I meet Hasso Krull, the iconic poet of new Estonia, at the back of a small chocolate shop tucked away at the end of a veritably Parisian walkway in Tallinn’s old town. At 43, he can already boast of being among the few intellectuals who have followed the transformation of this tiny Baltic republic after the 1991 independence from the Soviet Union. As a writer he is studied across the world, and his work is performed by local artists like the eclectic Mirjam Tally. In his hallmark versatility Krull juxtaposes poetry with photography or jazz music.
'EU - question of survival'
It is probably also thanks to the bizarre atmosphere of this bar – with its velvet cushions and myriad candles – that we are soon touching on all possible aspects of life in a country which is getting used to life as a member of the sprawling European family.
'We were fast at changing and even faster at destroying all that went before,' says Krull. 'But it probably wasn’t the best way to dismantle everything that the Soviet leadership had created. With hindsight, I don’t think we reflected enough on the significance of the reforms we were running into headlong.'
And the symbol of this change is the European Union, which in 2004 welcomed Estonia as a member state. 'I always liked the idea of the EU. Having to live side by side with Russia, Europe becomes a question of survival. But the bureaucracy of the Brussels institutions is a real problem.' As if Estonians had not already lived through enough heavy bureaucracy in the past. 'In other countries these European directives' – he says this rolling his eyes in disbelief as if he could see them piled up all around – 'are discussed and often adapted to local realities. Not in Estonia. Here everything is simply applied to the last detail. How can you tell a rural family, with one cow in the yard, that they can no longer use the milk because someone in Brussels has decided that it’s not alright to do so?' According to a Eurobarometer poll, 56% of Estonians declare themselves in favour of EU membership. Less than in Poland, but more than in Italy.
No concessions to Russian 'fascism'
The more cups of tea we empty, and the more they warm us up on this biting autumn afternoon in Tallinn, the closer I feel to being able to broach that most delicate of subjects – the relationship with Russia and with the Russian-speaking minority, which is around 26% of the population. All at once, without even the darkening of expressions, the atmosphere becomes heavier and more serious.
It is probably my fault, since I just cannot resist asking why Russian should not become the second official language. 'Impossible,' is Krull’s reply. 'It is a question of domestic security – if we offered Russians the option of just speaking their own language, they would never learn Estonian.' And by default, neither would they ever fully recognise the emancipation of a country which has chosen never to revert to being a conquered territory and just a holiday destination. 'But not only that. Such a step would give the wrong idea of Estonia trying to cosy back up to Russia, as if we were reconsidering our independence from a country where a new fascism is now developing.'
Krull – the meek and timid poet – indeed uses the word 'fascism.’ 'In Russia everything now passes through the hands of the Putin family, and the Parliament is nothing but the futile remains of a beautiful dream of democracy.' It is just when the atmosphere begins to feel almost red hot, that the last cup of tea and the chimes of the clock put out the fire before it has really started. It is time to leave this ephemeral refuge and return to the freezing cold which for days has gripped the new frontier of old Europe – which for a Sardinian like the undersigned, is hard to bear. 'But it’s not as bad as previous years!' consoles Krull.