Estonia – where the past is preserved to protect the future

In Raekoja Plats, Tartu

It’s pouring with rain: and no, I’m not in Scotland, but back in the beautiful city of Tartu, the ancient university town in the centre of the Baltic country of Estonia. I have to admit there’s something reassuring about knowing that heavy rain isn’t just a feature of life back home!

Estonia isn’t a large country geographically. It’s population isn’t large either. Tragically, the number of Estonians still hasn’t caught up with figures from before the Second World War. There are still fewer Estonians today than in the 1930s and ’40s, when hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes by the Germans, and then by the Russians, and murdered: here or in Siberia, or in all the other places the Soviets chose to destroy the lives of those unfortunate enough to fall into their hands. And for the Estonians that lasted 50 years, until they regained their independence in 1991.

The villa where the Treaty of Tartu was signed between Finland and Russia in 1920

All this is in the past now. But the effects linger. And sometimes that past isn’t so far away. On visits to the DDR, East Germany, when it was still firmly behind the Iron Curtain, I heard of torture being inflicted on those who wouldn’t follow the ‘party line’. Yet this wasn’t centuries ago. Only a few decades. Democracy is a precious but fragile gift and needs to be nurtured – and sadly all too often fought for.

But today we visited Estonia’s brand new National Archive building where the past is conserved and preserved, both for today and for the future. In these days of fake news and spin doctors we’re as much under the sway of propaganda as any generation before us. Day in and day out we’re fed lies, untruths and deliberate omissions that would have done Goebbels proud. And no matter how much that thought angers you, or you think you couldn’t be fooled like that, the fact remains that manipulation and distortion have become widespread and  more important than truth.

The brand new National Archives of Estonia in Tartu

The majority of our newspapers are owned by billionaires who neither live in the UK nor pay taxes there and whose political agenda certainly doesn’t include telling the truth. But what I find hard to understand is why so many people today don’t question the ‘information’ they’re fed. Don’t ask for evidence, for sources. When I was at school, then unversity, any essay that didn’t include a sound argument would have been deemed unacceptable.

Painstaking conservation work restoring old maps and documents

So when, and why, did so many of us give up questioning the ‘news’ we’re fed? Is it really so much more comfortable to live with fake news than to make the effort to challenge it?

This is one of the reasons why I feel so strongly that archives, and libraries too, are of vital importance. They are repositories of facts. Of contemporary accounts. Who said what? Who did what? What was decided and why? And so often the answers to these questions are held in archives. And yes, what is held there can sometimes be the product of ‘to the victor the spoils’, but very often there are other records to balance out the actuality of events.

The criminals of the past are not necessarily those we’d see as criminal today

Propaganda is nothing new. Far from it. How many people happily believe Shakespeare’s portrayal of Macbeth, a portrayal which is miles from what actually happened? Or his version of the reign of Richard III? Or just what really went on in Britain’s colonies during the dark days of the British Empire? Or why wealth in Britain can’t be shared out more equally? Or why the NHS can’t be afforded when we have more millionaires and billionaires in the UK than ever before?

It’s so important that we question and ask for proof, otherwise we become as much victims of today’s propaganda as anyone else. It’s not just the foolish that fall for it – even the most intelligent can be victims of their own self-belief. So when in doubt consult the archives.

Marking the founding of the city in 1030

I’m very glad that Estonia is investing so heavily in its past. Not only has the country given its archives a new home, they’ve also just completed a whole new National Museum. The past IS important. Who we are today depends on our past. Where countries stand today depends equally on their past. Archives hold and guard these pasts and we need them more than ever to understand the present and be vigilant about our future.

If there’s one thing we need to hold onto in the face of so much fake news and spin, it’s to ask questions and insist on proper answers. And to teach our children to do the same. Never stop asking questions and, if the answers aren’t forthcoming, know where to find out the truth for ourselves!

National Archives Estonia

 

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