Small as she is, my home country of Estonia reminds me of those extremely premature babies who beat the odds and survive.
While there are other cultures that have been tenacious enough to not disappear despite centuries of foreign domination, with the Welsh being one example, few have hung on by the skin of their teeth for as long as the Estonians.
After the Estonian tribes had been vanquished by the Danes and the German Brothers of the Sword in the early 13th century, submission became the rule for hundreds of years, as Estonia was conquered in succession by one European power after another. Performing manual labor on plantations owned by German and Swedish barons, common Estonians eked out a living from one generation to the next.
War and pestilence threatened Estonians with extinction on several occasions. After the Livonian war at the end of the 16th century, their numbers had been reduced to a mere 85,000. An old traveler's account describes Estonia and Latvia after the passage of the troops of Peter the Great – a landscape strangely devoid of human habitation, where no cock crowed, and no dog barked.
It was not until the Age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution that prospects of better times arrived for the common people of Europe. As time passed, more and more peoples strived to create nations of their own.
Those who have known times of no freedom savor freedom the most
Given the choice, all living creatures prefer freedom to fetters. For purposes of illustration, the British military made a major miscalculation in Dublin in 1916, when they executed all seven signatories of the Irish declaration of independence. To this day, the General Post Office in Dublin where the proclamation was made public and the rising began holds a special place in the hearts of the Irish. The Easter Proclamation itself has the status of a revered national icon.
The American public regards Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where 56 persons signed the US Declaration of Independence in 1776, as a shrine.
When Estonia declared her independence 90 years ago, it was under risky conditions. Profoundly affected by the Russian Revolution, the Russian garrison in Estonia was plunged into chaos, and retreated to Mother Russia once German troops landed on the Estonian coast. Taking advantage of the temporary power vacuum that ensued, the Estonian Diet took a “now or never” decision. It was on the stairs of the Endla Theater in the coastal city of Pärnu that Estonian independence was proclaimed on February 23, 1918.
Estonians had been kept from occupying positions of prominence and power in their own country for a long time. Georg Hellat, who drew up the construction plans for the theater, was the first significant architect of native Estonian background to make good. The Endla theater - a Jugendstil building designed by him – was dedicated in 1911. During the independence period between the two World Wars, it would serve in free Estonia as a hub of local culture for Pärnu, a resort city of tree-lined streets and hotels and spas that is famous thanks largely to its beaches.
It was quite remarkable that Estonia, supported by British naval guns, succeeded in expelling both German and Soviet Russian armies during a war of independence that went on for over a year. In the Tartu Peace Treaty of 1920 between The Russian Soviet Republic and the Republic of Estonia, the Kremlin relinquished all rights to the territory of Estonia for time eternal. Instead of remaining free forever, the three Baltic States – Estonia included – actually only experienced independence for twenty years.
When Western Europe was set free at the end of World War II, these three parliamentary democracies – they had been members of the League of Nations – had been “abducted” by the occupying Red Army and annexed to the USSR – a step never recognized by a great many Western democracies. No longer would Baltic teams compete at the Olympic Games under their own flags. Three members of the European community, hijacked by the USSR, simply went missing for half a century.
Although Estonia and her two neighbors to the south – Latvia and Lithuania – are often referred to nowadays as former Soviet Republics, they were not in fact secessionist parts of Russia that broke away from Moscow in 1991, but ought to be seen instead as “submerged nations”, whose occupation finally came to an end as Boris Yeltsin took his seat in the Kremlin.
Nobody can hear us
When I think of Estonia and her forcible incorporation into the USSR by the Soviet Union, I am often reminded of Kitty Genovese, the New York City woman who, in 1964, was stabbed to death near her home in the Kew Gardens section of Queens. The Genovese case became know for the psychological phenomenon called the “bystander effect”, in which violence is perpetrated on someone within hearing of neighbors, but the cries are not noticed. Estonian President Konstantin Päts was forcibly taken away in 1940 by the secret police of the Soviet Union, and was held incommunicado in insane asylums until his death in Tver, Russia in 1956. The fate of the Endla Theater – the birthplace of Estonian independence – was not any prettier.
The golden era of Estonian independence had also been the heyday of the Endla, where up to 600 persons at a time gathered to enjoy performances of plays and operas by Ibsen, Shakespeare, Strauss, Verdi and many others. When Hitler’s occupying army retreated and the Red Army reentered the country in 1944, staging a supposed “liberation” of Estonia, Pärnu was caught between the fighting sides. 1944 was a bad year for Estonia in general. Bombs dropped by the Soviet Air Force totally gutted the baroque pearl that had been the city of Narva, and in the capital of Tallinn, 3,000 buildings were destroyed in one night, in a firestorm with heavy loss of lives that can only be described as a version of Dresden in miniature.
In her memoirs, local resident Elsbet Parek described the situation in Pärnu: “Down below, the Germans torched and destroyed, while the Russians bombed from above.”
Despite the combat and the flames that did considerable harm to Pärnu in the fall of 1944, the walls of the Endla Theater remained standing, and there is no doubt that the building could have been salvaged, had there been the will to do so. Only the roof of the building had burned during the war, but the supporting structures were of sturdy masonry and still serviceable, as contemporaries have written.
A close acquaintance of mine who grew up in Pärnu after the war once recounted that when he was a child in the fifties, it was common for drunks to use the ruins of the Endla theater as a public bathroom.
In September, 1951, the Pärnu city government proposed that the theater be restored, but the Soviet authorities replied that there was no way that the style of the theater could be made to harmonize with the requirements posed by “contemporary (Stalinist) architectural expectations”.
After the war, the workers of the theater were relocated to another building. In an article that appeared in the Estonian SL Õhtuleht newspaper on May 4, 2006, Olaf Esna, the Director of the Pärnu theater during the post-war years, states that the real issue for the Soviet authorities was that the “...veranda of the Endla Theater was the place that the Estonian Declaration of Independence had first been made public...” on February 23, 1918.
The final torment of the Endla Theater
The Soviet occupation regime felt it couldn’t afford to allow this reminder of Estonian independence to remain. On March 6, 1961 at 2:30 pm in front of a crowd of people, demolition charges were set off. A dull thud was heard. The walls of the Endla quivered for a moment as if in doubt, but then collapsed to the ground. Several nearby windows were shattered, and for a while, the center of Pärnu was enveloped in a cloud of smoke and dust.
Later, a box-shaped Soviet style hotel was built on the same location. When I worked in Germany in the eighties, before Estonia regained her independence, one of my colleagues – a person from one of the Western European countries who knew that I am Estonian – brought a copy of a men’s girly magazine from his country to work, and showed me an article with photos that had been surreptitiously been taken in this very Pärnu hotel and smuggled out of occupied Estonia. Intended as men’s guide to the underground bordellos of Estonia, the story featured a number of photos of prostitutes engaged in what it is that prostitutes do.
Every country in the world that has attained sovereignty in the face of adversity has its own saga in connection with the struggle for independence, but few have a tale to tell as rich with ironic symbolism as the story of the Endla Theater.
Estonia is back again
Lack of freedom and poor health are similar phenomena. Young people, with the exception of sick kids, generally don’t regard health as a very important topic, much as pensions are a topic they tend to avoid. You only hear old folks saying that “you don’t appreciate being in good health until you develop ailments”. Freedom is a lot like that too. The American people, even in their wildest dreams, could probably never imagine Independence Hall in Philadelphia – jealously and proudly guarded by Park Police – in ruins, being used as a public toilet or a house of prostitution. The point being that occupation powers can do incredible harm to the well-being, dignity, and even the very physical appearance of the territories of cultures that have been vanquished.
Ceremonies took place in the city of Pärnu on the Baltic Sea in Estonia at the place where the Endla Theater – the birthplace of Estonian independence – was blown up by a hostile power in 1961. 90 years ago on February 23, Estonians proclaimed to the world in Pärnu their desire to be free. Although actual memories of the Endla Theater now live on only in the elderly, Estonians of all ages give thanks that the only soldiers they will see in Pärnu on Independence Day, other than the ones accompanying invited dignitaries, are their own. The message to everyone in the world who enjoys freedom is that one really does need to remember to give thanks in a conscious manner for liberty - something that can all too easily be replaced by a life in the absence of freedom. Take it from the Estonians, we know what we’re talking about.
(Jüri Estam is a communications consultant who lives in Tallinn. He was a member of the Congress of Estonia, one of the predecessors to the current Parliament of Estonia. Prior to that, he covered human rights and other topics for the Estonian Language Service of Radio Free Europe while based in Munich and Scandinavia. Among other things, he has hosted a live prime time current affairs program on Estonian National Television, been the Managing Director of the largest chain of commercial radio stations in the country, and produced a dozen documentary films.)
Estonia counts her blessings on the 90th anniversary of Independence (5)