Public Transport and Literature in Tallinn

Elle-Mari Talivee, PhD, is Senior Researcher and Head of the Museum Department at the Under and Tuglas Literature Centre of the Estonian Academy of Sciences in Tallinn. Here, she writes about her experiences as a PUTSPACE visiting fellow in the department of English Language and Literature at Åbo Akademi University. The article was written in April 2020, during the coronavirus lockdown.

Before the world came to a standstill because of the coronavirus, I had the possibility to spend a wonderful month (10 February–10 March) at Åbo Akademi University in Turku, Finland, as a visiting fellow on the PUTSPACE project.

I had a plan to delve into proving my hypothesis that public transport has been an intriguing topic in Estonian belles lettres from its very beginning. What I needed was some comparison with other countries’ transportation history, a well-provided library, and some colleagues with whom I could talk about this topic. I think I found all of that in Turku, where Jason Finch and Silja Laine are working on the PUTSPACE project from the Finnish side. I was happy to share an office for some time with Aleksandra Ianchenko, a PhD student on the project who is supervised by Tauri Tuvikene of Tallinn University and Jason Finch of Åbo Akademi University. Aleksandra wanted to know everything about Turkuʼs tram history, and together we tried to unearth the traces of that long-gone yellow vehicle which are still visible in Turku city space. We went together to the museum archives, walked on the streets and took bus rides to discuss how public transport in a Turku-sized city works. We also had the possibility to give a talk at the English departmentʼs literary research seminar PREMIS, presenting our ongoing research, and the discussion afterwards was really stimulating.    

The PUTSPACE project already has already gathered a small but desirable collection of books at Åbo Akademi University, about the history of transportation and some fictional texts reflecting that experience. The libraries of Åbo Akademi University and the University of Turku also solidly backed my research. I read a lot, both new sources and Estonian literature already familiar to me, with fresh eyes. The result of my hypothesis was first of all an intriguing timeline – poetry and prose reflecting the development of public transportation (especially the tram and trolleybus) in Tallinn. Through this came a better understanding of multi-layered symbolic interpretations of a cityscape full of different vehicles, and the various dreams and fears connected with them. I have summarized the results in an article, which I am revising just now, wavering between two possibilities the reviewer has suggested: to treat it now just as an introduction to a very rich and intriguing topic, hoping to get further in the future, or to go very deeply into it already now. It was so incredibly fascinating to realise that two of the foundational authors of modern Estonian literature, Eduard Vilde and A. H. Tammsaare, both described Tallinn trams in their books. Vilde did this as early as in 1891, three years after the opening of the first horse tram line in the city, and Tammsaare ends the fourth part (1932) of his multi-volume novel Truth and Justice (1926–33) with a motor tram accident in a scene set in 1922. In the article I also analyse examples from texts by Mati Unt (1979), Mats Traat (1980), Paavo Matsin (2015), Holger Kaints (2016), Maarja Pärtna (2018), and Veronika Kivisilla (2018; extended edition in 2020). The article in Keel ja Kirjandus will be titled as ‘Ühistransport eesti kirjanduses’ (‘Public transport in Estonian literature’).     

I would definitely like to go on with my research. Somehow, maybe even ironically, the meaning of public transportation has increased during this crisis: it is so important and so vulnerable at the same time. Being in lockdown in Estonia means that I can still use my office since my colleagues have chosen to work from home. I have always liked to go to work by bike. But while earlier I used to decide, depending upon the weather if I would go by bike or take bus or train, then now cycling for 6.5 km in the morning and evening is a must. I am leaving the possibility to use public transportation deliberately to those who really need it – and maybe I am a bit afraid to get or give that cunning virus from or to someone in that little closed environment as well.      

I am most thankful to project PUTSPACE, which funded my visit to Turku and, for administration of the fellowship, the Leibniz-Institut für Länderkunde (IfL). Thanks go to Åbo Akademi University’s English department for having me around (sometimes very late in the evening) as a visiting fellow, and to Jason, Silja, Aleksandra and all of my old and new friends in Turku for company, discussion and endless hospitality, the Museum of Turku letting me into a most special storage area preserving the trams, and the Turku transportation department for the Föli card. By the way, when I left Finland there the news that tramlines could be restored in Turku. Fingers crossed!


Kaints, Holger 2016. Uinuv maa. Tallinn: Hea Lugu.

Kaugver, Raimond 1968. 60 minutit. Lühiproosat 1956–1966. Tallinn: Eesti Raamat.

Kivisilla, Veronika 2018. Kuni armastus peale tuleb. Tallinn: Hunt Kirjastus.

Matsin, Paavo [Matšinov, Paša] 2016. Gogoli disko. Viljandi: Lepp ja Nagel.

Pärtna, Maarja 2018. ‘Kolm pilti’. Looming, 5, 646–649.

Tammsaare, A. H. 1983. Tõde ja õigus IV. Kogutud teosed (complete works), Volume 9. Tallinn: Eesti Raamat.

Traat, Mats. Valitud teosed (selected works), Volume 2. Tallinn: Eesti Raamat.

Unt, Mati 1979. Sügisball: Stseenid linnaelust. Tallinn: Eesti Raamat.

Vallak, Peet 1968. Tuuled ümber maja: Novellivalimik. Tallinn: Eesti Raamat.

Vilde, Eduard 1891. Kuul pähe!  Tallinn: A. Laurmanni rmtkpl.

For translations of these authors and their works see http://estlit.ee/elis/? cmd=search