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'Toomsayers' Be Gone

Estonia's future, as Yana Toom sees it... or perhaps the audience her arguments deserve
Estonia's future, as Yana Toom sees it... or perhaps the audience her arguments deserve Source: Photo: Postimees/Scanpix

Apparently Yana Toom thinks that Estonians are a dying breed and should be written off as a nation.

Or at least Estonians now think she thinks that, based on her comments to a Russian paper. In any case, the impression many got was of someone who isn't even on speaking terms with many in her own family but who is very willing to talk glibly about private matters - such as funeral arrangements for the still-living - with people outside the family. 

My first thought was that if there was ever a time for Jürgen Ligi to open his mouth to inflict another savage put-down, this was it. What is the finance minister doing laying into journalists and politicians on his own side of the political spectrum when there are Yana Tooms out there? Sounds like a perfect time for that "your argument is a rotting corpse and should be burned" quote, no?  
Speaking of plague-ridden corpses, I'll bet there were a few Yana Tooms kicking around during the Great Northern War. Things did not look good back around 1712. Eighty-two percent of the population in what is now the capital region died of war wounds, starvation and plague.

And I wonder if there were any Yana Tooms around when 10,000 Estonians were deported in a single night back in 1941. Well, probably not - they were already safe in personal apartments deep behind Soviet lines.

But certainly, time and again, people have written off the nation. There have always been doomsayers - prophets of doom - or Toom, perhaps - and gloom.

Almost invariably, there's a second part attached, counseling Estonia not to delay its demise, but to go the easy route of melting away into the sunset, or of conforming to the rest of the world. It's not hard to detect an agenda here.

A tactic often used is to paint Baltic nation-states as an isolated, anachronistic experiment. You could see it in the Russkii Reportyor article. Globalization is especially handy to marshal as an argument. Everyone's mixing into a big melting pot these days, but here's Estonia, in its strange, early 20th century bubble. 

It's an easy target. All you have to do is sprinkle a few choice words - "nationalism," "inspectorate" - and you've conjured up the spitting image of sinister.   

Actually, Estonia's nationalism is not anti-social or anachronistic, it's purpose-built. Ninety-three years ago, the treaty marking victory in the War of Independence was signed. Were there any military parades, strange rigid men with monocles and Prussian mustaches? No. It was a typical seasonably crisp February day with the light coming back, and sky-blue, black and white flags all over town. Most importantly, never in the history of independent Estonia has proclaiming the superiority of an ethnicity or language been remotely detectable in official policy, as it was in the Russkii Reportyor article.     
As far as the dwindling numbers go - Russian or Estonian - I'm one of those naive souls who doesn't put much stock in the "imminent extinction" theory. 
If you look at a graph of the population of Estonia, say from the year 1200 to the present, you see a steady upward rise with a few blips and dips. To be sure, there's a gentle tapering toward the end, but even that largely accords with the graph for the rest of Europe - Russia with its own demographic crisis certainly included.

A graph of Wall Street is the same way. You hear headlines of imminent cliff, default and crash. You turn with alarm to the numbers for the past few centuries. But once again, you see only a steady rise to unprecedented heights. The great correction of 1929 barely shows up in the 500-year view.  

Of course, a Krugman might cherry-pick data to make his point and start plotting the points from 1928. As does Toom. Taking the number of high schoolers 15 years after a baby boom and contrasting it to the current number (many people chose not to have kids in the early 1990s but work their behinds off instead) is a case in point.   

But how about a comparison with the number of secondary school students studying in Estonia in 1713? 

Perhaps that is far-fetched. But others have provided plenty of evidence of positive "barometer"-type trends. One is that while people are still not having massive numbers of babies, the numbers are more or less constant, and the abortion rate is only a fraction of what it once was. Abortion, a Soviet-era form of birth control, is disappearing on its own. Some, like Mihhail Lotman, see that as a good indicator of the health of society. He's quite pro-life, but he's also probably right. Others have noted that the Estonian language has never had so much vitality as it does now, just going by the number and range of books being published.

All those principles that started germinating in the early 20th century have formed a stable base.

Toom's "no future Estonia" comments have just about as much validity as extrapolating, based on the recession, that Estonia's GDP will be zero in the year 2030. They deserve to be lanced in a series of late-night tweets, or by a insult comic like Jürgen Ligi. But they don't deserve to be met with hand-wringing and fear-mongering.

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