Tuesday 6 December 2016

Totally Baltic -- the ten coolest things to learn about Estonia

Damian Corless gives the lowdown ahead of the Euro play-off

Published 06/11/2011 | 06:00

Bob Geldof, Hothouse Flowers and a host of Irish acts were among the invited performers.

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So keen were the Estonians to have the Irish at their party that they dispatched an airliner to Dublin Airport to fly out just five stragglers. Outnumbering their passengers, the air hostesses joined us to play cards and swig vodka.

After five decades of Soviet rule, Tallinn had yet to shake off the greyness of the occupation. Rusting Russian submarines sat in the harbour. There were no neon signs, indeed no commercial signs at all. Shop windows were curtained over, so you had to enter to see what, if anything, was on sale.

The corridors of the tourist hotels were lined with stalls laid out with sundry bric-a-brac, from military medals to chocolate bars to bottles of vodka.

Estonia today is changed beyond recognition, with Tallinn a bustling modern city. Its leaders used Ireland as a role model of what a small, open economy could achieve and the country has been dubbed The Baltic Tiger.

Sensibly, they didn't follow us down the road of property bubbles and criminal lending, and Estonia today has roared far ahead of its Baltic neighbours Latvia and Lithuania.

Here are 10 factoids worth knowing ahead of the Republic's play-off tie in Tallinn next Friday.

The Singing Revolution

Under Soviet occupation since the end of WW2, the Estonians began agitating for their freedom through song. From 1987 they began congregating in vast crowds at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds (where Bob Geldof and Co would play at their first anniversary festival) for night-time singalongs. For four years they sang traditional national songs in defiance of a ban, and in 1991 won independence.

Big Stage

The vast stage at the 75,000-capacity Song Festival Grounds can hold 15,000 people. For some events the normal scheme of things is reversed and the audience sits on the stage and watches the performance in the arena.

Identity Crises

Estonia erupted in race riots as recently as 2007. In 1940, 88pc of the population was ethnic Estonian, but this has dropped to 61pc following decades of Russian immigration during the occupation. The situation is complicated by the fact that 95pc of Russian Estonians think of themselves as completely different to Russian Russians. In 1990, 63 top players petitioned the Estonian FA to only select ethnic Estonians. Those strains remain.

We're not Balts

Complicating things further, most Estonians think of themselves as a Nordic people like the Swedes, Danes and especially the Finns with whom they share a very rare language, and they tend to look down on their Baltic neighbours, the Latvians and Lithuanians. In 2003 government buildings hosted an art exhibit entitled Estonia: Nordic With A Twist.

Reaganomics

Estonia's credibility as a Nordic nation is challenged by its refusal to have anything to do with welfare-state pampering. More even than the Celtic Tiger, its leaders took their cue from the free-market philosophy of Ronald Reagan's pet economist Milton Friedman. A rare exception to the rule is that one parent of every new child gets 18 months' leave on full salary.

Soviet Hangover

During the Soviet occupation, dissent was kept in check by a secret army of spies and informers, and democracy hasn't entirely swept away old habits. The government fell in 1995 when the first post-independence prime minister was caught tapping the phone of the second PM. In 2009, Estonia's ex-chief of police was convicted of treason for slipping NATO secrets to Moscow.

Big Swinging

Invented by an Estonian in 1996, Kiiking (swinging) is a popular sport which involves trying to swing 360 degrees on a supersized version of a child's garden swing. The swinger's feet are strapped to the base, the ropes are replaced by thick telescopic arms, and it's all very silly.

Lord of The Rings

The Estonians and Finns share a very unusual tongue completely unlike the main European languages and closely related to Hungarian far to the south. The epic poem of their language is the Kalevala from which JRR Tolkien borrowed heavily for The Lord Of The Rings.

Beyond Belief

Estonia is the second least religious country in the world, with only 16pc surveyed in 2005 professing a belief in any God. Only China, with 7pc believers, is more secular. Some authorities argue that the Estonians abandoned religion 200 years ago because their German occupiers were so fond of it.

Estonian Football

Football was introduced to Estonia by English sailors at the start of the 20th Century, but because of Russian occupation the national team didn't get to play its first international until 1920 during a brief period of post-WW1 independence. It wasn't a happy occasion. They lost 6-0 to Finland in Helsinki. One excuse they had was that it was the first time any of them had played on grass.

Just as Estonians boycotted religion in protest at German rule, they shunned football because the Russians liked it. For decades, Estonia was the only Soviet state that didn't send a team to play in the USSR league.

Back in love with The Beautiful Game, delighted Estonians have described their qualification for the play-off against Ireland as their annus mirabilis, or year of miracles.

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