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Tallinn tales

During the Twenties and Thirties, the Estonian capital of Tallinn was known to be a centre for espionage, infiltrated by White Russian intriguers bent on blocking Bolshevik access to north-west Europe.

27 August 2011

10:15 AM

27 August 2011

10:15 AM

The Last Ambassador: August Torma, Soldier, Diplomat, Spy Tina Tamman

Rodopi Books, pp.251, 49

During the Twenties and Thirties, the Estonian capital of Tallinn was known to be a centre for espionage, infiltrated by White Russian intriguers bent on blocking Bolshevik access to north-west Europe. Graham Greene first visited in the spring of 1934  — ‘for no reason’, he writes in his memoir Ways of Escape, ‘except escape to somewhere new’. He spent many happy hours in Tallinn, he records, ‘when I was not vainly seeking a brothel’. (The brothel had been recommended to him by Baroness Budberg, a Russian-Estonian exile living in London and mistress of, among others, H. G.Wells.) Though Greene failed to find the brothel, he did conceive of a film sketch, Nobody to Blame, about a British sales representative in Tallinn for Singer Sewing Machines, who was a spy. The film was never made, but it contained the bare bones of what was originally Our Man in Tallinn, later Our Man in Havana.

Inevitably, Tallinn attracted political adventurers as it was the Baltic port closest to Leningrad. Arthur Ransome, the amateur angler and sailing enthusiast, married Leon Trotsky’s private secretary, Evgenia Shelepina, in Tallinn in 1924. As an apologist for Bolshevism, the future author of Swallows and Amazons may even have had a hand in the Communist putsch that failed to topple ‘bourgeois’ Tallinn later that year. Other Englishmen visited the Baltic outpost at this time. Anthony Powell, whose father was attached to the British Military Mission in nearby Helsinki, arrived in the autumn of 1924. Powell’s second novel, Venusberg, contains descriptions of medieval guildhalls and twisting cobbled streets that are recognisably Tallinn’s.  

All these Englishmen had known Estonia during the heyday of its inter-war independence and could not have imagined its fate during the second world war. In 1940, Estonia was invaded by Stalin, and the following year by Hitler; the Soviets returned in 1944 and did not leave again for half a century. Consequently Estonia disappeared from the map of Europe. The Last Diplomat provides an absorbing account of occupied Estonia as seen through the eyes of its wartime diplomat August Torma. Having been appointed ambassador to Britain in 1934, Torma was suddenly bereft of his government when Soviet tanks rolled into the Baltic and the tiny republic was subsumed into the USSR.

However, as Britain refused to recognise the Soviet annexation of Estonia, Torma was allowed to stay on at the Estonian Legation in South Kensington. From his rooms at 167 Queen’s Gate he gave whisky-fuelled parties and lobbied parliament to keep Estonia’s fate alive in the press. Over time, No. 167 came to ‘personify the lost Republic of Estonia’, says Tina Tamman. The Legation had been built in 1889-1890 as a textile merchant’s house; faded flowery chintzes, pieces of oak furniture and heavy hangings abounded, with alabaster columns in the reception. From the overgrown garden visitors could make out the Natural History Museum. Later, in the mid-1980s, James Ivory used the billiard room for a scene in his film of A Room with a View.

In wartime Britain, not surprisingly, Estonia’s independence had not been a priority. For 300 years Estonia had been a part of imperial Russia, and had served the Tsars as a gateway into Europe and Nordic lands. It would be madness to wage war on the country’s behalf now, A.J.P. Taylor wrote to the Manchester Guardian in 1943. A cultivated man, Torma nevertheless managed to uphold the cause of Estonia’s sovereignty during the Cold War, and may even have spied against Moscow on behalf of British Intelligence. Estonia’s independence had lasted scarcely two decades from 1918, yet the republic deserved to survive, Torma insisted.  

Impeccably researched, The Last Ambassador is thoughtful and detailed without ever being remotely dull. The title is presumably meant to recall Roland Chambers’s life of Arthur Ransome, The Last Englishman. Ransome had apparently liked to go pike fishing off the Tallinn archipelago in the company of his Russian wife. I now wonder if a trace of Bolshevik intransigence does not exist in the rules and regulations which he later devised for his (horribly virtuous) Walker children in their Lakeland utopia in Swallows and Amazons. If so, Ransome presumably did not want it to show. August Torma’s own country had been ‘crucified between two thieves’ — Hitler and Stalin — yet he mourned the loss with a dignified reserve. He died in London in 1971, 20 years before Estonia regained its freedom.

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