30 years dedicated
to the future

The First Course Begins

From January–May 1989, the instruction took place in the government property at Suurupi. Even though the building was spacious, it was nothing to write home about, since Soviet era construction quality meant wind blowing through the building, which in turn meant indoor temperatures were quite cool during the winter months.

Regarding the living conditions and instruction, Toomas Abner remembers that there were three to four people living together in a room, and that they were supposed to speak English not only during classes but also during their free time – to ensure that they quickly became fluent in the language. In Suurupi they mainly studied English, although there were other subjects as well. Instruction was structured in such a manner that one week per month the course participants spent every day and night at Suurupi.

When they were at Suurupi, the day began with breakfast at 8.00. The morning exchange of information took place at 9.00. At the meeting, they were able to discuss all of the problems that had arisen by that time. This was followed by language learning in small groups. There was a two-hour break for lunch at midday, where one could go for a run or walk in the forest, but the condition was that English had to be spoken. Let’s refer to that teaching method, for example, as walking-talking. Instruction resumed after lunch and continued from 15.00 until dinner, with group work continuing after the meal. This was followed by even more work, as course participants had to complete their homework for the following morning.

Rumours about the new and interesting course at EBS spread quickly. Everyday there were new interested parties signing up and soon the next international business group, called IB2, had been assembled. This meant that there were already 50–60 students studying at EBS. Even though both groups started at about the same time, the difference between the groups was in their English proficiency: in IB1 it was better, in IB2 it was weaker. This meant that IB2 travelled to America a year later, thereby allowing the participants to become sufficiently fluent in English.


Preparations for the trip to the other side of the ocean

While lively instruction was taking place at Suurupi, foreign Estonian Ilmar Martens, his wife Ene-Liis Martens, and a number of other Estonians in Canada were busy preparing a so-called learning bridge for the arrival of the Estonians for studies at York University, in Toronto.

Money was collected in the form of donations, with CAD 50,000 being collected. Spearheaded by Rein Peterson, a video interview was conducted with all course participants who were supposed to be heading to Canada. This was sent to Canada, and the Estonians there got to know the EBS course participants before they were able to meet face to face in Canada.

The month of May had arrived and along with it the day of the trip to Canada and the United States. Sending 29 managers to the other side of the ocean was an unprecedented event. Piquancy was added by the fact that it wasn’t uncommon for some of the happy tourists from the Soviet Union who managed to reach the west to actually defect. As such, there was a fear that perhaps not all of the EBS course participants would return home from the United States.

Madis Habakuk met with Mikk Titma, Secretary of Ideology for the Central Committee, in order to discuss possible problems regarding the composition of the group. When Habakuk was leaving Titma’s cavernous office, Titma stopped him at the door and said: ”Habakuk, don’t worry if some of them should decide to stay in the west, nothing bad will happen to you”. Clearly a declaration of support from a high ranking official! Habakuk contended that, in his opinion, no one would be staying abroad, although Titma believed that at least a few of them would do so. This time Habakuk was right – everyone who travelled to the United States also returned to Estonia.

EBS also gained support from the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the ESSR and Indrek Toome, Prime Minister of the ESSR Government. Under his leadership, the group later received financial support from the government, which went to cover their secondment expenses.

Speaking Toomas Abner, who attended the first EBS course.

There were two important questions that had to be resolved prior to departure – the procurement of visas and plane tickets for the Estonians. Piia Sandla, teaching consultant for the first group, recalls that this was the most difficult part of sending course participants to the United States and Canada. “I went to Russia to collect the visas and I had to spend several days at the Aeroflot ticket sales desk, on Võidu Square, in order to get the plane tickets. I became “friends” with one of the Russian ladies who worked there – I buttered her up quite nicely,” remembers a grinning Piia Sandla. This friendship proved to be of benefit, as Piia Sandla was finally able to procure the hard-to-acquire plane tickets. The preparations had now been completed and 26 course participants were able to undertake their long journey to Toronto, Canada, and three to California, in the United States.

The groups in Canada and the United States lived a very different life. While everything in Canada had been prepared in advance and with great care, and the students had no worries concerning their living conditions or the study programme, things did not go so well in America. Madis Habakuk remembers that the American group landed like parachutists, dropped off who knows where, and preparations were rather basic. Even so, the instruction took place quite intensively. Each day a new company was visited, on which a general analysis was performed. Although the living conditions were, to put it mildly, unstable. Jüri Mõis, a 1989 course participant, recalls what they were like.

The struggle for survival in America

Jüri Mõis, a 1989 course participant, took part in practical training in the United States, in the state of California.

While the Estonians in Canada were hosted by foreign Estonian academic circles, in America Habakuk had used newspaper ads to search for parties responsible for practical training. Unfortunately, the people they found were simply inadequate when it came to fulfilling the task at hand. So it was that our stay in the United States became a true struggle for survival.

The confusion began right away at the airport. First we flew from Moscow to Montreal, where it turned out that we had been issued tourist visas and studying with them in the United States was not possible. The three of us together had only USD 500 to our names and half of that was spent in the first ten hours. We tried to explain to the official who removed us from the flight that we don’t have any money and that we can’t buy a new visa. “Why are you travelling if you don’t have any money? Don’t travel if you don’t have any money,” he replied. It never occurred to us that poor people don’t travel by plane. Even so, we were somehow able to obtain a new visa. Thanks to the problem with the visas, each time I have travelled to the United States since then I have spent two hours at the border being interviewed. This finally came to an end after ten years, in 1999.

We were somehow able to make contact with the person who was supposed to receive us in the United States. The time difference between the east coast of Canada and California is four hours. Which means that when we called them at 8.00 it was 4.00 in the morning there. They were quite angry. Needless to say, there was no one at the airport to meet us. Even so, we managed to spend our first evening with our contact person.

Madis Habakuk arranged our next set of accommodations by telephone. While staying with this host we cultivated our next set of contacts and then the next person who would host us under their roof was found. I remember clearly that over that three-month period we switched our residence 21 times, and spent the night in 14 different places. It also happened that at 22.00 we still didn’t know where we were going to spend the night.

Jüri Mõis (on the left) discovering America.

We developed two pillars of support during our stay in the United States. One was in the person of Riho Martinson, who was a member of the Foster City Council, a town about the size of Pärnu. The city council had a total of five members and it met on a bi-weekly basis, which meant that he had time to deal with us. It was good to hear Estonian language explanations about life in the United States. The second definite place where we were able to stay was with a family with Italian roots, where the man of the house was a Vietnam War veteran.

After a month or two, Marshal Fitzgerald hosted us at his mountain ranch. He was a typical American, with his long white beard and constant laughing. He asked: ‘How do you like America so far’? ‘Everything is fine, the only problem is we don’t have very much money’. Fitzgerald laughed at this: “But you’re alive, that’s what counts”.

The lack of money was a serious problem. Madis Habakuk sent us additional funds, but it was still not enough. We learned to live sparingly – we fried potatoes and drank lemonade, on the label of which was written “Does not contain a single natural ingredient”. At one point we found employment in a box factory, which enabled us to earn a bit of money.

Even so, I can’t say that the experience wasn’t an educational one. I lived for 10 years in America based on what I had seen. Californians liked to say that if you want to see what the world will be like in ten years, then come to California! This spared me personally from doing many stupid things, which were done later in Estonia, for example Lollidemaa (Land of the Stupid People). People thought that a very rich person lived in a 1000 square metre house. Actually, this was not the case.

We took on these Californians way of thinking. In their mind it is normal to start your own business. In Estonia, the common belief was that normal people work for state enterprises and private companies are only for “foul mouthed individuals”.

I also received a great deal of support from there when it came to working in banking. When I went to the bank in America, I didn’t understand what a risk analysis was. I found a large part of the work organisation incomprehensible at first. Across the USSR, a specific set of rules dictated from Moscow determined whether or not you got a loan. It was only during the third year in which I was involved with Hansapank that I realised what I had actually seen there and how beneficial it was.

Väljaanne “Viisteist tulevikule pühendatud aastat”, 2003

Eagerly awaited Estonians from Estonia

The 26 people who had travelled to Canada to take part in practical training were in a much better position than their course-mates who travelled to California. Preparatory work for receiving them was thorough and the foreign Estonians in Canada eagerly awaited the Estonians from Estonia. And vice versa – the Estonians were just as eager to arrive in Canada.

Madis Habakuk recalled: “Our plane landed at the airport in Toronto. We were met with great fanfare. We were worn out from the long flight, got on the bus and began the trip to the Tartu Institute house. I remember one sentence that Andres Arrak, at the time a faculty member at the University of Tartu said: “Only now do I believe that I am actually here”. Most likely this sentence echoed the positions of many people, which shows how difficult and hopeless it was to leave the borders of the Soviet Union at the time, at least with expectations like the ones we had.

On the evening we arrived, the Canada group was seated on the tribune in the large hall in the Estonian House. I was given the opportunity to speak, and my speech consisted of the following: “Here we are”. The people began to clap and many began to cry. The entire atmosphere was incredibly emotional and it could be said that everything that took place surround the first few years of activity was extremely emotional”.

I was brainwashed

Toomas Abner, participant in the 1989 course, underwent practical training in Toronto, Canada

Our training in Canada was based on the York University programme. The organisation and carrying out of instruction rested on the shoulders of Rein Peterson – he was an Estonian man, a very strong instructor in the field, who spent a lot of time dealing with us. I am not exaggerating when I say that he was our guru.

Peterson’s teaching method was especially effective and down-to-earth. His lectures were in English and the business cases were also in English, which he handed out to us on every school night and which we had to have worked through by the next morning. Woe to the person who had failed to read and analyse the business case that evening or that night! Occasionally this did happen, since we went out on the town some nights, which meant that our homework was not completed.

In summary, Peterson’s teaching methods represented a completely new approach to us, since there was nothing of its kind in Estonia at the time. With the help of Peterson’s management analyses we were able to enter the world of business, analyse incidents down to their core and then offer ideas for either operative or strategic behaviour. Madis Habakuk also participated in Rein Peterson’s lectures and listened carefully to what Peterson was saying.

Estonians’ graduation celebration in August 1989, after their summer internship in Canada.

Each week we also went to visit a different Canadian company. A particular treat was our visit to the Toronto stock exchange. At the time it was the seventh largest stock exchange in the world and was vividly remembered.

Instruction took placed at the Tartu College building on Bloor Street, in Toronto, the same house in which we lived. Everyone had their own room, with the room being around 8-9 square metres. As I remember it, Madis Habakuk also lived in one of those rooms, meaning that his living conditions were equivalent to our own.

Foreign Estonians often invited us to visit their homes and took Estonians from Estonia along with them to their summer homes. I learned to water-ski in Canada and played golf for the first time. I was bitten by the bug and am to this very day a passionate golfer. We didn’t have any problems with money – I suppose that a frugal person is able to live anywhere.

When we returned to Estonia in August, the instruction continued. Everyone had to write a final paper. I wrote about the restructuring of the Estonian Consumer Cooperatives Republican Union and its rebuilding into the Estonian Consumer Cooperative. On a side note, I can say that the Estonian Consumer Cooperatives Republican Union congress took place in 1991, and six months later the Estonian Consumer Cooperative statutes were adopted and the previous ownership relations, which had been sullied by nationalisation in 1941, were restored. So it was that the restoration of the Estonian Consumer Cooperative was a specific expression of my one year of study at EBS.

If I were to provide an ex-post evaluation of the impact of the EBS course, then I can say that I was, in a positive way, “brain washed” in 1989. I was 32 years old, had studied in the Department of Economics at the University of Tartu and acquired artisanal knowledge on business planning and accounting, although a macro and micro economic view of capitalism was missing or based on the “teachings” of Karl Marx. This void was filled by EBS. Which is why I am very grateful that I was able to be a part of the first course.

I am certain that a major change occurred in my world view – specifically in terms of knowing and understanding economics. So it was that when I returned from Toronto, I began to see things with a much broader view, which helped me to live successfully in recently independent Estonia.