Monday, June 30, 2008


It is time to say "Head aega", literally "(wishing you a) good time" to Tallinn. Tomorrow we leave Estonia, having spent three wonderful months here. As with any other trip or experience, we have regrets that we have not been able to do as much as we might have, but we also have fond memories of what we did see and experience. I will bring with me a lot of pictures in my camera, and a lot more in my head. I will also bring home a new screen saver, a view of Tallinn taken from the Pirita pier just as the sun is setting across the water.

There are the famous icons on this skyline. The tallest structure in the middle is Oleviste Kirik (Church), a starkly Lutheran structure built by the folks in the lower town to show the rich guys on the hill that they could build a taller church steeple (and you wonder why modern Estonians are so competitive?). To the left of Oleviste is the Toom Kirik, or the Dome Chuch that has all the coats of arms of the noble households of the Baltic Germans. Further to the left you can see Pikk (Tall) Hermann where the flag still proudly flies. To the left of the tower is St. Nicholas Church, the incredibly ornate Russian Orthodox church with its onion-shaped towers. Moving further left is the steeple of the Holy Ghost Church (where my parents were married), and more to the left is the tower of the old city hall, Raekoja (Radhus in German). To the left of this is one of the protective towers of the Old Town. The twin towers belong to Karli Kirik, or Karl’s Church, which is like the national cathedral, where the important national ceremonies take place.

But the most prominent structure on this skyline is not a church or a tower. It is a smokestack! There it is, to the right of Oleviste Kirik – a huge, ugly beast intruding into the peaceful gentility of the Old Town. Every old picture of Tallinn I have seen shows this stack belching smoke, including a picture taken by my dad from exactly the same place sometime in the 1930s. Below is a paining done in 1967 that shows the stack in all its glory.

The power plant that fed the stack is long gone, but it is impossible to eliminate this stack from the picture, for it is now a historically protected monument! A smoke stack, for heaven’s sake! Oh, well. It's nice to know that with all the change occurring in Estonia, at least some things will remain constant. I look forward to seeing that smokestack on the skyline the next time I come, and I hope this will be soon. Head aega Eesti!

-- Aarne


There is an old joke about USSR Chairman Leonid Brezhnev who was obsessed with having statues made of himself. Apparently a monument was planned in Soviet Estonia commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of A. H. Tammsaare, a widely respected Estonian man of letters during the last half of the 1800s. For that purpose a contest was arranged. The third prize was awarded to a design representing Tammsaare reading Brezhnev’s works. Second prize went to a design representing Brezhnev reading Tammsaare’s works. First prize was awarded to a design that showed Brezhnev thinking about Tammsaare. : )

I don’t know of many statues that show people thinking about something (except “The Thinker” of course, but we don’t know what he is thinking of.) In the case of the statue of Gustav Ernesaks, however, we are fairly sure what thoughts are going through his bronze head.

If you have been reading this blog, you would know about the “Singing Revolution” and how the Estonian people showed the USSR that there is strength in song. It was Gustav Ernesaks, more than any single individual, who kept alive the tradition of song and singing during the darkest days of the occupation. He was the one who convinced the authorities to keep the song festivals going, and he wrote songs that the people could sing, and he organized and conducted the RAM, the National Men’s Choir that brought these songs to all parts of Estonia.

When he died in 1991, the people of Estonia decided to erect a statue of him, and placed it at the back of the “lauluväljak”, or the “singing field”, where all the large song festivals are held. The statue is of him sitting, looking down at the field and the singing shell.

It is very imaginative of the artist to depict Ernesaks as if he is listening, instead of having him be majestically conducting or performing. And it looks to me that he is not only listening, but that he is also thinking. His thoughts seem far away from the song he is hearing. Perhaps he is contemplating his career and his contribution to the nation he helped to save from extinction.

Sometime in the early 1980s he had a chance to travel to the USA and he spent a few days with my dad, who was a boyhood chum. He told my dad that he had had a great career, but that it had been under the wrong flag. Now the singing festivals (the next one is next summer!) are once again under the right flag, and much of the credit for this goes to Gustav Ernesaks.

-- Aarne

Sunday, June 29, 2008


About two months ago, I began to notice each afternoon after school and on Saturday mornings a cluster of tiny sailboats in the bay. I went down to the Pirita marina to see what was going on. There I found children, perhaps nine years and older, helping each other to push tiny sailboats down a ramp into the channel of the Pirita Olympic Marina. One child, one boat—sometimes twenty or more children and boats at a time. At other times I watched a different class of older kids having their group lessons.

The smallest boats are no larger than generous bathtubs, and their masts are so short that the young sailors get lots of experience in trying to catch wind in their sails as they tack in zig-zag fashion between the piers and into the bay. Their instructors, in motorized rafts, help them only when they are in serious trouble. The sailors call back and forth, excited and teasing, exchanging advice about how to go faster. They test each other with short, informal racing, and they sail so close to each other that I wonder how they do not get tangled up. Learning how to sail looks like a social experience for them. They are already behaving like their own yacht club.

In a sense, we could say that Estonians have sailing in their blood. With such a long coastline and so many islands, people living in this region have sailed for thousands of years. (You can check out some history at the Maritime Museum in Old Town.)

And Pirita is famous for sailing. The Olympic Centre is described on the web as “the most famous sailing centre in Eastern Europe.” Imagine a wide sandy beach, a protective river mouth, and strong, even tricky winds.

As a young man during Estonia’s first period of independence, Aarne’s father, Paul, built his own boat and enjoyed sailing it out of Pirita harbor into Tallinn Bay. In those days of the 1920s and 1930s, Paul would only need to be thinking about his skills, the weather, and his boat. Family lore says that the Vesilind name, meaning “waterbird,” was earned when long-ago ancestors smuggled goods along the coast in boats so fast that they outran any pursuers.

But later, during the twentieth century Soviet occupation of Estonia, a guard was positioned twenty-four hours a day at the mouth of the Pirita River. Only sailors with special permission were allowed to exit the river and go into the bay. If a boat went out, even with permission, and did not return on time, the incident was reported. (If anyone reading this knows how Soviet sailing permissions were granted and how difficult it was to get such permission, I’d be glad to learn about that.)

Some Estonians from coastal areas and the islands had earlier escaped to Sweden and Finland in their family boats and in fishing boats, and so the Soviets tried hard to lock up the coastline. After the fisheries were collectivized, all fishing boats became state property. This meant that trying to sail out of Estonia on a fishing boat was not only punishable as escape but also as theft of state property. [Glenn Eric Kranking. (2004). Agitating the Minority: Propaganda Aimed at the Ethnic Swedes in Soviet-Occupied Estonia, 1940-41. Master’s Thesis, University of Tartu Department of History. (]

One man told us that, as a child, he was warned never to stand on the big rocks in the water along the beach, because guards would confront him. Another woman described how workers in Pirita every night raked the beach to draw a line in the sand beyond which people were not allowed to step. The guards must have thought highly of Estonians’ swimming abilities!

At the same time, Soviet leaders valued sports as a way to promote health in workers, and, as occupation continued, they encouraged development of facilities for competitive sports and general recreation. For example, the Kalev Yacht Club organized in 1948 as the Tallinn Kalev Yacht Club. (Did the Soviets realize that “Kalev” is the name of the legendary Estonian national hero?) During occupation, Pirita hosted major yachting events, such as the Baltic Regattas. Yachtsmen also came from across the U.S.S.R. to Pirita to train for Olympic regattas.

In 1980, when the U.S.S.R. hosted the Summer Olympics, Moscow was the main venue, but the sailing competition was held in Pirita. The Soviet government built a marina in Pirita, the same marina where I watch the young sailors. The marina sits at the mouth of the Pirita River, where the river enters the Baltic Sea. This summer tour buses arrive almost daily to photograph the 1980 Olympic logo, which still stands as a tall red marker at the marina exit, along with the large bowl that held the Olympic flame.The next photo shows a 1980 Olympic sailing button and an Olympic promotional booklet—Pirita: Venue of the 1980 Olympic Regatta by Jaan Tamm.

In this booklet Tamm hints at the international aspirations of Estonian sailors. He wrote, “Our yachtsmen have friendly relations with the yachtsmen of other countries. Especially sound are the ties that bind Tallinn’s yachtsmen with their colleagues in Poland and the German Democratic Republic who have taken part in all international Baltic Regattas. . . . In 1961 Britton Chance from the USA, the Olympic winner at Helsinki and world champion, sailed in the Bay of Tallinn, being the first yachtsman from abroad to win the Baltic Regatta.”

Then, before the 1980 Olympics, the U.S.S.R. invaded Afghanistan. Although the U.S. and other western countries responded with a boycott of Olympic events, the Soviets held the games and regattas anyway. While Soviet leaders in Moscow may have seen the 1980 Olympics as an indication of international approval and leaders in the west saw the boycott as a means of disapproval, the Estonian sailors in 1980 must have yearned for international competition, to test themselves against the best.

A leader and trainer for that 1980 Olympic sailing program is still at Kalev Yacht Club. In a notice about a 2006 race, he was described this way: “Mr. Rein Ottoson, Chief Trainer of the Estonian Olympic Team, is a worldwide known character and a skillful organizer. The basic planning and running of the coming Event lays [sic] in his steady hands and his Eagle sharp eyes.”

So, when I saw on the internet that Kalev Yacht Club is hosting a regatta in July 2008, in one way this seemed no surprise. Then again, as I read more details, this rather dry, formal announcement made my heart beat faster. Some races will be as long as 90 nautical miles, out in the Baltic Sea, out of sight of shore. And the announcement of rules includes this: “Estonian yachts shall be registered in Estonian Yachting Union and entered into the Estonian Register of Ships or Small Craft – all registration letters and certificates shall be presented.” Furthermore, helmsmen [and helmswomen?] must follow International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea. ( It may sound like business as usual, but behind all this protocol is the understanding that sailors clearly have returned to supervising their own sport.

It turns out that sailors are not alone in appreciating the tricky strong winds at Pirita. Did you know that websites for kiteboarders now report Estonian conditions? Having found Pirita on a map for kiteboarders, my son Drew arrived two weeks ago with his equipment. Like sailors, kiteboarders use the wind as well as their bodies and boards to change direction and speed. Also like sailors, kiteboarders control their kite (sail) with ropes and board (rudder.) A sailor of a small boat holds onto the line that pulls the sail in or lets it out, while the kiteboarder wears a harness that is hooked to the kite lines. From these photos you can imagine how strong the wind was when Drew tested Pirita (or was Pirita testing Drew??) As Drew was unpacking his sail, he realized that he had brought the Estonian colors—just a coincidence??

As Aarne, Drew, and I were walking home from the Pirita beach, we noticed that one of the young boys in the sailing class had lost his line. Evidently he had forgot to put a knot in the end of the line, or perhaps his knot had come undone. The strong wind was blowing his little boat toward the bridge, and his mast was not going to clear the bridge surface. While he struggled to hold the boom with his hands, the wind filled his sail and pushed the boat up against the marina wall on which we were walking. Although we did not want to embarrass this young sailor by leaning over the railing to hold his mast for him, in the end that became the only solution until his instructor could come to tow him back to the launch ramp.

Later the three of us talked about how impressive a lesson this must have been for the boy. From now on his knots will no doubt be excellent. So when I see the tiny white sails all clustered together like waterbirds out in the bay, I imagine that the boy with his improved knots is one of them. And I wonder if these adventurous children understand the history that launches them into their sailing.


Saturday, June 28, 2008


There are those historians who argue that people who lived in the Middle Ages were happier overall than people who lived at any other time in human history. If this is true, then Tallinn, which developed during the 1300s, would certainly have been a happy place. A re-creation of this moment of human happiness is the restaurant Olde Hansa, in the center of the old town.

Sure, it is all glitz and show, but it is a fun place. The waiters are friendly and personable, and multilingual, and the atmosphere is studied olde tyme, with beams and banners and painted walls galore. The restaurant is on three separate floors and the live Renaissance music (lutes and recorders) is charming. But the best part is the food and drink. The honey beer (mead) is a “must drink” and the food choices vary from wild boar to elk to even bear. The best choice is a roasted ham hock that is served with barley and sauerkraut. All in all, it is quite possible that people who ate like this would have been very happy indeed.

-- Aarne


There is a famous letter, written by a German cleric, sometime in the 19th century, complaining to his superiors in Germany about the loose morals of the Estonian people. The good father attests to the fact that his flock would come to his church on midsummer night as required, but that afterwards they would all go out and have large bonfires and sing, and drink, and dance, and have sex.

I have always held that this cleric’s complaint accurately characterizes the Estonians’ approach toward religion. The church has always tried to take pagan celebrations away from the people, the expropriation of the midwinter holidays being the most successful example of this. But they have not succeeded with Jaanipäev, at least not in Estonia. The only thing they did was to name the otherwise nameless day. (Jaan is the common Estonian name for John and päev is day, so it’s the vulgar version of St. John’s Day, which is what the church wanted to call midsummer day).

Today the Jaani tradition lives, and it is coupled to a national holiday that occurs on the 23rd of June when the nation commemorates the victory of the Estonian Liberation Army over the troops of the German Landeswehr at Võnnu (Cēsis, Latvia) in 1919. This was a decisive battle against Baltic Germans who wanted to retain the region as a German colony. The fate of the young republic was decided on that day, and thus both the 23rd and the 24th of June are, as one Estonian said with a straight face, “Holy Days”. Indeed, the capital city empties out. Woe be to you if you want a bottle of milk or a loaf of bread. The nation is celebrating both its independence, and its summer.

We went to a Jaanipäev celebration a few kilometers up the coast, to a town named Viimsi. They have an open air museum of history, including a village swing, which was put to great use by the youngsters.

There were bands that played tunes ranging from Euro Pop to old country to patriotic, and some of the old people had a great time dancing.

As midnight approached, the great fire was slowly dying, and the sun was setting in Finland across the gulf. During this night it would not ever get really dark, and dawn was only a few hours away. In the meantime, the Estonians celebrated their day as they had for centuries. There was drinking, and dancing, and singing, and whatever.



“This stork comes into a bar and asks for a beer.” And so on and so on. Jokes like that are funny because of the incongruity of the situation. A stork does not, under usual circumstances, walk into a bar and ask for a drink.

Similarly, I did not expect to see storks walking calmly around a newly mown hay field, looking for little critters whose cover has just been blown. So seeing these two long-legged fellows for the first time made for a potential car wreck.

The truth is that storks are common fowl in southern Estonia, and it is not at all unusual to see their nests on utility poles. One wonders if they have a connection to the hot wire to plug their refrigerators into. Maybe they don’t have a need to walk into a bar to get a beer.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008


In the 1920s the cloister was a convenient place to get building material. The stones, which had been held together since the early 1400s with a mortar made from egg whites, were readily accessible and free. And there were old walls and ruins everywhere. So when my grandfather started to build his house and dug into the ground he found walls and arches, and used the stones from these to build his foundation. He told his son, my father, that he had found doorways and passages, and that he was sure there were tunnels underground, probably escape routes leading from the old cloister, he speculated – a rumor that persists to this day.

In the late 1990s, when we started to dig the foundation for our house on the site of my grandfather’s house, we encountered the same ruins, but now these stones had historical value and we had to stop construction until the heritage protection people could do an archeological dig. Unfortunately, they did not have the money to conduct such a dig, so we paid for it, setting back the construction of our house by over year. But it was neat to see the ruins, which turned out to be of a house constructed in the late 1300s, probably to house the workers who went on to build the cloister. The picture below shows some of these ruins. Note that right behind me there is a more substantial wall with modern mortar. This is part of the foundation my grandfather built.

We did not discover any priceless artifacts, but several neat stones turned up. The two stone fragments below are clearly in Latin but there is not enough of it to make out what the message was.

After the dig was done we had a large hole in the ground. How now to build our house? Clearly none of us wanted to destroy the ruins, but there appeared to be no better building site on our lot (as had been attested to by the builders 700 years ago, and by our grandfather). So we decided to fill the entire hole up with sand, being careful to preserve as much of the structure as possible, and to build the house on a floating concrete slab. The elevation of the house had to be raised to make this possible. But there was a limit to the increase in elevation and there was one particularly interesting arch that would have had to have been destroyed if we were to go ahead with the construction. The solution was to allow the arch to stick up through the floor! We put a glass case around it and now history pops out from the middle of our floor as a daily reminder of the people who used to live and work on this very spot.

-- Aarne

Thursday, June 19, 2008


It was a “Fourth of July” party on the “Sixteenth of June”. The huge tent was full of people; the food was excellent; and anyone who was anyone was there. Hendrik Ilves, the president of Estonia made an appearance. The prime minister came in and looked around. Arnold Rüütel, the former president, sat down at a table and waited for people to come talk to him. It was network heaven.

I had received an invitation to the Fourth of July bash through a fellow expatriate, and I figured it would be fun to see what kind of a party the ambassador from the United States would throw.

Not knowing anyone important at the party, I talked to the Marines. The corporal admitted that this was a cushy job. All he had to do was to carry the flag around now and then and spend the rest of the evening chatting up pretty girls.

As it was, he bungled his one and only duty that evening. At the appointed time, the Marine color guard got all ready to march to the podium, but the Estonian band struck up a march that was much too fast for them to march to, so they tried unsuccessfully to stay in step to their own tempo. The crowd parted in front of them as they marched to the podium, and there they stood, with their backs to the audience, as the band struck up the Star Spangled Banner. Then, for good measure, I guess, they played the Estonian national anthem as the Marines stayed on the podium with their backsides to the audience. I looked around, and there was not a single Estonian flag in sight in the entire huge tent.

With the conclusion of this song, the Marines did an about face and blundered back down the podium, continuing through the crowd as the band struck up the same march in quick time. That was it. Afterwards I asked the corporal if he got paid for this. He laughed as he filled his beer glass and headed for a bevy of very good looking women.

Then it was time for the ambassador to give his talk. He said that he was immensely proud. Of what it was not clear. He gave no specifics, and no substance. I guess he figured that it was enough to be proud.

And then he told us why the Fourth of July celebration was on the 16th of June. It turned out that it was his wife’s birthday (everyone, for some reason, applauded at this news). What his wife’s birthday had to do with the Fourth of July is unclear, except that maybe the ambassador could throw a big birthday bash for his wife and get the people of the United States to pay for it.

I came away from the event thinking that we Americans certainly could have found a better person to do this job. Being a big contributor to George Bush’s campaign should not have been sufficient qualification for representing the United States of America to the Republic of Estonia. It was an evening when to be an American was an embarrassment.

-- Aarne

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


“You want to buy this?” he said hopefully.

“No, no,” I said. “We’re from Tallinn.”

He was trying to get me to buy the run-down buildings that were once a collective farm, near Tartu in central Estonia. We had driven in the driveway not expecting to find anyone and instead encountered him just as he was closing the door of the building where he keeps his sheep. I don’t know who was more surprised, he or us. There was nobody else around, and the place was deserted. We struck up a conversation.

“Did you get any rain yesterday in Tallinn?” he said.

“Yes, it rained hard, and we needed it,” I responded.

“You don’t really need rain in Tallinn. You don’t grow potatoes there.”

I laughed. The attitude of the farmers down south toward the city slickers in Tallinn is all too familiar.

What he wanted me to buy was the remnants of a kolkhoz, from the Russian word for a collective farm. Skeletons of collective farms now litter the Estonian countryside – abandoned and ugly – a testament to a failed experiment.

In 1944, Leninist/Marxist communism in Estonia targeted private farms. In order to drive the farmers off their farms and into the kolkhozes, the state imposed high taxes and restrictions on selling products from privately owned farms. When the farmers still resisted, in 1949 the Russians deported the ones they thought were the biggest troublemakers and sent them to labor camps in Siberia. The other farmers got the message. Survival required moving family and meager belongings to a bare room in a cement block building and participating in cooperative farming.
But something strange happened. As the country became fully collectivized, the farm output declined, steadily decreasing from the high point in 1938, the last year of independence. This made no sense to the central planners in Moscow. The theory said that if farmers are concentrated into larger farms where there is economy of scale (only one tractor that is always busy instead of ten tractors that sit idle 90% of the time), and where there is common child care, common kitchen and common food preparation, the output and efficiency will increase as the costs decrease. The planners recognized that moving farmers to the collectives was traumatic for them, and thus allowed each family to have little garden plots for private crops. The productivity of these small private plots should have been a warning to the policy-makers in Moscow, for these plots, which represented only 4% of the farmed land, produced fully 22% of the farm output. How could this happen?

Much remains to be written about the collectivization experiment, but the reasons for its failure are fairly clear. Taking land from private production and giving it to a commune reduces the incentive of the farmers to work hard. That’s why you need propaganda, and the secret police, and fear, to keep people in line. Put yourself in the place of the farmers. Everyone in the kolkhoz gets paid exactly the same, and that is essentially nothing (the pay for workers in the kolhoz did not change over decades while prices increased many fold, making the workers essentially slaves). But maybe you are enthusiastic and you work hard. Where does it get you? Exactly the same place as the guy next to you who does the absolute minimum. After a while you concentrate on just staying alive and tend your own little plot, and simply do what you can to help your family. You know that there is no future for you, or for your kids, for your children will also be forced to work at the kolkhoz and will not be allowed to leave, just like slaves.

The worst part of the kolkhoz experiment was what it did to the agricultural productivity of the land. If a manager of a kolkhoz needed to meet production quotas, one of the ways to do that (besides lying about it) was to over-fertilize the land. Not only did this over-fertilization produce ground and surface water pollution, but is slowly destroyed the structure of the soil as the phosphates precipitated out. The managers had no reason to worry about the land. It was not theirs. They were just working there.

Today in Estonia the private farm is coming back. As you drive through the countryside you see more and more land under cultivation, and small farm buildings with barns and tractors (that are only used 10% of the time). The country has lost two generations of farmers, and is now trying hard to convince people to go back to the land. Anyone interested in becoming a farmer here will find that land is available. All you have to do is to grow potatoes and hope for rain.

-- Aarne


Ants Rebane was a peasant who tilled a farm just north of Tartu, in the middle of Estonia. He had three sons, and only one of them, the oldest, could take over the land, so his third son, Villem, had to find other work and he decided to become a blacksmith. Villem had one son, August, who had greater interests than being a blacksmith. He liked school, and he liked to read. He liked music and attended concerts. He began to collect things like stamps and match books and ex libris (bookmarks). Eventually he went north to Tallinn to get an education and to seek his fortune. But that was a turbulent time, and he got involved in some political activities in the interest of a free Estonia, and this put him in harms way. He had learned a trade in the meantime, of typesetting, and took this with him to Helsinki, across the Gulf of Finland. There, at the Estonian House, he met a young lady whose spark and verve appealed to him, and soon Elviira and August were married. By 1910 they felt that it was safe to return to Estonia, and two years later, they had their first child, a girl named Aino, who was my mother.

August never had a picture of his father, so he drew a pencil sketch from memory. You can see his signature on the lower right corner.

Underneath the picture August had written the following,

which translates as

Villem Rebane, the son of Ants, smith at Lähte village, Äksi township, Tartu. Born 15 January 1851. Died 4 March 1915. Buried in Äksi cemetery.

We recently took a trip down south and found the Äksi chapel. It is one of the most beautiful chapels I have ever seen, stately and earnest and humble all at the same time. Besides, next to
it was a restaurant that served some pretty good lunch so my worldly needs were also met.

The cemetery is about two kilometers down the road from the chapel but we did not venture there to see if we could find Villem’s grave. It is enough to know that he is there, and to be able to tell him that his son did well in life, and that his granddaughter, who he never met, also had a full and eventful life, and that his great grandson was last seen poking around in his old neighborhood.

-- Aarne

Saturday, June 14, 2008


Chris Endy, a historian of some note, and coincidentally my step-son, told me of a thesis expressed some time ago by a political scientist who set out to defend nationalism. His idea was that nationalism is good because it makes it possible for each nation to contribute something special and unique to the world. If this is right, then what can Estonia claim to having contributed to the world?

The answer is not Skype (invented in Estonia) or even Baltic herring in sour cream with boiled potatoes (which is still a state secret). Chris believes that Estonia’s contribution to the world is the power of song, and he might be right.

The tradition of song in Estonia runs deep into the roots of the culture. The first Üldlaulupidu (National Singing Festival) was held in Tartu in 1869, and these have continued every four or five years even through the darkest of times. Choirs of all kinds from all regions of Estonia gather in Tallinn at the Lauluväljak (Singing Field) to raise their voices as one people. The present stage where the song festival is held holds 20,000 singers, and there is room for an audience of 300,000. That is about thirty percent of all the Estonians in the country!

The song festivals continued to be held throughout the Soviet time. Stalin thought, incorrectly it turned out, that cultural identify ought to be encouraged because this would convince more people to embrace communist ideals. He also thought that cultural events can be shared by others in the USSR and that this would promote solidarity. Thus every song festival in Estonia during the occupation had its requisite visitors and participants from the far-flung reaches of the empire. But Stalin made a strategic blunder. Cultural events only highlighted national differences and kept alive the hope of freedom and self determination for each of the captive nations. That tradition fed directly into “The Singing Revolution” eventually ending the Russian occupation of Estonia and the formation of a free republic.

The revolution started innocently enough. During the Old Tallinn Days in 1988 a stage was set up in the town square where concerts were to be held. The performers were increasingly enboldened by the reactions of the people, and by the apparent inability of the KGB or the police to do anything. The 15,000 people finally decided that the town square was too small, and marched the three miles to the song festival site. They sang old songs and stayed through the June white night. By word of mouth, the event encouraged others to come the next night, and after six days there were over 150,000 people in the singing field, holding hands and singing. Then an amazing thing happened. A drummer from a rock band got on his motorbike and rode around the field holding aloft the Estonian blue/black/white flag! This was the first time many of the participants at the singing field had ever seen the national flag. Then, as if on signal, others unfurled the flags that they had secretly kept hidden for 45 years, and the field was awash in blue, black, and white.

The national singing festival was scheduled for the next year, 1989. At the festival the mood was one of excitement and optimism for the future, but also of fear in the knowledge that the Soviets still had the power to crush dissent. Although people were no longer being arrested for flying the national flag, the country was not yet free and independent, and the organizers of the festival did their best to temper the enthusiasm. But at the end of the festival, the crowd would not leave, and instead started to sing the national anthem which the communist authorities had forbidden them to sing. The 20,000 on stage joined in -- all without a conductor! At the end of the three verses, they started again from the start, refusing to quit. After the third time through, it was evident to all that Soviet power had been dissipated. It was a revolution in song – a singing revolution.

The events that followed are complex and I don’t have the time to recount them all. They are beautifully told in the film “The Singing Revolution”, presently playing in 60 theaters in the United States, and by the accompanying book written by my brother, Priit Vesilind. For more information, go to

-- Aarne

Friday, June 13, 2008


Pikk Hermann (Tall Hermann), the tower originally constructed by the Danes during the years 1360 to 1370, is 45 meters high and dominates the old wall surrounding Tallinn. It is also the most sacred and recognizable icon of the Estonian people. The presence of the blue, black, and white flag, first hoisted up the flagpole on 12 November 1918, a few months after the declaration of independence, symbolizes free Estonia.

But the flag on top of this tower, as the country itself, has had a turbulent history. On 27 July 1940 the Russian invasion replaced the tri-color with a red Soviet flag. On that day my father was in Tallinn and he remembered watching a young communist climb up the pole to release the Estonian flag that had been purposefully stuck up there and to replace it with the red flag. The German occupation the following year allowed for a brief flying of the Estonian flag, but then in 1944 the Red Army took over the country and the Estonian flag was not seen again for 45 years. It its place came a god-awful looking flag of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic.

It wasn’t until 1989 that some brave Estonians defied the Soviet rules about national flags and ran up the tri-color, fully expecting to be arrested. But nothing happened, and the flag has been flying there ever since. It is probably difficult for people whose countries have not been brutally occupied by belligerent neighbors to understand just what the presence of that flag on top of Pikk Hermann means to Estonians.

The tower is attached to a large palace complex that was built by Peter the Great to house his ministers and bureaucrats who were to administer the Estonian colony. Over the years the building has maintained its governmental status, and today it houses the Estonian parliament, or Riigikogu. The front of the building looks across to the Russian orthodox cathedral, while the side runs into Pikk Hermann. The style of the architecture is clearly from the 1700s.

Nestled inside the large palace there is another building, constructed much later, that today houses the parliament chambers. The walls of the parliament assembly hall are flag blue, which is their original color from the 1920s. During the Soviet time the walls had been painted what can only be described as “first grade pale green”.

When we took the tour of the parliament building the guide explained that the design of the inner parliament building was in the expressionist style. I looked this up, and one of the definitions is that expressionism refers to art that expresses intense emotion. Such art occurs during periods of social upheaval and the art is supposed to have the power to move the viewer with strong emotion.

I am not so sure the parliament hall moves me with strong emotion, but I have no doubt that the flag on top of the tall tower attached to the building does.



Time travels both linearly and cyclically. Linear time has caused me to be 69 years old today. But cyclical time has brought me back to the thirteenth of June, and back to where I was all those many years ago.

When I was born, I gave my mother a hard time. My father was so happy that both my mother and I were well that when he came to visit the next day he brought an entire branch of a blooming lilac bush into the hospital and set it at the foot of her bed. What the nurses had to say about this is unknown. I have always imagined that the same bush, or one of its progeny, is presently growing in our yard, and sure enough, on the thirteenth of June, the lilacs here are in full bloom. I am sure my mother loved them at the foot of her hospital bed.


Saturday, June 7, 2008


I had joined the Hamilton Citizen’s Band in New Zealand during my 1977 sabbatical. We were rehearsing, and the director looked at me said, “Play the third crotchet in the first measure after the double bar.”

I remember looking at him with a blank stare.

Then, in desperation, I had leaned over to the woman to my right in the second cornet section and asked, “What’s a crotchet?”

She pointed to a quarter note.

“That’s a quarter note,” I said.

“That’s a crotchet,” she said.

And the light dawned. All the notes had names. It turned out that a quaver was an eighth note, a minim was a half note, and so on. The musical notation was the same, but the names were different.

This year I had the same trouble playing with the Tallinn Tehnikal Ülikooli Puhkpilli Orkester (The Tallinn Technical University Wind Orchestra). I realized I was in trouble soon after I sat down in the euphonium section, when the director (a dynamo of a woman named Reet Brauer) asked me to play a “mi”.

“What on earth is a mi?” I thought to myself, trying madly to remember something from the The Sound of Music. Reet sensed my discomfort and asked the entire section to play a mi, and mi turned out to be an E. “Doh, a deer, a….” etc.

I have learned a few more things. There are no “flats”, but “bemols”, and measures are “takts” and so on. Just as in New Zealand, the page of music looks the same, but the spoken language of music is different.

Once the music is played and is in the air, however, it knows no nationality. And musicians from all over the world are united in their love of playing in bands, as I have again learned from my experience here. I was warmly welcomed and made to feel at home with the wind band, and even played a concert with them.

The music they have is a mix of old stuff from the Soviet time and a few purloined pieces from other bands. Most interesting to me is the music from years past. Few of these pieces have an identified composer, and none are of course copyrighted. Others are of curious parentage. We played a piece entitled “Dixie Patrol” and it turned out to be the old Glenn Miller favorite, “American Patrol” with a few bars of “Dixie”. My new-found friends chuckled when they told me that the title had to be changed to accommodate the Soviet censor who would not have allowed the band to play anything American.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


It’s the orange color that gets you first. The signs are orange, the shelves are orange, and the sales people are orange. In amongst this orange you can buy all the things Home Depot sells – garden stuff, hardware, lights, lumber, and on and on. The store is BauHof, in Tallinn, but it could just as well be Home Depot in Woodsville NH.

Except for one glaring difference. The signs in the store here are all in Estonian. Only Estonian. It would be difficult to find anything in this store written in Russian. Although almost everyone in the store, both customers and clerks, speaks Russian, there is no presence of the Russian language.

There are good historical and sociological reasons for why in this country Estonian is now used exclusively. During the Soviet time, Russians (and other ethnic groups) came to Tallinn because the city offered a better place to live than most other places in the USSR. The better quality of life was enhanced by the fact that TV signals from Helsinki, Finland, were available, and thus there was a window to the West. The Russian population of Tallinn increased to where perhaps half of the people here now would not consider themselves native Estonians. It is thus all the more interesting that the written signs and the working language in the shops and the city is purely Estonian.

Part of this is a reaction by Estonians who, during the Soviet time, were watching their language and culture rapidly being Russified. There was every reason to believe that Estonia as a culture would someday just disappear. Independence in 1991 allowed them to counter this by removing all vestiges of Russian from everyday life and by emphasizing their own language.

A second reason for the exclusive use of Estonian is that there is a genuine desire on the part of Estonians to build a new nation based on principles and values -- a nation that can co-exist peacefully with its neighbors. A national slogan says it best: “Ühiselt ehitatud riik”, or roughly, “A home-built nation.” And Estonians recognize that the building of this new nation requires the use of a common language. The majority of Russian-Estonians in Tallinn have bought into the ideal, and want to be part of this nation building. They understand well why the signs in the BauHof are only in Estonian.

Constrast this to what is happening in the USA. In America, we seem to be saying that it is no longer necessary to have a common language. We are suggesting that Spanish can be used just as well as English, and we seen to accept the fact that eventually we will have a nation with two official languages.

But history does not treat well nations that do not have a single language. With very few exceptions, multiple official languages in one country has always led to tensions, conflict and discrimination. What the Estonians understand, and what the Americans seem to have forgotten, is that it is language that makes both a nation and a nationality. If we Americans value our nation, we need to take a lesson from the Estonians and be ONE nation, …. indivisible.

-- Aarne

Sunday, June 1, 2008


When my great grandfather Villem came to Pirita he and his wife Liisu built a small farm house between the Pirita cloister and the river. It was very much like some of the small farms on display at the open air museum in Tallinn, with a thatched roof and all rooms in a row, including the barn where animals were kept during the winter. We are fortunate to have a picture of this house, with my great grandmother Liisu sitting in front.

When Priit and I first got our land back in 1993 we were not able to start work on the big house because there were people still living there. But the little house, Liisu and Villem’s old place, was empty and we could begin the renovation. The place was in terrible shape, with a crumbling foundation and rotting wood, and full of rubbish -- 50 years of accumulated of trash. We hired a local architect and contractor and got started. They did a great job and brought the house back to life. Here is what it looks like today.

When my father left Estonia in 1944, only a few weeks before the Russians came back, he had folded up an Estonian flag and hidden it under the eaves of Villem’s house. He said later that when he did that, it occurred to him that maybe he will not be around to retrieve the flag, but he hoped that his sons would. We did not find the flag when we renovated the house (there had been a new roof on the house and the roofers no doubt found the flag), but now his sons have raised the flag in front of the house. I think he would be pleased.

Saturday, May 31, 2008


Every American citizen knows who George Washington was. The father of our country. The capital city was named after him. The Washington Monument. The dollar bill!

But who was Konstantin Päts?

When our family was in the displaced persons camp in Germany it was common to see in private and public places a picture of a dour looking old fat guy with medals on his chest. I remember that my father venerated him, and that his feelings were shared by the other Estonians in the camp. Konstantin Päts was someone very special to them.

Päts (the name means a small loaf of bread, attesting to his humble Estonian background) led an incredibly turbulent and interesting life. He was born in 1874 and grew up in the town of Pärnu, and then finished his law degee at Tartu University. Next he went into the Russian army and fought with the Tsar’s troops. He came back to Estonia and was elected to various positions, including the mayor of Tallinn, an honor he declined because he was not a native Russian, and he thought it better for the city to have a Russian as mayor. Then came the revolt of 1905 during which he and many others battled against the Tsar’s troops. The revolt was put down with incredible cruelty, with over 500 Estonians murdered. Päts was fortunate to escape, but was sentenced to death in absencia. Because the political situation in Russia was fluid, he was able to come back some years later and serve a shorter sentence. But he continued his revolutionary activities, and in 1918 he was one of three men who declared Estonia to be an independent nation. The next invasion of Estonia was by the Germans who wanted to set up a German protectorate for the Kaiser, and once again Päts ended up in jail, this time in a Polish prison. Finally he was able to come back, and after the War of Independence was won in 1920, he was elected the first executive of the fledgeling republic.

The Estonians had no experience in self-governance. They bickered and fought among themselves, searching for something that everyone could agree on. There was no constitution as such, and there wasn’t even an office like president. "Riigivanem" was the closest they came to that, and that simply implied that the holder of this office was the guardian of the country. They were deathly afraid of strong leadership, very much like the American forefathers feared having a king.

In the early 1930s, given the turbulent politics and the effects of the global depression, many people looked to Germany for political guidance. The fascist movement in Estonia became powerful, and these people tried to recruit Päts to be their leader. Päts instead decided to declare a state of emergency and to govern with dictatorial powers. He then dissolved the fascist party and put their leaders in jail. This ploy worked, and the years that followed, the late 1930s, was a period of stability and economic growth. But Päts did not want to be a dictator, and pushed through a new constitution, based on the Belgian model, that severely curtailed his own powers. He wanted the country to go back to being a true democracy. And true to his word, by 1938 the new constitution was in place and the country no longer had a dictator with emergency powers. It did not surprise anyone that Konstantin Päts was democratically elected the first president of Estonia. This has to be one of the few times in the history of the world where a dictator has stepped down and received the eternal gratitude and love of the country.

The boom time was cut short by the invasion of the Russian army first in 1939, and then by the full-scale takeover in 1940, culminating in the Red Terror. Päts was of course arrested and taken to Russia, where he died in a psychiatric hospital (a favorite place for political prisoners).

In 1991, after regaining independence, Estonia negotiated with Russia to bring back the remains of Konstantin Päts so that the country could provide him a proper burial. But the event was more personal than national, and his grave is starkly unimposing. A simple stone.

Outside of Estonia Konstantin Päts is basically unkown. If you Google his name, you get almost nothing in languages other than Estonian. Even in Estonia there are few portaits of him in public places, and I have yet to see one in a private house. There are no cities or states or even streets named after him, and most certainly there is no huge monument attesting to his role as the father of the country. And yet Estonia would not exist if he had not been willing to devote his own life to the young nation and had not taken unimaginable risks in its behalf. He was quite a guy. He had sisu.
-- Aarne


The history is muddled, but we do know that Villem Vesilind came to Pirita with his three sons – Ado, Otto, and Eduard. The three Vesilind boys owned a local store which Ado managed, and they had a farm that produced meat and produce that Eduard took by boat to Tallinn and sold in the city market. He also had an arrangement with many restaurants to supply them with meat and fish. In short, things went well, especially for Eduard, our grandfather, who to us was always known as “Taat”.

Taat owned some land around Pirita and called it collectively “Lauri Talu”, or “Lauri Farm”. (How he could have known that one of his great granddaughters would be named “Laurie” is a mystery.)

One of the plots of land in Lauri Talu was on a river island, immediately behind the old cloister. Here is a 1930s aerial view of Pirita. The cloister is the ruin in the middle of the picture, and the river island is to the right and down from the cloister. You can see how the island is divided up and cultivated. Taat's piece of the island was at the tip of the island at the river bend, immediately to the right of the ruins.

When the land was given back to us in 1993 we decided to protect this little piece of land from development, and thought that the best thing we could do would be to have a long-term lease with the nuns in the new convent that was just under construction. They agreed that it would be a shame to have development on the island, and accepted the deal. By the year 2002, however, the governmental structure of Pirita had matured, and it became clear that the town would never allow this island to be developed, so we decided to deed it to the town.

But the gift had two stipulations. First, that the land would always remain public park land, and second, that the park would be named after our grandfather, Eduard Vesilind. And so it is. The stone marker is there, and the curious public has worn a path from the road to the marker. I picture Taat with a bemused expression on his face if we could have told him that his old hay field was the Eduard Vesilind Park.

-- Aarne

Friday, May 30, 2008


Last year the city of Tallinn celebrated the estimated 600th anniversary of the Brotherhood of St. Maurice, or better known as The Brotherhood of the Blackheads. During Hanseatic time, some wealthy and energetic young merchants and nobles formed a fraternity of sorts, open only to unmarried young and rich Germans. They sometimes compared themselves to the court of King Arthur – a comparison that is even today used by organizations such as “The Roundtable” – a group of young men bent on socializing and networking for common benefit. The Brotherhood of Blackheads chose St. Maurice, a black officer in the Roman legion who was martyred and beatified in the year 287, as their patron saint, and thus gained the name for their organization. The Brotherhood of the Blackheads became quite wealthy and established chapters in many of the old Hanseatic capitals. Amazingly, chapters of the Brotherhood survive today in some German cities.

As the Order of the Blackheads became powerful it began to exert its influence to the detriment of those the brotherhood did not like, or those who they considered inferior, such as the Estonians. Historical records show how these young men treated others with distain, or worse, certain in the knowledge that there was no need to temper their abuses.

In Tallinn the order built a house in the Old Town that can only be described as a fraternity house. The front door is one of the most photographed doors in the world.

If you look carefully at the door, you will see a relief of St.Maurice himself.

The Blackheads house in Tallinn has been beautifully renovated, and includes a small concert hall. A few weeks ago we went there to hear a concert by the professional National Men’s Choir, which was instrumental in keeping alive the singing tradition in Estonia during the dark periods of the Russian occupation. My nephew, Bill Vesilind, sang with this group for some years before he had to quit in order to get a real job. Fatherhood will do that.

The concert was very nice, even though they tried to sing some very difficult pieces that they clearly did not enjoy. The best part of the concert was the encore when they sang a well-known Estonian song. They put their song sheets down, and just belted it out with gusto. That one song was worth the price of admission! It also occurred to me that these guys would not have made very good members of the Brotherhood of Blackheads. Or I hope not, anyway. I would hope that during the past 600 years we would have learned something about how to treat others with respect.

-- Aarne

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


After the Second World War the Russians who had occupied Estonia decided to express their gratitude to the Red Army for driving the Germans out of Estonia by designing and erecting a memorial commemorating the defeat of the Nazis. They commissioned a famous local artist to cast a bronze statue of a young Russian soldier. It is a beautiful statue, and it became a memorial for the thousands of young men who perished in the war and whose bodies were never recovered. The authorities at the time decided to place the statue next to Karli Kirik, or Carl’s Church, in the very center of Tallinn. The location is a short walk from Toompea, the seat of government and Tall Herman, an ancient tower that symbolizes free Estonia. This was the “bronze soldier” that has been so much in the news.

The trouble with this memorial is that it commemorates something that did not occur. In the summer of 1944 the tide of the war was turning and it became quite clear that Germany was losing. The Russians were gaining on the eastern front and the Americans and their allies were moving into France from the D-Day landing. The German generals recognized the perilous situation in Estonia, and decided to avoid entrapment by withdrawing German troops back toward Germany, through the other Baltic countries, and into Poland. During the withdrawal from Estonia the Germans left behind the Estonian units that had been conscripted into the German army – Estonian boys in German uniforms. These boys were joined by an irregular Estonian army formed after the Germans left -- men and boys who remembered the Red Terror of 1941 and who under no circumstances wanted Russians back on Estonian soil. It was these forces that opposed the Red Army as it thundered across the border into Estonia. The fighting in Estonia in 1944 was between Estonians and Russians, not Germans and Russians, and the Russians were in no way “liberating” Estonia from the Germans. They were engaged in a blatant invasion of a sovereign nation. The Russian boys who died in that fight were not liberators, but invaders.

But all this was not understood by the Russians who occupied Estonia in the fall of 1944. They honestly believed that they were the liberators and that they had saved Estonia from the fascists. The Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty was kept secret in the USSR and the people believed that Estonia had invited the Russians into their country in order to set up a soviet republic. The Russian boys who died fighting in Estonia, they believed, were therefore liberators.

After Estonia regained its independence in 1991 there was a strong movement to relocate the statue. To Estonians it represented all the horror and deprivation of 50 years of Soviet rule, and it glorified the very people who had helped to cause this agony. If you want to get a sense of how they felt, imagine if the Germans, after defeating the French in the first years of WW II, had erected a large monument in Paris glorifying Germans soldiers, and had set it next to the Notre Dame cathedral. Once Paris was liberated, how long would it have taken the French to destroy this monument?

The bronze Russian soldier did not share the fate of the statues of Lenin and Stalin right after Estonian re-independence because the Estonians knew what it meant to the Russians. It was their memorial to loved ones lost in war, and in the early days of independence it was not worth the dissention that its relocation would have caused. And so it stood, right next to Karli Kirik, and, ironically enough, right across the square from the newly construction “Museum of the Occupation.”

Finally last spring the major of Tallinn ran for office promising to move the statue, and a year after taking office, he had the bronze soldier relocated to the Russian military cemetery. The timing of the move was terribly insensitive on his part, coming right before the Russian May 8th WW II Victory Day that is one of the most important holidays in Russia. This served to anger the Russians both inside and outside of Estonia, resulting in large-scale rioting by Russian youths in Tallinn. After several nights of broken windows, looting, and many arrests, the riots subsided when the mayor forbade the sale of alcohol in Tallinn. The Russians then attacked Estonia in cyberspace, causing serious disruption of commerce and banking for more than a week and resulting in untold losses to the economy.

Now a year has passed and the bronze soldier is safely in a military cemetery where almost all of the graves are those of Russian soldiers who died during and after the war.

Incidentally, I enquired about an Estonian military cemetery and was told that there is no such thing, and in retrospect, this makes sense. The Russians had no time to honor the dead “fascists” they had defeated, and thus there are no cemeteries for those men who took arms against the Red Army. The Russians were the winners and they honored their own dead.

The new location of the bronze soldier is not easy to find (although the tour buses seem to find it quite easily.) We had to drive through some seedy neighborhoods to get there, but found that the statue itself had been beautifully set into its new stone foundation. The marker says simply “In honor of those who fell during the Second World War.” It is an appropriate place for the statue, honoring the dead who died in a fight the purpose of which they could not have understood.
-- Aarne