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By Bob Baker

In 1991, I caught the ferry boat from Helsinki, Finland to Tallinn, Estonia. As Director of the Regional Program Office in Vienna, I took to Helsinki and then to Estonia, two Austrian staffers and three big, sealed, diplomatic canvas mailbags. They each contained computers for the newly established U.S. Information Service (USIS) posts in Tallinn, Vilnius and Riga.

Equipment and furniture for all the new U.S. embassies in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism was shipped through a State Department warehouse in Helsinki.

However, the warehouse had misplaced the computers for the new Baltic posts; they couldn’t be found even though our precise and detailed shipping records in Vienna showed they had been delivered there. After going myself, I spotted the bags stowed behind a wall of furniture waiting to be shipped to our new embassies in the former Soviet Union.

My Austrian staffers were expert in computers and administration. They installed the computer systems and the correct admin programs at each post. I went along to hire translators at each of the three Baltic countries.  Each of us lugged one bag containing three computers from the State Department warehouse in Helsinki to the ferryboat bound for Estonia’s capital, Tallinn.

Ferry between Helsinki and Tallinn, 1992

An embassy truck driven by a guy from the embassy code room, met us at the ferry terminal in Tallinn. At the embassy, Hans and Fritz came with me as we each carried a bag into the code room for temporary storage. The Americans there were friendly and glad to talk to newcomers. My two Austrians were both blue eyed, tall, with American accents. We chatted with the communicator until I uneasily mentioned that the staffers were Austrians. He looked chagrined and hustled them out, as foreigners are not admitted to code rooms.

The truck took us next day to the USIS offices downtown where my guys installed the computers and trained the new Estonian staffers how to use them. One taught the new USIS Estonian admin guy how to use the complex administrative systems of the U.S. Embassy. The Estonians spoke English fluently and were pro-U.S. as we had for decades strongly supported their independence from Moscow.

In Search of an Estonian Translator

While the Austrians worked at USIS, I took a taxi to the home of an Estonian university professor recommended by our cultural assistant as a potential translator for our publishing work in Vienna.

Our Vienna Regional Program Office building held four giant four-color printing presses, along with editors, printers, photographers, etc. In addition to providing all the posts in communist countries with exhibits, administrative, and computer support, we printed 250,000 pages of U.S. official publications monthly. That included magazines and special articles.  They went to all our embassies in former communist countries for distribution to local elites, universities, and secondary schools.

With the fall of communism, I wanted to translate our materials into the local languages of all the newly independent countries.

I wanted to send the newly freed nations the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, and other political and economic publications. We needed twenty new translators for this new venture.

The Estonian professor was learned. He taught English literature. He showed me a stack of books he had translated from English into Estonian.

Among them was a scholarly book on Shakespeare that I had happened to read years earlier. I was surprised and delighted that it had been published in Estonian. I asked him how many copies had been published. He said 20,000. I was amazed. Such scholarly materials came out in the U.S. in a couple thousand copies, at most.

I asked how many had been sold. “All” he replied.

It turned out that during the decades of communist censorship, politically innocent materials were the only intellectually stimulating books sold. The educated Estonian elite bought such books avidly as intellectual relief from the turgid books of communist literature, doctrine, history, etc.

Translating the Constitution

All publishing was under direct communist control in all communist nations, except for underground materials.

I handed him copies of the Constitution and the Declaration to translate. In a of couple weeks, I sent his draft translations to Washington for checking. USIA broadcasting employed trusted Estonian nationals among its foreign broadcasters. They approved the professor’s translations, so I hired him.

Our Vienna staff created the Estonian typefaces (some diacritical marks had to be hand-made as they were not available outside Estonia). Within a year we had published and distributed both our Constitution and Declaration in Estonian.

That country was making the tumultuous transition from communist dictatorship to democracy. The posts sent copies to politicians, universities, etc. to assist with the development of democratic institutions

We translated those great American documents into 21 languages within about one year. We sent them to almost all the new countries that arose from the end of the Soviet Union and Russia itself.

In 1991, the Soviets, after some bloodshed, had withdrawn many troops from Estonia, but the country was impoverished as production collapsed when Moscow withdrew its subsidies. The currency was wildly inflated. The ruble, like all currencies in the countries controlled by the USSR, had lost most of its purchasing power in the economic collapse after communism ended.

Estonia has since emerged as a highly successful democracy. When I returned a couple of years later, the communist bookshops were closed.

However, lots of printed materials were displayed on street stands, most published by local entrepreneurs in Estonian. No more scholarly treatises on Shakespeare. Just what the free market would bear. End.

Robert Baker

Bob Baker began his career with the US Information Agency as an intelligence analyst analyzing communist propaganda in East Africa.  Subsequently, as a foreign service officer, Baker served in Uganda, Mali, London, Germany, Australia, Los Angeles, VOA Washington, and the Regional Program Office in Vienna.

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