Trip notes from Estonia

Anastasiya Shapochkina

14 June 2022

I spent two days in June travelling to a University conference in Tartu, Estonia. This was my first trip to the Baltics, and it is full of impressions.

To get to Tartu, I had to fly from Paris to Tallinn, through Helsinki. It’s a 2.5h flight from France to Finland, but only a 20 minute jump across a short strip of the Baltic Sea from there to the capital of Estonia. It feels less like a flight and more like a futuristic air taxi ride across the pond. One can see clearly how close Finland is to Estonia, and both of them to Russia.

Observing the green landscapes planted in the middle of the sea, it is also clear why the Russians got stuck in Finland in 1939. The landscape is a scenic combination of lakes, marshes and forests, which should have been notoriously difficult to navigate for the Soviet troops, be it in harsh winter, or in rainy summer. Abundant forest provides plenty of refuge for people and ammunition, and navigation depends on bridges, which, once exploded, can render advancement impossible. The land is covered in small towns and villages, which do not look like impressive military targets. But as we are looking at and learning from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, nature can be powerless against long-range missiles and aviation bombings, and even villages and coastal towns are targets when destruction of civilians becomes a top military objective.

As we fly, I see things with new eyes: the Tallinn TV tower down below is now more than attraction: it is a primary aim in case of an invasion that would be bombed first, together with an industrial installation along the coast one can see nearby.

The old Tallinn is beautiful, and surprising. Because everyone speaks Russian, you understand nothing. In Estonia, one fully grasps the importance of language: how disoriented you can be rendered by your own linguistic aptitude. In my few hours spent in the city, I met:
- a Russian-American working for an international organization in Serbia, who shared the geopolitical difficulties of her position;
- a Serb travelling through the Baltics talked about the fix her president is in, as the Serbs can identify with Ukrainians, yet the political class must stay on a short leash to Russia, while the public opinion is strongly pro-Russian because anti-NATO;
- two shop sellers speaking Russian to the question, “Where are you from?” answer: “From here,” and follow-up with detailed advice on local food and sightseeing.
- Now cautious, when seeking directions of a Russian-speaking couple, I ask them if they are locals, they answer in Russian that they are from Ukraine…

As a native Russian speaker, and Ukrainian-American working on geopolitics of the region, for me Estonia was a catalysis location for realizing the importance of language: not as a tool of relating to people, but as a means of estrangement, when you no longer feel the language helps you be understood, especially in a larger sense of the word, nor does it help you understand who is who, especially in the geopolitical or, if need be, military sense.

In a small and beautiful old town center of Tallinn a large group of people is celebrating the Russian Independence Day (from who?) on the date of my arrival, June 12: by singing Ukrainian anthem, chanting “No to war,” “Russia will be free,” and “Freedom to political prisoners” while holding large Estonian and Ukrainian flags in front of the Russian embassy in the very hart of historic Tallinn. The embassy itself is amply decorated for the occasion with children’s toys soaked in red paint, withered sunflowers, photos of Russian atrocities in Ukraine, and numerous inscriptions of unambiguous public opinion in Estonia about the war.

Unlike Slovakia (a country bordering Ukraine and hosting tens of thousands of refugees), where I travelled a week ago for GLOBSEC forum, Estonia has ample public display of Ukrainian flags everywhere from the airport to the train station, passing by Tallinn city center and its outskirts, all the way to Tartu. Unlike in Slovakia, where, according to polls and despite history, 50% of the population support Russia and believe that it was NATO who started the war in Ukraine, Estonia knows where her allegiances are.

A Russian woman on an intercity bus tells me that half of ethnic Russians will stand up in arms to defend Estonia, if the eastern neighbor decides to test the NATO resilience by crossing the border. Even those Russians from the older generation, who do not speak a word of Estonia, do not want to go “back to stone age” they have come from when they left their ethnic land, she says. But she notes that in Narva and its surroundings, along the Eastern border, where ethnic Russian population is especially dense, and so is Russian media presence, even some Estonians tend to support Russia in the war against Ukraine.

Many young men and women in green military uniform everywhere on the train line going to Narva, near which a major military base is located. All Estonian men must undergo one year of military service between the ages of 18 and 27. Handy skills in present times.

Arriving to Tartu, only 2 hours drive away from Tallinn, one emerges from ambiguity: everyone speaks Estonian everywhere, some Estonians speak Russian or English, with equally deep accent. A local explains that Tartu is the heart of Estonian identity, and its university – of local academic life. The tempo of Tartu, and of the country in general, is cool.

The small city lives a quiet life, with a slow, steady flow. The academic conference I have come to is full of talk about Russia and the war, by the visiting scholars from Ireland to Kazakhstan. Everyone is apprehensive, and hopeful that NATO will serve as an iron veil capable of breaking Russian nerve. Only a few hours away from the Russian border, one cannot help but wonder if this hope will pass the test of time.