Tag Archives: Independence

A Quiet People With A Powerful Voice

Ever since my arrival as U.S. Ambassador to Estonia on a frosty winter evening in 2009, I have been confronted with the loud volume of the Estonian people’s silence.  For a typically extrovert American, keeping a conversation going in this country can often be challenging.  That is until the American learns the power of Estonian silence and the astounding success and rebirth of freedom in a nation that quietly never gave up on re-independence throughout decades of occupation.  On August 20, 2011, my wife Hallie and I will be joining our Estonian friends in celebrating their 20-year miracle of  success.  Tens of thousands of Estonians will take part in events in Tallinn and throughout the country in what is expected to be the most visible (and even loudest) outpouring of patriotism by the Estonian people in a decade.

At a time of considerable political and economic turbulence throughout Europe and in the United States, it is particularly poignant to celebrate not only Estonia’s existence as a free country, but also its standing as a proud nation in the 21st century.  Emerging today from the most recent world-wide recession, Estonia is almost everything so many other countries today are not.  First of all, Estonia and its government are solvent.  With negligible national debt and an equally insignificant government budget deficit, Estonia is part of a very small group of countries that can lay claim to economic health and positive prospects.  There are of course challenges, including high unemployment, inflation, and unmet demands for better salaries and a social service improvements.  But in comparison to apocalyptic headlines, such as Time Magazine’s most recent cover proclaiming “The Decline and Fall of Europe,” Estonia stands apart.  No one  here believes that Europe is about to fall, and more than 70 percent of Estonians fully support their country’s adoption of the stressed Euro.

Meanwhile, Estonia stands ready with scant complaint to do (and pay) its part to help Europe overcome its ongoing debt crisis.  And for the part of Europe that is still struggling with its democractic, economic, and social development, Estonia has invested both its expertise and resources to help out.  Estonians are also fighting and sacrificing from Afghanstan to the Horn of Africa and the Middle East.  When asked “why does your small country do so much,'”  leaders here are a bit taken aback, explaining that nations and people stood by them during the darkest hours of occupation and its payback time!

Estonians see the problems on their and our side of the Atlantic with traditional stoicism.  Privately, I suspect, they wonder why the rest of us are so slow in implementing to them obvious solutions.  They have seen much worse and not only survived, but excelled.  For Estonians, there are no problems that can’t be surmounted with stubborn commitment to the solutions, no matter how painful they may be.  Their experience, looking at their past, is to live for the future – focussed and most of all – quietly.  I am really looking forward to being quiet tomorrow, together with our wise Estonian friends.

Happy Anniversary Estonia!

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Abruka Island: Post-War Deportations And A Modern Tragedy

Letter from Estonian Writer Ülo Tuulik.  Part 3:

I spent a poor and unpretentious and yet wonderful childhood on this island.  The war was over, my family was alive, the sky was blue, the sea was filled with fish and we were surrounded by friendly neighbors.  The island did not have electricity, a telephone, nor even a single radio, a general store or a doctor, but we did not starve.  And, in the spring of 1945, when 20,000 Estonians were deported into Siberia, many neighboring families were saved by the break-up of sea ice – the Soviet Russian deporters did not dare to cross the thin ice.

In the summer of 1994, four young married couples, including both my daughters and their husbands, reserved tickets to go to Stockholm on the ship Estonia on 26th of September 1994.  For different reasons, my daughters and one son-in-law could not go through with the trip.  Five young people, our neighbors and friends from many summers, young beautiful people in their prime went and never returned.  The three who survived erected this cross and made sure that the memory of what happened is never forgotten.

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Abruka Island: Invasions and the Sanctity of Life

Letter from Estonian Writer Ülo Tuulik:  Part 2:

In 1935, my father came to this island to be a schoolteacher.  He spoke Finnish, Russian and German but also taught the local young people how to play bridge and chess.  In May 1936, (my brother) little Vaino fell ill.  Father and a local fisherman took a very small boat through a heavy storm to Kuressaare in order to fetch the doctor.  The doctor came to the harbor but said that he dared not get into so small of a boat in such stormy weather.  Father and the fisherman drove back.  Little Vaino died that night.

On the 23rd of August 1939, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed in Moscow.  The secret protocol of this pact decided the fate of Estonian people for half a century.  We were victims of geopolitics.  In the autumn of the same year, the first Soviet Russian soldiers came to Estonia.  A garrison of 150 men was set up in Abruka.  Four officers lived in the village while the soldiers were in the barracks on the other side of the island.  In July 1941, German planes first appeared in the sky above Abruka.  A young Russian boy did not run straight back to the barracks, as he should have, but instead waited in the forest for the planes to leave.  The Commissar (military official) saw this as an act of cowardiss and lack of discipline.  An old fisherman of Abruka saw with his own eyes the boy getting shot in front of a line-up. He was buried so quickly and carelessly that his toes stuck out of the ground.  Before the Germans reached Abruka, all the Soviet officers fled.  The Russian soldiers were taken to concentration camps from where most did not make it back.  As we know, a human life is sacred.  So the people of Abruka buried the young Russian soldier, shot by the Commissar, in their village graveyard.  He was buried along with his spoon and aluminum mug.  Twenty years later, we erected a memorial stone to the unknown soldier.  All over the world there are burial places for unknown soldiers.  During the long years of Soviet reign I spoke to known communist officials and politicians and told them that here lies an unknown soldier who fell in the battle against the Germans.  He is no longer unknown, however, because we found his name in the archives, Aleksander Haritolov.  And if for the sake of truth and history you would also like to know the name of the man who shot — it is Pjotr Lukonin.

During World War II, the school in Abruka was closed and father went to teach for two years on Sorve Peninsular in Saaremaa.  In autumn of 1944, some of the toughest battles of World War II that took place on Estonian soil were fought there.

We, about 3,000 habitants, were taken to camps in Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia.  Children and old folks were buried on foreign soil.  When we returned in 1945, our village was no longer on the map – it had been destroyed.  Father’s library of thousands of books had also burned down.  We were poor, no clothes, homeless and decided to return to Abruka.  Father once again began teaching the fishermen’s children and my sister Safme (sp?) became the head of the local library, a job she carried on for 58 years running.  This could also be added to the Guinness Book of World Records ….

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A Courageous Sign of Respect and Friendship

This Fourth of July I received a most special gift  — an American flag, found in the waters off the coast of Morocco 36 years ago by a very courageous Russian fisherman and sailor.  In 1974, the sailor, Mr. Gennadi Gamov, today an Estonian citizen, found our flag floating in the water, and out of simple respect for our national symbol, brought the Stars and Stripes on board his Soviet fishing trawler.  A great personal risk to himself, Mr. Gamov first hid our flag in his cabin for 3 months and then in his home in Estonia after his return — until Estonian re-independence in 1991!  Mr. Gamov’s sense of honor and courage is deeply moving and a tribute him and to Estonians of Russian extraction.  Thank you again, Mr. Gamov, on behalf of the American people.

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Renewing the National Spirit

This has been a week of commemorations and celebrations in Estonia and an opportunity for me to offer yet another “guest perspective.”

On Wednesday, I attended a thoughtful and touching commemoration  in the lovely town of Tori to honor Estonian lives lost in defense of their country, including a tribute to American volunteers who came to the aid of Estonia’s independence struggle in 1918.  A beautiful church in Tori had been restored by private community initiative after its destruction by Soviet forces after WW II and has since become a focal point of  Estonia’s defense of freedom. 

The following day, I attended the Victory Day Parade in Viljandi also recalling Estonia’s resistance and victory over foreign occupation and simultaneously ringing in Jaanipäev – St. John’s Day and Midsummer’s Eve – with the dispatch of Midsummer torches to each of Estonia’s 15 counties.  The parade was festive and joyous.  The military bands, including one from Baltic neighbor Lithuania, provided a musical feast.  The audience, both Estonian and foreign, was delighted.  Later that day, my wife and I observed the happy and hurried path beaten by Estonians to their respective family and friends’ Midsummer’s Eve bonfires.

Some of these traditions are very old and some are new, and both represent a reassertion of Estonia’s national spirit in a new age, where old customs are not forgotten and new markers are layed down to guarantee the independent future of the country once and for all.

I am proud of the role we Americans have played and contiue to play in this Estonian quest.

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Freedom Isn’t Free – My First Estonian Independence Day

On February 24, my wife and I were honored to celebrate our first Estonian Independence Day in this country.  We were moved and surprised.  Moved , because the outpouring of national pride was so genuine, so fresh, and so filled with healthy patriotism.  Surprised , because the messages by your country’s leaders were rather sober and even stern in reminding  Estonians of tough economic times, further difficulties ahead, and the need for responsible action by both citizens and politicians.  At first I thought, too bad, why not let people celebrate for a day without reminders of daily stresses.  But then—after a few conversations with our Estonian hosts — another reason for the relative seriousness of celebrating Estonian independence came clear, a saying we also use in the United States:  freedom is not free.  Estonians seem to appreciate that and accept the responsibility of defending their freedom even after gaining independence a second time.  Happy 92nd Birthday Estonia…. and good for you!

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