First, we drank vodka. We ate pickles. We heard stories. Our Estonian host garbed in Communist guard’s attire presented “histertainment.” He served us Kali (Kvass) before which he instructed: “When you drink it, don’t smell it. I’ve never seen a foreigner who ever liked it. But, I don’t care.” We sipped it gingerly as he told his stories, stories of his childhood in Communist Estonia. Somewhere along the way as we rattled down the streets of Tallinn in a Soviet era bus without air conditioning or comfortable seats, he gave us his philosophy which was to teach history by telling stories and by listening to his true, personal stories we’d understand that era while also being entertained.
Our introduction to our tour guide was unique: He had us line up before the bus as he barked out orders and made us change the way we lined up numerous times while he simultaneously barraged us with multiple questions—he wanted us to feel the uncomfortable misery of that period of his nation’s history. Then he singled out one of our fellow tourists and handcuffed him to the handle of the bus’s door. Of course, the handcuffs were fuzzy, red ones that you might find at an Adult Sex Shop. So, his presentation wasn’t entirely scary but a parody of the seriousness and severity of living under the militaristic rule of the USSR.
He told us that we were now in 1982. He showed us pictures of our leader Brezhnev. We had to toast him. He drove us to an abandoned jail on four hectares and said he visited there as a kid. He recalled how his dad and he visited a neighbor who was sentenced there. The crime? The neighbor flew an old Estonian flag from his own window. The KGB arrested him; he was sentenced to five years. His neighbor had said that he wanted to emigrate to Canada when released and someday return to Estonia. He did—- in a coffin.
The guide told us his own grandfather had been arrested and forced to spend nine months in this now abandoned jail we were gazing at. Then, his grandpa was deported to Siberia along with his grandma. His grandpa never returned. His crime? Someone snitched. That person told the authorities that this guide’s grandpa had too many cows and horses on his farm.
We were driven to a museum where in the back yard among overgrown weeds and rubbish lay abandoned Communist- era statues. Once threatening and tall, they now squatted on the ground in disarray. Stalin reclined prone among the rubble. The sight reminded me of that famous Shelley sonnet, Ozymandias, where there is nothing left of a statue in the desert but the stump of legs and the inscription: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my work, Ye Mighty, and despair.” And nothing stretched round the ruined sculpture but the desert sands. Driven home to me as I gazed on these decayed fragments was the idea that empires are impermanent; there is always the inevitable decline of all leaders.
Inside this building, that was now a museum, we entered a large room where medals had been given out in Soviet days to loyal Communists. A mural wound round the walls depicting the 15 Soviet Republics. Soviet art, he told us, was always a type of propaganda. Inevitably, Soviet workers were drawn with smiling, handsome visages, and Capitalists were portrayed as unhappy, ugly people. Our guide thought it important for folks to see this room. “How can you hide your history?” he asks.
Many of our fellow cruise ship voyagers chose excursions to the medieval walled city of Tallinn, which is delightful with its quaint churches and ancient fortifications and craft shops and outdoor markets selling linens and amber. But for me, this Soviet flashback tour to experience what life was like in 1982—a year which I recall vividly as a prosperous year and a happy year with my baby son —was a turning point for this forty- something man who now shared the horrors of his youth along with the funny stories.
He said his father once procured a bottle of Coca cola which his dad bribed a sailor for. His dad would not let anyone drink it but kept it in a position of status in the house. Our guide was just a curious boy so he cleverly uncapped the bottle and drank over half its delicious contents and then filled the bottle up with water, not to get caught. Finally, the day arrived when his dad planned on imbibing this forbidden nectar. His dad poured it in a glass and drank it and exclaimed, “Damn those lying capitalists! I paid a lot of money for this! And it tastes just like water!”
Our Estonian host gave us his take on the world. He said NATO stands for No Action, Talk Only. To him, Ronald Reagan is the American hero who got Estonia free. And although young folks speak English and love their freedom, some of the older Estonian folks miss being part of Russia and don’t like his driving around the city in the Communist- era bus mocking that period and the Soviet ideology.
So we drank more flavored Katoucha vodka, which he said is the oldest ice breaker in the world, and we ate the sausage rolls he offered us and listened on.
I felt so thankful that these people of Estonia could for the last 25 years feel the independence that we in the United States are born with and take for granted. And it cemented in my thinking why America is the greatest country in the world and why so many folks want to live as we do—free to pursue our dreams whether they be to express ourselves by flying a flag or by raising as many cows and horses to graze on our pastures as we want.
When I travel to places that only recently have been liberated, I realize the indomitable American spirit we citizens possess, and I feel gratitude for those brave souls back in 1776 who formed the constitution and fought to create this nation. There is a saying: “Choose your parents well” which makes folks laugh when they hear it as everyone knows it is a matter of luck if you happen to be born to great parents. Isn’t that also true of our mother country? We who were born here “chose well.”