By Joel Alas
TALLINN - Of all of Lasnamäe’s curses, the worst it has to bear is stigma. The area’s external ugliness is the least of its concerns, although that’s what draws gasps of horror from first-time visitors.
Built in the 1970s to house migrant labor, Lasnamäe is unequivocally Tallinn’s most loathed, derided and feared suburb. Yet it remains home to over 100,000 people who manage to cultivate life within the canyons of monotonous Soviet housing towers.
The debate over the livability of Lasnamäe has flared again with the release of a bleak-yet-beautiful film that dissects the nature of society within such Soviet-era mass housing suburbs.
The movie, “Sugisball” (“Autumn Ball”), has captured international attention, winning the Orizzonti Prize at the recent Venice Film Festival – the highest award ever bestowed upon an Estonian film.
Based on a book of the same name, the film follows the lives of several inhabitants of apartment towers. The monotonous rows of identical grey buildings aren’t the focus of the story, yet they overwhelm every scene and seem to infect each character.
The work opens with a shot of a man on a balcony surveying his surrounds. His hands grip the rail and his face distorts with pain. It seems suicide is on his mind.
There isn’t much light in the film, aside from a few moments of black comedy. Only at the end is the viewer given a fleeting glimpse of hope. For the most part, the message of the film carries a weight of negativity.
Director Veiko Õunpuu shot the movie last November, capturing the dull grey skies and ice-crisped grasses of a snowless winter in Lasnamäe.
But in fact, the book upon which the film was based was written about an entirely different mass housing suburb. Writer Mati Unt penned “Sugisball” with Mustamäe in mind. Mustamäe sits on the other side of Tallinn from Lasnamäe, and although they are equally unsightly, the two suburbs are very different in history and social make-up.
As architecture historian Andres Kurg tells it, Mustamäe was built with an air of hope, while Lasnamae was seen as an oppressive colony.
“Mustamäe, when it was built in the late 50s, was seen as a positive thing,” Kurg, a lecturer at the Estonian Academy of Art, says. “It was the first of these such suburbs. They were proposed as ideal living areas. A lot of cultural people were given new apartments there, and Unt himself lived there.
“His novel, written in 1977, is the reaction to these suburbs. After 10 years or more, it became clear that they are homogenous, they create this anonymous living environment where you don’t know anyone else.
“But while Mustamäe was once seen as being a positive thing, Lasnamäe never was. It was seen from the beginning as an influx of Russians. Mustamäe was split 50-50 between Estonians and Russians, and the social structure was more middle class. Lasnamäe was always full of working class Russians who came here to work, and didn’t care about Estonia.”
Estonians began to speak out about their dislike for the suburb during the Singing Revolution. It began with a concert during the Old Town Days festivities by singer Ivo Linna, who performed five patriotic songs about the “fatherland” Estonia. One of them was called “Stop Lasnamäe.” It became a rallying cry during the non-violent revolution, a catch-phrase echoed across Tallinn as Estonians turned on the idea of forced Russification.
“The song was a symbol against the Russian influx of immigrants, and against this Sovietization, where things never worked out as they were told. Lasnamäe represented this gap between the dream and the reality, where things were bad quality and work was never finished,” Kurg says.
On paper, Lasnamäe was supposed to be an ideal all-encompassing living area, complete with a cultural center and a tram system. Neither the cultural center nor the tram system was ever completed. The utilitarian five-, nine-, and sixteen-floor buildings were erected row-upon-row, with scrappy vegetation and fields of dirt between them.
But are such planned apartment buildings unique to former Soviet states ? Cities across Europe and America are blighted by equally-ugly housing projects. Kurg says the lack of architectural diversity in Soviet cities is what sets these suburbs apart.
“In London and other cities, there is at least a mix of building systems, they don’t all look the same. Britain has about 300 building systems for its council flats. Here, we only had one. The idea behind it is the same – cheap fast housing for people. But by the time Lasnamäe was built, it was clear this mass housing concept had strong drawbacks.”
The Lasnamäe reality
Some of those who live in Lasnamae tell a different story from the film. Though they may seem ugly and oppressive, life continues in such planned suburbs, and occasionally, it flourishes. In the insightful cultural handbook “A User’s Guide to Tallinn,” Lasnamäe resident Vadya Lahari tells the interviewer of discovering a microcosm of life within the basement shops of Lasnamäe, where small communities form. She talks of observing the comings-and-goings of young people at bus stops, of walking to the limestone cliffs to stare at the sea.
Rasmus Kask, a Tallinn University masters student studying human geography, says Lasnamäe cops a bad rap.
“Lasnamäe is statistically less criminal than the Old Town, but is still considered to be worse. Some reports say that two out of three descendants of Lasnamäeans want to live in Lasnamäe,” Kask says. “What is Lasnamäe, really ? [It’s] 35 square kilometers of houses for 110,000 inhabitants with their daily problems and chores, as anywhere else in Tallinn. It’s just a bit different by looks, and with a hugely over-exaggerated negative image.”
Kurg also senses a change is coming to Lasnamäe.
“In recent years, there has been a shift, particularly amongst investors. A lot of investors now realize that there are 100,000 people living there, and there are so few services. There are new buildings and supermarkets in the areas where a city center was originally planned but never built. And new apartments are being constructed, and are being sold successfully,” Kurg says.
And so back to the film. Director Veiko Õunpuu says he didn’t set out to demonize Lasnamäe, but used it as a backdrop for the general struggle of humans, no matter where they live. In one scene, the main character stares out the window as he delivers a monologue about the residents of the city living in their tiny boxes, each seeking a degree of happiness.
“Generally, we all live in such boxes. Even in the Old Town, you find people living in boxes. This is not a film about one place, but it speaks about the universal condition that we all live in,” Õunpuu says.