Monday, August 04, 2008


As Tartu is being drenched and cars begin to stall out at the Riia-Turu junction, where ongoing roadworks have stripped the top layer of asphalt and left the surface below drainage level, I am watching a TV show that I found in my RSS feed. It is a TV documentary, supposedly banned by the channel that paid for it, about real estate development in Moscow. If you know some Russian, go and have a look. The point is that centuries-old buildings in central Moscow are being torn down, to build shiny new steel-and-glass offices. People who lived in the old buildings are being thrown out and sent off to the suburbs.

This is an odd sort of situation, and as far as I can tell, it stems from the fact that there is no private land ownership in Russia; even if you own property in central Moscow, you do not own the land under it (like you would in Estonia, or most places around the world). The typical scheme is for the developer to bribe the city authorities so the building is officially declared to be irreparably dilapidated. The developer can then tear down the house and build something new in its place. Because Russia is a welfare state, the developer is obliged to give the people living in the old house new accomodations, but the market value of these is not considered; so folks are usually sent to tower block apartments a few hours away from downtown.

It's tragic, and it got me thinking about what is probably the most uncomfortable aspect of Estonian restoration after 1991: restitution.

Because the Republic of Estonia continued its legal existence after 1940, all legal relationships were still valid, including property ownership. When the country became independent once again, people who could prove that they owned real estate before the Soviets got it back - and for people who had died in the meantime, the property was returned to their heirs. Sounds fair enough - except to the people who were already living there.

In the Soviet days - before my birth - my family used to live in a house in Kadriorg, the park on the edge of downtown Tallinn, and one of the city's most expensive residential areas. My grandfather was the head engineer at a factory - the clever Jew actually running the place while a loyal party man was nominally in charge, a Soviet stereotype. Grandfather, whom I never met, had a decent enough living standard, and under Soviet law, the house belonged to him. At some point - I'm guessing after my father got married and moved out - they part-exchanged the house in Kadriorg and moved to an apartment in one of the brand-new tower blocks in award-winning Blossom Hills.

My father took me to see the old place in Kadriorg once - he knew the people who ended up living there - and sure, it would have been far nicer than our own Lasnamäe dwelling; but the exchange had been a stroke of luck. Because the tower blocks were not there before 1940. They couldn't possibly be returned to anyone; even if someone claimed ownership of the marshlands where the bedroom communities sprang up, the state would simply refund their purchase price, in 1940s money. Only property that still existed in a recognizable shape could be returned - for the rest, compensation was paid by the Republic of Estonia out of today's taxpayers' money. I like to think that some of the compensation was financed by the hard currency that we (allegedly!) got from Chechen rebels, who paid over market rates for our spare pile of Soviet roubles. It would have been poetic justice.

So after '91, each side of my family took its privatization bonds, an equal share of the presumed value of all the Soviet state property that was distributed to the population (the Communist ideal of "taking everything and splitting it up equally" finding a hilariously ironic implementation), and bought out its apartments, summer houses, etc. Had we stayed in Kadriorg, we would have still gotten the bonds, but we could not have used them for the house. It was older than 1940; it was roughly in the same shape; it used to belong to someone, and that someone's children would get it back. If we stayed there until 1991, we would have become part of arguably the most miserable groups in Estonian society: forced tennants.

This is the problem with restitution. For all its fierce free-marketry, Estonia retains a fair amount of social security. The term "forced tennant" does not mean that the tennant is forced to do anything; it means the tennant is forced upon the owner. If you got a house back in '91, and someone was already living there - given the place by the Soviet authorities - then you could not just tell them to leave. They were now renting the place from you, and there were protections in place for what you could or could not do to them.

Some of the restored owners were families of fugitives, who moved back to Estonia and decided to live in their ancestral homes - people like Aarne. Others figured it made more sense to develop and/or sell the property. Valuable old buildings started to change hands, complete with forced tennants, whose rental agreements were ironclad: three years from the point of restitution, then extended twice again, for five years each time, by an act of law. Forced tennants could only be evicted for a gross breach of the boilerplate rental contract, or if they chose to leave. This was the middle of the 90s, a turbulent time when, for a moment, Estonia became the world's number one exporter of rare-earth metals (I'll leave you to ponder the factoid, suffice it to say that Estonia has no significant natural metal reserves of its own and didn't appear to import much). Unscrupulous developers quickly learned the methods for making a tennant choose to leave.

The injustice of forced tennants is possibly the biggest chink in the armor of Estonian self-righteousness. Almost everyone* was given a place to live by the Soviet authorities; most people managed to privatize their homes after independence, but some did not, and there was no good reason for it. The bulk of Tallinn's forced tennants come from Pelgulinn, not just the gateway to Kopli but a seaside community of timber homes that were considered uncomfortable in the Soviet times - so they were inhabited by low-paid workers, people who would have trouble with buying a place to live for cash. The state made efforts to improve their lot; former forced tennants are entitled to municipally-owned apartments with nominal rents**. Privatization bonds could be traded, but at far below nominal value - they were only useful if you were occupying a Soviet-built property and were the first to claim it for yourself. There were not particularly many forced tennants, but they were vocal, and they were genuinely wronged.

Normally this is where I would explain how restitution should have been implemented instead. But I just don't know. Should the state have compensated former owners and let the tennants privatize? It worked for most things, but... There are still living people out there who fled on the fishing boats in '44. At least one of them reads this blog - I hope he'll comment. They lived through decades abroad, congregating into societies, going to great lengths to find a bakery that would do black rye bread, and all that time they were holding on to old photographs of their farmsteads, back in the motherland. Though they lived full lives in the West, they told their children that their home was always here. And if the home in question, the actual building, still exists - how could we possibly justify letting someone else have it? The exiles did not abandon Estonia, and when they finally returned, how could Estonia abandon them?

What would you have done?


Karla said...

Excellent posting, Flasher.

I am one of those 'boat people' of 1944, who grew up in exile with all the tales and emotional baggage of 'Mu meelen kuldne kodukotus...' While still very young, it became (or was made) abundantly clear to me that - broadly speaking - the exiles fell into two major categories vis-à-vis their nostalgia and longing. There were those who mourned the loss of homeland, relatives, and Estonia's independent statehood, and there were those whose focus appeared materially narrower: they tended to dwell on loss of rank and position, of properties, of creature comforts. It also seemed to me that with the passing decades, in many cases, the lost titles and properties tended to become grander and grander.

From time to time, amid toasts to the vanished Vabariik and choruses of 'Kuldne kodukotus,' discussions did arise as to how someone might behave if, say, the unthinkable happened, and Estonian independence were somehow - suddenly and miraculously - restored. There appeared to be an overwhelming consensus in favor of immediate return, if only to 'help out' in some fashion and without regard for material gain. There were those who professed to be prepared to paddle over on a banana crate, if flights weren't readily available, and to work at the humblest, most menial of callings just to be able to set foot on the hallowed ground.

Once the groundswell of restoration was underway, the question of restitution did arise, and exiles' responses on this issue were variable. In my own family - legal considerations aside - the moral consensus was clear: my parents, whose advanced age and medical condition ruled out any sort of longer journey by that time, felt it would be morally wrong to make any sort of 'vanaema kapsaaed' claims which would inflict hardships on those current residents/tenants who were in possession and who had themselves endured the vicissitudes of life in the Soviet paradise, and who, directly or indirectly, were also instrumental in the popular movement for Esto sovereignty. First, it would inflict unnecessary hardship on people who had not been in any way instrumental in terminating independent Estonian statehood, it would make returning exiles as popular as were the French royalists who accompanied King Louis-Philippe back from London after Napoleon was deposed (and who required British troops to safeguard them and their newly recovered estates from their own countrymen), and it would, above all, give the lie to the claim that the exiles' not inconsiderable political efforts during the intervening decades had been merely in pursuit of international justice and national freedom.

Des des choses l'une, Cartesian logic seemed to dictate: either we've been bleating about a real-estate dispute or... the Holy Grail of statehood and recovery of a national culture (which, nota bene, James Graff, very much resides in preservation of language).

I was and remain totally comfortable with our familial consensus, so I did nothing. I have no quarrel with those of my fellow exiles who reclaimed and fixed up ancestral homes and homesteads in order to reside in them. I do take a dim view of those who moved heaven and earth to reclaim properties to whom they had but tenuous claim solely for fiscal gain and in effect became slum landlords residing on other continents. Unflattering stories about the latter group are rife in the land. Most readers will remember (or ought to) how the splendid composer Lepo Sumera's last days were rendered even more painful (he was suffering the advanced stages of congestive heart failure, I believe) by a Swedish exile's efforts to evict him from his apartment in central Tallinn. I've ridden with a Tartu cabbie whose family were evicted from a rural property, causing considerable hardship, only to see the property decay further, as the reclaimants (grandchildren of the pre-war owners) only visit the farm for a brief annual vacation. Another exile, a contemporary of mine, spent months (expensive months) squatting in a hotel in Estonia some years ago whilst pursuing a claim to a couple of apartment buildings owned by his late father while officialdom dragged their collective heels. Eventually, counseled by a local lawyer, he dropped a couple of $Ks "administrative fee" on the municipal officials in question, and - Lo! - his claim was processed post-haste. But last I heard, he was moaning about the dreadful state of maintenance (or lack thereof, for some 60 years) and spending all his disposable income and all his holidays abroad doing renovations to these properties which neither he, nor his grown children, intend to inhabit or even oversee 'on the ground' in Estonia. To boot, his second wife, an exile Latvian, has made it a priority to restore HER ancestral property south of the border. Now, upon being treated to this litany of woes in a social situation, my candid eruption of "You're fucking nuts! Do you think you're going to live forever?" was badly received as both tasteless and somehow... pro-Soviet. :)

Flasher may correct me if I'm mistaken, but I believe too that there are provisions attendant upon the Restitution Law (Taastamisseadus, or whatever) which require the inheritor, within a fixed period of time, to bring the recovered properties up to scale in terms of both Esto and EU building codes. This, I'm told by people like the foregoing unhappy reclaimant, can lead to situations reminiscent of the quite hilarious movie "The Money Pit" (1986, starring Tom Hanks, Shelley Long and Alexander Godunov) in which a young couple are conned into buying an immense, showy but dilapidated 'dream house.' The subsequent misadventures with renovations and unscrupulous contractors result in financial ruin and the near destruction of their marriage.

I'm afraid I'm no handyman, and would probably make a most reluctant landlord. I am in wholehearted accord with Somerset Maugham, who wrote: "I made up my mind long ago that life was too short to do anything for myself that I could pay others to do for me" (W. Somerset Maugham, A Writer's Notebook (1949), entry in 1941); and with Vladimir Nabokov, who, when asked why he lived in hotels and rented flats, replied with: "It simplifies postal matters, it eliminates the nuisance of private ownership, it confirms me in my favorite habit -- the habit of freedom." During our tenures in the ancestral homeland, my wife and I are quite content to occupy the small rental apartment beside the Wilde which Flasher knows well. As to those who once swore to paddle over on banana crates and labor for the restoration of Estonia, well... I know quie a few who haven't yet made it even for a visit. Excuses abound...

So as to why I would not pursue any claims, there are both considerations of principle as well as pragmatic ones. Please, Flasher, put the most flattering possible interpretation on my motives. ;)

I do not think the Restitution Law itself is a bad one, or not any worse than many other laws. (And we all know what Bismarck said about not watching the country's laws - or sausages - being made!) There is a legalistic and historical logic to it. I suppose, as with most laws, the soundness or injustice comes in with the application of said law.

karLos said...

this is a topic i haven't found much to read about at all, so thanks - great post (and comment!)


Kristopher said...

Thanks, guys. Fine essayistry.

Didn't have any restitutable property. As someone who has sometimes thought of himself as a member of Karla's exile camp A ("statehood, relatives, homeland"), I wonder how much it would have corrupted me if we HAD had a fancy building or title.

Even so, not being in a position to pull the carpet out under any forced tenants' feet, I felt a kind of fundamental guilt that my grandparents had left in 1944 (patriotic and upstanding as they were). I even went through a period where I played down my "exile origins" as much as possible. A couple times, when asked where I was from, I even left it vague, hinting that I might have grown up in the Soviet era and perhaps my parents had been stationed abroad. I didn't want to be thought of as a certain type -- slum landlord, or an Estonian American colonel who wanted to reform the country in one swoop.

Now I guess I'm more like a certain Major General. :) Without an ancestral homestead of my own, I humble myself at the tomb of my ancestors to atone for ever claiming "orphan" status. Given that I now live in a 2003 apartment building, I don't know whose ancestors they are, but presumably someone owned the land under the building...

There are no other Gilbert and Sullivan parallels with my life, and that's probably a good thing.

AndresS said...

One side of my family declined to take back their family home, this was done so not to evict the current oldish tenant who was a distant relative. In hindsight this may have been a mistake. That relative has now proceeded to sell the land in chunks to developers and my family has come to spend increasingly large amounts of time in Estonia.

The other side of my family got back a large plot in Hiiumaa. It was empty with no claim on it. We did get ripped off by a local who helped arrange "paperwork" for a number of people in similar situations and then proceeded to help himself to a portion of everyone's land. This property remains empty (although I've camped there) because of small family squabbles back home.

Overall a very interesting topic for me.

Giustino said...

It's a really interesting study in property rights. Thanks.


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