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Monday, March 10, 2008

Utopia Walked in Tallinn

I started my work at Estonian Public service in 1995. My first cabinet was a puny little room on the first floor of the Ministry of Economic Affairs. Stacks of dusty newspapers were everywhere and from the window I had a view to a small roof that exhibited a sleigh and one rubber boot. There was a computer though which had some clips of vga-porn left by some previous user and Microsoft Office.

But the drills and hammers were sounding throughout the building and modernization was on the way. One by one all the floors were renovated at great speed. The same happened everywhere. On the streets of Tallinn noisy machines were smashing through old pavements and laying down new pipes and asphalt. At the public buildings the new word “Euroremont” became common. Windows became plastic and energy efficient, toilets finished stinking and toilet paper and cans of air fresheners appeared without no one stealing them.

There was also a downside. You could hardly ever sit at a meeting without a distant (or sometimes not so distant) sound of workmen working. Occasionally I had to conduct press conferences and once I had to moderate the press conference of a defence minister announcing his resignation, but some parts of his message were not well heard since invisible someone was drilling a hole into the next wall. He had to repeat several sentences.

Despite of the hassle, the sound of building was good. It was the sound of a dream becoming true. It was the sound of Europe. Builders behind the walls were taken as people who were building the same thing physically as we, the state servants, were building up mentally. We were re-building the country.

Looking back, it all seems as one single rush towards the safe woods of Europe. Of course, in 1995 nobody was sure that Estonia will once be part of the European Union, but we were focused on the goal. Europe was our promised land where we had been expelled from without committing any sin. As one of our famous poets had put it long time ago, “Let us become Europeans, but remain Estonians as well”, we took a dash towards the promised land, with almost utopian qualities.

Like the medieval cities that tried to mimic De Civitate Dei, City of God, we tried to make Tallinn look worthy for Lady Europe. Sacred geometries of white space at the foyers, computers, keycards, all that arrived as fast as you could say "ID Card". And the angels from the city of Brussels came and told us words of hope.

Their shiny processions came straight from the airport to the site of the government and many of us were worried about the ugly buildings they had to see en route. So we borrowed money from EBRD and renovated the airport.

In the legal domain we tried to imitate the divine arrangement even so furiously that sometimes public servants had to be stopped by force. “You are doing too much harmonization with EU, no one needs to be holier than the pope itself,” many said. And indeed, Estonia we were building, was not so much like Europe we were building it after. Soon our offices looked newer than these in Brussels and laws stricter than theirs. We were following our pure idea of Europe. Such was the chorus of the nineties.

In 2008 I look at the buildings. Most of them have already dealt with the remains of naive euroremont and made themselves up alright. We have been in EU for 5 years already and the influx of foreign investments is probably the greatest after the Hanseatic times. The Utopia walked here and left her footprints.

If you look at a certain region at Rävala puiestee you see the similar accumulation of capital in buildings as during the Hanseatic times that produced Tallinn’s Old Town. To some it may look small and common, but to some it is an open book, ready to be read.

And then you could go to the Soviet built Lasnamäe and you will actually see the traces of another utopia there. People moving along the straight gray lines that were meant to take us right into the sunrise of communism.

The Old Town of Tallinn that was built in many respects thanks to the Hanseatic idea.

New buildings like City Plaza arise not far from the Old Town, result of the influx of capital after EU accession became true.

Another Utopia walked here.

Happy reading to you all.