BY PHIL HUTINET
In conjunction with the Embassy of Estonia, Touchstone Gallery presents PLANE WATCHERS, a photographic essay by Estonian photographer Annika Haas.
The “Russification” of Estonia echoes similar undertakings by invaders throughout history including Mussolini’s “Italianization” of South Tyrol or the “Anglicization” of the once predominantly francophone Maritime Provinces in Canada. In these scenarios, the invader seeks to not only repopulate the conquered territory with its own people but to impose its culture, language and religion, supplanting the indigenous traditions of the invaded. Naturally, resistance follows and on occasion, the invaded regains sovereignty over its land and culture.
In 1991, after 50 years of Soviet occupation, Estonia became independent. Two decades later, Annika Haas visually narrates the story of the conquered turning the tables on the conqueror, as ethnic Russians, left over from the Stalinian Russification of Estonia, face the extinction of Russian dacha culture in Suur-Sõjamäe on the outskirts of Tallinn, Estonia’s capital.
Once given to factory workers indefinitely under Soviet rule, land around Tallinn’s international airport served as an escape from city life where Russians spent their summers growing onions and cabbage. Think of a dacha as a small, non-winterized wood home surrounded by a community garden where an urban family could spend weekends indulging in a village-like setting.
In the early 1990s, Suur-Sõjamäe changed rapidly, shifting from idyllic communist rural community to squalid shantytown, exposing the inequalities of Estonia’s burgeoning capitalist economy. As social stratification grew, abandoned dachas began to house the homeless, the junkies and the downtrodden. The area’s proximity to the airport placed it within the sightline of the flight paths giving foreign visitors their first impressions of Estonia as their plane landed. The growing blight caught the attention of Estonian authorities who, after a long legal battle spanning several years, obtained permission to demolish the dachas and annex the land to expand the airport.
In PLANE WATCHERS, forty images with captions of varying lengths narrate the story of a struggling foreign culture amidst a growing tide of change initiated by the native population. The exhibition also highlights the disparities that exist between the dacha keepers themselves. A handful of keepers have title to their plots but the vast majority does not. Known to the viewer only by their first names, Haas’ visual essay focuses on capturing portraits of the dacha keepers. However, she successfully draws the viewer further into the story by interspersing images of landscapes unique to Suur-Sõjamäe—an abandoned couch with a vegetable plot in the background, a Styrofoam replica of Milo’s Venus amidst an overgrown field, fences made of found materials and freshly bulldozed land.
While the long-term prognosis for Tallinn’s dacha culture looks bleak, Haas’ use of the word “extinction” in her title implies complete eradication of ethnic Russians’ estival way of life. Yet many of her vignettes contradict this notion rendering her main thesis seemingly hyperbolic.
Throughout Haas’ visual essay, signs of resistance emerge. For instance, Svetlana, a year-round resident now herds goats on a newly formed pasture where the Airport Authority bulldozed dachas. Aleksandr’s non-titled dacha, for now, lies outside the airport expansion area. Haas photographed him while he waited for a manure shipment. An elderly couple, Arkady and Tamara along with their twelve cats, plans to move to a dacha further afield on a site safe from the Airport Authority’s demolition permits. Two women, Anzhelka and Lyudmila, had the foresight to purchase their plots in the 1990s and now hold title to their land. They have refused to sell to the Airport Authority.
Nevertheless, most dacha keepers have received eviction notices and eventually find a pile of rubble amidst their idyllic garden plots. Many rightfully feel embittered by the destruction of something that took years to build. Will all dacha keepers succumb to the will of the Airport Authority at some point in the near future, perhaps even those who hold title to their dacha? One might wonder if Estonia has Eminent Domain laws and how they might apply to this situation. If Estonia has laws of this kind, the last hold outs, despite all their best efforts to work within the confines of the law, might face their neighbors’ fate. Ultimately, Haas convincing argues that Estonian authorities have targeted dachas in Suur-Sõjamäe by way of economic and legal maneuvering. Perhaps Haas’ logic for her use of the word extinction derives from her firm belief in the inevitable demise of Russian culture on the outskirts of Tallinn.
PLANE WATCHERS opens Friday, December 5 at 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and is on view through the end of December. Touchstone Gallery is located at 901 New York Avenue NW. Visit their website at www.touchstonegallery.com