Estonia's Small Minorities - An Up-Close Look ({{commentsTotal}})

An Armenian Sunday school group preparing for
An Armenian Sunday school group preparing for "Culture Day" festivities in Tartu Source: Photo: Postimees/EMF/Scanpix

Whenever the topic of nationality comes up in Estonia, the discussion automatically becomes one of Estonians and Russians, or Estonians vs Russians, depending on the context. With the latter group making up a quarter of the country's population, it's a natural leap. But it's not the whole picture. In fact, according to the Ministry of Culture, there are 190 different ethnic groups living in the country, and the issues the smaller groups face are different from those of the main minority. ERR News correspondent Marina Giro spoke to representatives of three groups, each with a nationwide population of between 1,000-2,000, to learn their perspectives.

Like members of nearly all ethnic minorities, Estonia's Armenians have a strong sense of cultural pride. They're proud of their heritage, proud to be members of the world's oldest Christian nation, proud of the handsome, 14th century church in central Tallinn where many of them gather for mass on Sundays.

Avetis Harutjunjan, head of Armenian Youth Community, is in a position to see first-hand how this pride translates into a sense of unity.

"Armenians are always together. It doesn’t matter where they are, they always try to find each other, and I think this connection is strong," he said.

Youth dance collectives, an Armenian football club and the annual Armenian Sense of Rhythm get-together are just a few of the things that strengthen that connection in Estonia. There are even a Sunday schools where the younger generation can practice the language.

But the situation is far from ideal. The reality of life in Estonia, as in many places, means hard-working people don't have a lot of free time to devote to maintaining social and cultural ties.

"There are not enough active people," Harutjunjan admits. “The language and history are important for all the Armenians in Estonia, but there are fewer Armenian families who find the time to bring their children to Sunday school and even fewer go to the church."

And it takes quite a lot of persistence and devotion among families to head off the biggest nemesis of ethic unity, namely loss of language, the first major step toward assimilation.

Borrowed tongues

“The main problem is that the mother and father are Armenians, but the children don’t speak Armenian. The environment in which the child grows up creates enormous pressure. My parents succeeded, although we speak with mistakes and borrowed words from Russian,” said Harutjunjan.

It's a problem similar to that faced by many small minority groups, among them the country's Tatar community, according to Timur Seifullen, head of the Estonian Union of National Minorities.

Tatars, he said, have always enjoyed good relations and a good attitude from the majority population and there is state support to alleviate the language problem - the national government is willing to give minorities a premises for a language school. They just have to find the teachers and the students to fill them, which is not always an easy task.

The language situation is slightly different in every Tatar family, of course. Some speak Tatar at home, in which case the spoken language is usually far stronger than the written language. Others don't speak it at all.

Even for those young people who make the effort to learn the language, nearly all go to either an Estonian-speaking or Russian-speaking school and, as Seifullen points out, will automatically use the language they speak every day.

For small minorities in Estonia, Harutjunjan says, the language problem isn't just about potentially losing one's traditions. It's also about how Estonians see you. Because they're so wrapped up in the Estonian vs Russian dynamic, a lot of Estonians just lump all Russian-speaking groups under the heading "Russian." That's something Armenians would like to change.

"As a young father, what I'm most concerned about is that my child becomes neither Estonian nor Russian, learns his native language and is not ashamed that he is Armenian. That's why I work for the community [...] I would like my child to become a good Estonian citizen, to speak Estonian but to feel Armenian and not [marginalized]," he said.

Thanks, but no thanks... and no tanks

The practice of grouping minorities under the umbrella term "Russian-speakers" has created problems not only within the country, but has taken on an international dimension as well.

Seifullen noted that national minorities supported Estonia's drive for re-independence in the late 1980s. Immediately afterwards, he said, some less-than-competent people working for international institutions from both Western Europe and Russia moved in to try to help the minorities under the false assumption that they were somehow being mistreated and needed special support.

"This is Estonian national minorities' biggest problem and it's very hard to explain it to people," he said.

Nor are Russia's recent pledges to defend, by force if necessary, Russian-speaking minorities on its periphery at all welcome.

Particularly given the handling that Tatars were given by the Soviet regime, it's not surprising that Siefullen finds the dynamic absurd. "With Russia, we could say: we wanted to escape from you and now you come to help us?"

"This [Russian-speaker] formula comes from Europe, and Russia is ready to come to help us with tanks. It is a very stupid situation. This identification wounds us and make us feel in very uncomfortable," he said.

Looking ahead

The situation is somewhat brighter for Estonia's Jewish community, which has the advantages of a rich social life, a shiny, new synagogue in Tallinn, a lot of political support from the state and moral support from Israel.

Rabbi E. Shmuel Kot, the community's spiritual leader, said that though the number of Jews in Estonia is small compared to those of Finland and the other two Baltic states, they are active across all generations.

Most Jews in Estonia have Russian roots, and the issue of losing the language isn't as pointed. The community even has a specialized state school where children can learn Hebrew along with the other subjects on the national curriculum. 

Here too, however, there is concern, the rabbi said.

"In the last century, the biggest tragedy was the Holocaust. Now it is assimilation and losing our identity," he said. "Our task is to make Jews feel as such and this feeling will save the nation."

A lot of work is clearly being done in this direction.

Emigration, which is an issue for the country as a whole, is not posing a major problem for the community, Kot said.

"Young people always look for opportunities. In recent years, we have had more newborn babies than we have had people move out. It means the community has a future."


(Original publication date: September 30) 

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