Saturday, 29 October 2022

The Aggressor Next Door

I am pleased to announce that my latest article The Aggressor Next Door has been included in the tenth Azuria anthology. Azuria is published by the Geelong Writers Inc and is funded in part by the Estonian Culrural Foundation in Australia. The book includes a collection of essays, memoirs, poetry and short stories. This year's theme is 'Peace and War'

The Aggressor Next Door

Anti-Russian sentiment didn’t exist in Estonia prior to World War Two. In fact, many Russians like the Russian Old Believers, sought refuge in Estonia to escape persecution in their homeland and they, like many other Russians lived peacefully in Estonia for generations. Estonia has always had a small Russian minority. In 1939, eight percent of Estonia’s population were ethnic Russian and they lived normal lives in society, some of them serving in the Estonian armed forces and in public office. There was no inter-ethnic tension to speak of. It was only in 1940 when the Soviet Army invaded Estonia and began repressions that anti-Russian sentiment appeared.

For the past seventy-five years the words ‘never again’ referred to the civilized world’s vow to never allow the atrocities committed during World War Two to be repeated. Yet on 24 February 2022, Estonia’s Independence Day, the unthinkable happened - Russia invaded Ukraine. As the world reeled in shock from Russia’s brazen move, many others were not surprised. Those who have experienced Russian aggression in the past knew full well what Russia is capable of and wouldn’t put anything past its government. The leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have always had their eyes wide open when it came to Russia.

The solidarity shown for Ukraine from around the world has been outstanding. People deeply sympathise with the plight of the Ukrainians, what they have been forced to endure and suffer. Widespread outrage and disgust across the globe at Russia’s brutal treatment of its neighbour have given rise to mass protests against the war. Something like this should never happen in the 21st century but unfortunately for Ukraine, its citizens had this horrific war thrust upon them and they had no choice but to defend their country. The stakes are high; all Ukrainians know if they lose the war, they will not only lose their country but also their language and culture. Ukraine will cease to exist as a nation because Russia is hell-bent on erasing the very notion of Ukraine. 

The war in Ukraine has made many Estonians think about their own families’ experiences of Russian aggression. The 1940s and 1950s were such dark decades for Estonia that are still etched in living memory for many. Every family in Estonia was affected by Soviet Russia’s repressions in some way, either personally or they knew someone who had been arrested, tortured, deported or murdered by the evil occupying forces. It was a terrible period in Estonia’s history during which Soviet Russia committed horrendous crimes against humanity, and sadly we are witnessing them again in Ukraine today. There may be new players in the Russian government, but they are using a familiar playbook we’ve seen before. As they try to instil fear in those they terrorise, that fear swiftly turns to anger, and anti-Russian sentiment has never been stronger in Ukraine than it is now.

When I think of my Estonian grandmother Hertha and her experience during World War Two, I can only imagine the turmoil and anguish she went through. My father often said she had a deep fear of Russian soldiers and that fear stayed with her for a long time afterwards, even after she emigrated to Australia in 1949. My grandmother never elaborated on those war years, perhaps the memories were too painful, but she did say she had had an eventful life and could have written a book. Unfortunately, she never put pen to paper, not even in diary form so many of those experiences were never shared. It was only through genealogical research, the tracking down of old documents that my family gained a better understanding of her story.

During the war my grandmother was living in what Nazi Germany called the Warthegau. She moved there with her Baltic German husband shortly after they married in Tallinn in 1939. In 1941 their son Kuno was born in annexed Poland but in 1943 my grandmother separated from

her husband Helmut who turned out to be physically abusive and unfaithful. In 1944 when the Soviet Army took control of territories previously occupied by Nazi Germany, more and more accounts emerged of the atrocities they had committed against civilians in the villages they passed. My grandmother heard these stories and was one of the many thousands of people who fled to the West trying to escape the advancing Red Army. At that time my grandmother was completely alone, she was an only child, both parents deceased and the only family she had was her three-year-old son. Like all those who fled, she could only take whatever possessions she could carry. Precious photos were swiftly removed from heavy albums because they were a burden to carry. This practice stayed with my grandmother until the end of her life, she always kept her photos ‘loose’ in a drawer, never in albums, it was a wartime habit she never changed.

At the end of World War Two my grandmother and young uncle made their way to Hamburg and found refuge in a Displaced Persons’ (DP) camp known as ‘Zoo Camp’ (it was located in the grounds of Hamburg Zoo). There were hundreds of these camps across Germany housing refugees from the Baltic States, Poland, Ukraine and other Eastern European countries. The feeling of relief after reaching one of these camps must have been immense after travelling days, weeks or months on end to reach safety. To have a bed, shelter, regular meals and access to healthcare was all due to the assistance of the Red Cross, UNRAA and the International Refugee Organisation. These charitable organisations helped save lives, including my grandmother’s, and I am very grateful.

When you have family members who were refugees or suffered from Russian aggression, you have greater empathy for those who find themselves in similar circumstances. Both my paternal grandparents were refugees from Estonia, and with the help of various aid organisations they managed to get back on their feet again and rebuild their lives. Today, Estonia is one of the biggest supporters of Ukraine as they fight against Russian aggression. Estonia has provided over €220 million in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine and will continue to help until Ukraine wins the war. No other country has donated more to Ukraine as a percentage of its GDP (0.8%) than Estonia.

Over six million people have now fled the war in Ukraine and sought protection in nearby countries. As of July 2022, Estonia has taken in over 47,700 Ukrainian war refugees. Ukrainian refugees are very much welcome in Estonia and schools have been created so that children can continue with their education. At times the government faced the challenge of finding suitable accommodation for them all, but Estonia is good at implementing swift solutions. When the hotels were full, the Estonian government chartered a cruise ship. Estonians really have opened their hearts and doors to Ukrainian refugees, the Estonian Red Cross has been flooded with donations and regular charity events take place across Estonia to help raise much needed funds.

It has been said that ‘evil prevails when good men do nothing’. In this case, there are a lot of good men, and women determined to help Ukraine maintain its sovereignty and win this war against Russia. Sadly, other Western countries didn’t come to Estonia’s rescue after World War Two and so Estonia was forced to endure 50 years of Soviet occupation. We will not abandon Ukraine to the same fate.

Слава Україні

Thursday, 27 October 2022

Estonia's link with the Sydney Harbour Bridge

 Did you know an Estonian helped officially open the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932? 

The NSW Premier Jack Lang cut the ribbon with a pair of gold scissors made by Vambola van Veinberg who was born in Tallinn in 1914. He designed the scissors when he was just sixteen years old. Vambola had a long and distinguished career as a designer of coins and medals. Vambola’s design is distinctly Australian, being hand-wrought from Australian gold and containing six flame-coloured opals, quarried from Lightning Ridge. Decorated with flannel flowers, waratahs and gum leaves set around a model of the bridge. Les Denham embossed them and Norm Neal engraved them in Angus & Coote’s workroom.

Tuesday, 25 October 2022

Nõo's historic St Lawrence Church

The medieval church of St. Lawrence in Nõö is one of the oldest brick churches in Estonia. Founded in the mid-13th century, it was originally built as a fortress church and has many Gothic and Romanesque features, including its medieval arches. The exterior of the church has been modified several times during its history, notably in the 15th and 19th centuries. 

The tower of Nõo church is more than 700 years old. It is the only church in Southern Estonia, whose medieval structure is almost completely preserved despite the wars throughout the centuries.

St. Lawrence is a beautiful old church and if you get lucky to be invited up to the bell tower you can experience a magnificent view of the surrounding area. 

Sunday, 23 October 2022

Simply stunning - Northern Lights in Estonia

Kairo Kiitsak took this photograph last night of Jägala waterfall and the beautiful Northern Lights. Such a wondrous sight!

Saturday, 22 October 2022

Gingerbread Mania / PiparkoogiMaania announces this year's theme

Gingerbread Mania, one of Tallinn's best exhibitions during the Christmas season has announced its 2022 theme - architecture. Every year over one hundred artists get together to create a unique collection of items out of 300kg of dough. The exhibition opens on the 1st of December and is sure to delight visitors like it does every year. 

More information can be found on the PiparkoogiMaania website.

Thursday, 20 October 2022

Tallinn University opens exhibition dedicated to Estonia's oldest public library

Tomorrow Tallinn University Academic Library will open a new exhibition with a selection of books from the oldest public library in Estonia, the library of St. Olav's Church. Built in the 12th century, St. Olav's Church (Oleviste kirik) had religious literature at the heart of its library as well a collection of medieval scholastics and alchemists books.  The exhibition reveals what local scholars in Estonia, which fell under Swedish rule during the Livonian War, read and what the academic climate was like in North Estonia prior to the establishment of the University of Tartu in 1632.

In 1968 the St. Olav's Church Library was transferred to the Baltic Department of the Central Library of the Estonian Academy of Sciences, which is now the Tallinn University Academic Library.

Wednesday, 19 October 2022

Monday, 17 October 2022

Old photographs of Estonia

It's interesting to look upon these old photographs taken in Estonia. They catch a glimpse of a bygone era that our grandparents generation remember well.  As a photo enthusiast, I find them fascinating!

Saturday, 15 October 2022

Estonian potato salad recipe

 The weekend is a great time for cooking and trying new recipes. Here's an Estonian classic!

Tuesday, 11 October 2022

Forest Brother Farm and Bunkers

The Forest Brothers are national heroes of Estonia. They were brave resistance fighters who opposed Soviet rule and tried their best to restore Estonia's independence. When Estonia was re-occupied by the Soviet Union in 1944, many had hoped that the West would come and help liberate Estonia once World War Two ended but help never came. After 1945 the Forest Brothers were the only ones fighting for Estonia's freedom and they made life very difficult for the Soviet occupiers. Unfortunately they were vastly outnumbered and hunted down one by one. The Forest Brothers were active in Estonia until 1953 and the last one, August Sabbe, was captured and killed in September 1978. 

There are many restored Forest Brothers bunkers/hideouts in Estonia, which visitors can go discover how the forest brothers spent their days. Locations of the various bunkers can be found on the Military Heritage Tourism website. Two of the most popular locations is Forest Brother (Metsavenna) Farm and Põrgupõhja bunker. The fully reconstructed Põrgupõhja Bunker was opened to the public in 2015 and showcases the everyday life of the Forest Brothers. Anyone interested can spend the night in the bunker and imagine what it must have been like to live in hiding. 

Monday, 10 October 2022

Estonia ranks 4th in the world for Press freedom

The 2022 Freedom of the Press world rankings have been released. Estonia has moved up a place since last year. Great result!

Northern Europe leads the way: 1st. Norway 2nd. Denmark 3rd. Sweden 4th. Estonia 5th. Finland.

Sunday, 9 October 2022

A look at Gammalsvenskby - the Ukrainian village settled by Estonian-Swedes

On 20 August 1781 approximately 1200 Swedes left their home on the Estonian island of Hiiumaa (formerly Dagö) and ventured on a trip to Ukraine that would take them nine months. They went on foot via Belarus, and during their travels, about a third of them perished due to low temperatures, food shortages and illness. The travellers were promised homes, timber and furtile land ready for farming near the Dnieper River. When they arrived, there was no trace of the houses they had expected to find and realised they had been fooled. By 1794, only 224 of the original Estonian-Swed settlers remained in Gammalsvenskby and they focused their industry more on fishing than farming. 

In 2013 Alexandra Drotz Ruhn made this documentary about Gammalsvenskby. The tiny village in Ukraine where people still speak Swedish today

Thursday, 6 October 2022

Tammsaare's 'Indrek' now available in English

The long-awaited English translation of Anton Hansen Tammsaare's Truth and Justice pentalogy volume II has been published. The novel was translated by Chris Moseley and Matthew Hyde, published by Vagabond Voices. Indrek is now available for purchase from all good booksellers. I just bought my copy online from the Book Depository

Wednesday, 5 October 2022

Estonian charity raises over €800,000 to buy Ukrainian army winter clothing

Estonian charity Slava Ukraini recently set up a fundraising campaign to buy winter clothing for the brave soldiers defending their country in Ukraine. The campaign was called '1000 Heroes in the Snow' and aimed at buying winter clothing for 1000 Ukrainian soldiers valued at an estimated €400,000. Due to the overwhelming support the campaign generated, donations exceeded expectations and the charity managed to raise €811,790 - enough to provide a full set of winter gear for 2029 soldiers! This is a tremendous result. The money was raised in only three days. There are a lot of kind and generous Estonians out there!

Further information can be found here - 1000 Heroes In the Snow

Monday, 3 October 2022

Swedish-Estonian Svante Pääbo wins Nobel Prize in Medicine

The 2022 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to Svante Pääbo, a geneticist of Estonian origin. Svante Pääbo was the first scientist to successfully clone DNA from a mummy, and in 2009, he completed sequencing the complete genome of a Neanderthal for the first time. His work has established an entirely new scientific discipline, paleogenomics. By revealing genetic differences that distinguish all living humans from extinct hominins, Pääbo's discoveries provide the basis for exploring what makes us uniquely human. 

Pääbo's father, Sune Bergström, won the Nobel Prize in 1982 for his research on prostaglandins. This is the 8th time the prize has been awarded to the child of a previous winner.

Further reading can be found here