Life and death in Tallinn

March 9 1992

Life and death in Tallinn

March 9 1992

Life and death in Tallinn

Letter from Tallinn


Maclean’s Senior Writer Peeter Kopvillem, born in Montreal in 1954 of Estonian parents, has maintained strong ties with Estonia and its culture since his childhood. He recently travelled to the capital, Tallinn, as his family’s representative at the funeral of his only uncle. His report:

I saw my father’s brother, Heldur, only four times in my life. The Iron Curtain, distance and the cost of traversing it, my own youthful indifference—all kept us apart. The son of Estonian expatriates, I first conquered those elements in 1974 when I visited Estonia as a 19-year-old and walked the cobblestoned streets of Tallinn with the uncle who had until then been nothing more than a name on a Soviet-stamped envelope. In my heart I acknowledged the blood ties that bound us, wrote to him a few times after my return to Canada—and then allowed the relationship to languish. It came as a shock to me when, 15 years later, he visited Canada and we greeted each other with a rush of emotion that, I believe, neither of us had been prepared for. A month later, in August, 1989, I finally returned to Estonia for a visit that strengthened the bonds, not only between us but also between me and my parents’ homeland. During the following years we exchanged frequent letters. I confided concerns, he gave me advice that was almost paternal in tone. But each year I promised to return; each year the promise came to nothing.

I saw my uncle for the last time on Jan. 21, when we buried him in the sandy soil of a cemetery near his home in Nomme, a suburb of Tallinn. At 67, he had cbllapsed on the street and died there of a massive heart attack. I decided to make the journey to a funeral 6,500 miles away in order to keep a promise—even if it was too late.

The country I returned to is in the grip of crisis and change, although my first few days there afforded little opportunity for observation. Instead, I learned for the first time what underlies the commonly used statement, “We buried so-and-so today.” In the North American context it has become meaningless, because we personally bury no one. We arrive at the funeral home, pay our respects, dutifully follow the

hearse to the graveyard and watch as a machine lowers the coffin into the grave. In contrast, my uncle’s funeral was very much an oldcountry, hands-on affair.

My uncle’s daughter, her husband, her half-sister, a man from my aunt’s workplace and I collected him from the morgue, popularly known as the surnutekuur—“dead shed”—in Estonian. There, in a dirty, ill-lit anteroom piled high with rusty metal stretchers, my uncle lay in his

coffin. In a side room, what appeared to be newly arrived bodies covered with blankets lay on the bare concrete floor. We hovered mutely around my uncle’s body and then put on the coffin lid. I had to shift my uncle’s feet because his shoes were in the way. We signed for him, in a dogeared logbook whose cover bore the handwritten title Laipade vark—“Corpse stuff.”

With a borrowed truck we transported my uncle to the cemetery chapel, where we arranged him on the wood and stone dais for a brief Lutheran ceremony. Muscles straining, we carried him through freshly fallen snow to his final resting place and lowered him into his grave with straps that threatened to slip from our numbed hands. Shovels were provided by the graveyard; after a few more words from the pastor we filled in the hole, arranged the funeral flowers on the mound and lit candles.

There was an intimacy to the exercise, a sense of providing the dead with one final honor, that I had not experienced before. The winter darkness comes early to Northern Europe; by four o’clock, when we finally left the grave site, twilight had already arrived under the pine trees shading the cemetery. We walked back towards the cars along the cold, snowy path, tears cooling on our cheeks. I looked back and, for one last time, saw the candles around my uncle’s grave twinkling in the gathering darkness before a bend in the road took us out of sight.

Even without the emotional turmoil, it was a grim time to return to Estonia. As the attempted Soviet coup of last August sputtered and failed, the country, almost miraculously, reclaimed its lost independence—and is now paying the price. Rampant inflation and shortages grip the nation. The highly visible presence of an estimated 40,000 Red

Army soldiers still on Estonian soil serves as an uneasy reminder that a small country, although independent, can all too easily be at the mercy of its larger neighbors. And although images of economic dislocation in the former constituent parts of the Soviet Union were already familiar to me through magazines and the TV news, the reality still had the capacity to shock.

My wife’s elderly cousin shivered in her apartment, the heat at 13° C because, as expected, Boris Yeltsin’s Russia had turned off the fuel taps to Estonia. The shelves of the state-owned food stores were almost bare, with long lineups for what little was still available. Passing by one shop during a twilight walk through Tallinn, my cousin Reet suddenly exclaimed, “Oh my God, chicken,” and disappeared inside. The chicken went unbought. “Fifty rubles a kilo,” she explained in disbelief. “It was less than 10 rubles only six months ago.” Instead, she emerged triumphantly from the shop with another treasure: a dozen eggs.

But goods are available—for Western currency. Since my last trip, stores that accept only valuuta—hard currency—have sprung up, seemingly on every comer. Two days after my uncle’s funeral, my aunt became sick and I went in search of honey for her sore throat. I finally found some in a downtown hard-currency store: Estonian honey, on sale

at $4.20 (U.S.) or its equivalent in other Western cash for a small jar. The cashier’s computerized cash register converted the U.S. price to Canadian dollars almost instantly. I took one last look at the shelves laden with food, Western wine, liquor and cigarettes, remembered the empty shelves of the state-owned stores and recalled the words of an acquaintance. Under the old regime, society was polarized between those who had access to Communist party privileges and those who did not. “Now,” he said, “our society is becoming polarized between those who can pay in valuuta—and those who cannot.”

Those who can arc becoming more visible—and more numerous. On the streets of Tallinn, gleaming new Mercedes-Benzes and Volvos move like sharks among the schools of tired and decrepit Soviet-made cars. “Who owns them?” I asked a friend. Foreigners, he answered, as well as Estonians who are involved in joint enterprises with Western firms. By some accounts, more than 1,000 foreign companies have already moved into the country. My flight in from Helsinki to Tallinn bore witness to the changing economic times. Beside me, a businessman pored over an economic prospectus in Swedish. Conversations

were in Finnish, Swedish, German and English as businessmen, drawn by the allure of a newly emerging capitalistic society, converged on a part of the world that some observers have nicknamed the new economic Wild West.

Among my family, friends and acquaintances stories circulated widely about fortunes made or about to be realized. Time and again, people spoke of local entrepreneurs who are busily buying up scrap metal at bargain-basement prices and selling it for hard currency to Western companies. Fears already abound that huge amounts of prime Estonian real estate will be bought by Western interests. There is a theme that is all too familiar to a Canadian: the selling of Estonia to gain hard currency. “One man in Nömme built a grand house, then wanted to buy the next-door property,” my cousin’s husband told me. “He offered his neighbor three million rubles. His neighbor refused. No one wants rubles anymore.”

On my last day in Estonia, my cousin and I made a final visit to my uncle’s grave. The flowers were just beginning to wilt, but the candles had disappeared. My cousin worried that they had been stolen—a valid concern in a society in which people routinely remove their windshield

wipers for safekeeping after parking their cars. Absurdly, I remembered a story told to me during my last visit, about a man who so feared that his new car would be stolen that he bought a vicious guard dog and kept the animal in the vehicle at all times. He emerged from his apartment one morning to discover that not only had everything on the outside of the car been removed, but the locked-up dog, in his impotent fury at the thieves, had tom apart the car’s interior.

Reet examined the sandy soil around the grave, then happily held up the stub of a candle. “They burned down cleanly,” she announced. We lit two more and placed them among the flowers piled on the burial mound. I remembered my uncle as I first saw him in 1974: short, prematurely aged, indignant. In a gesture common to many who lived under Moscow’s shadow, he hunched his shoulders and whispered, even in open spaces, as he railed against life under communism. During our later encounters, with the Soviet Union already crumbling and the smell of freedom in the air, he had lost that mannerism. Among the I thoughts swirling in my mind at the graveside I recognized a last, silent ^ apology to him for not returning sooner.

I But there was also a larger sense that something else had irrevocably « passed—not just one of my last blood ties to my parents' homeland. Canadian-born, I grew up in an expatriate community that imbued my generation with a sense of mythical Estonian nationalism. We were raised on a diet of anthems sung with teary eyes, of stories of great deeds accomplished in the face of incredible adversity, of perseverance during centuries of oppression. Independence for Estonia became our religion and we embraced it fervently, even though realistically few of us ever expected to see our dreams come true. The manifestations of evil—in our case, Soviet communism—simply appeared too real and unconquerable. Now, our particular Great Satan has destroyed itself, and our parents’ homeland is in the throes of exorcising its lingering spirit. Saying my farewells to my uncle, I realized that the time for anthems and myths—in effect, the fuel of my childhood—has passed. It has been replaced by the formidable task of building a small nation against incredible odds. □