August 27, 2020

Macro Series

Post Card – Estonia: A country of many faces

BY Silja Sepping

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( 4 mins)

Natural beauty and tech savviness make this small state a perfect remote-working destination

I write this overlooking a quiet bay on the Western coast of Estonia. Nearest civilization is about half an hour’s drive away. The only background ‘noise’ is crickets and birds. Estonia is my home country, a tiny nation with a population of a mere 1.3m people, some 50 miles south of Finland. But Estonia is highly entrepreneurial and technologically advanced: it has more start-ups per capita than Silicon Valley (Skype has its roots here); fast internet is ubiquitous; electric mobility is well on its way; and the society is highly digitised (everything from filing taxes to voting in elections is done online; and a new digital nomad visa scheme has already been launched). If one was to work remotely in a secluded location, Estonia really is hard to beat.

A ‘break’ from COVID

First feelings upon arrival were welcome relief from COVID-19. Life here is normal: there are no masks in sight, and one quickly forgets that the virus still much consumes the rest of the world. Sparseness helps, of course; but also Estonia was early to lock down and control the spread of the virus. Notwithstanding a recent small uptick, it still has one of the lowest infection rates in Europe. The economic impact is visible, but not extreme. The coastal holiday resorts, and the capital Tallinn, which usually buzz with seasonal tourists from Scandinavia and Russia at this time of the year, are quieter than usual. But the impact on the wider economy appears muted.

I have lived away from Estonia for nearly twenty years now and, each time I return, I am taken aback by how much the country is changing – Tallinn is ever more sophisticated, with a Scandinavian vibe and replete with trendy restaurants and shops. Prices have gone up in lockstep: eating out is now nearly as expensive as in New York or London. Yet, the average salary, at around $20K, is just half that in the US, and a little over half that in the UK.

Tallinn is in many ways an outlier though: other towns struggle to compete with the opportunities it offers, and grapple to retain young people. Coming as we were from the UK, we had prepared to isolate for two weeks while working remotely, so had set up a ‘base’ in the outskirts of Narva, Estonia’s most north-eastern town, right on the border with Russia. It offered a distinctly different experience. Some 96% of the population are native Russian-speakers and many, despite having lived here all their lives, speak no Estonian. I often felt like a foreigner scrambling to get by with the Estonian language until I managed to recall some of my long-forgotten Russian.

The town’s strategic location made it an important battleground over the centuries, and little is left of its once-thriving old town. Today, bleak Soviet-style houses dominate the cityscape. The laststanding statue of Lenin, a display tank, and other Soviet memorabilia can still be seen.

During Soviet times, mining and heavy industry provided employment, but now the overwhelming feeling appears to be one of no future. Only a fraction of graduates remain in Narva: the rest head to Tallinn or Russia. I was told that it is not uncommon to visit the theatre in St Petersburg rather than Tallinn, which is seen as further away not just in distance, but also by culture and mentality. Narva’s Russia-mindedness continues to be a sensitive political issue, of concern to the government.

Driving around Estonia, one cannot but notice how sparsely populated and green the country is more than half the land is covered by forests, and there is no shortage of lakes to dip into on a hot day. People appreciate nature, escape to the country on the weekends, and make the most of the white nights of summer before the long dark winter sets in.

Our last ‘working stop’ was on the Western coast, known for its untouched nature and noticeable Swedish feel. Noarootsi was historically the only parish on the mainland where the majority of residents were Swedish-speaking, and the influence is still highly visible – location signs are still both in Estonian and Swedish. Driving from East to West we were continually struck both by how different the various parts of this small country are, and the noticeable influences of its past rulers.

The one positive that appears to have come from the COVID-induced remote working practice is the recognition that one really can successfully work from anywhere!◼

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