Stories about Estonians

Cracking the code – learning Estonian in Estonia

As a teenager I travelled and lived abroad with nothing more than a fifty-five-litre backpack and the invincible confidence of youth. The desire to explore and experience never left, and when, fifteen years, one husband and two kids later, the opportunity to live abroad suddenly arose again – this time for my husband’s dream job in Tallinn – I was delighted.

Cue some research about Estonia – our basic requisites being that we move to a country interesting enough to pack our time there with learning about the region, but not so insurmountably alien that it might terrify the nascent traveller-explorer in our children. A cursory check of our no-go list – even my impetuous self would struggle with living somewhere with wildly different ideas about women’s rights, for example, or a crime rate that makes the eyes water; and the decision was made.

We arrived in Tallinn just in time for the winter solstice; dark days, roaring fires and the magical Christmas market gave way to the riotous celebrations of New Year (I have never before heard a seven-year-old ask for permission to go to bed because the fireworks were going on too long); and I set about my first mission. Learn Estonian – it can’t be that difficult, can it?

The forecast high for the day is minus fourteen degrees Celsius (7°F). There has been little snow for a few days, and the tramping of weary feet has turned ungritted pavements in the capital to passable cross country ski runs. I sit in a bare, modern classroom at the prestigious Tallinn University, surrounded by the circumstantially obligated and the academically masochistic, attempting to grasp one of the worlds most difficult, and perhaps least useful languages. To ensure our focus, the teacher leaves the windows wide open.

“Why?!” is the usual deadpan response when I tell an Estonian I want to be part of their secret club. And it is a fair question.”

“Why?!” is the usual deadpan response when I tell an Estonian I want to be part of their secret club. And it is a fair question. Of my classmates some have straight forward answers; the romantic (the Brazilian archaeologist who fell in love with an Estonian in the Amazon and followed him here); the pragmatic (the businessman hoping to pass the government-mandated language tests to secure better tax breaks for his company); those moving towards something (the Dutch guy finally reunited with his Estonian girlfriend after years of cross border commuting), and those moving away (the Russian couple who curl their lips at the mention of their country’s politics). Some are slightly more off the wall – the Japanese classmate following her beloved Baruto-san, the Estonian champion sumo wrestler, only to find that he is retiring from the sport and returning to Estonia to his family farm.

And me. I would have laughed if you had told me six months ago I would be spending my winter in the Baltics, wearing the ill-advised love child of a duvet and a onesie and trying to crack a language so impenetrable it was apparently used in WW2 to communicate among allied spies (the axis powers being convinced it was code. Or perhaps elvish). But here I am. When the suggestion arose that we move the family here, the permanently invincible teenager in me clearly answered. Possibly before looking the Baltics up on a map.

“I would have laughed if you had told me six months ago I would be spending my winter in the Baltics and trying to crack a language so impenetrable it was apparently used in WW2 to communicate among allied spies”

My motley crew of classmates and I make up the beginners class in Estonian at the Tallinn University Winter School; a three week long series of short courses demonstrating the university facilities, expertise and range of courses, this season ranging from Estonian and Russian language classes to “experimental interaction” and “ways of seeing the past”. The school is a big draw to lecturers and foreign students alike, with some students deciding to stay on afterwards. The Winter School is the little sister to the more established Summer School, for those who prefer the white nights of midsummer to the delights of the northern winter.

Estonian sits in the Finno-Ugric family of languages, intelligible only to those over the water in Finland (and historically related also to Hungarian, although these days the languages have diverged somewhat). It is the official language for the population of 1.3 million in Estonia, although a large number of Estonian Russians don’t use it.

For Estonia, language, as a marker of nationhood, is sacred. The pragmatic education system ensures fluency in English for all young Estonians (the older generations having learned Russian under the Soviet system and Finnish from the TV broadcasts beamed over from Helsinki); but the bewildered response to a foreigner learning the language seems less about pragmatics and more about keeping gate crashers away from the party.

“The pragmatic education system ensures fluency in English for all young Estonians; but the bewildered response to a foreigner learning the language seems less about pragmatics and more about keeping gate crashers away from the party.”

Dissuading foreigners to try isn’t hard. Estonian has fourteen cases, no gender, three forms of every single word and no specific future tenses. As my Estonian teacher cheerfully recounts, “this is Estonia – no sex, no future”.

After a week of learning vocabulary I have a list of words as long as my arm and I’m starting to understand odd bits of billboard (bizarrely mainly the public service announcements suggesting people lay off the vodka and so on). We then turn, with typical Estonian gallows humour, to grammar. A week of slaving over cases and tense, results in the conclusion “some of this stuff, you just have to learn”; like why you go “into” some towns, but “onto” others. About this point the temperature really plummets, and whether the cause is this or the grammar, half the class disappears. One classmate – an eccentric Frenchman of the type that creates the impression that a mastery of French relies on exaggerated hand gestures and the word “boff!” – has to attend an emergency in Malawi. Others are not so creative.

After three weeks I am able to proficiently read warnings against going outside in the dark without your (legally required) reflectors and about the dangers of blindness caused by illegal, methanol-based vodka. Talking in any useful fashion has been slower progress, but I have made some friends and swapped some tales and will continue to work on the application of my language skills.

“After three weeks I am able to proficiently read warnings against going outside in the dark without your (legally required) reflectors and about the dangers of blindness caused by illegal, methanol-based vodka.”

In the real world, I have been trying to practise my budding skills. In the newsagents I top up my bus card, “Palun, viis päeva”. The assistant, who has served me several times before, and knows I am studying, humours me. Then he opens fire with a barrage of Estonian I am pretty sure he knew I could not understand. My eyes betray me. He smiles the smile of a man who has seen many before me, have a bash, but ultimately submit to the complexities of his native tongue. We complete the conversation in fluent, chirpy, Americanised English, and I return to my study guide.


* Adapted from the article first published in the Young and Global magazine. Cover photo by Ilmar Saabas (Maaleht). Please consider making a donation for the continuous improvement of our publication.

IOC adds wife-carrying to the 2016 summer Olympics, boosting Estonia’s chances of winning more gold medals

In a boon to Estonia’s chances for capturing Olympic gold, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has announced the addition of wife-carrying to the 2016 summer Olympics schedule. The backbreaking race will join other time-honoured events, including water polo, badminton and trampoline.

A team sport, wife-carrying simply consists of a male competitor carrying a female competitor through an obstacle course lined with dry and water-filled hazards. Team members need not be officially married, but must show trust in one another and be able to remember their anniversary date. The team crossing the finish line in matrimonious glee and with the best overall time wins the race. No judges are involved and no points are available for style.

However, style matters immensely. Wife-carrying style, or technique, comes in several forms and the merits of each are debated heavily in pubs around Scandinavia. Dearest to the Estonians is the Estonian-carry, where the wife locks her thighs around the husband’s head and neck and then dangles her body so her chest is resting on his back. Other tactics include standard piggyback and the fireman’s carry, so named because the pose resembles a fireman carrying a damsel in distress from a burning building. Somewhat controversial, and still in consideration by the IOC, is the “upside down chivalry ferry” where the wife carries the husband.

Up to this point, if a wife-carrying team wanted to prove their worth and test their mettle, the sport’s world championships were held yearly in Sonkajärvi, Finland. Now, with the addition of Olympic gold, silver and bronze medals in 2016, many teams are setting their sights on Rio de Janeiro. The Estonians were crowned World Champions from 1998 through 2008. However, after a string of bad luck between Estonian teammates, including a nasty public fight over snoring and a spat over whether to place the toilet paper flap under or over, the Finns have won every event since 2008.

Hence, the added pressure to the proud wife-carrying Estonians. Already in the top 10 of all-time Olympics medals per capita, according to research by, wife-carrying represents a chance to advance along this important indicator of national self worth. But will past success translate to a photo-op on the winner’s podium?

Estonia’s new prime minister, young and sporty Taavi Rõivas, thinks so. Speaking to reporters from Toompea castle shortly after the IOC announcement, Rõivas said his administration is drawing up plans for a state-of-the-art wife-carrying practice facility. To be constructed in Pärnu, the facility will include a replica 253-metre track, a co-ed sauna and an on-call marriage counsellor. Welcoming visitors to the facility, an Estonian American artist Mark Kostabi has been commissioned to construct a wife-carrying sculpture made from birch logs, potatoes and beer kegs.


Cover photo: Alar Voogla and Kristi Viltrop competing for Estonia in 2013, they finished second (Wikimedia Commons). * Please note that this was originally published as April Fool’s Day article.

Video: Learning in Silicon Valley – three Estonian entrepreneurs share their experience

Freelance journalist Ede Schank Tamkivi is looking around in Silicon Valley, right next to San Francisco, the place where many world famous companies and new technologies are born – and interviews three Estonian entrepreneurs.

It’s a well-known story how Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard and came to Silicon Valley to found his own company – Facebook. Steve Jobs, too, had dropped out of the university when he and his friends founded Apple – today the most highly valued company in the world.

Naturally, these are rather exceptions and coincidences, but to become successful today you need a lot more than good education.

Rainer Sternfeld, the founder of Marinexplore, knows that learning doesn’t end in school. Now, in a foreign environment dealing with the business of his company he has also learned that in America, to be successful, one has to praise oneself without shame.

Sten Dubin studied at the Draper University where studies last only seven weeks. He says that Draper isn’t an ordinary college; it helps one learn to overcome oneself and create a network to be successful in the future.

Steve Jürvetson, a venture capitalist with Estonian roots, believes that the education system is changing drastically. He invests his money into these changes and is prepared to support the studies of a young enterprising Estonian at the Draper University – be it on location or via an online course – with USD 5,000.

As an intro and outro you can hear a song called “Inside and Outside” by an Estonian singer-songwriter Marten Kuningas. It sends a message – one doesn’t have to be “inside” a school, one can also study on the “outside”. And to be successful in the world of technology, one doesn’t have to physically live in Silicon Valley.


The interviews in English are with Estonian subtitles and vice versa.

* The video was first published by TelePurk.

Cover photo: Steve Jurvetson boarding a jet. Courtesy of Steve Jurvetson.

The victims of Soviet deportations remembered in Estonia

On 25 March, twenty thousand candles, one for each of the men, women and children deported by the Soviets to Siberia in 1949, will be lighted in Tallinn, Tartu, Narva and Pärnu. Nearly 3% of the Estonian population were seized in a few days and dispatched to remote areas of Siberia.*

In the summer of 1940 the Soviet Union occupied Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as a result of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union on 23 August 1939. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Estonia lost approximately 17.5% of its population.

The Soviet occupation brought about an event that until then had only been read about in history books and which became the most horrible memory of the past centuries – mass deportations which affected people of all nationalities living in Estonia. The two deportations that affected Estonia the most, on 14 June 1941 and 25 March 1949, are annually observed as days of mourning. The March 1949 deportation was the largest of these when over 20,000 people, mostly women and children, were deported from Estonia.

Prologue to the deportations

On 23 August 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany concluded the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the secret protocols which divided central and eastern Europe into respective spheres of influence. On 1 September 1939, Germany launched the Second World War with its attack against Poland. On 17 September, the other party to the pact, the Soviet Union, started to fulfil its role by invading Poland from the east, at the same time concentrating large forces on the borders of the three Baltic states and Finland. Although the Estonian government declared its complete neutrality at the beginning of WW II, on 28 September 1939 the Soviet Union coerced Estonia, with direct military threats, into concluding a so-called mutual military assistance pact, which resulted in the deployment of USSR military bases in Estonia.

Similar treaties were also forced upon Estonia’s southern neighbours Latvia and Lithuania. The seriousness of the Soviet pressure and threats was demonstrated by the fact that when Helsinki refused to conclude such a treaty with Moscow, the USSR began to invade Finland, which is known as the Winter War. The international community reacted to this Soviet act of aggression by expelling the USSR from the League of Nations.

Soviet troops in Tallinn 1940

The Soviet Union occupied and forcibly annexed Estonia, along with Latvia and Lithuania, in the summer of 1940, on the basis of the aforementioned Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. At the initiative of the Soviet authorities, illegal parliamentary elections with forged results were organised in the Baltic states, the results of which were not recognised by democratic Western countries. The Soviet authorities immediately implemented a reign of terror, which also victimised Estonia’s ethnic minorities, like Jews and Russians. Special emphasis was placed upon the elimination of the nation’s cultural, business, political and military elite.

During the war, Nazi Germany invaded part of the Soviet Union and occupied Estonia from July 1941 until September 1944, after which the Soviet Union re-established its occupation.

Preparations for repressions

The Soviet Union had started preparations for the launch of terror in Estonian civil society already before the occupation. The purpose of the communist terror was to suppress any possible resistance from the very beginning and to inculcate great fear among people in order to rule out any kind of organised general resistance movement in the future as well.

In Estonia, the planned extermination of the prominent and active persons, as well as the displacement of large groups of people were intended to destroy the Estonian society and economy. The lists of people to be repressed were prepared well in advance. From the files of the Soviet security organs, it seems that already in the early 1930ies the Soviet security organs had collected data on persons to be subjected to repressions.

Pursuant to the instructions issued in 1941, the following people in the territories to be annexed into the Soviet Union and their family members were to be subjected to repression: all the members of the former governments, higher state officials and judges, higher military personnel, former politicians, members of voluntary state defence organisations, members of student organisations, persons having actively participated in anti-Soviet armed combat, Russian émigrés, security police officers and police officers, representatives of foreign companies and in general all people having contacts abroad, entrepreneurs and bankers, clergymen and members of the Red Cross. Approximately 23% of the population belonged in these categories.

Soviet deportations -

The Soviet security organs started their repressive activities in Estonia already before its formal annexation into the Soviet Union during the course of occupation. In June 1940, persons were detained for political reasons, and from then on it only increased. On 17 July 1940 the last Chief Commander of the Estonian Defence Forces, Johan Laidoner, and his wife, were exiled to Penza. On 30 July 1940, President of the Republic of Estonia, Konstantin Päts, and his family, were exiled to Ufa. Both General Johan Laidoner and President Konstantin Päts died in captivity in the Soviet Union.

Mass deportations

Preparations for carrying out mass deportations were begun not later than 1940 and were part of the total violence directed against the territories occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939-1940. The Ukrainian and Belarusian territories were the first to be hit by deportations. The first written reference briefly noting that Estonians should be exiled to Siberia is found in the papers of Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s commissioner, who supervised the annihilation of the independence of Estonia in the summer of 1940.

Soviet deportations map

The first deportation took place on 14 June 1941, when over 10,000 people were deported from Estonia.

After the Second World War, when the Soviet Union had reoccupied Estonia (after a brief period under the Nazi German occupation), discussion started among the Soviet authorities on carrying out a new mass deportation.

Clandestine preparations lasted over two years and by March 1949, the occupation power was ready to carry out a new deportation. In the course of the operation that began on 25 March 1949, over 20,000 people – nearly 3% of the 1945 Estonian population – were seized in a few days and dispatched to remote areas of Siberia. The deportation was demanded by the Communist Party in order to complete “collectivisation” and “eliminate the kulaks as a class”. Nearly a third of those declared to be “kulaks” managed to evade their captors. In the words of the local Communist Party Secretary, Nikolai Karotamm, other families were “grabbed” in order to “fill the quota”.

Soviet deportations in Estonia in 1949

The majority of the 1949 deportees were women (49.4%) and children (29.8%) The youngest deportee was less than one year old; the oldest was 95 years old. At least two babies were born on the train. A file still exists on four children sent to Siberia from Rakvere without their parents, after having been held hostage for two days in an attempt to trap their parents.

Particularly inhumane was the second deportation of children who had first been deported in 1941 and then allowed to rejoin their relatives in Estonia at the end of the war. 5,000 Estonians were dispatched to Omsk oblast, into the region directly affected by the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site. From 1949 to 1956, about 260 nuclear and fusion bomb explosions were carried out there. The victims of radiation sickness were left without medical treatment for decades. Sick people, as well as the parents of babies born with abnormalities, were told that they had contracted brucellosis infection from animals.

It was not until the late 1950ies that deportees who had survived their ordeal had a chance to return to their homeland, but despite a partial rehabilitation they still remained second-rate citizens in the Soviet Union. A great number of them continued to be under the surveillance of the security authorities; their confiscated property was not returned to them and no formal pardon was ever issued.


Original text sources:, Estonian World. * This article was originally published on 25 March 2014. Cover photo: the 20,000 candles are annually lit on 25 March in Tallinn’s Freedom Square. Video: Body Memory (2011), a film by Ülo Pikkov, music by Mirjam Tally. The Estonian stop-motion animation ‘Body Memory’ takes as its central concept the idea that our body remembers, not only individual experiences, but also the sorrow and pain of our predecessors. It’s a powerful visualisation of subconscious processes and the hidden horror of deportation. The film was inspired by historical events: the Soviet deportations from Estonia in the 1940s. Please consider making a donation for the continuous improvement of our publication.

Estonian wisdom – 25 proverbs and sayings

A proverb is a simple and concrete saying, popularly known and repeated, that expresses a truth based on common sense or the practical experience, often metaphorically. Proverbs also encapsulate society’s values and beliefs. We have collected 25 Estonian proverbs and sayings and have also included the original expression in Estonian. Most of these are traditional, going back in centuries – yet, they are still used to this day. If you’re not an Estonian speaker and struggle to grasp the meaning, please ask under the comment section – the native speakers are certain to explain. Meanwhile, you can practice your Estonian!

He who seeks shall find – kes otsib, see leiab

Only a sheep lets himself be sheared – ainult lammas laseb ennast pügada

Make fun of the man, not of his hat – narri meest, mitte mehe mütsi

He who does not work, does not eat – kes ei tööta, see ei söö

He who helps himself will be helped by others – kes aitab ennast ise, seda aitavad ka teised

He who is late will be left without – kes hiljaks jääb, see ilma jääb

He who brings up the past, will have his eye plucked out – kes vana asja meelde tuletab, sel silm peast välja

Don’t sell the bear skin until you have the bear – ära karu nahka enne ära müü, kui karu käes on.

He who sows the wind will reap a storm – kes külvab tuult, lõikab tormi

He who is patient will live long – kes kannatab, see kaua elab

A smart one learns from the mistakes of others – tark õpib teiste vigadest

Where there’s work, there’s bread – kus on tööd, seal on leiba

The work will teach the worker – töö õpetab tegijat

A lie has short legs – valel on lühikesed jalad.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire – kus suitsu, seal tuld

Every tup has his St. Michael’s day – igal oinal oma mihklipäev

The cone does not fall far from the tree – käbi ei kuku kännust kaugele

A man by his word, an ox by his horn – meest sõnast, härga sarvest

Don’t rejoice before the evening – ära hõiska enne õhtut

The morning is wiser than the evening – hommik on õhtust targem

An old bear will not learn to dance – vana karu tantsima ei õpi

One does not look into the mouth of a horse given as a present – kingitud hobuse suhu ei vaadata

Old love does not rust – vana arm ei roosteta

All that glimmers is not gold – kõik ei ole kuld, mis hiilgab

Steady row, far you´ll go – tasa sõuad, kaugele jõuad


Cover photo: Kaarel Mikkin/VisitEstonia

Expats corner: Justin Petrone from the United States

In “Expats corner” we catch up with foreigners who live or have lived in Estonia, to find out what they really think of the country. Justin Petrone is a writer and blogger, originally from New York, who has been living in Estonia on-and-off for ten years.

Justin, what brought you to Estonia?

A ferry brought me to Estonia. It was a late August afternoon, warm, the passengers sat around on the open decks and ate their lunch or played cards until the rocky archipelago of Helsinki gave way to the waves, and then we floated on toward that odd stretch of the gulf where you see no land anywhere. At last, the tree line started to form, and I could see the spires of the churches and the clumps of houses. I had a pretty good guide, too, during that whole first journey. I had met her in a program for foreign correspondents. An adventurous type. She had lived in Tallinn for a long time and showed me around. I still have that ferry ticket. I keep it in my wallet.

Had you heard about Estonia before and what was your preconception about Estonia?

When I was a boy, I was sick in bed and my grandmother came to visit me. She gave me a book – children’s stories of the Second World War, which was something that any sick child in the 1980s would have really desired. There was the Italian girl whose father was in an internment camp and had his fingernails ripped out, and the Czech boy Pavel, to whom something really awful happened but I can’t remember what.

And then there was an Estonian girl who talked about rationing and how she enjoyed having a cold, because the snot from her nose would add a savoury saltiness to her tasteless soup. I also remember reading about how she would get a piece of bread with a teaspoon of sugar on it as a dessert sometimes. That part made me hungry and that was the first time that I heard of Estonia.

Preconceptions? I guess I imagined it would be like Prague, with the squares and architecture and good cafes and pretty people. But also lots of post-commie rot and 1980s haircuts. That’s what Prague was like in 2001. You’d go into a club and they’d still be playing “Hungry Like the Wolf“. Maybe they are still playing it now. In a lot of supermarkets in Estonia you can walk in today and they will be playing A-ha’s “Take on Me“. There’s something about new wave music that sets the mood in these places.

What were your first impressions?

I’ll be honest, each time I return to Estonia from somewhere else, I feel I am entering some barbarian, pagan, Viking realm. That’s how it felt that first time and that’s how it feels now. They can build all the gadgets and glass towers they like and get all their clothes at H&M – it makes no difference, because they are the same people deep down.

I’ll give you an example. I visited relatives in Italy about a year ago, staying in these little villages that were founded by the Ancient Greeks, where the people are relaxed and sit around the piazzas telling stories, and the mere process of eating is a well-thought-out, multicourse affair with salads and pastas and poultry or fish dishes and desserts and coffee, followed by that very necessary shot of limoncello.

Then I flew back to the snowy north where I used a shovel to dig out my car at the airport parking lot. On the way home, we stopped at Viikingite küla, a themed restaurant outside of Tallinn, where the staff all wear medieval garb. There was a big roaring fire going there, the skins of animals hung on the wall, a dog was sniffing our feet. And what’s to eat? A cut of meat, some potatoes with sauce, some boiled root vegetables, and a beer, or a coffee, and that’s it. It’s just that Olde Hansa (a medieval restaurant in Tallinn – editor), Viimne Reliikvia (an old Estonian movie – editor) vibe. It lingers. My brother-in-law Aap is this big, burly guy and even though he’s mild-mannered and nice to me, I have no trouble imagining him wielding an axe.

How easy was it to integrate into Estonian society?

It depends on how you perceive the process of integration. If you learn the language and get a grip on the understated, sarcastic humour, and familiarise yourself with local customs, like hitting your partner with birch branches in the sauna, at just the right spot, with that learned flick of the wrist that produces the right velocity, striking with just the right force, then you might fit in a little bit.

Have you learned Estonian?

Jah, muidugi.

What kind of friends do you have? Local or other expats? Is it easy to make friends with Estonians?

Most of my friends are other expats and so-called väliseestlased, “foreign Estonians”. I have managed to make friends with some Estonians, but, usually, by the time they become my friends, I have long since forgotten to think of them as anything other than regular people. Another issue is that so many Estonians are actually half Swedish or half Ukrainian or half Egyptian or something, so it’s hard to see them as being “just Estonian” or representative of “Estonianness”. I will say that there are some truly creative, innovative individuals living in Estonia and I am proud to know and associate with them.

What do you do now in Estonia and do you feel that it’s a right environment for you, professionally speaking?

I am a writer, and writers can write anywhere. And even if you are writing anywhere, you are often heading somewhere else to write about something else. But I have been in Estonia long enough to get it into my bones, and it’s a comforting place to be and to write. It’s also inspirational – I have written three books about Estonia and working on two others at the moment.

The first project is another My Estonia book and the second is a novel about a fictional existentialist writer named Jaak Naplinski. It’s going to delve into the issue of what value 1960s ideals have in today’s hypermaterialistic society. I call it The Naplinski Paradox. I have some other projects brewing and should be heading to Iceland at some point to do some research for another novel. That book won’t be about Estonia, but it still will have as its setting a bleak, trying northern place, and I am sure my experiences in Estonia will help a lot.

How does Estonia inspire you in your writing?

I have been very lucky to be surrounded by creative, driven people in Estonia, starting with my wife, Epp, who has written travel memoirs, books for children, books about the environment. She’s like a force of nature and it’s awesome to see her work, although it can be intimidating. I tell myself, “Don’t worry, Justin, she’s a few years older, so she has a head start.”

And there are others: Mike Collier, the British-Latvian writer, who lives down near Võnnu, or the elusive Vello Vikerkaar. The list is long. How about Fred Jüssi, the naturalist!? To sit at his kitchen table and hear his stories, to realise that this man spends as much time as he can in the wilderness, just listening to waterfalls or photographing birds. I have a book of his and I read it over and over again, and each time I read it, I feel that I become a better writer, just by digesting his thoughtful words.

Or how about Kristiina Ehin, the poet? Reading her words is like getting lost in the Estonian forests in spring. Once when I was in San Francisco, I went into City Lights, the famous independent bookstore, and pulled out the latest collection of European fiction, and who should be included but Kristiina? I think if you are in a US literary market, especially a place like New York, you will feel very hopeless at times, and many other sensible people will no doubt ask, “Why do you even bother trying?” But when you are that close to it, like I have been in Estonia, then you really get the sense that, “Okay, I am good enough, this is something I can do.”

What has been the feedback to your book, My Estonia?

My Estonia is the first book I wrote and writing a book is not an easy task for anybody. When I finished it and it came out, I hoped it might crack the top ten on the strength of people’s interest in Estonia. Then it went on to become a number one book for many, many months. Suddenly, I was walking down the street and people would just yell out my name, or I’d be sitting on the bus next to someone reading a book, and then realise that, “Wait a second, he’s reading My Estonia.”

So, I was wholly unprepared for the phenomenon it became, this terrific reaction where I am getting letters from people in Japan or Brazil whose Estonian friends gave them My Estonia, and were really touched by our story. I cannot say if it is a good book, a great book, a terrible book, but it’s certainly been a widely read book, in some circles, and of course I have been very grateful for this response, because it has encouraged me to write more.

Estonia has been open for change for over twenty years. What do you feel has changed the most since you moved to Estonia?

I remember these creaking trams with old floors covered in melting ice and mud, a downbeat feeling of exhaustion, a sort of grey cloud that seemed to hover in perpetuity over the city of Tallinn when I lived there a decade ago. And like so many people I was drawn to the sparkle of shiny new things, glistening new hotels and apartment buildings, just because they were material signs of change. Do you remember how small Tallinna Kaubamaja (a department store in Tallinn – editor) was back then? And Stockmann (another department store  – editor) seemed like a shopper’s paradise, a little spot of civilisation in the muck. Do you remember what the Rottermani kvartal (a former industrial area, now turned into shopping and business district – editor) used to look like? Those depressing ruined industrial port buildings?

The whole city of Tallinn, and a lot of Estonia, too, has undergone an incredible facelift. Even living in Viljandi, I saw an old liquor store transferred into a hip cafe, a vacant apothecary turned into a cafe and organic foods store. And the Folk Music Centre, this great, glorious space, wasn’t even there ten years ago. While these are just physical changes, the people within those shops and buildings have also changed. They are more optimistic, more energetic. Maybe it is generational change, too. Young people today have little memory of the Soviet era, if any. Meantime the people who were adults during the Stalinist era are few and far between, so that sense of heavy, weary fatalism is gone. These days, there is more energy, more action, and I like it.

What do you dislike the most and what do you like the most about Estonia?

The level of alcohol consumption is clearly a public health problem as well as a public nuisance. “Drunks” are seen as a part of life, though, and people are quite tolerant of them, “because they don’t hurt anybody”, most of the time. But they affect us. Too many of our relatives are afflicted by alcoholism and it hurts me to see my children exposed to public displays of drunkenness. My daughter would go to play hide-and-seek near her school and then run home because there were some drunks walking down the street. It hurt me because she was so young and already knew what a drunk was. When you are a parent, you want to protect your child from the more awful side of life, you know.

So, that’s a dislike. What I like about Estonia is the reverence with which creative people are treated. In some countries, being a writer makes you an outcast, but in Estonia, if you write a book, a good book, then they hold you up on high. When an artist says something here then it often matters because just by being an author or a poet or a musician, whatever he or she thinks carries that extra weight. Put it this way: If you are running for president or prime minister, you can get all the political endorsements you like, but when Tõnis Mägi (an Estonian singer-songwriter – editor) sings “Koit” (his most famous song) on your behalf, then you know you’ve really won the election.

What should be done differently in how the country is being run in your opinion?

I am intrigued by the idea of Estonia taking the same approach to implementing progressive environmental policies as it did with its focus on information technology. These days they talk of a Silicon Valley on the Baltic, and an e-state, or e-riik, but perhaps the country could be an eco-state, or an ökoriik, as well. I just saw an article headline from someone advocating alternative energy sources. “Russia can turn off Europe’s gas, but it can’t turn off Europe’s winds.” I agree.

Would you consider staying permanently in Estonia or are you planning to return to your home country?

I think I’ll always be traveling between both because I love both of them. One leg here, one leg there.


“So, are you Estonian or American?” On heritage, nationality and grammatical conjunctions

Hyphenated Americans exist in many combinations. This article explores how an Estonian-American identifies himself.

The year was 1994. The setting was the Hell Hunt pub in the Old Town section of Tallinn. The beer in my hand was a varietal of Saku. The hour was late.

This was my first visit to Estonia – a young man born in the United States to Estonian refugee parents – and I was having a pleasant conversation with a couple of locals. After chatting about life in the United States vis-à-vis life in Estonia, my familial connections to Estonia and the Song Festival that was beginning in a few days, I was asked a question that caught me somewhat off guard: “So, are you Estonian or American?”

I don’t remember my exact answer, but it had something to do with being firmly attached to my heritage and yet proud to be a citizen within the framework of the US Constitution, despite our faults. I don’t remember the exact response, but it had something to do with making sure I honour my ancestry, despite the distance between the two shores.

Although many years have lapsed, every so often and to this day, I hear the question as if I was still sitting in that crowded and dimly lit cellar pub. I hear the question and I’m taken back to my roots in a faraway land. I hear the question and I fixate on the “or” ultimatum – do I consider myself Estonian or American?

Estonian and American

I ponder it some more. And I realise, the grammatical conjunction is all wrong. This really isn’t a case of either/or. I am Estonian and American. American and Estonian.

I am Estonian because that’s where my parents were born. I am American because that’s where I was born.

I am Estonian because I can correctly pronounce the tilde straddled double vowel in õun. I am American because my predominant tongue is deprived of amusing vowels crowned with squiggly accent marks.

I am Estonian because my passions tell me so. I am American because my loyalties tell me so.

I am Estonian because I know the legend of Kalevipoeg. I am American because I unfortunately know the legend of the sisters Kardashian.

I am Estonian because I am proud of my heritage. I am American because I am proud to live in a nation drawing from so many heritages.

I am Estonian because I can dance the Kaerajaan. I am American because I can dance the Macarena. (Ok, you got me, I can hardly do either.)

I am Estonian because I can speak an odd yet beautiful finno-ugric language. I am American because I can hear many odd yet beautiful languages as I walk down the streets of New York City.

I am Estonian because I know 19 different ways to prepare a potato. I am American because I know 19 different ways to prepare a bacon cheeseburger.

I am Estonian because I fly the blue, black and white flag. I am American because I fly the Stars and Stripes above any other flag on the pole.

I am Estonian because I know where to find Lake Peipus. I am American because I like Pepsi and steak.

I am Estonian because I have contemplated carrying my wife across an obstacle course in hopes of winning a year’s supply of beer. I am American because a year’s supply of beer sure sounds good, even if I have to carry my wife across an obstacle course.

I am Estonian because I have an Estonian name. I am American because nobody has an American name.

So if you ask me that same question again today – are you Estonian or American? – my answer would simply be “yes”.


Cover: Estonian Americans celebrating Estonian Independence Day at the Lakewood Estonian House, New Jersey (photo by Liisa-Mai Karuks for the Lakewood Estonian House.) Please consider making a donation for the continuous improvement of our publication.

Independence away from home: Estonians in London celebrate

On 24 February 2014, hundreds of Estonians living in London packed Westminster Cathedral’s large event hall to celebrate the 96th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Estonia. The event consisted of a mixture of Estonian arts on display, but no Estonian event would be complete without vocal performance as the main attraction. Several Estonian choirs performed traditional songs by Pärt Uusberg and Kait Tamra. A group of actors then recited traditional Estonian poetry, which was followed by a group of dancers who performed a folk dance set to Ruja’s patriotic song, “Eesti muld ja Eesti süda”.


The star of the evening was Estonian soprano Mirjam Mesak. She performed classical songs with a piano accompaniment by Estonian composers ranging from Eduard Tubin to Mart Saar, Riho Päts and Gustav Ernesaks. Mesak’s powerful voice silenced a crowd ready for the post-concert celebrations, captivating those familiar with the Estonian classical tradition while offering a stellar introduction to classical Estonian vocal music for the evening’s non-Estonian observers.

After Mesak concluded, the hurried dash for champagne and Estonian beer called Viru commenced. An evening filled with song, dance and poetry ended in a celebratory mood for one of Estonia’s largest and most active expat communities.

Rene Iqbal IV


While the Estonian Independence Day is always a time for celebration, it is also a time for reflection. Estonia’s post-occupation independence period has eclipsed the time Estonia was independent between the end of the First World War and the Soviet occupation of 1940. Estonia’s independence is more secure now than it ever has been. But still Estonians and friends of Estonia must look to the future with the same enthusiasm that helped create a free independent republic in 1918 and helped restore that republic in 1991.

Estonia is renowned for having one of the most developed digital infrastructures and best education systems in the world. In Arvo Pärt Estonia has given the world its most listened to living classical composer while the Estonian choral tradition attracts more and more attention from cultural critics near and far.

But what must lie ahead? Where Soviet Estonia’s technological infrastructure lagged behind because of complacency, modern Estonia must likewise not be content to rest on her laurels. Continuing to develop new technological ideas and sell them abroad should be a priority for any Estonian government.

Estonia must also value its education system. It is often not till Estonians travel abroad that they appreciate just how good education is in Estonia even when compared with much larger and wealthier nations. One would hope that Estonia could help provide exciting opportunities for its educated population in Tallinn while simultaneously luring bright minds and investors to Estonia from abroad.


The spirit of independence was one of optimism, cultural celebration and a longing to believe that Estonia’s best days lay in the future, not the past. This attitude ought to guide the leaders and the people of Estonia for decades to come so that the successes of independence, the Singing Revolution and the e-revolution can continue to make life better for Estonians for years to come.


Cover photo: pianist Kristiina Rokachevitch and soprano Mirjam Mesak performing. All photos Rena Iqbal, courtesy of Estonian Guild in London.

You can find more photos from the celebration in London here.

Estonian Independence Day in pictures – London, New York, Chicago, Toronto, Sydney

Expat communities celebrated Estonian Independence Day all around the world. We bring you a selection of pictures of the celebrations from London, New York, Chicago, Toronto and Sydney.


London (at Westminster Cathedral Hall)

Rene Iqbal

Rene Iqbal III


Rene Iqbal II

Rene Iqbal IV













New York (at New York Estonian House)


Diina Tamm dancing at NY EH IX

Diina Tamm dancing at NY EH X

Diina Tamm dancing at NY Estonian H

New York EH






Chicago (at Chicago Estonian House)

Chicago II

Chicago V



Toronto (at Toronto Estonian House)

Estonian community in Toronto by Peeter Põldre Eesti Elu

Canadian Estonians celebrating by Peeter Poldre

Estonian community in Toronto celebrating by Peeter Põldre




Sydney (picnic on Clark Island)

Estonians celebrating in Clark island, Sydney

Estonians in Sydney celebrating on Clark island. Photo by Aune Vetik


“All the good things in Estonia” – through the eyes of children (drawings)

The Estonian President, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, recently invited Estonian children to take part in an art competition, “All the Good Things in Estonia”. Almost 12,000 drawings were submitted from all over the country.

“With your child, think about what makes Estonia a good place in which to live. We can enjoy both big and small things – our culture, traditions, nature and family, next of kin and friends – everything is important,” Ilves said, inviting the country’s children to participate. “In ten to fifteen years, the children of today will be shaping our country. I am extremely interested in learning about their perspective on Estonia.” The call to participate was sent to all schools and kindergartens, as well as hobby groups and shelters.

Almost 12,000 drawings were submitted. Despite Estonia’s image as an IT-tiger, where kids are taught to code from day one at school, the technological success has not heavily entered into children’s folklore yet – Estonia’s first satellite EstCube is depicted quite a few times, but Skype has inspired just a single aspiring artist.

Most children appreciate Estonia’s relatively unspoilt nature, wildlife and clean environment, but natural food, four seasons, cultural and singing and dancing traditions are also clearly in children’s minds. Naturally, one’s own family and pets, as well as schools are also held in high esteem.

EstonianWorld took a look at few thousands of submitted drawings and chose a selection of some more distinctive ones:

Aliise Talvik, 9
Aliise Talvik (9) likes the folk traditions.
Anete Raabe, 9
Anete Raabe (9) likes Jaanipäev (St John’s Day) and the singing and dancing traditions.
Alois Andreas Põdra
Alois Andreas Põdra clearly thinks that the countryside and a proper winter is something to be proud of.
Andreas Hubel, 11
Andreas Hubel (11) has taken a notice of Estonia’s first satellite, EstCube.
Alina Aleksejeva, 9
Estonia is very rainbow-coloured for Alina Aleksejeva (9).
Agnete Markus, 13
Agnete Markus (13) appreciates the country’s traditional folk designs and patterns.
Anette Teresa Adramees, 7
It’s all about Estonia’s summer and her pet for Anette Teresa Adramees (7).
Anette Hendrikson, 11
“Our cows are healthy and our milk is good!” From Anette Hendrikson (11).
Aron Allik, 8
Aron Allik (8) believes in the capabilities of Estonian Defence Forces.
Anu-Kristel Unt, 11
“It’s all about the nature.” By Anu-Kristel Unt (11).
Brianna Mumma, 8
“Four seasons!” By Brianna Mumma (8).
Carmen Lee Kuurmaa, 5
Estonia’s New Year’s Eve fireworks have clearly impressed Carmen Lee Kuurmaa (5).
Brittany Korkma, 11
“Hmm, which one today?” Brittany Korkma (11) has noticed Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves’ love for bow ties.
Daniil Kovõtsev, 8
Daniil Kovõtsev (8) likes Estonian wildlife. An occasional turtle has also found itself on the Estonian waters.
Elis-Gret Mkrtumova, 16
Tallinn is the world for arty Elis-Gret Mkrtumova (16). Or is she leaving?
Elise Pani, 10
Proper winter, nice summer with yummy strawberries. By Elise Pani (10).
Emma Vill, 12
“Who said that you’d have to go to Paris to find fresh bakeries? We have few just around the corner here, in Estonia.” By Emma Vill (12)
Enelin Leichter, 15
Plenty of land. By Enelin Leichter (15).
Fredrik from Peterburi, 17
Fredrik (17) likes the singing nation.
Estelle Peek, 3
Estelle Peek (3) holds her family and Estonian summer in highest esteem.
Greta Ruga from Tallinn
Stylish friends make it for Greta Ruga from Tallinn, even in autumn.
Georgi Potjomkin, 9
No, it’s not Saint Lucia. The cruise ships regularly stop in Tallinn or Saaremaa ports. But Estonia also has its own shipping company, Tallink. By Georgi Potjomkin (9).
Gunnar Pihlak, 13
Gunnar Pihlak (13) likes the song festivals.
Hanna Keeman, 13
The barn swallow is the national bird of Estonia. By Hanna Keeman (13).
Hanna-Liisa Sarik II, 10
Enjoying the winter activities. By Hanna-Liisa Sarik (10).
Heili Alljärv, 4, Do you know that there's a singing and dance party in Estonia
“Do you know that there’s a song festival in Estonia?” By Heili Alljärv (4).
Heilika Ventsel, 12
Heilika Ventsel (12) has been charmed by autumn colours.
Henriette-Solweig Hiiemäe, 15
“That’s us, that’s Estonia.” By Henriette-Solweig Hiiemäe (15).
Ines Themas, 12
Slightly abstract view of Estonia’s nature by Ines Themas (12).
Jakup Põlgaste
“We don’t have natural disasters, radioactivity, poisonous snakes nor 9/11 in Estonia!” By Jakup Põlgaste.
Iraida Ljamtseva, 11
“And tonight, I’ll give you…a song festival!” By Iraida Ljamtseva (11).
Kaarel Lipping, 9
Estonia’s time-clock is ticking – in four years time it will celebrate its 100th birthday. By Kaarel Lipping (9).
Karin Kosemets, 14
Wooden architecture and unspoiled nature. By Karin Kosemets (14).
Toomas Tomberg
Estonian balloons make Toomas Tomberg’s day.
Kauri Kastein, 12
Kauri Kastein (12) cannot live without Tallinn sprats.
Kevin Vahemets, 12
Kevin Vahemets (12) has also been inspired by the EstCube, Estonia’s satellite.
Klaudia Kalme, 8
Klaudia Kalme (8) loves Lotte, a children’s animation character.
Kristina Alas, 7
The friendship with other people is the most important for Kristina Alas (7).
Ksenja Randver, 8
Ksenja Randver (8) also values summer fun.
Laura Lill, 6
The blue cornflower, Estonia’s national flower. By Laura Lill (6).
Linda Heero, 12
Nature, nature, nature. By Linda Heero (12).
Loore Luste, 9
Loore Luste (9) appreciates Estonian children’s books.
Mailis-Heleen Maastik, 13
The barn swallow. By Mailis-Heleen Maastik (13).
Margit Lepik from Tallinn
Margit Lepik from Tallinn has taken a more surrealist view.
Marijoola Uuspalu, 12
Wild forests. No, they are not that scary, actually. By Marijoola Uuspalu (12).
Marta Kostusev, 10
Naughty characters from the Estonian children literature. By Marta Kostusev (10).
Merilin Tali, 12
“Our own language, history, wildlife, and people.” By Merilin Tali (12).
Merris Kivisoo, 15
The singing culture. By Merris Kivisoo (15).
Miia Margaret Tampere, 6
“Big mysterious fish; the barn swallow; and the President.” By Miia Margaret Tampere (6).
Miina Pikkov, 5
“Estonian mouse is also special.” By Miina Pikkov (5).
Mirell Morozov, 12
One of the wild Estonian lynxes has decided to dress up for the occasion. By Mirell Morozov (12).
Mirko Hein, 13
Wild storks. By Mirko Hein (13).
Natalja Aleksandrova, 11
A book character Sipsik, a cheerful rag doll. By Natalja Aleksandrova (11).
Nele Rammi from Laeva
Nele Rammi from Laeva depicts an abstract view of winter.
Remi Raudnagel, 3
The sun is blue, black and white on the Estonian Independence Day. By Remi Raudnagel (3).
Sandra Merila, 13
“Be united.” By Sandra Merila (13).
Sarah and Sandra Liivo, 6
Estonian music and sporting heroes have been noticed by Sarah and Sandra Liivo (6).
Selene-Rete Mägi, 6
By Selene-Rete Mägi (6).
Sigrid Barnabas, 8
Estonian sauna culture. By Sigrid Barnabas (8).
Sigrid Kinguste, 14
The Estonian wildlife has turned…very wild for Sigrid Kinguste (14).
Taavi Markus Põdra, 10
The sea. By Taavi Markus Põdra (10).
Teele Eskor, 12
The sheep have found a good home. By Teele Eskor (12).
Triinu Orgmäe, 12
Estonia has its own brands, too! By Triinu Orgmäe (12).
Triinu Sepp, 15
In touch with its traditions and culture, yet modern and hi-tech in the same time. By Triinu Sepp (15).
Joonas Napritson, 1
The future Dali? From the youngest participant, Joonas Napritson (1).
Vikorija Bolezina, 8
Tallinn is the world for Vikorija Bolezina (8).


Cover photo by Henriette Solweig-Hiiemäe (15). Photos courtesy of the Office of the President. You can see all the drawings here.

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