On a snowy Sunday in February I sat in a classroom in Pae Gymnasium. Motivated by a desire to vote in local elections, I had registered for Estonia’s B1 language exam. It’s a bit unjust, I’d always thought, that a European citizen, who speaks not a word of Estonian and understands not a single issue, is entitled to vote in local elections. Yet an American, who speaks the language more or less fluently and legally resides in the country, must pass a language exam. But the law is the law, and so I took the exam to prove my proficiency in the Estonian language.
And so, in my assigned classroom, I sat at a student’s desk surrounded by mostly native Russian speakers, as two proctors explained the rules of the exam in deliberate Estonian. Instructions given, I was ordered to remove my bag from the desktop, silence was requested, and the first part of the exam was begun.
Only a few minutes into the exam, the student in front of me turned 180 degrees in his chair to ask me in a conversational volume for assistance in answering an exam question. A bit struck by his audacity, I suggested in the same volume that he ask the proctor. If the proctors noticed us, they gave no sign. A few minutes later, the student on my right produced crib notes which he shielded from view with his hand. What was he cribbing from I wondered, since the exam required you to write a letter to a friend describing what you did on New Year’s Eve? How specific could his crib notes possibly have been?
Many of the test takers simply stared into space, and as I glanced across the room I could see that many of their exam papers contained not a single line of text. A few had managed a couple of sentences, but I saw few which would qualify as a letter. I wondered if both behaviors were normal: for students to be completely unprepared and for proctors to pretend there was no cheating going on.
My experience with teachers and exam proctors is that neither are fools, and they know very well what happens in their classrooms. Could two proctors have missed the cheating? Perhaps catching a cheater caused more trouble than it was worth? Or perhaps de facto Estonian integration policy was such that it wasn’t politically correct to catch them?
In June 2010, I read the New York Times
’ Moscow Bureau Chief Clifford Levy’s article
, “Estonia Raises Its Pencils to Erase Russian,” where Levy described language inspectors who would “saunter from classroom to classroom…engaging in seemingly trivial chit chat…” Levy termed Tallinn’s Pae Gymnasium a “linguistic battleground” and concerning the numbers of Estonia’s Russian-speaking minority, wrote that the “government seems bent on employing the schools to lower that figure.” The article seemed to pass unnoticed in Estonia, except for one Postimees
columnist who wondered
aloud whether Levy really believed Estonia’s government was out to change the mother tongue of around 400,000 Russians.
I had also seen Amnesty International’s February 2007 press release
titled “Language Police Gets More Power to Harass,” where Estonia’s Language Inspectorate was called “repressive and punitive in nature.” The press release featured a letter from a picked-on taxi driver with three children, a mortgage, and an alcoholic husband.
An American National Public Radio broadcast
in August 2010 featured journalist David Greene calling Estonia a “feisty little country,” where post 1991, the Estonians, in the words of a Russian, “had the land, they had the money, …Russians had nothing…” An I Hate Russians
t-shirt was cited as evidence, and a man in Narva was located who “desperately wants to move to Russia.” NPR noted that “language inspectors have the power to roam schools” and quoted President Toomas Hendrik Ilves: “I don’t see what people are complaining about.”
The stories were surely someone’s truth, though they were rather one-sided. The journalists did not interview a single gainfully-employed, successfully-integrated, Estonian-speaking Russian who was pleased to be an Estonian citizen, or at least pleased to be part of the EU. Given the rift between the two cultures, it is possible this sort of satisfied ethnic Russian would not eagerly present himself to western journalists. But they did exist. I knew plenty of them personally.
The New York Times and National Public Radio were not trashy tabloids, but some of the finest journalistic institutions the United States has produced. Could the experiences of these journalists, I wondered, be so truly different from the small picture I’d seen? Where were the jackboot-wearing language soldiers bent on erasing Russian? From what I’d seen in my exam experience, the soldiers wore bedroom slippers.
I set out to find the jackboots.
A Return to Pae
I decided to retrace the path of Clifford Levy, and so I returned to Pae Gymnasium, this time not as a test-taker but a journalist, where I met with Izabella Riitsaar, the school’s director.
I asked her if language inspectors were free to roam the halls of her school. She told me they always announced their visits a full month in advance. And, she added, the Language Inspectorate did even more. “They listed the questions they would ask, both verbal and written.” And when they arrived, she said, they did not deviate from the list.
To prepare for the inspectors’ visit, Riitsaar organized study sessions for her teachers lasting from one hour to an hour-and-a-half per day, this in addition to teachers’ regular schedules and without any state funding. Riitsaar didn’t appear to have any sympathy for teachers who failed under those circumstances. She told me that in ten years’ time, she has only had to let one teacher go for not measuring up to language requirements.
Riitsaar acknowledged the exam isn’t easy for some. Many of her teachers, especially those over 50, don’t use the Estonian language on a daily basis. And schoolteachers are, by nature, perfectionists. They don’t like to make even small mistakes.
Riitsaar told me she did not consider the Language Inspectorate as a punishment organization, and it seemed to me her relationship with them was without antagonism. I was curious how her school and teachers had ended up cast as part of a “linguistic battleground.”
“How did Mr. Levy write the article he did?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” she shrugged. “I had the same conversation with him that I’m having with you.”
It wasn’t on Clifford Levy’s list, but I went to meet Tiit Kruusalu, director of personnel for Tallinn’s Children Home, an institution whose six units and 200 employees offer services for orphans, children with disabilities, and infants.
Kruusalu, a former professional soldier, opened an elaborate spreadsheet (employee names were masked), to illustrate that as of January 1, 2010, 71 staffers, roughly 30 percent of his workforce, were in a high risk group for not meeting the language requirements. He browsed forward to June 2010, to show how over time employees had satisfied the language requirements and the risk group was reduced to 43.
“But how many of those 43 do you estimate will still be here in a year?” I interrupted to ask.
“I don’t have the moral right to answer that question,” he replied.
On July 1, 2008, the Estonian government prescribed in Decree 105, how to meet the language requirements. Several months later, Kruusalu went on the road with a slideshow to all his 200 workers to explain the law’s requirements and offer a plan for fulfilling them. Although the slides were in the Estonian language, they were designed for his target audience: one slide humorously depicted the language inspector as a witch on a broom (“When the topic is unpleasant, it helps to garnish it,” said Kruusalu). To eliminate any chance of being misunderstood, Kruusalu delivered his presentation in the Russian language.
In 2009, when 22 of the Children’s Home workers elected to meet with inspectors (the inspection was coordinated in cooperation with the Language Inspectorate), none of them passed. The next visit is scheduled for autumn 2010.
Although Kruusalu was unwilling to speculate, I gathered from his remarks that some of the 43 remaining in the risk group would surely have to eventually go. “There are some people who still believe that the Estonian Republic is only temporary,” he said, indicating that some simply refuse to learn the Estonian language.
Kruusalu says the Language Inspectorate has been flexible to the needs of the Children’s Home. “They’re aware we have a plan, and they’re aware we’re working toward it.” Workers in positions which require the successful completion of the B2 exam but have completed the lesser B1 exam, have not been let go. “B1, that’s something,” said Kruusalu. “Step by step.”
Kruusalu has a tough balancing act. He must meet the law’s requirements, but at the same time maintain a stable work environment which does not negatively affect they children they serve.
“We have to fulfill the law,” said Kruusalu, who several times told me his main concern was being able to face himself in the mirror. “And we will do it as humanely as possible.”
There was nothing left but to meet the chief broom rider himself, Ilmar Tomusk, Director of the Language Inspectorate. The inspectorate occupies a suite of cheaply-renovated offices on the third floor of a building across from the National Library. A visitor must be buzzed both in and out.
Tomusk, who holds a PhD in Public Administration, and is the author of two volumes on language and politics, has served 15 years in his current capacity. He supervises a staff of 18, of whom 12 work as inspectors.
I asked him about the western media’s consistent negative portrayal of his inspectors and his institution. “The question is predisposition,” he said, and he began to dismiss the myths.
Inspectors do not “roam” anywhere. In the public sector, they don’t appear without notice. In the private sector, they generally (with the exception of taxi drivers) do not make surprise inspections, but rather follow up on complaints made by citizens. Those, he admits, are frequently without basis. “Perhaps someone didn’t like the checker’s accent at the supermarket.”
An inspector’s job is to inspect: they lack the power to fire anyone. They can, however, order a fine, though sanctions are rare and the fines often less than a parking ticket in the city of Tallinn. In a single year, Tomusk said, 3,000 people are inspected, and 7 to 10 percent of them receive a fine.
The language law is not applied on the basis of ethnicity, rather on the basis of education. Estonians who received their education in Russian-curriculum schools are also required to prove their proficiency.
Tomusk views his organization not as “repressive and punitive in nature” as Amnesty International characterized it, but rather sees it as a participant in the integration process.
But if the language cops are not jackboot-wearing sadists who find joy in exacting punishment, if the state is not bent on the obliteration of the Russian language, where does the west’s predisposition come from?
“There are so-called Russian human rights organizations that are active in Estonia,” said Tomusk. “These are very active and they have some attorneys who consider themselves human rights experts. These organizations interact regularly with the Russian-language press in Estonia, as well as with Amnesty International.”
The local Russian-language press is another source of friction. Yana Toom, currently Vice-Mayor of the City of Tallinn, once took the Language Inspectorate to task in her capacity as editor in chief of the city-financed and politically-partisan Russian-language weekly, Stolitsa. In her article, Toom argued inspectors had no legal basis for holding a “conversation” with those whose language they were evaluating and advocated subjects refuse to answer questions. In a letter to Toom, Tomusk disputed her case, line by line, and established his team’s right to use conversation as a tool to judge a person’s competency in a language.
Concerning other theories, some I talked to cited Moscow’s substantial propaganda budgets and highly organized public relations efforts to swing western opinion its way. Some mentioned western journalists covering Estonia from a base in Moscow being naturally influenced by a Russian point of view. Some considered the reason to be easily-duped foreigners and lazy journalism.
In interviews, I was offered repeated examples of the Language Inspectorate’s willingness to overlook the letter of the law (for a period of years) in order to satisfy the spirit – demonstration of a belief that work in process is work indeed, toward the goal of nation which can function in one national language.
Whatever the root cause or causes, Estonia doesn’t appear organized or willing to defend its point of view in the western press. The nation, from observing discussions in the Estonian-language media, seems rather disinterested. Estonians seem to feel the law is the law and, they seem to say, if you don’t like it, leave. The fairness of Estonian language and citizenship laws aside, it seems Estonia has a case to be made that the language law’s enforcement is humane.
The nation may have survived a cyberattack and simultaneously improved its image in the eyes of the west, but in terms of integration it seems capable only of creating a case study in public relations disasters. When journalists from the New York Times and NPR come knocking on your door and come away with absolutely nothing positive to say, perhaps it should be cause for worry.
Scott Diel passed the B1 language examination last February. He is a faithful reader of the New York Times and a regular listener of NPR.