When my advisor recommended I consider studying in Estonia, she showed me some pictures of the university and said, “Other than that it’s pretty grim. Lots of old Soviet block buildings and I mean it’s desolate but you can travel!”
My first impression of the country seemed to confirm what she had warned me about. On the way from the bus station to my dorm I saw a shopping mall, some construction sights, and not much else buried under the snow. The place seemed to have been hit by a winter apocalypse 20 years ago that left little to nothing of aesthetic appeal. While this first impression was partially influenced by my bad experiences with travel that day (which you can read about here if you’re curious), there was certainly an element of this presupposition that survived throughout my first few months in Tartu. It is true that Estonia was a country ravaged by its USSR days and it most certainly shows the signs of this in the landscape and architecture—cinder block apartment complexes, churches full of bullet holes, and historic buildings meticulously reconstructed to try to recreate what was lost.
But this past month what has struck me more than the shrapnel, ideological and physical, that persists in Estonia is the sense of healing in the country. Walking through the more residential parts of Tartu there is a constant juxtaposition of pre-Soviet wooden buildings, Stalin-era apartment blocks, and sleek, modern architecture. They coexist almost beautifully. And between all of them, in the abandoned lots and among the wash lines and between parked cars, wildflowers grow in incredible profusion. These stitches of nature, bringing together two sides of a wound the people seek to mend, are truly a welcome sight. And though spring means rebirth the world over, Estonia seems most truly to be embracing it. Estonians no longer feel bound to their history and we ought not presume to hold them to it either.