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On telecommunications, tanks, Soviet housing estates in Estonia, and ethnically complicated shipping containers

As did many many countries, Australia prior to the 1980s had a state owned telecommunications monopoly. This company, part of the Post Office until 1976, after that named Telecom Australia and now named Telstra Corporation, charged too much, took several months to connect new telephone lines, and was generally ghastly and bureaucratic. As was also common in those days, the management of this organisation also had a rather grandiose sense of its own importance and its great civilizing and statist mission to bring telecommunications to all of the people of Australia, wherever they might be. Australia’s capital city of Canberra is a fair way inland, a long way from anything else of significance, and is full of large edifices built with taxpayers’ money. In the 1970s, Telecom decided that it needed an edifice of its own in the capital city, and Telecom Tower was built on Black Mountain (actually a not terribly large hill) overlooking Canberra.

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This was ostensibly a communications tower with a viewing gallery (and revolving restaurant) for admiring the view as well, but was actually a large bureaucratic organisation building a monument to its own Ozymandius like belief that it was an organisation of great permanence and importance. I last visited the tower about a decade ago, and even then it seemed a remnant from another age. There were signs talking about when and where it had been built and about the significance of telecommunications, diagrams comparing it to other structures around the world, a plaque stating it was a member of some global organisation of towers, pictures of engineers shaking hands at the groundbreaking, pictures of politicians declaring the tower open, and an extraordinary lack of humour of any kind. The word that the friend I visited it with used to describe it was ‘Soviet’, and it was hard to disagree.

Which was why it was interesting to visit another television tower a couple of weeks ago, the tower in Tallinn in Estonia. This can be seen in the distance from many parts of the city, and of course, rather than the TV tower in Australia that merely seemed Soviet, this tower actually was Soviet, so I had to see it. I knew just looking at it from a distance that this had been built as much as a symbol of Soviet domination and power as for actual telecommunications purposes, and that one way that this would be asserted would be through a viewing gallery and restaurant here, also. As I often do I was carrying a Lonely Planet guidebook. As is expected in such a guidebook, the book mentioned the TV tower by sneering at it, suggesting that the writers and readers of such a book would be much too good and much too authentic travellers to go up something as touristy as a viewing gallery in a TV tower, but we none the less have a duty to mention it in the guidebook.

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So, I caught a bus to the TV tower. When I got there I found it to be rather run down. There was an attendant at the gate collecting money, but the lift lobby was deserted and I had to push the button to be taken up myself. However, in the lower gallery were the expected signs explaining how “Expert engineers from the Moscow design bureau” had designed the tower, pictures of workers shaking hands at the groundbreaking, pompous looking bureaucrats strutting around at an opening, diagrams comparing the tower to others elsewhere, and that kind of eerily familiar thing.

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But there was something else, of course. Something much more historically interesting. A sign in a different font gave the history of the tower. Most notably, it mentioned how ‘the people’ had defended the tower from Soviet tanks by surrounding the tower and refusing to yield in 1991. The pompous, soviet construction had ultimately become symbol of Estonia having regained independence.

Of course, a realisation then went through my mind. “Oh. That TV tower. People surrounding a television tower that is being menaced by Soviet tanks is one of the iconic images of the end of the cold war, but it hadn’t occurred to me until this moment that this was the tower in question. Tallinn is today such a normal and modern city, that such dramatic and recent history seems a little remote when you are (say) just shopping in the centre of town. Of course, I had never really thought that the TV tower the Estonians vailiantly defended in 1991 was a Soviet show monstrosity, but of course it was obvious when I saw it.

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However, it does not seem so remote when you are in the viewing gallery in the TV tower. It is well known that when the Soviets occupied Estonia, they attempted to ‘Russify’ the country and the city of Tallinn by settling large numbers of Russians in the country. It is very easy to visit Tallinn without thinking much about this, and it is very easy to know this without really knowing what it actually means, which was that immense, vast, huge housing estates of tower blocks were built, and poor or otherwise disadvantaged Russians were relocated into them. The Russians of course are still there, generally without Estonian citizenship, and in a lot of cases physically separated from the native Estonians. Tallinn consists of the pre-war city, areas of tower blocks around this, and then newer (and generally very nice) modern suburban developments arount this.

And as it happens, by far the largest of the Soviet era housing estates is the district of Lasnamae, which is between the TV tower and the centre of the city, and from the top of the tower you can see the immensity of it. This is what the Soviets did to Tallinn, and most of the time it can be ignored (unless you live there, like about a third of the population of Tallinn do). Having seen it from above, I had nothing to do but visit it.

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And in truth, it was not too bad. The buildings were very ugly, but I have seen worse in housing estates in London. What was remarkable about it was its size, which is difficult to capture on photograph. The population was largely Russian speaking, but not entirely Russian speaking. There are clearly Estonian speaking sections of Lasnamae as well. There are lots of little shops in basements of buildings. I wandered into one, and while the woman running the shop was perhaps a little surprised that I had wandered in, she was perfectly happy to sell me an ice cream. Most of the people looked perfectly respectable. I saw one or two young couples walking arm in arm. There were plenty of quite new and perfectly nice cars parked in the area. It was not perhaps the nicest place to live, but life was going on. What it was is immense – the tower blocks going on and on in a variety of direction. Something like 200000 people were settled here, so there are hundreds of these tower blocks.

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In the middle of Lasnamae is a major road, and at the side of the road I saw something probably reassuring, which was the golden arches of a McDonald’s restaurant. Next to it was a supermarket and a reasonably large shopping mall. How much of this was for people living in the housing estates and how much was for the benefit of passing traffic I am not sure, but the people who lived nearby as a minimum provided the labour for this retail business. There was clearly a real economy in this part of town, in a way that there simply is not in a London or Paris housing estate. Looking around I saw something else.

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That’s right. A crane. One of a number actually. Also quite a bit of scaffolding. Signs of a real economy. Estonia has got its economic and tax policy right, and in 15 years has become quite prosperous. This relatively vibrant economy ‘of course’ filters through everywhere, even to ugly housing estates.

And it apparently is not just the Estonian economy that filters in. Parked by the road, just up from the McDonald’s, I saw two vehicles. Firstly, I saw a truck. Not too surprising. Its trailer was a standard 40 foot shipping container. Again, not a terribly uncommon thing to see, but perhaps unexpected in the middle of an immense Soviet housing estate. It is impossible to figure out where such a shipping container has come from and is going, as they are totally standardised things that wander around the world. However, we could at least see to who it belonged.

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‘K’ Line. Okay, that is simple. That is Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha, Ltd, of Tokyo, Japan, quite a large shipping line, but not quite up there with Maersk or Evergreen . On the back, there was a CSC safety approval plate stating that the container had been approved as structurally sound by US regulators in Texas or Arizona or somewhere like that (I did not get a photo, but it was somewhere in the southwest), so perhaps the container belongs to Kawasaki Kisen’s US subsidiary. Or perhaps not. And another, more intriguing company logo.

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Right. Guangdong Hyundai Mobis. With ‘Hyundai’ we have moved into Korean chaebol land, Mobis being their car parts subsidiary, and with Guangdong we are in the Pearl River Delta in China, not at all coincidentally the home of two of the world’s largest container ports and much of the world’s labour intensive manufacturing. Either this container carries Korean car parts, or perhaps Hyundai Mobis made the container.

There was something profoundly wonderful about encountering a 40 foot shipping container of ambiguous American/Korean/Chinese/Japanese nationality in the middle of a Soviet era housing estate in Estonia. Even there, I was living in the globalised world, and not in the ghastliness of the former Soviet Union. I almost felt like stowing away in it with three months worth of food and a GPS unit, and not coming out until I passed through the Straits of Malacca. But I resisted the temptation.

And anyway, there was something that in context was even weirder parked behind it. Yes, that’s right. It was a Lincoln Town Car limousine with Lithuanian registration plates. Who knows what it was doing there? Certainly not me.

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Whatever it meant, despite being on a Soviet housing estate, I was a long way from the 1970s and the world of ghastly statist bureaucracies building what they thought was good for me and taking three months to connect a phone.

Except, of course, that back in Australia, the government still owns 53% of the former telephone monopoly Telstra, builders of the tower in Canberra, and an argument is going on about whether or how to privatise the rest of it. The fact that the company is state owned warps government telecommunications policy terribly, and although Australian telecommunications is much more competititve than it was, it is vastly less competitive than the ferocious market I see in Britain. The argument as to whether it is morally right to privatise your telephone company still, amazingly, goes on in the political sphere. Telstra still endlessly uses the argument that Australia is large and parts of it are remote and therefore in order that it can serve the whole country, it should not have to face full competition. Never mind that modern technology has made serving remote areas vastly easier. Voters buy this, and the government cares more about voters than either competition or what is actually best for the country.

The arguments seem so backward, and so parochial, and so lost in the past. Nobody in Estonia would ever buy them.

13 comments to On telecommunications, tanks, Soviet housing estates in Estonia, and ethnically complicated shipping containers

  • ResidentAlien

    I went to the Baltic Republics in 1992. It was common then to see shipping containers in residential areas. Sometimes they had makeshift hatches cut in the side. I found out that entrepreneurs were importing containers full of consumer goods and then selling them straight out of the container. The shipping lines who owned the containers were not pleased about this.

    As for the container itself… the CSC plate is required for the container to travel on US roads; almost all containers will have such a plate. If you spot other shipping containers look for the ID number, it will be in the form of 4alpha + 7 numeric; there is a good chance you will be able to look it up on the shipping company’s website and find out where it has been.

  • Ted Schuerzinger

    Michael:

    You may be thinking of the attacks at the Vilnius TV tower, where 14 people were killed by the Soviets on the night of 12-13 January 1991. The chattering classes in the West go on and on about every twist in the Augusto Pinochet trial, but those responsible for the Vilnius massacre have not been brought to justice — especially not Mikhail Gorbachev, who’s lionized in the West.

  • Fantastic journalism. Very Tottenish in a not-getting-shot-at kindof way…

  • Very well written. Probably by professional writer. Are you still in Estonia? You could come visit me in Lasnamae to see how it is inside.

  • Freeman

    At least in Australia and Estonia one can visit the post office tower, go up to a viewing platform and perhaps have a meal in the restaurant.
    We too have our taxpayer-funded “post office” tower in London, complete with its viewing area and restaurant. The difference is that the London visitor facilities were closed “for security reasons” in 1980, after an earlier suspect IRA bomb, and have never been re-opened to the public. It is understood that the restaurant is now used only by BT staff and for some business promotion functions.

  • The Estonian government deserves a lot of credit for its enlightened economic policies (and I hope they will not end up being crushed by the EU bureaucratic steamroller), but in comparing the vitality of housing estates in Estonia vs. those in Britain or France, I think the culture of the inhabitants may be playing a role as well.

    It would be an interesting experiment if one could put a huge housing estate full of Russians in some city in northern England, and one full of Muslim immigrants in Tallinn, and see which one was more capable of building “a real economy” and which one produced mostly social problems.

  • An excellent article.

    It is quite beyond me why liberal markets are considered to be evil by so many. Yes, businesses do bad things, but their overall impact on society is positive.

    Money is the basis of society and businesses are the organisations best suited to supplying services in exchange for money because that’s their be-all and end-all. Not that complicated is it?

    But your article illustrates this truth in a much more accessible and less stuffy way.

  • Ian Grey

    Freeman, The London Post office Tower revolving restaurant is indeed now used for Corporate jollies. I was lucky enough to go to one a few years ago, a nice little wine & twiglets do after an afternoon presentation at the base of the tower. They give commemorative certificates, suitably long and thin…

    It is a doughnut shaped empty space and it still revolves, somewhat noisily. The views are indeed stunning.

    I visited the public galleries in the early 70s as a nipper. There were three fixed viewing galleries below the restaurant, two unglazed. ISTR that the bomb had been placed in the toilets there.

  • guy herbert

    BT Tower? It must be a rare occasion it rotates. I’ve lived close by for several years and never seen it do so.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Great piece Michael, very informative. I liked the line about the container and the limo. This is the sort of writing you get from PJ O’Rourke in one of his less jokey moods: lots of grainy details, focus on the quirks, the reality of life on the ground.

  • estonian

    Herbert – yes, it does rotate, probably not too visibly if looking from the ground.

    As for the events in 1991 in Tallinn then yes, there wasn’t too much action (when compared to Vilnius that is). Soviet special forces tried to take it over but only managed the first 21 floors of the tower, they were then held off by just four guys and a sturdy steel door on the 22nd floor. So the radio transmission never ceased.

    There were thousands of people defending the tower against soviet troops that day, luckily it was all quite peaceful, women sticking flowers into the tanks’ barrels and that sort of stuff. It did get more aggressive when the troops got a bit agitated after a long non-productive day but then the news arrived that the whole putsch thing was over in Moscow. Not a single shot was fired. Game over.

  • j.pickens

    Thanks for the wonderful story.
    I’m reading it and typing this response on my Nokia 770 pocket-sized Linux tablet computer. And this computer is made in Estonia. It is an amazing little piece of technology, and exemplifies the advances being made in that nation.

    On the subject of Soviet telecommunications towers, I remember a story told by members of The Doobie Brothers on the Tom Snyder late show on NBC back in the mid ’70′s.
    Seems that the Doobie’s were invited to be one of the first US rock bands to tour the USSR. They also did media interviews at several of these tower TV studios.
    Well, the towers were built by the continuous-pour reinforced concrete technique, and were replicated throughout the land. They were all built with TV recording studios right inside, but the studios were never used. They had to build remote studios several hundred meters from the base of each tower.

    Seems the fine Soviet electrical engineers never heard about high frequency video feedback. If you put the camera and recording equipment too close to the transmitter, you get horrible moire’ patterns in your video signal.

    The original useless studios were just left in place, nobody could touch them. Nobody wanted to own up to the error.

  • The Reading Public

    YAY!!! Michael Jennings