Estonia's post Soviet-scientists move town

Article published on March 20, 2007
community published
Article published on March 20, 2007

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Two scientists who migrated from post-Soviet Estonia in the nineties chart the struggles they faced along the way

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the end of travel restrictions with it, Estonia suffered a brain-drain similar to other countries in the former Soviet block. A European Commission-funded study by Centre for the Study of Democracy from a decade ago lists that between 1985-1993, Estonia's science personnel shrinked to 34,6% during the transition years. 13,8% of this percentage moved abroad, with scientists heading to the US (20,9%), Scandinavia (45%) and Germany (12,8%). We talk to two scientists who moved from Estonia to the latter two European states in the nineties - what triggered their departures, and what challenges did they face along the way?

Tartu to Tallinn to Sweden: Saving brains for better times

Physicist Tõnu Pullerits (Photo: KK)Physicist Tõnu Pullerits, 44, cites one main reason for why he left post-Soviet Estonia to pursue his career in Europe in 1992. The opportunity to work in a well-organised Swedish technical university, which he first visited in the late eighties, was far more appealing than the clunky, former Soviet-ruled science system prevailing in Estonia.

'In my work I had to read a lot, but to access journals I had to travel to Tartu (Estonia's second largest city), which is some 200 kilometres to Tallinn,' says Pullerits. Getting permission to make copies of scientific material was an even bigger challenge in Soviet Estonia.

'You needed the go-ahead from the head of department first to be able to get a copy of an article. On top of that, you weren't allowed to use the photocopy machine yourself. There was a special person authorised for that, plus a ridiculously small monthly limit for copying. The photocopying room was also locked and sealed during the holidays,' remembers Pullerits, stretching his memory to conditions 20 years back.

When he first crossed the Baltic sea to visit Sweden in early 1989, the state took their precuations. In order to 'save' the 'Soviet scientist' from potential capitalist brainwash, Pullerits had to meet a KGB (Soviet secret police) officer ahead of the trip. 'I was invited to the office of a young guy I had never met before. When we were alone, he advised me that Sweden was a friendly country. There were no problems with my trip, but I had to remember how many Americans there were there. I left the office, being told that if I noticed anything suspicious, my getting in touch on my return to Estonia would be appreciated.'

Pullerits did not dare to argue with the officer. He merely expressed his doubts over the possibility of meeting anyone suspicious. 'I didn't walk out of that room back then because I was afraid that it would destroy my trip. Looking back, I am a bit ashamed of not doing that,' regrets the physicist, realising it was his only KGB experience.

Estonia celebrated independence on August 20, 1991, but Pullerits had already decided to leave. With his wife and two small kids in tow, the then 29-year-old Pullerits finally moved to Sweden in May 1992 to complete his post-doctoral studies. 'The plan was really not to stay longer than two years. But the research went well, so I managed to get the Swedish Research Council's grant. That added four more years,' reveals Pullerits. 'As the newly independent Estonia had more vital things to worry about than science, I really thought that we would just escape until things got back to 'normal' back home.' The scientist agrees that he is a typical example of East European brain-drain. Today he is an associate professor in chemical physics at Lund University in southernmost Sweden. Pullerits is optimistic about the future, and has not ruled out the possibility of returning to Estonia one day.

Estonia to Germany: family-triggered

Student scientist Marina Panfilova (Photo: KK)Marina Panfilova is a 26-year-old PhD student in physics at Paderborn University in western Germany. She left Estonia in 1999, five years before it was to join the European Union and NATO.

She was only 18 when she decided to follow in her parents' footsteps. The German government had just granted ethnic Jews from the former Soviet Union the right to emigrate to Germany. 'I planned to live there with my parents for a while, learn the language, but then return to Estonia and to my friends, remembers Marina. 'But after travelling Germany and visiting a couple of its universities, I ended up staying and studying for my physics degree.'

Marina's greatest challenge, she claims, was finding a way of taking her dog with her. 'I didn't have my own car. The only alternative transport route for passengers with pets was via aeroplane. So I had to get a dog-passport, visit numerous veterinarians, buy a dog-cage, sleeping pills and a full-price flight-ticket for my pet. It cost me a great deal more than I was initially prepared to pay.' What is more, no one ended up checking her dog's documents at the border control in Germany.

However, Marina did have to grapple with studying physics in German. 'I had to translate every second word in the exercises to understand what was going on,' remembers Marina of her early days at Paderborn University. 'It took me hours. In seminars it was often apparent that I still hadn't grasped the true meaning of things.' But, after having received a distinction in her Masters, she is currently soldiering on with her PhD, and was lucky enough to get a departmental scholarship for her research.