'Sleep peacefully, you are free Estonians': Remembering the events of August 1991 (2)

Children in an expat Estonian family at a celebration of the restoration of Estonia's independence at the Baltimore Estonian House. August 1991. (Private library)
8/21/2016 8:10 PM
Category: News

Estonians of all ages and the world over recalled their memories of the August Putsch and Estonia voting to reconfirm their independence in the middle of it all, at 11:02 p.m. on August 20, 1991.

Recollections of the events in Estonia during the August Putsch, or failed Soviet coup d'état attempt of 1991, and the Supreme Council of the Republic of Estonia's vote to reconfirm the country's independence on August 20 appear here translated and slightly edited for clarity and brevity.

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Helle Pahla: On August 20, 1991, we were out in the countryside with the family. On our way out to the country I had bought a tiny head of cabbage at the market with which to make cabbage soup for the children, but upon reaching the field we saw that our own cabbages were so big that some had even burst open. Never before or after did our cabbages or cauliflowers grow as well as they did that year; we had to start pickling the cabbage.

I also remember that my husband told my mother that day that now we would be going to war. I was very worried because I was about five months pregnant and our first child was barely a year old. During the day we listened to the radio to find out what the situation was like. We heard that tanks moved along Võru Road, but thankfully we weren't in Tartu. We thought that maybe we'd have to go down into the cellar or what would become of us.

Evi Gulbis: I was 18 years old. I had just found out that I was accepted to the Tartu Teachers' Seminar and traveled from Tartu to Põltsamaa to earn a little bit of money at the kolkhoz [Soviet collective farm] (these had not yet been disbanded) before the start of university. I traveled by hitchhiking and was picked up by a family that came from Latvia to express support for us. Tanks had arrived [in Estonia] the previous night and the Latvians came to help defend the TV Tower [in Tallinn]. I went to my great-aunt and great-uncle's in Põltsamaa and we kept tabs on the situation as much as possible there via the media.

I had been so busy with beginning my studies and getting myself set up in Tartu that I didn't even have time left over to listen to the news, and I found out about the tanks arriving from those Latvians that gave me a ride. My great-aunt and great-uncle had heard about the tanks the night before. As far as moods go I don't remember much, but we followed the unfolding events with bated breath. The restoration of [Estonia's] independence was totally sublime news for us; it was an especially emotional moment.

My now husband, Jüri, was 27 years old, and he went to defend the TV Tower on Aug. 20. He had heard about what was going on while at work; he worked at Koondis Auto. Some of his coworkers went to take foundation panels as barriers to defend Toompea Hill.

Kirsti Davis: I was four years old at the time. While I don't remember taking part in preceding singing events, then I will forever remember my parents crying that August, repeating, "Estonia will be free!"

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Helle Kadri Wright: I was 19 years old then. I was waiting at the Hiiu bus stop in Tallinn when suddenly I saw two tanks rolling down Vabaduse Avenue toward the city center. I don't even recall exactly what I thought at the time, but I wasn't afraid. More like, "Oh? What now, then?" Later, when I found out that we had won by the TV Tower, there was this unbelievable feeling, that were we truly free? Those were powerful times.

Anu Virkus Hesselbæk: I attended [Tallinn Pedagogical University] at the time and lived at the Pärnu Highway dormitory. We heard the call to go defend Toompea Hill and our entire dorm room went to Toompea.

Evi Helmrosin: I lived in Põltsamaa at the time, alongside the Tallinn-Tartu Highway. I woke up at around 3 a.m. because my bed was rocking. Looking out the window I saw tanks moving toward Tallinn; I was afraid. In the morning, there was a call to go defend Toompea Hill, and the men went.

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Jaane Orav: I was 17 years old and my last year of high school awaited. I remember that in Hiiumaa we followed what was going on in Tallinn with great anxiety, unsure of what would happen and how things would resolve. I was prepared for the fact that if the Russians won, then we as modern-day kulaks, or enterprising new landowners, would surely be sent to Siberia. Based on Radio Estonia's Sunday morning memoir broadcasts I had decided that if we were sent [to Siberia], then we would take along our old Naumann sewing machine, and with its help we could do work and survive...

Karl Altau: On Aug. 19, I was standing in line at the Soviet Embassy in Helsinki, waiting to get a visa to travel to Estonia. I remember the reporters rushing around, not knowing at first what the heck was going on. I'd be in Tallinn a week later. By the time I got there, Lenin['s statue] was already gone from in front of the building which now houses the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

On Aug. 20, I was walking along Aleksander Street with an Estonian classmate. By that time there was already an increasing number of Estonian students at the University of Helsinki. When we heard the news that the tanks were going away, it was a strange feeling. What now? We headed to the closest bar on that street, ordered pints and clinked our glasses together.

Mall Puhm: I was in Calgary, Canada, for work. When I turned on the TV in my hotel room, Priit Aruvald, a representative of the Estonian Central Council in Canada, was on the news explaining the situation. This was unbelievable for me! I was confused — I was in a strange room in a strange city, and my mother-in-law's godson was on the screen saying that Estonia was free? We had been waiting all our lives for Estonia to be free!

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Jaan Heino Lutter: Well, I remember being so happy for my family in Estonia and that I would now have the opportunity to see Estonia, meet my family, to visit there and for them to visit here; it was a very big deal. Shortly after, a group of Russian kids from some technical school in Estonia visited my school, Duquesne University. They gave me a Soviet flag and said that they would not need it anymore.

Keiti Meriküll: I was six years old then. I remember that we were digging up potatoes in the field with the family when I saw a huge line of tanks going by on the big road — Tartu Highway. I ran to my mother and asked, afraid, if a war was coming. My mother said no, those tanks are leaving and we are now free! I remember so well how my fear evaporated in an instant and those tanks rolling by weren't so scary anymore.

Liina Raudmets: Listening to the news from Moscow on the morning of Aug. 19, my first thought was that our Estonia would be drowned in blood. But the day went on and no cannon fire was heard. Then I began to worry, what are our politicians waiting for, why aren't they declaring independence? On Aug. 20, so-called simple folks' prevailing view was, "Those politicians with their dragging in different directions will let the right moment go by." That night, all Estonians were probably in front of their TVs, because talking about it later, everyone recalled the moment where the clock in the Toompea hall showed 11:02 p.m. and Estonia was an independent country.

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Mariann Raudmets: I was six years old in August 1991, and I only clearly remember the most vivid of memories. I remember that on the morning of Aug. 19th, my mother, listening to the radio, said that now we would be going to war. I also remember that Aug. 20 was a Tuesday and on Thursday morning we were supposed to be going to Hiiumaa with the family. Apparently we felt safe enough to still make the trip. I remember that my mother packed along all the dollars we had at home so that we'd have a stockpile just in case we really did go to war and had to flee. Thinking back, those days were actually pretty scary.

Silja Ignatenko Sarapik: When independence was declared, it was a sublime feeling. I remember that I cried for my father, because he didn't live long enough to see this day! He died in February 1991.

Triinu Visnapuu: I was seven years old and at my grandmother's in Lääne-Viru County. I remember very well that it was a warm and sunny day; the farmhouse's doors and windows were open and the radio was playing. I was alone inside and listened to anxious reports being relayed. Tanks were coming! "Tanks?" I thought. "Is this really happening right here in Estonia? Is this really possible?" It truly seemed like news from another world. When Estonia's independence was declared, I apparently wasn't able to comprehend at the time just how important this actually was, however I felt that the turmoil had been resolved in a favorable way for us. In any case, I have warm and sunny memories of the day, and not just because of the good weather.

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Mari Peets: I was a nanny in the US at the time. I came home [to Estonia] for two months during the summer and planned to fly back to Washington on Aug. 20. The flight was with Aeroflot and via Moscow. Much to my chagrin I was unable to get a ticket for Aug. 20 and had to leave a whole week earlier, on Aug. 13. I was very upset about losing the whole week, especially because I missed a friend's wedding. But can you imagine what my flight could have been like if I had truly had to adventure to Moscow on Aug. 20, during the putsch?

On Aug. 20 I was therefore safe at my US "home" and watched everything on TV in horror. I saw tanks on the familiar Narva Highway, at the spot which is now the Hobujaama tram stop. Both of my parents worked for Estonian Television, so I was crazy with fright thinking about them. I frantically tried to call home, but didn't manage to get through for days. Later it turned out that my parents were safely at our country home at the time.

Tiiu May Uusberg: My father Erik Uusberg, who was 72 years old in August 1991, did not believe that Estonia was independent until he saw the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation inside the Tallinn KGB headquarters.

Heino Nurk: I was a teacher in Räpina at the time, and was hosting a political scientist visiting from Columbia University in New York. He wanted to get out of the country as soon as possible and we decided to drive to Tallinn. We heard news on the radio about the movement of a Russian column of tanks, as we were supposed to drive along the same highway. Once they reported that the tanks had arrived in Tallinn, we began to drive.

We arrived at my friends' place a few minutes before 11 p.m. Their mother came running to the door and quickly ran back to the living room, excitedly shouting, "Come quickly! Estonia is about to be declared independent!" We sat in front of the TV and waited for the results of the vote. When the decision was read, the camera showed the clock on the wall, which read 11:05 p.m. We broke out the bottle of Sovetskoye Shampanskoye I had with me and toasted. That was a feeling that I cannot begin to describe. Anxious reports came from the radio about Russian forces approaching the TV Tower. The others went to sleep while I stayed to continue listening, however I fell asleep soon myself, so I didn't hear how the broadcast cut off during the night.

The next morning, we went to the Linda Line harbor to buy a ferry ticket. There were a lot of people there, but no tickets were being sold. The cashier lady announced that all ferry trips had been suspended due to the political situation. Tallinn was surrounded by Russian warships and not one ferry was traveling. The next day, however, life went on peacefully and normally in the newly independent Estonia.

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Kai Moon: I was very small at the time but I remember my parents' joy-filled faces; it was such a feeling that even now I get goosebumps thinking about it. I knew that something was right.

Marika Karu: I was 16 years old at the time. I remember those anxious events and how, despite the presence of a military unit in Viljandi, the atmosphere in the city was calm and it was as though nothing was even going on. Big things were going on in Tallinn, of course. We had gone driving with the car somewhere during the day and I remember that we got stuck between two tank columns. We had to stop and let them through.

That night, we sat with the family in front of the TV and we kept switching between [Russian channel] Ostankino and [Estonian] ETV's news. I remember that the [anti-independence] Interrinne left the hall before the vote and we discussed that we didn't have anywhere to go if war broke out, that there was no way we could escape the country from Central Estonia and there were no relatives waiting for us [abroad] either. Thus we decided that our family would stay in Estonia, come what may; it was scary, of course.

But when the votes were counted and the decision made, it was joyous indeed. I remember that my mother began to cry, saying that it was a shame that my grandfather, her father, didn't live to see this moment, that he would have loved it, considering how great of a patriot he was. So life went quietly on. I don't recall any great feast or champagne-drinking, in any case. Of course the anxiety remained at first, as nobody knew what the Kremlin or Interrinne would do, but thankfully nothing more happened.

Gusten Lutter: This was an exciting time during which US TV focused their attention [on the Baltics] via multiple well-known, popular news correspondents' personal views, opinions and news, much of which was sent directly from Moscow. The VCR, set to the lowest tape speed, was constantly recording. After work every night I would watch everything that was recorded that day. It was still difficult to believe then that the injured bear did not press its paw down on Baltic events, even after we found out for sure about the events of Aug. 20.

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Risto Lauri: 25 years ago I was 18. Together with a couple of classmates we had also come to [defend] Toompea Hill, and while we didn't have a single weapon lying around, we were sure that we'd still find some club from someone. There was a big crowd, and in the end everyone had their fists as well, and so we could not see a single problem. Actually this was sort of fun in a strange way, one big expectation of drama and action, which culminated in a certain degree of disappointment when it turned out that the tanks would not be coming this time after all. When it hit home that a Paunvere-style tussle with the estate owners would not be occurring, we strolled back toward the city. It was peaceful there as well, and since we were out of cigarettes too, it was time to go home.

The fear settled in later probably only on the next day or the day following that. About what could have actually happened, if tanks had actually reached Toompea Hill after all. And of how much use our fists and clubs would have been in that case. At that point I understood for the first time just how high all of the politics goes over the heads of regular people, and how it all actually transpires in front of my very eyes.

Jaan Vahtla: They kept playing Swan Lake over and over on TV, and we were all wondering who had died in Moscow, because every time someone died in Moscow, they would just broadcast Swan Lake over and over again on TV.

Everyone else eventually went to bed, unable to stand continuing to watch what was going on. When Estonia's independence was confirmed, I went and patted my two sleeping kids, saying, "Sleep peacefully, you are free Estonians."

Editor: Aili Sarapik

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