Day Trip to Tallinn in Estonia

On the 7th September 2022, during the second week of my trip to Finland, I got a ferry across the Gulf of Finland, in the Baltic Sea, from Helsinki to Tallinn, the capital of the Republic of Estonia. From one country bordering Russia to another, six months after Russia invaded Ukraine, another of its ex-Soviet neighbours. Not that long ago, if I’d been visiting Finland, I would have been tempted to cross into Russia to visit St Petersburg, just an hour and a bit from Lahti by train. All of that changed in 2022. Russia was now enemy territory.

Ukraine was on everyone’s mind in 2022, as it still is today, and it was impossible to visit any of the Baltic countries without thinking about the hostile country just over the border. I had heard many good things about Estonia, once a reluctant part of the former Soviet Union, but now a vibrant and optimistic independent country, a member of NATO and the EU and, apparently, a leading hub for start-up businesses and new technologies in Europe.

Tallinn, the capital city, I was told was lovely – it is.

It is not far across the water from Helsinki, but the whole feel of the place is different. Finland impresses me as a ‘new’ country, not tied down or held back by its history, or defined by its inherited architecture. I know Estonia is a modern country too, a new country too, but with a much more visible history. I know that there is a Manhattan-style modern half to Tallinn too, but I was here just for a day-trip, all I had time for was a long and fascinating walk around the old city.

Where to start, when you don’t have much time? I suppose it made sense to find Freedom Square (Vabaduse väljak). Freedom from Russia for Estonia has meant many things over the last two hundred years or so. Freedom from the Tsarist empire, didn’t occur until 1917, after the February Revolution, only to be lost again with World War II, to the Soviet Union and then the German Wehrmacht, before being fully absorbed into the post-war Soviet Union and only achieving the freedom of independence w again in 1989 after the ‘Singing Revolution’ (laulev revolutsioon) and the Baltic Way human chain when around two million people joined hands which stretched for 430 miles across three Soviet countries, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia on 23 August 1989.

The Cross of Liberty and the Monument to the War of Independence in Freedom Square was opened in 2009 to commemorate all those who died fighting for independence in the Estonian War of Independence (1918 – 1920), but also including the many thousands of Estonians who had died for freedom in the years between 1918 and 1989.

I thought of all those freedom fighters that day, standing in Tallinn’s nearly empty Freedom Square. I felt we should remember them but also move on to the optimism that was palpable on the streets of this vibrant and proudly independent nation.

I tried to forget the present day realties of living next-door to Putin’s Russia while I walked round the extraordinarily well-preserved Old Town, thinking about history lessons at school about the 13th – 16th-century trading city ports along the German side of the Baltic Sea, known as the Hanseatic League. Places I never thought I would ever see, but of which Tallinn is an almost the perfect example.

Then I turned a corner and saw what was becoming a common sight all across Europe and beyond, the familiar blue and yellow flag of brave Ukraine, and suddenly I was back thinking about the present again.

Round another corner and I saw a gathering of people, some banners and flags and I went to investigate.

Yes, it was the Russian flag – the building was the Russian Embassy – and the people gathering were posting their protests about the invasion and their support for the people of Ukraine

It must be embarrassing working in the Russian embassies of the world as the country whose culture and history has always fascinated me, turns into a pariah state before our eyes. Good luck Ukraine, I thought, and still think, hoping that this terrible situation can be sorted, but knowing it is going to be a long war with the probable need for yet another Freedom memorial for the victims of Russian imperialism.

I saw another memorial on another street is this beautiful old town. A smiling bespectacled man, his smile, the smile of reason, his expression that of a classic liberal intellectual. I wondered who he was, standing there on a street corner, a benign presence, watching life on these now very pleasant streets.

It was Jaan Kross (1920 – 2007), the most well-known of all Estonian novelists, no stranger to repression during the Wehrmacht and Soviet years, when he spent time imprisoned during the German occupation and then in the Soviet years, he was deported to a Russian Gulag. He survived to see the birth of the new Estonian republic, and was one of that honourable band of writers who stood up for what he believed and tried to use the power of the pen to bring about change. He deserves his place on this Tallinn street corner.

I had to find somewhere for lunch before continuing the tour and before heading back to Helsinki, hoping that, one day, I can spend more time in this impressive and beautiful city.

Lunch alfresco was elk sausage with chips and cornflower petals…..a first for me…

… a glass of prize-winning Estonian red wine, called Regent

… one more glass and Tallinn felt like home.

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