If you saw my last column, you know that my wife Cathy and I spent July traveling. Our thirty-day cruise took us to eight different northern European countries, and I would like to take advantage of this column to relate part of experience in two of them, Russia and Estonia.
It is a cliché that travel is described as “broadening,” and this trip certainly was for us. I want to talk about these two countries in particular, because we came away with a renewed appreciation for the society that we all live in here in the United States.
Here are two anecdotes that will serve to explain why:
RUSSIA: Our ship made calls in four places in this country, the last and longest being St. Petersburg. We took five excursions there, one of which was led by a beautiful and intelligent young lady named Elena. Her English was flawless, and she told us that one of the reasons was the time she had spent visiting the United States.
One of the other members of our tour asked a very pointed question (a question I would never have had the nerve to ask, but I’m glad someone did): “Why don’t Russians smile?” And it was an observation many of us had made.
Elena thought for a few seconds and answered this way: There are a couple of reasons. First of all, until recent years, there was very little reason to smile. Life for the average Russian was miserable. It is still a hard slog for most, even after the reforms of the early 1990s. You learn how to act from your parents and grandparents, and they never smiled, so most Russians lost the habit. Secondly, in the Soviet era, smiling — either by yourself or in conversation — often brought unwanted attention from the authorities. You never knew who you could trust — even your neighbors. Therefore you did not smile, so that you could keep as low a profile as possible.
She did follow up and say that younger people are changing the culture, especially those like her that have experience with foreigners visiting her country. Elena finished by saying: “Things are getting better, and we are learning to be open and ‘make small talk’ and relax with others.” In five minutes, this young lady taught us a lesson to appreciate what it means to be in a free society.
ESTONIA: Another wonderful guide, Riina (Ree’na), took us on a four-hour tour of the capital city, Tallinn. She had been employed in the Estonian Parliament for twenty years, so she was very, very sensitive to the history of her country and its seven hundred years of being ruled by others.
In those seven hundred years, they had only truly been free, independent people with a democratic government from 1918 to 1934 and from 1991 to the present. Because of their location, they had been ruled by Denmark (twice), Sweden (twice), Poland, Germany, Russia and the USSR. The Soviet Union was the most recent and the most vicious, and Estonia is still concerned with its neighbor to the east.
The Estonian people began their fight for independence in 1988, and did it, believe it or not, with singing. In total defiance of the Soviet Communist administration of the country, which had outlawed the singing of Estonian patriotic songs, three hundred thousand people gathered at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds to sing five patriotic songs. This independent behavior continued, and slowly but surely the Soviet government was forced to take their boot off the necks of the Estonian people. The “Singing Revolution,” as it has come to be known, ended with independence being declared on August 20, 1991.
As we listened to our guide and walked though the beautiful city of Tallinn, the spirit of freedom was palpable. Estonia is one of the fastest-growing nations in the European Union. Its citizens are widely regarded as some of the most free of any country in the world. The country ranks 6th in the world in terms of economic freedom. You can feel the energy, the joy, and the pride everywhere you go.
I chose to write about being in these two countries because we Americans (me included) need to be reminded how free we really are. Russians and Estonians provided that reminder to my wife and me. I thought a couple of anecdotes might be a useful counterweight to all the pessimism we read and hear from our hyper-cynical national representatives and their media echo chamber.
Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford town councilor.