Estonians in the USA

Remembering Estonia’s WWII refugees

In the autumn of 1944, fearful of the advancing Red Army, approximately 80,000 Estonians left their country behind and escaped to Germany and Sweden, later moving also to the UK, the US, Canada and Australia; it’s time to look back and remember the plight of our Estonian parents and grandparents who fled their homeland to escape the terror and brutality of the Soviet occupation.*

In August and September of 1944, during the Second World War, tens of thousands of people were desperate to get onto any ship that stayed afloat, including tiny wooden fishing boats, to flee war-ravaged Estonia that would be occupied by the Soviet Union until 1991. Many countries generously opened their doors to take in these refugees who went on to lead productive lives in their new adopted countries.

People fearing the Soviet Union

Estonians started fleeing to Sweden already in the spring of 1943, but the exodus intensified in August 1944 and achieved its peak from 19-23 September 1944, when it became clear that the German front was collapsing and the Soviet military forces were about to occupy Estonia again. The overwhelming majority of Estonians did not favour any occupying force – the country had simply been sandwiched during the Second World War between the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union had briefly occupied Estonia from 1940-1941 and caused more suffering to the population than Nazi Germany – which explains why so many Estonians feared the communist state more. The Soviet Union had deported over 10,000 people to Siberia and executed or imprisoned many of the Republic of Estonia’s former politicians, ministers, judges, priests, business people and land owners. Large property and businesses had been confiscated. The NKVD, the feared Soviet secret police that was known for extrajudicial executions, had committed at last one prisoner massacre also in Estonia (in Tartu), killing 193 detainees.

Not all the Estonian refugees made it. The stormy seas and enemy fire claimed the lives of up to 9% of the refugees, it is estimated. Of the people who managed to flee Estonia by 1944, the majority of them took refuge in nearby Sweden and Germany. Thousands found themselves in displaced persons’ (DP) camps in Germany, which became their temporary home for a number of years.

In war-torn Europe

After WWII Europe was in a state of total ruin. Approximately sixty million people had been killed; nations torn apart and between 11 million and 20 million Europeans were left displaced. Germany was occupied by the allies and divided into four sectors – British, American, French and Soviet. Millions of people were left homeless and had to rely on foreign aid for survival. Germany had approximately 200,000 Baltic people registered as displaced persons in 1945 with 33,000 of them being Estonian.

dpcampmapIn 1945 the military missions in the British, American and French sectors established DP camps to provide temporary shelter, nutrition and health care to refugees. Hundreds of camps existed all over Germany and in parts of Austria and Italy. Later in 1945, the running of the camps was handed over to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and then later to the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) in 1947.

The original plan for the DP camps was to repatriate people to their country of origin as quickly as possible. By the end of 1945, the military authorities managed to repatriate over five million displaced persons, but they soon realised it was not possible to do the same with the Baltic peoples. Even though the war was over, their countries were still occupied by the Soviet Army and returning home would mean persecution, deportation or even death.

Life in DP camps

When people first arrived at one of these DP camps they often experienced a sense of relief. The camps offered a degree of security; a roof over their heads, regular meals and the possibility of being reunited with their lost loved ones.

But people couldn’t afford to be complacent; they lived in daily fear of being extradited to the Soviet Union. Many Estonians had hoped the US Army might go and liberate Estonia from the Red Army, but this never happened; in fact it was never on the Americans’ agenda. For the Estonians living in the displaced persons’ camps, all they could do was wait and see what their future would hold. They had no choice but to get by the best way they could.

Estonian refugees celebrating Independence Day in DP camp in 1948

People were grouped together according to nationality in DP camps. Upon arrival people registered their details and were given a DP identification number. For example, this writer’s grandmother Hertha’s number was 064057. Accommodation varied from camp to camp, buildings such as military barracks, schools, hospitals, private homes, hotels and even airports were used to house people.

Camp life was culturally very rich, in particular for the Baltic peoples. As many of the DPs who fled the Baltic states were intellectuals, farmers, craftsmen and artists, they brought a lot of useful skills with them to the camps. They established their own newspapers, workshops, theatres and training centres that created a sense of community within the camps. The workshops produced some very fine handcrafted goods made from wood, leather and textiles.  Embroidery was also very popular.

In the beginning, when DP camps were first established, the living conditions were quite dire. Sometimes DPs had to use accommodation that was previously used by forced labourers or that was either very basic or substandard. Overcrowding was often an issue, food shortages were common and if camp life wasn’t challenging enough, people were faced with a new peril – the outbreak of tuberculosis.

Zoo camp

Tuberculosis was rife is some camps. In particular, Zoo Camp that was located in Hamburg, had many cases of tuberculosis which resulted in numerous deaths. The buildings these people lived in were originally built by the Blohn & Voss Company (a shipping and engineering firm) to house forced labourers who worked in their factory during the war. The timber structures were often damp and cold, prime conditions for tuberculosis to set in. The Baltic University had its origins at Zoo Camp until the students were relocated to nearby Pinneberg where the stone buildings were much better.

Not all DP camps struggled with health and welfare issues, for example, Geislingen Camp, located near Stuttgart (American sector) was described as “the Hilton of DP camps”. This writer’s distant relatives, Heino and Aili Lestal, lived at Geislingen after the war and said the conditions were very good. Aili, now a spiritedly 91-year-old woman living in Canada, remembers that Geislingen was a purely Estonian DP camp, consisting of approximately 2,000 people who lived in confiscated German houses. Each family occupied one room, Aili says, enabling them to have at least some privacy. There were 17 people living in the house where Aili lived; her future husband Heino lived in the house next door.

Finding new home

Many people found love while living in the camps, which would have come as a welcome distraction considering the perils they faced. This writer’s Estonian grandparents met and fell in love while living at Zoo Camp in Hamburg. They married shortly after arriving in Australia in 1949. Heino and Aili married at Geislingen and spent their “honeymoon” and New Year’s Eve on board the “Vollendam” as she sailed to Australia in 1948.

The announcement of new mass emigration programs offered by countries experiencing labour shortages triggered an out flux of people living in DP camps during 1948 and 1949. Belgium was the first country to offer large scale immigration, seeking 20,000 coal miners. The UK and Canada also offered a number of opportunities but required sponsorship.

The Australian program, known as the “DP Group Resettlement Scheme”, was viewed favourably by the IRO and DPs for several reasons. Unlike other schemes, which required DPs to have personal sponsorship from a friend or relative already residing in the prospective country, the Australian government took on the role of sponsor itself, hence making the process a lot easier for applicants.

In addition, Australia not only accepted single men and women into the programme but also welcomed families too. This provided peace of mind for those who feared being separated from their loved ones. The United States was late to adopt a refugee policy and had several exclusions. For example, they wouldn’t accept anyone who suffered from tuberculosis or who had served in the German Army. Many DPs preferred the Australian resettlement scheme for one very distinct reason – the country was very far away from Europe and its turmoil.

Upon departing DP camps people were issued with a “Good Conduct Certificate” stating their name, date of birth and the date they first started residing at the camp. The certificates also confirmed they had not been convicted of any crime or misdemeanour.

Land of tomorrow

Australian Government poster displayed between 1949 and 1951 in reception rooms and dining halls at various migrant reception centers in Australia.This writer’s Estonian grandmother Hertha had dreams of immigrating to America but unfortunately her application was rejected. She later joined her husband in Australia and it was there where they started their new life together. When they first arrived in Australia they had to stay at the migrant reception centre in Uranquinty in rural New South Wales. There they learned about the Australian culture and to speak English.

All migrants had to fulfil a two-year work contract to the Australian government; then, once that was complete, they were granted residency and had complete freedom of movement. Many migrants later took up Australian citizenship and permanently settled in Australia while others left and were reunited with family members in other countries.

The mass migration schemes after WWII were a great success. They enabled people not only to rebuild their lives and live in peace but also to contribute positively to society. They brought with them their skills, knowledge, culture and cuisine. Things we still enjoy today.

Australia has benefitted greatly from its migrant population and everyone lives in relative harmony. Many countries took in refugees, here are the total resettlement figures: Venezuela 17,000; Belgium 22,000; Brazil 29,000; Argentina 33,000; France 38,000; UK 86,000;  Canada 157,687; Australia 182,159; United States 400,000.

Cover: Estonian refugee children in Hamburg ca. 1945. Photos courtesy of Tania Lestal and * Please note that this article was originally published on 14 September 2015 and amended on 19 September 2019.

The Masters of Our Own Homes travelling exhibition at Daley Plaza in Chicago. The Chicago Picasso, an untitled monumental sculpture by Pablo Picasso, is in the background. Photo by Sten Hankewitz.

Gallery: Estonia’s travelling exhibition visits Chicago

Estonia’s travelling exhibition, Masters of Our Own Homes: Estonia at 100, opened in Chicago on 1 June at Daley plaza in front of the city hall. The exhibition present Estonia, its innovative movements and solutions through the themes of history, culture, Estonians and innovation. The exhibition offers “both moments of …

Gallery: Estonia’s travelling exhibition visits Chicago Read More »

Estonian expats to hold cultural days in New York in April

Estonian expats are to hold cultural days in New York City in April; the programme offers a variety of events from films and theatre to a startup showcase.

According to the organisers, the five-day programme, from 3-7 April 2019, offers a wide spectrum of events, including movies, theatre, musicians and lecturers.

The cultural days will be kicked off on Wednesday, 3 April, with the Estonian startup showcase titled “Innovating Disruption at the 59th Parallel”, shining a spotlight on “the eco-system behind one of Silicon Valley’s best-kept secret ‘unicorn hatcheries’”, the organisers said in a statement. The entrepreneurs will also be available for a meet and greet on Friday evening after the opening ceremony.

In addition, a movie night is to spotlight the nature documentary, “Wind Sculpted Land”, and a three-part feature film, “The Manslayer/The Virgin/The Shadow”.

The cultural days also present concerts by the Estonian musicians, Uku Suviste and Grete Paia, and a performance by a New York City-area folk dance group, Saare Vikat, that is vying for a spot to perform at the Song and Dance Festival in Estonia in the summer.

The visitors of the cultural days can also attend a photo exhibit by Maria Spann, titled “Children of the 1944 Estonian Diaspora”, see a play written by the Estonian author, Andrus Kivirähk, and attend various lectures.

Estonian culture for the émigré community

The Estonian cultural days began in 1970 as an event to showcase Estonian culture for the émigré community in an era when Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union. During 50 years of occupation, Estonian culture in the western world was kept alive through events such as the cultural days.

With independence in 1991 came the opportunity for Estonians everywhere to interact more closely and the Estonian cultural days have transitioned with the times into an event attended by Estonians of all ages and backgrounds including older emigrants and their descendants as well as recent transplants, the organisers said.

The programme of the event is available on its website.


Cover: Grete Paia.

Estonia opens an honorary consulate in the San Diego area

Estonia on 24 January opened an honorary consulate in the San Diego area in Southern California.

The Estonian honorary consul in the San Diego area is Michael Chan, and the address of the consulate is 10901 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla, CA 92037. La Jolla is located 15 miles (24 kilometres) north of San Diego.

According to Rainer Saks, the secretary general of the Estonian ministry of foreign affairs, the consulate helps bolster Estonian representation on the West Coast and improve Estonian-US business relations in the region, the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Estonia plans to open another foreign representation on the US West Coast in the near future to serve Estonian citizens and business interests in the region, the ministry added.

Michael Chan, the new honorary consul in the San Diego area, is a US businessman who was the Estonian honorary consul in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2011-2018. He will serve the Southern California region and Clark County, Nevada.

The Republic of Estonia has 15 honorary consuls in the United States. One of their functions is to provide consular services and consular help to Estonian citizens abroad. They also help advance economic and cultural relations.


Cover: San Diego reflecting pond (the image is illustrative/Wikimedia Commons).

Ahto Valter – the Estonian who sailed around the world

It took nine years of detective work to finish a documentary about Ahto Valter, the first Estonian to sail around the world; this layered story about a hero from a past era takes the viewer on a journey through time.

This article is published in collaboration with the Estonian Film Institute.

Ahto Valter (1912-1991) was the first Estonian to sail around the world under the flag of his country. In 1930, his brother Kõu and he crossed the Atlantic Ocean (Tallinn-Miami) on a 26-foot motorless sailboat. From 1930-1933, he sailed across the ocean five times with his brothers Jariilo and Uku as his companions, among others.

He moved to the United States in the 1930s where he worked to propagate nautical tourism and as a marine inspector. From 1938-1940, he took his son, wife and a few other companions and sailed a boat built in Estonia and sailing under the Estonian flag around the world – from New York to New York.

An untold story inspires a documentary

About nine years ago, the documentary filmmaker, Jaanis Valk (39), happened to read a book about Valter. He found out he was the first Estonian to sail around the world and he did it even before the Second World War. “I’m a history buff, but this was new information to me,” Valk admits.

After that, he started investigating what happened to Valter and whether it was material for a documentary. “I was most drawn to the fact that Valter’s story is untold to this day. He was forgotten because of the years of occupation in Estonia. Many don’t even know who he was or that he existed,” Valk says.

The film includes material gathered in the United States, Canada, Australia and South Africa. “These have been years of intense detective work for me,” the documentarian says.

The first year and a half were spent figuring out if there even was enough material about the sailor in existence. “During the First Estonian Republic (the Republic of Estonia before the Soviet occupation; there is no ‘First Republic’ of Estonia – editor), people talked a lot about Valter. When he was 17 years old in 1930, he took a tiny boat from Paljassaare Peninsula in Tallinn to New York. But there wasn’t any material about his trip around the world in Estonia,” Valk notes.

But then, some unique footage came to light in Canada and the documentary team knew it was possible to tell the story. “I found out there was film footage of Valter in the film archive of the Republic of South Africa. But from the moment that I got in touch with them, it took nine months to actually get the material. It would have been a real shame if that footage had been missing from the film,” Valk says.

He found out about the footage in South Africa through a diary kept by one of Valter’s travel companions, which described their arrival in Africa and how a cameraman came on board. “The diary named the title of the chronicle. If it hadn’t, we would have never found it because the title had nothing to do with Ahto or Estonia.”

Valk gives another example of his detective work. “Ahto’s son, Ted, sailed around the world when he was 14. In an interview, he says his godmother was Australian, he was christened in Lagos and his godmother’s father was the Australian Chief Justice.” He found a professor at a university in Australia who had done research on that judge. With his help, he found Ted’s godmother’s descendants and they had some photos he previously didn’t know existed. “These kinds of tidbits of a conversation or facts are the type of things that helped lead one thing to another over the years,” Valk explains.

Two eras, two stories

The documentary is about stories from two different eras: one story is told through the diaries of Ahto’s father, Rudolf, and the other through Ahto’s own diaries. Rudolf talks about his family and Ahto growing up, while excerpts from Ahto’s diary describe his trip around the world from 1938 to 1940. One story starts where the other ends and they are tied together by a father-son relationship, the story of a family, societal changes and the war that broke their family apart.

“I decided on an atypical approach to my documentary – I used parallel editing because of a sentence Ted said. He said his father always lived in the present and the future but never in the past. I wanted to use Rudolf to show Ahto’s developing years and who he finally grew up to be,” Valk says. “This isn’t just Ahto’s story, it’s also the story of an era. We are talking about a time when a whole lot was happening in the world. When one era ended, another one began. That’s the story of World War Two and how it broke up families.”

The film shows us the restless spirit of an adventurer, his chase after a dream and his sadness. During one of his adventures, the Second World War started along with the catastrophe it caused. We hear about the hard times through his father Rudolf. On purpose, the only “talking head” style interview in the film is Ahto’s son Ted.

Valk remembers his meeting with Ted was sad in a way. “I never heard my dad talk in Estonian,” Ted said unhappily and explained how sad it made him to never have had the opportunity to meet his grandparents.

The footage from the 1920s to 1930s shows a type of Estonian negativity. We see the young, enterprising Ahto get rejected from the yacht club and how he gets recognition abroad sooner than he gets it at home. That’s an attitude we still haven’t been able to shake, Valk admits.

“It does bother me that we don’t know how to support our thinkers or innovators here. But as soon as they’ve come up with something – whether that’s Skype or the Minox camera – we beat our own chests and say they are made in Estonia. We should improve our ability to recognise people who do things with a sparkle in their eye. Who cares if they’re not successful right away? At least, we are ethically in the right later when we call their achievements Estonian,” Valk says.

He gives a specific example of this with Ahto’s attempts to get funding for a boat motor from the Cultural Endowment. His application comments read, “We were unable to inform him of our negative decision because he had already left for America.” “Ahto couldn’t wait to find out if they would fund him or not. He had a restless nature,” Valk notes.

Colourful brothers

Even though the documentary is focused on Ahto and his trip around the world, the film sheds light on the whole untraditional Valter clan – Ahto’s brothers were also sailors and travellers who searched out foreign lands and didn’t want to stay behind in Estonia.

Valk says there’s enough material for a film just about Valter’s brothers. “Jariilo Valter married an Italian woman who he met when he fell overboard in the Mediterranean Sea and the woman saw him and saved him. He later married the same woman,” he says. “Kõu saved a whole lot of Estonians by taking them West on his boat when the Soviet Army invaded. He later fled to Sweden, then the United States with his wife and children.”

But when asked what kind of a person world traveller Ahto Valter really was, Valk falls deep into thought. “He was a restless dreamer. Estonia was too small for him. Not because of the regime or the people, but just because you find yourself stuck at a certain point. You want freedom and discover that your sails will give it to you. Out at sea, he felt responsible for his own actions and independent of anyone else’s decisions. That was his biggest reason for sailing,” Valk says.

“But if you are asking about Ahto’s personality, then, goodness, I don’t know. I can guess, and I’ve tried to do that in the film. But who knows what the truth really is.”

The documentary, “Ahto. Chasing a Dream” (2018), is written and directed by Jaanis Valk, the cinematographer is Erik Norkroos, the editors are Erik Norkroos, Kersti Miilen and Jaanis Valk, the sound designer is Horret Kuus and the producer is Erik Norkroos.


Cover: Kõu and Ahto Valter. Read more from the Estonian Film Magazine. The Estonian Film Magazine is published since 2013, twice a year, by the Estonian Film Institute. Every issue informs the readers on the news about the Estonian film productions, publishes reviews of new titles and interviews with film professionals. 

Mihkel Raud.

Mihkel Raud: Estonians should see more how other people live

Mihkel Raud is an Estonian writer, playwright, radio and TV-host, singer and musician, and he has done a stint in politics – a man of many talents. On a sunny and hot Friday afternoon in Chicago, Estonian World sat down with him and talked about his colourful life – and life on the planet Earth in general.

It’s not every day I get to interview someone famous. In fact, the last time I did a face-to-face interview must have been some 13 years ago when I still lived in Estonia and worked at the Estonian daily newspaper, Eesti Päevaleht. It was also around that time when I first met Mihkel. He came to work as the head of the culture department at the daily, and while I knew him at that time from the TV screen and had probably seen him perform live with his band, Mr Lawrence, I didn’t know-know him.

One day in the 2000s, he suddenly appeared at my desk with a book in his hand. For the life of me I don’t remember what the title of that book was, but it was something about the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, possibly about his capture. Mihkel wanted me to read the book and review it for his culture section.

I was kind of surprised. I was this young asshole of a journalist, the know-it-all type (you’ve all met those) who had been promoted far too quickly and genuinely believed there was nothing else to learn in life, despite being in my twenties. I had a fixed set of political beliefs and I knew that Mihkel’s views were pretty much the complete opposite from mine.

But I did review the book. And I possibly even liked it. But at the time, I didn’t really understand why he was so adamant about me reviewing it – nor did I really think about it much. Only later, when I had done a good share of growing up and getting over my arrogance, I realised he was trying to teach me something. Maybe humility, maybe the ability to see matters other than black and white, or maybe just to make me think about matters in ways I didn’t want. Whatever it was, it worked.

Enjoying Chicago and America

Yeah, I know, it might sound as if I’m eulogising Mihkel Raud, but I’m not. He’s alive and kicking and for the past year or so, has been doing that kicking in Chicago. In a weird coincidence, we’re practically neighbours in the Lincoln Square-Andersonville neighbourhoods. I moved back here only recently, having lived here four years ago and really loved the area. Mihkel moved here, with his wife Liina, daughter Mirjam and son Joosep, in the autumn of 2017, and he did so by accident.

Mihkel and his family: wife Liina, daughter Mirjam and son Joosep, at the observation deck of one of the highest buildings in Chicago, the John Hancock tower.

As he described in one of his blog posts, he was just visiting Chicago and had heard that the Wicker Park neighbourhood was a cool place, so he asked a Lyft driver to take them there. The driver, however, talked them out of it, telling them that Andersonville was way cooler. And after having been dropped off in the neighbourhood that was first settled by Swedish immigrants in the North Side of Chicago, his and his family’s hearts were set – they had to move there. And they did.

Mihkel says he loves America, and especially the Midwest and Chicago. Chicago even so much that he has the city’s skyline tattooed on his left arm. “First of all, it’s a very cool design. There’re many aspects here, first, it’s like the ECG machine’s output; second, it’s like what you see when you’re mixing music in a studio; and third, it’s the skyline of the city that has accepted me so well. I had it done after we had our first anniversary of living here. I’ve always wanted to have a tattoo.”

Of course, what brought Mihkel to America in the first place wasn’t Chicago, but his love towards America and Americans. “I have always liked America, for tens of different reasons,” he explains. “In my early childhood when I lived in the Soviet Union, if there was anything I knew one thousand per cent, was that I would never get to visit America. From this time until today I love this country and I like Americans – a claim that many people I know raise eyebrows to, asking, what do you mean you like Americans. But I do, very much. Especially here, in the Midwest.”

“Mainly I wanted to live in America. It didn’t matter whether for one year or however long I’m going to live here. I have taken the position that I’m going to see how it goes and what happens, and today I know I am here. My oldest kid is starting school, we’ll see how that goes. But the main reason, why I live here now and maybe another 10 or 20 years – or maybe until the end of my days – is, honestly, I like it here.”

Of course, settling in here isn’t always easy. Every European – and every Estonian – who has ever moved to the United States has had their challenges and things to get used to. “Before moving, I had been here many times, but settling in at the beginning, yes, there were challenges,” Mihkel says. “Starting from standing in line at the Social Security office to understanding how things work, what is a credit score and why you need it. When I was renting my first apartment, the landlord asked what my credit score was and told him, it’s excellent, 800 – without understanding that I didn’t even have a credit score. But since I’m here on a visa, I think circumstances have been a lot easier for me than for people who live here illegally. Although even the illegals are here semi-officially, they go to school and pay their taxes.”

Work is in Estonia

Mihkel Raud posing with an Andersonville street sign.Mihkel’s family – wife and two children – have also adapted to life in America and done so very well. “When we came here, my daughter, Mirjam, didn’t speak English at all. Now she speaks so well that our friends say she doesn’t sound foreign at all. Well, at this age – she’s five – they catch up really fast. And my three-year-old son, too – they’re both bilingual. We speak to them in Estonian at home, but sometimes we use English, just to practice it ourselves and to teach it to the children.”

His professional life, however, is mainly based in Estonia. He has a content marketing business where he provides different content services to his clients, like blogging. “The great thing about the internet is, I don’t have to be in the same country or even in the same continent to do this,” he rejoices. But he also visits Estonia quite often as he works as a TV host for two seasonal programmes – “Kolmeraudne” (Three-Barrelled), which is a talk show he leads, and “Eesti otsib superstaari” (the Estonian equivalent of the American Idol) where he’s one of the three judges. “That’s why I don’t even miss Estonia, as I go there all the time. This is what I like about my current life – I get to spend time in both America and Estonia. And when in one place I sense some sort of a routine creeping up, I go to the other.”

Living in America and often spending time in Estonia gives Mihkel a unique insight into the lives of both countries. What does he think Estonia could learn from the United States – and vice versa?

“Both have a lot to learn, absolutely. It’s a very common thing to say, but the thing that the US could learn from Estonia is that it’s possible to cut red tape radically. America is an insanely bureaucratic country. You need to make phone calls, nobody replies to emails. You have a mailbox full of letters, you need to read them and reply to them. That’s definitely something the US could learn from Estonia – how things work online. It’s an annoying statement, but it’s true. The e-state in Estonia is a very cool thing.”

“Vice versa, well, these countries are totally incomparable. Estonia has three times less people that the city of Chicago! I sometimes sit in the car, in a traffic jam, hundreds of cars around me, and I think, this is just a tiny fragment of America. Zoom the map out and you see traffic jams and moving around from one edge of the country to another,” he describes. “But even though the sizes are different, Estonia has a lot to learn from America. I think, most importantly, humane things. Yes, these are small and annoying, maybe even banal examples, but when you bump into someone at a line to the register in the store, then you don’t necessarily have to bump into them again – you can just apologise, like they do here. Nothing to be done, the people here are, I think, friendlier.”

Mihkel Raud.Every Estonian abroad probably has encountered a situation where they are asked to tell a stranger something about their country. What would Mihkel tell?

“Depends on who I am talking to. If that person is a musician, I talk about music. If they’re interested in nature, I’ll try to speak about the nature, as little as I know about it. I think I mostly tell them how many people live in Estonia, and often people also ask me, what’s our main industry. There I’m always stuck, because I don’t know what’s our main industry. I’ve usually said it’s tourism. We have a beautiful country and people want to visit it.”

“The thing I’m doing at a given moment, that’s closest to my heart”

Mihkel’s life so far – well, he’s only 49 – has been very eventful. He is, indeed, a man of many talents – he’s a musician and a songwriter, a radio and TV-host, a writer and a playwright, and he also did a stint in politics – he was elected to the Estonian parliament in 2015 as a member of the Social Democratic Party. He’s played the guitar in numerous bands. His first book, “Musta pori näkku” (“Dirty Mud in the Face”), an autobiography about his time growing up in the Soviet Union, was, in Estonian terms, extremely successful, having sold over 30,000 copies. He also wrote a fiction novel, “Sinine on sinu taevas” (“Blue is Your Sky”), and two theatrical plays. Hence I have to ask, which of these jobs is the closest to the heart for Mihkel.

“I have defined it for myself in a way that, the very thing that I am doing at a given moment is what I hold closest to my heart,” he notes. “When I’m writing something, it’s writing that’s closest to the heart. If I’m leading a TV show, it’s that. If I’m on the stage with a band or singing, then that is closest to my heart. It’s not like I would want to exchange one of my occupations for another, I like doing them all, it keeps me fresh and I won’t drown in one activity.”

Mihkel Raud.With one exception, though – he doesn’t think he’s a politician. “I was a politician the same amount as I was a fisherman,” he laughs about his year-long MP career that he quit because he was disappointed in party politics in Estonia. “It was a very brief stint and lasted in my life about the same amount of time I was an eager fisherman. So I don’t think a politician is one of my titles.”

Even though Mihkel doesn’t consider himself a politician, we do need to go there. Hence I ask, what is the state of Estonian politics in his eyes. Is there any way to make the political system better?

“I don’t think it’s possible to change anything. Estonian politics has naturally evolved to a place it today is, and that place is that, when in the 1990ies, people started all over again, and in the parliament there always was debate – well, that debate is gone by now. One might get an impression that the MPs are discussing issues, but in reality, not so much. The laws in Estonia are created in a way that the government – or the ministries, or some officials at those ministries – come up with the bills, send them to the parliament, there they’re just approved and become laws, and there is no real discussion.”

In 2005, Mihkel studied journalism in London and got his master’s degree. What does he think of the state of the media in Estonia?

“One thing that some of the Estonian journalists have too much is certitude,” he says. “When I read how some Estonian journalists write about how bad and low-quality and subjective the American media is, then that, to me, is a good example how this certitude is prevalent. I think there’s too much certitude. In fact, they should doubt themselves more. There should be more self-doubt in the Estonian media.”

Speaking of studying in London, that’s another fascinating story. Mihkel was 36 years old when he decided he wanted to gain a degree – he had only finished high school – and was completely ready to go to the university with 19-year-olds. “But in the UK, they have this option that if you have worked in the field you want to study for a certain amount of time, maybe six or seven years – and I had been in journalism for fifteen – you can go straight to the master’s programme, your work experience counts as your bachelor’s degree. So I went to the journalism master’s programme, completed it and got my degree.”

“It was a really great experience. I had the feeling I needed to distance myself from Estonia for a while, and I wanted to experience the cultural diversity London has to offer,” he explains. “That’s also why I am here, in the US – the cultural diversity. Many Estonians think that’s a minus, but I like it. Living in London taught me a lot – about myself, the world and Estonia.”

Writing with genes

Mihkel Raud in Washington, DC, with the Capitol Hill in the background.Mihkel Raud comes from a famous literary family. His father, Eno Raud, was a children’s author, having penned a number of books thousands of children in Estonia grew up with. His mother, Aino Pervik, has also written a ton of children’s books, but also novels and poetry. And that’s not it – Mihkel’s older brother, Rein Raud, is also a writer, having published a number of novels; and his sister, Piret Raud, is one of the most successful contemporary Estonian children’s authors and illustrators.

“I remember when my first book, “Dirty Mud in the Face” was published, some people told me, well, it’s easy for you, you’re writing with genes,” Mihkel recalls. “I was under the impression that I was writing with my own brain and fingers, but turned out it was the genes. But I don’t want to believe in that genetic aspect. I know I have to, because it’s science and scientists say these things are connected. Yes, I think a part of my literary ability and also some of my musical abilities I have inherited from my parents. My father used to play the violin when he was a young man, and he thought he was going to become a musician. But he didn’t – and maybe it’s good, too. Instead, I became one.”

Speaking of writing, next year Mihkel is planning to write something longer than content marketing posts. “It’s in a very early stage yet, so according to my current plans, it should be published at the end of next year. But I can say this much that it’s non-fiction, something that I feel I can write the best. I’ve written one fiction book in my life, but looking back to it, I don’t think it was very good.”

He is contemplating, however, writing a few more plays, saying he has a couple of ideas. “A play as a format or a genre is very close to my heart because I like how they’re economical and have all those rules that a play should have – or, well, what a play in my vision should have. I like that very much. So yeah, I might write another play. I’ve written two so possibly some of my ideas may crystallise.”

Being a successful musician in Estonia is not a recipe for a global triumph

When it comes to music, Mihkel thinks that his father may have influenced his love for it, but the main interest towards music came from his brother, Rein. “I remember clearly, I may have been five years old, I was listening to my brother’s records and I really loved everything I heard. The Rolling Stones, later also Pink Floyd and Emerson Lake & Palmer – I was a fan of progressive rock – but also the Grateful Dead. My brother used to listen all sorts of stuff. So yeah, I think that listening to my brother’s records helped and at the end I was a very convinced fan of music, and by now I think I’m the biggest music fan in my family.”

What about Estonian music today? As Mihkel is one of the judges in the Estonian equivalent of American Idol, he must have exclusive insight into the music scene today.

Mihkel Raud on stage with Henrik Sal-Saller, a popular Estonian musician.

“Well, these bands that I see and hear and who appear on my programmes, they’re all very good and I like them a lot. But can I generalise based on these? I don’t know. I think the Estonian music scene is great. There are a lot of bands and they also perform abroad, so I think the passion for playing music among the Estonian youth is not smaller than when I was their age.”

But what to me is kind of interesting is that Estonia has one world-famous classical composer, Arvo Pärt; however, no Estonian rock or pop group has enjoyed global fame even comparable to Pärt’s. Why is that, and is there a recipe to change that?

“Of course there is. But that would immediately eliminate the term, ‘Estonian pop music’. I sincerely believe that if you want to be successful in the British or German or even the American market, then you need to live in that country, be culturally relevant in that country. Kerli Kõiv (an Estonian singer and songwriter who enjoyed short-lasting success in Los Angeles – editor) is a good example. So that’s how it is. Pärt is successful, of course, because he’s a genius, but another thing is, he lives abroad. Even though he’s not considered to be a German composer, nor an Estonian one. I don’t think Pärt is considered to be a composer of any country, but just a great composer.”

Estonians shouldn’t drink themselves to death

Speaking of Estonia, again, I also have to ask, what should be done differently there. “Many things can be done differently, and whether it’s a good idea or bad only becomes clear after you made the change,” he notes. “I know, it’s very unpopular to say that, and I understand how wrong Estonia has gone with its alcohol policies (the government raised the alcohol taxes and now many import alcohol from Latvia where it’s considerably cheaper – editor), but I think drinking is a bigger problem in Estonia than people realise.”

“I don’t want to sound patronising, but I must honestly say, within this year in Chicago, I have seen two drunk people. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an alcohol abuse problem in America, but Chicago and the US will survive it. But I’m afraid Estonia is such a small country that every life is accounted for. Hence I think this alcohol abuse problem is worrisome. But I also realise this issue is deeply rooted into people and I understand when the government is trying to limit drinking. Although when it’s being done so awkwardly as it has been, people want to defy it and drink even more.”

So, what should be done? “Well, there you go. It’s difficult. When a person has decided to kill themselves, how do you talk them out of it? What I have sometimes done, when people ask me to talk about it, like to children in school (Mihkel is a recovering alcoholic, one of the subjects of his first book, “Dirty Mud in the Face” – editor), then I tell them what booze did to me and why I had to quit, and why I think it’s dangerous. But, of course, people make their own decisions. So yes, one thing that should be done differently – maybe they shouldn’t in corpore drink themselves to death.”

Every moment must be cool

Mihkel Raud with his children, Mirjam and Joosep.

One activity that Estonians should undertake, however, in Mihkel’s opinion, is travel. “Definitely travel,” he asserts. “See how other people live. And farther than to Latvia or Finland. Southern Europe is interesting, and if one can afford to, then Asia, see how people live there. It puts things into perspective. Go to Cambodia, a country that is a thousand times poorer than Estonia, but people have a strong will to live, they’re joyful, even despite the country’s ugly history. I definitely encourage people to travel more.”

For all he has achieved so far, I also want to know, what does Mihkel himself think his greatest achievement is. “That’s a difficult question. Probably my children. I have three, one’s an adult, two are small. I would’ve never thought I would have three kids. I have the most kids in my extended family – my brother has two and my sister has two. But this is a work in progress. One thing is to have kids, another to raise human beings out of them.”

Looking at Mihkel’s career so far, his incredible desire for experiences and the ability to undertake so many tasks and do them all well, I have to ask, what motivates him in life? “I think the fact that I want every moment to be cool. It may sound lame, but I want everything to be fun, exhilarating, anticipating, something needs to happen. People ask me, how can you fly back and forth all the time – back in the spring, I flew cross-Atlantic 12 times – and how can you travel so much. But it’s always fun. There’s always action. And as long as there’s action, I’m motivated. Action motivates. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean I run amok through the city, it’s rather that you’re internally restless, in a good way. That’s what motivates me.”


Cover: Mihkel Raud. All photos courtesy Mihkel Raud.

Estonian descendant Nicole Aunapu Mann selected for American space flights

Astronaut Nicole Aunapu Mann, whose grandfather was Estonian, is due to take her first space flight onboard the Boeing Starliner in 2019.

NASA, the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration, introduced on 4 August the first US astronauts who will fly on an American-made, commercial spacecraft to and from the International Space Station. The endeavour will return astronaut launches to US soil for the first time since the country retired its aging space shuttles in 2011.

The space agency assigned nine astronauts to crew the first test flight and the mission of both Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. Among the three astronauts selected for Boeing’s Starliner test flight is Nicole Aunapu Mann – a California native whose grandfather, Helmuth Aunapu, emigrated to the US from Estonia just before the Second World War. This will be her first trip to space.

A possible mission to Mars

Mann, a lieutenant colonel in the US Marine Corps, graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1999 before earning a degree in mechanical engineering at Stanford University in 2001. She then served two combat tours, flying 47 combat missions in F/A-18s (a US combat jet) as a fighter pilot over Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2013, she was one of the eight candidates selected from more than 6,300 applicants to train as an astronaut for NASA, and the agency later announced Mann could be one of the first astronauts sent on a mission to Mars.

“The men and women we assign to these first flights are at the forefront of this exciting new time for human spaceflight,” Mark Geyer, the director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in a statement. “It will be thrilling to see our astronauts lift off from American soil, and we can’t wait to see them aboard the International Space Station.”

The Starliner to launch at Cape Canaveral

The Boeing Starliner is designed to fit up to seven astronauts, although the configuration could change depending on how much cargo the spacecraft would carry. The Starliner has a diameter of 4.5 metres (15 feet) and a length of five metres (16.5 feet), which includes the service module. The spacecraft will launch aboard an Atlas V rocket from the Space Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

When the Starliner approaches the International Space Station, the docking will be fully autonomous as the spacecraft manoeuvres toward an adapted docking port for commercial spacecraft. Once the spacecraft is attached to the space station, it’s designed to stay there for 210 days. Returning to Earth, the Starliner is designed to land on solid ground, using large air bags. If an emergency takes place, though, the spacecraft can splash down in the ocean.


Cover: Nicole Aunapu Mann (in the middle) with Eric Boe (left) and Christopher Ferguson, the test crew selected by NASA for the first space flight onboard the Boeing Starliner (courtesy of NASA).

Estonian-American summer camps in the US are still vibrant

Andres Simonson gives an overview of Estonian-American youth camps in the United States.

Summer beckons many things – vacations, barbeques, picnics and, for those of us on the US east coast, high humidity and city folk wearing socks with sandals at the beach. And, for many Estonian-American youths, it is also time for laager (Estonian for “camp”). As in, escaping overbearing parents for the luxuries of sleeping on a cot in a sweaty, un-airconditioned shelter with equally stinky best chums.

On the east coast of the US, the primary choices include Järvemetsa in Jackson, New Jersey, and Suvekodu on Long Island in New York. Both are wonderful options, share some similarities, but also differ significantly. As either a camper, counsellor or now as a signatory of entry fee checks for my children, I know quite a bit about both.

Gorgeous Järvemetsa

Järvemetsa (lake woods) is a boy scout and girl guide camp. The town of Jackson is adjacent to the famed Estonian-American diaspora enclave of Lakewood, NJ. Hence, the name of the camp. Or maybe it’s named thus because there’s a lake and plenty of woods. Regardless, uniforms and several gallons of bug spray are a must.

The parcel of land at Järvemetsa is gorgeous. As mentioned, there are woods, mostly of the pine varietal interlaced with meandering white sandy trails. The abundant trees provide shade during the day, and when the wind blows just right, a wonderful lullaby white noise at night. There’s a lake – ok, maybe more of man-made pond dammed from a tannin-laced, tea-coloured stream. And there are latrine pit-toilets, damned for all eternity.

I attended for many years, enthusiastically. It set the stage for my genuine appreciation of camping, which I earnestly embrace to this day. I learned survivalist skills, which have been muted by modern reliance on the internet, cell phones, and Keurig coffee makers. I tried to learn knots, but apparently failed, as I am now reliant upon bungee cords and ratchet straps.

I learned Estonian camp songs, but apparently failed, because I still sing like an off-key and squeaky voiced adolescent. But hey, if our modern utopia fails and doomsday arrives in a post-apocalyptic crash, at least I know how to make an elevated platform bed from felled pine trees and sisal rope.

Then, entering a slightly defiant stage of my youth, I rebelled against uniforms and saluting my elders. Yeah, that kid.

Suvekodu in Long Island

Enter Suvekodu (summer home) in Long Island. I was hooked within the first few days, well, after I overcame a brief and mild sense of homesickness and longing for a McDonald’s happy meal. No uniforms, no hierarchy of scouting degrees, and no pursuit of various badges of honour. Not to mention, the reliance on flush toilets at Suvekodu.

Suvekodu, for me, truly was my summer home for many years. Here we bunked in cabins, swam under the sun and, once the sun set, played night games. We honed our Estonian-ness through song, dance and in the kitchen, through generous servings of rolled thin pancakes. We honed our youthfulness with sport, games and an occasional harmless prank. These attributes were not unique to Suvekodu of course, as Järvemetsa offered mostly the same opportunities. But, it was just a different vibe.

Now, don’t take this as a trashing of the scouting way. Clearly, the benefits and positives of scouting and guiding outweigh my trivial adolescent aversions. Honestly, I couldn’t fathom a world without thin mint and samoa cookies. This is just simply an each-their-own story, and my particular fondness for a more libertarian summer camp experience. There is not a right or wrong answer, just preference. Frankly, I am grateful my daughters have not inherited this trait from me. How silly I was. They love Järvemetsa, as do I once more.

No matter the camping destination though, we can frame laager with three Estonian words:  sõprus, seadus ja sigadus – friendship, law and piggery, respectively.

Sõprus (Friendship)

Clearly, laager is time to make new friends and rekindle friendships anew. Here, while camping with your esto (short for Estonian, the word is widely used by expat communities – editor) friends, your first name no longer sounded odd amongst your peers. Those unique, double-vowel names that were difficult for school teachers to pronounce were finally normal! These may be friends you only saw once-per-year in the summer but were in your thoughts through the remaining three seasons.

But times have changed and modern technology has morphed ephemeral friendships into constant rapport. Thanks to Facebook and Instagram, one’s midsummer friends are in your news feed 365 and ¼ days per year. Which is nice, but not a replacement for breaking stale bread in the mess hall with you pals.

Seadus (Law)

Of course, scouting and guiding are regimented and based on rule. And, despite my earlier portrait, so, too, was Suvekodu. Long Island was not an anarchistic Estonian version of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. By no means. And once I became a counsellor, I was able to dispense the law – mwaahaahaahaaa.

Ok, maybe there was an occasional short-sheeted bed or talcum powder fuelled hijinks. But nobody was hunting Ralph, or more likely in this case someone with a name like Priit or Jüri, with pointed spears – as in Golding’s macabre tale of human nature and the miseries of war. Unfortunately then – but thankfully now – despite the miles of separation from our parents, the rule of law held strong in Estonian summer camp.

Sigadus (Piggery)

Put a lot of kids into nature and you’re bound to end up with filthiness. Dust in the hair, dirty soles and messy living quarters. What kid would have it any other way? Fortunately, though, a strict regimen of morning inspections by counsellors kept the latter in check.

As for the bodily griminess, there was the sauna as a control. For one cannot seriously consider a summer camp “Estonian” without a wood-fired sauna. Every epidermal pore was flushed from the inside-out, in temperatures rivalling the surface of Mercury. Medieval birch branch whisks, when flogged on the bare skin, would speed the sanitising process along. Finish with a cool shower rinse and voila, a purified kid.

For me, these days, I leave the Estonian summer camp sõprus, seadus ja sigadus to my darling children. Laager is a now time to help the kids set up their camp, to give them a big hug that will last the week, and to return home so I can put my feet up and drink a cold lager in quiet solitude.


Cover: Järvemetsa camp in 2016 (courtesy of Kadri Sepp). Images courtesy of Järvemetsa camp’s Facebook group and New York Estonian House. This article is a lightly edited version of the article first published in Vaba Eesti Sõna.

Growing interest in Baltic studies in the United States

In early June, one of the world’s leading research institutions, Stanford University in California, hosts an important conference with a focus on Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

The 2018 AABS Conference at Stanford University: The 100th Anniversary of Baltic Independence will bring together scholars interested in Baltic studies from all over the world and foster collaboration between Baltic and Stanford researchers.

The three-day programme, to be held on Stanford University campus from 1-3 June, will feature 130 panels, roundtable discussions, and workshops on 15 broad topics. The conference will also include numerous additional events, such as keynote talks by leading Baltic scholars, evening receptions, film screenings, literary readings, exhibits, and tours.

The event at Stanford is co-organised by the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies (AABS) that was founded in 1968 at the University of Maryland. The AABS executive office is currently based in Seattle, at the University of Washington, but this organisation is truly international – its membership consists of scholars and students from dozens of countries around the world and its board of directors consists of scholars from the United States and the Baltic countries. The association’s academic journal, the Journal of Baltic Studies, is currently based in Sweden, at Uppsala University, where its editor, Matthew Kott, works.

The AABS conferences take place in every two years and they rotate between different universities in North America. The last conference was held in 2016 at the University of Pennsylvania and the one before that, in 2014, at Yale University.

Estonian World caught up with the main organiser behind the 2018 conference at Stanford, Liisi Esse, to find out more about the event and also about the Baltic studies in the United States. Esse is originally from Estonia, but has worked as an associate curator for Estonian and Baltic Studies at Stanford for the last five years. She is also AABS’ vice-president for conferences.

Over 50 scholars and specialists representing institutions and organisations in the Baltic states, the US and Canada helped put together the programme for the 2018 AABS conference at Stanford University. What is the focus – is there something particular the scholars want to emphasise?

There are several goals that we aim to achieve with this year’s conference. First and foremost, we wish to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Baltic republics and the 50th anniversary of AABS – both are huge milestones!

Secondly, we want to draw more attention to the importance and vitality of Baltic studies by showcasing the excellent research scholars and students are currently undertaking in the Baltic or Nordic-Baltic field around the world. The conference will feature four keynotes and around 130 academic sessions on 15 broad topics ranging from traditional ones like history and memory and political studies to more recent additions, such as digital humanities.

In addition, we intend to celebrate the culture of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania by organising exhibit openings, musical performances, literary readings and film screenings as part of the conference. Last but not least, this conference, as any other academic conference, aims to serve as a place for scholars and students to make contacts. We hope the Stanford community will also use this opportunity to learn more about Baltic studies and get more acquainted with Baltic researchers.

How much interest is there in the US for Baltic studies?

It’s hard to quantify the scholarly interest in Baltic studies, but all in all, my experience during the past five years that I have worked at Stanford is that the interest is growing and the topics that scholars and students pay attention to in relation to Baltic studies are also shifting and widening. One major topic that has and continues to interest researchers is the Baltic countries in the Second World War and during the Soviet era. More recently, other topics, like the rapid development of the Baltic countries after 1991, the geopolitical situation and regional security of the Baltic countries, and the current political and economic trends in the Nordic-Baltic region have begun to interest more and more scholars.

What are the main universities in the US for Baltic studies today?

There are academic programmes in place in several universities – the largest of them likely at the University of Washington. Stanford University currently does not have an academic programme or a department for Baltic studies, but we do have a very active programme based at Stanford Libraries and we have various departments and centres at Stanford that welcome Baltic scholars and students. It would of course be great if a larger number of Baltic programmes would be in place in the US and it’s essential for the existing programmes to collaborate with each other.

How much are the Estonian-American and other local Baltic communities involved in the study programmes?

It probably varies from university to university. At Stanford, we have been very active in reaching out to the local Baltic communities and have been extremely lucky to have such vibrant and active communities in the area. Most of the Baltic events (lectures, film screenings, exhibits) we organise are open to the public and we always make sure to invite the local communities to participate – which they do!

They have also been very active in donating their libraries and archives to us – we receive dozens of such collections every year and it has been an important source for our collection development. The local Baltic societies also help with disseminating info about our activities and often pitch in by volunteering or helping us to organise various events.

Is there a lot of collaboration between the American and Baltic-based researchers and scholars?

There is quite a bit of international collaboration in place – a normal part of today’s academic world. The upcoming AABS conference, one of the largest in history, is a great manifestation of that fact.

However, I do think that universities in the US and in the Baltic countries could do much more to facilitate and nurture these contacts and not only among established scholars but also among students. For example, Stanford University recently launched a Baltic internship programme for its students, the goal of which is to send Stanford undergraduates to Baltic institutions and organisations for two months every summer. It is a great example of how universities can increase their students’ interest in Baltic studies even if they don’t have an academic programme for Baltic studies in place.

Can you tell us more about the Baltic Studies Programme of Stanford Libraries and its activities?

The Baltic Studies Programme was launched in 2013, after Stanford Libraries had received an endowment from the Kistler-Ritso Foundation, an Estonian-American organisation founded by late Olga Ritso Kistler and currently run by her daughter Sylvia Thompson.

This endowment allowed Stanford to do something that no other university library in the US had done before or has done since – to create a position of a librarian who would specifically curate the library’s Baltic collections. Up until that time, Stanford Libraries’ Baltic collections were curated by its Slavic curator and the same is true for most US libraries that have significant Baltic holdings.

This shift and the funding we had received allowed us to take our Baltic collection development to another level and also to start creating a programme of projects and events around our collection. Five years later, we have one of the strongest Baltic collections in the US and we organise numerous talks, seminars, film screenings, exhibits, and digitisation projects every year. The 2018 AABS Conference is the biggest event we have thus far organised.

Estonian World is a media partner of the 2018 AABS conference at Stanford University: The 100th Anniversary of Baltic Independence.


Cover: Stanford students who interned or studied in the Baltic states, meet former Estonian president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, and The Archimedes Foundation representatives in 2017 (Credit: Stanford University Libraries). Please note that this article was originally published on 5 April 2018.

Liisi Esse: Estonia has a strong reputation as a tech leader in Silicon Valley

Liisi Esse, an associate curator for Estonian and Baltic Studies at Stanford University, says that Estonia has a strong reputation as a tech leader in Silicon Valley and the number of people who do not know anything about Estonia is surprisingly small.

Estonian World caught up with Liisi Esse, the main organiser behind the 2018 AABS Conference at Stanford University: The 100th Anniversary of Baltic Independence, to find out more about her professional experience in California and Estonia’s reputation in Silicon Valley. Esse is originally from Estonia but has worked as an associate curator for Estonian and Baltic studies at Stanford for the last five years.

What brought you to the US?

My very first trip to the US was for the job interview at Stanford in the summer of 2012!

I was actually very happy living in Tallinn, working at the Estonian National Archives. I had also just begun my doctoral studies at the University of Tartu. But the opportunity to work at Stanford was too wonderful to pass up and after I had received a job offer from them, my husband and I moved to California in early 2013.

I have definitely not regretted my decision and thanks to the flexibility and support of Stanford and the University of Tartu, I was also lucky to complete my doctoral studies in 2016. I have also been extremely lucky to be able to travel to the Baltic countries several times every year.

What have your greatest challenges been since – how does it compare to Estonia?

As Ede Schank Tamkivi (an Estonian journalist – editor) has described in her book, Minu California (My California), Silicon Valley is really a bubble within a bubble, meaning that California and especially the San Francisco Bay Area are quite different from many other places in the US and one of the differences is that they feel more like a home to those hailing from Europe.

I really didn’t feel a culture shock moving here and have been very grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had to travel and see other parts of this great country. I often compare the vast differences between the states in the US with the differences between the countries in Europe – it is hard to see the US as one big, monolithic country. It is also important to note that the local Estonian community in the Bay Area is very active and I couldn’t imagine living here without the great friends and acquaintances I have made from that group.

There are, of course, many differences between Estonia and Silicon Valley. The latter is much more multicultural, which I (as an immigrant here myself) very much appreciate. A lot of today’s great discoveries and discussions begin in Silicon Valley and it’s exciting to be part of this society and to be able to work at one of the leading universities in the world. The people here are very friendly and outgoing and the weather, of course, is wonderful.

On the other hand, there are so many things that Estonia is doing much better than Silicon Valley, from e-governance services and the lack of bureaucracy to much more uniform and balanced educational opportunities and social benefits it offers to its residents. And last but not least – a lot of my family members and good friends are back in Estonia and I don’t see them as often as I would like.

When you are telling about Estonia to a complete stranger who has not heard anything about it in Silicon Valley, what are the things you point out, or the story you tell them?

I think most Estonians in Silicon Valley have a pretty similar story that we share with our new acquaintances who do not know anything about Estonia. We start by stating where Estonia is placed geographically (in Northern Europe, south of Finland and Sweden; never in Eastern Europe or east of Russia) and then usually need to explain that we do have our own language, which is very different from Russian but is close to Finnish.

I like to compare the total population of Estonia to the population of my current home town San Jose – both are 1.3 million. We then usually proudly stress the various e-governance and tech initiatives that have come from Estonia and if there’s still a suspicious look in the other person’s eyes, we tend to top it off with the fact that Skype came from Estonia.

Here in Silicon Valley, the number of people who do not know anything about Estonia is actually surprisingly small – Estonia has built a very strong reputation as a tech leader that pushes far above its weight. In tech circles, Estonia is a brand that is well-known and trusted, and I think it is important to keep that narrative alive. At the same time, it is equally important to continue our work to reinforce that narrative with new ground-breaking initiatives and ideas that come from Estonia and Estonians.

It’s interesting that in Estonia proper, the country is positioning itself towards Nordic countries – whereas in the US, for the historical reasons, the Estonian American community is closely collaborating with Latvian and Lithuanian communities. Do you think this will remain so?

This shift is very much visible here in Silicon Valley as well – the Baltic countries and especially Estonia are working very hard to be part of various Nordic or Nordic-Baltic networks and in many respects, they have succeeded in losing the shackles of “Eastern Europe” and becoming members of the Nordic-Baltic bloc. But this doesn’t mean the strong historical connections or shared history between the Baltic countries should be forgotten – instead, these three small countries who still continue to face similar obstacles in many respects should (and often do) work as an alliance.

The question of whether the Baltic countries – and especially Estonia – are part of Eastern Europe or the Nordic bloc is very much alive in the academia as well.

On the one hand, it would be impossible to study Baltic history in the second half of the 20th century without placing the Baltic countries into the context of Eastern Europe. On the other, the post-1991 developments in the Baltic countries offer many more comparisons between them and the Nordic, not Eastern European countries. One might argue that similar tendencies were also in place during the interwar era, until the Baltic countries were forcefully incorporated into the Soviet Union.

We are today witnessing a very important shift in these countries’ identities and for scholars, it is crucial to consider the various aspects of it.


Cover: Liisi Esse. Read also: Growing interest in Baltic studies in the United States.

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