Helir-Valdor Seeder: Could Europe Day reach the Urals one day?

Helir-Valdor Seeder.
Helir-Valdor Seeder. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Our Russian-speaking population mainly watches Russian state programming that offers them another country's perspective on the War and history. Winners write their own history, which possibility Russia has made rather creative use of, Helir-Valdor Seeder writes.

May 9 was a significant day for Estonia for several reasons, good and bad. First, we celebrated Europe Day, for it was in 1950 that French foreign minister Robert Schuman gave his famous speech where he proposed the idea of new political cooperation with the aim of making war between European nations unthinkable.

May 9 was also Russia's official Victory Day to mark the end of the Second World War. Our Russian-speaking people celebrate the end of WWII a day later than the rest of the world, while the nature of the holiday differs greatly from that of Europe Day. It highlights clear differences as Estonians celebrate Victory Day on June 23 – in honor of the Battle of Võnnu that was won in 1919.

How insurmountable are gaps caused by historic memory?

We know that our Russian population largely watches Russian television that offers another country's perspective on the War and history. Winners write their own history, which possibility Russia has made rather creative use of.

If in Russia's treatment, September 22 is the anniversary of the liberation of Tallinn, for Estonians, it marks the tragic anniversary of the toppling of Otto Tief's government and the beginning of yet another occupation – Resistance Day.

A day when a person can celebrate the occupation of a neighbor's country by their own homeland. It is inappropriate and sad: if a "liberator" refuses to leave, they have simply replaced the previous occupier and sealed "new freedom" that follows alleged liberation by killing and deportation sprees and decades of oppression.

Thousands of Estonians fought in World War II, while forced to wear foreign uniforms. Things they fought against also included an occupation from the east. The Pitka Boys tried to defend the outskirts of Tallinn at the very last minute, and while it was David's struggle against Goliath, it was by no means meaningless. It allowed many Estonians to escape to the west where they contributed to maintaining the continuity of the Republic of Estonia. However, there is no victory in the Second World War for Estonians to celebrate. The horrors of the war were followed by an occupation.

The Russian people are also split in this regard. For many Russians, May 9 is a sad day of remembrance. Russia's losses in the war were astronomical.

Therefore, while some remember their loved ones by visiting a cemetery, others are beating drums in a square and bringing flowers to a monument, as opposed to the grave of a grandfather they lost in the war. I understand Russians' suffering and choices full well and have nothing but respect for Russian culture, artists and teachers. It holds greatness, depth, elegance and splendor. I do not look for the desire to conquer other countries and peoples therein.

The problem with missing language proficiency

Estonia is home to citizens of 147 countries – members of some 200 nations. Of course, we cannot talk to all of them in their own language, while Estonian could be what we have in common and, indeed, is in many cases.

Additionally, people who speak Russian at home have an advantage over many other non-Estonian-speaking residents. Virtually all services and medical assistance are available also in Russian, legislation is translated into Russian; we have Russian schools, radio stations, a public law television channel and a Russian theater.

It is possible to get by in Estonia by only speaking Russian, which has created a certain learned helplessness where people do not try to use Estonian. The result is limiting one's own potential and more modest opportunities on the labor market. However, the biggest problem with missing language proficiency is the inability to understand Estonian history and psychology.

Some of our Russian politicians are telling their voters that the "declining" Estonian is not worth learning. This in itself includes a good measure of tragedy as the inability to speak Estonian leaves voters worse off socially and culturally.

May 9 is a day when Russians give their memories and feelings shape based on everyone's personal experience, level of education and discretion. Estonians have mostly reacted in a reserved manner. Estonia is home to over 88,000 Russian citizens. They are largely hardworking and friendly, but by accepting the Russian Federation's official treatment of history, politics and red-letter days, they subscribe to truths that are reinforced on a daily basis from the political information space they inhabit.

This manufactures faith that is utterly impervious to logical arguments or historical facts. Russia's treatment of the Second World War is a virtual religion. However, we must not allow this sect to exist in isolation.

Our task as Estonians and the Estonian state is to reach the Russian population and to get across the message that it was not a great victory but a tragic loss for us, one we only managed to turn back into independence in the early 1990s.

An honest and clear message is more effective that a "tactful half-truth" that reflects insecurity and is, therefore, unconvincing. Estonia is our home, but we live in Europe that stretches as far as the Urals. Will the idea of Europe Day ever reach the Urals? We do not know, but it is something worth striving for together.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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