E-Stonia: where the free internet now flows like water

Photo: Bruce Sterling

First things first: oh, you world travelers, for pleasure or for work, never, ever fly Baltic Airlines. First they will stiff you by making you pay sixty euros to carry regular-sized hand luggage. You will note their particular eagerness to pounce on innocent non-Baltic travellers, especially haplessYankees with credit cards.

During the flight you can expect to be charged for the air you breathe, since they don't even give free water.

Finally, god forbid if something goes wrong with your flight and ticket, for Baltic Airlines will gladly maneuver you into buying a heavily-priced new one. Fleeing home via Baltic Airlines beats prison and deportation, but not by much.

Decades of Soviet occupation leave some deep cultural habits. Despite the proud independence and nationalism of the three independent Baltic republics, it hasn't been that long since 1991. It's hard to find any mishap in Estonia that isn't some blamed on Russians. If the roads are bad (and they are bad enough to burst tires), it's the Russian roads. When the coffee is lousy (the imported Italian coffee is quite good), then it's the communist coffee. If the storks are too big and dangerous, it’s because they were bred to an ungainly size by the Russians.

Photo: Bruce Sterling

I lived under Communism, but not the Soviet kind. The Estonians saw the real deal hard core of totalitarianism, the kind with mass deportations, mass shootings and mass hunger. That kind of regime doesn't leave mere "traces" in society, it leaves trenches. The Estonian nationality barely escaped being one of Europe's submerged or even extinct nations. Well before any Soviets showed up they were gleefully trampled by Swedes, Poles, Danes -- back when they were harmless pagans, they were even massacred by Christian Crusaders.

In the seventies in Rome, I once took part in a magazine called "La Citta di Riga," an Italian pun which refered to the capital of Latvia and also meant "the city of lines." This conceptualist magazine was an art project through which period artistic luminaries such as Francisco Clemente, Alighiero Boetti, Achille Bonito Oliva, Fabio Mauri, Umberto Silva, etc, wanted to change the world. Since this was the 1970s, concepts were considered more important the materialist objects or political policies. "The City of Riga" was a distant, romantic place for these Roman radicals of the Cold War days, a city carrying the flag of the globalist artsy utopia.

At the time, I was the only one in that group who came from a communist country. Most dissidents from the Soviet bloc had a keen understanding of the conceptual differences between alternative culture and the rigorous strictures of their daily lives. But I had my ticket back to Belgrade, the non-aligned way station that was half Moscow yet half Paris. I, too, could treat Riga as a mythical city of drawn lines, instead of a grim urban kolkoz where unruly ethnic populations were mixed, matched and eliminated at the whim of Stalin.

Photo: Bruce Sterling

Our Estonian literary festival in Tartu was full of stories, often stories where Siberia loomed as large as Siberia actually is. It seemed that most every family had lost relatives to Siberian exile: a parent, a grandparent.

A woman poet vividly explained how, during her childhood, her mother was deported. After years of absence a stranger returned: she had no teeth nor hair, but only wrinkles and bones. Our poet said: this is not my mom, my mom was a pretty woman! Until this day she writes patriotic poetry, due to that sense of horror and guilt towards her mother and her country.

At the same festival, a dissident Russian historian passionately described how Russians fail to deal with their impossible past, much preferring to hide the darkness under the carpet.

In Russia, history is an instrument of power, rather like Russian courts where there is no presumption of innocence, so only the guilty show up. When it comes to historical crimes like the Estonian deportations, however, nobody was there, nobody is guilty, nobody is responsible and nobody remembers.

However, this convenient denial and falsification is a poor counsel for peoples who still have to live together in the world, and who tend to repeat the mistakes of their parents.

This story is obviously well known in both the Baltics and the Balkans. It's distressing to hear that some story told in a small, Finno-Ugric language, yet on such a colossal scale. It's especially painful when told in the clear words of the victims, rather than the rambling evasions of the perpetrators.

The Prima Vista Tartu literary festival is keen on the appreciation of words. Words are cherished, and the event was held within the handsome library of the famous university of Tartu.

E-Stonia, the country where Skype was invented, has free internet everywhere. Obsessed as I am with wifi, I checked it obsessively, and I always found that connectivity flowed like water.

What a contrast to benighted nations like Italy and Britain, where free Internet is associated with terror and fraud for the benefit of rapacious and conniving phone companies.

In E-Stonia, the dark prospect of an Internet takeover by global copyright lords brought the population into the streets.

"Respect existence or expect resistance," say these shy and softspoken people, who know what human rights abuse looks like, no matter what mask it wears or what shape it takes.

Someday even the cruel dictatorship of Baltic airlines will be relegated to the ash-heap of history. Occupy Air Baltic, and give a free return ticket to all!

Photo: Bruce Sterling


  1. much more interesting and varied article than the headline might suggest!  I’m curious how Ms. Tesanovic finds the prospect of our “socialism” in the US, and other nations, and how they compare and contrast to the communism in the late USSR.

  2. I went to Estonia about a year and a half ago for the ski marathon in Tartu and had a great time. People were friendly and everything is super affordable. You can obviously tell it’s a very young country. I flew Estonian air from Amsterdam and had no issues at all. The only thing I noticed was that the bars in Tallinn can be a little sketchy depending upon where you go.

    1. “You can obviously tell it’s a very young country” Estonia is far from being a very young country, they were independent country that was  invaded by the Russians and subjugated by the USSR. They were an occupied country, always resistant. They were one of several countries that won their freedom with little to no violence. 

  3. A company I was working for is based in Estonia, and I got to spend a week there, both in the capital (Tallinn)  and down in Tartu.  I found Tartu much more low-key, less ‘westernized’, and all in all, pleasant as heck.  Estonia is a great example of what happens when a country does things without all the viciousness and pettyness so prevalent in western cultures.  They have had a long history of abuse and oppression.  Now with their independence, they’re focusing on the important things in life.  Family, peace, intellect, and cooperation.

    1.  It’s been recommended to me by a good friend who travels a lot. I’ma try and get there next year, when my finances are (hopefully) better.

  4. I would say Estonian culture has probably been one of the things that kept them strong during the Soviet era, that and they are a stubborn and patient people. They kept traditions alive, sang in their own  language. I totally recommend the the documentary The Singing Revolution. It’s about the how Estonians used song/music as an instrument of civil disobedience. 

    As for Estonians’ distaste for Russians, I can remember my Great Grandmother (expat Estonian) and Grandmother (1st gen) both always saying –  “such nice people. but they’re Russian, you cant trust them,” even when they were talking about neighbors. Not sure if the Russians will win the trust of many Estonians ever. 

    1. I haven’t lived in Estonia, but I did live for a while in another post-Soviet state (Czech Republic), and in Russia for a while (incidentally, apparently I speak Russian with an Estonian accent), and that ‘distaste’ seems pretty widespread. Czechs, when talking about Russians basically either regarded them as untrustworthy former despots or (more prevalent with Czech Rep. becoming an increasingly popular tourist/business destination for Russians) obnoxious, rich self-important blowhards on par with the most egregious of American tourists (and bearing a similar sense of patriotism and my-way-or-the-highway obliviousness).

      On a visit to Karlovy Vary, I noticed that a multi-lingual sign posted, which read “ring bell for assistance” specified in its Russian sign “ring bell once for assistance.” Which gave me a chuckle, and kind of encapsulated the Czech expectations/mentality w/r/t Russian visitors.

      In person, I have to say, I knew a lot of perfectly lovely Russians. But the country and culture certainly has its problems (and while it obviously perpetrated the crimes of the Soviet system, it was also a primary victim of those crimes and bears many of the institutional, structural, and cultural scars that Estonia is described as having in this write-up).

    2. Every comment in this thread that mentions the Russians has been flagged.  THANKS PUTIN!

  5. My wife (Polish) and I (ex-pat US) have visited 18 countries in Europe including Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia… Not to mention extensive travels through Poland.

    From my experience, Latvia’s roads are the worst. Some roads in Estonia are superb while others are mediocre (potholed, heavily patch worked, etc). However, the drivers are actually fairly respectful of things like speed limits and no-passing zones (unlike Poland).

  6. Tallinn is near the top of my Favourite Cities List. Such a wondeful mix of historic and modern. Except in spring. Beautiful of course but there is at least one pollinating plant there that hates me above all others.

  7. Aitäh for the article, I’ll be printing it out for my less than tech-savvy, but still very patriotic grandma! 
    If it helps and if you go back, whenever my folks go back over, they always try to take Finnair.

    Also, if you’ve an interest in a pretty well done documentary on Estonia and soviet rule, check out ‘The Singing Revolution’. 

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