The roads in all three countries we'd visit are lightly trafficked, and although they are humble in scale -- nary a multilane to spoil the scenery -- they are modern and well-maintained, with sweeping curves that perfectly suit the sharp-handling XJ, its lively V-8 engine, and its six-speed automatic transmission. To be sure, there are more dirt roads than we're used to; fortunately, the XJ's cosseting suspension -- perhaps its strongest point, along with its supremely comfortable interior--proves up to the task.
After a wrong turn sends us two miles down a rocky, overgrown cart track, we finally locate Ilves' farm, reclaimed after the fall of the U.S.S.R. Overgrown and undertended during the Communist era, the land required years of brush clearing to make it the genteel presidential getaway it is now. The activity provided a useful talking point with one leading authority on brush clearing, former U.S. President George W. Bush, on the three occasions he and Ilves met.
Sitting in the afternoon sun, I remind the Estonian president of a day in 1972 when he invited me to his old house. That afternoon, he'd proceeded to blow my fourteen-year-old mind when he spun a platter by an up-and-coming L.A. band who'd just released their first record. Dating this moment in time, they were called, simply, Eagles. "Wooo, hooo, witchy woman. See how high she flies." That one was a winner, I'd opined. These Eagles fellows were going somewhere.
As was Ilves, who soon departed our little town and crossed the river to New York's Columbia University and a psychology degree; three years later, we met again when I arrived at Columbia as a freshman. Once again, I basked in his aura of wry hipness, and then he was gone and I wouldn't see him again for twenty-five years. Until now, at his farm on a hot July afternoon, where I'd come to catch up, now that he was the president of Estonia and all.
Noting that his country (where Audi supplies high officials' cars) had its own successful Jaguar dealership -- selling cars mostly to Russians, the dealers there preferring the security of parking their wares in his own, less thieving country -- Ilves proceeded to fill in the missing decades. After earning a psychology degree at graduate school, his Estonian language skills eventually found him working for the Baltic desk of Radio Free Europe. Why, I didn't even know you spoke Estonian back in the day, I told him. "Why would you?" our ever-snappy friend retorted. "You didn't speak Estonian."
Having caught the eye of Estonia's new democratic leaders, he was invited to serve as the country's ambassador to the United States after the Soviet Union collapsed. Then, having become an Estonian citizen, he went on to serve twice as the country's foreign minister before being elected to the European Parliament. In 2006, Ilves became Estonia's third post-Cold War president.
Estonia is unlike its Baltic neighbors to the south, Ilves reminded us, because as a Nordic country, it is ethnically more closely related to Finland than to Latvia or Lithuania. One thing all three of the Baltic states have in common is their memories of Soviet rule. Ethnic Russians, sent by Moscow at the height of its central planning power to tamp down the smaller states' nationalistic tendencies, remain significant minorities, and tensions can still flare, although this may be subsiding.
Each of the Baltic countries now goes its own way as it best sees fit, within the limits of a lousy global economy and political systems rife with corruption. (Outsiders agree that Estonia is the relatively uncorrupt exception to the rule.) But their shared Soviet history is easy to spot in the many aesthetically blighted state housing tracts, as soulless and depressing as we'd imagined. Conversely, the former planned economies are noted in the refreshing and near total absence of Western fast-food chains and megamalls, although some Estonians we met were anxious to show us a glittering mall that opened adjacent to Tallinn's Hotel Viru, outside the old city's walls.
Infinitely more fascinating to American eyes were the real-life monuments to the KGB. At Hotel Viru, a high-rise jewel of the former Soviet Intourist hotel empire, a creative press officer curates a KGB museum, which preserves the eavesdropping apparatus and logs of the old secret police. The director of the museum showed us how the electronic snooping was conducted, how old ladies sitting in the halls of each floor would silently record guests' comings and goings, and how teams of Moskvich "limo" drivers and KGB-approved prostitutes, exempted from arrest or harassment by local law-enforcement agencies, worked to ply travelers for information.
We found an even more skin-crawling relic of the totalitarian era in Latvia, at Ligatne, where beneath a still-active rehabilitation center, we were escorted into an underground bunker, a subterranean world where Latvia's Communist Party leaders were meant to hastily repair in the event of nuclear attack. We descended its dank concrete stairs thirty feet underground with an enthusiastic, multilingual tour guide named Oscar who looked -- with youthful, scraggly perimeter beard and wire-rimmed glasses -- like he could have been a founding member of The Band. It smelled impossibly awful, with a choking combination of mildew, mold, and diesel fumes--from the two period Soviet T-54 tank engines that run its generators--hanging in the air. Built in the 1980s and well-known to the CIA from the start, it made us wonder why America ever spent so much time worrying about Soviet world domination.
Highlights of the tour include firing up the facility's old-school air-conditioning system, which sounds like a squadron of B-17s taking off; a hilariously dated telecommunications center, which tied the bunker directly into the Kremlin and the KGB's Moscow command center; and assorted busts of Vladimir Lenin and friends. I'd have run outside to the fresh air and taken a fatal dose of radiation sooner than I'd spend a second hour in there, much less a night. But given the frightful state of the economy and the post-Soviet need for the rehab center to pay its own way, the bunker is available to rent for parties, weddings, and other occasions. Rooms for overnight guests are available upstairs in the rehab center, where one might bunk next to a patient. In fact, we saw several residents wandering around, bumming smokes and admiring the Jaguar in the visitors' lot.
From there, we took a hand-drawn car ferry across the narrow Gauja River for a few Latvian lats (only Estonia uses the euro) and reflected on the new economies that have risen from the ashes of the old state-run economy. Wages are low by American standards -- the minimum wage in Latvia is less than $400 a month -- yet we saw plenty of the sorts of cars, fancy foods, and clothing one finds back home. A Bentley dealership in Riga testifies that some people are getting rich.
Of course, jobs growth has been an inevitable result of the new market economies in the Baltic countries. As Ilves said of his own country: "Like the rest of Eastern Europe, there was no service sector [in Estonia] at all to speak of under Communism. You didn't have restaurants. There was no choice. Basically, it was like you had State Haircut Facility Number 347. So that had to change."