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Russian threats reopen a chapter of Estonia’s past

By TJ Aumua

It’s like living in a fairytale. Narrow cobbled streets, arched shop doorways and two bewitching pale brick towers, with cone-shaped tops, known as the Viru Gates, welcome you into the town. One thing is for sure, Tallinn is beautiful.

_DSC0033But despite its exterior, Tallinn and the rest of Estonia’s history is as far from a fairytale as it can get. Injustices of the past century remain embedded in the psyches of those that lived through the occupation of Russia’s Glory Days.

When Russia annexed Crimea, media tabloids raised alarms that Estonia could be next. The threat has reawakened memories of an era Estonians hoped would remain in the past.

“It would be a catastrophe,” said Timur Seifullen, as he sat in his office chair in front of me.

“This situation now in Estonia is how the Second World War started.”

Timur said the danger of Russia occupying Estonia is growing all the time.

“We’ve already been through enough.”

As an Estonian-Tatar, Timur is part of a Turkish rooted ethnic group.

His family originally emigrated from the Tatarstan Republic, situated near the Volgar River, in central-west Russia.

Many Tatars fled the Republic during the Great Socialist October Revolution when the Russian Empire occupied it in the early 1900’s.

Mass murders occurred as Tatars who are primarily Muslim were locked in mosques, along with intellectuals that were critical of the invasion, and burned alive. Over 500 mosques were disintegrated.

Timur turned his office chair back to his desk. He faced his computer and brought up a black and white photograph on the screen. He spun the computer head around so I could see the old family portrait.

On the left side of the photo a young lady, modestly dressed, with her hair wrapped in a delicate lace scarf, sits with a small child on her lap.

Leaning on her knee, are two younger girls, wearing white tunic dresses with large bows tied to their small ponytails. Behind them, a tall, older man, with a few wisps of hair left on his head, stands in a dark suit. His hand is on the shoulder of a young boy. “My grandfather,” Timur said, pointing to the older man, “and this is my dad,” he said as he moved his finger down to the young boy, also dressed in a suit.

Timur’s grandfather escaped the Republic to Estonia when he served in the Soviet Army. He “stole” his wife, the lady in the photograph, so she could live safely with him in Tallinn.

Many Tatars also fled to Narva in Eastern Estonia. But following World War I in 1918 the Red Army infiltrated the city.

By World War II the city was completely destroyed and many Tatars fled to other parts of the world.

Estonia was occupied by the former Soviet Union for 50-years, from 1940 to 1990 until gaining independence in 1991.

Timur is the leader of the Tatar community in Estonia and has been continuing his grandfather’s work in Tallinn to preserve the Tatar culture that was marred from occupation.

The next day, I caught a tram with Timur and he took me to visit Ramia Allev, also a fellow Tatar.

Over lunch she recollected memories of what life was like growing up under the Soviet Union.

“I was young and it’s always good to be young.”

She sipped her tea and stared down at the matching saucer in front of her.

“When I was a child we lived in the centre of Tallinn. We had Estonian and Russian children in our yard playing together. For me it was an advantage because I learned both the Estonian and Russian language very quickly.”

Ramia said it wasn’t until she was older she realised she lived a double life.

_DSC0012“Our parents were afraid to speak to us about life before occupation. There were things that were spoken at home and there were things that we heard from the policy level and there was quite a big contrast between them.”

Ramia said nobody was allowed to travel and so she always imagined what life was like outside of Estonia.

“After graduating from university, I was offered a very good job in tourism as I could speak several languages and it was the only company that worked with foreign tourists.

“But after I acknowledged I had relatives in America, Sweden and Germany, I was declined the job.”

They were worried we would come into contact with our relatives who were fugitives of war and that wasn’t allowed, Ramia said.

I met with Timur again the following morning. In his office were also Harry, who works in local government, and James who is a translator.

The three of them sat in front of me as Harry explained living a double life under Soviet rule was the haunting characteristic of all Estonians at that time.

“In terms of how you see yourself and how you feel. Everyone lived like they had two lives, two faces,” said Harry.

“One is the face that you show to the Soviet system like they would have liked to see you. The hidden, is the real you that aspired to live like everyone lived in western society.”

Sitting in the middle of the three men, James admitted he still struggles to explain what life was like back then.

“Everyone was lying from the top. I’m talking about the political and the administrative elite, everyone knew they were lying. That was normal it was just a part of life.”

They tried to dispose of all the artists and intellectuals to make everyone the same, said James.

But behind closed doors Estonians managed to find a way to escape the Soviet collectivist system through television.

“In the 70’s and beginning of the 80’s we watched Finnish TV channels,” Harry explained.

“You actually had to put in a new antenna and you had to change wires in the TV to get the signal.”

“There were people, who moon-lighted us ‘TV guys,’” Harry laughed.

Russians fought to disrupt the signal but the effect would have been so great that it would have affected broadcasting in southern parts of Finland.

The three of them explained, in the Middle Ages there was an orthodox Russian monk who predicted the fate of three empires. The first was the fall of the Roman Empire, second was the fall of the Turkish Empire and third was the Russian Empire which he said would last forever.

“This kind of explains the expansionist mentality,” said James, “they consider their territory sacred and the idea of

expansion is sacred because they are the third empire.”

“Even some young people in Russia who have never lived in the Soviet times have this deeply ingrained idea about the Russian empire,” said James.

Despite what they have said all three men admit life under Soviet rule isn’t ‘black and white’.

“I have a good way of putting it,” James proclaimed.

“In Soviet times you exchanged your personal freedoms for security. Which means you weren’t allowed to criticise the elite, there were no democratic elections, but you always had a roof over your head, no one was starving to death.”

Statistics in Estonia currently state many people are malnourished meaning some days they might go to bed on an empty stomach, James said.

“It really makes you think we are now a part of a so-called liberal democratic society but in some terms we are worse off then we were under the Soviet Union.”

Food available in the shops back then was affordable but very basic.

“We always saw Finnish supermarkets on TV,” exclaimed Timur “and the shelves were always so full of food.

“The first time I went to Helsinki I thought I was prepared for when I saw the supermarkets. But I wasn’t, it was still a shock for me,” said Timur.

“This for us was a dream or like heaven,” Harry added and they all laughed.

They made clear that although they had grown up under the Soviet environment, they continue to be in awe of the Russian propaganda and what they have done to Crimea.

Harry explained, Estonia’s previous defence minister said he wanted to see American army bases in Estonia. “Everyone thought this was unnecessary,” Harry said “but as you can imagine opinions changed with the dramatic incidents in the Ukraine.”

The men expressed Russia has never acknowledged the past. ‘I don’t think it will happen’ they said ‘not until the type of elite is changed in Russia.’

When the interview finished, it was late afternoon. Tallinn’s shop lights warmed the streets and illuminated the two brick towers. Still despite its fairy-tale aura Estonians continue to question if they can close a dark chapter of Estonia’s past for good.


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