In the last week of May, my wife and I were in Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia. I had been invited to the tenth annual Tallinn Book Festival, as one of my novels has been translated into Estonian. Neither I nor the publisher are likely to become wealthy as a result – Estonian is spoken by just 1.1 million people, a tiny market in publishing terms – yet in many other ways the experience was enriching, and some of the new friendships we made seem set to continue into the future.
Estonia is a small, northern European, peaceful, democratic, independent republic which appears to find no contradiction between its sense of national identity and its membership of the EU: the kind of country, in short, I would like Scotland to be. About half the size of Scotland and having a population of 1.3m (one-third of whom live in Tallinn, with Tartu, the next biggest town, home to about 90,000), Estonia has a familiar mix of densely populated urban and thinly populated rural areas. Much of the country is flat and heavily forested, the coastal areas are rich in marine and bird life, the forests full of moose, elk, lynx, beavers, boar, brown bears, endangered flying squirrels and an estimated 150 wolves. (Another Scottish writer, learning that Estonia has 'too many' wolves and not enough deer, mentioned that we have too many deer and no wolves, and suggested that a swap might be a good idea.)
Estonia has a buoyant and diverse market economy, low unemployment, very little public debt, efficient and transparent political and legal systems, and low levels of crime and corruption. While it has close ties with Latvia and Lithuania to the south, and with Finland and Sweden across the Baltic Sea, relations with its eastern neighbour and former occupier, Russia, are decidedly frosty. There are also, as in most countries, some significant regional and social variations in terms of wealth distribution and economic activity, but on the whole Estonia is doing pretty well.
It is easy to make simplistic comparisons – positive or negative – between Estonia and Scotland, but each has arrived at its present condition by a different route stretching back over history. However tough life may have been for many Scots in the last century, Estonians have had it tougher. For centuries a battleground for the imperial designs of Russia, Sweden and others, Estonia emerged from the collapse of Tsarist Russia to declare itself an independent country in 1918, only to be immediately occupied by Germany. Then, following the end of the first world war, it had to defend its new freedom against a Russian invasion and later an attempted Bolshevik coup.
During the 1920s it established a progressive political system, including a very enlightened legal framework enabling and protecting the cultural, linguistic and political rights of ethnic minorities, but in the 1930s a more authoritarian regime gained power, albeit one benign by comparison with what was happening elsewhere in Europe. In 1938 Estonia declared neutrality but was powerless to resist when, as a result of the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, it was annexed into the USSR. The Soviets ruthlessly eliminated the incumbent political, military, legal, business and intellectual leadership of Estonia in 1940, executing many and sending thousands to Siberian labour camps, from which few returned.
When Hitler turned on the Soviet Union in 1941, Estonia was directly in the path of the invading German armies. Thirty thousand Estonian men were forcibly drafted into the Red Army: most did not survive the ensuing bloodshed. As the Russians retreated, they exercised a scorched-earth policy, leaving nothing for either the Germans or the surviving Estonians. The Nazis quickly annihilated the country's Jews, brutally repressed any resistance and forcibly conscripted Estonian men into their military. In 1944, the Red Army came back, further terrible fighting took place and Tallinn was bombed into rubble before the Germans were finally ejected. It is estimated that Estonia lost some 25% of its people through death, deportation, flight or emigration during the second world war. Yet its troubles were far from over.
Estonia's forests have almost mythical status as sources of national identity and resilience: in Estonian folklore people go into the forests to commune with the trees and with the creatures and spirits that live among them, and come back stronger. In 1945, thousands of Estonians went into the forests and waged a war of resistance against this second Soviet occupation and renewed annexation. This war continued into the 1950s, but Soviet repression eventually wore down the opposition. Other deeply resented policies included farm collectivisation and Russification.
Between the 1940s and 1980s huge numbers of Russian-speaking people were settled in Estonia from elsewhere in the USSR, and large numbers of Estonians were deported. The percentage of the population which was Estonian fell from 94% to just over 60% in this period. Rapid industrialisation took place, including high-volume mineral extraction (especially of shale oil) which caused substantial environmental damage. The historical legacy of these policies is a Russian population comprising about 25% of the total, with many Russians currently in lower-paid jobs or living in more economically deprived areas. You get a strong sense that there is not a lot of interaction between Estonians and Russians, although divisions appear to be less marked amongst younger people.
As the Soviet system crumbled in the late 1980s, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania jointly and separately seized opportunities to reassert their desire for independence in what became known as the 'Singing Revolution': collective and public performances of national and popular songs symbolised the survival of identities that the system had tried to destroy. In August 1989 – a few months before the Berlin Wall, that for so long had kept people apart, was breached – a human chain of two million singing people stretched across the three Baltic countries.
In March 1991 Estonians voted for independence in a national referendum (78% of the voters were in favour). Six months later, the Soviet authorities recognised Estonia's independence, and three years after that the last Russian troops were gone. Estonia joined both the EU and NATO in 2004, and adopted the Euro in 2010.
With this kind of history, and in the centenary year of the country's first declaration of independence, an outburst of flag-waving, anthem-singing patriotic fervour would hardly be inexcusable – but while there is no doubt a general appreciation of their political freedom and a keen awareness of their national history, the Estonians we met were remarkably calm and measured in the way they discussed these matters. Pragmatism seemed more highly prized than ideological passion.
They understand, perhaps, that such a small country, placed where it is on the map, must find other ways than through military muscle or heroism to survive in the 21st century. They are clever, flexibly minded people – one of the most technologically savvy societies on the planet – who use soft diplomacy to make sure that the rest of the world knows who they are and that they intend to have a future.
The Tallinn Book Festival is part of that international engagement. Over four days writers, translators, storytellers, singers, musicians and publishers from the three Baltic countries, from Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Basque Country, Scotland, England, Brazil, Argentina, Italy and yes, Russia too, read, performed, talked and exchanged ideas. I met the translator of my novel, Jüri Kolk, himself a well-respected writer of fiction. Along with Krista Kaer, the festival director, we discussed the state of Estonian literature and language.
Some younger Estonians are tempted to give up their language in favour of English because, they believe, 'there is no word for X or Y in Estonian. But there almost always is,' Krista Kaer said, 'they just don't know it.' We spoke about Scots and Gaelic, and how their loss would diminish Scotland and the world. We acknowledged our similarities whilst not forgetting our differences. I felt that it would not take long to get to know this small, clean, quiet country.
Estonians conduct themselves with a certain self-deprecating charm. Over the course of a week we heard many tales told against themselves. They guard their personal space well – with trees if possible; they are not Mediterranean when it comes to hugging and kissing; they prefer the seat on the bus next to them to remain empty. How do you know if an Estonian likes you? You don't. What's the difference between an Estonian introvert and an Estonian extrovert? The introvert looks down and inspects his own shoes. The extrovert looks down and inspects yours.
Tallinn is a magnet for tourists, and its old town (reconstructed after the second world war by Poles, who know a lot about how to put things together again) reminded me of Edinburgh's – overwhelmed by large groups of visitors following their guides up and down the narrow, cobbled streets.
On our last afternoon, we were sitting outside a café in a pedestrianised area, watching the crowds go by, when suddenly a space opened around two police officers. They were clearing the way for a line of 10 ducklings who had become detached from their mother and were in danger of being crushed. One officer commandeered a basket and blanket from a shop and with great care and skill rounded the ducklings up, while her colleague got on his radio. Ten minutes later a fire engine eased its way to the scene of the incident. The basket was handed over and the firies took the ducklings away, to safety we assumed. Ten minutes later, the fire engine was back, to return the now empty basket to its owner. It was a satisfyingly gentle emergency. Tallinn has witnessed far worse in the past.