Skip to main content

Russian rule still haunts this Baltic country, but though Ukraine has massive support some agree with Moscow’s incursion

Laura Juristo makes some repairs to the display of Ukrainian flags and antiwar signs outside Russia's embassy in Tallinn, capital of Estonia.Photography by Hendrik Osula/The Globe and Mail

Laura Juristo stopped by the Russian embassy every day last week on her way to work in Tallinn’s cobblestoned Old Town. She brought tape to repair weather damage to the posters denouncing the war in Ukraine and to ensure that the memo to Moscow would stay up for another day.

“We are in NATO. We’re in the EU. This is not our place to feel traumatized, even though everyone can feel traumatized by what’s happening,” Ms. Juristo, 26, said. “It’s our place to just stand strong and calm and give all the support that we can” to the people of Ukraine.

As she was speaking, an elderly man interrupted and began upbraiding her in Russian – about a quarter of Estonia’s 1.3 million people identify as ethnic Russians. After he left, she translated his rant, a flurry of the misinformation regularly pumped out by Russian state-controlled media.

The interaction left Ms. Juristo uncomfortable, but she said the man represented a small minority – on the “other end of the spectrum of reality.”

Ms. Juristo is from the generation of Estonians born after Soviet rule ended in 1991. But her small country’s proximity to Russia – and what she sees as President Vladimir Putin’s irrational behaviour – have left her rattled and wondering how safe she should actually feel.

“What’s happening in Ukraine is also not based on logic,” she said. “Putin’s doing this not based on logic. … Logic is, you know, fading away.”

'Who's next?' reads a sign in Tallinn near a collection of donated supplies for Ukrainians.

Estonia has been part of the European Union and NATO since 2004. Its economy is among the most developed of former Soviet republics, and it’s a world leader in digital government services and communications. But its history under Russian occupation leaves it particularly wary of Mr. Putin’s war in Ukraine. “Who’s next?” read the sign outside a fraternity in Tallinn, where students were gathering donations for refugees.

Estonia’s NATO membership gives it a security guarantee that Ukraine does not have, and Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has urged people to stay calm.

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a tweet that he had met with Ms. Kallas “to discuss continued cooperation to help the people of Ukraine as they defend themselves against Putin’s unjustified and unprovoked aggression. We deeply value Estonia’s partnership in resolutely defending our common values.”

The previous day, Mr. Blinken had travelled to Lithuania to reassure that Baltic ally, saying the United States was committed to defending “every inch of NATO territory if it comes under attack.”

Out and about in Tallinn: At top, Ukrainian and EU flags fly at Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, named for a 13-century prince revered in Russia for repelling invaders; at bottom, patrons dine at Maiasmokk, a café across from the Russian embassy.

Ms. Juristo, though, is not alone in her unease.

Over lunch in a café, a businessman recounted to The Globe and Mail how his wife considered buying gas masks. In a park, a pair of women discussed the run on iodide pills.

“We have experienced them on our own skin,” said Kalev Stoicescu, explaining why Estonians have a “sixth sense” about the Kremlin. Mr. Stoicescu, a former ambassador to the U.S. and Canada, helped re-establish Estonia as an independent country in the 1990s.

In an early morning interview over coffee in his office at the International Centre for Defence and Security in Tallinn, he said the best his country can do is prepare for the worst and hope for the best. “We cannot afford to live in illusions or wishful thinking.”

The war in Ukraine and the economic sanctions against Russia will “bite more” into the Estonian economy than first expected, reads an analysis from Sweden’s Swedbank.

Fortunately, Estonia has diversified away from a reliance on Russia to the point that it could withstand a break with Moscow, said Kadri Ukrainski, an economics professor at the University of Tartu. Its economy relies most heavily on Finland and other Nordic and Baltic countries, exporting manufactured goods such as machinery and prefabricated wood. And Estonia relies less heavily on Russia for oil and gas than many other European countries; in 2020, just 34 per cent of its oil still came from Russia, according to the International Energy Association.

In Narva, Russian and Estonian flags fly at a castle on the river separating the countries. Irina and Fjodor were two people in the Estonian city who spoke favourably of Russia.

While the majority of Estonians stand with Ukraine, for many others ties to Russia remain strong.

In Narva, on the border with Russia, about 96 per cent of the residents are Russian-speaking. Fjodor, a middle-aged man out for a morning walk, said everyone in Narva “thinks Russia is right.” The country has to “defend” itself.

Through a translator, an older woman named Irina, bundled from head to toe against the cold, readily spoke to The Globe while her husband kept his distance, shifting his feet. Russia isn’t at war – it’s a special operation to get rid of Nazis, she said, insisting that “Russian media is more honest” than Western news outlets.

As if to counter her arguments, just above her, on the Estonian side of a bridge out of Russia, another woman named Irina and her sister, Margerita, cried and hugged in relief when they got through customs, closing the door on a collapsing economy and a war they did not support.

Irina, 19, said she packed her belongings in a day, cramming what she could into purple and yellow suitcases. She travelled 150 kilometres to Ivangorod, Russia, from St. Petersburg via taxi and walked the final few metres to Estonia in high-heeled boots.

She said she left home because she wants peace and because of the sudden collapse of daily life in Russia since the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. Stores in St. Petersburg have closed and prices have skyrocketed, she said, with the cost of a coffee jumping from 400 rubles to 800. The sisters said they don’t know anyone who supports the war, and most of their friends are trying to leave. “It’s all just a decision of one man, and no one understands why,” Margerita said.

Russian sisters Margarita, right, and Irina hug after reuniting on the Estonian side.

Tallinn University history professor Karsten Bruggemann said opinions about the war are not split between Estonian and Russian speakers but rather between “those who are integrated in both communities and those who are under the spell of exclusively Russian state media.”

“It may be rather a difference in generation, in education, in location,” he said, noting the schism between Russians in Tallinn and those on the border.

More than 2 per cent of the country’s population showed up in Tallinn for a recent solidarity protest for Ukraine.

In Tallinn, more than 200 kilometres from the border, many ethnic Russians live in Lasnamae, described by a tourist site as a “model socialist microdistrict,” its skyline dotted with rows of Soviet-style apartment buildings.

At a neighbourhood park, people exercise in the outdoor gym or play with their kids. Walking home with his son and a bag of takeout, Estonian-born Yevgeny Gurski said: “I’m Russian, but I’m against Putin’s aggression and I hate war. I’m against war.”

He said most Russian-speaking Estonians feel the same way. “I live here. I pay taxes in this country. I live with this country.”

“I’m a bit scared about what happens next,” he said. With one young child and another on the way, he said he was considering moving.

“What about the Baltic countries? And what will Putin do next, if he will win the aggression in Ukraine?”

Yevgeny Gurski: 'I’m Russian but I’m against Putin’s aggression and I hate war, I’m against war.'


War in Ukraine: More from The Globe and Mail

The Decibel

What is President Vladimir Putin thinking and what might he do next in Ukraine? International affairs columnist Doug Saunders explains. Subscribe for more episodes.

Our foreign correspondents

Ukraine: Children with cancer escape to Poland in complex rescue mission

Latvia: NATO warns Russia against attacking alliance members, Trudeau affirms Canada’s support in Europe

Poland: Business owners who opened doors to help surge of Ukrainian refugees are running out of cash

Romania: War renews rush to fortify NATO’s neglected eastern flank

Explainers

Why is Russia invading Ukraine? The story so far

Crowdfunding links and tips on avoiding disinformation

Books that go beyond the headlines on Ukraine's past