Yesterday, I had the chance to explore the island of Saaremaa for a few hours with about 40 other people, including a guide with whom I chatted a great deal, and whose English was good enough to convey some interesting history and traditions that I will seek, however imperfectly, to convey in the points that follow. The island of Saaremaa, although somewhat obscure given its placement as the westernmost main island of a fairly obscure country, Estonia, with a population of between 30,000 and 40,000, has had a somewhat noteworthy role as one of the gates of the Gulf of Riga and the Gulf of Bothnia, which has meant that despite its remoteness and small population and general look of rustic living, it has been a place of the collision of armies as well as the collision between earth and a sizable meteorite. The result has left this island, which is home to Kuressaare, its largest city , somewhat caught between its charming rural identity that hints of an unspoiled and quiet existence with the scars and marks of violence that can be found as well. As might be imagined, I found the combination to be quite unsettling, and also considerably emotionally resonant.
After leaving the town of Kuressaare shortly after services, after I had passed out lunch sacks and bottles of water to my fellow passengers, we headed to the village of Angla, which is most famous for its hill of slightly decrepit windmills. This village was yet another one of Estonia’s ways of giving me painful but intense memories of my own youth, given that Angla hill is full of rusty and decrepit tractors that look exactly like some of the tractors that I grew up around when visiting my father’s family farm in Western Pennsylvania. The fact that many of my family had been millers in the old country, likely running their own versions of these windmills or some other kind of mill and seeking to profit off of their control of the food supply of the local village, made it worthwhile as well to inspect these early 20th century models of windmill technology, even if the windmills themselves were rather small and wobbled a bit as we walked around in them and explored their gears and shutes and their hardy craftsmanship and construction in what appears to be a still-functioning farm, as one could see the fallow fields plowed after the autumn harvest awaiting the bitterly cold winter.
After this we went to one of the sites that I was particularly looking forward to, the Kaali meteorite crater, which has become quite a popular tourist site on this island, and like Angla the site of a somewhat new museum and cultural center that also attempts to sell tchotchkes to tourists. The lake itself was somewhat disappointing, given that the drought on the island has shrunken it to merely muddle size, but the main crater itself is impressive–the side craters are largely inaccessible because they are part of privately owned cow pastures that, understandably, do not include plans for curious tourists like myself. It was somewhat striking to hear that estimates for the crater’s age ranged from 3,500 to 7,500 years and that it was not possible to get a more precise date, even though the meteorite impact apparently had an impact on some of the oral traditions of the pre-literate Estonian people in the area. As a fan of odd and quirky matters, I enjoyed both the sight of photographs the somewhat fierce but cute-looking local bat species as well as superstitions that long-lasting love would come to those sweethearts who walked or ran hand in hand around the outside circumference of the impact crater, which I passed along to the young people who sat next to me on the bus.
After this we made our most poignant stop to the battlefield of Tehumardi, where a brutal and confusing battle happened around October 8-9, 1944. The story itself is rather poignant in its reminder of Estonia’s role in history. In late 1944, the Russian army was well underway in its advance towards Germany, and yet Germany retained control of the island of Saaremaa. A German battalion of around 350 soldiers and another German unit of nearly equal size were at Nasva, close to Kuressaare, when they lost contact with the town there. Concerned about their own safety, they moved along the cost towards the German base in the Sorve penninsula on the far southwest of the island, but came to the area near Salme and found that a retreating German pioneer unit had already blown up the road and made it impossible to travel, given that the area was a natural choke point and there was little between swamps to the interior and the sea on the outside except for the road and a narrow beach. Their attempts to cross beyond the destruction of the road with a captured American tank tread took them all day, and they found that to their south they had been cut off by a Soviet Red Army unit that had advanced from the area of Kihelkonna on the west side of the island, which had come down along the west coast and seized the crossroads just north of Salme. This unit, coincidentally enough, was waiting for reinforcements from the Red Army unit that had just taken the county seat at Kuressaare, and so when the Germans moved at twilight towards the Germans at Salme that the Soviets were engaging, the Soviets initially thought they were friends and not foes. By the time they found out otherwise it was night and a confusing hand-to-hand fight, with the only light being the rockets and artillery being fired by both sides, followed that left about 200 men dead on each side, a substantial portion of the small units, before both sides regrouped in the morning. Making this more poignant was the fact that only the Russian side has headstones, and many of the names of the dead soldiers were those of young Estonians who had gotten caught up in a war that they did not want on a side that they may not have particularly cared for but did not have the strength to resist. The surviving Germans would reach their allies and fight on the island for another month before retreating to Germany, earning no medals for their valor because the German leadership did not accept the wisdom of a fighting retreat from a hopeless position.
After our somber visit to this battlefield, we drove down the Sorve peninsula ourselves, stopping but not leaving the bus at Salme, where there were the remnants of two viking ship burials and a humorously titled local restaurant called Viking Burgers, which our local guide had a funny story about. We passed by the harbor at Montu, where the locals are attempting to resurrect a ferry between that part of the island and Latvia, to add another transportation route for travelers, something that would likely be welcome to the people there, even if the port facilities appear rather rudimentary at present and would likely require some upgrades. Eventually we arrived at the extreme southern point of the peninsula, and the island, at Saare. We stopped but did not exit the bus at the lighthouse at the far southern point, because the brisk wind had kicked up some rough seas and it was not safe to walk to the lighthouse given the conditions. My maternal grandfather, he of a long career in the coast guard, had always been fond in his life of lighthouses, so this stop was yet another connection to my own complicated personal and family history.
Our next stop was at the Saare Military Museum nearby. After paying an entrance fee of 4 Euros, we were let inside a densely packed collection of rooms that showed various military artifacts as well as items made out of military artifacts by more pacific locals. Room after room, divided by theme, showed rusty weapons, forks, flak guns, and propaganda posters. Among the posters there was one of Adolf Hitler and another one of Josef Stalin, some old toilets, and even a room featuring items from Estonia’s more recent experience as a NATO ally of the United States. There were lots of books, almost none of them in English, but which were entertaining to look at and flip through all the same despite the fact that I could not read the text in Estonian. In thinking about the museum, I was struck by the difference between the appeals to join the German Ost (Estonian) Legion in order to get girls and the more somber and austere posters of the Red Army that made no such blandishments, and like Anne Eliot from Jane Austen’s Persuasion, I believe that o be wanted in an improper style is better than not to be wanted and appreciated at all. It was not all serious business, though, as a young teen from our group who happens to be an American living in Moscow with her diplomat parents took entertaining selfies of her interactions with the WWII era field telephone and other artifacts, as it was amusing to see someone on whom the burden of history does not rest heavily at present.
After having visited the museum while my mum and stepfather relaxed on the bus, I got a complementary glass of hot tea with plenty of sugar and then, after viewing the various butter churns and other domestic implements in that room, walked to the adjacent natural history museum which had plenty of natural artifacts of carnivore pelts, antlers and horns of local deer and cattle, collections of bird feathers and containers of preserved insects and rocks and other such amusing curia of the local creation. Although Saaremaa is a small area, relatively speaking, it has a lovely array of animal life, and its human culture is also entertaining and touching, and it was worthwhile to see the natural museum that the curator appears more fond of than the military history museum that he is also responsible for. From what I gather the natural history museum gathers more visitors among the locals, especially among the local birdwatching population.
By this time our tour was beginning to wind down. We traveled to a nearby Stebel Coastal Battery that had been built by the Russians in 1940 but had only been operated for about a year before the Germans invaded. I climbed inside the turret pictured above, which had a vertical stairwell similar to what one would find in a grain silo, but found the underground command bunker to be a bit unimpressive because its two underground levels were nearly completely flooded. Apparently the Soviets had built the command bunker and defense battery in a swampy area, all too common on Saaremaa, and it required continual pumping to stay dry. After World War II, the Russians simply lost interest in maintaining the place and so it went to pot, leaving only the ruins of the former military base available for inspection by curious and military-minded tourists like myself. This is a shame, as the walk through the woods to get to the turret and the flooded control center is a lovely one.
With that final visit, though, our trip was done, and we found our way along the western edge of the Sorve Peninsula and then back up the main road from Salme to Kuressaare back to our hotel and dinner. Even here, though, there were amusements, like the way our guide played some lovely Estonian-language viking metal and the sight of woolly local beef cattle, broken-down windmills, beautiful rural homes, open fields, and the rocky shore of the island itself. One got the distinct feeling along the trip that Saaremaa is a charming place to live for those who like the rural life, although a bit dull for many who prefer urban culture, but that the island, like the nation of Estonia itself, is deeply unsure of what aspects of its complicated history that it ought to preserve and promote, given that its state as a little place being fought over by much larger neighbors and oppressors has given even the land the scars of abuse and neglect. It is easy to have compassion on a place that desires to be free but cannot entirely shake the burdens of its complicated history, and to wish it the best as one wishes the best for oneself.
 See, for example: