Life behind the ‘Iron Curtain’

​The ‘Iron Curtain’ is a metaphor for the separation of the Western world from the Eastern bloc under the Soviet Union. It was in fact never hermetically sealed. Even in the late 1940s and early 1950s, under Stalinism, Estonians in the West tried to contact their relatives in Estonia by sending letters, always opened by the postal censors. After Stalin’s death in 1953, postal contacts grew more frequent, and later even phone calls connected by an operator and, of course, intercepted, became possible. Only a few Estonians were allowed to travel to the West to visit their relatives. It was easier for relatives to come to Estonia and to meet in Tallinn. Those private encounters were accompanied by an influx of information.

The most important information channel was the Western media, as well as, initially, radio broadcasting, which found a large audience in Estonia. Estonian language programs by Voice of America or Radio Free Europe were regularly jammed, but it was technically impossible to bar all Western radio stations. Beginning in the late 1960s, Finnish television became widespread in the north of the country. Print media were smuggled in, or received on a regular basis by high ranking people in power. Copies of Der Spiegel or Time magazine were passed from hand to hand.

After Stalin’s death, foreigners could travel to the USSR more easily, not only tourists or official delegations but also foreign exchange students. The number of foreign delegations visiting Estonia increased steadily and the opening of a regular ferry connection between Tallinn and Helsinki in the mid-1960s opened the way for individual tourism. All this led to more private encounters with people from the West, but only selected Estonians under close supervision of the KGB were allowed to travel to the West, mostly Party and state functionaries, artists and scientists. For ‘ordinary’ people this kind of trip was a rare exception. There were more opportunities to travel with a tourist group to the Eastern bloc countries (Poland, Czechoslovakia etc.), but even such a trip was quite an event. Some Estonians risked their lives by leaving the Soviet Union illegally, often they were caught, or extradited, for example, in the case of the Finnish authorities.

Inside Estonia, the ‘border zone’ (the coastline, including the islands) and some towns with military bases or armament industries (e.g. Paldiski and Sillamäe) were closed to normal citizens and foreigners. Other restrictions existed, too. For example it was forbidden for foreigners to stay overnight in Tartu, because of the bomber aircraft base there. Nevertheless, the ‘Iron Curtain’ was never totally closed, and pop culture and music, for example, could pass the border easily turning Estonia into the ‘Soviet west’.

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