Passengers for Estonia
Passengers for Estonia. A baggy face, marshmallow-jowled, with crease-lines like a cartoon cat. He seems upset he's not allowed to take his souvenir 42'' TV as hand luggage. A squat, shaved head and eyes like stones, gleaming dully on some beach where pine trees meet the sea. 'Bring me back an estone from the estoney beaches of Estonia.' Sandbars, ex-Soviet submarine stations. A line of pebbles waiting to roll back towards their misty coast. Two blonde girls jimmy the vending machine, and walk away triumphantly with two crisp packets each.
The approach to Tallinn is guarded by walls of heaped and dirty snow, battlements of frozen slush, bulldozed into pebble-dashed piles and left to freeze for winter. We walk from the airport to the old town, crossing gentle motorways with bulky-coated men. Abandoned at the side of the road, a bored boy squints from a burnt-out car through starburst windscreen glass. The old town rears its spires and walls. Thick-faced Russians with sausage fingers mumble for money in cobbled squares; they greet our refusals with a kind of bafflement.
Its Own Flag
A wooden house under snow in a fringe of pines. A plate of smoked fish, sprigs of dill. 'I hope he does not frighten you,' says Toomas as the dog walks in, a face like a de-tusked walrus, snorting with delight. It's the least frightening thing I've ever seen. A silent TV shows Russian cartoons, intricate Slavic tablecloths whisked across the screen. 'In Soviet times Finnish TV was our only window to the wider world,' says Toomas over pickles and wine. The landscape dies outside the window. At night, Estonia becomes its own flag: black, white and blue.
This is the last of the frozen sea, a desert of refrozen chunks spotted with blue shadows, spreading whitely out to the horizon. Hulks of boats, abandoned cranes, an icebound submarine. Dilapidated wooden houses scattered under ice-furred trees; one red door in a green wall, facing the solid water. 'In Cold War times, the sea was off limits. You might have been trying to escape, or send someone a message.' Half a mile out, a man is walking, ink blot spreading from a fishing hole. He walks like a determined child, lugging his fish home.
The Future of the Past
We climb the steps of a vast Soviet architectural failure: monumental concrete pile hulking low against the sea, stepped like a Mayan pyramid, now half-buried in ice. This is the future of the past, the collapse of a distant civilisation on some snowbound planet. We struggle up brutalist slopes of ice, gaze down on graffitied walls emerging from snowdrifts six feet high. Glimpses through windows of abandoned halls, disused and decayed. Once party apparatchiks in hornrimmed glasses led foxcoated ladies from limousines, attending the gala performance of some Grand Concert of the People; now only twisted balcony rails and an empty helipad.
The walls of the house are grey-green, weather-bleached, in mud and snow. The high, sour smell of sheep's wool permeates every room. Fox and raccoon furs luxuriate the inside walls. 'These animals are easy to catch. I can run much faster than them, and they pretend to be dead when they're afraid.' The kitchen is all bright pine, afternoon light splashed across the table. The TV beams subtitled reruns of Heartbeat and Little House on the Prairie. The ample-fleshed and milk-fed family eat bowls of stew and honey cakes, pickled pumpkin, slabs of rye bread, blackcurrant jam and brain jelly. 'It is mostly ears. Ears and noses, but mostly ears,' says our host, pouring a glass of maple syrup and slicing a goat-meat sausage. In the barn, the herbivores roll their eyes at each other through the slats of their pens. The sheep watch the goats, the dog watches the sheep, and the cat ghosts whitely above them all like a visiting apparition. There is a feeling of earnest but mutual misunderstanding.
'Are you interested in shotguns?' he asks, exhibiting his two hunting rifles with telescopic sights, 'the same caliber NATO use,' in a child-proof safe in a secret cupboard of the house he built himself. 'I also built this amp,' he says, pumping up Guns N' Roses so loud the walls of the house are shaking and the youngest child is covering his ears with his hands and screaming, actually screaming. 'Real transistors,' he says approvingly, giving me his glass-eyed stare. He shows us the radar system he uses (three days a Border Guard, four days a farmer), a map that tracks the cargo ships moving in Estonian waters. 'Only merchant vessels shown here. Warships, you don't see.' And now a map of real-time flight paths, yellow swarms of tiny planes like flies over the Baltic. He scans Russia's emptiness balefully. 'The Russians don't show their planes. This says there are none over Russia at all. How are we meant to believe this?' Suspicion of Russia's motives runs deep. First the Tsar, then the USSR. Down the road, drab Soviet blockhouses stand alongside Estonian farms. The Russians are gone – from the island, at least – but Russia will remain.
'Are there wolves on the island?' 'At least one,' Tiit replies. We learn that it crossed the frozen sea at the beginning of winter, twenty miles of open ice. In the museum is displayed the stuffed body of a wolf that terrorised the island in the 1960s, executed for its crimes, now the stuff of legend. Back in the city, we saw a bar with a sign depicting a naked girl clinging ecstatically to a wolf's back. The name of the bar was Hell Hunt. 'Does it mean Hell Hound?' I asked, thinking of the German. 'No, it means Gentle Wolf. Hell is Gentle, Hunt is Wolf,' said Toomas, eating dumplings with wild mushroom sauce. 'Here, we have much respect for wolves.'
This morning we went to the south of the island, where frozen marshland merges into frozen sea, white mist and sky, an empty world of honking geese and snow-snagged juniper groves. This year's last wolf skulks somewhere here, peering from the boggy pines. When summer comes, it will be stranded here.
The End of the Island
He gives us directions to the end of the island: a woodhouse man with a gnome-faced squint in yellow jumper and ancient dungarees, turning the map like a steering wheel in his thick-thumbed hands.
A whippet tail of pebble beach that shakes itself off into the Baltic Sea, bound about by ice on every side. The sugary crust collapses and crunches in crystals as we reach the tip – a cairn of rocks with a fishing float flag – milky slush, frogspawned with grit, the tail end of winter.
There is nothing everywhere. Curdled expanses of not-quite colour puddled with the sky. A world of icerose, eggshell grey, mysterious streaks of amber. Like walking in a salt desert, camels stranded on the horizon in the shape of swans.
And these are the last days of the freeze. Ruptured with refrozen cracks, the ice is unzipping itself from the land. Shelving, calving, with trembling lips, musically melting underfoot. Our boots on the brink of the first yellow pool, pebble-deep, stirred by the wind, like an arrow pointing out towards open water.
The lights of Helsinki are just visible on the far side of the darkening sea. After the sauna, we eat grilled sardines behind the plate glass of the art design house, watching an ink-black band of rain driving down from Scandinavia. Kristel's great-granddad built a boat to smuggle spirits to the Swedish coast; her granddad later crossed this water to fight the Russians in the Winter War. Having fought off Russian occupation in Finland, he returned to find Russian occupation in his homeland. They sent him to Siberia for thirty-five years. Through the Cold War, this coastal region was a restricted border zone; you had to have permission to visit family and friends; the soldiers pointed guns at children swimming in the sea. Now, Kristel's father has built this house overlooking the beach where he swam as a boy. The sand has been replaced by rushes; no-one quite knows why. He spends his retirement travelling and fishing. This winter, he kept the frozen sea clean, for his granddaughter to skate on.