Sergei Metlev: Ukrainian refugees and our Russians

Sergei Metlev.
Sergei Metlev. Source: ERR

Shameful reluctance to acknowledge the suffering of war refugees, children and mothers who left their coats to run from a hail of bombs, and refusal to see in Mariupol a new Leningrad blockade is like local anesthesia for humanity and compassion administered by propaganda and Russian political mentality, Sergei Metlev writes.

A study commissioned by the Government Office reveals a considerable gap between the attitudes of Estonians and non-Estonian-speakers toward helping Ukraine refugees. Efforts to help refugees have the support of 92 percent of Estonians and just 51 percent of non-Estonian-speakers. The cause is a mix of past umbrage, social insecurity and the inability to admit to oneself the fact that Russia has launched a massive and criminal war in Europe.

Even a cursory glance at various social media groups reveals that a part of Russian-speaking people in Estonia regards help for Ukraine refugees as an injustice. There are notes of jealousy – they are looked after and helped, while we are not, despite having lived here all our lives.

Let it be said that volunteers and donors helping Ukraine include a lot of Russian-speaking Estonians who do not share this view, and even this melancholy study proves that things are not as bad as we might have feared. But the problem remains.

Let us go back to 1991. The restoration of the Republic of Estonia based on legal continuity and with a Western orientation came as a cold shower for a lot of Russians living in the country. It meant learning Estonian, acknowledging the nation state as the foundation of statehood and reshaping one's life based on the market economy model were necessary to cope in the altered conditions. Russian influence and role shrank abruptly, both symbolically and economically.

The people who came to Estonia during the Soviet period where rather uniform, with their social background and skills suitable mostly for a Russian-speaking Soviet industrial society. They needed additional training, to abandon their view of the state as a caring father and find their way into Estonian culture and customs. The social structure of Estonians has always been considerably wider.

Understandably, the metamorphosis required proved too much for many, which confusion was passed on to children. While there was no shortage of those in dire straits among Estonians, the Republic of Estonia as our own place where we get to build our freedom and lives lent confidence. Perceiving Estonia as part of the Western world was and will remain strong. This alleviating circumstance simply did not apply in the case of many Russians as theirs was a different identity.

Immediately there emerged Russian-speaking politicians, all manner of movements and friends of the Russian embassy who set about constructing for local Russians the image of Estonia as a country that cannot stomach them. That even Estonian proficiency, social capital and education aren't enough – the only thing that matters is blood. Votes for politicians, a means of stoking tensions for Russia.

It is clear that this always was and continues to be false, with hundreds of success stories serving as examples. The Estonian state is based on the rule of law and discrimination illegal. However, it was a good way to convince people not to try to learn the language, integrate and develop.

The result – major social problems, lower-paying jobs and apathy. With the coming of Vladimir Putin, the narrative of the rebirth of the Soviet Union in the new Russian state meant to channel the dissatisfaction with the Estonian state into the "correct" riverbed and thus provide a source of pride was attached. This created a vicious circle where trying seems pointless, while it is impossible to achieve anything without trying.

Persons who have engaged in this kind of influence activity for years are responsible for many of our Russians still lacking Estonian, for thousands of careers that never took off and the effort to cling on to a segregated Russian education system that, surveys suggest, usually offers poorer education than its Estonian counterpart.

This development has left many feeling (people usually fail to give clear examples of discrimination) that the Estonian state has treated them unfairly and robbed them of benefits. Estonians' active help for Ukrainian war refugees is creating new connections in "scorned souls." The fact that the refugees are using the same or similar language is only adding insult to injury. Questions surface concerning Estonian language policy etc.

If the problem is social insecurity, we could ask why is support for refugees so universal among Estonians, irrespective of people's salary level and social status? The poor and the wealthy, Tallinners and those living in the periphery. And how can a person living in a relatively well-off EU country compare their problems with those of a war refugee who has just lost everything in the first place?

The contributing factors are twofold: level of information concerning the war and fundamental idea of Ukraine.

The [Government Office] study reveals that roughly a third of our non-Estonian-speaking residents trust the Russian media in wartime. The latter treats us to stories of a special military operation and the "denazification" of Europe, as well as saving "the children in Donbas who have been bombed for the last eight years."

If a person is sincerely convinced that what we are dealing with is a limited operation meant to protect Russia and save people, they cannot feel deep solidarity with the refugees. This vacuum opens the door to taking issue with Estonia, as described above, and mistrust in refugees and their motives.

It is also the result of ignoring the problem for a long time, lack of conviction to shut out [Russian] propaganda networks or offer a proper alternative. Also, inability to put an end to isolated Russian-language education, actively shape Estonia's reputation using a code the Russians can decipher.

Many of our otherwise nice and pro-European Russians have also refrained from efforts to convince people in their communities in fear of sparking a conflict. Perhaps this will now change.

Estonians' attitude toward Ukraine before the war was the same as for any other democratic country that is not too far. Some visited and found it nice, while others were more critical but realized they were still dealing with a friend.

In the Russian information sphere, efforts have been made for years to paint Ukraine as a lost daughter whom mother Russia is prepared to defend against bandits. It is simply that the poor girl has been engaging in "substance abuse" and needs to be offered smelling salts and a warm embrace. The latter turned out to be strangulation, just as it has many times before.

This attitude is reflected, among other things, in allergic reactions to the Ukrainian flag that has indeed become a symbol of the struggle against Putin's Russia and for freedom and democracy.

Shameful reluctance to acknowledge the suffering of war refugees, children and mothers who left their coats to run from a hail of bombs, and refusal to see in Mariupol a new Leningrad blockade is like local anesthesia for humanity and compassion administered by propaganda and Russian political mentality.

That does not mean people who feel that way completely lack humanity and compassion. Rather, what it means is that finding those qualities within can only happen through (compelled) self-criticism and a lot of work on personal illusions. Yes, there is no way around it without mental and in Russia also practical lustration this time.

I feel for the people who inhabit this dark space filled with imperial illusions. But most of them are adults who make their own choices or quietly settle for the atmosphere of intolerance. It entails moral responsibility.

It is not about propaganda or Putin's power apparatus. It is also about a nation's political tragedy and the hope of recent decades of the empire's rebirth that promises mental and material bonuses. And respect.

Perhaps this was also the hope of Russians living in Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine. In truth, the Russkiy Mir visited to kill them and their loved ones. Throw them into mass graves in Bucha, bomb them in Mariupol and Kharkiv.

The rebirth of the empire will be buried in the Ukrainian earth along with that immoral hope.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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