Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Baltic Journey, And Fears For Future

Flying free at St. Nicholas' Church in Tallinn's Old Town.

TALLINN, Estonia – The kid sitting in the box looked to be about 15 years old, clearly younger than the college student whose documents he was inspecting. He was holding a machine gun pointed directly at my chest and a doubtful eye at the passport and visa in his hands because in one I was wearing glasses and the other I wasn’t.

There was reason to be suspicious. We were a church-sponsored group of college students trying to enter the Soviet Union in the summer of 1985, just off a Soviet-flagged ferry from Helsinki, Finland. It was just after my sophomore year at NC State, and I was barely more than a scared bumpkin from the rural foothills of North Carolina.

We were smuggling Bibles, typing paper and women’s nylons – the things most requested by the technically illegal congregation of the Tallinn United Methodist Church for this biennial visit the Scandinavian Caravan, a 60-year-old exchange between the Western North Carolina Conference and the Scandinavian Conference of the United Methodist Church. We were also armed to the hilt with optimism and the annoying hopefulness of youth.

From the deck of the MS Georg Ots passenger ferry in 1985.
We took our chances. Some of the items were confiscated, some slipped through. A collection of Soviet officers gathered around a friend’s bag after they discovered something unimaginable in the over-documented world of the U.S.S.R.: an erasable ink pen. They grabbed it, broke and asked each of us if we had something similar. We didn’t.

Our passports were taken, our group was escorted to a closely watched tourist hotel that posted armed guards in the hallway of every floor and we were told not to stray from our overbooked itinerary.

We attended a wedding reception that night. We didn’t know the couple. We were a traveling troupe of 12 students from Appalachian State, NC State, North Carolina, Virginia, Wake Forest, Salem College and other schools, escorted all summer by a Methodist minister and his wife, brought to this place by four Finnish hosts. An Estonian bride was marrying Russian groom. A joke told on one side of the room was translated four times and reached the other side some 15 minutes later. Surprisingly, it was still funny.

The next day, we traveled by bus to a restored village, an Estonian Old Salem, according to my journal entry that day. As a city, Tallinn looked like it was three decades behind the 1980s, because of the olive drab of military occupation and the dreary gray of low-hanging clouds. Statues of Lenin and Stalin stared down at us, at the ferry port, in the town square, at the railroad station. There were long lines for water-dispensing machines with a single shared glass. We were prohibited from taking pictures of anything sensitive: the port, bridges, armed Soviet soldiers. Everything in town was so outdated, the heritage museum seemed redundant.

A statue of Stalin in the ferry passenger terminal.
It was the summer after Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, but before he introduced the radical concept of perestroika. We saw some of the leftover sailing venues of the boycotted 1980 Olympics, parts of which were held in this western outpost more than 650 miles from Moscow. In our limited free time, we walked the city streets, where we were approached by seedy entrepreneurs who tried to buy the blue jeans we were wearing right off our butts. “Businessman, businessman,” they said to us as they held up some Russian rubles.

Unfortunately, they were worthless to us. We had all declared how much money we had when we entered the country and we couldn’t leave with more than what we brought with us. Our Finnish hosts told us that teenagers from their country would take the ferry to Tallinn, sell a pair or two of jeans to the black marketers and spend their profits on a weekend binge. They were called “Vodka tourists.”

We bought some trinkets and souvenirs – coins from the Olympic Games, nesting dolls, bottles of American soda with “Pepsi” written in Cyrillic.

On our last day, we went to a six-hour service in a Seventh Day Adventist church that sublet its sanctuary to the Methodist congregation. Our minister delivered a strong message. The Finnish minister delivered a strong message. And the Estonian minister delivered a strong message. They all had to do with breaking the repressive hold the Soviet regime held over Estonia, a tiny country of 1.3 million country that was illegally annexed into the U.S.S.R. during World War II. The United States never recognized Soviet sovereignty over the country, but that hardly mattered in the daily lives of those who lived there.

Before we left, members of the congregation tearfully prayed that they could one day openly worship in their own sanctuary. What else could we do, but join them in asking for a little divine help?

A Different World 

Last summer, on a 12-day cruise of the Baltic Sea with my wife to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, I returned to Tallinn, fresh off a two-day visit of St. Petersburg, Russia. While the sights of the former Leningrad were overwhelming – the Hermitage, the Church of the Spilled Blood, the palaces of Peterhof and Catherine, all newly re-gilded with gold and Baltic amber – we couldn’t wait to leave.

The watchtowers of Old Town's medieval wall.
There was a strong disconnect between the beauty of the many places we saw and the cloud of repressiveness that hung over the residents of Peter the Great’s birthplace. Even watching the technically perfect Russian Ballet perform a spectacular version of “Swan Lake” seemed soulless.

The next day, we arrived in Tallinn, now a beautifully restored modern city that has spilled outside the walls of medieval Old Town, barely even pock-marked by its Soviet occupation. We were only there for a few hours, just barely enough time for the morning shower to evolve into a perfect, sunny afternoon.

The modernist architecture of the Lenin Hall for Culture and Sport – now called Linnahall – was hailed for its utilitarian nature when it opened in time for the 1980 Olympics, but it is completely abandoned now, while the 26 unique watch towers of the old city wall still hover over town with their smiling folk stories about fat virgins and skinny watchmen. Estonians claim that the wide expanse of Tallinn’s cobbled central square is the birthplace of marzipan and Christmas trees.

Tallinn is one of the most modern, best wired cities in all of Europe. We connected to free wireless as soon as we walked off our ship. We electronically connected to our kids back home with Skype, a video-telephone technology that was developed in Estonia and now loaded on every webcam-equipped laptop in the world.

This time, there were no passport checkpoints to cross, no inquiring armed guards, no dark fear of entering an oppressed, occupied state. Just a perfect day in the middle of the Tallinn Flower Festival.
On a bicycle tour of town, our college-aged guide named Anne took us all over town, but was insistent that add a secret destination from the planned route. We thought we were heading inside the Estonian History Museum, but she swerved at the front entrance and led our group behind the building.

Where despots turn to seed.
There, laying sideways in the grass, were more than two dozen of those Lenin and Stalin statues, abandoned to the overgrown grass since 1991, when Estonia – quite literally – joined hands with Latvia and Lithuania and declared their independence from the Soviet Union. She told us, “I’m sure if you could find a way to carry it, we wouldn’t mind if you took one home.” The smallest weighed about half a ton.

Most people know that the USSR broke apart shortly after Ronald Reagan stood near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and said “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” We visited the very spot where he delivered that speech during a day-long trip to the German capital, and walked along the remnants of the fabled barrier between East and West Berlin. It, too, is mostly gone, replaced by a thriving city that remembers its troubled past with a Holocaust memorial, tourist sites that include a replica of Checkpoint Charlie and a historical tribute to the wall. And, underneath a nondescript parking lot in the middle of town, our Jewish tour guide showed us where Hitler’s bunker was discovered.

For all the violence and upheaval that still scars that part of the world, the Baltic states gained their independence through nonviolent protests.

My wife and I pedaled around the grounds of Tallinn Song Festival Grounds, at the Lauluvaljak amphitheater, where in 1988 more than 300,000 Estonians – a quarter of the country’s population – gathered to sing patriotic rock songs, in defiance of Soviet edicts. It began “The Singing Revolution,” one of the least told and most amazing stories of the Cold War’s end, as the Estonians and their Baltic neighbors rallied through music and nonviolently stared down the Soviet Union.

The Tallinn United Methodist Church.
We rode our bikes to the front steps of the president’s home, which is located on the grounds of Kadriorg Palace, one of the many summer homes Peter the Great built on the Baltic for his wife Catherine I.

I stopped our tour at a busy intersection to snap a quick picture of the Tallinn United Methodist Church, which grew from that prohibited congregation I visited more than a quarter century before. It is the largest modern church in the country and houses the Baltic Methodist Theological Seminary, which has trained clergy for churches in the Baltic states, Scandinavia and Russia since the doors opened in 2000. It is the answer to the prayers so many people said during the time of Soviet occupation.

An Immediate Future in Doubt

I fear for my friends in Estonia.

By all realistic definitions, I don’t know anyone there – only the few smiling faces I remember during a couple of visits to the two very different versions of its capital city.

A good-luck chimney sweep.
But I do know a little about the country’s tragic past, how it has been kicked around like a Baltic soccer ball by the dominant powers of Northern Europe: Sweden, Denmark, Russia, Germany and the Soviet Union.

I know that Stalin and Hitler bounced the country around just before and during World War II. Stalin illegally annexed the country three days after Hitler took France. The Nazis took it over en route to setting up their fatal Eastern front. Young Estonian men were forcefully conscripted into both the Soviet and German armies, and some 50,000 of them perished for those unchosen causes.

When the war was over, the Soviets shipped hundreds of thousands of Estonians to the Gulag and to Siberia, and moved just as many Russians into Estonia to homogenize that particular region of the global super power.

They are fiercely proud of their two decades of independence, of their membership in the European Union and NATO, of their musical heritage and of their new hipster lifestyles.   

I don’t particularly like with what they have done with their freedom. Our tour guide bragged that Estonia is a progressive state that worships song, but doesn’t especially believe in God. It is one of the least religious countries in an increasingly agnostic and atheist Europe. Based on that one service I attended nearly three decades ago, I have spent more of my life in an Estonian church than she has.

But it’s their freedom. My new prayer is that Estonia and the other Baltic states don’t get sucked back under the umbrella of Russian rule, as Vladimir Putin goes forward with his unstated but obvious desire to reassemble the Soviet Union. Estonia is NATO’s third smallest nation; unlike the smaller Luxembourg and Iceland, Estonia shares a border with Russia and is dependent on Russia for its energy and other natural resources.

Like Crimea, if Russia wants to annex Estonia – or any of the other Baltic states – it wouldn’t take a lot of effort. News reports say geopolitical tensions are running high in the area. Saturday, our president promised that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania would remain protected, in accordance its NATO agreement.

There was a time when Estonians couldn’t imagine the simple freedom of self-rule. Now, they can’t do without it.

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