Dan Morain

When far-off Estonia matters to U.S.

Statues of Josef Stalin and Vladimir Lenin lie on the ground behind the Estonian History Museum in Tallinn.
Statues of Josef Stalin and Vladimir Lenin lie on the ground behind the Estonian History Museum in Tallinn. dmorain@sacbee.com

At Humboldt State University, my college roommate, Jeff Levine, and I had a journalism professor who taught us the notion of Afghanistanisms. That’s a story about some far-off land that has far less relevance than the happenings at City Hall for readers of the hometown paper, or nowadays website.

As we know all too well now, obscure places on the other side of the globe affect our lives. Estonia might seem to merit little notice here. Its population is smaller than that of Sacramento County and its land mass is only slightly larger than Fresno County.

Funny how life works. But Jeff, whom I’ve known since junior high school, bummed around Europe with and was best man at my wedding, grew up to be U.S. ambassador to Estonia.

My wife, Claudia, and I spent a week recently with him and his wife, Janie, in the capital, Tallinn, and environs. Tallinn’s old town is charming. The country has plenty of beach front, lots of castles, not much crime and a busy, wired economy. The food is excellent, as is the beer.

Estonia also has the misfortune of being in a rough neighborhood; it shares a border with Russia, which has invaded Estonia many times over the centuries. The tough guy running Russia has said he could reoccupy the former Soviet state and its Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Lithuania, in little time. If that were to happen, Estonia would cease to be an Afghanistanism.

A short walk from the ambassador’s residence, behind a museum, two huge statues of Josef Stalin lie on their backs. A bust of Lenin is on a cracked pallet. Other Lenin statues and heroes of the Russian Revolution are strewn about. None of it is respectful, for a reason.

Here, we give passing thought to the old Soviet Union. There, the Soviet occupation, which ended in 1991 with what Estonians call the Singing Revolution, is real. A movie, “1944,” showing in Tallinn theaters depicts the complicated relationship the Estonians had with Nazi Germany and the Soviet Army, which routed the Nazis. It’s powerful and worth watching.

As it happened, we were there when renowned composer Arvo Part and his son Michael came to the ambassador’s residence for coffee and brownies. He played a few chords on an Estonia piano, and told the story of how in 1981 Soviet officials paid him a visit and told him to leave the country. He remained in exile for years, though now is back home. His work will be performed next May at Disney Hall in Los Angeles. I intend to make the trip.

Jeff, who got out of the newspaper business early, spent 30 years with the State Department and will be returning to California probably later this year. There’s plenty he can’t discuss. He meets with the prime minister and foreign minister, NATO and U.S. generals, high-ranking State Department officials, and spent a day last September with Barack Obama when the president stopped in Tallinn.

The president told his Estonian audience that “the defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London.” It might not have an “Ich bin ein Berliner” moment, but it wasn’t bad.

“An attack on one is an attack on all,” Obama said. “So if, in such a moment, you ever ask again, ‘who will come to help,’ you’ll know the answer – the NATO alliance, including the Armed Forces of the United States of America, ‘right here, (at) present, now.’ ”

Given Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea and his aggression in Ukraine, NATO and U.S. generals are quite public about recent military exercises, not for U.S. or even European consumption but so Putin notices.

That’s on a high level. Much of an ambassador’s work is on the ground. Rather than spend time at the Opera House, Jeff took us across town to a complex of Soviet-era high rise apartments, a largely Russian-speaking part of town and not affluent.

There, in an old auditorium, he introduced a bluegrass band from Maine, on a State Department-sponsored tour. It jammed with the best bluegrass band in Tallinn on a rendition of “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” The auditorium was nearly full for this bluegrass diplomacy.

The following day, we drove across the country to Narva, a town of 60,000 people, most of them Russian speakers who, judging from the downtown, have benefited far less from the economic surge than people in Tallinn.

On the way, Toomas Laikvee, the driver, motioned toward the coast. During the Soviet era, the beaches were closed. Why? They didn’t want people escaping. Then, the country was, he said, like a prison.

From an old castle in Narva, you can look across the Narva River to Russia. If Putin decides to cross, this is a likely spot. It’s important that the people there understand they’re not isolated.

In Narva, Jeff went to a library, where he presided over a U.S. donation of some 3-D printers, 3-D Diplomacy. As we left Narva, the 3-D printer was at work, buzzing and building a miniature Statue of Liberty. My hope is that plastic Lady Liberty will have more staying power than the grand bronzes behind the museum, thanks in some part to my college roomie.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.