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As Russia, Putin infect election debate, ‘bear’ next door makes Estonia nervous

The medieval Old Town of Tallinn, the capital of the Baltic country of Estonia, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Andy Stiny/For the Albuquerque Journal)

The medieval Old Town of Tallinn, the capital of the Baltic country of Estonia, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Andy Stiny/For the Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — People in Estonia, a country one-seventh the size of New Mexico that is located against the Gulf of Finland, tell you to visit the Museum of Occupations in Tallinn. They are not talking about a museum of jobs.

Estonia, with a population of about 1.3 million, has ping-ponged back and forth among its warring, giant neighbors for decades.

And since Vladimir Putin, Russia and NATO have been prime topics in the U.S. election and Estonia was featured in a recent “60 Minutes” piece on the renewed Russian nuclear threat, I felt it was time to finish up this column, first conceived after I visited Estonia in March.

Estonia has been occupied more often than Wall Street. This being 2016, you might think fears of another occupation, like those whose artifacts are on display at the museum that was started by an expat Estonian, would be a thing of the past.

A bust of Russian President Vladimir Putin, done in the confection marzipan, is displayed in a candy store in Tallinn, Estonia. (Andy Stiny/For the Albuquerque Journal)

A bust of Russian President Vladimir Putin, done in the confection marzipan, is displayed in a candy store in Tallinn, Estonia. (Andy Stiny/For the Albuquerque Journal)

But tensions and nervousness here on the heels of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine and recent incursions into Estonian air space by a Russian surveillance plane have brought a pledge of $3.4 billion from the Pentagon. The funding for the European Reassurance Initiative represents “a quadrupling of funds from last year to deploy heavy weapons, armored vehicles and other equipment to NATO countries in Central and Eastern Europe, to deter Russian aggression,” the New York Times reported. Estonia joined NATO in 2004.

People in Estonia cannot forget that, between the world wars, Estonia had 20 years of independence – along with neighboring Latvia and Lithuania – that ended with Soviet annexation in 1940. That most recent occupation wasn’t reversed until 1991 when the three countries, known as the Baltics, regained their independence.

Recent Russian actions are not lost on Estonians. “It makes you understand why Estonians are a little bit paranoid about Russia,” said Kadri, who worked in the hotel where I stayed.

“We are concerned,” she said. “You would be stupid not to be.”

A worn Soviet-era telephone booth is displayed in the Museum of Occupations in Tallinn, Estonia. Booths like these were scavenged by rock bands in the 1970s to make electric guitars. (Andy Stiny/For the Albuquerque Journal)

A worn Soviet-era telephone booth is displayed in the Museum of Occupations in Tallinn, Estonia. Booths like these were scavenged by rock bands in the 1970s to make electric guitars. (Andy Stiny/For the Albuquerque Journal)

But there also are Putin apologists among the many ethnic Russians who live in Estonia. “Everybody blame[s] Russia,” said a clerk, who works in a candy shop, when asked about the Ukraine situation.

The store, which sells the popular European confection marzipan, has its own de facto museum downstairs with sculptures made from the stuff depicting cartoon characters and the head of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Many may not picture him looking so sweet.

Amid any tensions, life goes on in Tallinn, which has an amazing medieval Old Town dating from the 13th century, and listed as a World Heritage Site by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

“The site preserves to a remarkable extent the medieval urban structure of building plots, streets and squares, set out in the 13th century, as well as medieval urban fabric. The radial street network is well endowed with buildings from the 14th-16th centuries. The town defenses have been preserved over large sections at their original length and height, rising to over 15 meters (almost 50 feet) in places,” the UNESCO website states.

The day I visited the Museum of Occupations, a guide was leading a tour in Estonian, explaining how Estonians escaped the country during the Russian occupation in small boats across the gulf to Finland. The Soviets later demanded the return of the boats.

Among the other displays are Soviet occupation-era telephone booths. Out in the streets, many of the booths didn’t survive the 1970s, as rock bands scavenged their metal to make some of the country’s first electric guitars.

The Soviet legacy is hard to miss here. There is a tour of a former KGB observation post, now a museum, located in a room on the 23rd floor of the Hotel Viru in the center of Tallinn.

When I visited the city of Tartu, about 2½hours away by train, I followed signs indicating a former KGB cells museum. After a mile walk, the signs petered out and three people I asked did not know of it.

In April, the Russians were bolstering their submarine fleet with increased patrols by its attack submarines in the North Atlantic, along the Scandinavian countries, in the Mediterranean Sea and near Scotland with a goal of challenging U.S. and NATO submarine strength.

In response, anti-submarine exercises were planned for this year with ships from the U.S., Poland, Netherlands, Germany, Norway, France and Britain participating.

“We are not quite back in a Cold War,” James G. Stavridis, a retired admiral and the former supreme allied commander of NATO, told the Times. “But I sure can see one from where we are standing.”

Many Estonians probably would agree.

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