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New Problems for a Different Way of Life in Estonia

By Sparky Broome

Tallinn City Center from the former offices of the KGB, Hotel Viru. Now the KGB Museum.

Tallinn City Center from the former offices of the KGB, Hotel Viru. Now the KGB Museum.

Twenty-three years after Estonia gained re-independence from the Soviet Union new problems have emerged for everyday life. While life is dramatically different today from when it was in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, this does not necessary mean that life is easier than it was prior to re-independence but that there are new challenges to be faced. Nickolas*, corresponding via email, has lived through both periods, he characterizes the Soviet era in terms of stability vs. restrictions. Under the Soviet Regime, individuals were expected to make very few major decisions. Things like educational and professional affiliation were made for them and many other aspects of everyday life depended on these choices in a predefined way. But at the present time the situation is reversed. There are unlimited options, almost nothing is secure and no restrictions apply.

Sitting in the shop of the Museum of Occupation in Tallinn, Martin Andrelles, a historian there considers the biggest difference in everyday life today is that the life and environment is much more open. “In Soviet times and under the regime everything was controlled and manipulated… we didn’t have an opportunity to change our lives but then our lives were changed by the regime”. During the Soviet period, it was difficult for citizens of Estonia to travel outside of the country and Soviet Union into Western Europe, or even to allied socialist countries, but since Estonia joined the European Union and NATO in 2004, all the country’s boarders are open, which makes it easier to study or work abroad.

Freedom Square, Tallinn. Called Victory Square in Soviet Times where Rallies and Parades were performed. The Victory Column (left) commemorates the War of Independence 1918-1922

Freedom Square, Tallinn. Called Victory Square in Soviet Times where Rallies and Parades were performed. The Victory Column (left) commemorates the War of Independence 1918-1922

Often considered a success story in terms of post-Soviet life Estonia had to reconstruct every aspect of society. The political and economical side had to be rebuilt. For many Estonians this post-Soviet life was a continuation of the independence that they enjoyed in the inter-war years from 1918 -1940. Estonia also looked towards its neighbor, Finland, as a model for the new democratic society. Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Estonians in the capital Tallinn could watch Finnish television, despite the Soviet government’s attempts to prevent this. The period directly after re-independence was one of struggle, everything was changing, the old rules didn’t exist anymore and the new rules of the new society were not really established, this led to an increased level of criminality in the beginning of the 1990s, before Estonia could become a more established regulated European society. For Andrelles, the hardest moment was to prove to yourself [Estonia] and to other nations and countries that we [Estonia] can make it on our own and we are a strong republic.

For Journalist Maria*, a key difference that highlighted how independent life differed was the absence of curtains in cafés. “In the Soviet times the cafes had thick curtains, which I think was like a symbol of people having fear, people didn’t want to be seen… people didn’t want to speak loudly in a public space, in a café they were whispering”. While in the Soviet regime there was this fear of speaking your opinion, certain citizens were looked after. One of the things that characterizes the Soviet period was no unemployment. Everyone had to have a job, and in some cases like work on the collective farms, this job provided you with a place to live, so there was more job security. As Anya*, corresponding via email put it “People were careless, there was less stress. People had jobs back then, you had to work. Otherwise you were a loser. You did not have to worry about life; you were guaranteed a job and a place to live.

While jobs were more secure in the Soviet period, there were still other social problems that faced citizens in everyday life. A major factor of ordinary life was that the shops were emptier than they are today. Of course in the Soviet time, you could get bread, milk, and potatoes but it was impossible to buy fruit in the winter. The Soviet time is often characterized by long queues in order to get food products. For example Maria explained, “If shops or supermarkets sold oranges then people queued, one or two hours long they had to wait. It was a big deficit… also meat was a big deficit.” Although it was much easier than for others, if you had the right connections then it was easier to get stuff. For example war veterans, people in favour with the Government, or even shopkeepers or someone who worked in a hotel.

Statue of Lenin outside the then Headquarters of the Estonian Communist Party, now the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Photo courtesy of the Estonian National Archives

Statue of Lenin outside the then Headquarters of the Estonian Communist Party, now the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Photo courtesy of the Estonian National Archives

When characterizing the Soviet period, it is common to assume that life in Independent Estonia is easier now than before and that people do not miss life before, but this is not the case. While there is more freedom of expression in independent Estonia, there are still some people who miss the Soviet time. Martin Andrelles explained: “when they had very good jobs for example, had good living, their life in that part of everyday life was perfect for them. Maybe today they’re not that wealthy anymore or they are not working in those high places they might think, I loved the Soviet time better as my job was better, my salary was better and maybe I had a better apartment.” When people do miss life in the Soviet times, it was more at the individual level rather than the whole meaning of the regime. Maria explains this in relation to the small villages. For the workers of the collective farms, the state built apartments. These were 2 or 3 floors with central heading and large beautiful apartments, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union most of the collective farms were privatized and sold off so people lost their jobs. These apartments have now become rundown and not renovated, so residents now have to heat the apartments themselves. Maria describes this as a key symbol of how life has changed, “it used to be a collective thing and now everyone has to do everything themselves.”

Display showing Estonia's currency, The Soviet Ruble from 1944-1992 and then the Estonian Kroon from 1992-2011. KGB Museum, Hotel Viru, Tallinn

Display showing Estonia’s currency, The Soviet Ruble from 1944-1992 and then the Estonian Kroon from 1992-2011. KGB Museum, Hotel Viru, Tallinn

Although there was more access to products in shops after independence, the prices rose in Independent Estonia, even though for the most part the salaries stayed the same; this was also the case when Estonia converted to the Euro in 2011, when the prices rose once again. This caused problems such as the widening of social gaps, when under the Soviet Union the majority of people earned roughly the same amount. For Anya this aspect of the Soviet Union was not so bad. “I miss that people were more equal. Nowadays there are big gaps, too many people are poor. You have to work until you bleed, people stress about work much more now”.

Living through the Soviet Regime the older generation has a greater appreciation for the democracy which generations born after independence are used to. For Nickolas “I realize that things can easily get worse and the whole [way of] life could instantly change with major consequences upon certain events beyond your control. This is something that is probably hard to comprehend for young people” Martin Andrelles, summarizes that a key aspect of this is that Estonians born after independence don’t have first hand experience so their opinion is based on the stories which their parents or older relatives have told them, which of course is never the full story, as stories can change and are only certain aspects. For the younger generations it may be hard to imagine some of the weird realities of the times, Andrelles explains, for young people when they go to the shop they see everything and so can’t imagine there were days when you had to stand in line to get one bread or a couple of milks.

For Anya, “Younger people are always more optimistic than older people. Younger people have everything ahead. They have all doors open nowadays. But older people who have seen so many things, they know that life is not always that easy”

Despite it being more than 20 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, there is still an underlying fear in Estonian Society. Maria explains, “I think that actually this fear somehow still exists because it is not so easy to change everything. It was been 20 years, a little bit more since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but I still feel society differs from the Western European Societies, of course not as much as it used to, like in the beginning of the nineties, but there is still something different”.

*Names changed

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