Estonia: A Hidden Gem for Students of Russian

By Grace Peconge

When I tell people that I am studying Russian, they automatically think that I would like to travel to Russia. While Russia is a beautiful country that provides many opportunities for immersive learning, it is certainly not the only country that can give students of Russian an immersive experience. Estonia is a country that I believe to be a hidden gem for students of Russian.

My J-Term trip to Estonia for the Tallinn Winter School was an unforgettable learning experience. My three weeks in Tallinn, a city with a slightly larger population than Cincinnati and only about 6 hours of daylight in the winter, brought me many opportunities to practice Russian both inside and outside of the classroom. Now that I am back in the USA, I am soaking up the sun but also appreciating and reflecting on my time in Tallinn. I loved being able to walk around the city, listening to people speak Russian while passing by, or listening to conversations on the tram. Perhaps it is rude to eavesdrop, but there’s no denying that it is a good informal way to practice your listening skills in Russian.

Photo of Russian Embassy, Tallinn, Estonia, January 2023
Photo from left to right: Nate Hall, Caden Wilcox, Dimitri Mironov (Instructor), Liam Martin, Charles Fair, and Grace Peconge (the author).

One of my favorite experiences was when I visited the city of Tallinn’s Russian Museum. It was a small museum but an incredible experience to practice Russian. The main exhibit in the museum was about the national dress in Estonia and the identities of Estonian citizens with ties to Russia. The exhibit was written in Estonian and Russian and provided a small English guidebook. I found the English guidebook to be of little use, reading the exhibit in Russian gave me a better picture of the exhibit. It was a beautiful exhibit and told me a unique story of life in Estonia for speakers of Russian. The war between Russia and Ukraine has complex effects not only on the citizens of Russia and Ukraine but also on the identities of citizens of neighboring countries. We can only begin to understand the effects of this situation on individual identities, and this museum has certainly added to my understanding of the Russian identity. Getting to experience this museum in the Russian language made me really appreciative of how far my Russian language skills have come and how learning Russian has given me a unique perspective on the world.

Another unique experience was when I watched the movie Avatar in Russian at the theater. I had no idea what the movie was about, but the movie was recommended to me by my Belarussian pen pal. Not knowing what the movie was about and seeing it in Russian made some parts of the movie confusing at times, but it also made the movie exciting because I did not always know what was going to happen next. I would also get very excited when the characters would have a dialogue that I could understand or when I could pick out a few words in a dialogue that I understood. Being able to watch a movie in the theater entirely in Russian was an incredible experience. Sitting in a theater of fluent Russian speakers, feeling as if I was an American undercover, made this movie-watching experience a memorable one.

Photo of Russian Embassy, Tallinn, Estonia, January 2023

Photos: Taken outside the Russian Embassy in Tallinn.

My time in Estonia also gave me a different perspective on how the rest of the world has reacted to the Russia-Ukraine war. Every time I would walk around the city, I would see buildings lit up with the Ukrainian flag or businesses with a Ukrainian flag hung outside. Many shops in the city’s Olde Town were selling ribbons in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, with the proceeds going toward Ukrainians. While walking to the city of Tallinn’s Russian museum, I happened to walk past the Russian embassy. In front of the embassy is a fence with anti-war symbols and signs. Written in Russian, Ukrainian, Estonian, and English, the display outside of the embassy is very attention-grabbing and powerful. No matter where I went in the city, there always seemed to be a reminder that the war was still going on. This display of support in Tallinn is something that I had not seen in America since the early days of the war.

My three weeks in Tallinn were some of the most fun I have had in years. I loved being able to learn and practice Russian, visiting as many museums as I could, and taking in as many sights as possible in such a short time, I was able to experience so much. I highly recommend any student of Russian or related studies to attend the Tallinn Winter school (or the Summer School if you cannot brave the winter!). As students of Russian, we love to challenge ourselves. The Winter School and life in Tallinn are no different, providing many opportunities to challenge oneself in such a short amount of time.

Grace Peconge is a junior majoring in History and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies

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