Here in the UK, the news is dominated by whether we should leave the EU, and it’s likely to remain that way until the referendum takes place on June 23rd. Inevitably, we hear a great deal about immigration into Britain. But it’s also the case that there are many Britons who choose to live in other countries within the EU and it’s unclear what will happen to their residency rights if we decide to distance ourselves from Europe.
This problem is likely to affect my elder son, Will, who has lived happily outside the UK for over four years. Currently, he’s based in Riga, the capital of Latvia where he teaches, edits and writes about Eastern European culture, history and politics. The city has a rich heritage and is particularly noted for its Art Nouveau buildings. Before moving to Latvia, Will lived in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, another Baltic state.
Through this family connection I’ve learned a lot about the Baltic countries. But generally when I tell people where Will lives, the reaction is polite interest and a blank look. Emma, my elder daughter, found the same when she went to visit her brother in Estonia a couple of years ago. She’s a sensible kind of girl and before setting off she rang her bank to let them know she’d be using her card abroad for a few days. ‘I’m going away for the weekend,’ she said. ‘Lovely—’ said the customer service assistant. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Estonia,’ replied Emma confidently.There was a long silence… ‘Which country is that in?’ asked the assistant. ‘It is a country,’ said Emma, patiently. Another silence—even longer this time. ‘We’re having trouble finding that,’ said the assistant. He was no doubt very proud to work for the bank that has ‘The World’s Local Bank’ as its tagline.
I managed a visit, too, a few months later with my younger daughter, Molly. And I was intrigued to find out how this small country has fared since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and it regained its independence. The Old Town is a World Heritage Site and that’s where we stayed amidst the cobbled streets and red-roofed buildings painted in pale shades of beige, green, blue and yellow. All of the Government buildings and embassies are at the top of a small hill and as we stood outside the Estonian parliament building, I couldn’t help but share Will’s enthusiasm. It is indeed impossible not to warm to a country whose political headquarters are based in a building resembling a pink and white birthday cake.
The Old Town is well-preserved and charming but from high above the roof-tops we could see the concrete bulk of the Soviet-era tower blocks. And wherever you go in Tallinn there is no escaping reminders of its brutal history. There’s a museum dedicated to the history of the KGB and Molly suggested innocently that as I’m a careers adviser I might be interested in the Museum of Occupations. The truth, however, is nothing cheerful like the ins and outs of what an ergonomist does, or how an orthotist is different from an orthoptist. Estonia’s history is dark and it has been invaded and occupied so many times that a whole museum is devoted to these traumatic events. Poland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and the Russian Tsars have all claimed Estonia at different times and even the name of its capital city translates as ‘Danish town’. A brief, glorious period began in 1920 when it gained its independence and the economy grew strong. Then in 1939 the Soviets crossed the border and it all went wrong again.
This first year of Soviet occupation was called the Year of Suffering and in one night, ten thousand Estonians were deported to Siberia. One third were children. In 1945 the Russians took formal control, dragging the small country into the Soviet Union. An astonishing number of young men and women took to the woods and lived in underground hideouts. There were about ten thousand in Estonia and more in Latvia and Lithuania. They called themselves the Forest Brothers and their mission was to ambush Russians and fight for freedom. They believed that the West would rescue their country from its plight, but this never happened and the last of the Forest Brothers was captured in 1978. During this period about 70,000 Estonians tried to escape to the West. Many travelled in fishing boats and were drowned. It was another century and another conflict but it’s an all too familiar story of people risking everything for a safer and better life.
And this leads into the third link in my chain interview project where each interviewee passes me on to someone that they think is interesting. It’s a surefire way to some fascinating conversations and I’m loving learning about things outside my normal range of experience. Recently I talked to Mala, a young immigration and human rights lawyer. She told me the sobering story of what inspired her to get into this field and describes what it’s like inside a detention centre.