From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment thirty-two

Diary notes, 2-3 October 1991 :  Greetings from free Tallinn!

Wednesday, 2 October

Drizzly, cold autumn weather

Yesterday I made my first entry on Soviet territory without a previously issued visa. All went according to script. The Estonians put visa No. 1144 in my passport; the first time my sojourn has been recorded in take-home form.

Last night after a bottle of Moet et Chandon, followed by a bottle of Russian sparkling red wine we relaxed from a hard day’s tutorial in the ways of UPS. The strange gangster like team from Riga went home and our team of Estonians, and Soviets (Manuilov from the JV in Moscow) eased into a discussion of ‘where were you on the morning of August 19, 1991? Recollections of the putsch: “that’s it, I thought, here we go to Siberia!” “When I saw those trembling hands (of putsch leaders), I knew it wouldn’t last.”

Such a feeling of history – of having lived through something that the grandchildren would want to hear about.

At the same time, naïve optimism that their emigration abroad will help dig them out of the shit. I try to disabuse them of this and counsel that they rely on their own inner strength. I point out how my German colleagues would like to rebuild the Berlin wall – how we are absorbed in our own problems.

Curious situation –between regimes.  Tallinn is an open city. The border is open. Our Soviets came in here without a visa. Westerners either came with a Soviet visa or got an Estonian visa freely at the border. Soviet currency circulates and will continue to do so for a year more at the least. The Bank of Estonia is a free trading point for the ruble – weekly auctions.  The airport is now under Estonian control. Landing rights are decided locally and are granted virtually for free –2,000 wooden rubles = $50..   Communications in general however remain where they were before the changes.

See Estonian scorn for the lazy Finns, who took the vast Russian market for granted, who made easy profits and were unprepared for the changing terms of trade. Now Estonians aspire to exploit the untapped Russian riches. See our guys’ fascination with timber and mineral resources of Yakutia.

Prices rising fast – rents on state apartment will increase soon 5 – 7 times. Yet two currencies will coexist for an indefinite time. It will be at least one year more before the Estonian currency is introduced and the ruble is phased out.  In the meantime the banking system is drained of rubles.

Meeting with the Bank of Estonia shows remarkable change in some matters. They are quickly establishing correspondent relations with major banks in Europe and the USA. Bank transfers abroad can go through within 2 – 3 days. Currency auctions are open to all Soviet organizations. The rate now is approaching 70 rubles/USD.

A Wild West feeling – wild speculation going on in currencies. Smuggling through the open Tallinn port. People are scheming to recover lost nationalized property. There are gang robberies and muggings. – 15 per day in Tallinn according to police reports.

Radio Luxembourg blares in the Olympia Hotel restaurant at lunch. My television set offers Super Channel sports in the morning. The Music Channel rock broadcasts all day long.

During my stay the formation of the Baltic Customs Union is announced to the press. Common customs policy for Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia – open borders to the West. No internal customs barriers.

Supply situation:  at the hotel Olympia the restaurant is better stocked than on my visit one year ago. I am told that the food stores in town are 30% more expensive than in Moscow but are fully stocked whereas in Moscow the shelves are bare.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

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