Flat but Delicious: Learning about Brand Estonia

Sweden is trendy & liberal, Estonia’s a grey former communist state and who knows much about Finland?  But on a recent trip, many of these pre-conceptions were challenged.  Our ideas about a country are, increasingly, influenced by government  marketing campaigns or ‘Nation Branding’.  So, following a recent tour around the Baltic Sea, I’m reflecting on my travels – and whether they matched the brand or not.  Travelling on from my visit to Helsinki in the first blog post in this series, in part 2, I head over the Baltic to spend a week in Estonia. 

Estonia is flat.  Very flat.  And that hadn’t made it in to the nation’s marketing materials before we arrived.  Which highlights one of the problems of visiting a country that is less known or travelled to: our understanding is reliant on hearsay, stereotypes from the news and the little bit of history that we know.  Hence, there’s been a need for Estonia to engage in a marketing campaign – or nation branding – to encourage a better understanding of the country[5].

For many, Estonia is perceived as a “former soviet state”, following its independence in 1991[11] but the country has been trying to shake this label off, preferring to align itself with a more “nordic” brand, whilst still being respectful to its past.  Yet there are hints everywhere of Estonia’s complicated past – including opportunities for the visitor to learn more about the last century of Estonian history. In Tallinn, the Museum of the Occupations provides a detailed, engaging history of the country – with multiple occupations (hence its title) by the Russians and Germans across the twentieth century.  It’s a moving visit which resonated with my own family story of their exile from neighbouring Latvia and their feelings towards the various occupiers of their homeland.

Tehumardi War Memorial

In addition, littered across the county are more physical signs of the Soviet past .  On the island of Saaremaa at  Tehumardi, a war memorial stands to mark where 200 Russian Soldiers (mainly conscripted Estonians) died in a battle with retreating German forces in 1944.  At the same time as marking the death of Estonians, the memorial reminds us that one occupying force (the Russians) was fighting another (the Germans).  A few miles away, an even more violent occasion is remembered in a corner turret of the impressive Kuressaare Castle.  A little exhibition and memorial tells the story of the 1941 massacre of Estonians by the then retreating Russians.  The crimes of past occupiers still weigh heavily on the current consciousness of the Estonian people and, in a government attempt to brand themselves as post-Soviet, these powerful stories risk being lost.

These attempts to play-down a Soviet past in any branding may also be an attempt by the Estonian government to show the dominance of the ‘native’ culture as relations with Russia remain a major political sticking point[9]. Russians make up about a quarter of the population of Estonia but due to language rules they are unable to become Estonian citizens, rendering them stateless[1].  The Estonian state fears their links with Russia if a Putin adminis

Lahemaa National Park

tration was to become more bold[10].  Conversely, the Russian population are less confident in the Estonian Government’s handle on national security[6].  Yet such divisions are not obvious to the tourist; throughout my visit to Estonia I did not hear or read any Russian.  When driving towards Lahemaa National Park through Harju County where over 30% of the population are Russian, there was no obvious difference in culture or language.  The only visible reminder of links to Russia were the tall, brutal blocks of flats lining the roads acting as a reminder of the Soviet policies of the 1970s and 80s.

These tower blocks reminded the visitor again of the Russian legacy but also provide evidence of a more Estonian personality.   Unlike in some countries I’ve visited, these were almost universally well kept, felt safe and cared for.  Across the country we remarked on the little gardens with a tidy fence, a few flowers and a kept lawn in even the poorest of neighbourhoods.  The tower blocks on the edge of cities were no different, showing the pride that Estonians have in their land and environment.

Viljandi Song Arena

Throughout the country, this distinctive Estonian culture could be seen in the song arenas.  The overthrow of the Russian occupation came about due to the singing revolution[2].  Arenas or stages can be spotted in many towns where traditional folk songs were sung in defiance of the regime.  For us, the most striking was in the castle grounds in Viljandi.  Music played a key part in the development of the Estonian nation[2] as well as in its more recent branding, as exemplified by its hosting of the Eurovision Song Contest in 2002[5].

As part of its hosting Eurovision, Estonia tried to emphasise its links with it Nordic and Baltic neighbours.  Historically, these have been strong, as exemplified by its role in the Hanseatic league of trading cities in the 14th-17th centuries[8] which was behind the construction of the fine town hall in Tallinn[4].

Estonian Food: Retro Kohvik

The ancient city of Tartu was also a member but modern-day links with Nordic countries was more easily (and enjoyably!) seen in the innovative cuisine that can be found there and across Estonia.  At Restoran Umb Roht in Tartu, gone were the beige, meat & potato based cuisine you might expect from a former soviet republic, instead replaced by leaks baked with panco crumbs, lamb with beetroot & a goats cheese moose.  In Kuressaare, Retro Kohvik didn’t have lager & cheese crisps but delicious rye craft ales & local artisan cheeses in a hipster environment.  In Tallinn, Porgu had a dozen beers on draft and many more bottles, all from local sources.  Throughout the country, good, innovative food can be found which equalled that found in some of the (much larger) world cities.

The Nordic theme can be seen elsewhere with the emphasis on a tech-based economy, the fast drive for a more liberal economy in the decades after the revolution[3,7] and, even, in the Estonian passion for Spas.  Estonia’s not a large country; we joked that as Estonia’s 10th city, Kuressaare on Saaremaa was the equivalent of Stoke in the UK or in the US San Diego.  In reality, it a charming town of 13,500 or so but, like so much of the country, it packs a punch. Tallinn rightly gets much of the attention with its charming walls, trendy bars and upcoming hipster area KalmajaBut for us, the days on Saaremaa were the best part of the road trip with its pretty (if flat) woodland, its pretty coastline and its good cooking.

Brand Estonia attracted us with it inter-play of history and natural beauty.  What we found was a country which was a little more nuanced than the branding indicated.  Like its geography, it lacked showy high points, instead revealing intriguing corners and depths to this corner of the Baltic states.



I have a series of travel tips including recommended books & podcasts in separate posts for the Capital (Travel Tips: Tallinn) and the wider country (Travel Tips: Estonia).

[1] Cernov, I. & Kisseljova, L. (1995) The Future of Russian Culture in Estonia.  World Affairs, 157(3), pp.143-146

[2] Ellis, J. & Wood, K. Revolution by Song: Choral Singing and Political Change in Estonia.  Remembrance and Solidarity Studies, 3.  European Network Remembrance & Solidarity, URL: http://www.enrs.eu/

[3] Fischer, D. (2016) Making a Mark—Time Changing Politics from Estonia: An Alternative Idea for the British, Bulgarian and  Estonian EU Presidency.  Baltic Journal of European Studies, 6(1:20), pp.175-191.

[4] Gaimster, D. (2005) A Parallel History: The Archaeology of Hanseatic Urban Culture in the Baltic c. 1200-1600.  World Archaeology, 37(3), pp.408-423

[5] Jordan, P. (2014) The Modern Fairy Tale: Nation Branding, National Identity and the Eurovision Song Contest in Estonia.  Tartu: University of Tartu Press.

[6] Kivirähk, J. (2014) Integrating Estonia’s Russian-Speaking Population: Findings of National Defense Opinion Surveys.  Tallinn: RRKK/ICDS.

[7] Lindstrom, N. (2015) Wither Diversity of Post-Socialist Welfare Capitalist Cultures? Crisis and Change in Estonia and Slovenia. European Journal of Sociology, 56(1), pp.119-139.

[8] Schulte Beerbühl, M. (2012)  Networks of the Hanseatic League.  European History Online (EGO).  URL: http://www.ieg-ego.eu/schultebeerbuehlm-2011-en

[9] Sikk, A. (2015) Estonia’s 2015 election result ensures the Reform Party will continue to dominate the country’s politics.  LSE EUROPP Blog, URL: http://bit.ly/17QkrHD

[10] Smith, D. (2014) The situation in Ukraine highlights the need for Estonia and Latvia to promote greater integration among their ethnic Russian populations.  LSE EUROPP Blog, URL: http://bit.ly/1osjqXK

[11] Waever, O. (1992) Nordic Nostalgia: Northern Europe after the Cold War.  International Affairs.  68(1), pp.77-102.


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