Red Tallinn
Image credit: Original photo by Steve Jurvetson, licence CC-by-2.0

Red Tallinn

An Estonian pilgrimage 

Ian Thomson

When I think back to that visit of mine to Estonia in 1988, I see grey half-muted tones of fog and sea; above all I remember a sense of amazement that I was at last on my way to my mother’s homeland. My mother was seventeen when, stateless and unsupported, she arrived in England in 1947. She had not been back to her native land since. Now, half a century later, I was on a mission to find her long-lost schoolfriend, Delia Sanenberg. Stalin had deported Delia eastwards from Estonia in 1941 as a ‘bourgeois deviationist’: was she still alive?

I set sail to the capital of Tallinn from Helsinki — a three-hour journey across the Gulf of Finland. A hammer and sickle flapped red from the ship’s stern. Behind us loomed Helsinki’s Eastern Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral. I was admiring the gold-tipped domes when the siren blew. Childishly happy, a group of Finns shouted and stamped the deck as we weighed anchor at 11am. ‘Vodka tourists’, the Estonians called them. Once, in the days before Stalin and Hitler, Tallinners had thought of themselves as the wealthier and more cultivated people; now Finns were arriving with packets of chewing gum and American jeans to sell to Tallinners.

A voice over the tannoy cautioned us to put our watches forward by an hour in anticipation of the Soviet time zone. The air was pungent with engine oil as I walked towards the stern – coiled ropes, lifeboats, portholes – and watched the cathedral dwindle to a gold speck. By midday a number of Finns were plainly drunk.

Slowly, through the September haze, Tallinn’s coastline came into view. In 1154 the Islamic cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi had described a ‘small town resembling a large fortress.’ Little had changed. The Soviet naval vessels anchored in Tallinn harbour were a reminder of the city’s strategic position on the edge of the Slav world, and its nearness to Leningrad. The maternal city glimmered as an arrangement of Orthodox onion cupolas and Lutheran knitting-needle spires, among them the 400-foot spire of St Olaf’s church, built in the twelfth century so as to act as a landmark for navigators.

With a crowd of Finns I disembarked and made my way across a wet quay. Seagulls were everywhere foraging for bread. The customs shed was filled with trestle tables where uniformed customs men were opening and searching luggage. A sign announced: WELCOME TO SOVIET TALLINN, but the official was not too welcoming. ‘How long in Tallinn do you stay?’— spoken as to an idiot. ‘A week.’ He took my passport. ‘Purpose of visit?’ ‘Tourism.’ Of course I was not here for tourism merely.

For eleven years my mother’s classmate Delia had languished in a forced-settlement ‘exile village’ in a remote part of the Urals. Stalin’s NKVD (a forerunner of the KGB) had come for her and her parents in the early hours of 14 June 1941, eight days before Hitler broke the terms of the Non-Aggression Pact with his ally Stalin and, in an abrupt betrayal, went to war with Russia. Delia’s father, as head of Tallinn port authorities, was, in the standard epithet, a capitalist ‘blood-sucker’ and, as such, executed. Delia herself had been arrested not for what she had done, but for who she was: she was an eleven-year-old ‘enemy of the people’.

Leaving the harbour, I walked into town in the direction of the Soviet high-rise Hotel Viru. The lobby teemed with Russian money-changers (“Comrade, we do deal?”) and prostitutes. From the restaurant on the 22nd floor I was able to survey Tallinn at night. There was a certain beauty in the view, as there is in all cities after dark. Through the plate-glass windows the red star could be seen fizzing over the central railway station, with, close by, the illuminated Lutheran churches and the toy fort-like turrets of Danish castles.

Delia and her family had been put on a cattle train and sent to collective farms – kolkhozes – in eastern Russia. The Soviets were in a hurry to decapitate any resistance or attempts by Estonians to regain their brief-lived independence before the Germans arrived, as they would in July 1941. Factory owners, politicians and army officers had been eliminated first; the NKVD rounded up, imprisoned or deported the unsuspecting remnant. My mother had been due to meet Delia that ‘awful June day’, as she described it. Instead, she watched very much afraid as Stalin’s deportation trucks were seen to move out of Tallinn.

Now, half a century on, it was my turn to meet Delia. I found her in one of the Soviet tenements that rise like gigantic concrete dominoes to the east of the Old Town. Her address – 14 Builders Road (Ehitajate Tee) – was typically Soviet-proletarian. A smell of urine hung in the stairwell. I climbed the stairway to flat number 22 and knocked. The door opened a crack; I noticed first a pale face with clear blue eyes like a child’s. My mother had not seen those eyes since 1941. The door opened wide. ‘I know who you are! You have your mother’s eyes.’

We shook hands as if it was a courtesy to be got though before the important business. A striking if worn-looking woman in her mid sixties, Delia spoke in nervous bursts of energy. ‘Wait! Wait! Look! Look!’ Black and white photographs were removed from an old shoe-box, some of them water-stained and sticky to the touch. One showed a girl standing under a Christmas tree — a ritual tolerated in Soviet-atheist Tallinn in 1940 only as a “New Year’s Fir” (the decorative angels were ‘year-end winged creatures’). That girl was my mother. In another photograph, Delia had one arm round the same girl in the garden of a house on Tartu Road, Tallinn. The girls, decorously attired, seemed to resemble each other, like sisters, with a shared expression of a faint, self-conscious glumness.

At the war’s end, Delia had returned to Tallinn only to be sent back to the Urals for six years because her character had not undergone a full perekovka or ‘reforging’. She was fifteen. The numerous imploring letters she wrote to Stalin pleading for release went unanswered. Her fortunes changed in 1956, three years after Stalin’s death, when the Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev gave his so-called Secret Speech (though its contents were known across Russia and beyond in weeks), in which he denounced Stalin and his murderous purges of 1937 and 1938. During the uneasy thaw that followed, Delia was allowed at last to return to Tallinn. She was overjoyed to be back but, like all exiles, she felt that she had returned to a world that had moved on without her. Everywhere Delia went, employers appeared to be suspicious of her ‘spoilt biography’ — Soviet-speak for a shameful bourgeois past. The true cruelty of her prison sentence only really began once she was released. There was no glory in having been a deportee: the stigma was indelible.

Yet in some awful way, Delia said to me, her punitive exile in the Urals had been the place where she learned the ‘difficult ways of the world’. She came of age in prison, just as my mother had come of age in the ‘displaced persons’ camps of liberated Germany. ‘What if you want to leave Communist Estonia today?’, I asked her. Delia looked at me with great seriousness. ‘It’s no longer possible, my dear’, she said. ‘I shall have to die here in the Soviet system.’

Three months after my visit, however, in November 1988, Estonia unilaterally proclaimed its sovereignty. The USSR was by now a sandpile ready to slide. On 6 November 1991 the Russian President Boris Yeltsin (reportedly inflamed by vodka) officially terminated the USSR’s existence when he banned the Communist Party within Russia. Estonia, ahead of the game, had already regained its full independence. Red Tallinn had gone before I knew it; neither Delia nor my mother had had to die in the Soviet system.

The classmates were reunited in 1992 after a separation of 60 years. It was an awkward reunion. My mother’s guilt as a survivor, when so many friends had died or been deported, was an uncomfortable burden. And Delia’s tiny flat, with its worn linoleum floors and paint all peeled, was a reminder of what might have happened to my mother had she not escaped the Soviet occupation. ‘Life consists of what it is but also of what it might have been’, my mother told me later. While Delia had had to get used to penury, filth, disgust and fury, my mother had re-invented herself as an Englishwoman; it fell to me to rediscover her forgotten Baltic past.

Ian Thomson is a writer, journalist and lecturer at the University of East Anglia. He is currently working on a book about the Baltic during World War II.