Estonian history: A chronicle of resilience

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Winter is coming, goes the now infamous catchphrase from a certain hit TV series, and this country prepares instinctively. Heating systems are fired up, tyres changed, winter clothes unpacked, hot chocolate bought in, stouts put on tap and the glogg tanks refilled.

Children are wrapped up so well they’d survive far more than just the cold, the Estonian and Russian Estonian men don their respective winter uniforms: woollen coats in autumn shades with flowing woollen scarves and ostentatious brightly coloured trousers for the Estonians, filling the void left by their innocently subdued personalities; black woollen hats, black puffer jackets, blue jeans and black boots for the Russian Estonians, matching their no-nonsense dispositions — standard issue, no exceptions. All Estonians, irrespective of the language they speak, have their own ways of getting through the winter, and all of these ways work for them, the result is the same: survival.

And then there are foreigners like me. Wrapped up like the aforementioned children, yet still shivering. Crying over Brexit into my ‘third wave’ 4-euro cappuccino whilst moaning about the cost and wondering why I put up with this country and its weather every year, and why I’m not sitting in front of a roaring fire, drinking a pint of Butty Bach ale in a quiet country pub back home in the Cotswolds. Pining over the disappearance of M&S, wondering where the hell I’m going to get mincemeat from for the mince pies this year — having given up on Christmas pudding to be honest — and still grieving for salad cream and decent, cheap red wine.

Luckily for delicate Brits like me, a six-month subscription to Netflix and a stream of food parcels from the motherland seem to be enough to get us through the winter, and I’ve started early. Currently managing my addiction to Netflix by ploughing through endless seasons of padded out dialogue — with any significant developments only happening within the first and last ten minutes — during any vaguely free time I might have, and I’ve come across one TV show that’s gripping me.

‘The 100’ tells the tale of several thousand people fleeing a world in turmoil, a world that turns on itself with man-made weapons, a world believed by those on the space station to be destroyed, with them destined to sit in orbit for over three generations — or 100 years to be precise. However, three years early 100 young criminals are sent down to earth to test the habitability of the planet. Tasked with not only their own survival, they have the added pressure of being responsible for the continuation of life on earth, either by paving the way for the others to follow, or alone should that plan go awry in some way.

Their resourceful compatriots onboard the space station manage to follow the delinquents to the ground, only to find out that not all have made it, some were lost, and not only was the earth survivable, but it’s inhabited. The reunited people are vulnerable, surrounded and in relatively small numbers, but as the seasons pass the battles arise; they win, they lose, they call truces, they form coalitions against larger more powerful aggressors, and they survive as a people. They fight for those they’ve lost, and they never forget. Noses to the wind, always alert and always ready for the next challenge.

Remind you of anyone? It did me.

Ironically, I’m writing this exactly one year away from the Republic of Estonia’s 100th birthday celebration, with much festivity and contemplation ahead. Tough winters pale into insignificance to what you people of Estonia have had to deal with over the past 100 years and beyond, humbling whinging foreigners like me before the intro of most of your stories is through. When the conversation turns to history, as it almost always does at some point during an acquaintanceship, the Estonians I know begin to open up.

Now, I remember the stories of WW2 from my grandfather, they were tragic but often once removed, someone else’s tale. As terrible as this war was for us, there were those who were spared tragedy on a personal level, if not on the level of the wider community. It’s in stark contrast to our 2nd World War stories that my Estonian friends describe tragedy that touched their very own bloodline, every single time, without fail; and often just one or two generations ago.

Let’s go back a little further than the withdrawal of the German troops and collapse of the United Baltic Duchy government in November of 1918, to a time of the famine wiping out around a fifth of the Estonian and Livonian population from 1695–1697, followed by the plague during the Great Northern War, peaking between 1708–1712. Left with approximately 150,000 people (accounts and figures tend to differ widely), the land that was to become what I now know as Estonia was swallowed into the Russian Empire with its population reduced by up to 80%. Today a population of 1.3 million shows up the past 300 years for the short window of time it really is to replenish a nation’s population so efficiently.

The human condition is hardwired for survival, and this topic is laid bare in the series ‘The 100’. What’s fascinating is the psychology of survival and how that plays out in times of extreme crisis or threat. Of course, as humans we rise up to defend our freedom as best we can, but we also draw power from alliances, and we become stronger in our collective identity. When a technologically advanced people are all but wiped out, those that are left do whatever it takes to continue the bloodline — they may also shock themselves and each other, and hence the stories of savagery, fear and the congruity of a threatened people.

Survival isn’t just about the winning and losing of wars, it’s about building a nation of people around an identity. This bond comes through shared experiences, through the necessity of allegiance and through the spilt blood of those with whom we identify. It’s the old adage of, ‘we’ve come this far, we can’t turn back now’, and with such a chequered history, the fact that the soul of the Estonian people still survives is a testament to the sense of identity that has stood not only the test of time, but nations, empires, invasions and regimes; yet it still stands, adamant and proud.

So, those of you that finished paragraph two and asked why the hell I’m here then, just to bitch about not having the comforts of home, here’s your answer: respect. Pure, unadulterated respect. Respect for a country that believes in itself when others might not, that has kept its notion of what it means to ‘be an Estonian’ alive throughout such a torturous history, over the last 100 years and far, far beyond. A country that steps bravely into the next season, hardened by battle and bullying, fearless through sheer exhaustion, but fuelled by an obsessive dream to just keep going; to simply survive.

If the story of Estonia over the last 100 years were to appear on Netflix, what a rollercoaster it would be to watch; all those different characters, whatever they may choose to wear for the winter. Four gripping seasons, each with its own particular theme as standalone chapters of history; peppered with tragedy, unity, joy and tears. It would draw you in and become infectious, it would educate and become a journey through the history of a modern, thriving land; like all good drama it would change ‘something’ within you. Then, and only then, may people like me truly understand people like you. Alas, I am thus resigned to the fact that I am and will only ever be, a prepossessed spectator; a guest at best.

First appeared in Postimees, 25th November 2017