The tough and resourceful Estonians (64)
Archived Articles 10 Mar 2006 Leon TretjakewitschEWR
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As you may know, the Estonians are descendants of some of the Finno-Ugric tribes that left what is now northern Russia between 4000 and 6000 years ago and settled in the territory now known as Estonia. They made their entry into recorded history around 100 A.D. on the pages of Germania, a work by the Roman writer Tacitus. Since he does not provide much information other than their name and location, we can infer that Estonian-Roman trade relations then were far less active than today.

Sparse historical records available for the following centuries and some archaeological discoveries tell us that there was considerable traffic to and from Estonia, not all of it of a friendly nature. The Vikings raided that area towards the end of the first millennium, as they raided Ireland and other parts of Europe. However, the Estonians did not take this lying down and, in turn, executed some daring raids of their own on the territory now known as Sweden. If you keep your eyes open, you will occasionally see good-looking Estonian women wearing beautiful silver brooches that depict the sleek and speedy Estonian battleships of that time.

It seems that the Estonians of that era were capable of holding their own. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, however, they lost their freedom. During the next seven centuries, they survived five foreign invasions and occupations, Danish, German, Polish, Swedish, and Russian. Christianity was introduced to Estonia by the Teutonic Knights, in many instances not too gently. Remaining a significant minority, the German population was the dominant social, economic, and cultural force in Estonia until the end of the nineteenth century. Most of the Estonians were peasant serfs, tilling the land for their German lords, ecclesiastical or secular. Like their lords, they became Lutheran Protestants following the Reformation. Much of the Estonian historiography after the achievement of independence in 1920 has presented the period from 1200 to 1820 as the era of the doom and gloom of unrelieved serfdom. Post-World War II Estonian historians in exile have shown this picture to be exaggerated and have demonstrated that there was light between the shadows, that the period of German influence also brought benefits, such as education, enlightenment, and European civilization without obliterating a rich Estonian folk culture.

The period of Swedish rule, from 1625 to 1710, came to be regarded by Estonians in retrospect as the least unpopular foreign occupation and even, if one may say so, as a kind of “golden age”. One reason may be the fact that the Lutheran king, Gustav Adolf II founded the University of Tartu in 1632, to succeed the Catholic Jesuit college that existed there before.

Peter the Great of Russia conquered Estonia from the Swedes in 1710. By an earlier attempt at conquest in the sixteenth century, Tsar Ivan IV had fully lived up to his nickname “the Terrible”. Peter's victory inaugurated two centuries of Russian rule, but did not significantly increase the size of the small Russian minority in Estonia. That demographic change was reserved for the period of Stalin and his successors. The Russian tsars appointed governors, not all of them Russian. One, around 1800 or so, seems to have been an Irish expatriate named John Brown. On the whole, the Russian monarchs left the running of the country to the Baltic German nobility. They also tapped the latter for suitable appointees to their bureaucracy and foreign service, where German names such as von Benckendorff and von Meyendorff became rather common. Tsar Alexander I conferred one important benefit on the Estonian peasantry at the end of the Napoleonic Wars by abolishing serfdom some forty years before his nephew, Alexander II, freed the peasants in Russia proper.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the Estonian people experienced a national and cultural awakening, which owed a debt to the German Romantic movement and its representatives in the Baltic region, such as the famous scholar Gottfried von Herder. Numerous young Estonians, sons of burghers and peasants, flocked to the classical colleges and the University of Tartu. This movement resulted in a flowering of literature, music, and art. It saw its ultimate fruition in the Declaration of Independence of February 24, 1918, which we commemorate today. But freedom did not drop like a ripe plum into the Estonian lap. It had to be defended initially against the Germans, fought for subsequently against the Bolsheviks in a bloody war, lasting 400 days. Fortunately, some warships of His Britannic Majesty, cruising off the coast, provided much welcome moral and armed support. In the peace treaty, signed at Tartu on February 2, 1920, Soviet Russia declared that it would “definitely recognize the independence of Estonia and will give up forever every sovereign right Russia ever had on the Estonian land and people”.

Estonia now reorganized itself as a free and sovereign republic and soon became a respected member of the League of Nations. However, the peaceful solution of remaining political, social, and economic problems became impossible when Estonia fell a victim to the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on August 23, 1939. On June 17, 1940, the forces of the Red Army crossed the Estonian border. The government in Tallinn offered no military resistance, considering such action futile and hopeless. And to this day, President Putin claims there was never a Soviet occupation of Estonia.

Horrendous terror and suffering was unleashed on the country during the year that followed: arrests and torture, and executions; but above all the attempt to destroy the Estonian intelligentsia by the deportation to Siberia of ten thousand men, women, and children.

After a far less brutal Nazi occupation that lasted three years, the Red forces returned with a vengeance. Many Estonian men, young and middle-aged, fought valiantly on the eastern front near Narva and helped block the Red advance for a week. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Estonian civilians sought salvation in fleeing across the Baltic sea to Sweden and Germany. After the inevitable depature of the Nazi forces from the area around the capital and before the arrival of the Soviets, a shortlived free Republic of Estonia was proclaimed in Tallinn, a provisional government was formed, and the tricolor flag hoisted over the city.

On September 22, 1944, the Red Army re-occupied Tallinn. For eleven years thereafter, Estonian guerillas, known as “Forest Brothers” waged a hopeless campaign against the Soviet regime. To break the Estonian peasantry and to achieve the collectivization of the soil, the Soviets organized a deportation of thirty thousand mainly rural people in 1949.

Starting in 1988, during the era of perestroika, the never-ending resistance of the Estonian people intensified and broke out into peaceful but determined patriotic demonstrations. This also happened in Latvia and Lithuania. A helping hand was lent by a Soviet air force general stationed in Estonia, the Chechen Dokhtar Dudaev. Refusing to follow orders, he did not allow Soviet soldiers under command to take military action against Estonians. To this day, tweaking the beaks of the Russian eagles, a historical plaque on the façade of a Tartu hotel gratefully identifies the building where Dudaev once had his headquarters.

The independent Estonian government established in 1991 was headed by a very young scholar and active Lutheran Christian named Mart Laar. Untainted by any collaboration with the Soviet regime and assisted by likeminded associates, he put Estonia quickly on the right path through the execution of necessary, if painful, reforms. Lack of time prevents me from describing them in any detail. Suffice it to say that Estonia is now a member of the European Union and NATO. It experiences enviable rates of economic growth. Among all the ex-members of the Soviet Union, it enjoys the reputation of the greatest transparency and the lowest rate of political and economic corruption. It is also the most wired. There are more computers per capita in Estonia than in several west European countries. The government sometimes conducts cabinet meetings by computer, without the members assembling in the same place.

Also, Estonian athletes are doing well in the Olympics, thank you. Three gold medals in Turin, so far. If the United States showed the same level of achievement in relation to its population size, it would have three hundred medals.

What about the five per cent of the Estonian people who fled to Sweden and Germany by 1944? Some of the exiles in Sweden wanted to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the Red Empire, and earlier rather than later. Starting in 1946 and harking back to the Viking era, they boarded flimsy sailing boats built for four but often carrying three times as many passengers. Braving Atlantic gales, they invaded the shores of Florida or Nova Scotia three months later and without visas, to boot. Many others followed on more conventional shipping vessels and with immigration visas.

Most of the Estonian D.P.s in Germany emigrated to Canada, the U.S., and Australia. How did those fare who found refuge in Canada? For one thing, Toronto with its ten thousand Estonians came to rival Stockholm as one of the two largest Estonian communities outside the old country. Arrivals from Sweden brought with them their savings in hard currency and established construction companies, delis, and bakeries making dark rye bread. The D.P.s from Germany, without a cent to their name, had to start from scratch. All immediately set to work. The younger generation invaded the schools and universities and achieved academic success out of all proportion to their numbers. As lawyers, physicians, musicians, and teachers, but especially as architects and engineers, they made a significant contribution to Canada's society, economy, and cultural life. The same can be said of those who took up other professions and trades.

Some of the many visible achievements in Toronto; a highly successful credit union, a Chair of Estonian Studies at the University of Toronto, and an eighteen storey university student residence named Tartu College. Estonian resourcefulness and creativity is likewise demonstrated by the Estonian Houses Co. Ltd.

In 1951, a small group assembled in Toronto, consisting of Estonian refugees who were looking for affordable housing that was also modern and esthetically pleasing. They started planning to construct two apartment buildings in the Estonian or Scandinavian style. At a time when condominiums and co-op apartments were unknown in Ontario, they succeeded in incorporating as a non-profit company limited whose purpose was to provide its shareholders with affordable housing. The first application for a mortgage was turned down by the Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation as a “dangerous Communist idea”.

Travelling to Ottawa, the young chairman, Endel Tulving, explained to the puzzled officials that the company shareholders were, on the contrary, refugees from communism and that their method of proceeding was in no way communist, but represented the way things were done in the formerly independent Estonia. The mortgage was granted. Endel Tulving went on to receive a Ph.D. at Harvard and became a distinguished professor of psychology. For his research into how the human memory works and the resulting publications, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in London, England. A past member of this ancient and illustrious club was one Isaac Newton. Other distinguished long time shareholders and residents of the Estonian Houses Co. Ltd. were the well-known Canadian long distance runner Bruce Kidd, the concert guitarist Rachel Gauk, and the Estonian-Canadian composer Omar Daniel.

The apartment buildings also scored an architectural first in Toronto by sporting cantilevered balconies, unknown here in 1951. Sitting proudly opposite the R.C. Harris Waterworks, at the end of the street-car line, they still present a modern and unique sight on Queen Street East. A few additional apartment communities of this type were subsequently established in other areas of Toronto. I happen to be one of the four original members and residents still living in an apartment of the Estonian Houses Co. Ltd.

Hewing very close to home, I would like to add the following observations. Constrained by lack of money, our founding fathers did not allow for elevators. Also, a good many of our present members are octogenarians and nonagenarians. The doctors attribute this longevity to the fact that our residents get plenty of exercise by climbing three flights of stairs to move from street level to the house door and as many of three flights to reach their apartment door. A good example is our member Jaan Kulpa, a gentleman in his nineties. He travels up and down these stairs two or three times a day to do his shopping. A few years ago, he was standing one day on the sidewalk in front of the building. Another resident, passing him on the way to work, asked him whether he was waiting for someone. Jaan Kulpa replied: “I just suffered a stroke and phoned the ambulance. I am now waiting for it”.

When my wife and I, looking out our kitchen window, see Mr. Kulpa pass by outside, I tell her: “There goes the tough Estonian”.

Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for your attention.

(These remarks were delivered on February 24, 2006, at Toronto's Estonian House during an English language celebration of Estonia's Independence Day.)
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