Karl Lembit Laane: Russian schools, Jakob Hurt and would-be Estonianness

Karl Lembit Laane.
Karl Lembit Laane. Source: Private collection

Any attempt to rob a person of their nationality is among the greatest crimes one can commit against a human being and justifies resistance, Karl Lembit Laane writes based on the ideas of Jakob Hurt.

Estonian nationalism has been preoccupied with the so-called Russian question since the 1990s. The question of what to do with the local Russian minority.

Proposals to that effect have always included a voice urging the direct or indirect erasure of Russian nationhood in Estonia and dismantling of institutions manufacturing Russian identity. Independent Russian schools are one such institution.

By late 2021, we know from the national Estonian language development plan that the end of the institution will happen gradually between now and 2035. Estonian nationalism seems to have arrived at a final solution.

Among Socrates' endless conversations, we find two claims that could be considered teachings. That it is "better to harm oneself than others" and that it is "better to be at odds with the world than with oneself."

Therefore, it would perhaps be good to return to the origins of Estonian nationalism and consider how our ancestors would have answered this question were they among us today – among people who are rulers in their own land, as opposed to subjects, and whose actions determine the fate of the peoples they rule over.

What would Jakob Hurt, who knew that Estonians would never become great in number and could only become great in spirit, think of our solution?

In his 1874 speech titled "Current Estonian Affairs" that was given at the Livonian Teachers Synod where the national aspirations of Estonian ministers had been suppressed, Hurt offered three ideas that can be considered noteworthy in the current context:


"Every nation has a natural and God-given right to exist and develop… Every… violent repopulation committed against that nation's will constitutes interfering with the natural order of things… and a spiritual massacre against the progression of humanity that will prove extremely costly in the end."

In other words, any attempt to strip a person of their nationality is among the greatest crimes one can commit against a human being and justifies resistance.

Secondly, a person's language hides the center of their nationality:

"Language holds layer upon layer of the wisdom of centuries past, it affects how we think and desire, our heart and frame of mind. Language is the tool through which spirit manifests itself… Uprooting a person from the soil of their mother tongue and the traditions of their forebears… it cannot but have the gravest of effects. As far as language and customs are mixed and spoiled, a person's spiritual and emotional life will wither. Their thinking will become muddy, their sight blurred, distinctions blunt and feelings bleak. Tradition will be turned into a conglomerate of borrowed false luster… Life take on a shapeless, often distasteful form."

That is what Hurt believed would happen were a person stripped of their language and customs. This effect manifested among Estonians who acted like would-be Germans.

Thirdly, native-language school was considered the best remedy against such a shameful human condition:

"Numerous Estonians have not just gained an education in German schools but have been renationalized and alienated from their people… As concerns folk schools then… they have traditionally taught in Estonian and can only teach in Estonian in the future. If there is, for instance, the desire to teach young people in a foreign language in parish schools, the latter will not learn the language nor take with them any other wisdom for life. The student's head would remain empty, their heart barren and bleak…"

The only surefire result would be "convincing oneself of the crazy notion of being German and doing what no true German has perhaps ever done: holding in contempt the people whence one came."

Almost 150 years later, Germans have been replaced by Russians and their mastery over Estonians overturned. I cannot tell you what degree of Estonian or type of school organization would be best from the point of view of national minorities – only they can answer that question.

However, I do believe we should remember the words we sing together at Song Festivals and that carry the spirit of Jakob Hurt: "Renouncing one's nationality is no less grievous than selling oneself into slavery."

I feel that is just what we are expecting our Russians to do. If that is indeed the case, we should ponder whether we are acting contrary to ourselves, harming those over whom we rule. Are we ruling as we ourselves would like to be ruled over? And what was the purpose of shaking off slavery? Was it freedom or merely becoming the slaver?


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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