Postcard from Estonia


For a little country, Estonia really packs a wallop. Perched on the outer reaches of Europe (south of Finland; west of Russia) with a population of less than 2 million, it is never going to rock the world. But it makes up for this by being really lovely — and a surprisingly wild place to party.

After allowing for sleeping in, breakfast, and the fact that in winter daylight lasts from about 8:00 am until 4:00 pm, the daytimes are easily filled. If you are historically minded, Tallinn is a delight. Founded in the 1200s, it is not an old city by European standards, but it is beautifully intact and has a genuinely medieval feel to it. The old city walls tower over you. Narrow cobbled streets wind aimlessly between market squares and churches.

Catholic and Lutheran spires and Orthodox onion-domes provide handy reference points for those moments when being lost stops being fun. The castle and the city palaces of the aristocracy occupy the high ground of Troompea; the merchants’ mansions and their 15th century town hall dominate the Lower Town, with another wall and a gate that was locked at night to keep them from each others’ throats.

Tallin: the  old and new

And it is a surprisingly gay city. A population of 400,000 supports half a dozen gay venues, from state-of-the-art dance clubs to cafes to sex-on-premises venues (what we used to refer to as ‘fuck clubs’). I report all this not for prurient reasons (well, not just …) but to make a serious point: Estonia is joining the world in a big way. And it is doing so by quite consciously adopting the ‘creative class’ strategy associated with the work of US sociologist Richard Florida.

Florida’s argument is that the most important force in the modern economy is a group that he calls the ‘creative class’ or ‘cultural creatives’,  people who work in the knowledge rather than agricultural, manufacturing or service sectors of the economy. For Florida, people who gather and process information (broadly defined) and turn it into commodities are the powerhouses of the new economy.

These creative types — ‘artists, the young, the restless, the gays, the nerds, the bohemians’ — thrive in a world that values the three Ts: technology, talent and tolerance. Tolerance because these people don’t themselves conform to a lot of social norms, and because they work and live in environments where the out-of-the-ordinary is valued and needed.

According to Florida, cities, regions, even countries can be built or revitalised by attention to this sector of the economy, these kinds of people, these values and practices. Gay people fit into this, not because we are (contrary to one stereotype) more creative per se, but because a vibrant, visible gay community is a marker for this kind of creative, tolerant, inclusive environment.

Florida’s Big Idea is everywhere at the moment. Newcastle in New South Wales is post-industrialising itself with it. Victorian local governments have commissioned research on its application to their circumstances. If it is good enough for provincial Australia, it is good enough for Estonia, which already scores well on the indexes that Florida uses to measure creativity.

The Estonian Government itself is very keen on all this and is leading the way, especially in the use of technology. Cabinet meetings are entirely paperless and more and more material is going online so as to give the population access to information and a chance to comment prior to decision-making. Citizens can vote online in local and national elections and can change their vote as often as they like until the close of polling. And a national strategy has delivered computer training to thousands of people with the aim of having 90 per cent of the population computer literate and web-connected as a constitutional right!

This is a national, not just a government, project. Business has committed itself to matching government spending in these areas. And there were very few cafes and restaurants that I found that did not have wireless internet access — a joy for us 21st century types.

All of this is not as surprising as it might seem. People who think of Estonia as just one of the post-Soviet States are missing the point. Estonia, with its Baltic brothers, was among the first to secede from the USSR because it was already economically and socially developed and saw the rest of the country as holding it back. Estonia’s elites saw the torpedo heading for the Soviet Union before most others and had the lifeboats ready in the form of alternative models and strategies well before it hit. Issues of national identity were important, too, but this was the key to Estonia’s willingness to break away and its ability to make a go of it once it did.

There are losers, of course — middle-aged employees, retirees, the rural population, fringe ethnic groups — the usual victims of globalising economies according to The Economist. Crossing the main ring road around Tallinn brings you sharply and very quickly out of the charming and vibrant inner city to rutted roads, grey high rises and unkempt vacant blocks.

How much these sectors of the population (or ‘people’ as we might say) matter will almost certainly depend on how much noise they can make on their own behalf.

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