Practical Vulcanology: Learning to Know and Respect a Dangerous Neighbor ({{commentsTotal}})

The writer Indrek Hargla says he's boycotting milk with Russian-language labelling. Asked by a reporter, "Estonian kids are studying Russian at school en masse - why?" Hargla responded: "We don't need to be conducting any sort of affairs with Russia at all - not cultural, not political!" Although the question was loaded, the reply from the popular writer (who in the past has worked as a lawyer at the Foreign Ministry) was something he had throught through and meant sincerely.

The journalist and essayist Jüri Estam writes: "People in our geopolitical zone need Americans to have a better knowledge of Russia. Where can we get good 21st century Russologists with good public speaking skills, on the order of Kennan, Adenauer, Kissinger, Brzezinski and Albright?"

Great! Let's close our eyes and ears and let Americans do the seeing and hearing for us!

In the spring I wrote: "Due to its geographic position, a country like Estonia cannot permit itself to be ignorant on Russian matters." Estonia has achieved world renown in the field of cyber defense. Actually, Estonia has the resources to achieve the same level of expertise on Russian affairs.

I currently see two opposing but equally worrisome tendencies. One is the demonization of Russia and Russians; people project their fears on to them. The other trend is childish expectations and hopes - some might see Russia as a bastion of morality and justice that is in contrast to sinful America and the decadent West in general, while some see Russia as an El Dorado where one can get rich quick from the transit business. Both are naive views that can prove dangerous if followed by action.

Analogy to a volcano

Even if we leave aside the cryptozoological theory concerning the role of volcanoes in anthropogenesis (the Toba supereruption about 72,000 years ago), there has been long a curious correlation between volcanoes and human civilization. A volcanic eruption is deadly, but for some reason, civilizations become clustered in the proximity of volcanoes, and new settlements arise again in the same spot after being visited by destruction.

Agrarian theory (centered on the fact that volcanoes are surrounded by fertile soil) cannot explain why this tendency continues even in the industrial and post-industrial ages.

Proceeding from this metaphor, being in the neighborhood of Russia offers both elements, just like a volcano - the risk of death as well of wealth (and I don't mean just material wealth but cultural and spiritual patrimony as well). But one must know one's partner well, just as one must know one's enemy.

If we focus on the enemy aspect, we see in our world two primary behavioral patterns for dealing with enemies. The first is that we hate, hear, loathe, scorn our enemy, are oppressed by the enemy, and then continue our lamentations and scorn (on a mental level). The second is that we learn to know our enemy, respect the enemy, triumph over the enemy and then respect the former generously.

When Ukraine's now former foreign minister sings obscene couplets about Putin, it could seem funny and boost enthusiasm of the people massed on the square, but this mode of action is not one that characterizes victors. At least not in Europe.

Knowing one's adversary's language and culture is a weapon in psychological and information warfare, too. Over 25 years, we have managed to share this weapon lavishly with those who publicly position themselves as anti-government (for instance, Dmitri Klenski or Yana Toom are more proficient in Estonian than I am). Calls to surrender this linguistic weapon strike me as inappropriate for the time, to put it mildly.

This piece is a translation of an entry on Lotman's blog, published also on

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