Founded as a walled city on a natural harbor in the 13th Century, Tallinn was originally built by the Hansiatic League as part of a network of Northern European fortified towns, unified against the threat of Viking attack. Estonia has ever since been under Danish, Swedish, German and Russian control, with only about twenty consecutive years of independance until 1991. Today, Tallinn reflects its medievel roots but is also home to significant examples of architecture from every century since its inception. After WWII, Estonia’s poverty under Russian control prevented the kind of development that transformed other more prosperous cities, so Vana Linn (Old Town) remains largely unaltered, and has become a major tourist destination for global travellers.
Despite its recent independence and lurch into capitalism as the rising star of the European Union, Estonia remains a folk culture at its core. The major challenge for the next generation will be in managing growth without losing its traditions, which have mostly remained intact due to a long history of foreign control and oppression. Tallinn perfectly captures the emerging Estonian spirit.
Ene’s mother and grandparents left Estonia after WWII, after having spent five years in a work camp during German occupancy. Jaan Kitzberg, Ene’s grandfather, was a prominent newspaper editor whose father, August Kitzberg, was a well known playwright around the turn of the last century. His plays are synonymous with an early modernist movement in Estonia, and cast a contemporary interpretation of the country’s ancient folklore. Kitzberg’s work is still performed and he is recognized as among 100 major contributors to Estonian culture in the 20th century.
We were generously hosted by Ene’s relatives in Tallinn, all of whom share links to August Kitzberg. We travelled south across the country to the coastal city of Paarnu, then continued east to visit the birthplace and museum of August Kitzberg. Leaving Tallinn, the countryside opens up almost immediately, with vast expanses of flat farmland rimmed by dense forests of pine and birch. The few villages and farmhouses appear unchanged since pre-modern times, in sharp contrast to the adolescent sparkle of Tallinn’s new center. Despite its serenely sparse beauty, Estonia’s rural interior has an overwhelming sense of loss and oppression, and is dotted with the occassional carcass of brutalist Russian infrastructure decaying like abandoned spaceships from 1950’s science fiction.
I’m still processing our amazing time in Estonia as I sit in Unni’s apartment in Oslo on my way to Maine, and will be adding images and commentary in the coming weeks. We met with the curator at Tallinn’s new contemporary art museum, and will be developing a project to coincide with Tallinn’s upcoming stature as ‘cultural capital’ of Europe in 2011.