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New Europe

Day Eighty-three: Tallinn

Michael Palin - New EuropeMy first sight of the Estonian coastline. Well, second really. I'd seen it before, in 1991, but technically it wasn't the Estonian coastline then, it was the coastline of the Soviet Union.

It lies low and modest, but even at a distance I can see early signs of the great change that has overtaken Estonia in the fifteen years since I last crossed the Gulf of Finland.

The old spires and towers to the west now have competition to the east, where a clutch of modern skyscrapers, the first shoots of a business district, have sprung up. Tallinn now has a New Town and an Old Town. The dockside, gloomy and unwelcoming before, is now extended and expanded and a network of tube-like jetties spreads its tentacles between ship and shore. Tallinn is open for business. Which is as it should be. Estonia's strategic position midway between Scandinavia and Russia makes it an ideal entrepôt port, but it was always a small country and needed support from powerful outsiders. The Danish, Swedish and even German overlords allowed the Estonians to keep some elements of their culture alive, but the Russians were less tolerant neighbours and for forty-six years after the Second World War it became another republic of the USSR. When we landed here in 1991, the presence of a Soviet army, 180,000-strong, confirmed the occupation of a country that had known only twenty-two years of independence in the last 500 years of its history.

Now the army's gone and the tables have been well and truly turned. The Estonian economy is booming. Annual growth is in double figures, the budget is in surplus, and Time magazine recently described the country as 'one of the most technologically advanced places on the planet'. Just to rub it in, those Russians who have stayed on are not allowed full citizenship until they have learnt Estonian.

It's a complicated language, comprising 33,000 characters, so most Russians don't bother. They remain here as second-class citizens, which is about the only thing the European Union, which admitted Estonia in 2004, is not happy about.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Eighty-three: Tallinn
  • Country/sea: Estonia
  • Place: Tallinn
  • Book page no: 199

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