Despite Hardship, Border Town 'Perseveres' (2)
True to the meaning of its name in English, a small eastern Estonian town is determined to find success, backed by a local population that just refuses to quit.
(This piece was published on April Fool's Day.)
"We keep on keeping on," says Rein Reinla, long-serving mayor and local historian of Persevere, population 500. "That's what we do here. That's always been the spirit."
Undaunted by recession, demographic drain and geopolitical tensions, officials here say their greatest resource is people - half of them Estonian-speaking, half Russian-speaking.
Asked how the two communities get along, Reinla says: "One community. When I say it's 50 percent Estonian and 50 percent Russian, I mean they speak half in Estonian and half in Russian."
Most people here switch back and forth randomly between languages in mid-sentence, he says.
While Estonia has been doing some soul-searching lately about the slow pace of integration, Persevere is seen as the exception.
"It might have gone a little too far, actually," Reinla admits. "Liiga daleko."
Persevere's Russian influences aren't from the Soviet-era wave of migration - most came in the early 18th century to escape religious repression during an era of particularly harsh tsarist rule. Others came to escape socially repressive policies.
Some came to get away from both at the same time. One institution, the Old Believers Men's Cooperative Bathhouse, founded in 1696, continues to operate here today.
The edge of the known world
Just 200 meters east of the village square, the European Union ends, in a strip of nondescript marsh, then a wall of dark, forbidding forest on the other side.
For centuries, Perseverians have looked east to that tree line - sometimes with suspicion, sometimes with alarm, but mostly without ever being quite able to make out anything clearly on the other side, or establish a lasting trade route.
After the ice melts each spring, the marsh is a more formidable obstacle than the great lakes to the north. Archives from the 1800s are full of terse dispatches of caravans sinking into the mire, never to be seen again.
"April 25th. Lost another wagonload of timber in the blasted swamp. Going to build another wagon täna vecherom and try again zaftra," reads a typical entry from 1805.
Back in the 1990s, alcohol bootleggers set up shop on the Russian side. The boggy land was so soft that it wasn't possible to lay a pipeline, let alone build a tunnel. So they came up with a novel idea.
"This was in 1995, when the black market was awash with alcohol," recounts Reinla. "So the smugglers dumped distilled spirits directly into the marsh, using the peat as a giant sponge, and their accomplices on the Estonian side sucked it up with pumps."
The technique - which had been employed by the Red Army in the previous decade to transport jet fuel across open water - was relatively successful in drier months. However, many drinkers complained that bootleg vodka that year had a watery, faintly whisky-like taste with occasional sphagnum fibers in it.
Environmental devastation's silver lining
Unfortunately, the addition of nearly 190-proof spirits to the marsh rendered Persevere's environment sterile for years afterwards.
That's one reason why Persevere doesn't feature on Estonia's official visitestonia.ee site.
The few ecotourists who do come are drawn by the silence in what otherwise should be one of the most biodiverse temperate-zone countries in the world.
"The worst part about early summer in the Nordic countries is the sun shining in your face at 5 a.m. with the insects and birds making a racket," says John Vernage, a British expat from Tallinn. "We move to Persevere in early June to get some blessed peace and quiet and an extra half-hour of semi-darkness," though he concedes that, "environmentally the place is a moonscape."
Persevere was hit hard by the late 2000s recession. Fortunately, just in the nick of time, the town was discovered by Western conference tourism organizers. Since then, its RVAR (revenue to value-added ratio) has soared to one of the highest in the world, impressing economists who say the place is "hotter" than it has any business being.
Except for the Old Believers' Men's Cooperative Bathhouse, which is strictly members-only, there was no local spa or hotel in Persevere in 2009. But EU money and local authorities' quick leadership came to the rescue.
Reinla, who was in his first term then, recalls: "The school, post office and general store were going to be torn down for scrap anyway. We fast-tracked the decision and just converted them to conference tourism centers right there and then."
Although there's been a tinge of anxiety in the air lately over Russia and Ukraine, Persevere locals are not worried about an invasion.
One local resident, Olga, 56, was tight-lipped at first. "A tank would just sink into the marsh," she said finally with a shrug, as she went on sweeping water with a broom.
Indeed, both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia gave the area wide berth in World War II. This has resulted in yet another distinction for the town: it has played absolutely no part in any war.
Besides conference tourism, "silence tourists" and people looking for a reprieve from war monuments and news about unexploded ordnance being found, Persevere has recently found yet another stream of revenue.
Visitors flock to Persevere just to snap a photo next to the sign with the town name.
"It's a steady flow. There are many Estonian tourists as well who are also drawn by something in the name. Survival has been the spirit of this nation for thousands of years, and no place better exemplifies it than Persevere," says Reinla. "Everybody, simply everybody wants to have their picture taken in Persevere."