Text by Oomen
Tallinn (pop 400,000), the capital of Estonia, is a city by the sea, and it is from the sea that one gets the most spectacular view of the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Old Town with its tall towers and the rock of Toompea rising above the rest of the city.
According to the Estonian national epic Kalevipoeg, Toompea is the grave mound of an ancient Estonian king, Kalev, built of rocks his widow Linda carried to the site in her apron. The grave was nearly complete when a large rock dropped from her apron. Linda sat down on the large rock and burst into tears. Lake Ülemiste, situated on the limestone plateau high above the city directly opposite the present airport, was born of her tears and Linda’s Rock can still be seen standing in it near the water’s edge.
There are no records to tell us when exactly a stronghold was built on Toompea, but a settlement sprang up on the banks of the now underground Härjapea River in the present Keldrimäe area as early as 3,500 years ago. Tallinn became a harbour and a stronghold was built on Toompea to give protection to it. There are few reliable reports of those distant times. It was only in 1219 that a chronicler wrote how the Danes headed by King Valdemar II conquered Tallinn, then called perhaps Lindanise or Kalevan – Lindanäs or Kolyvan, as it has been named respectively in Scandinavian and Russian chronicles.
Legend has it that the Danes won their battle with the Estonians thanks to a flag with the shape of a cross that fell down from heavens during the battle. The Danes have it for their national flag to this day. In 1230, two hundred merchants of German birth arrived in Tallinn from Visby, and from then on a town started to spring up at Toompea’s foot. Under Danish rule in 1248, Tallinn (Danish town), or Reval, as it was better known at the time, adopted the Lübeck charter; churches, monasteries, guilds and schools were established. A century later, in 1343, Denmark sold its Estonian possessions to the Teutonic Order. In the second half of the 14th century the city was admitted to the Hanseatic League. The wealth of the town grew thanks to Hanseatic trade, its towers were built taller and its walls thicker. By the late 1530s the city achieved the peak of its medieval might and the building of earthworks around it began.
Although in the Livonian War Russian forces besieged Tallinn for thirty weeks in 1570–71 and seven weeks in 1577, the city never surrendered. Yet power changed hands both in Tallinn as well as in the whole of Estonia. Soon after the beginning of the Livonian War, in 1561, the City Council of Tallinn swore allegiance to the King of Sweden, and in the Northern War to the Russian Tsar, keeping all its earlier privileges. The German mind and the German spirit ruled Tallinn and extended its might throughout the provinces of Estland, Liefland and Courland (the present-day Estonia and Latvia), gradually waning in the Republic of Estonia only in the first half of the 20th century.
At first the indigenous Estonians attempted to put up a resistance to the invaders, but then adapted to the circumstances. Living for centuries side by side with a higher European culture, they gradually adopted it while still maintaining their own language and customs. The Estonians, who had earlier called themselves the people of the land, began to sense an embryonic nationhood by the mid-19th century. In the early 20th century, perhaps in counterbalance to the authorities’ Russification policies, ideas of autonomy within the Russian empire were expressed, timidly at first. But in the course of the Russian Revolution, taking advantage of the favourable political situation, Estonia proclaimed itself an independent democratic republic on 24 February 1918. The people defended their young country in a War of Independence against Bolshevik Russia and the Baltic-German army of the Landeswehr.
Tallinn, too, witnessed impetuous development in the second half of the 19th century. It was then that the embankments were levelled out and the city ventured beyond its perimeter wall. Rapid industrial development set in and the suburbs extended at a fast pace. After the War of Independence Tallinn became the capital of the young nation-state. Following a difficult beginning, Tallinn by the 1930s grew into a European city complete with a modern appearance.
But the republic could only last for two decades. In 1940 it was occupied and later annexed by the Soviet Union. During World War II Estonia spent three years (1941–44) under Nazi occupation, with Soviet rule restored after the war. The authorities then launched intensive industrial development and the population figures skyrocketed as a result of large numbers of immigrants from the Soviet Union. Mass standardised residential building started, and the housing estates of Mustamäe, Õismäe and Lasnamäe sprang up. By 1987 the people’s desire for freedom became increasingly clear, growing into a powerful popular movement that culminated in the restoration of independence in 1991.
Like all of Estonia, Tallinn has seen many difficult times during its centuries-long history – there have been wars, famine, epidemics, occupations, acts of deportation. Yet these trials have not managed to break the spirit of the people. Rather, they have strengthened it. Through their many ups and downs, Estonians have acquired their innermost characteristics – tenacity, conservatism, as well as adaptability and the acceptance of novelty.
Much has been built in Tallinn in the past few years. Several high-rises have sprung up in the centre, and shopping malls and supermarkets are sprinkled here and there throughout the city. Housing estates are going up in vacant lots.
Everyone in Tallinn knows the legend of a grey old man residing in Lake Ülemiste. Disturbed by the building of a town close to his abode, he rises from the lake one dark night every autumn, descends to the town gates and asks, “Is the town complete now, or is there anything still to be built in it?” Everyone knows that there can be no two answers to the question, because if anyone should accidentally tell him that there is no longer any building to be done in the town, the grey old man will set the waters of the lake loose and drown the whole town together with its people.
Please read more in book "Tallinn - the limestone coast capital", issued by Oomen. Available in bookstores in 10 different languages.