Saturday, March 3, 2012


Just like you, I’m excited to see if Anna-Maria Galojan will be granted political asylum in Great Britain.

I admire her cohones for attempting that maneuver, but I also have to wonder how she found a British attorney willing to take on her case. They don’t work for cheap, and if she hasn’t somehow squirreled away the cash, will she sell her designer clothes on eBay to cover the several hundred pounds sterling per hour she’s being billed? Or is her tab being footed by a political party? And might she appear again in Playboy? Is she considering hosting her own talk show? Will Estonian Public Broadcasting take it, or is it more a thing for Tallinn TV? Or will she keep her current high-profile position as foreign- and energy policy analyst for that elite English-language diary, The Baltic Times?

And in addition to Anna-Maria, what about that ex-Pirita politician who likes to drink coffee in Amps? Did he only have to return the bribe he got? No jail time? Did he lose friends after his conviction? Did the family stay intact? Will we witness his return to politics after finding salvation in Jesus Christ Our Lord? These are the questions which haunt me when I see him in cafes, sipping coffee and laughing with his friends.

And what about the other Estonian businessmen wrapped up in court cases currently? There are the land scandal guys. Will they have to risk homosexual rape in a penal institution? (Does that even happen in EU prisons?) And who’s going to get only the finger wag, sentenced to lay low for six months before actively rejoining business life as a local hero?

And what about the businessman who may or may not have paid someone to whack his associate? I see him weekly at the grocery store, but I can’t bring myself to ask the obvious question. Would “How’s that murder trial going?” be an appropriate question in a culture which prides itself on the lack of small talk?

Growing up in Canada we never had it so good: you could never see your criminal class in the grocery store. Once a person became even scandal material, he retreated completely from public life. You might witness him step outside his home in a bathrobe to pick up the morning paper, but there was far too much peril in shopping or café sitting. But in Estonia it’s like we’re all in one big Catholic marriage: for better or worse, we’re going to make this thing work.

In Canada, there was my scoutmaster, arrested for indecent exposure, caught showing his tool to a group of small boys in a schoolyard. Reportedly, he revealed himself in the classic fashion (raincoat), but the small children were unimpressed. They went about their business on the playground unfazed, even though thousands of dollars was later spent on them for hours of obligatory counseling. And the scoutmaster? It was before the digital era, and so he packed up and moved to another city several hours away, safe for as long as it took a newspaper clipping to follow.

Then there was my tennis coach, sent to prison for fondling an exchange student. Reportedly, the coach had asked for photos of the Scandinavian boy in his underwear in order to evaluate his physical fitness, photos which were duly sent. When the boy arrived, he was the beneficiary of special off-the-court training sessions. The coach, after his release, also moved several hours away to start a new life, hopefully sans his special kind of tennis.

There was the science museum director, tried for keeping someone else’s artifacts at home, and perhaps selling a few on eBay. Until the end, his family maintained his innocence but the court disagreed and he was both bankrupted and jailed by the system. Released early due to ill health, he moved to a new community and died several years later, presumably from the shame of ostracism. His case was so well publicized that he could never again visit the grocery store without enduring shouts of “Shame!”

The moral here? In a country of 34 million people, criminals are disposable.

Having never had the opportunity to see a prison in Canada, in the 1990s I took advantage of an invitation to visit a prison in Estonia. There were no politicians that I can recall, but rather garden-variety thieves and rapists who were serving their sentences in the filth and squalor of pre-EU prisons. And amongst it all a book club to which I had been invited to speak.

We all hit it off quite well, though I only recall that we never talked about books. Among other things, we did talk about their one celebrity prisoner – a foreigner in for drug trafficking – who did not attend the book club. Perhaps it was because he was my acquaintance? Or perhaps it was because he spoke not a word of Estonian, the language of the book club?

After my first visit, I began to receive telephone calls from a couple of the inmates. “How’d you get my number?” I asked. “And how’d you get a phone?”

“We can get anything in prison,” the caller replied.

They could get anything except me to return, which the warden strictly forbade. “This is a prison not some boulevard café,” he told me when the inmates invited me back for a third time. “You just can’t come and go as you please.”

Several years later, one of the inmates was released, and invited me to tour the Patarei with him. He’d served several years there, and his comments made during the tour demonstrated such remarkable knowledge that the guide – a retired guard – was prompted to ask how a tourist could know so much. After the tour the former inmate approached the retired guard, shook his hand, and told him who he was. He had never been guarded by the guard, but had read a book on prison life authored by the man and respected him very much for it.

My newly free friend and I had a coffee together where he told me he’d been admitted to university, which pleased me very much. I loaned him 500 kroons and I never saw him again, not even in the grocery store.

But I know it’s only a matter of time before we meet. In a country so small, not meeting is probably a statistical impossibility. So when we do meet, given the mores of a small society, how am I expected to behave? Must I, like the rest of Estonian society, tacitly welcome him back to the world by pretending the past is water under the bridge? Because – as an Estonian politician once explained to me – in such a tiny society we need everyone we can get. (We often don’t seem to need those in Ida-Virumaa, though that is another story.)

So should I ask him how he’s doing? Did he finish university? Is he gainfully employed? Is he happy? Does he have a wife? Children? Or will I have the cohones to ask what I really want to know: Am I ever going to see my 500 kroons?

I’ve never met Anna-Maria, but I feel like I know her. Via Facebook, I’ve followed her many adventures, where we enjoy many mutual friends. My feeling is that she’s truly destined to have a talk show, and when she does I hope she’ll answer all my burning questions about a public life on the lam. She has 5,000 Facebook friends currently, but has anyone unfriended her since her conviction? Or has this incident, in fact, brought her more friends? Has she ever turned anyone down for friendship?
I’ve not yet tried to friend her. I wonder would she take me seriously? Would she be my friend?

Vello in print.