Conserving Estonia in the New Europe

By Waterson, Merlin | History Today, November 1992 | Go to article overview

Conserving Estonia in the New Europe

Waterson, Merlin, History Today

* Few countries have experienced more determined and brutal efforts to change their cultural identity than Estonia. The mass deportation of intellectuals, the deliberate destruction of historic monuments, the changing of street names, and the wholesale burning of books were all part of a systematic policy to erase the memory of Estonia as an independent republic. The idea that Estonians might ever return to the vigorous artistic life of the 1920s, or could renew previous contacts with architecture and design in Finland must have seemed beyond their wildest dreams. For many Estonians this suppression was made all the more intolerable by the official promotion of the blander forms of folk music, ideally involving pretty girls dancing in the market place to the balalaika.

All that is set to change. The fear is now that countries like Estonia will swap one sort of bogus history for another. What the Soviet system failed to obliterate, the international leisure and tourist industry may yet destroy. Tallinn, like Prague and the other great historic cities of Eastern Europe, is still very much at risk, but from a different threat. However, there are encouraging signs that Estonia is aware of the dangers.

In her article in History Today in September 1989, Clare Thomson described how the official Soviet history of Estonia is now openly discredited, with interest and research concentrated instead on the years of independence from 1920 to 1940. As well as rewriting their political history, Estonians are looking increasingly critically at which historic buildings are worth preserving, and how they should be conserved. To guide them, the Estonian Heritage Society has enlisted the support of conservation organisations from abroad, including the National Trust.

During the last five years conservation issues have become a central element in the upsurge of nationalism. It was a threat to some of the most beautiful countryside in Estonia which gave one of the first opportunities to voice open dissatisfaction with Soviet dictates. In April 1987, it became widely known that one of the ministries in Moscow was proposing to extend the mining of phosphates. The potential environmental damage to the rivers in northern Estonia, to Lake Peipsi and to the Gulf of Riga, was a legitimate matter of national concern. Because of glasnost, Estonians found themselves able to talk openly about the threat to what they perceived as the environmental interests of their country.

Later that year, in December 1987, the founding congress of the Estonian Heritage Society took place. The Society has since then organised the collection of memoirs of those involved in the mass deportations to Siberia and in the armed resistance to Soviet occupation. It has also restored over a hundred monuments to those who fell in the Estonian War of Independence of 1918 to 1920, some of which had been concealed to protect them from deliberate destruction during the 1940s. The Society is now turning increasingly to the practical problems of conserving Estonia's historic buildings.

The wooden houses of Tallinn are one example of a type of architecture which has assumed symbolic significance. Until very recently, the idea of consciously preserving such obviously bourgeois housing was ideologically unacceptable. The suburbs of Tallinn include streets of these picturesque, usually nineteenth-century buildings which enjoyed their heyday during the years of independence. In a society only gradually returning to the private ownership of individual houses, the preservation of large groups of these buildings is very much in doubt. One possible solution is the designation of conservation areas, backed up with funds for repair used on a rotating basis, as with the |Little Houses Scheme' devised by the National Trust for Scotland. The Estonian Heritage Society, with its independence of government, might well be an appropriate body to operate such a scheme in Tallinn. …

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