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Chasing The Estonian Army - And Finding A Different One
Machine gun fire thudded through the snowy woods. Mart looked up from the missile shelter we were inspecting; an excited look appeared on his face.
"It came from that way, let's go!"
He started running through snow up to his calves. I followed. The snow immediately trickled down the tops of my hiking boots, melted and gave my feet a cold bath. I kept running. At least I wasn't wearing regular shoes like Mart.
We heard another burst from the machine gun. It sounded closer and a bit to the left. We changed course.
"Maybe it's the APC that left those tracks we saw on the road," Mart said.
I hoped so. I've ridden on an APC but never seen one in action.
Mart was my guide from Tallinn Traveller Tours. He was supposed to be showing me the west coast of Estonia and the old Soviet military town of Paldiski. Instead, we'd been chasing scattered gunfire through some lonely winter woods for the past hour. Mart is an Estonian college kid half my age, but we share something in common – our natural reaction to gunfire is to run towards it instead of away from it.
Not that we really had anything to fear. We were chasing the Estonian Army on their winter maneuvers, and they didn't usually use live ammo. Technically they could arrest us if we got in the way, but chances are all they'd do was tell us to beat it. That's what the Bulgarian Army did when I pulled the same stunt with them.
Gallery: Everything but the Estonian Army
Eventually we gave up crunching through the snow and got back in the car. We drove around for a time and saw more tracks, but never caught up with the Estonian Army. Too bad. Back in 1918-20, the previous Estonian army managed to beat the Bolsheviks and establish Estonian independence. Estonia got swamped in World War II but became independent again in 1991. Since then they've joined NATO and served in Afghanistan. They currently have 150 troops there making them a small country punching way above its weight.
While the Estonian Army was nowhere to be found, detritus from the Soviet army was everywhere. One of the most disturbing stood just outside of Paldiski. This town was used by the Soviet Navy for nuclear submarine training. In one building they had an entire mockup of a sub for the cadets to work with.
In another building – a grim looking, windowless place that we studied from outside a chain-link fence – were two nuclear submarine reactors. The first was installed in 1964 and the second in 1982. The reactors were shut down in 1989 but they're still in there. We didn't see any guards, but I bet they were watching us through a hidden camera somewhere.
This made me think of all the military trash spread across the planet. In an earlier post, I talked about how my kid loves using Google Maps and discovered the remote Johnston Atoll. He's obsessed with going there. I'm not. The United States used it for aboveground nuclear tests in the 1950s and '60s, and later as a chemical weapons dump. A landfill on the atoll contained plutonium dust, sarin nerve gas, Agent Orange and various other nasties. I'm not taking my son there anytime soon. I want my grandkids to have ten fingers.
I wonder how many places like this exist in the former Soviet territories, places that Moscow never bothered to mention as the Soviet Union fell apart. I also wonder about the planet's carrying capacity for heaps of radioactive and toxic waste.
Not all trash from the Cold War is harming the planet. Some of it has been recycled to better uses. After giving up on the Estonian Army, Mart drove me down a country lane for a surprise. Sitting on some private property was an old Antonov 12 cargo plane. Introduced in 1959, these planes did the heavy lifting for the Red Army for many years. This particular one was left behind when the last Russian troops left Estonia in 1994.
Somehow a local guy was able to buy it. He's an avid model airplane hobbyist and he and his friends turned it into their clubhouse – a boy's dream come true. We were greeted by the owner, a quiet man whose entire conversation with me consisted of "hello," followed by half an hour's silence as Mart and I explored his plane, and ended with "goodbye."
The Antonov is in remarkably good shape. The cargo area is stuffed with model planes, a worktable and files of modeling magazines. The cockpit is still as it was. I got in the pilot's seat and Mart acted as copilot as we fiddled with the switches, talked about what it would be like to fly this thing and basically acted like two overgrown kids with a wonderful toy. After that we headed to the rear of the plane where I squeezed into the gunner's turret. My only disappointment was that the machine gun had been removed. I wonder where it ended up.
Mart also took me to see more peaceful sights such as the frozen waterfall pictured below and a stretch of coastline where swans fished in the chilly water.
"They're taking a risk," he said. "Usually they migrate away from the sea in winter because it freezes and they can't fish. They've stayed this year because it's so mild. But if it freezes, they won't be able to eat."
We talked about Estonia's natural beauty for a time, and visited an old lighthouse that was on the verge of teetering into the sea because of erosion. Time and again, our mutual enthusiasm brought the conversation back to the Cold War. The Soviets didn't just leave behind material and hazardous waste; they left behind people too. During the old days the central government tried to "Russify" outlying areas by sending Russians to live there. About a quarter of Estonia's population speaks Russian as their native language.
These folks got caught in the middle during the independence movement in the 1990s. During the transition people were asked to get an unofficial Estonian identity card – unofficial because Estonia wasn't a country yet. Many Russians didn't, either because of loyalty to the homeland or fear that Estonia wouldn't become a nation and anyone with a card would get in trouble.
When independence became official, the identity cards were used to establish citizenship. Many Russians in the nation were left without a state. They got "gray passports" that designate them as resident aliens. They don't get to vote in national elections, hold government jobs, or enjoy many advantages of the European Union. Now the public schools are switching to teaching mostly in Estonian. Sounds like a good way to create a disaffected underclass.
Reactions from Estonians vary. Mart is sympathetic. Others are less so. One Estonian woman said of the Russians in her country, "We hate them." Steps have been taken to give more Russian Estonians their citizenship, but official figures still show about 8 percent of the national population to lack citizenship.
It's a messy business and while I see the problem, I don't see an easy answer. What is surprising about the collapse of the Soviet Union is that many areas managed to get through it relatively unscathed. Back in the early 1990s, a guy I know in college who everyone called "Stalin" because of his hardcore Communism predicted that, "These countries will be lucky if they survive with half their populations." At the time I thought he might be right.
For Estonia at least, they survived with a lingering social problem, some dodgy nuclear sites and one really, really cool clubhouse. If only every former Soviet republic had been so lucky.
Read the rest of my series: "Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime."
Coming up next: A Medieval Abbey In Estonia!
[Top photo by Mart the Psychotic Yet Well-Informed Tour Guide. Bottom photo by Sean McLachlan]