Estonia, an example on how post-Soviet countries can evolve (GIF included)

in geography •  8 months ago

Estonia... The country with the third most southern southern border of Europe, home to the developer of Skype and origin of the former biggest producer of ping pong paddles (according to the CEO of that factory). It is a country with beautiful nature for hikers or mountain bikers, ideal locations for urban explorers and also a country with a fascinating history. Not only did it experience influences from many countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Tsarist Russia, but the two independent periods together with the Soviet occupation left some interesting marks on the current landscape of Estonia. For my studies I went there one week and I would love to talk about what I learned there. I found it very fascinating how such drastic changes in regime (capitalism/socialism) shape both the social as the physical environment.

Brussels airport on a drizzling Monday morning.

Situation of Estonia in Europe. illustration under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license by TUBS.

Estonia before the second World War

Tsarist Russia

Estonia has been part of many empires as it lies between major countries as Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Poland and Russia. But for the last centuries it was part of the Russian Empire (1710). Many attempts have been made to integrate the country in the empire and to impose Russian power en culture. They had many reasons to do so as those western regions of the empire were most often more "western" and "modern" which made them economically fruitful. Examples of this can be seen by the palace (Kadriorg Palace) built by peter the great and a majestic orthodox cathedral (Alexander Nevsky Cathedral) in what is now the capital Tallinn.

Kadriorg Palace in Tallinn, built by Peter the Great for his second wife, Catherine I. Why don't we give gifts like that anymore? Built in 1718 and used until 1917 by the governor of guberniya of Estonia (Governorate of Estonia).

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, one of the measures to increase the influence of the Russian orthodox church in Estonia. Built between 1892 and 1912.

First republic

When the German troops withdrew after the first World War, Estonian governance retook office. The Russian Red Army then invaded the country to regain control over the country and thus marked the start of the war for Estonian independence. In 1920 the Treaty of Tarty was signed and the first republic of Estonia was founded. Of course this had economical effects as Russia was one of the biggest markets for Estonian producers. Eventually Western-European markets opened up but many factories shrank in size. Also many land reforms were implemented such as the redistribution of land amongst peasants since most of the land was owned by Baltic nobility at that time.

Estonia under the Soviet Union

in 1944 the Soviet Union invaded Estonia again (first time in 1940 but Nazi Germany took over again). Due to the overwhelming Red Army, the government did not resist and accepted the ultimatum, the Estonian republic ceased to exist. This did not mean everyone agreed with the occupation, especially when the Soviets wanted to collectivize industry and agriculture. Resistance was a fact and as a response to that, they imposed a regime of terror. In total approximately 33.000 people were deported to the infamous labor camps.

Expansion of industry

Furthermore people could not own land. Everything was collectivized and property of the state. Also industry was expanded or abandoned based on the needs of the Soviet Union and relocation of workers provided the necessary labor for new or expanding factories. A great example of this is Narva, a former mining town right on the current border with Russia.

Location of Narva in Estonia. Illustration is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license by Senzeichi.

A shale mine was located near Narva and in the 1950 the demand for oil started to increase. Due to its good location, not far from major cities such as Saint Petersburg and Tallinn, It was chosen to expand this production in Narva. Many workers were relocated to Narva and in the late 70's they even were the world's largest producer of oil shales (The region of Narva).

Also in Narva was a textile mill that could benefit from to good and central location of the city. The Kreenholm factory, founded in 1956, employed approximately 12.000 people at most and produced almost all uniforms of the Soviet Union (centralization at its best).

Kreenholm factory in Narva. These were not even all the buildings, but the scale really tells something about the scale of production.

Not only did the factories expand, but the residential areas provided for the workers expanded as well. Many entirely new villages were constructed to house the employees. The picture below for example was taken in Sillamäe where they had built a secret village to house scientists working on uranium mining, including a processing facility. Not all residential areas were this prestigious and luxurious but for scientists and academics they made exceptions.

Residential area in Sillamäe housing scientists working on nuclear weapons. 

Fall of the Soviet Union and return of capitalism

Privatization of land

Since all land was collectivized and owned by the state, everything had to be privatized again. But how do you distribute land fairly under those who have rights to it? They decided to return the land, based on the ownership of land in 1946, when collectivization started. This was not always possible since new constructions were sometimes built on that land. When it was not possible to return the land to the former owners, they were compensated or given land elsewhere. This causes for difficult situations nowadays since the different ownerships within a parcel of land can limit the development of new projects. The image below is an example of this. In the middle of a central business district lies an area of land that is divided in many smaller plots with over 10 different owners. No consensus is reached on the development of this piece of land since everyone wants to maximize their gains, the land is now used as garages and parking.

Garage boxes and an open plot of land (behind the boxes) in the middle of a financial district.

Decline of industries

When the Soviet Union fell and the independence was restored, many producers again lost access to the large Russian market. This was also the case for the Kreenholm textile mill. in only 15 years the amount of workers dropped to zero and machines were exported to Asia were textile production was still booming. In less than two decades this almost two century old factory was turned into heritage. 

One of the empty production halls of Kreenholm. Nowadays used for guided tours or temporal creative initiatives.

This is not the only case of declined production, also the shale mine significantly decreased in size. Also because the demand for oil shales started dropping in the mid 80s. Many workers lost their job and the entire border region with Russia now consist mainly out of Russian-speaking people and a lack of jobs. In Narva less than 10% is ethnically Estonian. This of course causes some interesting questions and problems for the Narva municipality to solve. The shale extraction is still active but only for national use. over 90% of the Energy in Estonia is produced here with oil shale.

Another example that was visited was a ping pong paddle producer. One that was founded in the Soviet times and produced all paddles for the entire Soviet Union. They employed over 100 people but again, after the fall of the Soviet Union, they had to reinvent theirselves. Initially they shifted to producing doors and window frames, but eventually they started to produce high-end paddles for a specialized market as they would no longer be able to compete with mass-produced paddles form lower-wage countries. Now they only employ 23 people.

Not only factories went out of use during this shift, but so did the residential areas built to house the original workers. Nowadays entire villages become abandoned which attract a lot of urban explorers. Some of the houses function as summer residences for people living in the city, while some parts are still permanently inhabited. When this is a persons only residence, it becomes very hard to leave. Buying or renting an apartment in a bigger city will cost way more that the value of their current house and leaving becomes almost impossible.

"Abandoned" house in Viivikonna. Some people still live here. Very typical of a socialist regime are the public playgrounds. People did not own a private garden so public spaces were most often well-equipped.


Many attempts have been made to develop many of these declining sites. In Kreenholm attempts have been made to construct a museum, concert hall, apartments and even stores, but often the demand and funds for projects like this are missing. The European Union is a great driver and this and has a fund aimed for developing lagging regions. This fund supported investments for attracting tourism and to increase attractiveness of the region, but whether these initiatives repay themselves is another discussion on its own.

Also in the capital new developments can be seen everywhere. This is one of the few cities in Estonia that manages to attract people and investments and serves a central hub for innovation. Entire neighborhoods are renovated, old industrial sites are upgraded and serve services for middle class inhabitants, and some neighborhoods attract hipsters and the creative class. Perhaps this phenomenon could eventually spread to other cities as well.

Creative class upgrading an old train depot right outside of the city center. Note the Sphynx cat, not for a particular reason, just because it is my favorite type of cat.


That was a quick example on how economic and political environments can shape a country such as Estonia. Just a "minor" change in what is seen as a border tremendously impacts industry and the lives of thousands. Let me know what you thought about this article, I'd love to get feedback on my writing.


All uncredited images are my own,_Tallinn

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