The silent heroism of periods of decline

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Mihkel Mutt. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The atmosphere of periods of aftermath or decline is prosaic and presents different challenges than times of elation, whereas the former are often when the true quality of people is revealed, as it is easier to be patriotic in the conditions of universally solemn moods, when people are singing patriotic songs and the trumpets are calling, Mihkel Mutt writes.

History is a wave. There are momentous and dynamic periods when everything seems to be changing for the better. There is optimism in the air, people are happy and friendly, look passers-by in the eye and smile. Strangers embrace each other in the exuberance of public meetings, fundraisers break records etc.

These are almost always followed by periods of hangover. It turns out that expectations were too high. That the world is not smooth but rather serrated, differences of opinion manifest as people return to their daily lives, egos and other human circumstances enter play.

The period of national awakening and the decades that followed, when initial togetherness dissipated, the pace slackened, with the addition of the pressure of Russification, is perhaps the best-known example in Estonian history.

Of course, almost nothing is ever what it first seems. A lot of progress was made during the so-called post-awakening period that saw the development of professional journalism and student groups that later gave rise to the Young Estonia cultural movement. All in all, it was this period that nurtured the generation that eventually created the Republic of Estonia etc.

It has been suggested (for example, by Toomas Haug) that to get to know a period, one should not look at members of the elite and heroes but rather secondary and older characters as the characteristics of the age often manifest more clearly there. We could suggest something similar diachronically, in terms of historical dynamics.

The atmosphere of periods of aftermath or decline is prosaic and presents different challenges than times of elation, whereas the former are often when the true quality of people, the mettle of interest groups, bodies and persons is revealed. Because it is easier to be patriotic in the conditions of universally solemn moods, when people are singing patriotic songs and the trumpets are calling.

That is why, during the transitional period, so many felt they are willing to eat potato peels in the name of Estonia. It was harder to remain patriotically minded when the initial momentum started winding down and it became evident that the nation state and democracy are not guarantees of prosperity and happiness but merely important conditions.

Such periods see most people confine themselves to a narrower circle, friends and family, and look for self-realization in professional work and hobbies. That is when it becomes clear how many remain steadfast and continue making quiet but persistent efforts towards the common goal.

This parallel between the periods of awakening and transition is by no means perfect, much less so are the decades that followed. What they have in common is that, even though the reasons differ, there is a decline in the number of patriotically-minded people.

This also holds true for several other things.

When most people around us are aesthetically educated and sport good taste, it affects the rest of us and even improves the tastes of the bourgeois. They will also develop a radar for what is coarse and tasteless and an appetite for finer things. However, when everything around us is banal, it takes power of mind not to give in and succumb. This is vividly portrayed in Chekhov's novels.

When those around you are intellectually sensitive and open to education, when it is prestigious to be wise and well-read, you find it relatively easy to be open to intellectual values oneself. You move in others' wake and recite clever ideas yourself. (Or at least you do not take a hesitant look around to try and make sure they aren't too high-flying for your audience and in need of being downgraded.)

It is more difficult to be intelligent when all around you are superficiality, frivolity and blunt practicality. In times like these, it takes character not to despair and leave it all behind and instead stay and continue pursuing your enlightenment efforts. Because it is precisely when pretentious mediocrity climbs to the podium that the wise, responsible person must not give in and continue moving forward in spite of all.

When most members of society are civilized, good and orderly, it is easier to be those things oneself… It occurs to me when I think about those who leave Estonia because there is greed and intolerance here, people are rude etc. They go somewhere where things are different, where people are normal, such as Scandinavia. And they are right to an extent.

Life is usually comfortably respectable where they land. (Of course, it has not always been the case. It's simply that they have smoothed over their rough edges before.) What matters is that most people who go there start living in the same manner, that is to say in an orderly fashion, whereas they are happy to do it.

Few try to practice their past behavior, not to mention robbing jewelry stores. Most sincerely like living in a civilized manner and go about their business in a cultured way. They become loyal and even exemplary members of their new home country's society.

The only question left is why didn't they want to shape such a society right here, where they live? Why did they not make a start, serve as examples, search for contact with likeminded people to start something until we have our own "Scandinavia"? Because it is hard, requires spiritual fortitude and sometimes means going back in terms of material standard of living.

I believe that some tried but burned their fingers and ran out of steam. Could no longer be bothered to play the fool. There is no guarantee that this "Scandinavia" would be achieved in their day, while a person only has one life etc. Therefore, it is a safer bet to dive into existing pockets of prosperity. This is the case everywhere in the world, not just concerning Estonians. Why else all this trouble with migration.

It is not hard to be a good person in paradise! It is much harder to pave one's way there from the local quasi-hell. Of those who don't leave, a good part would but lack the means, courage or other resources.

And yet, there are also those who could leave but don't. Some because they like being the big frog in a small pond. But some cross their teeth and are full of silent stubbornness as they want to prove their humanity to themselves by gradually building a normal world where they live. This means they believe in something that is bigger than themselves, and I am becoming increasingly fond of their quiet "provincial patriotism."

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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