Sex, Drugs, and Public Health

October 1, 2013

Estonia: The Church

Filed under: Uncategorized — cbmosher @ 4:39 am

This entry on Sex, Drugs and Public Health documents impressions of Estonia from a recent trip.


We did Tallinn for its ancient walled town, surrounded by glass high-rises and electronic gadget businesses.  Women in heels; men in suits.  Metaphoric electricity in the atmosphere, as the country erupts in creativity and capitalism from beneath the fifty years of Soviet domination. Like some spectacular mushroom overnighting on ground previously covered by a cement block. Mercedes, Volvos, and Subarus have replaced horse-drawn wagons.

But the wagons aren’t far away. Now we’re ten kilometers or so from Pärnu, a Baltic sea resort-like town, in a bird-tweeting, horse munching agricultural area where dense forests of birches straddle cleared fields that, judging by the buildings, have grown food for several hundred years. Many fewer English speakers here, and there are no clues within the Estonian language to help you decipher it. Nothing in common with Latin; nothing with German; nothing with Slavic languages, even Russian.


The commonality is, you might expect, the smiles, the pantomiming to communicate, the straightforward kindness which, for me, recalls my childhood among Polish immigrants in upstate New York.

Trippy (accidental) synopsis of the history of this country tonite.  The accumulated descendants of the Ilja family finish a day of canoeing the river, of lobstering in the sauna, of beer, local fruit wine, dinner, and vodka, by lighting candles and walking to an abandoned near-by church to remember “the dead” (AKA ancestors). Within the dark that finally arrives after 11:30, we approach the “church” and a local explains its history. One of the family members – descendant of farmers, a young woman, and now a lawyer, translates.

The rectangle of thick stone walls and often patched cement was commissioned in the mid 1800’s. The Czar himself paid for it. People came, back then, only because there was a school built nearby to educate the farmers’ children, a gift valuable enuf to them that they began attending the Occupier’s church, too.

Then, in the era of collective farms, it was converted to a different use: storing hay for the horses.

In the 1950’s (Soviet Era) it became a mill for grains and a storage for barrels.

As the Soviet dominance weakened (late 1980’s), the local people began using it to celebrate “The Birth of the Sun” every winter solstice. (Amazing how tenacious Belief Systems are, even crossing generations).

We pull open the crude wooden doors, stumbling in the dark over the earthen floor. Candlelight provides some flickering illumination. Barrels line the sides where pews would be in a western (non-Orthodox) church. “You can sit on the barrels” the translator offers. Everyone chooses to stand.


A simple stone altar is perched a couple of feet above ground level. Two steps. We place our candles on the first step, in a semi-circle. An eerie symmetry of beauty. The descendants of the Iljas, survivors of the vicissitudes of famine and bad weather, of banishment to Siberia by the Soviet overlords, of feverish scattering from the war, bombs falling on them as they ran, stand silently in the dark church/forage house/mill, watching the candles flicker and erase a hundred years of time. There are Ghosts among the survivors.


Then someone speaks a few soft words of Estonian, and begins a traditional song. Several join in.

The leader of the song read the lyrics.

On his i-phone.

So, from Russian serfdom, thru turbulent occupation, banishment, and starvation, to the invention of Skype and leadership in the digital revolution: I see the recent history of Estonia and of this family reflected in the interior of that “church.”

Other events are planned for today, but I have no idea what they are. There is no hope that I will learn this unusual language, which seems to have grown from the earth like rhubarb over the centuries. I’m at the mercy of their pantomime and their kindness.

I’m in good hands.


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