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.