Just over a decade ago, the escalation of the Baltics' drives for independence coincided with my own, and, as it turned out, our shared impatience and rebelliousness would be mutually beneficial.
The phone rang the morning of 19 August while I was getting dressed. A friend told me breathlessly, "Something's going on in Moscow – they've taken Gorbachev away!" "Excellent!" I said, "I've got tickets to Tallinn for today!" "No," she insisted, "You don't understand. I'm calling to say you shouldn't go to Estonia; things could get rough there."
I couldn't believe she didn't empathize with, if not entirely share, my excitement about getting to my beloved Tallinn for whatever this next chapter of history would bring. I'm a journalist, for God's sake, and back then, an often-reckless one.
I made a quick perfunctory call to my sleeping mother in Maine – "Hey Mom, Gorbachev's been overthrown, and I'm on my way to Tallinn." "I'm not very comfortable with that, Teri," she said. "Love you, too, Mom," and with that, I raced to my office at the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) to see what I could learn before my ferry was to leave Helsinki Harbor in early afternoon.
I had been in Finland almost two years at that point, having moved there sight-unseen, fresh out of journalism school, hell-bent on "seeing the world" with a job offer from YLE to do radio reporting and anchoring. Once there, I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to report on Finnish events for the then-revolutionary program "World Report" on CNN.
They did it their way...
I had quickly discovered the exotic Estonia just across the bay from Helsinki, a Mecca for cheap-alcohol-seeking Finns, but for me a glimpse into the mysterious and much-maligned USSR. I knew practically nothing about the Baltic countries when I moved to the region, yet I felt immediately and inexplicably drawn to them, especially Estonia, and to their frustrating struggles to throw off the Soviet yoke.
I had heard stories of Estonians who were accosted and threatened by KGB members just for wearing the Estonian national colors of black, blue and white together; they had been forbidden to speak their native tongue.
More recently, in early 1991, journalist colleagues of mine in Latvia and Lithuania were forcibly thrown out of their studios as their broadcasting facilities were overrun, looted and then occupied by Soviet soldiers after their republican governments had declared independence. And most tragic of all, in Latvia and Lithuania, almost 20 people had been brutally murdered by Soviet soldiers during independence protests.
Horrified in a way that probably only a naive young American could be, my idealistic mind could not believe that the world, much less my own country, was just watching this happen in the Baltics, with scarcely a cross word to Mr Gorbachev.
More than a year earlier, I had personally heard the Soviet leader coin the clever "Sinatra Doctrine" regarding the freedom-minded states at a summit in Helsinki; he said he would let them "do it their way" (of course, this 1989 meeting was the first time the USSR had officially recognized Finland's long-held neutrality, so I should have been more skeptical). Like so many in those days, I became emotionally involved and swore to do everything I could to get the Baltic stories to the world.
A peaceful coup - and the tanks
So on 19 August 1991, there was no way I wanted to be anywhere but in Tallinn. But when I got to the office that morning and started reading the wires, reports out of the Estonian capital said Soviet ships were blocking the harbor and not letting any traffic through. I called the Finnish ferry operator, desperate to know if they were at least going to try to get through. They admitted that none of their vessels had gotten through that day thus far, but they still planned to attempt it with the boat upon which I was booked.
Fate was with us - though I am not sure whether the other travelers considered it good fortune or bad - and we were on the only ferry to get through that day. The other coincidence in my favor was that I had a tourist visa and not a journalist visa, the latter took so much more time to clear with Soviet authorities if you had an American passport, so with luck I would not be viewed with much suspicion. Controls were pretty tight in those days, so I had to go check in immediately at my hotel, the notorious Viru, and leave my passport, as was required.
Walking the streets of Tallinn, it was obvious both that a) something was definitely happening and that b) no one knew exactly what. Some 200 tanks had already arrived on the outskirts of town; the head of Tallinn's city council, in a very proactive move, met the troops coming in at the city limits. The young, confused soldiers actually asked him where they were and if he knew why they were there. Of course, he only knew the answer to the first question. The soldiers were shown to the Soviet barracks where they apparently retired for some time.
Meanwhile on the city streets, boulders bigger than I had ever seen were being rolled into narrow streets and paths to repel any tank attack that might come. I asked a young Estonian
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Having seen what happened to the south of them, Estonians moved quickly to protect their most valuable buildings, primarily the Parliament building and the broadcasting center. Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar publicly urged citizens to guard these areas, and they did.
On the air
Leaving Old Town, I walked down to the radio/TV complex and marveled at the ingenuity of the Estonians. Heavy trucks of all kinds, old buses and even personal vehicles were all pushed together to form barricades around the building and the crowd of people was there to put themselves in the way as well. A huge speaker placed in a window provided up-to-the-minute reports.
I didn't speak much Finnish at that time - my Estonian was non-existent - but I knew I had to talk my way into the building. If that was the target, that is where I wanted to be. I went around to the doors and explained, without any ID or even a passport, that I was an American journalist and that I wanted to call CNN. With media savvy ahead of their time, someone took charge of me and escorted me through the building to the offices of the management of Estonian TV, who were huddled in a room around a TV, determined to stay throughout the ordeal, whatever it was to be.
I was introduced to then vice-president of Estonian TV, Hagi Šein, who was very accommodating and said they would do what they could to help me. And "Oh," he asked, "when you go back to the West, could you fax this to CNN for me?" He explained that they were trying to get more coordination with them, but "we took all our fax machines out of here some time ago, because we didn't want them raided by the Soviets." I said "Sure," amazed at how practical he could be at such a time.
I asked if there were other foreign journalists on the premises somewhere and was told that there were some in town, to be sure, but they were reporting out of their hotel, the Palace, the only one that had reliable international phone lines those days. I remember it just dawning on me then that no one on earth knew where I was and without a passport it could be questionable who I was, and besides that, it was doubtful whether I could get a call out of the country, which was my only hope for getting a report out on how Estonia was doing, not to mention myself.
Šein told me that most local phone lines had been cut and that there was just one line on which they had been able to make international calls. He told me I could have that one; it was important to tell the world what was happening to us.
A plan was in place to let the administrators know if and when tanks started coming toward the building; sentinels would watch for troop movement and call a special phone in Šein's office - a system which would produce several false alarms (and near apoplexy in me). No one planned to go home and, above all, they would stay on the air.
With the help of a young English-speaking assistant, I managed to get a call placed to the CNN World Report office, the only number I knew by heart. When the producer answered the line, I squeaked out that it was me and that I was in the TV center in Tallinn that was expected to be attacked. "Uh, we better get you on the air," he said, "I'll transfer you to the International Desk." "Oh, just one favor, please!" I begged. "Please call my mom and let her know I'm okay." He took the number and passed me along.
I stayed on that phone nearly all night; my reporting interspersed with that from Moscow and Washington and around the world. I clung to that line with all my energy, afraid that if it went dead, no one would know our fates. In the meantime, the Estonian parliament, as we watched on TV, declared independence, following the lead of Lithuania and Latvia, which had done so earlier and were punished for it.
But around four a.m., all the precautions the staff had taken to stay on the air became irrelevant. Armed troops stormed the transmission tower, some six kilometers away, and forced the workers out. They killed the power supply and barricaded the director of transmissions in his office, ordering him not to move. For Estonia, the channel went black.
But unbeknownst to us at that time, Estonia was not cut off from the world. Very quietly, on an upper floor of the tower, several technicians feeding material to foreign news companies found they still had electricity; they locked their doors in and continued feeding material abroad.
It took six hours for the soldiers to find them and once they did, they burst in and demanded all activities stop. The employees level-headedly said that they'd told their government they would not let it down, and they did not intend to. Upon further threats from the army, they said they would activate an anti-inflammatory gas that would make it impossible to breathe. Amazingly, the befuddled soldiers left.
After about 24 hours, I left the broadcasting center myself, walking the few blocks back to my hotel and trying to fathom what had just gone on. The coup was not over, but it was clearly unraveling and the USSR was irretrievably broken. The Baltics, on the other hand, were well on their way to freedom.
With the help of "CNN defense"
When the Soviets left the transmission tower on 21 August, the channel immediately sprang back to life, filling Estonians in on what they had missed in the day without pictures. I spoke later with Hagi Šein to tell him I had sent his fax, to give him my heartfelt thanks for letting me share their experience and for helping me broadcast it. He was already on to other things, saying it was such a relief the occupation had been so short, because Estonian TV was planning to broadcast the World Games from Tokyo that year and the reporters were already there. "It's costing us so much money!" he laughed, "What if we'd been off the air?"
I reminisced often and fondly on my "participation" in the coup, enjoying the sight of my crazy young friends transformed from rebellious troublemakers, fomenting unrest secretly in basements, to ambassadors and attachés and "scholars-in-residence" around the world. They had and still have plenty of battles ahead, but as anyone who knows Balts can attest; they are tough, resourceful and resilient characters.
But I was never prouder of my own role than when I sat, years later, in a foreign-policy class in my master's program at the University of Helsinki and heard a lecturer explain one advantage the Baltic states had over other freedom-seeking republics during their struggles. They had what he described as a "CNN defense": the Baltics knew that if things went really badly for them, there was someone as close as Helsinki who could and would jump over that bay to make sure the world heard about it.
Teri Schultz, 10 June 2000
Teri Schultz left Finland in 1997, after almost eight years freelance reporting in the region. She moved to Washington, DC, and now has what she describes as her "dream job," reporting from the State Department for FOX News Channel.
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