A beginner´s guide to Estonian culture

Published December 3, 2004

DARKNESS IN TALLINN by Ilkka Jarvi-Laturi

“What do we do now that we’re free?”
”I don’t know, go to work as always.”

The scene shows two working men discussing the benefits of freedom in the first film made in Estonia after independence. The story´s premise is a heist to highjack Estonia’s gold reserves upon their return to the country after independence from the Soviet Union. Directed by a Finn in 1993, it has a healthy dose of Tarantino but manages to convey a very Baltic atmosphere, and the gangsters Russianness makes them particularly menacing at a time before this became a cliché.
The protagonist is a man named Toivo, an electrical engineer assigned to black out the city during the heist. He initially takes part because the money will buy a lot of baby food, but then suffers a crisis of conscience. Despite a disappointingly upbeat ending, the film still manages to capture the hopes and disappointments of post-Soviet Estonia. And the gimmick of shooting the first half in black and white and then switching to colour as the lights go on is simply stunning. Darkness in Tallinn is available at video rentals such as Aðalvideóleigan at Klapparstígur and Toppmyndir at Sólvallagata 27 and Aðalvideóleigan at Klapparstígur 37.

The Czar´s Madman by Jaan Kross
The writer Jan Kross was born in 1920, the same year that Estonia first achieved independence. During the Second World War, he was arrested first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets for being an Estonian patriot. Upon returning from the Gulag in 1954 he became a professional writer. His novels are usually historical and often deal with the struggle of Estonians against Baltic Germans, a metaphor for Estonia´s struggle against the Soviet Union. The Czar´s Madman is perhaps his best known work. Set in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, it is a sort of historical 1984, where the only sane person in society is classified as a madman for his opposition to an unjust regime. But the fact that the book describes a society that has existed (and in the form of the Soviet Union still existed at the time) makes the prospect even more chilling than in Orwell´s dystopia. The Czar´s Madman has been translated into English by Anselm Hollo, published by Pantheon, and into Icelandic by Hjörtur Pálsson, published by Hólar.

Saatus by Kirile Loo

What will become of the nestlings?                                                                                                                                                              One became the sun above the earth                                                                                                                                                            The other the star in the sky                                                                                                                                                                          The third the headland in the field                                                                                                                                                                The fourth the name of the meacow

Thousands of years before Björk´s primal masterpiece Medúlla, the Balto-Finnic cultures sang about the origins of the earth in runic verse. The runic songs were written in the Balto-Finnic proto language, before it branched out into different languages such as Finnish, Estonian and Karelian. The songs were ever-changing and were to some extent overtaken by folk songs written by the national poets of the 19th Century. But the form still exists, and perhaps is not all that different from its original version in the first millennium BC.

One of the foremost interpreters of the Kalevala meter is Kirile Loo. She grew up with her grandmother in a village with no electricity, and learnt to sing from her grandmother before moving on to the Tallinn School of Music. Saatus, her 1997 album features such instruments as the kannel, the oldest Estonian string instrument. According to tradition, God made the kannel and the Devil made the bagpipes. Most non-Scots would be inclined to agree. Lobby our local record store for this or order it online.


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