A long-forbidden cruising ground has opened up as the shadow of history finally recedes over Estonia, says Dick Durham
The first thing I noticed, while leafing through the tourist board bumpf in the room of my Tallinn hotel, was barely a mention of what I’d been invited to Estonia to promote: the coast. And yet this tiny country has two thousand miles of coastline washed by the Baltic Sea and its 1,520 islands sport more than 150 harbours!
Over dinner at the Kalev Yacht Club, I discovered that during the ‘Soviet time’, from 1940 until 1991, Estonians were banned from the beach, their boats were chainsawed into kindling, sailing was forbidden, and soldiers checked the ploughed coastal fields every morning for footprints. Even Estonians needed visas to visit Estonia’s off-lying islands.
After five decades behind the Iron Curtain the forbidden coast became a mental block that lurked deep in the psyche of many Estonians. As the club commodore, Kalev Vapper, said: ‘We lived with a fence around the club from the Soviet time. This year I suddenly noticed it and removed it and now we have access from the road. I realised I had a fence across my mind.’
Club manager Idrek Ilves agrees: ‘Our job now is to open up our coast to the world, because in the Soviet time we were living in a bubble.’
Yachts and sailing – the pastime of decadent capitalists – was anathema to Communist Party apparatchiks, until Moscow was awarded the 1980 Olympics. Then Tallinn was host to the sailing events and although the yacht ‘uniforms’ were frowned upon as not being proletarian enough, the ideological myopia started, momentarily, to lift as Estonian sailors got results for the Soviet team.
Nationalism has become a dirty word to many liberals in the West, yet throughout Estonia I found the clever, friendly and welcoming people, of all ages, were united by traditional costume, folk dancing and most important of all the national sing-songs they hold in giant arenas where they harmonise their solidarity.
Some ethnic Russians wonder if perhaps they would be less isolated, more secure, as part of a federated Russia. Estonia is, after all, a tiny pimple on the back of the great Russian bear. For them is reserved a Grimm-style fairy story. It goes like this: a man who welcomed the Russians in and who once enjoyed playing Chopin and Liszt, now can only listen to the Balalaika. The brandy he once enjoyed has been replaced by vodka. The house he once owned now belongs to the state and he must share it with his Russian father, mother and grandparents.
To this cautionary tale, Kalev Vapper adds: ‘And the Swan 45 you love sailing? Forget it.’
At the end of my visit Egon Elstein, president of the Estonian Yachting Union, took me to the Hotel Viru overlooking the marinas of Tallinn. The country’s first skyscraper, Hotel Viru was built for and formerly owned by Intourist, the Soviet travel agency, to amass foreign currency and also evidence of sedition.
On the 23rd floor, a hotel staffer unlocked the doors to a secret KGB office. Untouched since they abandoned it 25 years ago, half- shredded documents lie scattered over the floor, obsolete listening devices sprout balding wires and tin helmets hang on walls. We were shown dinner plates fitted with microphones, cameras in peepholes and an exploding purse. The latter was used to ‘recruit’ guests as spies. Planted in a corridor, anyone who opened it was sprayed with indelible dye, which could only be removed with from a security service officer who promised not to act on the finder’s greed in return for reports on insurrection. The office smelled of dust, the legacy of a failed system.
On my last night I leafed once more through the tourist brochures. On the back of a guidebook called Visit Estonia, Fun at Every Turn was the statement: ‘The Republic of Estonia is a member of the European Union, and NATO.’
Just in case anyone needs reminding.