Conserving Estonia in the New Europe

Merlin Waterson looks at how the newly-independent Estonia is recovering its heritage.

Dance Celebration in Tallinn, Estonia  Estonian Song and Dance Celebration festive parade with more than 100 000 people. Photo: Egon Tintse
Dance Celebration in Tallinn, Estonia  Estonian Song and Dance Celebration festive parade with more than 100 000 people. Photo: Egon Tintse

Few countries have experienced more determined and brutal efforts to change their cultural identity than Estonia. The mass deportation of intellectuals, the deliberate destruction of historic monuments, the changing of street names, and the wholesale burning of books were all part of a systematic policy to erase the memory of Estonia as an independent republic. The idea that Estonians might ever return to the vigorous artistic life of the 1920s, or could renew previous contacts with architecture and design in Finland must have seemed beyond their wildest dreams. For many Estonians this suppression was made all the more intolerable by the official promotion of the blander forms of folk music, ideally involving pretty girls dancing in the market place to the balalaika.

All that is set to change. The fear is now that countries like Estonia will swap one sort of bogus history for another. What the Soviet system failed to obliterate, the international leisure and tourist industry may yet destroy. Tallinn, like Prague and the other great historic cities of Eastern Europe, is still very much at risk, but from a different threat. However, there are encouraging signs that Estonia is aware of the dangers.

In her article in History Today in September 1989, Clare Thomson described how the official Soviet history of Estonia is now openly discredited, with interest and research concentrated instead on the years of independence from 1920 to 1940. As well as rewriting their political history, Estonians are looking increasingly critically at which historic buildings are worth preserving, and how they should be conserved. To guide them, the Estonian Heritage Society has enlisted the support of conservation organisations from abroad, including the National Trust.

During the last five years conservation issues have become a central element in the upsurge of nationalism. It was a threat to some of the most beautiful countryside in Estonia which gave one of the first opportunities to voice open dissatisfaction with Soviet dictates. In April 1987, it became widely known that one of the ministries in Moscow was proposing to extend the mining of phosphates. The potential environmental damage to the rivers in northern Estonia, to Lake Peipsi and to the Gulf of Riga, was a legitimate matter of national concern. Because of glasnost, Estonians found themselves able to talk openly about the threat to what they perceived as the environmental interests of their country.

Later that year, in December 1987, the founding congress of the Estonian Heritage Society took place. The Society has since then organised the collection of memoirs of those involved in the mass deportations to Siberia and in the armed resistance to Soviet occupation. It has also restored over a hundred monuments to those who fell in the Estonian War of Independence of 1918 to 1920, some of which had been concealed to protect them from deliberate destruction during the 1940s. The Society is now turning increasingly to the practical problems of conserving Estonia's historic buildings.

The wooden houses of Tallinn are one example of a type of architecture which has assumed symbolic significance. Until very recently, the idea of consciously preserving such obviously bourgeois housing was ideologically unacceptable. The suburbs of Tallinn include streets of these picturesque, usually nineteenth-century buildings which enjoyed their heyday during the years of independence. In a society only gradually returning to the private ownership of individual houses, the preservation of large groups of these buildings is very much in doubt. One possible solution is the designation of conservation areas, backed up with funds for repair used on a rotating basis, as with the 'Little Houses Scheme' devised by the National Trust for Scotland. The Estonian Heritage Society, with its independence of government, might well be an appropriate body to operate such a scheme in Tallinn.

Certain medieval buildings also have symbolic value, particularly those associated with the Hanseatic League, with Estonia's trade links with the rest of Europe and with Lutheranism. But they mean very different things to different sections of the population. To Russians who have settled in Estonia they represent a threat. There have been repeated instances of arson, and suspected arson. The thirteenth-century church of St Nicholas in Tallinn was severely damaged by fire just as its restoration was nearing completion, and further extensive repairs were needed to the spire.

One of the consequences of the Soviet occupation of Estonia is that attitudes to Germany have become distorted. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the German barons who occupied many of the larger count estates kept themselves largely apart and were widely resented. Estonians have every reason to feel intense bitterness about the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of 1939 which gave the Baltic States to the Soviet Union in exchange for the partition of Poland. The change in attitude to Germany was the direct consequence of Stalin's policies, particularly the deportation of Estonians in the face of the German advance, most notoriously in the 10,000 arrests in one night in June 1941.

The deep emotions aroused by these events continue to affect conservation issues in Estonia. Many of those most influential in the Estonian Heritage Society lost family in the deportations. Villem Raam, who has been called the 'Father of Estonian Conservation' on account of his inspiring teaching and his work to preserve the country's medieval churches, spent many years in Siberia before being allowed to return. The survival of such fine buildings as the thirteenth-century church at Ridala and the condition of its exquisite carved-wood fittings owe much to Raam's influence, as does the study of the Cistercian monastery ruins at Padise.

There is the risk of controversy in the discussion now being promoted by the Estonian Heritage Society on whether it should be a property-owning body or should continue to be a largely propaganda organisation. Not surprisingly, there are those who feel that the ownership of property is an unrealistic and possibly undesirable objective at the present time. The alternative view is that the Society could, by example, set standards of conservation in Estonia which would be widely influential.

If it turns its back on property owning, the Society may miss opportunities which major political changes in Estonia could bring. After the experience of the last fifty years, state ownership of all historic monuments may be an unattractive option. With skilful negotiation, the Estonian Heritage Society could be well placed to play a major property-owning role, occupying a middle position between outright state ownership, on the one hand, and individual private ownership on the other. It would need to continue its present policy of not accepting any direct government grant towards its running expenses as an organisation. This need not prevent it receiving government aid to specific projects and properties, as is the practice with the National Trust in this country.

Another major task will be to secure decent recognition, status and remuneration for professional conservators. Many of those currently directing conservation in Estonia are exceptionally dedicated, but they have to accept what would in other circumstances be intolerable conditions of employment. It can come as a shock to discover the extent to which Stalinist attitudes to the professional, bourgeois classes persist. Factory workers and tram drivers in Estonia have been used to earning more than fully qualified consultant doctors. Near the bottom of the scales are those working in museums and universities. The potentially disastrous consequences of this situation, once travel restrictions are relaxed, are only too obvious.

It is scarcely surprising that some of the most remarkable achievements in the museum and conservation field are the work of those for whom it is an amateur interest. The preservation of the neo-classical manor house of Sagadi is almost entirely due to the personal involvement of the head of the local forestry co-operative. The beautiful early eighteenth-century house and gardens of Palmse are being well looked after because they happen to be in the Lahemaa National Park.

The present use of the manor house of Ragavere is both improbable and impressive. It is the responsibility of the Eduard Vilde Collective Farm and thanks to the interests and enthusiasm of Erich Erilt has, since 1965, been used for musical, literary and theatrical evenings. The Eduard Vilde literary prize is awarded annually to the writer whose work best evokes the rural life of Estonia. The administrator of Ragavere not only organises these events but is re-assembling records of the von Dehn family who were the last private owners of the house and who now live in Germany. Policies to return property to former owners are already arousing controversy and are likely to be a legal minefield. The recent history of Ragavere could in time serve as a useful reminder that even under a repressive system country houses found enlightened uses. But recognition of this may be hard for many Estonians.

Even more remarkable is the Koela Farm Museum near Haapsalu, where the preservation of the buildings of a modest smallholding is due to the efforts of a primary school teacher, Helja Heldema, supported by the local farm collective. The tools of a typical pre-war Estonian farm have been reassembled in a way which is a model of sensitive museum display. What began as an exercise in effective school teaching has caught the imagination of the whole neighbourhood.

The dedication of inspired amateurs needs to be supplemented with the best available professional knowledge. This applies particularly to the care of major medieval buildings such as the episcopal castle at Haapsalu, where there has been use of cement mortars. The problems are already recognised by some of the architectural staff involved; but they have had difficulty persuading contractors that failure to use traditional lime mortars can damage stonework irrevocably. Only recently has high quality lime again become available in Estonia and already much of the limited quantities produced is being exported to Finland.

Unfortunately, the contracts for conservation work in Tallinn were often given to Polish conservation companies, who carried out repairs to the Town Hall, to several fine merchants' houses and to the Paks Margareeta, the early sixteenth-century gateway defending the city from the harbour. Polish experience, like that of most Soviet contractors, is principally in the wholesale re-building of monuments devastated by bombing. An approach to restoration which would be appropriate in St Petersburg or Warsaw can involve a tragic and unnecessary loss of texture in a city such as Haapsalu, or Tallinn. Because so much of Estonia's finest architecture has survived intact and because its historic cities have escaped the worst excesses of redevelopment in the 1950-60s, a particularly sensitive, restrained approach is needed.

lntegrity should be the foundation of all architectural conservation. In Estonia the search for historical truth is a particularly difficult, emotive and even dangerous task. What gives grounds for hope is the increasing recognition that attempts to falsify history are self-defeating and ultimately futile. At least Estonia can now benefit from the experience of conservation organisations abroad, and may ultimately find its own solutions for the preservation of its cultural history.