Berlin. Because if history repeats itself, then that’s history repeating itself.
I have no idea why they would attempt to do something like that again though. That would be profoundly stupid. Think about it. It’s almost been a century since Tallinn’s own Roman von Ungern-Sternberg became a White Russian war lord in Outer Mongolia. It’s been slightly over two decades since Dzhokar Dudaev, who once commanded the 326th Heavy Bomber Division in Tartu, returned to his home in Chechnya to declare the republic’s independence from Moscow. In the past 100 years, empires centered in Moscow have crumbled twice. The chaos and carnage has been spectacular and absurd. And the best its current leadership can come up with is, “Let’s try it again”?
No, no. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. This just can’t be. It can’t be because I thought Putin was supposed to be a clever KGB man. A diabolical mastermind. An evil genius. A real-life Bond villain. He’s the one pulling all the strings, faking left and hooking right. Putin couldn’t be that stupid, could he? Could he?