Estonia’s own Sodom, Soodoma, is in Kanepi Parish close to Otepää – the winter sports mecca. Even the name of the parish is rather unexpected – kanep means “cannabis” in Estonian. There is no sign of the wacky weed there, however, or maybe it is just well hidden away along with the parish’s 150 inhabitants.
The “heart” of Soodoma seems to be a bus stop. According to the timetable fastened onto a post, the bus runs two or three times a day. The barn behind the bus stop has some ads hanging on the walls together with an old and faded timetable of a weekly grocery bus. If you wish to send a postcard from Soodoma, you need to buy it in advance from somewhere else. You can drop it, however, in the local orange mailbox.
In the Soviet period, the island of Saaremaa was a highly militarized region accessible only with a special permit. It was, after all, the closely watched border of a Communist country. Even the Estonians who wanted to go to Saaremaa needed to show the Soviet border guards an official invitation from a local resident.
You can still find remnants of the Soviet Army’s presence all over the island. In a rectangular area formed by Sirge, Kaare and Arhiivi Streets just outside the town center of Kuressaare there are abandoned barracks, the still inhabited apartment buildings of the former officers, and other ruins. Here you can have your car washed and serviced, at the same time step in a wholesale store named Makros in the former armory or visit a former border guards’ clubhouse that now hosts a Pentecostal church.
The building of Mustamäe, a much larger district and home to nearly 65,000 people, started in the early 1960s and continued until the start of the next decade. It was planned and built according to an idea of nine smaller micro-districts, with their own shops, schools, kindergartens, and recreational services.
The buildings do not differ much from each other or from any of the other Soviet panel apartment blocks that cover one sixth of our planet. They were built fast with the help of Soviet workers and materials, and the result was… Anyway, a flat in such a building with central heating and running water was a real luxury back then. There was even a popular song, Mustamäe Valss (Mustamäe Waltz, 1971), about having such a privileged lifestyle. The song is about a young man living in his new, warm, and large apartment in Mustamäe after having shared a small, shabby penthouse with his mother-in-law. He even hopes to buy his own car, a Žiguli, one day. The song is available on YouTube, of course, under its Estonian name.
About 30 kilometers before Tartu, on the right side of the road, lies Hollywood, or at least the sign says so. The very exact replica of the original Hollywood sign appeared on the hills of Laeva Parish in the summer of 1996 out of nowhere and has drawn attention ever since. For a long time, no one knew how the letters got there. The sign had been there for about 10 years when finally Postimees, an Estonian newspaper, wrote about it. It turned out that a man named Peeter from Põlva and his three friends made the sign as an ex tempore art project using picket fences from an abandoned Soviet officers’ village in Tartu (Jaamamõisa neighborhood p. 140).
The Estonian Hollywood sign has been through a lot. Below it, in a place referred to as “the Canyon,” the restaurant and gas station owner has repaired the sign several times, as both people and weather have not always been nice to it. However, everyone in Laeva are content with the sign, erected without official permission. After all, it has become a well-known landmark and draws attention to a place that otherwise many would ignore.
A few years ago a local pop group called HU? hit the charts with their song Depressiivsed Eesti väikelinnad. They sang about depressing Estonian small towns, so small that everybody knows everybody and no one ever locks their doors at night. Places where girls become mothers at a very young age and where guys are always drunk and fight. Where all people ever dream of is a flower bed or a used BMW. Where endless consumption is not yet endless, which is actually a positive thing if you can read between the lines.
I would like to take you to these small places of Northern Estonia. Some of them aren’t even towns, but villages. Whether they are depressing or, on the contrary, refreshingly authentic is up to you to decide. In fact, I enjoyed them immensely, and best of all, along the way we will come across also some really interesting natural landmarks.
(continues in the book)