The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Before the Iron Curtain crashed down over a decade ago and the Soviet Union became history, we in central Europe had practically no opportunity to visit the three small Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. We hardly knew their names and were not really aware that these three countries clustering around the Baltic Sea had a sizable German-speaking population, the so-called Baltic Germans, who enjoyed a priviledged status in society. Until the Russian revolution, they were the landed gentry with large estates to their names. One of these German-speaking aristocratic families living in Estonia since gene- rations was the Keyserling family. Of them, three great intellectuals made their mark and are still known as personalities of historical importance. They are Alexander Keyserling, Eduard von Keyserling and Hermann Keyserling.

Estonia turned into a democratic republic with an elected parliament during the years 1988 to 1991. The population was more than happy, I surmise, to break loose from an unloved Soviet embrace. Enormous energies were set free, and within a span of fifteen years, Estonia’s economic life had progressed dramatically. The population resolutely veered round from looking at the Soviet East to latching onto the west European market economy. A month ago, Estonia voted to become a member of the European Union.

I had the opportunity to visit the Estonian capital, Tallinn, the former Reval, when I was invited to a conference on the Keyserlings at Tallinn and Tartu, formerly Dorpat. The conference was conducted in German for the general public, which shows that German is still alive in a section of the population, although of course the feudal Baltic lords are gone. I gave a lecture on Hermann Keyserling, the philosopher and writer, who in 1912 had visited Rabindranath Tagore’s family in Calcutta and in 1921 hosted the poet in Darmstadt (near Frankfurt), where he had opened his famous “school of wisdom”.

At the seminar in Tartu, several members of the Keyserling family were in attendance. They had arrived from the United States of America, from Canada and from Germany. Several spoke German haltingly and with an accent. None of them, I believe, had ever visited Estonia, the country of their forefathers. With deep emotions they listened to the deliberations of us academicians on the achievements of their three famous family members. One of the Keyserlings finally stood up and confessed: “I have lived in the United States most of my life. I have succeeded in my profession, but I was never quite at home there. Coming here to Estonia for the first time, I realize that you give me back my home and my family. My parents told us many sad stories about war crimes and about refugees, lost homes, scattered families, deported relatives. These stories were so depressing that we never really wanted to see the countries of east Europe where all this had happened. Now that we have finally arrived here, I realize that this visit and this conference initiate for us a process of healing.”

In fact, visiting Tallinn and Tartu, the contrast between what has been and what the future holds became evident.

Tallinn is a town reverberating with vitality. It is a port town opening up to Finland and Russia. The ferry boat to Helsinki takes three hours to cross. With a population of just 400,000, Tallinn is small by the standards of the Indian subcontinent. Before landing, I saw the drab uniform suburbs which we associate with the housing of socialist countries. But as I walked around the old centre of the town, I discovered its excitingly picturesque architecture representing a variety of historical styles. Some buildings were still dilapidated, but the majority of them had been delicately restored and repainted — and all this in less than fifteen years!

I was surprised by the bubbling night-life with groups of young people milling around in the streets. There was an ample number of discotheques and clubs, restaurants and bistros. I discovered an active cultural life with, of course, the University, the Estonian National Opera, the Art Museum, the National Library, the Music Academy, the Arts Academy. The newspaper listed about ten theatres which offered performances, and many more cinemas.

These youthful crowds were exuberant, but not bawdy or disorderly. Although older to them by one generation, I felt comfortable in their midst. At the Tallinn marketplace, it was warm enough to sit outside in the evening and watch the activity on the old square covered with lovely cobblestones. Like most churches and historical buildings, the square was illuminated. I absorbed the energy of the people who blended with the lights and shadows of the historical square.

The Estonian countryside is sparsely populated. We were told that the shift from socialist collective to private ownership of the fields takes time to be entirely profitable. Still many fields lie fallow — immense wooded areas. As we left Rayküll and took the road to Tartu, we saw nothing but forests, fields and meadows for two hours. The forest trees already wore the red-yellow glow of autumn. In this inclement northerly climate, the summers are short, and the frosty winters spread out for three or four long months. So the autumns arrive earlier than, say, in Germany. I love the melancholy colours of this season, and regret on my home visits to Germany that usually I must return to India before I can see the fullness of autumn. This year, Estonia has given me the gift of its brilliant autumn hues.

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