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Day in the Life: Heiki the senior border guard officer

Senior Border Guard Officer Heiki Suomalainen and another border guard stop to check on ice fishermen on the frozen Lake Peipus on Friday. 18 January 2019.
Senior Border Guard Officer Heiki Suomalainen and another border guard stop to check on ice fishermen on the frozen Lake Peipus on Friday. 18 January 2019. Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

The Border Guard was re-established in Estonia even before the country's independence was formally restored, and I was there in uniform from day one. Even after the 2010 merger establishing the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA), I, like many of the other veteran members, have remained first and foremost an officer in green at heart. My name is Heiki Suomalainen, and I am a senior border guard officer at the Mustvee Border Guard Station.

On my days off, I sleep without an alarm, and sleep in as long as I want. Of course, that's still usually not past 8 in the morning. After that, the first order of the day is a strong cup of coffee — using the machine at work, I usually combine a coffee and an espresso, to give you an idea of how strong — and then I read messages, emails and Facebook posts from the night before from my phone.

That is on days off, though. My workdays are anything but routine, right down to my shifts starting at different times — anywhere from midnight to 8 in the morning to noon.

I work at Mustvee Border Guard Station, a fenced off, two-storey brick building right on the coast of Lake Peipus. Our station is one of a handful along the coast of Estonia's eastern border lakes, and the one in charge of overseeing them all. Our border guard station falls under the PPA's South Prefecture, as does our closest neighbouring station to the south in Varnja. Alajõe Border Guard Station to our north, or rather northeast, is part of the PPA's East Prefecture.

During a shift, I may spend part of the day out on patrol, either by car, helicopter, boat, hovercraft or snowmobile, depending on the season, weather conditions and where exactly I am patrolling — either on Lake Peipus or on land. A patrol on the lake can last all day and cover over 100km, including travelling to, along and back from Estonia's eastern border. These patrols are always undertaken in pairs as well, for safety reasons.

During the ice fishing season currently underway, there may be some 200 ice fishers out on the ice within our area of operations on any given weekday, climbing up to 1,000 or more at the weekend. During our patrols on the ice, we will stop and bore holes with an ice auger in order to measure the thickness of the ice; on Friday we measured 25cm, which will easily carry the weight of the ATVs and snowmobiles ice fishers use for transport and then some. We also talk to the fishers, many of whom are local Estonian- or Russian-speaking residents, but many more of whom have travelled up from Latvia to come fishing. This direct contact with the people not only builds trust in us, but also provides us with valuable info that sometimes may not otherwise reach us — such as unreported instances of an ATV falling through the ice and being fished out by ice fishers working together, because an ATV or snowmobile going through the ice would otherwise mean that we close the ice to everyone.

Currently, fishers are allowed out up to 5km from the shore. Where we are located, this still provides plenty of clearance from Estonia's border with Russia, which helps significantly cut back on the risk of a fisherman accidentally crossing over to the Russian side of the border — which is most commonly the case in instances of an illegal border crossing from the Estonian to the Russian side. We have warning signs posted along the Estonian side of the border, but a recent storm blew them onto the Russian side. We were granted permission by our Russian colleagues to retrieve them, and an Estonian patrol will work on replacing them, likely on Saturday.

During these patrols on the ice, we are dressed in warm protective gear, but also wear survival ice picks, or ice awls, around our necks. These are not just recommended, but required for us — they can mean the difference between life and death in a situation where you have broken through the ice and self-rescue would prove difficult or impossible. As far as other deceptively basic gear goes, we also have old-fashioned sheepskin overcoats for when patrols have to be out for hours on end in temperatures closer to  -35C. Of course, our gear goes far beyond these basic items.

Not always outside

Other days I spend more time indoors, though, either on radar observation or simply planning and performing other administrative duties. This can include scheduling and addressing scheduling issues as they come up, among them ensuring that we are staffed as needed even during various required and recommended training that comes up. Some years all the training seems to get left to the last minute in December, but this year we have a couple in January already. I also attend various committees where we evaluate potential candidates for the job.

We cooperate with schools, and in addition to us hosting and giving tours to school field trips at the border guard station, I also travel to various schools to talk to the students about the Border Guard and about how we actually guard the Estonian border. Much of the details of what we do, as well as a lot of information about the agency itself, is confidential information, and visitors cannot just walk into the fenced-off compound for unplanned visits either, but that does not mean we are cut off entirely from the community around us. Just like out on the ice, contact with locals is actually an important part of our job.

As far back as I can remember as a child, I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up. As I finished upper secondary school, I felt that it would certainly be more interesting and challenging to be a veterinarian than a doctor for humans, and so I went on to attend the Estonian Agricultural Academy (EPA) — known today as the Estonian University of Life Sciences (EMÜ). I was sure at the time that I had found my future calling. Now, of course, it is too late, and I have decided ahead of my retirement that the Border Guard will remain my first as well as my last job.

From vet school to border guard training

I ended up in the Border Guard quite by accident, though. In October 1990, I was on my way to an anatomy lecture one day when I happened to cross paths with two friends who were members of the Tartu unit of the volunteer Estonian Defence League. As it turned out, they were heading to Tallinn the next day for some kind of "border training." Being a lifelong Southern Estonian boy who had only ever been to Tallinn once before, I thought, why not join them? Just to go look around the capital city a bit. And so the next day, on 10 October, we took the train to Tallinn together.

Once we arrived, however, it turned out that accommodations were only being provided for those participating in the training, and so I added my name to the list of those sent from the Defence League's Tartu unit — still only in order to get a place to stay. It turned out that exploring an unfamiliar city by myself wasn't exactly the most exciting thing in the world, and so I ended up attending the lectures as well, and we would then go out together at night. I have to admit, the courses were actually pretty interesting, although nobody actually knew exactly what or why anyone went to the border to do. Nonetheless, comparing ourselves to the adverts on trams at the time saying you could train to become a tram driver in six months, we laughed that some of us would become border guards in just ten days!

By the end of the ten-day training course, I had started to doubt my original choice of major for some reason. The course itself and the great number of dedicated people had quite the effect on me. And so I found myself on the last day, standing before the commission who would decide which of us would be selected to be border guards. I remember quite vividly how Edgar Ääro, a member of the commission, tried to convince me to finish my studies at the EPA, because in the future, the border would also have dogs and horses and then they would need a vet at the border. But because I was staring down the barrel of three especially difficult exams back in Tartu, I had already decided over the past few days that I would take a leave of absence from school until the beginning of the next school year.

And so my name was among those read out on 20 October as having been selected to join the Economic Border Defence Service. We signed contracts on 23 October — mine was likely the only one not for a period of one full year, as I planned to return to school next September — and began our service on 25 October. I am thus one of Estonia's very first border guards following the occupation.

Three decades of action

Clearly I must love my job, if I've been here for over 28 years already. I like everything about it — the work itself, and the job environment out in open, beautiful and relatively intact nature. I was born and raised in Tartu, but the majority of my early childhood was spent out in the countryside, instilling my current love of the outdoors at an early age. This served me well during previous postings along the Southeastern Estonian border as well.

I've experienced quite a lot over the course of the past nearly three decades on the job. One of my most interesting experiences has to be the attacks on our border checkpoints by members of the Riga OMON, or special forces of the Soviet Militsiya, in 1991. At the time, I was serving at the Murati Border Checkpoint on the Estonian-Latvian border. While according to official Border Guard history our border checkpoints were attacked a total of nine times in the spring and summer of 1991, in reality we faced off with the Riga omonovtsy on a nearly daily basis around the same time. And so I found myself face to face dozens of times with omonovtsy in full gear, and discussing with well-known Soviet journalist Alexander Nevzorov why we were standing at a border that in the eyes of the Soviet Union didn't exist.

These "meetings" with the OMON became so frequent that we could already predict when they would attack and when they wouldn't — namely, they always attacked after having consumed quite a bit of "liquid courage." This is also probably why the border guards at Estonia's Luhamaa and Murati border checkpoints were the most rapid responders; it typically took less than half a minute after sounding the alarm for all of us to be in our positions already. For the record, though, none of us were really actually scared of them, despite the OMON attacks on the Medininkai and Ikla border checkpoints occurring around the same time.

Other memorable experiences have included hearing the whiz of a bullet on the Estonian border, facing a border crosser who lunged at me with an axe, and having to decide in less than a split second what to do with a drunken Estonian Defence League volunteer who had grabbed a loaded automatic weapon from a conscript.

Time off, approaching pension

The border guard station at Mustvee has housing similar to university dormitories on site, as many of us work one week on, one week off, with 12-hour shifts. When I am working, I often just go to sleep after my shift. On days off, I enjoy relaxing with a good sauna, which we have on site and are free to use whenever we want; I could pretty much take sauna, whisk myself and take a dip in icy water every night if I wanted to. We also have a gym in the building. In this job, everyone is required to remain in shape and pass physical fitness tests every year.

Another great amenity we have on site is our own canteen, where we can order three hot meals per day. The meals are very cheap, usually just €1 or €2, and the servings are hearty. Our border guards are responsible for the food shopping, and we cover our own food bills with the cost of each meal, but we have a cook on staff who cooks it all for us. Thanks to my days of studying to become a vet, I can't stomach ground meat, but the cook knows this about me and knows that if there's a dish containing ground meat on the menu on a day that I am at work, I'll just order two of something else off the menu for that day. We also press our own apple juice.

Two hobbies of mine totally unrelated to my work are commemorative euro coin collecting and travelling, lately backpacking in particular. I am scheduled to go on pension soon, which will mean a significant lifestyle change for me. While I don't have any set plans yet, I definitely want to travel more when the time comes; I've currently visited around a quarter of all countries worldwide, so I have plenty more destinations to reach.

Many of my happiest moments of late have been in connection with travelling as well. For example, last November, I enjoyed a wonderful moment as I had my morning coffee on a sunny beach in Portugal — just me and my own thoughts, far away from everything else. I could just be. Nothing else. It was a wonderful feeling.

A lot has changed during my lifetime, the most significant change of course being Estonia regaining its independence in August 1991, with a complete societal shift from a "closed" state to an "open" and democratic one. While Estonia was free again by the time I became an adult, I grew up during the Soviet era, and naturally I miss my childhood despite the Soviet aspect thereof.

As for myself, I have done my best to live by my values. Over the years I have grown older and wiser, first and foremost, but I have learned a great deal as well, including in my studies to become first a veterinarian and later a border guard. Ten years ago I also defended my master's thesis in business administration at the University of Tartu.

If my childhood self and my current self were to meet today, my childhood self would tell me that I made the right choice, have lived an interesting life, achieved a great deal and made a lot of friends. I, in turn, would tell my younger self to always be yourself, and to be honest and courageous — an important motto of mine. I'd also tell him to place more emphasis on his personal life, though, something I didn't always do enough alongside my work.


Day in the Life is a new weekly series by ERR News telling the stories of everyday Estonians, their livelihoods, and their lives. If you know someone whose story you feel should be told, email us at [email protected].

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Editor: Dario Cavegn

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