There is an old joke from the early days of re-independence. A guy walks into a shop and starts talking to the cashier in really bad Estonian, with a very thick Russian accent. The cashier says, “Oh, you don’t have to bother, I speak Russian well enough.” The guy replies, “Aw hell no! We spent fifty years listening to you speak bad Russian, now you get to listen to us speak bad Estonian!”
The public debate over refugee quotas imposed on the country by the EU is the hottest topic in domestic politics for many years, eclipsing even last year’s cohabitation law – especially since it’s not really a debate. Estonia does not get a say in this; not procedurally, and certainly not morally. At a time when continental solidarity is most viscerally and immediately vital to this particular patch of land, there are no games to play in Brussels. Back at home, though, there are points to be made by pundits and politicians alike; while for the average Estonian, the most practical benefit is finding out what your friends actually think. What could previously have been dismissed as idle sauna talk, now becomes a flag to be planted and a side to be taken. This is a country where the really big issues have never been fundamentally divisive: more or less everyone agrees that capitalism is good, healthcare should be free, and God doesn’t exist.
But that is really only true for the enfranchised Estonia. The two major referendums of our time – on joining the EU and joining the Eurozone – both yielded a two-to-one split, which roughly correlates with the mother-tongue community structure. So, what does the influx of a few hundred North Africans mean for Estonia’s Russophones?
At first glance, one might think they ought to be relieved. There has always been a strong streak of casual, everyday racism in Estonia, and not much effort has been made to hide it: instead of an apology, it was always accompanied by an explanation. This was not malicious, you see. Estonians are a nation of poor farmers, descendants of the first human tribes to settle here, and have always been conquered rather than conquering others (unlike those damn Latvians, who had colonies in the Caribbean, you know!). Challenge an Estonian’s poor-taste joke at an international pub, and he will tell you how he is entitled to say those things, because nobody in his bloodline had ever abused a black man. After another pint, he might continue that dealing with the consequences of famine and genocide outside the walls of Fortress Europe should be left to the colonial powers who are responsible for creating the mess in the first place. This Estonian will then feel good about himself – because he stopped short of saying that really, non-white people shouldn’t be in Britain or France either.
(It would take a particularly well-read and self-aware Estonian to appreciate the sad irony: the one historical event that Estonia absolutely has cause to feel collective guilt about – as a country – is the internment of retreating White Russian troops in forced labor camps around the time of the War of Independence. Once again, the drawbridge is up and there is no admittance to the castle.)
So for Estonia’s Russian-speakers, the relief that nationalist ire has been drawn to another target ought to be mixed with a healthy dose of sympathy for the new victims. And yet, the refugee quota debate has a better chance of becoming the uniting force that has been sought so long, a banner under which the entire population can rally, and with one voice, tell the immigrants to stay out. Indeed, kitchen-table white supremacy is the cause for which rednecks of all mother tongues can stand together. While there is still no such thing as a cohesive, single-minded Russian-speaking community in Estonia, the loud, disenfranchised, self-exclusionary segment is as racist on its worst day as any Võrumaa farmhand is on his best. It’s not so much an aspect of nationality as of the enduring Soviet mindset, and the pathological desire for self-affirmation through belonging to some great and noble community. This greatness and nobility needs to be intrinsic, not requiring any actual thought or effort. If satisfaction can be gained from affiliation with the great literary tradition of the Russian language (as long as it’s someone else’s responsibility to make sure your kids read Lermontov), or with the martial glory of World War II (not that you know who, exactly, fought under the modern Russian flag back then), then that same satisfaction can easily be gained from the smug knowledge that at least you are white, and therefore undeniably superior, even in the eyes of the chukhnya.
Indeed, this assumption is validated by the nature of the New Estonian Far Right, in all its low toothless yapping. Rabid nationalism has always been marginal in this country – not least because centuries spent under barons practicing prima noctis has made the very idea of a pure-blood Estonian inherently ridiculous – but at least before, the neo-Nazis would go and have fist fights with neo-Commies on the lawn in front of the Bronze Soldier. The 2015 model holds public demonstrations in front of Parliament to protest what is apparently the greatest threat to Estonian society – a few hundred bedraggled fugitives stuck in a remote village. The Blue Awakening seems to have a lot in common with the Night Watch, after all.
The ratio of vitriol to actual importance in this issue has been so tiring that it calls for a radical approach. So finally, let us match the level of “debate” Estonia has been having with an appropriate action plan:
The European Union is, at its core, about solidarity – right? The continent coming together to solve the problems that are important for some of its members but irrelevant for others. Estonia does not give a euro-penny’s worth of a damn about the plight of North African boat people – but cares deeply about defense and border security. Meanwhile, the likes of Malta and Italy see no threat from the eastern frontier, but have a lot of people they’d love to get rid of. My suggestion is a European Foreign Legion. We take all the male, adult, able-bodied refugees, and select the ones who already know which is the business end of a Kalashnikov rifle – probably a pretty high percentage. Then we promise them citizenship after ten years of service. (If the Estonian army can teach Petseri kids to speak the language in eight months, then surely…) Hell, why not put together a Special Forces unit and send them to extract Eston Kohver? Imagine Putin complaining to the UN Security Council about a daring daytime raid on the Pskov regional FSB headquarters by a platoon of Eritreans in surplus Kaitseliit uniforms!
Or, hell, if that’s too much for you, let’s give Brussels a counter-offer: we take no refugees physically in this country, but we issue each and every one of them with Estonian e-residency for free. We’ll even throw in enough WiFi routers to cover all of Lampedusa. What do you say, Jean-Claude, do we have a deal?
Andrei Tuch is a Tartu-based writer and freelance translator.