“We know that the wildest and most moving dramas are played not in the theatre but in the hearts of ordinary men and women who pass by without exciting attention, and who betray to the world nothing of the conflicts that rage within them except possibly by a nervous breakdown. What is so difficult for the layman to grasp is the fact that in most cases the patients themselves have no suspicion whatever of the internecine war raging in their unconscious. If we remember that there are many people who understand nothing at all about themselves, we shall be less surprised at the realization that there are also people who are utterly unaware of their actual conflicts.”
In 1993, the government of the newly independent republic of Estonia had returned my grandfather’s apartment building to the next of kin, namely my mother.
In 1997, my mother, in turn gifted the building to me.
Located in Tallinn, ownership of this valuable piece of real estate was abruptly taken away from my grandfather in 1940. A puppet government called the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic had been set up by the USSR. Moscow gave it carte blanche to confiscate all land, banks, factories and businesses. In short, private ownership was deemed illegal.
Officially called “nationalization” most people would simply define it as theft. It left my grandfather, now an ex-property owner, and his family reduced to living as paying tenants in what had formerly been his own property.
Sadly, I can still visualize his shaky signature on the transfer of ownership documents that proclaimed his “generous contribution” to the new soviet state. I cannot even begin to imagine the stress level he and other Estonians were under in Stalin’s newly annexed territory.
By 1997 I’d visited enough friends and relatives living in “collective” homes to gauge the appalling, substandard soviet lifestyle imposed on them. Imagine for a moment living for a good portion of your life in a cockroach infested cramped room where the bathroom, toilet and kitchen facilities were communal? And the plumbing and electricity vintage 1938 with amateur repairs added when needed over the decades.
In addition to taking on the project of rehabbing a 60 year old building overflowing with people and problems my biggest challenge lay in the House Book. I strained to wrap my mind around the concept of this“House Book”, or in Estonian “Maja Raamat”. You see, along with the building I also got this Maja Raamat that contained the history of every single tenant from the 1950s on. I had at my disposal a meticulously handwritten document that had recorded in it every significant notable movement each individual had ever made in their life.I felt as if I was now designated as Big Brother by the new republic who left it up to me as to how I was going to “solve” this “collective problem” created half a century earlier.
I remember how representatives from the government had reverently placed this book into my father’s hands in 1993 when he accepted it on behalf of my mother. This indisputable oracle dictated what city and what building the citizen got to inhabit. Entire lifetimes were spent practicing the fine art of getting signed in or out of this book. It had evolved into a finely choreographed obsession that every subsequent generation learned how to expertly fine tune and manipulate.
Once your name achieved a firm foothold in this document, you, your friends and family were in like flint. It gave you the invaluable leverage needed to determine a moderately improved living standard behind the Iron Curtain where a decent roof over one’s head could be here one day and gone the next.
It was not long before the Maja Raamat revealed to me the spooky dungeon of an underworld that both intrigued and scared the pants off me. It beckoned me to cross its threshold and almost make a pact with evil. Unsuspecting of its power, my conscience would often ask me to seriously question the strength of my character. My journey through this initiation revealed where I would ultimately take a stand, dig in and declare trench warfare.
The insanity of this document was originally conceived in 1917 at the outset of the Bolshevik Revolution. Big Brother in Moscow found that tracking your every step was an effective method for keeping cities free of “questionable characters” such as counter revolutionaries.
Scratch below the surface and you would find more devious reasons for the control of the masses. It was a surprisingly thorough method to categorize each individual’s social status. God help those who were “branded” as parasites or “kulakud” (Estonian for people of notable financial means) since that meant they would be banished to the Siberian gulag camps for 25+ years.
My book looked innocuous enough. The olive green, cloth bound log reminded me of an old fashioned photo album. Inside, the yellowing pages of heavy gauge parchment-colored paper listed the names, dates of birth and death, schools attended, military service and other places of domicile and work history of all the tenants who had lived in this building.
Each entry was painstakingly recorded by hand in fountain pen, endorsed with a stamp which in turn also had to be endorsed with a signature and date. Fascinating stuff and a marvel to study but so what? Little did I grasp the power that this relic represented.
The building had 11 apartments and 60 some leases. Loosely translated this meant that each citizen only required six square meters of living space. Anywhere from 1-4 people would typically be found occupying a 20 square meter room. What had once been a dining, living or bedroom became the home for 4 people. Like sardines in a can comrades were neatly contained in the barest minimum of allocated space.
Being the owner of this enterprise represented a dauntless challenge. But it got worse!
Enter Mr U -, the Ukrainian mafia don. (Coincidentally, Mr. U – was released from prison the same year I was gifted the building.)
I would soon feel like I was in No Man’s Land where that strip of dirt between two enemy lines belonged to no one. Stuck in the middle I felt alone and left to my own devices …… dig in and let the enemy advance? No, I needed to be clever, pull out the secret weapon, and send the enemy scurrying away like a bat out of hell.
My dozens of leases I discovered were still managed by the government for the next ten years! I was powerless to end them. Rent control wouldn’t even cover the rising cost of utilities. My hands were tied and I felt the rope cutting into my metaphorical wrists each time I searched my brain for a solution and found none.
In the early years of independence the different mafia factions were carving out their designated territories for business. This meant the periodic bomb explosions, and successful or failed assassinations of a “gang” trying to claim their territory became almost commonplace. Avidly sensationalized by the media the complacent citizenry responded with an almost laissez-faire attitude. They had enough on their own plates to worry about.
Mr U- had lost his territorial foothold while locked up in prison for extortion. He was signed into 2 rooms in an apartment in my building. These rooms represented a start for a new base of operations for Mr. U.-. And after all, rent was cheap!
Changing the front door locks I knew, was a temporary solution. I needed something more permanent. When the day came for his entry to his two rooms, he was furious that I’d blocked his access and took me to court.
I decided to take Mr U- to court also for lapse of rent payment. Although he’d paid a year in advance our book keeper had taken off with a year’s worth of rent so we had no receipts to prove that his payments had been made. (Another story.) This turned out to be a convenient solution for me since non-payment of rent voided his lease and the government would approve his removal from the House Book.
We had to wait six months for the hearing and each day I wondered if Mr U- would take matters into his own hands, especially since an attempt on his life had been made. It was a case of mistaken identity and the poor schmuck who took Mr U-’s dog out for a walk was shot dead one night by accident. My fear was that he would just have me shot.
I contacted a lawyer who was recommended to me by a Swedish friend. My meeting with Ms A- resulted in her recommending I meet with a fellow of influence. He had formerly worked for a not so well known security section of the KGB and carried some clout apparently. His office was located in Old Town on a street notorious for its KGB era prisons where people were incarcerated, interrogated, and probably tortured before being deported to Siberia. The old iron doors to the cells in the basement are on permanent display at the Museum of Occupations in Tallinn and are too creepy for words. Although this gentleman’s recently renovated office no longer smelled or looked soviet the ”euro remont” (European renovation) didn’t fool me. I could feel the air tingling with dark secrets I didn’t want to know.
We met the pleasant-faced, white bearded and balding man shortly after our arrival. He looked like anybody’s grandfather. He recognized my tenant’s name immediately and told us he could take care of him. I can’t remember now if he gave us a price or not but he promised to investigate the situation further. My lawyer and I solemnly nodded and said we’d get back with him.
We left medieval Old Town and that equally medieval chamber of horrors without saying a word. I had to keep pinching myself to make sure this surreal scenario was actually taking place! What shocked me about myself was how easily I just fell into my role as the customer needing a job done and that I was almost ready to sign on the dotted line.
My lady lawyer called me a few days’ later and said we should reconsider the entire enterprise. Once we got involved with this character we would always be indebted to him no matter how much we paid him. I was happy to concur and could suddenly breathe more easily. A dark shadow had left my room.
At Christmas I hosted a small cocktail party one night at my art gallery and invited some of my artist friends. One couple who came listened to my concerns regarding the safety of my life and suddenly, with the blankest of expressions said:
“It’s not a problem getting a solution Viviann. There are people you can hire to help you out.”
At first, I wasn’t sure I understood. Sometimes I don’t always get it in the Estonian language. The humor sometimes just goes over my head.
“Ahh, you mean, exterminate Mr. U-?”
I took a closer look at their faces to see if they were kidding. They weren’t.
Now, granted I was getting tired of playing head games with this Ukrainian gorilla but as much as I entertained the notion of actually doing this, my intuition instinctively put on the brakes one more time.
I looked again at my artist couple. They both taught at the art academy and the Russian husband was particularly talented and highly respected in art circles. They just did not seem the type who would advocate hiring a paid killer. But then again, I was in this weird time and place on the other side of the world. I was still discovering a sang froid that had evolved from decades of fear and loathing towards a deeply inhuman system of governance.
A few days’ later I got together with my friend the British ambassador. Over a gin and tonic at his favorite pub the Gentle Wolf (Hell Hunt) . I told him what had transpired. Another expressionless face answered back. Then he calmly and candidly pointed out that dark sub cultures will extort forever and that this is not what I should be getting into at all.
This waving red flag coming from a fellow westerner snapped me out of it instantly. Horrified, I was shocked that I would even consider the endorsement of closing the final chapter of Mr U-‘s life. I started to feel better about my lip service to faith and Christianity and prayed that I would get better at being religious. Somebody was telling giving me clear messages to not go down this road.
Thankful for chickening out again, I still needed a better plan. I wanted to feel empowered and not vulnerable to some criminal whose existence was threatening to me.
I went upstairs to my apartment that night and had a long conversation with my conscious.
Conscious: “I can’t believe that you would even consider hiring a mercenary. What’s gotten in to you anyway?”
Me: “ I don’t know. I’m tired of being afraid I guess.”
Conscious: “Listen. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re living in No Man’s Land, remember? You weren’t really going to do it but you wanted to see how far you could go.You were just entertaining the notion.”
Me: (Gulp.)” Thanks for the vote of confidence. I downright scare myself sometimes.”
Conscious:” It’s ok. Let’s move on. I’ve got an idea. What about the Power of the Pen? It draws no blood but can sting deep. “
Me: (Light bulb going off. Ta dah!) “Hmm, think you’ve got something there. If nothing else, if I get shot, the entire country will know who did it, and most importantly the expat community. That makes me feel better. “
Conscience: “Good girl. (Slap on the back.) Glad to see your sense of humor is back!”
And that is what I did. I wrote a master letter honestly and candidly describing the great concern for my personal safety and my genuine fear that this ex-con-mafia leader-tenant would kill me because we were going to court and he carries guns as well as his wife and he is a dangerous fellow and someone else got killed walking his dog and so on and so on.
I wrote to every single ambassador, many whom I knew personally, cultural and commercial attachés as well as the prime minister and president of Estonia for good measure, making sure that Mr. U- got a certified copy as well. The letter was in English, Russian and Estonian and his copy indicated the names of each individual who had received a copy.
After the last envelope was mailed, I left the post office feeling smug and released from the ball and chain of worry that had kept me awake for far too many nights.
Six months later, Mr. U- and I met in court. The black robed judge wearing his white wig sat to my left. I had to hide a smile since he really looked silly. Next to me on my right was my lawyer and Mr. U- sat opposite the judge. Looking less rough around the edges in his suit I wondered if he was armed. There was a Russian woman present to translate for Mr. U-.
As the hearing got under way I listened to the judge politely. I had my lawyer speak on my behalf while the translator did her job keeping Mr. U- informed.
We spent about fifteen minutes listening to the lawyer read through our respective concerns. These were the very early years where the legal system was making a comeback to practicing law in a democratic society but only four years early the official system had been quite different. I still wondered about the judge.
Suddenly Mr. U- stood up abruptly and started a loud and heated diatribe in Russian. Face flushed with what looked like anger I just buried my face in the paper back book I’d brought along as a prop for just such an outburst.
I asked my lawyer what all the fuss was about.
She turned to me and whispered:
“He says he’s shocked and insulted that you should even suggest that he would have killed you. He’s really upset about the letters.”
“Aha,” I thought to myself, “the Power of the Pen is alive and well.”
The official court translator, unable to keep up with the quickening pace of his rant, stopped translating. The judge remained silent. Estonians are supremely expert at maintaining poised posture and expressionless faces in tense situations.
No translation was needed at this point. I knew I had won in more ways than one. My biggest win was in overcoming the monster of darkness that I had not realized lurked within me. I’d sent this shadow side of human nature scurrying back to the dark place where he belonged.
I settled into what looked like deep concentration behind my novel. Secretly I was thankful that Mr. U- was still alive to pursue his griping. He could remonstrate to his heart’s content all the indignation he felt that needed witnessing. I knew he wasn’t winning any Brownie points with the judge. This scenario reminded me of premier Nikita Kruschev banging his shoe on the table at the UN assembly. I muffled a laugh.
When Mr. U- had finally run out of steam and ceased his court room bravado the judge simply ruled in my favor. I never saw Mr. U- again and was able to rent the apartment out to university students almost immediately.
Necessity, the Mother of Invention was teaching me the choreography required to remove signatures from the notorious House Book. I had one down and many dozens more to go. In the end it would take me ten years to tick off the last name. The extent to which I was transforming during this experience was not to be revealed to me until I returned to live in the US. But that’s another story.