Tallinn: Making It New
Published: June 2009
By Peter Landesman
More than a decade after Estonia declared its independence from the Soviet Union, its capital, Tallinn, remains a city on the verge—with its sights set on the West.
Before I arrived in Estonia's capital, Tallinn, last summer, I had already spent several months in cities once concealed and distorted behind the iron curtain: Zagreb, Belgrade, Skopje, St. Petersburg. There was a kind of manic energy in those places, a sense of being trapped by circumstance. But in Tallinn, which dates back 900 years and often looks it, new aspirations skate unapologetically across the country's old identity as hard-core Soviet satellite. Estonia is on the cusp of joining NATO; EU membership is scheduled for next year. Lively barroom debates have gone so far as to suggest that "Medieval and Wired" be the national motto.
Although Tallinn is a city of only 400,000, it has none of the provincialism that often comes with modest size. Once dismissed by the West as a puzzle-piece state, Estonia and its neighbors Latvia and Lithuania asserted themselves in the late 1980's as leading forces in the breakup of the U.S.S.R. In 1990, hundreds of thousands of Estonians helped form a human chain that stretched 328 miles from Tallinn to Lithuania's capital, Vilnius, to agitate for independence. Since then, Tallinn has labored to slough off its Soviet heritage by cashing in on its chocolate-box charm and reinventing itself, as if by sleight of hand, from KGB central to cultural hub.
Tourists, more than 3 million of them a year, regularly flood the cobblestoned alleyways of the candy-colored Vanalinn, or Old Town. They fan out across the Raekoja Plats, sitting in outdoor cafés in the late-afternoon light. In the shadow of the 600-year-old town hall's minaret is a city-within-a-city jumble of medieval walls and spires, where narrow streets branch off and fade into the dark, like stage sets for The Third Man.
During World War II, the Soviets largely spared the Old Town, but destroyed much of the rest of the city in bombing raids, replacing it, as they did in Warsaw and Bucharest, with cheap industrial housing. Today the Old Town and its neighboring Socialist monoliths are overshadowed by a handful of sleek skyscrapers built with foreign—mostly Scandinavian— money. The downtown is a stark example of post-Soviet growing pains: bulky, drab apartment blocks and shopping centers—and the skyscrapers. The Coca-Cola Plaza, erected by its namesake, is an American-style mall, authentic down to the food court, the multiplex cinema, the crisscrossing escalators. At its edges the city turns ragged and haphazard. Neighborhoods of wooden log houses and grand-intentioned apartments fade into a quay that wraps around the harbor: a wide boulevard, an industrial port, Soviet memorials, unruly grass. The water is dark, oily. In parts of the harbor, the shipyards and their huge cranes look half-abandoned.
Once one of the KGB's most active centers of operations (with Helsinki only 50 miles away, across the Gulf of Finland, Estonians weren't allowed to own boats, and access to the country's beaches was restricted), Estonia was the first of the three Baltic States to apply for membership in the European Union, to begin to harmonize its laws with the rest of Europe's, and to offer tax incentives for corporate investment. As a result, hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign capital have poured in. Multinational companies invested more than half a billion dollars here in 2000 alone; today Estonia may well receive the most direct investment per capita of any former Eastern-bloc nation.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, this sudden influx of funds, there is a sameness to Tallinn's version of Western urbanism. The names of dance clubs are passwords to hipdom: Hollywood Club, Enter, Spirit. There is L.A.-style security in the shape of beefy guys wearing dark clothes and earpieces. Though far from illegal, Tallinn's club life has an urgent edge, as if dancing and drinking feel better because they have only recently become available. One focal point of Estonia's monied class is the restaurant and bar Pegasus, around the corner from the town hall and a nearly 800-year-old Gothic church. The restaurant is all hard, synthetic surfaces, sharp angles, and primary colors; the food, careful, exquisite, and expensive. By early evening—especially on Fridays—BMW's, Mercedes-Benzes, and Porsches begin to pull up, and the clientele turns glossy and a little rough: young men in designer suits and their molls. A DJ spins techno. And an unofficial club eventually gathers. It includes the mostly young, and often Western-educated, musicians, poets, and designers who are behind Estonia's cultural awakening.
Two of the most important young musicians are Anu and Kadri Tali, twin sisters and the conductor and manager, respectively, of the Estonian-Finnish Symphony Orchestra, whose members, drawn from the orchestras of 17 countries, play at the orchestra's five yearly festival performances. The twins are something of a phenomenon in Estonia: they are 29 and blonde and widely considered to be beautiful, qualities that rarely go hand in hand with directing a major orchestra. They take their responsibility as spokeswomen for Estonia's new sophistication seriously. The orchestra, they say, is meant to bolster national identity while giving talented musicians a chance to play, and perhaps, also, a chance for engagements in the West. The evening I meet them, at the stark, chic Pegasus, they sit side by side drinking wine, describing Tallinn as "Europe's lost dream." The departure of the Soviets, they claim, has peeled back layers of conditioning.
"Estonia is on its way to acknowledging its own culture," Anu says. And music is a perfect example of that culture reaching the rest of the world—the Talis are not the first Estonian musicians to have achieved international recognition. The Tallinn-born, 39-year-old Paavo Järvi is music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, as well as a champion of Estonia's numerous classical composers. (One of his 20-plus recordings, Estonia, is an important introduction to the music of the country, ranging from the lush romanticism of Eduard Tubin to the cool minimalism of Arvo Pärt.) Järvi attributes much of Estonian musicians' success to the training they received in Leningrad and Moscow. And while he doesn't exactly thank the Russians, he says, "In a society where human rights were restricted and access to the West was blocked, art became the only outlet for people, especially intellectuals, to express true thoughts and feelings."
Since 1991, that expression has found new momentum. Estonia has three orchestras, among them the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra. Major renovations to Tallinn's main concert hall have been completed. And thanks to Järvi's father, Neeme Järvi, himself music director of the Detroit Symphony and the principal guest conductor of the Japan Philharmonic, there is now a state-of-the-art Academy of Music in the center of Tallinn. "It was my father's dream," Paavo Järvi says. "He was instrumental in finding the government support and was the largest private donor for this project." Music has become not only a means of national expression but also Estonia's most valuable export. "Just as in Sweden," Järvi says, "where every little boy thinks he can become a tennis player because of Björn Börg, in Estonia, because of my father, every young Estonian thinks he can become a conductor."
Under the Soviets, music was not just a distraction from political realities but a means of effecting political change. The song festivals, Järvi tells me, started out as folk music festivals. Amateur singers, schoolkids, and choral groups gathered on "a stage larger than ten Hollywood Bowls" and sang. "You would have something like thirty to forty thousand people performing," Järvi says, "and up to a hundred fifty thousand people listening to them sing." When the struggle for independence started, the festivals took on another dimension. People in regional costumes held hands as they belted out patriotic songs. "The Russians didn't know what to do. They couldn't shoot into a crowd of singing people, after all. They would stand there with their guns, at the edge of the crowd, but they never fired a shot. It was the most peaceful revolution of all, our singing revolution."
For all its patriotic fervor, Estonia has always been a geographical—and, therefore, a cultural—crossroads. A quarter of Tallinn's residents are Russians, and the country still struggles with the question of whether or not to preserve its Russian past. Many Estonians refuse to admit they know Russian at all, preferring to speak English. For years Estonians gained access to Western culture through Finnish TV, widely pirated during the Soviet era. Their relationship to Finland, however, can best be described as one of sibling rivalry.
Tallinn is often referred to, by Estonians and Finns alike, as a suburb of Helsinki, just a 90-minute ferry ride away. Beer and liquor are much cheaper here than in Finland, and Finns come often, on what are known as "hedonistic tours," to spend their nights wandering the streets, serenading the city with folk songs. They alone account for two-thirds of the annual visitors to Estonia. And they create the usual resentment in a town that publicly welcomes tourist dollars and privately wishes it didn't need to, or at least not those tourist dollars.
But the Finnish influence is felt in other ways, too. In 1913, Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen won the competition for the design of greater Tallinn. He was then asked to build the town hall as well. World War I broke out, and neither project was ever realized. Yet even under Soviet occupation, Scandinavian design, with its emphasis on integrating the natural and the man-made, was seen as a welcome antidote to Socialist monumentalism. In the sixties the Scandinavian influence began to be seen in buildings by Estonian architects such as Valve Pormeister, whose low-slung Floral Pavilion, on a hillside by the sea, managed to preserve much of the existing vegetation. And, more recently, in the wood-and-glass De La Gardie department store in the Old Town, numerous private houses, and what is perhaps the world's most beautiful gym.
Built of pale blond wood, of course, Tallinn's state-of-the-art Status Club is set on the lip of grasslands leading to the sea. Its indoor pool is flanked on one side by a wall of windows, and as you swim the water slips over the edges, so that swimming in it is like swimming in the ocean. The yoga and weight rooms open to nothing but horizon. Given the preference for Scandinavian design, it's not surprising that when it came to selecting an architect for the new Art Museum of Estonia, it was a Finn, Pekka Vappavuori, who won the competition.
But as the Tali twins are quick to point out, the common assumption that Estonian culture is equal parts Russian and Scandinavian is inaccurate. "Estonians were here ten thousand years ago," Kadri says. She is proud of her heritage, she tells me, not simply because Estonia is, as she puts it, "an ancient place," but also because there are so few Estonians that she can't afford not to be.
The pull of tradition on the one hand and Estonia's recent convergence with the West on the other have produced a hybrid culture that is as likely to celebrate Estonian runic chants, which date from the first millennium b.c., as it is the bass pulse of Moby. One of Estonia's best early music groups, Rondellus, just recorded a tribute to the seventies heavy metal band Black Sabbath. It's hard to imagine that happening anywhere else.
As in much of the former Soviet Union, a number of Estonians—or people of Estonian descent—who were living abroad have moved to Tallinn since independence. Viviann Napp is one of them. She left Canada for Tallinn in 1990 and opened La Galerie Passage on Narva Road, in a 1930's building where her grandfather used to live. I meet up with her at one of Tallinn's best restaurants, L'Artiste, in the Hotel Olümpia, a glass-and-concrete box that was once the height of luxury for Soviet apparatchiks. The restaurant, set on the mezzanine, is all kitschy, dewy pastels.
Napp tells me, a little breathlessly, that before independence Estonian painters had to join the Soviet-style artists' union in order to buy supplies, and had to produce artwork that met the state's requirements. Navitrolla, Napp's top artist, chose to make his own brushes out of pig hair (his parents owned a pig farm). There is something in her tone that suggests she regrets not having been present when art had to be made clandestinely, that she is more than a little in love with the idea of the artist as provocateur.
As she talks about art in her adopted city, the chef, Imre, who trained in America, hovers over the table. At one point he interrupts good-naturedly to inform us that businessmen regularly chopper in from Helsinki and Stockholm to lunch on his steamed clams. When he brings some out, I begin to believe him. He pours champagne, and serves us enormous shrimp. It's easy to feel as if he and Napp scripted the whole thing beforehand, to prove to me that Estonia could in no way be mistaken for a dour former Soviet satellite.
For Napp, Navitrolla's canvases, which depict bright, Magritte-like worlds, reflect the equally bright future of Tallinn. But Navitrolla is more Mark Kostabi than Magritte: not just a liberated artist, he's a one-man enterprise. His images adorn T-shirts and coffee mugs all over Estonia. Once, Napp says, while she and Navitrolla were having lunch in the Old Town, someone walked by wearing a T-shirt with his name and one of his pictures across the front. Barely looking up, Navitrolla muttered, "At least I can afford brushes now." It's hard not to trip over the irony: today, Navitrolla produces for the West the art for the masses he resisted under the Soviets. The ideologies of socialist realism may be dead but the look is alive and well. In fact, many Tallinn galleries show a mix of cartoony landscapes and hyperrealist, often larger-than-life figurative paintings that, like it or not, owe a good deal to their Soviet predecessors.
Still, not all Estonian art is so T-shirt friendly. At the Estonian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale last year, the much-talked-about video installation Oasis, by Ene-Liis Semper, showed two hands opening a mouth, filling it with potting soil, planting a flower, and watering it. It's a piece that most people watched more than once. Like Bruce Nauman's and William Wegman's early video work, it's at once funny and unsettling, a metaphor for an uncertain age. Another video, FF/REW, from 1998, is even darker. In it, Semper hangs herself, reads a book, and shoots herself. Her face remains static, indifferent, as the scene jumps forward and then reverses, as if life were a journey thwarted by a feedback loop.
Jaan Toomik, another Tallinn-based artist, shares a similar aesthetic and is, like Semper, well-established on the international biennial circuit. His videos tend to show him alone and in motion—on a ferry, traveling to different cities, or, as in Father and Son, skating naked across a sheet of ice toward the viewer and then away to the sun-filled horizon as his son sings sweetly, mournfully, in the background. Toomik's predicament has something of King Lear in it and of Samuel Beckett, too—a sense of comic, painful vulnerability.
At its best, Estonian art seems to get at something fundamental. And that's true even when it has a mass-market appeal. Last summer, No. 6 on Estonia's best-seller list was a pack of playing cards. On the backs of the cards were photographs of five of the country's leading young poets—all attractive, and all shot in noirish black-and-white. It sounded pretty gimmicky, until you noticed that each card contained three stanzas in free verse, the sort of thing you might worry about if it were dealt by a fortune-teller. The cards were somber, but they were also playful, as if to say that one's luck could be a kind of fortune, meted out by a poet not of the past but of the new age.
That evening at Pegasus, the tables are full, the crowd earnest. The reflective windows seem to seal the restaurant off from the rest of the world. I'm having dinner with the statuesque and raven-haired soap opera star Merle Palmiste and her very large new boyfriend. The boyfriend is vague about what he does for a living. (Palmiste's ex-husband, an infamous Russian gangster, escaped his country's police by racing across the Gulf of Finland to Helsinki in a speedboat. He held up a string of jewelry stores before finding shelter in Estonia and marrying the TV star.) The boyfriend mumbles something about gas stations, and I leave it at that. Though both he and Palmiste have achieved a cultish celebrity status here, they're surprisingly kind and generous. The boyfriend offers to take me on a retreat to New Mexico, where we and unnamed others can eat peyote and, well, the rest is unclear. I politely decline. We're joined by clothing designers Katrin Kuldma and Evelin Kattai, along with Imre and the poet Karl Martin Sinijarv, whose verses were among those chosen for the playing cards. Sinijarv tells me that his literary heroes include Charles Bukowski and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and that their books can be found everywhere here. I don't know quite what to say. In America, only aging beatniks still have these two on their minds.
"We're lucky to be born into this situation," Kuldma says. "Here we start at zero. We want to be able to do our own thing." It seems everybody does. She and Kattai founded their own label, Fashion House; their leather coats, evening dresses, and knits sell at Fifth Avenue prices. Kuldma trained at the Rhode Island School of Design. She could have stayed in America, she says, but returned to Tallinn out of a sense of obligation to make her mark here. Over drinks at the private club Noku—where you need a password and key card to enter—Kuldma and Kattai can be among others their age, artists and writers. Any of them, she claims, and almost believes, could leave Tallinn for Paris or New York. "But this society is so young," she says. "We need our stars." Kadri Tali, the conductor, had perhaps put it more honestly: "Estonia is cute as hell, but it's not big enough. To accomplish what you need to, you have to get out. You have to have your failure."
On my last afternoon, I watch four teenage boys set down a boom box on a 600-year-old cobblestoned street in the shadow of the medieval ramparts. They spread out a sheet of cardboard, turn their baseball caps backward, flip on some techno-pop, and begin to break-dance. They do that to-and-fro voguing thing before they hit the street and go horizontal. They spin on their heads and do the turtle. A small crowd gathers and gawks, not knowing what to make of these kids in baggy jeans and stupid-looking hats. The boys put out a can, almost as an afterthought, and slowly people begin to drop in coins. There's polite applause between the dances. Toddlers stare openmouthed, watching carefully as though for instructions. Across the flagstone square, though, is a brand-new McDonald's full of Estonian teenagers who watch through the windows and understand that this imperfect performance is a kind of overture to a serious cultural revolution. These days in Tallinn are the beginning of things.
The Facts: Tallinn
There are no direct flights from the United States to Tallinn, but you can fly from any major European city on Estonian Air. Ferries cross the Gulf of Finland frequently from Helsinki; the trip takes 1 1/2 hours.
Good hotels are still scarce in Tallinn. The best two are in the Old Town—and run by the same hotel group.
Park Consul Hotel Schlössle 13—15 Pühavaimu; 011-372/699-7700, fax 011-372/699-7777; www.consul-hotels.com; doubles from $245. Heavy wooden beams, stately drawing rooms, wrought-iron chandeliers, and massive stone fireplaces fill this 13th-century building. The 23 guest rooms have been painstakingly renovated, down to the doorknobs.
Hotel St. Petersbourg 7 Rataskaevu; 011-372/628-6500, fax 011-372/628-6565; www.consul-hotels.com; doubles from $220. This 27-room luxury hotel in a historic building is just steps from Town Hall Square. There's also a traditional sauna.
RESTAURANTS AND BARS
Pegasus 1 Harju; 011-372/631-4040; www.restoranpegasus.ee; dinner for two $50. Upstairs, fresh pastas, wild Estonian rabbit, and sushi. Downstairs, hipsters hugging the bar.
L'Artiste Olümpia Hotel, 33 Liivalaia; 011-
372/631-5891; dinner for two $58. The sommelier will help you select the right vintage to match the game-based dishes, which include flambéed frog's legs, ostrich filet mignon, elk steak, and pheasant.
Egoist Restaurant 33 Vene; 011-372/646-4052; egoist.gourmet.ee; dinner for two from $50. A seasonal menu of three-, four-, five-, and eight-course meals, served by candlelight.
MUSEUMS AND GALLERIES
Now a collection of museums spread among several buildings, the Art Museum of Estonia was founded in 1919. Closed in 1991 for repairs, it finally reopened last July in the restored Kadriorg Palace as the Museum of Foreign Art, but by then much of the collection had been heavily damaged by water and by the constant rotation from one temporary exhibition space to another. Still, the works on view range from Flemish painting to Russian, German, and French porcelain. The Estonian art in the museum's holdings will be displayed in a new building, to be
designed by Finnish architect Pekka Vappavuori. For now, it can be seen at its temporary home, the Knighthood House (1 Kiriku Plats; 011-372/644-9340), on Toompea Hill in the Old Town.
Kristjan Raud House 8 K. Raua St., Nömme; 011-372/670-0023. Raud, a founder of the original Art Museum of Estonia, was himself an artist, whose drawings and charcoal sketches are infused with the Symbolist mysticism common to Scandinavian painters of the early 20th century. In this house, he produced his best-known work, his illustrations for the Estonian epic Kalevipoeg.
Tallinn City Museum 17 Vene; 011-372/644-6553. The history of Tallinn, including Soviet-era artifacts—posters, World War II photographs, and more—is displayed in a merchant's house that dates from the 1300's.
Museum of Estonian Architecture 2 Ahtri; 011-372/625-7000; www.arhitektuurimuuseum.ee. Nineteenth- and 20th-century architectural drawings, maps, and models, and a small collection of furniture, mostly from the 1920's and 30's. Housed in the old Rotermann Salt Storage building, near the harbor.
La Galerie Passage 15 Narva Rd.; 011-372/662-3332. A frame, print, and art gallery.
City Gallery 13 Harju; 011-372/644-2818. Contemporary Estonian art, mostly video and installations. —Hillary Geronemus