Hans Tammemagi
Estonia’s Tallinn’s Old Town, is a tourist attraction in one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals, Tallinn, with church spires, thick battlements, towers and narrow cobblestone streets and filled with the Estonian language. Old Town is known for its well-preserved and authentic Hanseatic architecture.

How Estonia Preserved Its Culture

Hans Tammemagi
January 19, 2013

Recently, my wife, Allyson, and I landed in Estonia, a tiny, little-known nation tucked away in the northeast corner of Europe just south of Finland. Although my parents were Estonian, I had never visited before. Now, I was seeking my roots. For the first day we walked in Tallinn’s Old Town, captivated by one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals with church spires, thick battlements, towers and narrow cobblestone streets. I was thrilled to hear the Estonian language and see signs in Estonian.

Old Town is known for its well-preserved and authentic Hanseatic architecture.

The next day, a relative pointed to a stately Gothic house. “That was the former KGB headquarters,” she said. “This street was the most feared place in the city.” It was a reminder that most of Estonia’s history has been spent under the heel of invaders.

Estonia has a Nordic culture and its language is similar to Finnish. Estonians are educated and enjoy music, literature, and nature. But with a small population (about 1.3 million) situated in a much-coveted location, the country has seen many battles and conquests. The ruins of castles and fortresses are everywhere. Until 1991, the nation enjoyed freedom only between 1920 and 1940.

Narrow cobblestone streets cut through the capital town. (Hans Tammemagi)

Once in a while we caught glimpses of this sad past. Some cemeteries contained memorials to those who perished as Russia invaded in 1941 and again in 1944 and implemented a brutal campaign of ‘Russification.’ Many Estonians were killed or shipped to Siberia, and those who were able, fled to the west. Estonia lost about 25 percent of its population during the war, a devastating impact. The terror returned in 1949, with more than 70,000 people sent to Siberia.

Russia sought to transform Estonia and the other 13 conquered nations, including Latvia, Lithuania, Armenia, Georgia and the Ukraine, into a permanent part of their empire, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. One goal was to create a new Soviet citizen, homo sovieticus, a Russian-speaking person who believes in communism and devotedly follows party dogma.

Moscow ruled with an iron fist. Russians were forcibly settled into Estonia, and today they comprise about 26 percent of the population. Religion was banned, property confiscated, farmers forced onto large collectives, food and consumer goods became scarce with long line-ups a way of life. The KGB spied on everyone, and dealt harshly with the ‘guilty.’ A soul-destroying grayness settled over the land. For 50 years, Estonians lost their freedom and watched their culture being destroyed.

In the meantime, the Soviet system was rotting, primarily through corruption and mismanagement. When Mikhail Gorbachev introduced glasnost in the late 1980s, independence movements and protests broke out in many Soviet republics. In Estonia, remarkably, the protests were peaceful and centred around a major song festival. It was called the Singing Revolution.

Suddenly in 1991, the Soviet Union broke apart and all Soviet republics gained their independence.

I spoke with the head of the Estonian Embassy in Canada, Riho Kruuv, who explained how Estonia has made enormous political and economic strides since 1991. “We have embraced technology, which offers a great ability for expressing oneself and achieving one’s full potential.” In Estonia, voting is by Internet. Skype was invented there. WiFi is everywhere.

Kruuv is also proud of progress in the economic sphere. “Estonia has little national debt while the rest of Europe is in financial disarray,” he said. Economic growth is one of the highest in Europe. The country has a flat income tax of 21 percent. “Perhaps it’s due to our practical Nordic character,” he mused.

My relatives explained that Estonia has worked hard, almost obsessively, to protect itself from future Russian threat. Estonia joined NATO and the European Union and has built strong ties with the west, including tapping into the talent pool of those that fled. For example, the Estonian president was born in Sweden and raised in the USA; the head of the central bank grew up in Canada.

As Allyson and I witnessed while touring the country, color has returned to the land. Art is flourishing and songs are sung. It’s a happy place with hope and aspirations. And tourists are starting to flock there.

We pieced together how Estonia managed this almost miraculous transformation. First was love and pride in one’s language and traditions, and Estonians seized every opportunity to celebrate and promote them. Motivation was key, and for Estonians it came from the realization that this might be a final opportunity; darkness might descend again. An important factor was avoiding corruption. This kept spirits high and ensured resources went toward re-building the country. The Nordic characteristics of practicality, honesty and compassion were crucial.

The last evening in Estonia, we reminisced about our trip. It had been heart-warming to meet relatives and feel part of a larger family. Allyson and I had also enjoyed the history, the fortresses and old stone ruins. Cultures and languages, we realized, are treasure chests of knowledge that contribute to the richness of all society. That tiny Estonia has managed to preserve its traditions and is now blossoming seemed incredible. I realized that love of country is one of those intangible but real emotions. I was proud to be Estonian.

In March of 1944 Russia invaded Tallinn’s Old Town and Estonia by dropping bombs under “Russification.” Markers like this one throughout the town remember those who perished. (Hans Tammemagi)



Submitted by Anonymous on

Hi Ants,
How Estonia preserved its culture has a facinating subplot to the obvious.....actually two subplots.
1. how they managed to milk Moscow for cultural gains. Incredible
number of books were published during the FINACIALY GOOD TIMES! History books were not reliable but research and literature were......as they will tell you.....as long as you have a few introductory pages to LENIN...you could write as you wished.
Poetry, language reserach, even FinoUgric studies...endless!
Most of us who sent jeans "texad" to our cousins, received dozens of book in return.
Paper quality was poor but content good. Many of these books are now being reprinted without the HAIL LENIN part
2. This second sub plot and a very long and multifaceted one is what we have preserved in exile. Their students and academics are coming to Toronto by the dozens to research and record some very well preserved dialects, traditions, foods,songs,dances IN THEIR PUREST form...aspects lost during the Soviet period.

I realize that this is much more information than you wish to include in your article but might wish to tuck the info into your "to be used file"

When you are next in Toronto I would be delighted to tour you through our archives.....part of VEMU Välis Eesti Muuseum.
where you will see thousands of books from and about Eesti....from
all parts of the world,all periods and numerous languages.

We also have a stunning library of up to date publications. Copies of your books and articles are MORE than welcome there.

Its good work what you are doing!
Jõudu sulle sinu tööle.

Kotkajärve Anu

Submitted by Anonymous on

Photo caption: 'In March of 1944 Russia invaded Tallinn’s Old Town and Estonia by dropping bombs on it’s civilians under “Russification.”

It's - It is. 'its civilians' Please.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Well written and informed article, thank you Hans.
A fellow Estonian

Submitted by Anonymous on


It's a great article, but all is not as good as you might have seen or heard. I would like to point out a few things:

1. WiFi is definitely not everywhere :)

2. "Russification" is not entirely gone - young Estonians who apply for a job, but can't speak russian may be turned down because of it - even government jobs. And our capital's mayor favours the russians over Estonians.

3. All this talk about economic growth - the common man still has to put up with high cost of living and low wages. Raising a family financially in Estonia is ridiculous.

4. Corruption seems to be very high in the government.

I too am proud to be Estonian, but all this corruption, stupidity and everything else makes me want to live somewhere else.