Tere from Tallinn! Today’s extract is from a novel that is also a crime story…
When the Doves Disappeared by Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen (trans from Finnish by Lola M. Rogers; Atlantic Books, 2015), p. 33.
The extract is set in 1941. The Red Army has just been driven out of Tallinn by the German National Socialists. As David Smith notes in Estonia: Independence and European Integration, ‘the experiences of the previous year led many Estonians to greet the Germans as liberators, an illusion that was swiftly dispelled during the early months of the Nazi Occupation’ (Routledge, 2001, p. 35).
Tallinn was blooming with Estonian and German flags tangling in the wind. The Palace Theatre was being quickly rebuilt, a crowd of kids already gathered to marvel at the movie posters, even the adults stopping to look at them as they passed, and Juudit got a glimpse of the little red smile of a German actress and Mari Möldre’s long eyelashes. The merriness of the crowd played around Juudit’s ankles and she felt like she’d stepped into a movie herself. It wasn’t real. Still, she would have liked to join in, keep walking with no destination and never go home. Why not? Why couldn’t she? Why couldn’t she participate in the joy? You couldn’t smell the smoke from the fires anymore – at least not here; it was still coming in the windows of her apartment – and she sniffed the air, which carried a smell like freshly baked buns, until she was dizzy. The town wasn’t destroyed after all. The Russians must have been so busy burning the warehouses and factories and blowing up the Kopli armoured train that they didn’t get around to the homes. She kept walking, looking for new evidence of peace, and passed the Soldatenheim, where young soldiers stood casually chatting, and their eyes fastened on her lips, and she sped up, averting her eyes from a woman putting up a big poster of “Hitler, the Liberator” in the window of the button shop. Juudit looked around for something more, greedy to see more people who seemed to have forgotten the last several years. Tallinn was suddenly flooded with young men. It annoyed her. There were too many men. She wished she were home, had a sudden, pressing desire to get back there. She quickly bought a newspaper and also snapped up a copy of Otepää Teataja that someone had used as a lunch wrapper, and she stared for a moment into a café where she had once known the buffet girl by name. Had they already gone back to work or did the café have a new owner and new employees? She had sometimes gone there in the past to enjoy a pastry, meet her friends, but now her wedding ring was tight around the finger under her glove. Near the hospital, Wehrmacht soldiers were snaring pigeons.
We approached Tallinn from the water (on the ferry from Helsinki), so this was our first view of the city.
Our last visit was 2001, sixteen years ago. The old town was still more or less as we knew it (beautiful but quite touristy), and celebrates the city’s medieval, Hanseatic heyday. Below is the famous Old Market Square, which is truly lovely.
The Aleksander Nevski orthodox Russian cathedral is impressively bling (especially inside, where no cameras are allowed).
We enjoyed a coffee in Tallinn’s oldest cafe, Maiasmokk…
…and a very tasty, spicy goulash garnished with thyme.
But we also noticed that there are now lots of sparkling modern buildings and hotels, evidence of Tallinn’s new prosperity following the fall of Communism and joining the EU. New buildings jostle with older ones from earlier eras. While the ghost of Tallinn’s eastern bloc past is definitely present, there was no obvious reference to the 1941-44 Nazi occupation (that I could see), and I suspect that Oksanen’s novel dares to go places that many Estonians would rather not – especially on the question of collaboration. There is a Museum of Occupations that I plan to visit next time…
Here’s a view of the countryside outside Tallinn. Flat and beautiful with big skies.