Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Happy Birthday Estonia

February 24th 1918 was the day that the Estonian Maapaev declared the independence of the Estonian Republic.
Throughout the period of independence between 1918 and 1940 the day was celebrated with certain traditions. While every day the flag of the Republic was raised at sunrise from the Pikk Hermann tower of Tallinn castle, and the national anthem played, on the "Eesti Vabariigi aastapaev" - the anniversary of the Estonian Republic- there were special celebrations. Speeches were made and during the day a great parade and an evening ball hosted by the President.
After the occupation, first by the Soviets, then by the Nazis, then by the Soviets once more, all traces of the identity of the Estonian Republic were systematically rooted out. Only the hated hammer and sickle flag flew from Pikk Hermann. Even wearing clothes containing the national colours of blue, black and white could have you arrested and sent to Siberia for life. The national anthem was banned.
Although around one third of the pre-war population was shot or exiled, including all of the leaders of state, university, business or the Lutheran church, yet still the Estonians clung tenaciously to their sense of self. As the influx of Russian speakers from across the Soviet Union at times threatened to become a flood, still the remembrance of the golden years of independence grew ever brighter.
The crime of the Soviet occupation remained unfinished business between the West and the Soviet tyranny. Britain, the United States and several other countries never recognised the legality of the Soviet annexation of the three Baltic Republics: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. As a result there remained a network of diplomatic representation which continued the legal existence of the Estonian Republic. They would fly the forbidden national colours from their magnificent, though faded, diplomatic missions.
One day, thirty years ago I was in London with my family on a trip to visit the National History Museum. We parked in Queens Gate. At that time I had a perhaps rather adolescent enthusiasm for heraldry and flags. As a result I had been given a collection of cigarette cards of 1936 of flags of the world. Amongst many others, there was the flag of the Spanish Republic, of Nazi Germany, but also the blue-black-white of Estonia, the deep crimson with a thin white stripe flag of Latvia and the gold, green and red colours of Lithuania. Thus it was that when I saw the blue-black-white flag flying from the mansion that described itself as "the Estonian Legation and Consulate General" next to the museum, I knew that it was indeed the Estonian colours, without in fact knowing anything else about the country.
When I returned home I tried to find Estonia on the map- but mysteriously it did not appear to be independent at all, and the flag in the encyclopedia was a minor variant of the Soviet Hammer and Sickle flag. Thus, next time I was in London I resolved to visit the mysterious Legation. Rather timorously I rang the door bell of the imposing mansion. I was greeted by an elderly lady who I later came to know well, Anna Taru. Over a coffee, she began to tell the history of her country and the horror of occupation and exile. Over time, I came to discover the Legations of all the Baltic countries and the governments in exile- including the Polish government in exile in London- that resisted the cruelty and violence of Soviet Power.
In the end the history, politics and economics of central and eastern Europe became my undergraduate and post graduate education and, following the great shouts for Freedom in 1989 and 1991, it became the region where I practiced my career in finance. I have travelled all over the region and continue to do so. The baroque beauties of Vilnius and Krakow, the Austro-Hungarian elegance of Budapest and Zagreb, the art nouveau eclecticism of Ljubljana and Riga and the more austere Gothic beauties of Tallinn and Prague have all become as familiar to me as my own home.
Two years ago I received a decoration from President Ilves of Estonia as a token of thanks for whatever services I may have been able to offer the reborn and free Estonian Republic.
Today, as I now mostly live in Tallinn, I joined the crowd in the courtyard of the Estonian Parliament in Tallinn Castle, wearing my medal on my coat. The flags of the different University fraternities mingled with many who held the simple blue black and white colours of the reborn Republic. Slowly, as the sun rose, the flag broke free on the flagstaff at the top of Pikk Hermann tower and rose as the national anthem was played by the police band and sung with gusto by the crowd. Speeches were made, then the crowd sang Eesti Kodu- "Estonian Home"- then a blessing from the Lutheran Bishop and the hymn Head Jumal Eestit- "God Bless Estonia". The television cameras rolled.
I was struck, as I have been so many times over the past years, by the family atmosphere of these national occasions in Estonia. The sense of national solidarity which seems the opposite of national chauvinism. The speeches were sombre and measured, with much mention of the difficult economic challenges ahead. The pride was obvious but restrained- reflecting perhaps the cautious but determined, even stubborn Estonian character that I have learned to love so well over the past thirty years.
Quietly- as is the Estonian way- this once vandalised and oppressed corner of Europe has recovered her dignity and freedom. On this, the ninety-first anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic I add my voice to those who say:
"Head Eesti Vabariigi aastapaev"- Happy anniversary to the Estonian Republic,
"Elagu Eesti !"- Long live Estonia!

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