The Future Calling In Estonia

Tallinn, Estonia — From outside, the offices of Skype — the company best known for its free Internet phone service — don’t look very different from the other Soviet and post-Soviet buildings that make up the nondescript suburbs of the Estonian capital. But inside, the aesthetic influence of Northern California is undeniable. The high-tech, open-plan offices; the “playroom,” complete with pool table and sauna; the young, bearded employees; the Dadaesque plastic crocodile hanging from the ceiling; the bluejean-clad spokesman who has been “too busy” to contemplate the fact that eBay, which bought Skype for $2.6 billion in 2005, recently admitted that it paid too much.

This tiny slice of Seattle-on-the-Baltic — Skype’s main center for research and development — is in Tallinn because Skype’s original computer programmers were Estonian and its Scandinavian founders were savvy enough to know that Estonia is a country so eager to join the 21st century that even its gas stations have WiFi: Fill up your tank, download your e-mail, drive on. Despite its eagerness to join the future, though, the home of Skype can also seem, to outsiders, paradoxically hung up on the past. Indeed, this is a problem Estonia shares with some other Central European nations. Everywhere you turn, historical arguments are dominating the region’s politics.

History certainly influences Estonia’s relationship with Russia: The two neighbors have a standing disagreement about whether the Red Army’s invasion in 1945 “liberated” Estonia from the Nazis, as the Russians would have it, or launched a bloody Soviet occupation — during which 10 percent of the country’s population was deported to concentration camps and exile — as most Estonians remember it. No mere theoretical dispute, this argument has led to riots in Tallinn and Moscow, as well as a wave of cyber-attacks on Estonian governmental and economic institutions in the spring.

But the Estonians are not alone. Last year, the Hungarians nearly came to blows about the causes and current significance of their anti-communist revolution in 1956: At one point during 50th anniversary celebrations, police officers used tear gas against protesters riding a Soviet-era tank through the center of Budapest, making for some eerily familiar photographs.

Ukrainian arguments over whether that country’s famine of 1931-32 was “genocide” have also taken a political turn, with different views offered by different political parties. Poles have lately flocked to a new film depicting the 1940 Soviet massacre of 20,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest; it, too, made the newspapers when the director, Andrzej Wajda, accused politicians of using the Katyn story for electoral advantage.

Across the region, nonfiction bestsellers have similar themes: the war, the communist occupation, the resistance. In Russia, stacks of such books are also available — but in Russia, these books have titles such as “Stalin, Author of the Great Victory.”

From the safe standpoint of Washington or London, it’s easy to dismiss this historical discussion as retrograde, paranoid, even a drag on economic development. And it’s true that discussing history with the Russians probably hasn’t been good for Russian-Estonian trade. Nor has debating what happened in Katyn fixed Poland’s crumbling roads. One Estonian politician told me that a German colleague had instructed him to forget about history and move on, saying that “you’re wasting your time.”

But nobody ever asks the Germans to forget about history and move on, do they? Walk through the Skype headquarters in Tallinn, look through the big picture windows at the crumbling concrete buildings outside and it becomes clear that the phenomena of economic progress and historical contemplation are actually closely connected. The Central European economies are no longer basket cases, and the Central Europeans are no longer desperately poor neighbors. As the Hungarians, Poles and Balts become more successful and more self-confident, it’s natural that they want their stories told, their issues discussed. The Germans only properly came to terms with their history in the 1960s, 20 years after World War II ended. Almost the same amount of time has elapsed since 1989.

There may be other forces at work. Without question, the economic success stories of the region, particularly in the former Soviet republics, pose an ideological challenge to the government of Russia. Estonia and its neighbors have joined Western institutions, expanded Western trade. Russia has chosen a different path: confrontation with the West and an economic model based on oil rather than genuine capitalism. The regional sparring over history is also an argument over whose definition of the past, whose ideology and whose economic rules will prevail: those of the big Russian gas concerns or those of Skype.

Me, I’m rooting for Skype, or at least for its bearded, multilingual employees. Even if their company wasn’t worth all those billions after all.

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