The predominant architectural style at the town’s heart is what came to be known as “retrospectivist” (yes, really), backward-looking, fortified by the reassurance of a past that predated the storms of the 20th century. Many of the buildings play with neoclassical themes. Beyond that there are stately white staircases with a touch of old Odessa about them, a neatly laid-out park, a curious statue of a man lifting, I think, a symbolic atom, a lovely tree-lined avenue, a dignified cultural center, and a fine cinema by the name of Rodina. That’s Russian for “motherland,” but whether that referred to the shared Soviet home or Mother Russia herself was never quite clear. Neither interpretation was likely to appeal to Estonians, but Estonia is a tolerant sort of place and the cinema, along with the cultural center, has enjoyed protected status for over a decade. Across the street stands the town hall, inspired by the design of a traditional Estonian Lutheran church, something that the Soviets must have thought was innocuous enough to be the subject of pastiche. The same, presumably, could be said of the nods to traditional Estonian manor houses that can be seen elsewhere in town.
Uranium production in Sillamäe was abandoned in 1990. Soviet rule in Estonia collapsed the next year, and Sillamäe rejoined the world. The facility, renamed Silmet, was privatized, sold, resold, and sold again. Since 2011, by which time Silmet had become one of only two centers in Europe for the processing of rare earths (elements that are crucial for a wide range of electronics), it has been owned by the U.S. mining group, Molycorp.
But Sillamäe itself, adrift from time and place, a Soviet Brigadoon but forever in full view, endures. There’s a tucked-away town museum (judging by the friendly, but astonished, welcome I received from the three or four ladies who preside there, I was the first visitor for weeks). Apart from some atrocious local art and a collection of dolls that looks as if it has been curated by a serial killer, it boasts a couple of rooms that give a bric-a-brac impression of everyday life during Sillamäe’s Soviet past.
Then again, wandering around town will do pretty much the same thing (if you ignore the well-stocked shops). Ethnic Russians continue to make up the overwhelming majority of the town’s population. Dreaming, perhaps, of the lost certainties of Brezhnev’s day, babushkas still wander down Mere Avenue as it sweeps grandly down to the Baltic. Lenin Avenue has gone, but there are streets named after Russian literary figures and the first cosmonaut too. Up by the bus station, there’s an imposing Soviet war memorial with flowers at its base.
But, despite pot-stirring by the Kremlin, and the occasional eruption (most notoriously over the removal to a less prominent place of another Soviet memorial — this time in Tallinn), time, the passing of the older generation, Estonia’s remarkable economic performance, and access to the rest of the EU have all brought a measure of live-and-let-live to relations between the country’s two principal ethnic groups. Unlike in Latvia, where the demographics are even more delicately balanced, there is no specifically “Russian” party represented in the Estonian Parliament, and once-noisy calls for the autonomy of the still hardscrabble Russian-speaking Northeast have died down. Both in Sillamäe and in Tallinn I was assured that younger Russians are at last learning Estonian (even if, understandably enough, their Estonian peers are reluctant to learn Russian, the language of their country’s former oppressor), something that may even give them something of an employment edge in a country that is in practice, if not in law, bilingual.
When it comes to this topic, David O’Brock, the engaging Ohio native (and long-time resident of Estonia) who runs Molycorp Silmet, is cautiously upbeat about what lies ahead. Almost all the workers at his factory are ethnic Russians and many, even the middle-aged and older, are studying Estonian, or other languages that could be of use in a world that now extends far beyond Moscow’s reach.
A once-closed town is opening up. And in more ways than one.
— Andrew Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online