I wake up early here. Normally it’s because the light is better. It makes photographs come alive. Now it’s because of a different reason as well: tourists. And yes, we’re tourists here too, and yes I’m also taking pictures. But you’ve got to have been to Tallinn’s old town to understand…there’s just so many.
So I wake up early to have the streets, these beautiful streets, to myself. That way I can photograph buildings, not bodies. This morning I’m standing outside the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral to document a silent spectacle.
There are two women in front of the steps. In front of the curb even, they’re standing on the street as I watch them from a distance, their skirts fluttering in the wind. As more women come and go, climbing the stairs to the cathedral I find out what it is they are doing. They’re begging, and all the ladies—95% is female—going in and out give them a little something. It’s something you could easily miss because all women stop in front of those stairs; some for hardly a second, some a little longer. But they all stand there for a moment to make the sign of the cross. They do it three times and even the girls get taught to do it.
Then the clock strikes nine and it seems like it’s time for the tourists to come out. First, a group of Chinese, then a mixed group and then it gets hard to make them out because there’s so much of them. They flood the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and I can only imagine what it’s like to have your place of worship being run over every day.
Yet, it’s the tourist they can thank for the cathedral still being there. Because let’s put it mildly: the Estonians don’t really like it.
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was built by their Russian oppressors to show their supremacy and they decided to build it on the best spot possible, for doing some patriotic damage, right in front of Estonian parliament. There it became a great eyesore for Estonians, reminding them who was the boss. So when Estonia gained independence in 1991 there were plans to tear it down.
Now, they weren’t going to tear it down to make room for a grand showcase of Estonian creativity. This place of land wasn’t worth to serve as any reminder, to anything. No, this piece of land would be what no piece of land will ever hope to become: a parking lot. Because parliament needed some more space to park and what could be better than to pave over this piece of painful history right in front of the building?
But every day, every hour, every minute this cathedral doesn’t only serve as a reminder to Estonians, it also serves as an invitation to tourists. Because this buildings begs to be photographed and the tourists here are happy to comply, making the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral the most photographed object in Estonia.
So they decided against paving it over. Embracing the fact that one mans eye sore is another mans eye catcher. And as I take some more shots of this magnificent cathedral a woman comes up with her daughter and they stand in front of the stairs, as throngs of people pass them. They veil their head and solemnly make the sign of the cross three times, as mom looks at her spouse to see if it’s done correctly.
A silent spectacle, amid a raging sea of tourists. Without whom they wouldn’t have been able to do this.