Healing Soviet Wounds: The Unsure Revival of Estonia

Mu siida, arka tiles ja kiida Loojat lauldes,
Kes koik head meile annab ja muret ikka kannab.
Kui magama ma heitsin, end Isa stale peitsin,
mind saatan puudis neelda, kuid Jumal vottis keelda.

Wake up, my heart, and sing praise to the Creator Who gives us all good things and bears all our worries.

When I went to sleep, I hid myself in my Father’s arms. Satan tried to swallow me but God forbade it.

Such are the opening two stanzas of Estonia’s national hymn, a song of such excruciating beauty that even now I am almost unable to bear listening to it. I first heard it late at night, after a dinner held for conference participants. We sojourned from the restaurant, down the cobbled streets of the medieval town of Tallinn, to a private school, and there my young host, Varro Vooglaid, and his friends brought out their instruments—guitars, mandolins, violins, various wind instruments—and sang and played. Since one of the company was a young wandering Irishman, who could play the flute like Pan possessed, most of the revelry was Irish.

But then, they fell into Mu suda, arka tiles, “Wake up, my heart,” and I fell in with them. Fell in deep. Not since the last song sung by the Jews in Babylon before they hung their lyres upon the willows in the land of exile could there have been music where pain, hope, and beauty were so en-twined, reaching like a rope from the depths of the human soul to the merciful heart of God.

The double miracle of this song is that it is, in fact, in Estonian, a very particular language of the Finno-Ugric family, and that it is sung by Estonians who still speak that language in an independent country called Estonia. All his-tory seems to have conspired to extinguish or absorb Estonia, and hence Estonian with it. Each successive conquering wave from east, west, or south—Danes, Germans, Swedes, Russians—has sought to digest Estonia for its own sustenance. Each left its distinctive stratum in Estonian history, but at the end of it all, this diminutive country of not even a million-and-a-half inhabitants has emerged intact.

The last conquerors, the Soviets, were indeed the Satan that tried to swallow it. In 1990, half-a-million Estonians converged upon the capital of Tallinn—one-third of the population of the entire country—and broke the loosening grip of the Soviets with song at Song Festival Stadium, an amphitheater rising out of the ground near the coast. Estonia declared independence on August 20, 1991, and the last of the Russian troops would withdraw in August 1994. Mu siida, deka tiles, indeed.

One might wonder what I, an American from rural Ohio, was doing in this northern European land that had borne so many trials. That is an interesting story.


I confess when I first read the e-mail from Vooglaid inviting me to speak at the TriaLogos Conference in Estonia I had only the vaguest idea where Estonia was, and no idea of the place it occupied in history. He had read my book Architects of the Culture of Death (co-written with Don DeMarco) and wanted to translate it into Estonian, and furthermore, wished me to be one of the principal speakers at a conference, a yearly religious-cultural festival put on by Estonian Roman Catholics. I cheered him on in regard to the translation, but politely informed him that, being a father of seven, I rarely travel and, consequently, going to Europe would be out of the question.

I then trod into the kitchen to show my wife a copy of the e-mail as a kind of joke, and to find a map so I could, out of curiosity, locate Estonia. My wife read the e-mail, which included a painful account of how the culture of death even now wracks Estonia and of the nation’s need for intellectual guidance in building a culture of life after the ravages of so many decades of Soviet occupation. She looked me square in the eye and said, “You have to go.”

And so, after lunch, I wrote Vooglaid that there had been a change of mind because there had been a change of hearts.

“What can I say about a situation like this?” he shot back. “What material causes could provoke such situations? What else does one need in order to believe in supernatural forces? True life is simply so incredible that you cannot do anything but be humble in your constant amazement.”

That I, who had never been to Europe, was jetting off to Estonia—that was surely an act of Providence.

Estonian Catholics

As I arrived on a Sunday, Vooglaid whisked me from the plane to the hotel, and then to Mass at the Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral, said by Bishop Philippe Jourdan, a Frenchman by birth, ordained bishop of Tallinn in 2005. The cathedral was, by church standards in Tallinn, modest, and only modestly filled. I noticed immediately that there were few children, perhaps a smaller child-to-adult ratio than one would find in most American Catholic parishes, the members of which have happily embraced birth control. Not a good sign.

Estonian Catholics, I soon found out, are a small, small minority—about 5,000, or approximately a third of 1 percent of the population. An endangered species, if viewed through mere demographic eyes; but through the eyes of Providence, who knows what God could do with this mustard seed?

It was not always so. Estonia was one of the very last pagan peoples in Europe to be Christianized by Catholics, crusaders from Denmark and northern Germany in the 13th century. What is now Tallinn was an ancient Estonian fortress on the seacoast, Toompea, which became the upper part of the city as it spread down and away from the cliffs, fed by money from merchants.

Tallinn allegedly comes from taani lien, meaning “Danish city,” but its first notable occupational layer is Germanic, the Danes having sold North Estonia to the Teutonic Order in 1346.

Quite fittingly, we lecturers for TriaLogos held forth amid the ruins of an ancient Dominican church of St. Catherine’s Abbey. The structure, built more than 700 years ago, had been ravaged by more than time. In the early 1500s, floods of savagely iconoclastic Lutherans unleashed from the south tore the church stone from stone. Outside, running along the alleyway by the abbey church, great shards of the original structure salvaged from the ruins have been bolted to the wall to stand witness; within, propped up on the walls behind the speakers, there are more bits and pieces lovingly retrieved.

One evening of the festival, a poetry reading takes place in the remains of the monastery. Flickering candles lead us up the steps of the abbey into the ancient stone rooms where prayers once echoed down the passageways. One such passage takes us to a chamber deep within. Here, too, holy rubble adorns the walls, and Vooglaid informs me that the Dominicans occasionally still say Mass here, the altar standing by the single window that opens upon the abbey’s contemplative courtyard.

Many of the great churches of Tallinn suffered similarly, but were rebuilt in the imago Lutheri. The magnificent St. Nicholas Church somehow escaped the scourge of iconclasm. Built in the 13th century by German merchants, St. Nicholas was part fortification, part church, with walls at some places being almost ten feet thick. Raging Lutherans bent on smashing holy images, vessels, and anything else within reach could not gain entry. Not only were the walls too thick and the facade impregnable, but the doors’ locks had been filled with molten lead.

Not all scourges could be stayed. St. Nicholas was heavily damaged in 1944 during Soviet air raids, when the occupying Nazis withdrew only to allow for Soviet reinvasion, and yet another age of darkness for Estonia. The church was rebuilt in 1984 and today is only a museum, housing (quite appropriately) Bernt Notke’s famous 15th- century masterpiece Danse Macabre, featuring grim death- dancing with all of God’s plenty, from the pope on down to the commonest commoner.

And, to make a long story all too short, that is why there are so few Catholics in Estonia, and why the cathedral was so modest and new by comparison. As with most of northern Europe, it had given way under the tide of Lutheranism.

Yet there is, most likely, another reason. The Estonian population has been decisively double-stamped, first by Lutheranism and then by communism. The religious zeal of the first Lutherans has now quite worn off, and it remains a kind of cultural state religion as pale and effete as Anglicanism in England. Having embraced birth control, they eschew births. The Soviets were notoriously abortion- happy as well, and when they withdrew, Planned Parent-hood International, their compatriot in depopulation, rushed into the moral vacuum. Estonian Catholics are surrounded, smothered, and, I suspect, all too sympathetic to the resultant cultural bent against children.

After his lecture at the conference, I met Bishop Jourdan in person. We engaged in some polite talk about academics, and then I mustered my courage to say that I was discouraged to see so few children in the cathedral on Sun-day. “God will only hear the prayers of Estonian Catholics when the church is filled with children,” I said (I’m sure far too boldly). He reminded me how few Catholics there were in Estonia, and given that they are spread out, how difficult it is for them to find fellow Catholics to marry. We left it at that, for he knew almost all Catholic parishes in America were much the same.

Ground by West and East

One can understand much of Estonia’s history by looking at a map or walking the streets of Tallinn—or better, both. As a map quickly reveals, Estonia lies in the easternmost edge of the West and the westernmost edge of the East. Tallinn itself is perched on the rim of the Baltic Sea, an enticement to traders and empire-makers for a thousand years.

As Germans were the most active merchants, Teutonic influence in the capital city is quite palpable as one walks the cobbled streets of the medieval sector; in fact, for most of its history, the city was known by its German name, Reval. Tallinn was built in great part from the riches overflowing from the fervent trading of the Hanseatic League that kept Baltic ports busy from the 13th century onward. Equally distinct, however, is the stamp of Russia not just the morbid impress of Soviet domination but, far more pleasantly (and, I hope, deeply), the stunning Orthodox churches.

The Estonians have been under someone else’s domination for so long that it has decisively formed their character. In fact, their historic “golden era” was not under self-rule, but under the century-long rule of the Swedes in the 1600s, brought about by the Swedish victory against Russia, Poland, and Denmark in the vastly complex and confusing Livonian War at the end of the 1500s.

This golden era would come to an end when Peter the Great, unable to control his appetite for an ice-free port on the Baltic, advanced on Estonia at the dawn of the 18th century from his newly minted and all-too-near city of St. Petersburg. The invasion took place in the midst of a series of devastating plagues, running from 1695 to 1710. Peter was wise enough to use the Baltic Germans to rule the local Estonians, who then became little more than slaves.

By the 19th century, Russian wariness of German power led to a removal of German influence and the attempted Russification of the Baltics, so that Russian was forcibly imposed to uproot the official language of German. During all this time, the Estonian language remained, against all odds, and Estonian national feeling began to swell. In fact, the first Estonian newspaper, Eesti Postimees, was founded just a year before the bloody American Civil War came to a close.

The decline in power of tsarist Russia, ending in the revolution that would make it a steely Marxist state, brought momentary light to Estonian history, a window of independence that lasted from 1918 until 1940. Indeed, the Estonian Liberation War was a near-miracle, considering the odds of such a small country against the greatness of Russia. But all too soon Estonians once again became the victims of the newest manifestation of the age-old machinations between Germans and Russians. In a secret pact of 1939, the Nazis resigned Estonia to the Soviets, and Estonians’ last and most brutal of masters immediately moved in.

This near-perpetual domination has engrained the Estonian character with what might best be described as habitual deference, the wariness of a peasant in a culture of servitude. I first noticed it when I walked cheerfully down the streets. Americans are generally jovial and open, and I not the least of them. We are smilers, wavers, and backslappers, especially here in rural Ohio, where when even two cars pass, the drivers cordially wave.

There I was, spreading cheer, sauntering down the cobblestones, and noticed immediately that my attempts were always met by downcast eyes. Later I asked a monk, Brother Seraphim, why. He laughed: “Estonians are forest people. Workers of the land. Peasants. For much of our history we had to look at an approaching man first, at a distance, to see if he was a German master. If we don’t take our cap off be- fore he sees us, we would be taken into the town square and beaten.” But the Germans were not their harshest masters.

Soviet Saatan

It is impossible for me to describe the sickening gray imprint Soviet occupation had upon this most beautiful of peoples. Of course, I have read about the atrocities of Soviet tyranny, but to experience it, to see the scars of the foul scratches of its claws on an innocent culture, to breathe its systematic disdain for humanity still heavy in the air—that, no history book can give. Within a day, I had a deep hatred for the Soviets that bordered on a kind of mania. The demonic powers behind their regime became entirely visible.

The Soviet domination only intensified the ingrained suspicion and fear in Estonians. And they shall be a long time shaking it. A vignette for illustration: I arrived in Tallinn devoid of some basic toiletries, given the airlines’ fear of packing explosives in everything from toothpaste to deodorant. Happily, the local supermarket, Rimi (which was somewhere between the size of a large convenience store and a small grocery store), was within easy walking distance of the hotel.

Rimi was bright, colorful, and had amply stocked shelves. Vooglaid informed me that he still remembers very clearly, burned as it is in his soul, his family receiving coupons for bread from the ever-generous Soviets—barely enough to live on when bread was actually available. In fact, he lived just across the street from Rimi, then called Kaubahall, which roughly translates as “hall of goods.” While it may have been a hall, it was mostly empty and not nearly as big. “I remember myself going to that shop,” Vooglaid told me, “and witnessing tens of meters of literally empty shelves. . . . You could find a few goods here and there, perhaps a can of conserved cucumbers or something else, but there was a total vacuum in general.” Rimi burst out of the concrete after the Soviets withdrew, like some great exotic flower, dazzling, even blinding. For Estonians who had silently stood in endless lines clutching coupons, wondering if they might eat that day, it must now be debilitating to be confronted with ten to 15 kinds of men’s deodorants. Even more incomprehensible, rows upon rows of meat, bread, fruits, and vegetables. I imagine the shock of sudden abundance must have been nearly enough to cause fatal heart perturbations in many an elderly Estonian woman. But with all of this, I also found Cosmopolitan on the magazine rack, and Teletubbies videos. More on that later.

So there I was in Rimi, milling about and trying to figure out what exactly it meant to pay 23 Estonian crowns for a smallish stick of deodorant. (I remark here, as a sign of its resilience under tyranny, that Estonia has not yet been sucked into the Euro-system.) I had received a wad of Estonian bills in exchange for U.S. currency at the hotel— taken a drubbing too, as I later found out, at about 10 to 1, rather than the actual exchange rate of 12 to 1—but had no idea what meant what. Casting that care to the wind, I grabbed the least expensive, and set off to find the manager because I wanted to take a picture of the inside of Rimi for this very article.

“Hello,” I smiled at a mid-30ish woman, who represented the ubiquitous human type, and could easily have been translated to Kmart without remainder. “Could I speak with your manager?”

Here, I soon realized, I had made two errors: (1) being publicly cheerful and (2) asking for someone higher up. For those who have nearly suffocated under the leaden blanket of Soviet totalitarianism, this could only mean one thing: This man is a KGB agent. Someone who smiles too much and asks for an overling was no doubt a prelude to having half your family disappear in the night to be reeducated in Siberia. (And in fact, more than 60,000 Estonians were shipped off to Russia, the majority of them dying there.)

“I speak no English,” she said nervously, and searched around for another clerk. She spoke little more.

“Yes … uh, I’m an American journalist, writing a story about Estonia. I was wondering if I might take some pictures of the inside of your store?”

Immediately a very worried look knit her brow. “No,” she muttered, shaking her head darkly, “No.” A kind of automatic response, since she led me up to the front, looking around and thinking it over as if she might be swayed. I could imagine her weighing the memories of occupation against the fragile freedom since gained. Then she stopped. The weight of history was too much. “No. It is not possible. We cannot do that,” she shook her head and walked away.

Deep, deep suspicion. Any flower that sprung out of the ground so suddenly like Rimi, breaking through fissures in the concrete, could disappear just as quickly.

Communism was not just an economic disaster; it was a profound spiritual disorder, the vileness of which still palpably broods over Tallinn in the architecture. Previous masters at least left magnificent buildings, as a sign that while they may have been unjust oppressors they were not fundamentally malignant. But only something demonic could express the utter antagonism to beauty evident in the monuments to Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and the millions of debased and dehumanized functionaries who oiled the creaking Soviet empire and its grasping hand. Buildings not just gray, but purposely drained of color, as if even the hint of beauty glimpsing through brutal and small-minded utilitarianism would be a crack through which the sunlight would cut like the holy, gleaming sword of an angel.

Vooglaid takes me on a drive to see the worst. On the outskirts of Tallinn, great Soviet monstrosities, apartment buildings, rise straight up like a colony of cruel fists punched through from below. They housed the imported Russian population that—as with all competent conquerors—was sent to seed the land meant to be a Soviet sidewalk to the Baltic.

The Soviets are gone; the Russians are there still, a large, alien population. How they can ever be assimilated, I do not know. To me, the difference between the look of an Estonian and a Russian is inconsequential, as little as between two very closely related sparrows. But Estonian eyesight, I conjecture, must have been far more acute. During occupation, the difference between these two kinds of sparrows, in terms of whom to trust, was that of flickering light and dead darkness, hope and despair. And yet, Soviet corruption sank even into some Estonian souls, as Vooglaid made clear when I offered these observations. “The whole story is even more difficult, for it was not as simple that you could trust the Estonians and not the Russians. Many Estonians became collaborators, and thus distrust was overwhelming. You could never know to whom your neighbors were loyal. And this is the unfortunate legacy: total distrust toward everything and everyone. The reaction you got at Rimi has its roots in that very phenomenon, I am afraid.”

Lying in bed late at night, I turned on the television. On one of the very few stations I found an old Soviet propaganda film. Even though I know not a word of Russian, the entire plot was transparent. Oppressed Russian peasants awaiting deliverance; a dashing young peasant, breaking with tradition, rides merrily on his wagon telling his fiancée of the man he’s heard speaking in town about the glories of communism. Cut to the town, and there on the balcony, gesticulating like Stalin, is the hero, dressed in modest communist military attire, regaling the crowd of peasants. At the end, they break into wild applause, pounding their hands together, strangely large smiles impressed upon their lips. Cut to the town square. More smiling. Peasant women pour piles upon piles of fresh produce onto their already overflowing tables. I cannot think of curses deep or wide enough to bring down upon them for such lies; it would take a Dante to imagine an appropriate punishment.

My spiraling hatred of the Soviets was, thankfully, broken my last night in Estonia. As if on an errand of mercy, we were sent the Russians—not the vampiresque Soviet creatures of decay and dehumanization, but real Russians, one man and seven women, who sang in haunting harmonies and memories; sang about Jesus Christ; sang from the bottom of the Russian soul far below the smotherations, vexations, and abominations of communism; sang a shattering Alleluia of resurrection joy, one they carried out of those precious depths adorned with all the pain they wished to fly to heaven and dissipate in its holy, cleansing mists. This pain they share with the Estonians; it is more profound than anything that can divide them. There is hope.

A Snake in the Garden

The Soviets were a juggernaut of a dragon. There was no mistaking their evil. But now the Estonians have to watch for a far more subtle serpent. As I mentioned above, Rimi was a sign of hope, a modest but aspiring cornucopia. But amid the plenty was mixed the allure of moral and spiritual degradation of another sort, the kind we face each day. There was Cosmopolitan magazine—in Estonian. This beautiful language, an ancient and delicate jewel that had escaped the boot of so many oppressors, now defiled by the same catty sexual bilge that overflows our cultural ditches. And Teletubbies!—they even look like fallen cherubs in the service of the evil one, sent to replace the innocence of the very young with zombie-like attachment to the one-eyed, brain- sucking electronic Polyphemus.

Eating breakfast at my hotel, I am assailed by a television spewing the sexual inanities of MTV. Where once the patently contrived drama of Soviet indoctrination, pumped from the propaganda mills, ruled the airwaves, now all the contrived sensuality of the West, pumped from corporations and Hollywood, gushes forth on multiple stations. How to tell a people who have waited in line for bread to beware of the delightful poisons of consumerism in the neon Garden of Eden?

Vooglaid drives me to the new shopping mall recently built upon what used to be, for centuries, the town’s meeting place, the field that acted as the public square. We are there on a very ordinary day, but it is as jammed as Christmas Eve. Jammed with goods; jammed with lights; jammed with every extravagance and superfluity; jammed with all that pets the body and numbs the soul; and jammed with people. Streams of young Estonians and Russians roll in and out, all the girls dressed in the latest prostitutionalia from the West. To them who are so young, the stories about centuries of want, about the cold claws of the Soviets, about the soul that waits in darkness for salvation—that is all ancient history or fantasy. They, as we, know only the pleasures of the moment.

What Now, Estonia?

As I said, Vooglaid brought me to Estonia after reading about the architects of the culture of death. As with other thoughtful Estonians, he is very worried that they have escaped from one kind of evil into the arms of another, from the clutches of Marx into the glittering candy carnal house of Helen Gurley Brown, Margaret Sanger, Alfred Kinsey, Wal-Mart, Santy Claws, Playboy and Easter Bunnies, chattering empty heads, 140 channels (40 of which are porn), enervating entertainment, and all that travels the sewers of pop culture.

Estonian culture has survived every sort of barbarism over the centuries. May God protect it from this one. We can only pray with the last lines of their national hymn:

Su beldus jaagu mulle, mu suda templiks Sulle. Su Sona mind siin toitku, teed taeva Poole naitku.

May Your grace remain with me, may my heart be Your temple.

May Your word nourish me and show me the way to Heaven.


  • Benjamin D. Wiker

    Benjamin Wiker is Professor of Political Science and Senior Fellow of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University. His website is www.benjaminwiker.com.

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