An Account Of a Non-invasion of Ruhnu

by Jons Plunts

In Latvian: Nenotikusī Roņu salas okupācija

Elizabeth Rutens' photographs and post cards

Pay no mind to the title. That was just to get your attention. This will not be about politics or other such nonsense. To be honest, I really meant the title to be, simply, "A Story about Ruhnu", and ideally, I would have liked it to turn out a little like Axel Munte’s masterpiece "A Story about San Michel". Ruhnu deserves such a thing. However... I can only do my best to try to relate what I have learned about the fabled island of Ruhnu, to tell a bit about its history and about my visit there, with friends, last summer. Please accept it as is.


The Geography, history, lard, hurtling armored trains, the internet, nature. Also some speculation as to why the "phlegmatic" Estonians have progressed faster than Latvians.

Where is Ruhnu situated?

The island of Ruhnu is situated in the Baltic Sea, practically in the middle of the Gulf of Riga. The nearest land is 37 km to the Southwest - Cape Kolka in Latvia. To Saarema and to Kuresaare, the capital the larger Estonian island, Saamsala - it is 70 km. To Pernau it is 96 km, to Kihnu Island - 54 km.

How large is the island of Ruhnu?

Not especially large, but neither is it exactly postage-stamp sized -around 11.5 square kilometers (5.5 kilometers long, 3.5 kilometers wide.) To put it in human terms - big enough so that a city dweller could work up blisters on his feet, wandering around for two days in a row. There is never a feeling of closeness or cause for claustrophobia. Quite the contrary - there is plenty of space for feeling alone and free. But more about that later.

Ruhnu Island (Runõ in Swedish, Roņu Sala in Latvian) belongs to the Saare administrative region and is a conditionally independent community. There is no precise translation of the word "Ruhnu" from the Estonian. The Latvian "Roņu sala" seems to imply a connection with seals, but that is not true. Seals can be observed around the island, although for the last twenty years their numbers have dwindled and they are under protection of the law against hunters.

About 35% of the island is covered by forest, in which you might meet an occasional fox or some larger rodent. The rest of the land is partially developed for agriculture. There’s space for domesticated animals. In the northern part there are grazing fields for cows. I almost forgot… Somewhere in the middle of the island there is a very deep salt water spring. The water from it is reputedly very good for you.

Now, speaking of history, we must right off dot some "i’s" and cross some "t’s". We Latvians now and then (partly in jest, partly in earnest) like to think that Ruhnu actually ought to belong to Latvia and Estonians have taken it away from us. Personally, I do not share the view that we have any real cause to say so or to think so.

Allow me to note some historical political realities of the 20th century. As regards political allegiances and nations’ right of self-determination, Latvians have little real claim to Ruhnu. For centuries now, Ruhnu has been inhabited by … Swedes. Their rights to live there were recognized by the bishop of Courland way back in 1341. In writing, no less. Ancient Swedish law was in force here until as recently as 1944 (!). As a consequence of the rather large distance from the Swedish mainland, the old Swedish language and traditions, laws, architecture and lifestyle was preserved here through the centuries, making it, in a sense, a unique theme park of the seafaring age. (This, of course, is a slight exaggeration.)

After World War I, when nations were being divided and reshaped it became clear that the kingdom of Sweden was not interested in claiming this land. So Latvia and Estonia became contenders by default. The inhabitants were Swedes, but the land is closer to Latvia, but Estonia was not much farther.

I would not claim to know the whole historical truth, but I am aware of various possible explanations of why Ruhnu came to be part of Estonia. Both Latvia and Estonia have an economic stake, because the territorial boundary is measured from the island and encompasses fishing rights. At the start of the century these were very important. Even quite recently, a few years ago Latvia and Estonia had a dispute over fishing rights. Perhaps you remember the "fish war", when the Estonian coast guard drove Latvian fishing vessels out of Estonian waters. In and of itself the island does not, in my opinion, constitute any special economic asset. At least there I have heard no talk of petroleum drilling or gold mines.

All in all I am aware of four different explanations of how Ruhnu came to be an Estonian possession.

First version - at the end of the First World War representatives of the Latvian and Estonian governments visited the island and asked the inhabitants to choose between them. The nod went to the nation with the cheaper liquor. This turned out to be Estonia.

Second version - After WWI the first to show up in Ruhnu were the Estonian representatives and they invited the inhabitants to join Estonia. The inhabitants demanded in return that the Estonians buy up their stores of seal lard, which, because of the war, was then a surplus commodity. The Estonians bit the bullet and purchased the lard at a loss to themselves, thus heading off the Latvians.

Third version - During the war, the Latvians found it hard going in their battles at Cēsis against the Baltic Germans and so they requested assistance from the Estonians. The Estonians, being practical by nature, promised to send an armored train if the Latvians conceded Ruhnu to them. When the Latvians promised this, the armored train full of Estonian troops soon arrived and together with the Latvians they managed to defeat the Germans at Cēsis. This victory was decisive in the establishment of the Latvian republic. If course the significance of this victory was more symbolic than military, but the price was Ruhnu. And so it would appear that Latvia paid for her independence by giving up Ruhnu.

Fourth version - The islanders were polled to determine which country they preferred to belong to. The nod went to Estonia because Tallinn historically had a larger Swedish minority than Riga. It would seem logical, that the Swedish inhabitants would prefer to be closer to their own people. Even Sweden, for that same reason, might have preferred such an outcome.

In my opinion, the truth probably lies somewhere between the third and the fourth versions. I do not claim to know the full story. Let the historians work on it.

Looking even further back in history, it turns out that the first evidence of human habitation on the island is from 5200 bce. This is the evidence from archeological digs. Whether these inhabitants were Swedes or Latvians is not known. Maybe Estonians?

The first written record about Ruhnu is from 1341, when the bishop of Courland issued an edict to permit the Swedish natives of Ruhnu to govern themselves according to Swedish law. Believe it or not, this edict was respected and observed until August 4, 1944, when almost all the Swedes of Ruhnu fled to Sweden to escape the Russian army. All that remained was two families. Apparently it was not a wise choice because they were forced to relocate in Siberia for a time. At present there is only one lady of Swedish descent on the island, who arrived by marriage in 1938. After the war the island came to be inhabited by Estonians, mostly from nearby Saarema and Kihnu islands. At present it has a population of 58. About a third are children. The largest recorded population of the island was in the year 1842 - 389 people. Up to 1968 or 1970 the population fluctuated from 200 to 250 people. Toward the end of the 60ies a terrifically destructive storm wrecked the economy of the island, and many islanders were forced to relocate elsewhere. At present, after the renewal of Estonia’s independence, the old Swedish property rights have been reinstated and the descendents of the old Swedish islanders are happily reclaiming their inheritance. About 60% of the island presently belongs to Swedes, and they are not hurrying to give any of it up or to sell any of it. They continue to be frequent visitors to the island, and every year toward the end of July there is a big Swedish festival there.

At present the economy of the island itself rests almost entirely on government funded undertakings. There is a meteorological station, a diesel electric power generator station, an airport, a harbor, a lighthouse, a coast guard station, a school, a kindergarten, a library, a couple of stores, guest homes, a medical facility, at least two small bars and communal administration offices. I did notice that tourism was actively and successfully fostered. There never was any problem telephone communications - there is a cell phone antenna, internet is available, TV (you can even get Latvian TV stations) and radio, you can pay your bill with credit cards. In summers there are many vacationers. As one of our pilots noted - sometimes he brings to the island a population surge of as much as a third of the entire population of the island.


The Trip to Ruhnu

A twin engine aircraft, a variable "eurostandard", Ruhnu’s old church, a punk with a "Jawa" motorcycle at 1:00 AM. Do Estonians speak Russian? Is it dangerous to speak Russian in Riga?

I could go on and on, but words are mere words. Far better to pick up and go see rather than hear a hundred stories or just read about it. So - no sooner said than done. One hot July weekend an expedition of four headed out from Riga to Ruhnu - Mārtiņš, Ilmārs, Sanita, Elizabete and your humble servant - Jon Plunt.

The itinerary was not especially difficult - on Saturday morning from Riga to Pernau by car (some 180 km in 2 hours), from Pernau to Ruhnu by plane (about 100 km in less than half an hour). The only problem was finding the airport in Pernau, but if you give yourself some extra time, that is no big deal. I had reserved the airplane tickets in advance by calling Pernau airport (+372 4475001). The round trip ticket cost Ls35 for a single passenger. I should make note that Pernau airport was definitely up to European standards - bright, spacious, comfortable and modern. Service was very courteous and prompt. And the plane itself was no rattletrap biplane or "kukuruznik". A very comfortable, 18 seat twin engine plane which never for a moment gave cause for any feeling of insecurity or discomfort. The crew were two uniformed Estonian pilots who had no problem, as the need arose, to communicate in the English or Russian languages. The official language, of course, was Estonian, but when we requested that flight information be given in English as well, we got it without hesitation. On board besides us there were a pair of overgrown boy scouts with huge backpacks and an elderly Scandinavian couple. The plane made the return flight on the following day, Sunday at four o’clock in the afternoon according to Estonian time, that is, one hour behind Latvian time.

So in less than half an hour we flew across the sea from Pernau to the legendary island of Ruhnu.

The plane landed in a field between the woods and the sea. No problem. Our pilots informed us that another plane of the same type is in service in the mountains of Norway - it is especially suited for small airfields.

To backtrack a bit - We had long been dreaming and talking about a trip to this strange island. However, as we stepped out of our plane we were inclined to accept the island for what it is and not to try to compare it with any preconceived notions. And it is well that we were so inclined. When you approach a thing with an open heart, you will generally be accepted in a like spirit. From the very first we enjoyed a hospitable welcome.

Allow me to be more specific. As soon as we stepped out of our plane, we were approached by an elderly Estonian man. We exchanged the traditional Estonian word of greeting, "Tere". Without further ado he asked if we are from Latvia and do we need accommodations. As if he had been expecting us. Yes, we are from Latvia and indeed we had not arranged for accommodations. "Then come with me!" he offered, and we readily accepted. We had to wait a bit, because he needed to take care of a few things first. It turned out that he was the director of the Ruhnu airport (or so it seemed), and he had to finish taking care of our plane. Meanwhile, we got a chance to look around the airport. The airport building was the size of a smallish barn, but quite up to the standards of Europe - modern, well-lit, with all the comforts a traveler could expect: comfortable seats, a computer and other modern conveniences. The director's wife was busily working at the computer.

After a while Vello, as he was called, was ready to take us in as his guests. It was about a kilometer to his house, so we were got in his car, an aging Japanese pickup. Vello took the wheel and his wife and Elizabeth sat next to him and the rest of us, Mārtiņš, Ilmars, Sanita and I, hoisted ourselves and our gear up in back. Our adventures in Ruhnu had begun. It is hard to describe the fantastic feeling of riding along in the back of that old pickup on that warm summer day, aware that you are on a small island in the middle of the sea. In no more than ten minutes we rode through a woods and a field of rye to arrive at Vello's house - a typical 30's style farmhouse. All around was a meticulously tended farmstead with a barn, cultivated fields and orchards and so forth, just as you would expect in a well-kept farm. There were several farm buildings. We were put up in the best-looking one, which apparently served as the guest house. There was a sauna, hot shower, comfortable beds. No TV, radio or minibar, though. But those are things one can do without while on Ruhnu. Certainly we would not be wanting to watch TV or listen to the radio. But the minibar actually did turn up a bit later, in a manner typical of Ruhnu, when shortly before dinner our host brought us smoked flounder, saying that we might like an appetizer.

The cost of these lodgings per person was 100 EEK, about 3.5 - 4 Ls. I should add that we were offered the opportunity of arranging for all the day's meals, but we chose to take only breakfast and dinner for the next day, as we were planning to spend the day exploring the island's "center".

Having settled in, we headed out to see the island. We walked to the village, about a kilometer along a well maintained gravel road. We did not see any asphalt roads. Apparently there are none. Nor did we see any traffic police or traffic lights. Cars had license plates only if they still had them from a previous owner and had not fallen off. I could not say how many cars there were on the island. There were no traffic jams. Aging pickups was the norm. Soon we came to the first dwellings. The very first was a large well maintained single-story house nestled among trees, with a ball field and neatly trimmed lawn. This was, apparently, the local schoolhouse. We did not go in to check, but we had heard that it has the highest ratio of internet connections per student in all of Estonia. We did not count the number of children in the school, but I would estimate that there were no more than 20. This is fairly typical of Estonia - the school in good repair, equipped with computers and connected to internet, good sports facilities - even on remote Ruhnu island. I daresay this little school would be the envy of a good many large Riga schools. Not far from there we saw another neat wooden structure with a flagmast bearing the Estonian flag. That turned out to be the island's community administration center.

As befits a group of proper Latvians, soon we were all thinking of just one thing - food, and sure enough, it wasn't long before we spotted a store in a white brick building. We entered boldly. The store was not very big, but the variety and the prices seemed acceptable. We made it known that we were mainly interested in a bite of breakfast, so the proprietress invited us follow her. Behind an unassuming warehouse facade we found a quite pleasant café. Oak wood tables, a decent bar, decorative fishnets hung up on the walls. Soon we were sipping hot coffee and sampling smoked salmon on toast. Nothing extraordinary, but very cozy. Contrary to stories we had heard, neither here nor any other place on Ruhnu did we encounter any problems communicating. The inhabitants all made no bones about speaking fluent Russian, not a hint that it presented any difficulty or displeasure. All our encounters were very friendly and polite. The only problem was English. Rarely did we meet anyone who spoke English. In fact, we met only one person who spoke English. This presented some difficulty to Elizabeth, who has lived most of her life in America, where Russian is not much needed. Nevertheless the people of Ruhnu were able to make do if need be with only a few words of English. In any case, Elizabeth did not encounter any serious difficulties making herself understood to the islanders.

Having eaten, we went on. Before we left the café, the proprietor politely asked where we were planning to have lunch. Already for the second time we were offered a prepared meal. A trifle, perhaps, but so characteristic of Estonia, especially Ruhnu - to be solicitous of visitors and guests. Of course, everything is done in businesslike fashion, but it is done competently, carefully and, the main thing, politely and respectfully. In any case we were at all times made to feel safe and well cared for. I will add that the prices were quite nice too. A good dinner on average per person cost approximately 40 - 50 EEK of 1.5 to 2 Ls.

We considered the offer and agreed to return for lunch, because the place was really quite pleasant, even though from the outside it was clear that the café was situated in a former warehouse or service station. At the entrance there was the proprietor's car - an aging yellow Mercedes. The owner himself referred to it unromantically as his duty tractor.

As we were leaving we noticed another example of civilized development - at the door there were several refuse bins, separate ones for glass, paper etc. A trifle, but a pleasant difference from the practice back home in Latvia.

Slowly we walked on, wanting to explore the island. The dwellings for the most part are single-story buildings, well kept, not too close to each other. Some of them did look abandoned and some of the lawns were in need of mowing, but the overall impression is of tidiness. At almost all the crossroads there are nice, well-designed road signs. Unfortunately, these are all in the Estonian language, so occasionally we had to do some guesswork. After a while we came to a sort of a small outdoor museum of wood buildings, thatch-roofed pergolas and a carefully tended lawn. This turned out to be the local recreation center, with a small store, a café and a guest house. Here you could pay for services with a credit card. You could rent bicycles. The guest house could accommodate a fairly large number of tourists. While we were looking around, a minibus arrived bringing a small group of tourists from Latvia. I did not find out by what means they had crossed the sea.

In the store we bought a few souvenirs, including a map of Ruhnu. In the short time that we were there, again we were offered lunch. When we declined, we were invited to the local pub that evening for a dance.

Then, a couple of hundred meters further down the road we came to the local museum, housed in a smallish wooden building. It tells the history of Ruhnu in photographs and a few display items. The curator, a young person, gave us a gracious and informative tour. Much of what I learned from him I have already set down here.

From the museum, we went to look at Ruhnu's two famous churches - the old one and the new one. After a couple of hundred meters through a groomed fir grove we came to the churches and to the Ruhnu Island cemetery. The Old Church of Ruhnu is one of Estonia's very oldest extant wood structures. It was built in 1644. At present it has been almost completely renovated with funding from the government of Estonia and private donations. Since ancient times the great bell has rung at six o'clock every Saturday night as a signal to the islanders to end their labor and to prepare for church services. This tradition is observed even to this day. I do not know if all labor ends at six o'clock on Saturday, but church services are held even to this day even if there is only one person in the church. The elderly Scandinavian couple that accompanied us in our flight had attended the service. They were the only ones in attendance. On the web you can see our postcards showing the church. (click here!) These can be purchased in Ruhnu, and the income is donated toward the renovation of the church.

Right next to the old church is the new church. It was built in 1912. The architect - Oto Hofmanis of Riga University. The locals claimed he was a Latvian, but, judging from the name and the context of the time, I would say that he was probably a Baltic German.

Initially, his design for the church had specified a wood structure, but the Swedes had nevertheless insisted on a stone structure. And so the two churches stand there, next to each other. As is customary, the churchyard is a cemetery. I did not determine when the last burial there had taken place, but it looked like it must have been quite some time ago. It is a rather interesting cemetery, different from the cemeteries in Estonia and in Latvia. The markers are wood crosses with roofs on them. The largest of them has a metal plaque with an inscription in a completely unfamiliar alphabet. Somehow I never managed to find out what alphabet that is. Probably some runic script. On the church flagpole flies a flag which is neither a Swedish nor an Estonian one. Maybe the flag of Ruhnu? I did not find out. In the immediate vicinity, which, as I understand it, is the old center of Ruhnu, the old wood structures are being carefully restored. Mainly they are log structures with a characteristic style of foundation, such as we can see in our own outdoor museum in Riga.

Time passed as we slowly walked around, and it was already close to lunch time. Our café was awaiting us with a hot lunch - delicious fresh potatoes, lightly salted smoked salmon, salad and a few other things. Just thinking about it now makes my mouth water. Naturally, the proprietor himself came by to wish us a good appetite. We talked at length about life on the island, the customs and traditions. It is somewhat surprising, but we parted almost like old friends, we were even invited to look at the family album. Anyone who talks about the Estonians being cool and aloof to strangers should know that such is not the case with the islanders of Ruhnu.

Having eaten, we slowly headed for home in order to rest up a bit from our long trip and the surfeit of new impressions. (Our day had begun very early in the morning in Riga.)

Evening sneaked up on us. We ate dinner at a long table in our host's garden. We were joined by the pilots who had flown us that morning. Elizabeth mentioned that it is a great honor to be dining at the captain's table. In this case, two captains' table. Of course our host joined us also. It was a very pleasant company. Indeed, the feeling never abandoned us that we were long-awaited friends and guests on Ruhnu Island. (Wherever else I have traveled in the wide world, I have never felt so cozy and so secure. There is really no way to describe this feeling - it must be experienced.)

In our dinner conversation I was made aware of a ridiculous misconception about Riga. It seems that the islanders think that in Riga one can not, is not permitted to speak in Russian. If you do, then Latvians will not answer and will act impolite. We laughed heartily and a bit bitterly about this strange idea. Especially because many Latvians think the same thing about Estonia, and are afraid to speak Russian in Estonia. In neither case is it true. As we know all too well, in Riga it is perfectly normal to converse in Russian. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that in many cases one can not communicate in any language but Russian in Riga. Of course, in Estonia, and especially in Tallinn one can communicate freely in Russian. Estonians understand that making money is important and that can be done only by being nice to all tourists, regardless of the language they speak. I have almost never encountered any prejudice against myself for speaking Russian in Estonia. Nor have I found that speaking Russian presents any difficulties to Estonians. Young people and the people of southwestern Estonian (around Tartu) are not so fluent in Russian and do prefer to use the English language. But in the service sector of the economy anyone who knows more languages will get better pay. Russians, Ukrainians, Latvians and Lithuanians constitute the bulk of all tourists, and they still all speak better Russian than English. So Estonians have given up their resistance to the Russian language. There are, of course, individual exceptions, as there are also among Latvians. But on the whole, Estonians do understand that the Russian language is used as a common language by hundreds of thousands of tourists who inject a large amount of money in Estonia's tourism industry and who therefore affect the welfare of the nation and of each individual. (Here I have digressed from the topic, but the point really is that there are these misconceptions about our "hot-blooded" northern neighbors.)

This table-talk brought us to the evening and we could go forth on our further explorations of Ruhnu with renewed strength. We headed for the harbor and the seashore. We could not have had better weather if we had ordered it - warm, calm, almost no wind.

It was about a kilometer and a half from the island center to the harbor. The harbor building, just like the airport , to all appearances was quite new and built to good Scandinavian standards, including everything that could be wished for by its visitors. The space for yacht moorings did not seem very large, but we did see two yachts with Latvian flags and one coast guard cutter with, of course, the Estonian flag. Next to the harbor rumbled the diesel power station. This did look like something that had come down from Soviet times. It rumbled so loud that the whole area was full of noise.

From the harbor we took a walk along the seashore. We walked through a small pine grove, almost wandering onto a private lawn. The resident islander shouted something to us, pointing her hand in the direction of the sea. We thought at first that she was chasing us off her property, but when we got to the sea, we understood where she had been sending us. Almost right on the shore we spotted a small sculpture with an inscription in several languages. In the Latvian it said that it was a "fire sail". Later we found out that it had been installed by a Latvian sculptor and that similar sculptures had been installed all around the Baltic Sea.

The beach was pleasant - soft sand, small sand dunes, clear water . . . quite romantic. We could not quite see as far as Latvia. The beach stretched into the distance and was well suited to long and pleasant walking. We walked a kilometer or so and began to look for a road back to the center. After a while we found it. We walked along a well-tended forest road. Every now and then there was a road sign pointing to the island lighthouse or to some other item of interest. We had the feeling that we were walking along in Gauja National Park back in Latvia. To our surprise, the road to the village was longer than expected. We were becoming aware that the island is not really all that small! We walked for a good half-hour when we spotted the first outlying houses. We were pretty tired when we arrived at the local pub, where we had been promised a dance. The pub turned out to be a largish room in a medium sized house. Upon entering, we were somewhat taken by surprise. In the almost completely dark room was a throng of young people. A rather industrial variety of alternative music was playing. We barely managed to find our way through to the bar. I did not notice, but Elizabeth told me that the young people were eyeing us attentively. We ordered "Saku Tume" beers, wine for the ladies, went out and sat down at the wooden tables in the pub's garden. The evening was lovely and warm and sitting outside was a lot more pleasant than inside. Soon Ruhnu was shrouded in darkness, the stars came out and, drinking our beer we felt free of all our everyday cares. It was just us, free conversation, beer and wine. We had no place to hurry to, our cellphones were back home, we could not have cared less what time our watches were indicating. We felt free, freer than we cold have felt in any other place on the planet Earth. We were sitting in the middle of the little garden of a little pub in a little island, all around was just an Estonian village and the sea. We could reach out our hands and touch civilization and for that very reason we had no particular need for it.

Some time after midnight a very large and very good-natured Estonian fellow emerged from the darkness and sat down with us at our table. Exchanging some smalltalk with us in Estonian, after a bit he got up and slowly swayed back into the darkness as he had come. Then some Latvians made their appearance as if out of nowhere. For some reason they were debating among themselves whether America is a good nation or not. All this impressed us with a surreal feeling.

The beer and the long day took their toll and we decided that it might be best to show up at our quarters before it gets too late. We felt so tired that we decided to look for a taxi. I went into the pub to inquire where we might find one. Strangely, the innkeeper was not in the least surprised at this request for a taxi at one o'clock in the morning in Ruhnu. Of course, the choices were limited. There was just one motorcycle available. Summoned, soon along came the owner. He looked just like you would expect a taxi driver to look at one o'clock in the morning in Ruhnu. A young man about 20 years old, to all appearances a classic punk. Naked to the waist, head shaved except for one large brightly dyed lock in the middle of his head. Leather wristbands and a studded belt. Laced boots on his feet. His motorcycle - a classic "Jawa" painted lettuce green. The rate - one cocktail worth 1 Ls. I was not the least surprised to discover that the kid spoke fluent English.

And so Elizabeth, who had come all the way from San Francisco to visit Ruhnu, got to ride home on a "Jawa" motorcycle with a typical Estonian punk. Elizabeth left first, the rest of us followed on foot. We later found out that the motorcycle broke down halfway, but the punk, being a real man, accompanied Elizabeth all the way home. She learned that he was a computer programmer from Tallinn, spending his summer with his grandmother on Ruhnu.

Our walk home was a bit longer. Ilmars and I were both somewhat under the influence of the beer we had consumed (Elizabeth and Sanita had each had only a glass or so of wine), and we got confused about directions and got lost. I do not know how it happened, but it seemed that soon we had roused all the dogs of Ruhnu. But we did not wander very long and finally we managed to find our way home. It did help that the main streets of Ruhnu were pretty well lit at night.

And so ended our first day on this wonderful island.


Conclusion. We depart so as to return.

A slow awakening, a bright church, Church service in Estonian, Jon Plunt wants to sing in Estonian, a bit of philosophy and "feeling". That which has not been done by Remarque, not by Hemingway, not by Munte?

Our second day started somewhat later because of the late night the night before. But by breakfast time we were back in shape because, to tell the truth, we had not quite drunk that pub dry. Breakfast was simply marvelous. Our host Vello had gone to some trouble to prepare it.

Sunday is Sunday on Ruhnu as elsewhere. So we decided to attend a church service in the newer of Ruhnu's two churches.

We arrived a short time before the first service and had time to inspect the place at leisure. As I already mentioned, the architect, Oto Hofmanis, was from Riga. The interior of the church is in very good condition, very bright and pleasant. As befits Lutherans, plain and simple. Some drawing on the walls testify to the fact that congregation is connected to the sea. An anchor and a heart, for example. I was drawn to a figure of a small flying bird hung high in the ceiling, almost right over the altar. The inscriptions on the walls were in the Estonian and Swedish languages.

Precisely at 12:00 noon the minister arrived, a venerable white-haired man with cheerful demeanor. The service was in the Estonian language. Although no one in our small company had a good command of the language, there descended on us a feeling of peace and equilibrium as we listened. At least I can say that for myself. What difference does it make, I thought to myself, what language you hear when you look upward. It makes no difference either how big or small each churchgoer is, but, if you decide to go to church, then I say that the church of Ruhnu is the right church.

I did regret that I had not picked up a hymn book at the entrance. I would have liked to sing along with the choral in the Estonian language.

In exactly one hour the service was over. We went for a leisurely walk among the pretty houses of Ruhnu. In the store we chanced to meet the curator of the museum. Elizabeth asked him for a set of postcards of Ruhnu. It turned out that in all of Ruhnu there was only one set, and that one was somewhere on the other end of the island. Nevertheless, the curator hopped on his bicycle and in ten minutes returned with the post cards. These cards have been scanned and can be seen on the web. (click here!)Do not neglect to buy some when you visit Ruhnu - the profit goes toward the restoration of the Old Church.

And so our brief journey to this island neared its end. A long story has come of it, though the trip was short. In actual fact, of course, we were merely reconnoitering to ascertain the possibilities of returning to visit again. I am sorry that I was unable to put into my story even one tenth of the peace, lightness, freedom and simply wonderful feeling that accompanied us the whole time we were there. It is such a fashionable word, this word "feeling". Ruhnu is the right place for that word. Like I said before, we arrived on the island with open hearts and, possibly, the island received us in the same spirit. Ruhnu is not so small that anyone would for a minute feel claustrophobia, but it is too small for bad thoughts and bad deeds. I guess it is for this reason that we felt so free and happy the whole time. Perhaps you think I am exaggerating a bit, idealizing the island and its inhabitants. But this was the consensus of all of us who were there together on the island, and I see no reason to try to tone it down. We truly felt, after a while, free of the invisible but tangible burden that invariably bears down on all large societies and cities. Only a few days after returning to Riga none of us could think of anything else but "I want to return to Ruhnu!"

We understood that there is no need to poison the calm atmosphere of the island with some kind of nightmarish talk of occupying Ruhnu in order to found a free state. That would only attract the attention of too many people, it would attract throngs of vacationers and "gum-chewing tourists". Unavoidably they would trample the peace and its spiritual freedom that reign here. Better that Ruhnu be preserved as a reservation where occasionally people might visit, quietly to savor peace, repose and the feeling of freedom and then to take the memory of these things back with them to the stressed-out continent.

These were my thoughts as we climbed aboard the pickup truck of our gentle host Vello for the ride back to the airport. A warm breeze caressed us as we rolled along the forest road across Ruhnu to board our airplane. We were all thinking the same thought: "We shall return." Believe me, there is good reason to, I know that I have not written it right. Maybe Hemingway of Remarque or Munte could do it… Ruhnu is their kind of place.

Jons Plunts,

P.S. I know I have left out a lot. What to do? If you are interested, you can learn more by checking out these webpages:

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