Life during and after the Soviet Union: Estonia’s remarkable post-communist rebirth

In 1991, a change took place that defined how Europe looks today, and brought about the current, though sometimes shaky, state of peace across not only the continent, but the political world. Communism in eastern Europe fell, the Berlin Wall had come down and Mikhail Gorbachev oversaw the dissolution of the Soviet Union ending the 44 year long Cold War.

Whilst the fallout politically often focused on the bloc’s defeat, and the victory for the western style of capitalism and democracy, nearer the borders with the now much smaller Russian Federation, effects were much greater on individuals who had spent decades at the front line of communism’s strict, and often cruel rule.

Whilst often cited as being largely inactive, the proxy and associated wars that took place with both Russian and American involvement in countries from Afghanistan to Cuba, estimate fatalities as a result of the USSR from 5 to 25 million people.

Now known for its medieval walled cities, coastline and seemingly endless opportunities to experience the wild, from watching wild brown bears and wolves in the summer, to husky sledding and frozen waterfalls in the usually bitterly cold winters, Estonia has a peaceful charm having successfully adapted to the western principles.

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The full photo gallery from Tallinn, Estonia, can be seen by clicking here.

Helen Kari works as a tour guide in her home city, and Estonia’s capital, Tallinn. The small country of around 1.3 million people is just a stones-throw from Finland, but spent the majority of the 20th century as a puppet state to communism. Firstly, then-Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany and then back to the USSR.

“I was born in 1985 and I remember having a happy childhood. I just didn’t know any different. I remember having a big jar of soviet coins, and I started to think about why I didn’t spend these coins, then I realised that it was because there was nothing to buy. Under communism, everything was rationed. Everything was shared. Houses, apartments, farms.”

“My mother had an opportunity to study in Finland in 1989 and I could visit her and the local family she lived with in the summer. I was 4 years old and I remember a room in the cellar there, heaven on Earth, a huge freezer full of strawberry ice cream! Most of the treats we had in Estonia were to do with Granny´s jam or lots of white sugar on top of berries or plain bread. I barely remember eating ice cream and it tasted like heaven!”

“Nowadays, Estonians are not very keen to share their things because almost everybody remembers when you had to share your private room with strangers because the government said so. One of my Swedish friends, an old teacher, said that he remembers Estonia in 1990 as a place where everybody’s homes were really clean and nice places, but the public areas like hallways and yards were not taken care of because nobody wanted to care about shared space.

“I can see that this past really influences my parents and grandparents’ lives. They are still not willing to share things easily. In the 1990s people seemed to compete to have cooler, better, more expensive things. The rivalry has got smaller now but it is still there.”

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Thinking of visiting Estonia? Read about our trip to Europe’s ‘Best Christmas Market’ in Tallinn in 2018.

Whilst other members of the former Soviet bloc have struggled to find their feet, Estonia truly seems to have found its way as a member of the European Union. This year Estonia will celebrate its 28th year of independence, its 15th as a member of the European Union and eighth as part of the Eurozone. Its transformation is staggering. As one of the happiest countries in the world, low levels of national debt and corruption, a high ranking for human development and press freedom (12th in the world, compared to the UK in 40th), low levels of unemployment and good and free health and education systems. So much has it embraced its new life, Tallinn took the crown of ‘Best Christmas Market in Europe’ in 2018.

Helen speaks of her country’s patriotism: “We do love our country. Last week, the Russians talked about the soviet time like “we were one country 28 years ago” but in reality, we have always been separate countries, nations, cultures and republics. At least in our hearts.

“We secretly hid Estonian flags during the 50 years of occupations and celebrated on 24th February (our first Independence Day). It always warms my heart when I see that when the first sunny days of February and the landscape has blue skies, black forest lines and white fields – the colours of ours flag.”

Things have changed dramatically since that regime…

“Today, I really feel that we have true freedom of speech here although you have to know which channel gets money and support from which source. So critical thinking is in order like everywhere in the world.”

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What was the Soviet Union?

The Soviet Union, or USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) was a bloc of countries, consisting of modern day: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan.

From its final formation in 1946, until its breakup in 1991, the USSR had a population up to 293 million and was the largest country in the world by size, around 7 times bigger than India. 6,800 miles from East to West, and 2,800 from North to South, the country covered 11 of the world’s 24 time zones.

Considered to be run by an authoritarian leadership, the country spent nearly 45 years at odds with America during the cold war, resulting in the space race, arms races and coming close to nuclear war on occasions.

In 1991, following the fall of the Berlin war, the country began to disband as many of territories, including Estonia, declared independence.

What about Helen’s thoughts on Russia?

“In my opinion, Russia is reflected badly in western media, but there are so many people who romanticise communism and the USSR. This is why we show foreigners the Soviet buildings, and they buy Soviet mementos.”

“It also applies to the locals, especially the younger generation. I think younger generations think it´s funny and older generations romanticise the “good old times” when you didn’t have to be worried about whether you have a job or a place to live. Even I have been to “Life in the USSR” parties, used the red flag and laughed about it as if it was a joke.

“My mother, who is 55, she didn’t know any different during soviet times, so even though she doesn’t romanticise it, she thinks more about from the personal perspective – how stupid did she feel when she was only 25 years old or what personal choices were right or wrong. Politics weren’t a ‘small people’ thing.”

So, what does the future for Estonia hold? Having seemed to embrace western ideals, and the region as a whole, Helen explains that this may not be a necessarily new thing for the country.

“Tourism was actually quite active during the Soviet times even. Even though the average person couldn’t really travel outside USSR, people did travel within the USSR. Estonia (together with Latvia) were known as western countries with beautiful beaches and western taste in music, culture and mentality (thanks to Finnish TV that we secretly watched). Then, when the borders started to loosen, lots of Swedes and Finns visited Estonia. So, people did travel a lot even then and culture exchange was active.”

“Estonia has been mentioned as one of the fastest developers in last 28 years, and whilst I don´t feel Estonia has a political place in the world, or in Europe, we do have a role here. We can be a successful, developed, ex-Soviet role model.”

by Tom McBeth

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To see the full, high-quality, watermark-free images from Estonia, click here to visit our Shutterstock gallery.


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