We live in an age of enbrightenment. Our world is smart and we can tap into an endless pool of information and turn it into knowledge and insight. We understand that things cannot just keep on growing in size and volume forever. We understand that some things should start shrinking and declining and that this decrease could also be a common goal which can connect people, Maarja Merivoo-Parro said in a speech to mark the Day of Perpetual Estonian Nationhood.
What a tremendous day. Young Estonia is not that young anymore. Now, it is just Estonia – still a miracle but not news. I have a feeling today might be the last milestone we celebrate where young Estonians are represented by someone who was already here before freedom was regained.
You see, my first memories are from the Soviet Union. I remember there was not enough food to go around. I would go with my mom and queue up at the store. The lines were long – stretching all the way out the door and around the corner. For all I knew, we could be waiting there forever.
Desperate to get any sort of handle on the situation, I asked my mother to give me a number: how many seconds until we get in? She started me off with smaller numbers to count to. When I had reached those, she gave me bigger ones.
I was just a little kid, so the lesson I got from the daily ritual of standing in those lines and counting the seconds was twofold. First, I learned all about numbers. The other thing I learned was that time is not just an amorphous blob stretching endlessly but it is in fact hastily ticking away from us, turning seconds into the past and obscuring the present into a far less tangible eternity.
Sometimes it was worth the wait and there were ice cream bars in the store. Of course, only one was allotted per family, so me and my brother shared. Mom cut the upper part of the ice cream into a bowl for me to eat with a spoon – I was the younger one. My brother who was a few years my elder was entrusted to not make a mess and he got the part still left on the stick, which seemed so much cooler than the stuff melting in my bowl.
I remember dreaming about how when I grow up, I might sometimes also be granted the lower half of the ice cream bar which is still hanging on the stick. I did not think to dream any bigger than that. I did not know how to dream about having a whole ice cream bar just to myself.
Estonia's re-establishment was a similar story. There were those who dreamt within the borders and those who dreamt of new borders. Nobody could have imagined the country we ended up creating together, nor its ample fruit. The abundance and prosperity, the laziness and the abandon, the ambition and the glory, the betrayal and the sacrifice, the wisdom and the ignorance, the justice and the suffering, the will and the passion, the treachery, the indifference, the worry and the carelessness that the Republic of Estonia enables could not have been foreseen.
What was foreseen was the fear that none of it would last. Me and my classmates were the first to start reading from a new ABC-book that paid zero reference to pioneers or the Communist Party. Our books were filled with paintings of sunsets and family-time.
In year five, we started having history lessons and that's where the magic of numbers I once experienced whilst waiting in line regained some of the wizardry that had been lost during math class where numbers had been systematically weaned off meaning.
In history class, numbers started to rear their heads and open my eyes once more. One day I made the startling discovery that our independence which seemed so certain had in fact not yet outlived the independence Estonia had enjoyed at the beginning of the 20th century. Everything had seemed just as certain back then and yet it had all come to an abrupt and violent end and the people were stripped of freedom.
As I wrapped my brain around this notion, a question kept creeping up on me: what's to stop the same scenario from happening again? The answer is everything and nothing. The world and us.
We were lucky and in 2013 we had cause to celebrate the day when our restored independence had lasted longer than the interwar republic. I was still in school when that happened, doing my doctorate, and I remember everything vividly.
Which is why I can say with certainty that nobody could have predicted that when today arrives – November 30, 2021, the day when the days we have spent independently outnumber the days for which we were occupied – we will be gathered here in such small numbers, wearing masks. Nor could anyone have foreseen our people so angry with each other because of these masks and vaccine jabs, that this anger has divided us and forced us to live each day as if it's a test of democracy.
And that the beautiful and colorful consumerist society we had set as an example and goal has been declared perilous to humanity. And that I cannot be sure whether my grandchildren will feel able to dream even of the pittance I once dreamt of – the dream of half an ice cream bar still hanging on to the stick.
I am at an age where many of my friends have offspring and I genuinely admire the courage and trust they share not only with regard to Estonia but with regard to the world. I treasure their belief that everything will be OK. I marvel at their conviction that the tiny souls they have brought into this world for happiness and posterity will not end up on the receiving end of much suffering.
Because it is in fact suffering, impossible choices, unimaginable daily toil and the crumbling of all standards that is at the heart of the predictions given to us by people who spend their days counting numbers connected to climate change and overpopulation and projecting them onto the future.
I was also asked to set my gaze to the future, but I'm not a clairvoyant, I'm a historian. If one wants to see the future, the surest way that I can recommend from my own experience is counting seconds. Otherwise, we will never see it coming for we are all too caught up in the present. And in the present, there is nothing more soothing than looking at the past. That is something we can see, that is something we can work with, it has a certain quality which makes us feel able. And even when the past is scary, we need not be afraid of it.
I have devoted my academic life to diaspora research and I often find fascination and solace in what our refugees have said and how they have said it. One example of the words of wisdom that I have come across in many Estonian archives abroad is the saying that if there are two Estonians in a room, there are three opinions, four organizations and five bones of contention.
We certainly are opinionated, while not everybody has a say. Just like in this building where our parliament works. It is meant to represent the 1.3 million good people of Estonia, yet there are only 101 seats.
The tram I rode on my way over here is no different. There's even a sign on the window that says: 56 seated, 196 standing. This room certainly harbors many opinions and viewpoints and standpoints, and I'm sure some of you don't agree with me when I say we should start dreaming smaller.
We live in an age of enbrightenment. Our world is smart and we can tap into an endless pool of information and turn it into knowledge and insight. We understand that things cannot just keep on growing in size and volume forever. We understand that some things should start shrinking and declining and that this decrease could also be a common goal which can connect people.
In a way that is exactly what we have come to celebrate here today: the hopefully continued diminishing of the period in our history where we have been occupied. From now on we will have had more freedom than oppression. Every passing day that we can find the will and strength to stand together and be independent together – up here in Toompea Castle, in the lower town, in cities, hamlets and our last remaining forests – counts for at least half the battle.
The battle itself of course cannot be avoided neither by those who have very firm standing points, nor by those who have a warm seat at the table, nor by those who are still waiting in line. May the brave new world continue to have mercy on us all.
Editor's note: The translation of this article was revised on December 2, 2021.
Editor: Marcus Turovski