Stephen Travels

And he's ready to take you with him.

Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom (Tallinn, Estonia)

Who was worse—the Nazis or the Soviets? For most of us, it’s a tricky question, having never been in both, or either, situation. But for millions of people in Eastern Europe, currently seeing the worst conflict on the continent in nearly a century, now that the clearly deranged bully Vladimir Putin is employing arrant Soviet-style tactics in Ukraine, trying to “de-Nazify” the country, the question has resurfaced.

Phone Booth, Museum of Occupations, Tallinn, Estonia

Glass walls convey an openness that Estonia didn’t see for half a century in the 1900s.

One country that can answer it better than most is little Estonia. With a population of fewer than 1.5 million and a geographical area that ranks it #29 in size in Europe, Estonia faced onslaughts from its two bigger, stronger neighbors—Germany and the Soviet Union—in the 1900s. It started in 1940, when the Soviet Union occupied the country and, only a few months later, annexed it, ushering in an oppressive regime that led to arrests and executions of high-ranking civil and military officials, industrialists, and the intelligentsia as well as widespread deportations. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Estonians originally hoped the Germans would restore their independence, but they soon found themselves in an equally awful position—the Nazis took over, disbanded the provisional government, subjugated the economy to its military demands, set up forced labor camps, enforced political suppression, instituted a forced conscription into the army, and murdered thousands. Their plan was to colonize Estonia with Germanic people, and to deport and exile “undesirable elements”—50 percent of the population. The Soviets returned in 1944, eventually forcing the Nazis out. Through it all, thousands of Estonians fled to Finland and Sweden, some never to return home. Between deaths, deportations, and evacuations, Estonia lost one quarter of its population. Bombings and a scorched-earth policy left the land decimated.

Once World War II ended, Estonia was folded into the Soviet Union, which began a process of Russification—deliberately settling hundreds of thousands of Russians in Estonia, threatening to make Estonians a minority in their own land. Heavy industry was introduced, causing massive environmental damage and deleterious health problems; living standards plummeted; war memorials were demolished; and heavily militarization included the restriction of Estonians from their own islands and coasts. Estonia remained a Soviet Socialist Republic state until achieving its independence in 1991.

At the Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom in the capital Tallinn, I tried to gauge for myself who was worse, to even begin to try to understand what life was like under occupation, and to remind myself of the freedoms I enjoy on a daily basis.

Poster, Phone Booth, Museum of Occupations, Tallinn, Estonia

Allied propaganda posters couldn’t have anticipated what Estonians would endure once Hitler was defeated.

Located just outside the city walls of Old Town, across the street from St. Charles’s Church, one of the most beautiful churches in Tallinn, the museum opened in 2003. It was the first building erected in newly independent Estonia specifically to house a museum. I passed through a small birch grove, commemorating those lost to the occupations’ crimes against humanity, to reach the museum entrance. The building’s glass walls allow shadows from the trees to filter inside and provide a sense of freedom and transparency completely lacking during the occupations.

To address those 50 years of hellacious occupation, the museum has assembled a collection of nearly 40,000 objects that focus on four main areas: occupation, resistance, restoration, and freedom. Thousands of people have donated items to and shared their stories with the museum. Combined, it’s a moving tribute to the bravery and resilience of both those who survived and those who did not as well as a reminder and warning of the ramifications of what happens when an aggressor state acts.

Letters, diaries, and other documents—including those by Estonians imprisoned in horrific Siberian gulags or stuck in prison camps—describe an unimaginable, stifling life during a time of repression and fear. Photographs of everything from ruined cities to the hopeless faces of ordinary citizens are bound to unsettle you.

Throughout the museum, I was fascinated by the relics that were used to suppress the populace. For instance, an electronic device employed by the KGB in the 1970s was able to use steam to open envelopes and packages that were sent to, or received from, a foreign country. Everything was read and searched before being forwarded to the intended recipient—“unnecessary” parts of letters were cut or blackened; high-value contents of packages (like coffee or cigars) were confiscated.

Formidable Soviet prison doors of heavy metal hint at the hell that awaited anyone who would soon find himself on the opposite side. A book split in half by an ax reflects a ban on literature. Typewriters, considered dangerous by the KGB, were cataloged by serial number, and a printing sample was taken from each machine; buyers were registered. This made it simple for the Soviets to identify, and punish, anyone who copied forbidden literature or wrote subversive missives; the only way to communicate or to disseminate alternative information became handwritten notes.

Prison door, Phone Booth, Museum of Occupations, Tallinn, Estonia

Soviet prison doors were the entry to torture and hopelessness.

Long videos, up to 30 minutes, led me decade by decade through the country’s darkest era. Seated and with headphones on, I watched distressing, depressing images and listened to personal narratives of victims and perpetrators and accomplices, of freedom fighters and rebels and collaborators—all individuals faced with ideological and often fatal choices. It ends with hope and the rewards of a long and just struggle, when the Singing Revolution restored independence to this nation after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I came away with a list of staggering numbers: During the Soviets’ first occupation, 11,000 people were deported to Siberia, where more than 50 percent of them perished. Thirty-four thousand Estonians were pressed into the Red Army; two-thirds of them did not survive. Under the Nazis, Estonia’s remaining 1,000 Jews were expunged, approximately 1,000 Estonian Roma were executed or enslaved, 15,000 people were imprisoned, 6,500 were executed for political reasons, and 70,000 were forced to fight with the Nazis. As part of the communist USSR, 33,000 people were deported, 44,500 were imprisoned, 2,100 were executed for political reasons, and more than 70,000 fled the country.

So: Who was worse? This museum concludes that they were both rotten and depraved, and that nothing good can happen when tyrants and thugs tyrannize another nation—the conquered suffer untold calamities, and the odious belligerents inevitably fail, just like Nazi Germany and the USSR. Let’s hope that this lesson is always at the forefront of every country’s policies, and that it serves as a reminder that those that violate it will endure the consequences of their own turpitude.

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