We were lucky to arrive when we did because the weekend after was August 20th. It was a Saturday morning and we decided to walk through the Old Town area because we hadn’t done much exploring there. We ended up be in for a little more than we have bargained for.
I didn’t know when we moved here that Estonia has two independence days. The first, in February, when Estonia declared itself a nation for the first time and joined the League of Nations (but then was promptly occupied by Germany) and the second, on August 20th when Estonia declared itself free of Soviet rule and once again independent. It’s quite a bit of a story so if you’re interested, you should read this article that sums it up quite well. While there are still border disputes and issues between Russia and Estonia, this was a peaceful treaty and quickly recognized by countries all over. Estonia has only been a free country again for 25 years but they’ve been 25 wonderful years full of hope and progress and I hope for Estonia’s continued sovereignty and growth for the next 25 and beyond.
As for the celebration day itself, last Saturday we stepped outside to a beautiful 20° day with clear skies and just a few fluffy clouds floating in the sky. We decided that even though we could take one of the buses or the tram over to the edge of Old Town, it was such a lovely day that we’d walk instead. This ended up being a pretty good decision because I kept seeing a lot more Estonian flags then I remembered. I don’t mean like one or two extra flags, I mean every single building that we passed with any sort of structure that could hold a flag suddenly had one. They had, as far as I could tell, popped up like weeds over night. I’m still unsure if these are flags everyone holds on to during the year and puts out on certain days or if there is some state entity that runs around the night before (like some flag-based Santa branch of government) placing them on everyone’s house. While most people here are patriotic in the sense that they love their country, it’s unlike American where there’s not much in the way of big flashy displays, shirts, merchandise, etc. It’s more subtle like, buying goods made in Estonia over other places and probably just trying to be a good steward of your neighborhood instead.
It was certainly impressive though, maybe because of the rarity of patriotic display on other days. There was more contrast to waking up and suddenly everyone was excited to live in a beautiful country. I took my time selecting which house I wanted to take a picture of and picked this patriotic and near looking house whose flag had not been completely entangled by the wind (we’re by the water so there is always at least a nice breeze going through which makes flags a lot less attractive in general). We went through an underground sidewalk across a busy street and came out the other side in to the Vabaduse väljak (Freedom Square) where we were suddenly surrounded by blue and white.
There were 100s of people in the crowd, on the hills, meandering around the steps. Some people were in costume, there was a horse drawn carriage, and everywhere the sound of music. The orchestra swelled and a chorus began, a hymn started low and subtle and all the people in the audience stood and waved small Estonian flags and children raised their arms and swayed, balloons bouncing around in front of the stage. People dressed in clothing the colors of the flag (black, blue, and white) even, some women having clearly made their dresses just for the occasion and matched up their accessories and hair.
This wasn’t the only open air stage we saw that day either, we found two other open air stages playing everything from Estonian covers of American music to the Estonian national anthem. People sat or stood in every place where bodies could fit. Flags waved like leaves in the breeze. Some of the stages were smaller and just had a handful of people gathered tightly around them but the one in Old Town was the largest one that we saw.
This stage was towards the back edge of Old Town, up a high set of winding stairs and smushed between the Parliament building (which you can faintly see in pink on the left) and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral which was on our left (an impressive looking 19th century Orthodox cathedral, think Tetris start screen). There were drones up above taking pictures of the audience, a large screen TV alternating between showing the stage, the crowd, and video and images of the Estonian government voting to reinstate Estonia as a country free of Russian rule. A couple in front of us, about our age, motioned along to the national anthem with a small dance that looked pretty similar to one I had to do in elementary school to the American National Anthem.
There was mostly peaceful celebration, there was probably no more alcohol visible than usual – which is almost none compared to Germany. There were some fireworks later in the night but it’s basically nothing like the 4th of July. Of course, this is only Estonia’s Day of the Restoration of Independence and not it’s actual Independence Day which is the main event on February 24th so I assume that’s when the big guns of booze and fire come out, especially because February is such a bleak weather month it’s good to find a reason to celebrate in it. Instead Restoration Day was a much more respectable and chill affair which pairs nicely with the fact that this independence was gained through a vote, bloodlessly won and accepted.
That there was no coup, no war, no life lost and it was so amicable that there is a statue near the Parliament of Boris Yeltsyn thanking him for the peaceful return of their land.
It was nice to see a slice of life though and while I didn’t take pictures of the people dressed traditionally because I’m still a bit nervous about trying to respect peoples autonomy and unsure of how that stuff is perceived here I can tell you it was funny hats, long robes, colorful gowns and smocks in red and gold. Men wearing long black robes embroidered with gold and blue threaded patterns. Long white socks under high reaching sandals. Even though it was a bit of a warm day with sun, almost all the traditional outfits looked quite heavy, maybe wool and thicker cotton. All in all it was a beautiful day and I look forward to celebrating February 24th with Estonia as well.