I am coming close to the end of my stay in Tartu on the Fulbright Fellowship. It has been a wonderful experience to live and work here. It has certainly reinforced my tremendous admiration for this small country – its people, the innovativeness and hard work that is being put into rebuilding this country after the Soviet times. I have thought lately of how to end this blog. I have decided to cover different topics and what I have heard in conversations with many different people, as well as reflecting on what I have seen myself, and my experiences. I will divide my thoughts over different posts. What I write is also with a perspective on the comparisons of my first experiences here in 1987 during the last period of Communist days and the present. I have not wanted to be political in my blog, but I cannot help but add some thoughts on what I view as differences between socialism and capitalism. In a way, it is a reflection also on the left-leaning path the US government has taken for years now and seemingly is determined to continue into the future. To me seeing the comparison of the end results, socialism with its strong centralized planning and restrictions is not a path worth pursuing. Empowering the individual on self-reliance is a much stronger mortar for building and maintaining the prosperity of a country.
Tallinn, the capital city, is a hustling city with glitzy new buildings and yes, high rises. As one enters the city limits from Tartu, there are several miles of new distribution centers, businesses, malls, the airport. Many of the structures look very Western, but yet to me have a more box-like European look, rather than American. On the outskirts of Tallinn suburban areas are growing with beautiful new homes. One such an
area is in Nõmme. Architecturally, the new homes look modern, but yet Estonian, often with red steep roofs, but not necessarily, as new construction materials are strong to allow flat roofs, as found on my apartment building. On the inside, homes are nicely and simply furnished with many new features, as an open kitchen area to the
dining area and living room. Many have fireplaces or wood stoves. All have saunas. It all looks comfortable and attractive. In Tartu a retired businessman’s multi-leveled home that I visited, had a nice living room and attached dining area with a kitchen with all of the latest appliances. In addition on different levels of the house there was a sun room, open in the the summer-time and with an outdoor fireplace and ability to enclose as the days become colder; a study, a separate sewing room, a
separate room for a large Jacuzzi; on another floor a sauna with its own dressing area and shower. In addition there were of course several bedrooms. This house had been solidly built in the 1930’s close to center city in a nice area of Tartu and now has been completely remodeled, inside and out, by a man who said remodeling his home was an ongoing hobby. Most of this remodeling was done in general while he was still working full-time. Now that he is semi-retired, I wonder what he will add next? He is a hard-working individual. We had several nice times with him and his wife who is a high-school teacher. Another home that I visited was approximately 10 miles from Tartu in the countryside. The owners, a University professor and his wife who is an elementary school teacher, purchased the originally small older house because of the beautiful view onto Emajõgi River. The house is built higher up on a slope and they own all the land down to the river’s edge. Slowly over the
last 10 years, they have been remodeling their small house into the present two-story home with three bedrooms, a large kitchen, dining area, a study, and living room, a large sauna with its shower and dressing area. He has recently also added a nice patio off of the sauna area for sitting and enjoying the view. Again the couple had not had any building and remodeling experience, but yet they have done it all themselves with the help of a brother, while working full-time and they have done it beautifully. Also they have paid for it by themselves without talking a loan, even with relatively small salaries in comparison to the United States and raising 5 children. No loans, no government handouts, or subsidies. It is a matter of setting priorities, being thrifty, and hard working. It is a wonderful family of 5 that is relatively a large family for Estonia. The older girls are busy with one working on her doctorate, the other entering into her last year of medical school, and the third also a university student. Two smaller ones are very musical and attend an elementary school in Tartu that has a music focus.
The houses that I describe above may be entirely new or are ones that have been remodeled from the days of Estonia’s first independence and are
in great contrast to homes that were built in the Soviet era. Most Soviet-type buildings were usually multi-family units built according to centralized plans, had walls that quickly began to crumble, and the paint of those years is either at the last peeling stage or just gone. If there are outside balconies, they look as if they are ready to fall off. During those years, the workmanship seemed shoddy with poor materials being used. The roofs need repair and replacement; windows need to be replaced with energy-saving ones. Many individuals who can now afford it are beginning to make the needed changes. External siding is replacing old wooden or crumbling cement walls, new windows and roofs are being put up. Others just do not have the means yet to do the repairs. Thus, the different areas of the cities show great contrast.
The large apartment complexes of the Soviet times seen in parts of Tallinn and to a smaller scale in Tartu and other cities are now changed mostly into condos, by that I mean that individuals own their apartments. I should add, however, not to leave a wrong impression, that rental apartments are available in all cities in privately owned buildings as in the US. After the end of the Iron Curtain period, the salaries were very small and the price of the apartments was not set too high, so people usually were able to purchase the place where they had been living. There was also some kind of remuneration that was factored into the price for the years that one had been paying the Soviet state for use of the apartment. Since those beginning years, the apartment owners have gotten together to form committees that then apply for European Union (EU) grants for loans to make necessary repairs to the buildings and to make them more energy efficient. Being made by the EU, these loans of course come with
restrictions and stipulations. The loans are paid back collectively as monthly payments divided among the apartment owners, according to the square meters they own. The loan payment is made along with the utility payments to one committee person who acts as the accountant and then makes the final monthly payment to the bank and utility companies. Usually the committees are made up of volunteers or voted-upon, energetic individuals who find the best and most economical means of doing things. They also keep strict track of the accounting. Monthly meetings maintain a transparency of what is going on and dealing with problems immediately as they arise. Prices are rising, as for example, the price of electricity is going up with the beginning of the new year, as the market was opened up with competing companies entering the market. One accountant that I met said she had meetings with several different companies and had made a 6-month contract for her building that she felt was reasonable, so their price increase was not going to be too much higher. After six months they have the ability to renegotiate.
Emphasis has also been placed on the building surroundings with now nice landscaping.
A friend lives in one of these Tallinn apartment complexes and the change since 1987 is astounding. Instead of grey drab walls on the outside, the buildings now have nice cream-colored siding with all windows replaced with energy efficient ones. All windows…and these are large apartment complexes! Outside planters have been placed by the entranceways and there is nice landscaping with a playground for children in the middle with benches for the parents. A separate small building is close to the apartments, where garbage bins are kept. Each owner has his/her own key for the garbage bin building entrance. It all looks clean, attractive, and well cared for. Just as an example of a small but practical personal touch that no government official would ever have thought of, is that at every front door at the entranceway of the building, a small hook has been placed to hang your bag(s) as you search for your key to the door. Wonderful! Who would want to place bags on the wet landing during rain or in the snow during bad winter weather? During the Soviet times, this same building looked drab, walls were cracking and stucco pieces missing, there was no landscaping of any sort, garbage bins, usually over-filled, were haphazardly placed wherever, sidewalks were cracked or missing. Rusted window frames with glass that looked as if it were ready to fall out. Corridors were dark with no lighting, because the light bulbs were continuously stolen and then never replaced. It is very much evident that with private ownership people take pride in their apartment homes and the maintenance. This has been done also in a manner to make it affordable for the owners. After all the representatives on the committees are the very same apartment owners – no absentee landlords. They have the final say on the priorities of what needs to be addressed and the price they agree to pay, and then are obligated to pay. In many ways, this is the same as our community associations in the US. This is in contrast to the times when everything was state-owned, they had no personal stake in the apartments, and nobody cared when problems arose.
The above brings to mind our government in Washington in recent years forcing banks to provide bad loans to promote home ownership to people who just could not afford the mortgage contracts they were signing. People often did not even know what they were signing onto. Did greed and power in Washington and Wall Street get in the way of logic and being reasonable? It seems it could have been handled better at the local city level, or at most state level, educating people and making contracts simpler, giving local banks more strict oversight of ability to pay and accountability. Indeed find a means and set up and fund programs to foster self-reliance. This had been the norm in our past. When did things change? I was told many a time that people here in Estonia have to be thrifty and self-reliant. There are no government handouts or food stamps. There are, however, charitable, privately-supported programs, and yes- government-supported also, to help the truly needy. I feel that Estonia seems to be handling it better.
See slideshow of houses and streets of Tartu depicting different eras, including the late 1800’s.