“Truly a day for Estonia!” a recent headline screamed. Estonia had won two gold medals, in both the men’s and women’s individual épée tournament at the 2013 Fencing World Championships.
“The Land of Fencing,” said another congratulatory headline. It was a great night for Estonia.
Interestingly enough, neither of the champions, Nikolai Novosjolov and Julia Beljajeva, has a particularly Estonian-sounding name (granted they are transliterated in Estonian and not English fashion).
Indeed, some of Estonia’s top athletes have Russian names. Vassiljev in football, Glebova in figure skating. And not just athletes. The list of household names expands to culture, business and politics.
Sometimes the Estonian word for Russian (venelane) might as well be a swear word, but when it brings Estonians a claim to fame - this most often occurs in sports - countrymen are quick to parade the heroes as their own.
I don’t mean to point out hypocrisy, but to praise the sports departments of Estonian newsrooms as champions of integration. Champions of progress.
And I wonder, when will the rest of Estonia catch up with the apparent progressive-mindedness of flag-waving football fanatics?
Separate but equal
Yes, Estonia is a democracy. But let’s not talk about equality as set by laws, but about what is.
For instance, some fear the Estonian public is not ready to hear its evening TV news narrated in a Russian accent, perhaps in the case of whoever may be the next Moscow correspondent of Estonian Public Broadcasting, the company I work for. Meanwhile, the BBC, which I’ve often been told is a role model, has loads of non-native English speaking journalists.
Or why are there significantly fewer Russian names in the Riigikogu, and in government agencies?
Why are there still 90,000 Russian citizens and 84,000 stateless persons living in Estonia?
And why is unemployment alarmingly greater among Russians; why are they more likely to have AIDS?
Even more interestingly, why did 34 percent of Estonian youths feel fear or animosity toward Russian-speaking peers, compared with 8 percent on the flip side, according to a 2008 study.
Most importantly, why is the government pretending that everything is all right - it’s not. Why isn’t this a priority issue?
This leads me to: are fencing and football the only level playing fields?
Then and now
My own childhood was in Los Angeles. I was raised by Estonian parents.
There, I learned from the stories of my parents and grandparents: Siberia and Russia were cold words. As young boys tend to do, I sometimes played war games with my friends. But in this case, in the heat of Los Angeles, I was in the absurd situation of fighting imaginary Russians, having never before met one.
Years later, some of my best friends are Russian. Or are they Estonian?
They grew up in Estonia, but in the Russian subculture. In the language. With Russian songs and fairy tales and heroes and values and celebrities and jokes.
But they speak Estonian too. Many have Estonian names or have Estonian blood. Most importantly, they grew up here, whereas I did not. They went through school here, they pay taxes here, and so on. For that reason it is unfortunate that many don’t feel as home here as I do.
A colorful bunch
The first thing to understand about Estonian Russians is that they are a diverse group - from the dirt-poor pensioner in Lasnamäe, to the glamorous wives of successful businessmen, to the twenty-somethings who are saving up to move to the UK. Add to this their various levels of contact with the Estonian language, culture and people.
And while there are plenty of prominent Estonians of Russian origin, local Russians themselves have often never heard of these stars, living as they do in a parallel society.
The second thing to know is that Russians aren’t looking to be converted into Estonians. That is, integration is not about being “cured,” in this case by wearing traditional Estonian regalia and singing songs about swallows. Integration should not be forced, a Tallinn University professor told me at a forum earlier this year.
Since Estonian Russians differ so much even among themselves, they lack a strong identity (perhaps a good thing, some may think). But letting them slowly evaporate is not integration.
What they need now is a sense of community. I’m not suggesting they wear red RUSSIA jerseys, or pretend to love song festivals. The word “community” must be at the center of it. They must think: “We live here. This is our neighborhood and we want to care for it.”
Such a movement has sprung up on the Estonian side in recent years, for instance, in Uus Maailm or more recently in Telliskivi. As a nonprofit worker told me the other day, there are always ways in which people can themselves improve their situation, without having to wait for the government to hold their hand.
People want to be included, but there are not enough initiatives catering to and working together with the Russian community, as noted in a recent opinion article by Tatjana Lavrova of “Let’s Do It,” Estonia’s most well-known civil action campaign.
They need to join Tuur d’ÖÖ, I thought recently, seeing people’s eyes light up as I was cycling through Lasnamäe in Estonia’s Critical Mass event.
The elephant still in the room
Five years ago, The Economist’s Edward Lucas, one of Estonia’s best friends in international journalism, said in an Estonian opinion article:
“The fact that there are tens of thousands of Russians in this country who are loyal citizens is an immense and often ignored advantage for Estonia. Their Estonian may sometimes be clumsy or carry an accent. They have a different taste in food and music. They may even have a different understanding of history. But they know from their own experience what it means to be in a free society with an honest government in power. The time has come to take advantage of their loyalty and talents.”
But the time did not come then. Perhaps because Lucas’s thoughts came on the heels of the 2007 riots.
Rather than progress, a time of silence seemed to dawn, described by an Estonian politician: “[...] the issues that worry our Russian residents must be talked about, although it is always more convenient to be silent.”
True, the issue has had a constant buzz in the background. It affects everyone and everyone has an opinion on it. Estonians and Estonian Russians live side by side day in, day out. But many never cross the cultural border.
Tilting at windmills
We can’t expect the wounds of history to heal overnight. But instead of building up the country, some find it more important to draw out old battles. In one case, conservative politician Mart Helme recently criticized taxpayer-funded Russian translations as a public service. First of all, Estonian Russians are taxpayers, in Tallinn accounting for nearly half. Second, if decision-makers were pragmatic, they would realize that, right or wrong, the elderly Russian speakers will never all learn Estonian.
So what use is there in firing caretakers at an orphanage in Narva over their lack of Estonian language proficiency? After all, nearly the whole population is ethnically Russian. Will they be motivated to learn it then?
The emigration game
Which brings me back to those twenty-somethings saving up to move to the UK, where many of Estonia’s Russians have gone (the ones I know are happy and successful).
Not only are decision-makers not doing enough to curb an exodus of Estonians, regardless of ancestry, they are at the same time trying to keep out all of the newcomers, which is, among other things, stifling economic advancement.
The fear is that the small country will be flooded by immigrants, changing all that is Estonia and leaving Estonians and Estonian culture in the minority.
But it all seems to be rooted in some silly ideal of ethnic purity. For instance, a friend recently wondered out loud if her father would be more angry if she married a Russian or a black man.
Helme’s son, incidentally, was recently given a verbal beating in backlash to a comment to the effect of “If you’re black, go back.” His defense was that his words were taken out of context, and his idea was to stop the ghettoization of European communities resulting from liberal immigration policies. Regardless, I imagine he would have a hard time making friends in an Erasmus crowd with that attitude. It must be said that the Helmes are fairly fringe, not at the helm of Estonian government.
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But they, whoever they may be, won’t be in power forever. A new generation of modern Europeans is emerging, whether their parents like it or not. And they are different. They are international. They won’t forget the Soviet experience, but they will set their sights on the future.
As Parliament speaker Ene Ergma said in praise of Estonia’s new fencing world champions: “A bright new page has been written in Estonian sports history.”
When will everyone else turn to that page?
Ott Tammik is a senior editor at ERR News.