A master's thesis defended at Tallinn University examined the extent to which young people in Narva's self-image relates to their city and to the Estonian state. No direct conflict between these two identities emerged, but it was found that for Narva's young people, their identity is still in its formative stages and that the city could, in their opinion, be more connected to the rest of Estonia.
To learn more about how young people in Narva understand their identity, Anastassia Tuuder, author of a recently defended master's thesis at the University of Tallinn, and Head of Research at the Integration Foundation, interviewed twelve young people aged 18-26, who speak Russian as their first language. The aim of Tuuder's qualitative research was not to conclude how representative of the general population, one or the other opinion is, but to analyze ways young people justify their views.
Tuuder noted that the young people she interviewed in Narva understand they have to make an effort to improve their own position in society, rather than undermine the positions of others. "Even if they thought that the state could relax certain language requirements, they understood why it was not doing so," Tuuder said.
Tuuder noted that the relationship between young people in Narva and the Estonian community, which is in the majority throughout the country as a whole, is reasonable. She added that young people are able to perceive themselves both as part of the city of Narva and the Estonian state at the same time. "In all likelihood, older people have different attitudes, and this is a generational conflict, where older people look more towards the Kremlin and younger people towards the West," Tuuder said.
However, some respondents believed Estonians should learn Russian to improve the standard of living in Narva, and that Estonians themselves do not want to integrate. "These individual statements can be considered somewhat radical and should be treated with caution. There were more opinions (suggesting) that Estonians living in Narva should improve their Estonian language skills," added Tuuder.
Tuuder said that such a diversity of opinions is normal and does not only concern ethno-political issues, but all kinds of other disagreements, including those related to coronavirus vaccinations. "Caution should be exercised when the radicalism of a position starts to grow," Tuuder said.
Although Tuuder did not touch directly on Russia's military aggression against Ukraine in the interviews, she stressed that one should be wary of perceptions that a certain proportion of Russians living in Estonia are definitely pro-Putin. "This kind of rhetoric may, above all, influence those whose identity is still (in the process of) being formed and may incline them to alienate themselves from Estonia. I am afraid that this is not taken into account enough," said Tuuder.
Identity is a process
The newly-graduated master's student stressed that identity is not a state, but a process, and that mutual relationships and attitudes play an important role in the formation of self-image. "How others see me affects how I see myself, and vice versa," explained Tuuder. She added that, as young people in Narva may not have a fully formed sense of their own national identity, all kinds of rhetoric can have an impact on the way they perceive it, and that includes potentially reinforcing radical positions.
"On the one hand, it is understandable that, since there are a lot of Putin supporters, it is difficult to distinguish how many of the local Estonians are pro-Estonian and how many are pro-Russian. If some of the pro-Estonians have not yet found full clarity for themselves, then it should be our task to meet them halfway so they get where we want them to get," Tuuder said.
"Estonians in Narva thought it was generally possible to feel like they belong both in the city of Narva and, at the same time, in Estonia as a whole, even though in many cases (a sense of) national identity had not yet really taken shape."
One of the key questions that emerged from thesis related to the factors and conditions, which shape the identity creation process. "Although it is difficult to provide unambiguous answers, the interviews revealed, for example, how Estonians in Narva thought it was generally possible to feel like they belong, both in the city of Narva and, at the same time, in Estonia as a whole, even though in many cases (a sense of) national identity had not yet really taken shape, said Tuuder.
Narva's young people believed that a way to deepen their feelings of Estonian identity would be to have more Estonian culture in the city and to be connected to (the rest of) Estonia. "The respondents were not against this hypothetical idea and they felt it would make the city more diverse and tolerant," explained Tuuder.
Tuuder also stressed that integration is a two-way process. "If an Estonian citizen learns the language, passes the citizenship test, is loyal to Estonia and considers Estonia to be their homeland, and then, the other side (i.e the Estonian-speaking majority) just shrug their shoulders, they may wonder why they bothered."
Tuuder pointed out that although a lot of has been written, in both the national and international press about the views held by people in Narva, very few quantitative surveys have been conducted. "As Narva has a much older population, it is possible that young people feel like a minority and do not dare to speak out very loudly. I hope that my master's thesis will stimulate further research on young people in Narva and Narva as a whole."
Anastassia Tuuder defended her master's thesis 'Constructing local identity, national identity and space using the example of young Estonian people in Narva' at Tallinn University's Institute of Social Sciences on May 23. The thesis was supervised by Professor Raivo Vetik.
Editor: Michael Cole