The Taiga Home Companion: Letters Home from Moscow, 1993

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Part 10: Escape to Estonia

June 14, 1993

It's hard to love Russia, but it sure is easy to love Estonia. She's young, beautiful, energetic, merry, fond of pastry, and seemingly virtuous. When I set out for Estonia, my head was filled with preconceptions, gained from Ian, that Estonia was a country quickly transforming itself from a fragment of the Soviet bloc into a full member of the Nordic world, in conscious and deliberate imitation of Finland. Though a few aspects of Estonian life bore more resemblance to Russia than Ian's bubbling description might have led me to expect, in general everything I saw confirmed what he said: Estonia is going to make it.

For those of you to whom Estonia is just another name on the list of newly liberated European countries, here are a few facts that set it apart from the rest. First, Estonians aren't Slavs. They're Finno-Ugric, like the Hungarians, but even more like the Finns. They tend toward fair hair and blue eyes, which isn't a recommendation in itself, but may make it easier to believe their claim--stated by displays of flags, international sports competions, and maps of Estonia cropped to show Norway but not Russia--that they are Scandinavians too. (The fact that Tallinn looks like Stockholm and the Estonian island of Saaremaa bears an uncanny resemblance to the Danish island of Fyn helps too.)/

Second, they are Protestants, Lutherans. I'm not sure how far I want to follow Weber on the influence of religion on economic life, but when you step inside a stern, stark Estonian Lutheran church, it is easy to imagine its grimness being translated into a desire for above-board honesty in business and government: no mafia, no bribe-taking.

Finally, unlike all other former Soviet Republics and much of the rest of Eastern Europe, Estonia has a stable currency. The central bank keeps the kroon at 8 to the Deutsche mark, making the kroon every bit as "hard" as the dollar and harder than the pound sterling. This decision in itself tells a lot about the country, I think. It's real shock therapy, since prices are approaching world prices very quickly, while the government can't just print money to help out the pensioners, the way the Russians do. But once an item reaches world prices, it won't keep going up, the way it will in Russia. Thus the kroon represents a national will to become part of the West no matter the short-term pain. Quite a display of courage.

But it takes more than sound monetary policy to melt my heart. The coffee-cream cream puffs, excellent pizza, and Finnish beer helped. So did the general beauty of the country, from the cobblestones of Tallinn's well preserved Old Town to the pristine beach at Jarve to the artistically sculpted farms I saw flying between the two. O, to be an aerial photographer of Estonia! Then there was the general air of merriment that I think is possible only under capitalism, because only under capitalism does a company have an incentive to pay Estonian children in folk costumes to run around town square--itself bedight in colorful cafe umbrellas advertising the different imported beers sold there--handing out free helium balloons with the company logo to even younger children. Could such a thing every happen in Moscow? Well, maybe. Just maybe. But it taxes the imagination.

Because Estonia gives free yellow balloons to children, because it has figured out how to make good pizza and sell it for a dollar, because its farmers plow around rocks in their fields as deftly as a Japanese gardener ever raked sand around a stone, because its people speak Russian slowly and simply enough for me to understand them, because they know where they want to go, and their chosen destination seems to be Denmark, while I was there I wanted to congratulate the Estonians, to slap them on the back (whereas I would be more inclined to slap the Russians in the face). I felt an enormous desire to help Estonia in any way I could, and indeed I hope the articles I have written for the Guardian will help boost tourism just a little. So great was the obvious hope and pride of the people that I thought, this must be what Israel was like in the beginning.

And there of course is the hitch. For the policies of Stalin and his successors made Estonia 40% Russian, and those Russians, even the ones born in Estonia, have mostly been denied citizenship. Viktor and Alexandra, the two Tallinn Russians with whom I shared a train compartment back to Moscow, along with Ruslan, the Russian soldier, were very nice people, very friendly. They passed me the beer bottle, and called me "molodetz" (Good boy--they highest praise a man of my age can win from an older Russian) Yet they represent a serious problem for Estonia, that will only grow until Estonia becomes not another Denmark, but another Northern Ireland. Unless it can instead accept its Russians, and become a relatively peaceful bilingual state like Belgium or Finland.

Let's hope.

One good anecdote from my Estonian trip:

I had planned to take the 4 1/2 hour bus from Tallinn to Kuressaare, the beach town on Saaremaa I was to write about. But trained by Let's Go to be thorough, I decided to call Estonian Air anyway, just to see how much it would cost to fly, in case a wealthy Guardian reader didn't want to ride the bus. My call was answered by a woman speaking very good English, who told me that the round-trip Moscow-Tallinn fare was $218, while the one-way Tallinn-Kuressaare fare was 60Kr. Not until I had thanked her and hung up did I do the conversion and learn that 60Kr was less than $5. I figured that there must have been some mistake, and I would ask again later. But when I happened across the Estonian Air city office, they not only confirmed that it was 60Kr--not $60, 600Kr, or even 160Kr--but also that the flight schedule would fit very nicely with my own agenda. I bought the ticket right there, with five 25Kr bills.

I was very proud of myself all that day and next, though still a little unbelieving. I arrived at the airport about 35 minutes before the flight, and presented myself and one bag to check. Everything went fine; the young man tagged my bag, tore off my ticket, pointed me to the gate. But then he said, "Oh, wait. One more thing: I need to see your passport." OK, I showed him my passport. He frowned, looked back at my ticket, and said, "I'm sorry. Your category of ticket is only good for citizens of the former Soviet Union."

This was far too believable. Estonian Air, a spinoff of Aeroflot, had kept Aeroflot's two-tier fare structure: one low fare for citizens, one high fare for foreigners. I knew the fare had been too good to be true. "But I bought the ticket speaking only English," I protested. He shrugged. "How much is it for foreigners?" I asked. "Oh, I think about 300Kr." $23. Not a huge amount, but enough to seriously bust my budget.

A glance at my notebook told me that I had already missed all the buses that day, except the one that got in at 1am, and that I had probably missed that too. I realized that my only option was to trade my 120Kr roundtrip ticket plus another 180Kr for a 300Kr one-way, and then take the bus back to Tallinn. I was all set to do this, when the clerk quietly said, "If you have 50Kr for me it won't be a problem."

I was shocked. It's one thing to be asked for a bribe in Russia or even Lithuania; it goes with the territory. But here in upright, Scandinavia-aping, Lutheran Estonia? Maybe they weren't so de-Sovietized after all. The general rule is that you only get one chance to grease a palm, so rather than think it over I gave him the money ($4), in return for which he gave me my baggage check.

There were still 20 minutes before the flight, so I sat in the waiting area and stewed. The fact that neither the woman I spoke to on the phone nor the woman in the city ticket office had mentioned the dual fare structure to an obvious American was very suspicious. Perhaps the airport clerk had simply snookered me? But how was I to find out? If I asked the Estonian Air people in Kuressaare, they might confirm his story and demand that I pay the extra money for my flight back. So I would have to CALL them from a pay phone, and then plead ignorance at the airport if they gave me the wrong answer. But what if he had lied? Well, I could try to describe him to his superiors, but truth be told, all these tall, blond, blue-eyed Estonians in jean jackets really look kind of alike.

As I thought this over, about ten minutes before boarding, there was a tap on my shoulder. It was the clerk, abashedly holding out my two 25Kr notes. He was returning the bribe! Unheard of! "I'm terribly sorry," he mumbled. "That rule is for international flights--to Stockholm--only." "So there is only one fare for domestic flights?" I asked, taking the money. "Yes," he called back, as he retreated down the corridor.

So there you have it. Estonia, the country where they take bribes, but NEVER under false pretenses.

And that's the news from Lake Peipus.

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