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What is Wrong With This Picture?

Source: Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Mari-Liis Lill, an actress, was the speaker who received the most applause in Parliament yesterday, at the 25th anniversary of the historic creative unions plenum, a groundbreaking event where cultural and academic figures took the courage to publicly speak their minds on independence and democracy in Soviet Estonia. The following is a translation of her speech.

In Tom Stoppard's "Coast of Utopia" trilogy, a young Russian thinker, Aleksander Herzen, said: "You remember those puzzle pictures, when we were young...there'd be a drawing with things wrong in it, a clock with no hands, a shadow going the wrong way, the sun and stars out at the same time...and it would say, 'What is wrong with this picture?'

"Someone sitting next to you in class disappears overnight, nobody knows anything. In the public gardens ice creams are eaten, in all the usual flavors. What is wrong with this picture?"

Stoppard was talking about mid-19th century Russia. Here, people do not disappear overnight, at least not for political reasons. We have an independent, democratic country – it's a world of a difference. One could say that the picture has a totally different setting.

The setting is also different compared with 25 years ago, when the creative community came together to try to make the world a better place.  The independence that, at the time, people could only cautiously dream about, has now arrived. Perhaps it is not quite what we wanted, but we wanted it indeed. And so it is.

But if we take a closer look at the speeches made 25 years ago, it seems that, the issue of independence aside, sections could be read word for word and still apply today. At the time, there was concern that we had the highest suicide, drug abuse and alcoholism rates in Europe. Concern that everything, including human values, is measured in numbers. That we are careless with regard to culture and nature. That the crisis of trust between the state and the people is ever greater.

Sound familiar? So, although the setting of our picture is compeltely different, the drawings are for some reason still incomplete – a clock without hands and so on.

There is not enough money to keep the soup kitchen open, the number of hungry mouths is growing, because poverty is growing, but the city district government decides to allocate the available funds to continue printing calendars with photos of politicians, because the poor person wants to know what day of the week it is. What is wrong with this picture?

Around 20,000 people sign a declaration that criticizes the growing distance between power and the people, but several leading politicians respond with an arrogant smirk, saying that the declaration lacks substance and that the authors should think before they speak their minds. What is wrong with this picture?

We live in a democratic country, yet it is becoming more and more common in layman's speech to describe the activities of Tallinn city government with the word "occupation" and people are waiting for it to end. What's wrong with this picture?

Thirty-five thousand citizens of Estonia – twice as many as supporters of Charter 12 – sign a petition that proposes to stop the implementation of Estonian curriculum in local Russian schools, but the issue is essentially ignored without any kind of discussion. Figuratively speaking, only those are invited to the ice cellar who can say the words without an accent. What is wrong with this picture?

The Estonian Constitution stipulates that one of our main goals is the preservation of the Estonian people, language and culture. But child support is 19 euros per month and the average cultural professional earns a third less than the Estonian average. What is wrong with this picture?

Stoppard finishes Herzen's discourse with the words "you are also in this picture." That means that I am also in this picture.

It is easy to watch and judge from a distance. To be in the picture, means to take initiative. Why are our complaints restricted to the home, why are they in the closet? Taking initiative does not necessarily mean starting a new political party. But why is that when I think of people my age who are in politics, the only person I can think of is Priit Toobal... and no one else comes to mind at this moment.

Perhaps Marju was right in the NO99 Theater performance, when she whispered: "maybe there won't be anyone left after us."

Taking initiative does not necessarily mean entering politics at all. When was the last time that one of my colleagues from the theater weighed in on a societally important issue? I can't remember.

Yes, we can talk about how the role of the artist has changed, that the voice of the creative community carries much more weight in an authoritarian regime, because art allows us to talk when we must otherwise be silent in public discourse. When the word becomes free, the responsibility fades away. I get the feeling that when everyone is allowed to talk about everything, others will speak up – why should I? And no one does.

And if you do, you will get so much anonymous feedback, more than in a whole lifetime of creation. Feedback such as: instead of complaining, she should find herself a real job; she can write poetry and goof around on her free time in the evenings. And asking remuneration for her "work" is supreme arrogance.

This inevitably leads to a feeling. The feeling that you are no longer needed. The Swedish writer Anna Wahlgren has said that one of our biggest needs is to be needed. Of course, also loved, accepted, protected and cared for, but primarily needed. She writes: "Being needed means having a task [...] It is being able to say to yourself, 'The others are worse off without me.'"

She writes in the context of bringing up children, trying to find an answer for why each day a child in the world's richest countries tries to take her own life. An answer to why in Western Europe the elderly are cast out of society and children are put aside for the future. A child's place is to be a child, to play games, and not get out of line. Every child wants to know how the world works so as to one day be capable of changing it. A child wants to take part, to be included. She, too, wants to stir the soup, hold the vacuum cleaner and switch on the light. She wants to feel that, the others are worse off without me.

And then the children grow up. If they are lucky, they have a firm foundation from home, a feeling that involvement in this world is important. And they go to kindergarten and school and understand that it is not always appropriate to voice your opinion, that their suggestions for making the class more interesting are not welcome, but that, as long as they are as unnoticeable as possible, everything will be fine.

And they go to college and they suggest the replacement of an unbearably incompetent instructor. But they are told that, if you don't like it then leave - people are waiting in line outside.

And then they get a job, if there is a job to get. If they are lucky, it will be in a field that truly challenges them. But even the most humanitarian of fields, the arts, theater, the erstwhile children are again met with the attitude that be happy that you are here. Be happy that you can do anything at all; if you don't like it, leave. The line outside is long.

Is this not what is happening in society more broadly? This is the country we have, this is what you wanted, here it is. We aren't going to change anything, if you don't like, leave. And indeed they will leave.

But unlike in acting school, there is not an surplus of people in Estonia. The line behind the door is not very long. Fewer children are born, more are moving abroad.

It is not in my competency to make proposals on how we should redistribute resources to improve the situation, but redistributed they should be.

So that all of the children that are born, each one soon a rarity, could have something to eat and a place to sleep and something to do after school. But most importantly it is important that these children feel that they are needed. Those children as well, who do not have the time to wait until we reach the five richest countries, and who have grown up in the meantime.

It does not always require money, which there is never enough of. But there should be enough ability to listen, to have a dialogue, good words and solutions where no one feels that they are the loser. So that every citizen of the Republic of Estonia can feel that the others would be worse off without them.

So every citizen can feel she is needed, even if her mother tongue is Russian. Even if she lives in a rural area. Even if she is unemployed. Even if she has decided to have more than three children. Even if a family member is seriously ill, even if she wants to live with a person of the same sex, even if she works in the arts.

If only for a moment, we should let them stir the soup, hold the vacuum cleaner or turn on the light switch. Let's see what this "people's parliament" brings.

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