Bird Droppings from Estonia (1)
Archived Articles 24 Nov 2006 Hilary BirdEWR
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Winter dress rehearsal

In my experience, Estonian weather has a habit at the beginning of November of trying out for winter. When I got back from the UK the temperature in Tallinn was just a little cooler, but, within the week, it had plummeted and then we had major snow. Tallinn got its knickers in a twist, having been caught with its pants down (excuse the mixed metaphors!) and there were traffic jams and vehicles bumping into one another. Quite like the UK.

I was also in a bit of a tiz as Bob had put my winter tyres on Cho Cho San (my car). Three of 'em that is. The fourth did not have two Toyota nuts and, despite having UK equipment and being in tyres for many years, Bob couldn't budge the wheel. So, I took it to the Toyota garage and explained (in a mixture of Estonian, English and auto-speak) that I wanted the fourth summer tyre replaced with my winter tyre fastened with the proper nuts. This seemed quite a simple request to me but the usual round up of "eksperts" appeared - three chaps (two in suits, one in overalls) came to look at my wearisome wheel. They were curious to know who changed my wheels. I explained "a British friend who is an expert." This was greeted with serious looks and nodding of heads. The verdict seemed to be that my assessment of a need for new nuts was indeed correct and I made an appointment. Gone are the days when I just sailed in and got it done on the spot!

Well, the day of the appointment it was perishing and we had about 15 inches of snow. Thank god I left the car in gear, I thought smugly to myself as I waded my way up past my shins in the white stuff towards the inundated motor. Then panic! I could not get the door open! I fetched my WD40 to loosen up the lock and gave it a good squirt. More fumbling but no tumbling. Then I realised what was up — I'd been trying to get into the wrong car. Ahem. So. I got the winter kit out of the car, brushed the snow off old Cho Cho San and trundled gingerly off to the garage.

At the garage I took my place in the customers lounge. It's very bright and Scandinavian with functional tables and chairs, a coffee machine, pens (the cheap sort that they give away in advanced capitalist countries but chain to the pen-stand here) and telly. I got out my book but was distracted by "Kirgede torm", roughly translated as "Passionate Storm", one of the Latino soaps ("The Power of Love", "Isabela", "Second Chance") that are so popular here. There are around three a day, at prime time, populated with dark chaps with five o'clock shadows and raven haired beauties with their bosoms hanging out of skimpy tops, with names such as Valeria, Diego, Gonzalo and Alejandro [sic]. All carrying on in most un-Estonian way, especially wearing of skimpy gear not at all suitable for November in the north. What I find very odd is that the sound track is not sub-titled (as usual) but underneath all that steamy Southern carrying on is a dull undercurrent of absolutely lifeless Estonian simultaneous translation.

It dragged me away from "Stalin: In the Court of the Red Tzar" by Simon Sebag Montefiore who sounds as if he should be in "Passionate Storm". I was quite relieved when I was summonsed to get the car. The bill was surprisingly cheap — about a third of what I paid in a no-name‚ garage last year for the same job. Do the Toyota staff feel sorry for me?

"Stalin" is a must for anyone interested in the USSR. It won the British Book Awards History Book of the Year Award in 2003, and deservedly so. I bought it as I was leaving the UK. I had no intention of spending yet more money but I picked it up and couldn't put it down. Montefiore is another of those British Russianists (Figes, Hosking, Lieven, Beevor) who manage to write readable books without managing to lose any of their academic respectability. This populist concept, incidentally, does not apply to Eesti — in order to be serious you should be perceived as esoteric, elitist and on the dull side, a snobby and irritating attitude I remember well from the 1950s and 1960s in the UK. It still needs a great deal of shifting here!

For we students of Estonian history there's much to learn. The account of the failure of Britain and France to ally with the USSR just before WWII is fascinating. Telegrams were exchanged in April 1939, when it was becoming glaringly obvious that Hitler was out for Poland. A low level delegation, with no authority to sign a treaty, was sent by slow boat, arriving in Moscow on 11 August. The Brit contingent was led by Admiral Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, author of "Handbook of Solar Heating‚ and Knight of the Bath". When Sir Reg read out his titles the latter was translated into Russian as "Order of the Bath Tub". Someone asked what this was. "In the reign of our early kings", droned the Hon Reg, "our knights used to travel round on horseback, slaying dragons and rescuing maidens in distress. They would return home travel-stained and grimy and report to the king [who] would sometimes offer a knight a luxury 'a bath in the royal bathroom'". Hm.

Negotiations took place on 12th August but Britain and France would not agree to a Soviet free hand in the Baltic or the Balkans. The talks broke down and Stalin signalled Hitler that he would parley. Joe and Adolf exchanged chummy little notes and on 19th Germany's Foreign Minister, the corseted ex-champagne salesman, Joachim von Ribbentrop, arrived in Moscow. The non-aggression pact (with its secret protocols for parcelling up central Europe) was signed by Molotov (Soviet Foreign Minister) and Ribbentrop on the 23rd.

On the 27th August, as Stalin held a 24-course dinner for the Nazis with caviar and champagne, there was also a meeting with Karl Selter, the Estonian Foriegn Minister who had come to Moscow to see what was up. Selter was told that Soviet bases were going to be established in Estonia. On 1 September, with the tacit agreement of the USSR, Germany invaded Poland. On September 3, Britain and France declared war, followed by Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. By 3rd October there were Soviet bases in all the Baltic States. In June 1940, after the fall of France, and as the Battle of Britain was about to begin, Stalin moved to consume the Baltic States and Bessarabia in Romania. Andrei Zhdanov, one of Stalin‚s closest associates, was sent to Tallinn where he lectured the Estonians "that everything will be done in accordance with democratic parliamentary rules "We're not Germans!" For some 20c Baltic citizens they were worse. Around 170,000 were murdered or deported to Russia where Stalin advised grimly "Comrade Beria [KGB Chief] will accommodate our Baltic guests..."
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