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?
A tale of two countries
5 weeks ago