Nikolai “Niksi” Kultas, a man with a vision

I found this photo in an antique store in Estonia. I grabbed it cause it was identified, but I didn’t think much about the person or his name. It was only after I showed it to my mum that she said “Niksi” would stand for Nikolai and he might have been the famous café owner. And she was right! I am too young to remember him, so as I googled his story, I also came across several other photos of him and his café.

Link: Saaga

Nikolai “Niksi” Kultas (1908-1995) is known in Estonia as the trail blazer of modern day cafeteria culture. Nikolai had a law degree, but he might have inherited his love for baked goods from his father Anton Kultas, a baker by profession.

It was the combination of his international education and perfectionism, his spot-on business acumen and his love for good coffee that paved his way to success. He opened his first “Kultas” café in central Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, on February 2, 1937. 

It was a café like nothing seen in Estonia before! The waitresses spoke several foreign languages, international customers could often order in their mother tongue. Customers could read a variety of local and international newspapers while enjoying 70 different types of cakes and 12 different coffee blends. You could send a letter or a telegram from the café. Businessmen arriving early morning by train to attend business meetings in Tallinn could have their suits pressed while they had their breakfast. The café was a popular venue for literature and artsy events and they often played live music. The reputation of his cafés is still legendary. And that without serving even one drop of alcohol, mind you!

Link: GoodReads

Nikolai married Agnes Vildo, and in 1937, their daughter Kristi was born, son Rein-Erik followed in 1939. The above is the cover photo of a biography about the Kultas family, published in Estonia, showing Nikolai and Agnes, daughter Kristi and the building that housed his café.

In 1940, the Soviet occupants nationalised all private enterprises. During the 1941 June deportations, thousands of Estonian politicians, military, academics, land owners as well as businessmen like Nikolai Kultas found themselves in cattle wagons on the way to Siberia. If they were “lucky”, they made the many-thousand-mile-long trip and were reunited with their families. Others were executed in the torturing chambers of the Soviet prisons. Although Nikolai and his wife Agnes made it to Siberia together, their 2-year-old son Rein-Erik didn’t survive and died on the way.

While Nikolai, his wife Agnes and their oldest child set up their new life far away in Siberia (without the permission to leave), Nikolai’s now state-owned café was renamed “Moskva” (“Moscow” – how original…) and continued as a café and a restaurant after WWII, of course now following the reglements and style of the Communist idealogy…

Nikolai was released from Siberia in 1960. After returning to Tallinn, his dreams had been shattered by the new regime. For the next 20 years Nikolai worked as a film developer in a photo lab, a new skill he had learnt in the work camp in Siberia. I wonder if he remembers this photo of him from 1932? It might have been taken during his years spent at Tartu University, as a member of the Sakala fraternity.

I am happy that he could witness the re-independence of Estonia in 1991. He passed away 4 years later, in January 1995 in Tallinn. The cover photo of him on his biography shows him in the late 1980s in front of the “Moscow” café that once used to house his own café “Kultas”.

Link: Vaimuvara

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