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New Europe

Day Eighty-five: Tallinn

Concrete suitcases of Viinistu 
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The concrete suitcases of Viinistu remind us of those who had to flee Estonia in the Second World War, including the man whose money created this arts complex.
Michael Palin - New EuropeSun shining strong and unhampered. With the ferries arriving from Sweden and Finland by the hour rather than by the day, as they did when the country was part of the USSR, the picturesque streets are filling up and all seats are taken at the cafés that surround the wide, traffic-free, and now totally wi-fi Raekoja Plats (Town Hall Square).

A good day to get out of town. We turn north, off the main road to Russia, and wind through gentle coastal scenery to a small village called Viinistu. The sea takes the edge off the heat of the day, and having passed a cluster of weatherboarded houses with flowers spilling over their wooden fences we come across a sight that brings us up with a jolt. In a wide concrete yard, running down to a small harbour, is a collection of suitcases, all apparently identical and all, like the yard itself, made of concrete.

They're part of an art collection gathered together by Jaan Manitski, a man of exactly my own age, trim, bespectacled and crisply turned out in chinos and an open-necked shirt. For him the concrete suitcases mean a great deal. In 1944 the occupying Germans retreated from Estonia and the Soviet army began to move in.

'Many, many Estonians left,' explains Manitski, and he gestures out to sea.

'From this coastline here many small fishing boats left to Finland or Sweden and most people could only bring with them a suitcase, and when the small boat was crowded they even had to leave that on the shore here.'

Jaan's family, who had lived in Viinistu for as long as any of them could remember, was among those who went into exile. His travels led him eventually to Sweden, where he prospered, becoming business manger for Sweden's best-known export, Abba. He was successful and respected but one thing was missing.

'Even if I lived abroad in different countries for forty, fifty years, I was still in my heart an Estonian.'

In 1989, just before Gorbachev's reforms sent the old Soviet system into meltdown, he came back to his homeland and to Viinistu. He tried his hand at various things that took his fancy, including growing mushrooms, before being persuaded to take a more serious role, spearheading his newly independent country's transition to a free-market economy. He was even prevailed upon to take the job of Foreign Minister, an office he vacated after a year, causing extreme bureaucratic consternation by not bothering to claim his last month's salary. Since then he has concentrated his energy and abilities on his birthplace, buying up a defunct local fish-processing plant and transforming Viinistu into one of the most vital and lively art centres in the Baltics. The fish factory has been sympathetically transformed into galleries, restaurants, a conference centre, an auditorium and a hotel. As we speak, diggers are at work constructing a wall for a new marina.

We walk down to the water, clambering over a rocky beach. Jaan wants to show me what they call here the Baby Stone. It's a huge, black, seaweed-stained rock which, according to local tradition, is where babies come from, Viinistu's equivalent of the stork. During the years of Soviet occupation the coastline was off-limits to bathers and fishermen alike, a sealed-off military area with wire fences and searchlights.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Eighty-five: Tallinn
  • Country/sea: Estonia
  • Place: Viinistu
  • Book page no: 202

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