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Picturesque: Tallinn’s Old Town
Rachel Lewis/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images
Picturesque: Tallinn’s Old Town

Semi-liberated capitals

Cities | Residents in three former Soviet cities are moving meter-by-meter forward (and sometimes back)

Issue: "The new urban frontier," March 9, 2013

EASTERN EUROPE—Cities are faith-based enterprises. Those of us who live in urban areas survive and sometimes thrive because all kinds of people we may rarely meet—firefighters and technicians, sewer workers and doctors, managers and entrepreneurs—are doing their jobs. In a well-ordered city we expect a little corruption but mostly honesty, and when that faith in essentially fair dealing shatters, many urbanites begin living lives of quiet desperation.

What would it be like to live in cities where almost everything is corrupt, in countries where for half a century lying was essential and truth-telling virtually suicidal? That was the plight of Estonians and Lithuanians from 1941 to 1991, when the Soviet Union finally fell. For Ukrainians, Soviet rule lasted two decades longer, so the oldest generation had no memories of freedom to pass along to children and grandchildren. The recent progress in the capitals of those three countries—Tallinn, Estonia; Vilnius, Lithuania; and Kiev, Ukraine—is halting but nevertheless remarkable. 

The sweetest current story comes from Tallinn, nearly a millennium old and under Danish, Swedish, Russian, or German control during most of its existence. Estonia was independent for 22 years after World War I and has now made it to 22 once again, but architectural remnants of its diverse incarnations remain: present-day glassy corporate offices, brutal Soviet concrete apartment blocks from the recent past, and a charming Old Town (on UNESCO’s World Heritage list) with medieval buildings and cobblestone alleys.

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The good news is that Tallinn has some extraordinary entrepreneurs in their upper 20s and 30s: old enough to remember deprivation under the Soviets and food shortages in the initial years of independence, not too old to have stilled their entrepreneurial enthusiasm. For example, Urmas Järve—enrolled by his mom in computer and English languages when he was small—left school early 10 years ago, at age 17, because he was already deep into computer programming. That hasn’t hurt him because the new Estonian emphasis is on competence, not credentials.

Järve grew up in a house with a white picket fence, an apple tree in the front yard, and room to grow potatoes in back. Now he works in sales and management at a high-tech company he partially owns, has an in-town apartment, and drives a Lexus. He and his friends represent the antithesis of the lying Soviet regime: They want frank talk about problems and quick exposure of governmental inefficiency, and have no patience for either socialism or crony capitalism.

Another young Tallinn entrepreneur, Henrik Pōder, works amid curvilinear, blond wood-and-metal desks with vines and acoustic tiles overhead and beige linoleum underfoot. He worries about “government officials who have no idea what we’re talking about. The politicians should run a company and learn what it’s like to do that.”

Remembering past hardships, Estonians did not spend more when economic crisis hit five years ago: They painfully cut government spending, are now reaping the benefits in economic growth, and have become known worldwide as a flat-tax, business-friendly land of creativity and enterprise. But some also call Estonia the least religious country in the world: What will the 30-year-olds be seeking when their age has doubled and gray hairs march toward the Gulf of Finland?

Vilnius also has an Old Town designated as a World Heritage Site: It’s the largest in Eastern Europe that went virtually untouched by World War II, and its jumble of Renaissance, Baroque, and other architectural style—now with graffitied walls—is fascinating. So is its jumble of a healthcare system, which includes dingy old buildings of the University Hospital, the governmental flagship facility, and gleaming new private clinics.

The Lithuanian constitution promises free healthcare for all, but as Rūta Vainienė  of the Lithuanian Free Market Institute put it, her country’s two alternatives are, “Go private and pay again, or you bribe.” She spoke of how state-paid doctors open a drawer in their desks so patients who want medical attention can put down a wad of cash and “absentmindedly” leave the office without reclaiming it. Or, since the government determines what type of care patients can receive, “to get better medicine, cancer must be heavier, so patients say ‘please worsen my bad news.’ Doctors learn to lie.”

It’s hard to throw off a half-century of deceit. Vainienė  pointed out other negatives of Lithuania’s socialized medicine system, such as overuse by some older people and underpayment to government-issue health staffers: “It’s a big mess. The most important sector is the most messed-up. Dirty. dirty, dirty, dirty.” Three new private clinics I visited are clean, clean, clean, both physically and in transparency: They post price lists and attract visitors from Britain and other countries with national healthcare and long delays.


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