As I currently write this article, it has been 28 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Over the years, I’ve always wondered why the heck The Hoff was there. I watched this event on television from my warm and comfortable home in the USA. But it seems weird that a Bay Watch lifeguard was at some kind of German rally on my fuzzy TV. It simply didn’t make sense to the nine year old me. But hey! I was only nine at the time, so I didn’t really give it much thought.
Let me be totally honest: When I finally grew up to know any better, I realised that my high school history courses didn’t do me any justice. We didn’t much time on the history of World War I, II or even the Cold War. And, when thinking back to David Hasselhoff at the fall of the Berlin wall singing “Freedom,” I chalked it up to one of those weird moments. Like, when Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California or how Donald Trump became President of the United States. I questioned the motive but I was just a young American kid with no concrete background in world history…
I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
The Hoff. Some lifeguard who ran around on some fictional beach in California. David also drove around in a speaking and self-driving car named KITT in a popular TV show called Knight Rider… The Hoff was just a movie star. But I mean… I never really gave it much more thought – until now.
Flash forward a bunch of years: I’m on a walking tour in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. This is where my mind is totally blown.
To really break it down for you, Estonia is a country made for Alanis Morissette. Basically, everything about the history of Estonia is ironic and bleak. I don’t want to seem unkind at all. I am actually a MASSIVE fan of Estonia because it captures my heart and imagination. This is why I have the need to explain why Tallinn is incredibly important. And, yes, I’ll get back to why David Hasselhoff is in this story as well.
Let’s get started: everything that can go historically wrong in beautiful little Estonia did. From what I gathered from my tour guide Heli, Estonia flourished for many years. German noblemen lived here amongst the local Estonians for hundreds of years without much of an issue. Estonia doesn’t have many natural resources, but this little country did really well with it’s well established and incredible trade routes. Estonia was mostly known for grain and linen export and they taxed the crap out of those who used the route. For example, salt was taxed three times the normal rate and that’s why a lot of historians say that Tallinn was built on salt.
Now, this well established trade route is what made Estonia so attractive during both world wars. Estonia is caught in the middle – literally. The Germans were already established and the Soviets came to ‘liberate.’ Then, the Germans came to ‘liberate’ and that didn’t really work either. During this time, Estonia is like an only child stuck between two unruly parents during a bitter divorce. Both parents think they are doing the right thing for the kid, but neither side thought it would be a good idea to actually ask the kid what they want…
Heli’s walking tour starts at the Tallinn visitors centre. Heli, a Tallinn local, is incredibly knowledgeable and actually lived though some of Estonia’s history first hand like when Estonia actually formally became independent from the Soviets in 1991. She also shares to us the stories of ‘interesting’ times and weird things. Like, did you know that Freedom Square was renamed Victory Square and then changed back to Freedom Square?
In the far corner of Freedom/Victory/Freedom Square is a replica of a medal that is so elite, nobody has ever won. The structure is made from steel and glass and it has been said that it can survive a nuclear war! But, that doesn’t really matter if there’s a nuclear war and we’re all dead. However, it did make me think of that one scene in Planet of the Apes. Perhaps swapping the Statue of Liberty for the Estonian War of Independence of Victory Column is worth considering for the next remake.
As we walked up the hill, Heli points out where the students in Tallinn would set up their vinyl record market. Selling western music on a hill was incredibly clever for two reasons. 1. You could see the Soviet authorities coming and that gave ample time to put away the records because… 2. Authorities didn’t like to run up hills.
Selling vinyl records during the Soviet occupation was highly illegal because having anything from the western world was a big fat no. It turns out that when the students would see the Soviets coming, they’d swap out the records for stamps and coins. Could you imagine a greasy unshaven nineteen year old trying to palm off their stamp collection? The students were pretty much playing a game with the Soviets and the Soviets knew it. Basically, if the soviets confiscated the records, they’d take them for their own keeping or sell them off to their mates…
Heli also points out that back in the day, Tallinn was made up of two different cities. There was the Lower Town which was full of merchants and the Upper Town where the noblemen lived. They both worked under two entirely different sets of laws and it turns out nobody from the opposite town liked the other town’s law. Basically, in the best Donald Trump scenario… they built a wall. Also inside the wall was the Virgin’s Tower and during these medieval times, this tower was used as a jail for prostitutes. It was built in the second half of the 14th century.
Next to the Estonian Parliament is another tower with no association to prostitutes. It’s called the Tall Soldier Tower or it’s also known as Pikk Hermann. Basically, if you scale the wall and put your flag on the tower, you’re officially considered the ruler of Estonia. This actually happened. During NAZI occupation of Tallinn, a kid climbed the tower and changed it to the NAZI flag. Eventually someone noticed and removed it.
The Estonian flag that we know of today wasn’t always the tricolour. This flag is relatively new and was only adopted in 1918. Back in 1881, a bunch of students created it, raised it up on Pikk Herman and that’s how it became the new political flag of Estonia. Here’s what the colours of the flag mean: Blue: sea, rivers, lake sky; Black: earth, ground, dark times; White: freedom, wisdom, hope. The only other country with the same colour scheme of Estonia is Botswana.
As we walked around Tallinn, I noticed that there was an abundance of churches. However, Estonia isn’t really a country of religious folk. It’s actually one of the least religious countries in the world. Most of the Estonian population are atheists with only 14% of the population considering themselves religious. For the abundance of churches in Tallinn, it doesn’t really represent 14% of religious church goers. There’s even one church that was turned into an atheist museum right after World War II.
Another slight problem with some of the Tallinn churches happens to be geological. Tallinn was built on limestones and when there’s heavy rains, you know what that means! Sometimes body parts would start to stick out of the ground. Like think quite literally… there might be an arm or a leg sticking out of the ground.
Some Estonian and German nobles were buried inside the churches however the churches we also not immune to burial issues. Sometimes after a big rain or if snow would thaw, bodies could be found floating around in crypts. Toxic fumes from the decomposing bodies could kill the person trying to get the water out – and I mean this was even before really good medical care. Just imagine how many people were overcome by illness trying to fix this issue. And, if a family ran out of money and stopped paying the rent of the crypt, churches would kick the dead occupier out! They would dig up bodies and replace them by a paying person.
Now, let’s get back to the Cold War. Heli explained that the CIA gave a bunch of money to the Finland government to point all the television towers toward Estonia. Think about this… One minute, you’ve got an oppressed group of people bombarded for years with Soviet propaganda telling them that everything they have is great and they don’t need anything else in their life to function. The people don’t know any better because they cant see how the rest of the world functions and they are just going on about their lives. Then, one day TV changes. Imagine seeing Baywatch for the very first time. There’s the Hoff in all his glory running around on the beach only wearing shorts.
Western media arrived in the homes of the Estonians and they started to realise all the things that they didn’t have. For years they were told that they had everything they needed and now, David Hasselhoff is running around half naked on a beach, driving talking cars whilst eating a banana. Think about it – Estonians probably didn’t know what a banana was! Heli explained how her grandmother saw a banana for the first time and paraded it around the streets to show off her exotic new fruit.
Eventually, Estonia was bombed once again by the Soviets. After the first bombing (there was supposed to be four) Finland flew side by side with the Soviets with stolen airplanes. The Soviets didn’t know that they were infiltrated by Finland and were ultimately shot down. Estonia was saved by Finland.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, Estonia had a lot of hardship and poverty, but ultimately is a true underdog. I spent just a few days there, and I must say, the Estonians are a kind bunch. Also, being in Estonia was a great way to catch up on my European history. Growing up in America, schools don’t do the best job with teaching history, so I’m really glad that I can learn about it first hand by going to places like Estonia.
If you’re a solo female traveller, you should put Tallinn on your map. You will feel like you’re living in a medieval fantasy land, but at the same time, if you’re looking for a lesser told story of how a determined bunch of people survived some incredibly harsh conditions, this is a Tom Cruise movie waiting to happen. And, be sure to find Heli’s tour. It was the best I’ve been on in the world!
An Aussie girl gone walkabout in the great big world!