when estonia wasn’t free


Leonid Brezhnev, or “Blahblah,” General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982.

ON A COLD WINTER’S NIGHT, not too many weeks ago, I was enjoying a sauna with my eight-year-old daughter Anna when she turned to me and asked me a question.

“Daddy, who was president when I was born?”

“Toomas Hendrik Ilves,” I answered. “And he’s still the president of Estonia believe it or not.”

The inquisitive child thought for a while and then asked me another. “But who was president when you were born?”

“Jimmy Carter,” I said.

“But who was the president of Estonia when Mommy was born?”

Now we had entered more complicated territory. “Estonia had no president when your mother was born,” I answered. “It was part of the Soviet Union, and the leader at that time was named Leonid Brezhnev.”

“What?!” She cocked a very bewildered eyebrow at me. “Leonid Blahblah?! But that sounds like, that sounds like, well, like … like some kind of Russian name!”

“He was Russian, I think.”

“How the heck could Leonid Blahblah be president of Estonia? That doesn’t make any sense!”

It’s a very curious trend I have noticed about my daughter’s generation of Estonians. They cannot conceive of an Estonia that was not free. And not only that, they cannot conceive of an Estonia that was led by anyone with a vaguely Russian-sounding name. Just the fact that the Soviet premier’s name in the 1970s was Leonid Brezhnev, or “Blahblah” as she called him, troubled her because it sounded so foreign and suspicious. Of course, her name is Petrone, but with all these books going around with the name Petrone on it, this southern Italian patronym has since been co-opted into the Estonian mainstream, like Keränen or Šmigun.

The foreign policy of the current Russian Federation has not helped matters for little girls like Anna. I do not preach at home, in fact, current affairs are rarely discussed, but that hasn’t stopped her fellow little people from gathering outside the doors of the school to whisper among each other about their nation’s enemies. Russia is treated at best with a cautious disdain. Once, after I went to Moscow, an Estonian boy told me that I had been crazy. “Don’t you know — they kill Estonians there!” Estonian Russian classmates are treated with a mixture of camaraderie and pity. “Sure, he’s a Russian …. but he’s super, super friendly!”

All of this comes to a head on Independence Day, when even girls her age must make acquaintance with their country’s history of foreign subjugation to Russia. Because it was Russia that Estonia gained its independence from in 1918. It was the crumbling Russian Empire and its rising Bolshevik successor against which the new Estonian republic was idealized. And in spite of the fact that it was Lenin who first recognized Estonian statehood, or that these empires had multicultural leaderships that included Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Georgians, and, yes, even Estonians, these birth pains of separation from Russia continue to haunt Estonians to this day.

Even those were born when Toomas Hendrik Ilves was president.

“But who was the real leader of Estonia when Mommy was born?” my daughter asked me again.

“Well, a powerful man in Estonia at that time was the head of the Estonian Communist Party,” I said. “And his name was Johannes Käbin.”

“Ah, Johannes.” She paused to let the name sink in. “Johannes Käbi* was the leader of Estonia. Normaalne.”

  • “Käbi” is the Estonian word for pine cone.


bernie sanders’ danish dream

foto-38THE SCANDINAVIAN MODEL, as it is known, is the metric by which the American left measures its own inferiority, juxtaposed against nationalist claims of leading in perpetuity the free world. Hence, the deep crisis and cracks in the American psyche — the greatest nation in the world isn’t so great after all.

What to do? A) Question the metrics of greatness — perhaps we are actually greater than we think we are, and those other countries with their cradle-to-grave welfare benefits are suckers; B) Try to apply the instruments of greatness at home in all 50 American states. Let’s Scandinavianize Vermont. And Massachusetts. And, much later, Texas.

Some American Republicans are A people. Some American Democrats are B.

B also stands for Bernie Sanders.

[CNN: Bernie Sanders’ American Dream is in Denmark]

Having lived in and adjacent to the Scandinavian Model for the past 15 years, I now find the simplicity of the American fondness for its supposed supremacy to be comforting, like a memory of a childhood day spent playing with the ocean beach sands. It was very likely the idea that the Scandinavians knew how to do it better that prompted me to come to Denmark and Finland to study. Yet now, when I think of Denmark, from my time spent there, I think of its shameless decadence first, not its self-professed levels of contentedness, or thriving public sector. If Bernie Sanders dreams of Danish welfare benefits, my Danish dreams were far more erotic in nature, for Copenhagen is a city that outdoes Paris when it comes to lust and longing.

In Copenhagen, I have seen too many men try to pick up women on the train with poetic one-liners. “I like your look, you are very sexy, yes?” In Copenhagen, I indulged in decriminalized street drugs. In Copenhagen, I spent nearly every night of that autumn as a study abroad student inebriated. Later, as an adult man with a family returned on a business trip, I ventured forth into a Friday night to witness a war zone of debauchery. Nothing had changed. I recalled how helpful civilians would drag the passed out young men and women of the greater Copenhagen metro area to the front of the train station to sleep. One literally walked among piles of young women sleeping off terrible hangovers. Once, I even encountered a Danish girl lying in the gutter clawing among the trash, drunk. I helped her out to safety.

And that is the key word that came with that shameless Danish decadence. Safety. Just as I felt safe nodding off on a train after too many beers so many years ago, only to be woken by a polite police officer — a woman, who was actually concerned for my safety — young Danes felt comfortable partying in the city to the point that they could no longer move themselves, certain that a well-meaning Samaritan would drag them closer to home. Youth was allowed to roar in such a way in Denmark because the people felt comfortable among one another, trusted each other. This was not Penn Station in New York City, where you wander past armed guards and try not to look them in the eye. That deadened anonymity, that uncomfortable relationship with a militarized authority, just didn’t exist in Denmark. In America, we had different instincts. That is why Denmark still seems like such a dream.

päewaleht, nineteen forty

A good pastiche of Estonia’s schizophrenic spring and summer of 1940, when the country was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union. Prior to the Soviet takeover in mid-June one can see advertisements for American films, a notice about the Swedish king’s birthday, and Mickey Mouse cartoons in the daily editions of Päewaleht. After that, the headlines went red. There are messages from Comrade Stalin, coverage of speeches by homegrown Communists like Olga Lauristin, and even advertisements for Russian lessons and Soviet flags. Necessary items for the new order. It lasted nearly a half century.

today’s snow

WINTER IS WINTER unless of course it is not wintry. Then it is something else, something muddy brown, dreary, and derelict of hope.  Since the January freeze went up in thaw, and the skiing with it, I’ve been waiting for winter’s return. It came back yesterday, with a heavy wet snow that fell under a temperature of about -1 degrees Celsius. There was fun to be had, and we attempted a snowman, though our neighbors bested us with an upside down figure with a soot-black mouth and eyes and buttons leading upward, feet in the air. Our snowman has since collapsed with some melt; it looks as if he’s just been shot.

I am vaguely aware of current news but I do not find myself drawn into it. Sports, politics, unsettled and dissatisfied people. It seems that the more people engage the public sphere, the more dissatisfied they become. Hence I find refuge in solitary undertakings. Or the pleasantries of home life. I went skiing today, but the snow was just not right. It was too warm, it gave way too easily. When the pole planted, it often sank into the slush. But a deeper freeze is promised for the remainder of the week. By February end, my ski dreams may still be realized. They may not have to change the Tartu Marathon route either.