The year was 1991 and I was 8 years old. Young enough not to understand the political context, but old enough to remember what it was like to live through these days of turmoil. August 20, the day of Restoration of Independence in Estonia, was just like any other summer day for me. I played with my friends, and enjoyed the last days of summer, at the same time getting ready for another school year. Third grade was waiting for me, and I was excited.
Then again, that one day itself, though politically significant, was just one day among many, and the true restoration of independence took many years before and after that culmination. So what did it feel like for a child to experience these days and years of major historical change? To be completely honest, they felt quite normal, though when looking back and assessing these memories through my current knowledge and experiences they were anything but. Children however have a talent of taking life as it is, a talent I admire tremendously in my adulthood.
But getting back to the time when great changes were weaved into the fabric of history, I will attempt to give you a glimpse of my personal memories and experiences, history through the eyes of one individual not yet fully aware of the big wide world.
The first thing that I remembered when thinking back was that shops were mostly empty. Like, literally. Empty, dusty shelves like from a movie depicting a time after apocalypse. If you knew someone who knew someone you got some things. Otherwise, you had to depend on luck and luck favored very few people indeed. I went with my mom to stand in the bread queue (this stand-in-the-line mentality was the thing in 1991 and applied to everything, especially the daily food items like bread, milk, sugar, flour etc) – the queue snaked out of our grocery store for the length of the entire shop, crossed the street and continued to the bus station, well over 50 m long, often more. It took long, and I mean LONG, to stand in that line. Sometimes it took us half a day to get the food items that we were able to get. From one shop. Down the street from our home, about 5 minutes walk away. But getting back to the bread queue, at the end of that line you received bread, for ration stamps of course. To name it bread was of course gross overstatement. What you did get was a doughy loaf that had been hurriedly baked and then hot loaves had been stacked one upon the other, causing them all to flatten to a couple of centimetres. When they were cold, they were not exactly a delight. Mom moistened these slightly and placed them in the oven, and when they were thus re-baked they became edible – until they got cold again.
Money lost its worth. Now I can give it a name – hyperinflation. Back then all I knew was that before ice cream used to cost a few copecks, and then suddenly the rate was 40 roubles per cone. That was right before we switched from rouble to Estonian crown. My father, who was at the time already 60 years old, took all our roubles and we cycled to buy some glorious ice cream. For him, it was already fifth time to see the currency change in his lifetime, and he took it with a shrug and a smile. By the way, he lived to see also the sixth currency change, from crown to Euro, and at that he just chuckled good-humoredly, looking at the excitement of others.
The reality of that time was of course far from funny. The economic situation was disastrous. As I already described, there was nothing to buy and money had no value. My father reached his retirement years and his pension was a “whopping” 90 EEK (Estonian crowns) per month. My mom, who still worked as a weaver in a kombinaat (I really struggle with translating this one, the closest match I could find was integrated works), did not receive any salary for months, and when she did receive some money, the sum was so small it was more of an insult considering all the hard work she did, trying to feed her family. To think what it must have felt like for them… I honestly dare not to even imagine it.
We survived. Times were hard and money was tight, but my granny had some farm lands that we tended, growing potatoes, cabbages, carrots, beets, and turnips. We also had some chickens and a pig at her farm, and at my father’s niece we raised some sheep. Our home also had a garden where we grew strawberries, raspberries, white, red and black currants, plus we had a number of apple, plum and cherry trees. Oh, and a large hothouse for tomatoes and cucumbers. I often started my summer days running to the hothouse, picking as many tomatoes as I was able to carry, rush back inside, grab a book and enjoy my fresh breakfast sitting on the rooftop, reading.
In addition, my uncle fished and we picked mushrooms and wild berries in the forests and bogs. All spring, summer and autumn long we worked to feed us all year round. Quite often, when my friends enjoyed long days at the beach, I gritted my teeth and worked along my parents and my brother, planting, weeding, harvesting and canning. It was hard work, but thanks to that we were never hungry. My winter boots had to be glued by dad each evening, to last the next day, as we couldn’t afford to buy new ones, and almost all my clothes were knitted by mom, so I suffered some misplaced peer embarrassment, but considering the situation in general, it was a small price to pay.
Besides, it was not all that bleak. Well, it was, but you know, children are children, and childhood is childhood. We kids were full of mischief. Once we took the flag of Soviet Estonia and hoisted it…. well, to a fence pole. The look on my mom’s face when she got home and saw that (we lived by the main street). Ahem. Just priceless. That’s a good reminder to all parents out there – your children listen to what you are talking about, though they might interpret it through the prism of child’s logic 🙂
I also remember running around the collective farms, where my dad took some odd jobs as a welder. The places had been abandoned and to be fair, were quite creepy, but it was fun to roam and let your imaginary world play out in such vast empty buildings, that I could turn into prisons and castles and dungeons. Sometimes I even found one or two mummified pig corpses. I can almost hear the “ewww” reaction now 🙂 Not to worry, as these were indeed rather disgusting, I never went close. My favourite part though of those visits was driving there and back with my dad. We used to sing together during those drives, and he taught me a number of beautiful songs that I still remember by heart. Beauty can be found in everything, everywhere.
I can barely remember my mother and father discussing politics, but I think they just made an effort to keep quiet around children. There was no freedom of speech and for the past 50 years it had been strongly advisable to keep quiet, not have an opinion, or else you might have ended in trouble. And children are not exactly the best keepers of secrets. What I do remember is my mother listening to a radio in the middle of the night. That did not seem particularly odd, as she was simultaneously ironing or doing some other household chores. Only later did I learn that she had been listening to political broadcasts from the free world, behind the Iron Curtain. She was exhausted from the day’s work, but too excited and curious about the times we lived in, so sleep was easily sacrificed.
However, my favourite memory of that time is that of a library. You see, I had only just discovered the magic of books, and reading. Before that my father had read to me every evening, but at 8 years old I really delved into the world of words on my own. The political changes brought along the change in available literature. What was forbidden and unthinkable before, was suddenly easily available in the public library, opening up the world in ways that were truly life-changing and life-saving. In the middle of hardships and chaos that accompanied my family during those times of great changes books became my salvation and my escape when reality became at times too much to bear.
To this day, I am grateful beyond measure that the freedom came when I was 8 years old. When freedom came, my world changed, even if I didn’t realize that then. The political freedom enabled me to reach my full potential in a world full of limitations, but also opportunities. It gave me the chance to reach higher, and through hard work to achieve more than the circumstances that surrounded me. I will never take it for granted.