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You have more than an hour before your train leaves Tallinn’s central railway station. It is a surprisingly warm and sunny day, for Estonia, so you wander across the road to the old railway station bazaar (balti jaama turg). Dating from the Soviet period, it has been “modernized,” with posh shops and cafes replacing the shabby old kiosks. At the entrance, you get caught up in the stands selling summer fruits – ripe and colorful to the eye. You make your contribution to global warming by buying cherries from Poland and strawberries from Greece, all the time wondering where all the Estonian products are.
You return to the station, still with an hour to go before your train leaves. While speculating about where would be the best place to sit down and get some work done, you notice a sign: “Leap into the Past: Exhibition on Soviet Estonia.” The sign is in Russian, in Futurist font. The post-Soviet scholar in you suddenly wakes up. Coincidentally (or not) at the entrance to the exhibition, an old yellow truck is selling draught kvass (a lightly-fermented rye drink). Just like in the good old times … only this is Estonia in 2019.
Entrance to the exhibition is 9 euro ($10.25), since you are no longer a student, who would pay around half. This is a lot less than the $25 it would cost you to visit the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, but this is Tallinn, where 9 euro would buy you tea and cake for two. Furthermore, the small building where the exhibition is hosted bears little resemblance to MoMA, and you wonder how many items, and of what interest, might fit into such a small space, and whether it’s worthwhile even going in.
Still hesitating, you read: “The exhibition includes a tour of a Soviet Estonian three-room flat.” You remember the 1976 Soviet romantic comedy “Ironiya Sudby” (Irony of Fate) when someone ends up in an identical flat in the same-named street of the “wrong” city, and you wonder how different it can be from any of the dozens of flats you have visited in Georgia or Ukraine or Kazakhstan. Does Estonia – possibly the least Soviet of all the former Soviet republics – have anything a post-Soviet scholar might not have seen a hundred times before?
However, if you don’t go in, you will keep wondering, “And what if there was something unique and I just missed it?”
Finally, you just step over the threshold.
Who Needs an Exhibition About “Soviet” Estonia?
In order to appease your skepticism, you formulate your reason for being here as an academic inquiry: why would someone put on an exhibition about Soviet Estonia in the center of Tallinn? Definitely not to celebrate Soviet times. But not to explain how bad Soviet times were, either, since the Museum of Occupation and Freedom is only a few steps away.
Having established a justification for your guilty curiosity, you pay for your ticket and enter the single-room exhibition. Your first encounter is somehow an expected one. An old tent with a camping mattress and a picture of hikers are used to demonstrate that Soviet Estonians had limited access to decent hiking and camping equipment. Then you realize that you just walked right past several bikes and a three-wheel motorbike without noticing them – because you’ve seen these things in use, not so long ago. Yet here they are, parked in a museum, somehow also remainders of the past. You frown.
Next, after a reconstruction of a Soviet cafe – one not much different from the one you visited the evening before – you are confronted with konservnye banki. These are shelves’ worth of marinated vegetables and jam, in giant glass jars – just like the ones you can still see in many storage rooms and cellars, in 2019. Yet here they are, being used as a part of an exhibition, part of a story about how things used to be. Turning around again, you notice a street dispenser of carbonated water, and wonder if, in some remote parts of the former USSR, some of them might still be in use.
Well, maybe these things are exotic for some visitors to the exhibition; maybe some people do appreciate seeing so many of these things displayed under one roof, to be seen and recognized.
That’s when you walk into the “Soviet-style three-room Estonian flat” and recognize furniture and household items that can still be found in many apartments in 2019. Is it just you thinking it’s not that old? (Later, you show the picture to your 12-year-old son – who was not born in the Soviet Union – and he takes it for a real apartment and asks innocently, “Oh, were you visiting friends?”) True, Estonians probably tend not to hang carpets on the wall anymore, and most of Tallinn’s apartments have been renovated. But how many times, and how recently, have you been in a bedroom or a bathroom just like one of these – displayed here as monuments of the past?
“Positively Surprising” Soviet Estonia
No matter how much Soviet ideology called for all parts of the Union to be homogenized, agency persisted. Each republic, city, and even area featured some distinctive qualities unique to the place. Odessa had its humor. In Georgia there was food and wine. The Baltics had dairy products.
But sometimes creativity wasn’t about what there was, but what people lacked. Take the exhibit’s story from Soviet Estonia of “Uncle Uno.” Frustrated by the prospect of never owning a car, he used his genius to build one out of spare parts, and went as far as getting a license plate (registering it as a “hobby car”). It seems the authorities preferred to allow people to satisfy their demand for cars by making their own – rather than finding a way to supply more cars through more formal (and possibly safer!) methods. When it came time to sell the car, Uno discovered that it wasn’t possible. So he sold the car informally, and the buyer claimed he had built a car and needed to register it (again, because it wasn’t an “official” car whose registration could simply be transferred).
In another corner of the room, you learn about an Estonian, who – relegated to some remote part of Siberia – built his own chainsaw. The authorities were so impressed that they denied him the honor of naming it after himself, and instead called it – guess what? – druzhba (friendship).
The exhibition also features a list of censored music bands. Now, you know why Iron Maiden, Alice Cooper, and KISS were on that list. But what official decided to include Julio Iglesias, Talking Heads, and Tina Turner? Further down the list, you feel like bursting out in laughter. Yes, in the Soviet Union, even the Village People were censored. “Young man, there’s no need to be down,/ I said Young man…” You remember having fun dancing the steps to the YMCA song, and just try to imagine some high-level officer coming in to censor them for being anti-Soviet.
A sign invites you to take the stairs to the “second floor” and there you find something that might – just might – justify your visit. This is not really a “second floor,” but just a grandly named mezzanine of two narrow balconies above the exhibition floor. Here on display are a number of posters of major Estonian movies released during the Soviet period. You can also listen to a number of music albums by Soviet Estonian bands – when the player is working.
This is where you realize how important it was to have a cultural setting in an otherwise allegedly homogenized Union, where everything had to look the same, everywhere. Thank God there were artists who could not silence their desire to express their feelings, and who gave birth to little cultural gems, different in every country, even in every region.
On to the Exit (From Socialism)
On your way down the stairs and out of the building, you wonder what the purpose of this exhibition was. At these prices, it is unlikely that many Estonians would enter to basically see their grandma’s flat. A few random tourists might be willing to pay, to experience the exotica of the Soviet Union and read some anecdotes – while feeling safe in an EU country and being confident that all of this belongs to the past. Is such an exhibition commercially viable?
But perhaps the goal of the exhibition is a different one. After all, it is conveniently located near the railway station, where state-of-the-art trains serve most Estonian destinations. And the sign inviting you to “leap into the past” is in front of a smartly renovated hipster area, where a beer can cost 5 euro. With all this evidence of modern Estonia so close at hand, it is hard to believe that everything you see in the exhibition died less than 30 years ago, let alone to believe that some of these things are still alive and in use today.
As long as you can convince yourself that the Soviet era is over, and everything you see in the exhibition no longer exists, the exhibition was successful. It matters little that, at the end of the day, some of the people working at the railway station will go home to a three-room apartment similar to the one the exhibition was modeled on, possibly to eat marinated food like the preserves displayed in the room … After all, as Vonnegut explained as long ago as 1962, we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
Dr. Abel Polese is a scholar, development worker, trainer, and writer. He is the author of The Scopus Diaries and the (Il)logics of Academic Survival, a book helping academics to critically reflect on the requirements of academic careers nowadays, and co-editor of Studies of Transition States and Societies (STSS), an open-access journal focusing on governance and social issues in the non-Western world.
Top photo by Alex Luyckx / Flickr.