Estonia The Baltic Tiger

At the heart of Lesley Riddoch’s work lies a hopeful vision of Scotland’s potential as a small, independent European country. Just before the first lockdown in 2020, Lesley travelled to Estonia with filmmaker Chris Stuart to make a film about this other small, northern European country that gained its independence just 30 years ago. The result is the finely filmed and edited documentary, Estonia The Baltic Tiger. 

Opening against the picture postcard setting of a snow clad public square in the country’s capital Tallinn, a well happed up Lesley poses the question of just how a small country that had lived under the Soviet heel had managed independence. 

Across the 40 minute film, Lesley speaks to a cross section of Estonians, among them the smiling young dancers who meet annually with thousands of their fellow citizens to witness the dawn raising of national flag in Tallinn at the annual celebrations of Independence Day held on 24th February. From that happy section of youth, she goes on to interview people such as political activist Marjo Lauristin, who had been a student in the ancient University town of Tartu and  in Moscow, going on to be prominent in the movement in the ‘80s known as the Singing Revolution. A strong sense comes across of Estonia being a country of youth but one that is respectful and mindful of what went before because of other generations’ work and struggle.  

We see the 400 mile people chain of folks from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, known as the 1989 Baltic Chain, that showed to the eyes of the world their deep will for independence that ultimately created a bloodless revolution despite Soviet intervention. The film gives a strong message that although movements and demonstrations matter, what matters more, and what Estonia did, was use forward planning and preparation in the form of legislative work.  

Yet as she walks through picturesque snow covered streets, Lesley speaks of reality of grim economic conditions at start when the economic anchor of the Soviet Union had been cast adrift. As explained by Mart Laar who was the country’s young PM, they suffered inflation, unemployment and food shortages yet with patience and collective will took the adult view to take responsibility for their decision. They were truly independent.

And it looks as though that has paid off. They were willing to sweep away the old and, as the French say, répare a zéro, embracing in full the new digital age that meant colossal changes within a generation. It was brought about by former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves who recognised the opportunity in his blossoming country. Digital living is normal and embedded in every facet of life from kindergartens to the entrepreneurs who brought Skype and Bolt scooters to the world. As think tank leader Tarmo Juristo said, it’s important to “[make]the best of what you’ve got” .

In balance, TV journalist Johannes Tralla (a sometimes kilt wearing motorcyclist who hopes to have Scotland in EU “one way or another”!) acknowledges inequalities in Estonian society and the influence of continued presence of Russian citizens as well as the anomalies of the Estonian tax system. 

However, what the film shows is possibilities and the results of grabbing them. 

This small nation that has been restored to its former status as a nation state, is now a member of both NATO and the EU and has its own army as a peacekeeping force; runs a rural parliament as well as a central one with local councils. All this is done while celebrating their culture, traditions and of course singing. There are two strong messages at the end of the film.  One from Marjo Lauristin who reminds us that “the idea of national identity is nothing negative …” and the other from Mart Laar who says “…get courage…then all things will follow”.

With some atmospheric zither playing sounds background music from Duo Ruut, this beautifully made and highly significant wee film from cameramen Chris Stuart and Joseph Dunnigan includes old footage of significant events in Estonia’s history as well as pretty stunning aerial shots of town and country scenes of this inspiring wee nation.

The film’s making was generously funded by lottery millionaire Chris Weir and the Scottish Independence Foundation and premièred on line on 31st January 2021. It’s available to view on YouTube and via Lesley Riddoch’s website.

Irene Brown

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