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24 October 2017

The slow train to Tallinn

In the first in a new series about the European nations we are soon to leave behind, Matthew Engel visits the Baltic state of Estonia, where people place great trust in technology – but not the motives of their neighbours.

By Matthew Engel

As you travel east across the world’s 129th largest country towards the largest, even the skies seem to change. They get bigger; the clouds become more voluble, more expressive. Certainly the passengers on the train get more voluble and expressive.

This is Estonia, where three quarters of the population vies with its Finnish neighbours to be regarded as the coolest, most untheatrical people on the planet. This is not the reputation of its other neighbours in Russia, nor of the remaining quarter of the Estonian population, who are ethnically Russian.

Almost all of the Russian-Estonians are clustered round the capital, Tallinn, and the train’s destination, the border city of Narva 130 miles away, where for 500 years two huge castles have glowered at each other across the river Narva, a well-aimed arrow’s flight apart. This has been a potential flashpoint throughout history: there were battles of Narva in 1558, 1581, 1700, 1704, 1918 and 1944. Soon after that Estonia was marched by force into the Soviet Union. Twenty-six years on from the great escape, Narva is primarily a crossing-point. It is not, however, a relaxed one.

On one bank, a new fortress has been built, dominating the city centre: a hi-tech command-and-control frontier post finished off with a 20-foot-high fence guarding the sides of the road bridge almost to midstream. The other side of the river appears invitingly open and welcome. This is not a new Iron Curtain, though, for here’s the twist: the new fortress is Estonia’s; it is the east that beckons beguilingly.

That is an illusion. Money has been lavished on the Estonian side because it is now – thanks to the Schengen Agreement on free movement – the country’s only significant border post. And not just a national border, a quadruple one, marking the edge also of the Schengen zone, the European Union and Nato. The EU paid for it all. The Russians use more time-honoured methods to keep undesirables at bay: undermanning and bureaucratic obstreperousness. The traffic backed up on the bridge is eastbound. After all, Russia has hundreds of important border posts to maintain; Estonia has only the one.

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When I visited Estonia in mid-September, the Estonians had an extra reason to be nervous. Not far over the horizon, on the Luzhsky training ranges, the Russians were hosting Zapad 2017, neither a sporting event nor a rock festival, but their quadrennial military exercise involving 12,700 troops (Moscow’s figure) or up to 100,000 (the most alarmist Nato sources). On some reckonings, Zapad could be the prelude to the Kremlin’s next coup de théâtre: a full-scale invasion of Estonia. Straight over the bridge or through the unmarked forests to the south.

At present this is far-fetched – but it is not utterly ludicrous. Estonia is twice the size of Wales, with a population of 1.3 million; Russia is 330 Waleses and has 150 million. The two have, let’s say, history. And a large slice of Estonia’s ethnic Russians have not been granted citizenship. They have “grey passports”, depriving them of basic rights such as voting, although they can travel to both sides of the border and could walk unhindered, if they fancied, from Finisterre to Vladivostok. Narva’s loyalty to Estonia cannot be taken for granted. I asked the city’s deputy mayor if he was worried about Zapad. “I don’t give a poop!” he roared in reply.

Actually he did give a poop, which is why he was cross. The deputy mayor’s name is Vyacheslav Konovalov, and he lives with the tortured loyalties that come from being Russian-Estonian. “So what?” he went on. “It’s all hype, it’s the same old stuff. The Kremlin’s coming after you. Ugh! This is not Ukraine.”

Yet the fear that Estonia and its Baltic neighbours, Latvia and Lithuania, might be the next Ukraine is the central underlying fact of the region’s politics. Logic suggests the cost would exceed the gain. But we do not live in logical times. The Kremlin’s reputation is that they do stuff because they can.

Estonia’s Russians are the Afrikaners of Europe: representatives of the old masters shorn of their pride and power, their language hounded into irrelevance. Less than 30 years ago Estonia spoke Russian; now the language is treated as an irritating patois. Most of the signs at the border complex are bilingual – but in Estonian and English. Russian has vanished from the road signs and even from the supermarkets. Children from Russian-speaking families have to learn Estonian or face being unemployable.


Modern Estonia was part of the EU’s great opening to the East in 2004 and in many ways the great success story among the EU’s 21st-century intake. However, its failure to err on the side of magnanimity when dealing with its minority may come back to haunt it. The Russians came here to work in heavy industries which collapsed with communism. Freedom was a mixed blessing in Narva; and the economy has recovered patchily. Estonia has only recently bothered to set up a Russian-language TV station, so the Kremlin’s world view still seeps out of almost every screen in Russian-Estonian households.

No one I spoke to believes that Narva would greet an invading army with tea and kisses, although that is seen as a pragmatic calculation rather than a patriotic imperative. The borderers see enough of life over the river to know they are better off where they are. “When they go to Tallinn they say they are going to Estonia,” said Raivo Vetik, professor of politics at Tallinn University. “But our surveys show that when they go to Russia they do not feel at home there either.”

“The local Russians do not have very warm feelings about Estonia,” said Kristina Kallas, the director of Narva College. “This town has suffered a lot. It is like some of the northern English towns that have been marginalised while London is doing fine. But that doesn’t mean they love Russia. Everyone has bombed this place throughout history. They just want geopolitics not to happen here.”

Just in case, though, a few hundred British soldiers from the Rifles regiment, under Estonian command, backed up by a detachment of French legionnaires, are now stationed halfway between Narva and the capital. Other Nato countries are manning similar bases in Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. It is not a military decision: no one believes these outposts could delay a Russian invasion for more than a few hours – but it is an important statement to the Estonians. At the very least our brave boys would have to be Dunkirked. Britain could not just wring its hands and say, “Oh dear.”

A tense tranquillity hangs over the Estonia-Russia border at Narva. Photo: Getty

Estonia is as due for an invasion as California is for an earthquake. Perhaps nowhere, even in eastern Europe, has had so much geopolitics dumped on it. Of the past 750 years it has been independent for just 49: 1918 to 1940 and again since 1991. Otherwise, it has been sat on by the Danes, the Teutonic Knights, the Swedes (comparatively benignly), the tsars, the Nazis and the communists. In the Second World War most Estonians had to fight for whoever forced them. “There were no good choices at that time,” said Kallas. “Only bad choices, very bad and horrific.” A quarter of the population is thought to have died.

And yet Estonians have never enjoyed being lumped together as one of those indistinguishable, put-upon, who’s-invading-us-this-time Balts. They look north to their long-lost cousins in Finland, whose language is as impenetrably Finno-Ugric as their own. Even in the depths of the Soviet night, the communists never found a way of stopping them watching Finnish TV. The Times correspondent Michael Binyon went to Tallinn in 1980 and told a Moscow contact how much he liked Estonia. “Ah,” he replied, “now I can see you are anti-Soviet.”

And on release from jail, the Estonians bounded for freedom with a self-confidence no one else matched. Helsinki offered Tallinn a telephone exchange, brand-new but pre-digital. It was turned down. As hi-techery moved forward Estonia became a world leader rather than a supplicant. Skype was an Estonian invention, originally sold to eBay for £1.4bn in 2005 and now owned by Microsoft. “The founders invested that money back in Estonia,” explained Kevin Tammearu of the British-Estonian Chamber of Commerce. “That created the venture capital market here, and it flourished.”

The upshot is that Estonia is starting to challenge our whole perception of East and West, new EU members and old. There are only about 15,000 Estonians in Britain, many of them long-established. (Number on benefits, I was told: about zero.) Salaries in Estonia would be about half UK levels, but the disparity is not such to make a young professional spend two years picking Cornish daffodils or Herefordshire strawberries to buy a house back home. In any case, bourgeois property prices in both Tallinn and Latvia’s capital, Riga, while hardly Londonish, are comparable to those of Birmingham, Antwerp and Turin.

Bright young Estonians have the added advantage of being able to get decent jobs in Finland. Even so, Estonia may be the harbinger. Perhaps the whole eastern EU is rising fast enough so that soon they will no longer need or want to do the UK’s battery-farmed chicken plucking and shit-shovelling. In which case, the immigration argument for leaving the EU will be irrelevant.


For now, Estonia is way out in front. It even feels like Scandinavia, without the cyclists. (The taxi drivers are Russian and would flatten them.) How right the country was about the Tallinn phone exchange: “I was in the middle of a bog in central Estonia,” marvelled a diplomat. “I still had a perfect 4G signal.” No other country is defined by its internet suffix. This is “ee” and it’s e-everything. Some children learn coding in primary school.

Estonia’s uniquely smart ID card is a world leader. You can do everything online with it – get a prescription, sign contracts, vote – and almost nothing without. But it is all compartmentalised: your doctor can see your medical record with your consent, but not your criminal record.

Such a system requires a remarkable degree of trust in both the government’s integrity and competence, neither of which would be available in Britain. And one is entitled to a little scepticism when told about 90-second tax returns, and silver-surfing Narva babushkas entrusting their intimate details online. (“There is a lot of marketing,” commented one clued-up local.) However, the populace seem willing to bet their life stories that the government is one step ahead of, above all, the Kremlin’s cyber-mischief division.

Estonia’s trust in technology can get a little wearing. In one public building I spent ten minutes trying to find the gents. It turned out there was no sign on the door because it was beamed onto the floor like a light show in a nightclub. They do it because they can.

It is a new kind of faith, perhaps because Estonia was never much smitten with the old one. According to Rev Gustav Piir, pastor of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Tallinn, Lutheranism began to lose its hold in the 19th century because the church, controlled by the German-speaking ruling class, insisted on having services in German. Anti-clericalism was a powerful force. And in communist times the new collective farms were built away from the old villages. Sure you could go to church, but it was a long walk in a Baltic winter.

“There is an allergic reaction to organised religion,” said Piir. “They believe but they don’t belong. For instance All Souls’ Day, 2 November, has become very much more popular. That’s the time when people have services and visit the cemetery.”

Piir’s church is lovely and one of the highlights of any visit to Tallinn’s old town, which is now beginning to acquire the character of a Venice of the north, though not in a good way. There are fewer unbiddable puking British stags and hens these days (they get more upmarket drinkers now that prices have risen) but an unfeasible number of all too biddable cruise-ship passengers.

Visitors come by air, sea and the comfy, good-value Lux bus from Riga – a prettier city overall, in my opinion. Only an eccentric would arrive by train, but I did and it was very instructive. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have less in common and co-operate with each other less than outsiders imagine. No trains cross directly between them at present. But you can go slowly through the mushroomy forests on the way from Riga to Tallinn by changing trains at the southern border town of Valga.

It’s three hours from Riga to Valga on a clanking leftover Soviet diesel with a leftover Soviet conductor, from the 1917 class of battleaxes. Then you cross the platform onto a swish new Estonian number complete with disabled loo. It was no faster than the Latvian one, but it certainly looked the part. The money set aside to renew the Latvian rolling stock mysteriously vanished in the time-honoured east European way.  And Estonia is above all that.

Not many tourists, or even Estonian Estonians, make it to Narva. The combination of war damage and Soviet aesthetics has done the city no favours. Yet it is not without its joys, and not just the all-night strip club. There is a charming riverside walk (where the main danger is one’s phone roaming capacity defecting unnoticed to the Russians and charging £1.50 a minute).

Under an avenue of trees, there is a series of lights set in concrete on to the pathway to commemorate Estonia’s accession to the EU, the event that set its own democracy in concrete and gave it confidence that this time there was no going back. There is one light for each of the 28 existing members and 11 unmarked, enough space for all the other eastern states, mainly Balkan, whose transition to acceptable democratic levels then seemed just a matter of time. Maybe the EU is the new religion here, more important than All Souls’, more important than cyber-skills. It really matters to Estonia.

What will you do when one of those lights goes out, I asked the deputy mayor. Dig it up? Make a ceremony of it?

“That’s a good idea,” he said. “We’ll invite your ambassador.” And we both laughed. But when you stand by the river Narva, Brexit doesn’t feel like a laughing matter or even just an act of atavistic self- indulgence, more like a crime against human progress.

Matthew Engel will be writing regularly for the NS from different European countries in the months ahead

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This article appears in the 18 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions