US President Barack Obama’s visit to Estonia on September 3 answered a lot of questions – but it left one unanswered.
Would Obama actually show up? (Yes) Would the locals cope with the logistical demands the visit entailed? (Yes) Would Obama deliver a speech to make people say ‘I was there’? (Pretty much) Would Putin totally wig out and drop the big one on Tallinn for kicks? (No) Can you fit a gallon into a pint pot, as suggested by this whistlestop 12-hour itinerary? (You can).
The unanswered question may not have been the most crucial one of the day, but it is all the more puzzling for the fact it will most probably remain unanswered: What’s with the box?
The box is nothing much to look at. It made its appearance at Kadriorg Palace, seat of the Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, at around 9 a.m. as a surprisingly small chapter of local journalists paced their bleachers awaiting the arrival of The Big O. The sun had broken through gray early cloud to lend the scene of parade-uniformed soldiers and sailors practising drills a certain chocolate box charm as the compact pink confection of the palace itself rolled out a long red carpet like a candy-licking tongue.
A certain amount of additional entertainment was to be had by observing Obama’s vast retinue running through their own tasks with a quiet efficiency suggestive of a thousand previous state visits. White House staffers pointed people hither and thither, sniffer dogs sniffed suspiciously at cameramen (who are in general a rather stinky race), bodyguards paced their invisible defensive plays and a pair of black-clad snipers faced resolutely out to sea with binoculars, their weapons on the floor in cases that looked like golf bags. They emanated a sense of menace so powerful that even the larger troll-like toughs of the Estonian police seemed to shrink away from them. If so much as a Russian gnat had been blown across the Gulf of Finland in the direction of Kadriorg, those two would have terminated it with extreme prejudice before it even reached Pirita.
The whole spectacle, its complexity, epic scale and no-expense-spared trappings was redolent not of statehood but of empire. It is a cliché to talk about the US in imperial terms but one could not help the feeling that this was the sort of kerfuffle that would have been in evidence a couple of thousand years ago as a Caesar visited some chilly but likeable northern province and the local governors scrambled to source sufficient quantities of olive oil and hamsters for the banquet.
Then the box arrived. Rather, the constituent parts of the box arrived, in the unassuming boot of a Volkswagen Passat sedan. From the car stepped a shirt-sleeved Secret Service man identifiable as such not so much by the fact he looked exactly like Twin Peaks’ FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper – but because he had two plastic cases stickered ‘USSS’ in the car beside him. Opening the boot, he pulled out three large pieces of steel plate, each roughly a metre square, and a selection of bolts.
He began to assemble them as if putting together some particularly heavy-duty piece of IKEA furniture, an industrial-chic coffee table perhaps. Speculation began amongst the easily-distracted press pack about what the end product would be. A platform or dais? Was there going to be a speech here too? Would a conductor lead the band in the Star Spangled Banner from there? A place for a special photographer? A loudspeaker? Somewhere they would bundle the President if bullets started flying? He could barely have squeezed his long limbs inside. In any case, the palace door was closer to where he would be.
We waited for the lid to go on. That would make it clear what it was. There was no lid. It stood apparently finished – a three sided open box of steel plate with scratches up the sides suggestive of frequent use. The Special Box Agent climbed back in his Passat and was driven off.
We stared at the box. Was that it? It was not a pretty box. It spoiled the general air of Ruritanian pomp to have this scratched gray steel box there right below the flag poles, directly opposite the entrance to the palace. It must surely be in contravention of Kadriorg’s strict planning laws. Unless it was a sculpture for the KUMU modern art museum just around the corner that had been delivered to the wrong address by the CIA’s notoriously unreliable postal service.
They really do think of everything. No sooner had Dale Cooper gone than The Cloth Lady appeared. Bearing with her a bale of fine blue satin, she approached the unsightly box and began to beautify it. “Must be something to do with the European Union,” said one journalist confidently, “That’s their color.”
“No, said another, the red and the white will be along in a minute.”
The Cloth Lady was artful, smoothing out the satin until it covered the entire steel superstructure in shimmering blue. Her relatives must receive beautifully wrapped presents at Christmas time. Then she too was gone. The Box was transformed into The Blue Box.
By now, Obama was almost upon us, as the growing roar of the choppers overhead related. The snipers were using two pairs of binoculars each to sweep the treeline. You wouldn’t want to be a Slavic midge within a thousand miles.
One, two, three, four… police cars and limousines swept up the tree-lined avenue of Kadriorg. Five, six, seven, eight, now a fire truck, now an ambulance, now a hulking GMC wagon of unguessable purpose, more police cars, more limos. Right on cue the flags, which had been hanging limp all morning, began to flutter in a suitably patriotic breeze. And here he is, the 44th President of the United States of America steeping out of his own limo, the oddly-proportioned love child of a Lincoln Town Car and a Hum-Vee. Caesar’s chariot was probably a bit over-the-top, too.
All through the anthems we watched the box. It did nothing and no-one went near it. Obama and Ilves nodded in suitably presidential manners to the troops, to a small group of schoolchilden and to each other. No-one nodded at the box. They turned to each other and nodded again that yes, they would go inside and sauntered up the red candy tongue into the sticky sweet wedding cake of the palace.
As soon as they had gone, time switched into reverse. The cars drove away, the guests filtered out, the press scurried off to try and make the next impossible item on the itinerary, the snipers exchanged a brief look of disappointment and gave the horizon one last scan. All the mosquitos in Siberia laughed quietly to themselves.
But the Blue Box was still there. We gave it one last look. It wasn’t letting on.