Ilmar Raag: Can the state dictate people their views?

Ilmar Raag.
Ilmar Raag. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

We require certain foreign identities to be altered if people are to live in our society. Even the most liberal societies do in order to protect everyone's maximal freedom, Ilmar Raag finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Allow me to first ask whether a state can dictate people their views? During the removal of the Narva tank [monument], I heard an opinion according to which a democratic country should not dictate people their views and attitudes, and that the tank was just an example of people feeling differently.

Everything seems logical in theory, and as a right-wing liberal, I believe that a society's freedom starts the moment everyone has the right to a different opinion that may not coincide with the values of others.

But the war in Ukraine reminds us that this principle has a flaw. It is peculiar how every principle starts to contradict itself when taken to the extreme. Let us look at hypothetical absolute freedom as an example of the extreme in this case.

For example, in the conditions of absolute freedom, it seems to me I could drive on the left and right sides of the road as I please. Alas, I cannot be sure whether those coming in the opposite direction would respect my absolute freedom.

Second example. In the conditions of absolute freedom, I could try and have sexual intercourse with every good-looking woman I can overpower. But again, they might not appreciate it as it is their right to pick suitable partners for themselves.

To avoid this kind of violent chaos, societies have introduced rules that limit everyone's freedom to a certain extent. This creates the paradox of maximal freedom being achieved through everyone's freedom being somewhat limited. The only question is the extent of these limitations.

It is the same for tolerance. A society is maximally tolerant if that tolerance is framed by certain principles. This also works through section 12 of the Constitution that rules out discrimination through characteristics largely beyond the person's control. This is where things get more complicated.

For example, some cultures find acceptable so called honor killings of women who err against the local code of morality. Can we be tolerant of such a culture? We obviously cannot, because the phenomenon itself is not tolerant toward women's independence.

On the other hand, if a representative of this culture wants to live in Europe, we usually offer them a compromise. We do not demand they completely abandon their cultural identity, while partially changing their values in certain aspects is the precondition of being able to live in our society. An "honor killing" is always a criminal offense in our society.

Allow me to repeat the idea once more. Basically, we demand some people from elsewhere change their identity in order to live in our society. Even the most liberal societies require that to protect the rate of maximal freedom.

Let us now come to the Russian population in the West. Their identity is made up of many different components, while I would separate political identity from the cultural one for the purposes of this comment.

A part of the political identity is pride of the powerful history of grand Russian statehood, while cultural identity stands for a common language but also love for uha and pelmeni. A part of cultural identity is the conviction that Gena and Cheburashka or ironic anecdotes about Stirlitz tell us something intrinsic about that identity.

Russia's neighbors in Eastern Europe sport a rather negative view of Russia's political identity as their relationship with the Russian empire has largely been of the conquest variety. That is not a good start for a friendship. On the other hand, people are rather fond of Russia's cultural identity.

While the Estonian temperament might not always be a fan of Russian hot-bloodedness, we share several similar traditions. If nothing else, let us recall that people on both sides of Lake Peipus usually prefer vodka to whiskey.

This differentiation between political and cultural identity is the basis of several policies and problems. For example, Russians do not perceive various Soviet monuments as an homage to the communist ideology insofar as it is a component of their identity's political memory. What we are doing today, therefore, means demanding Russians make changes to their identity.

But it's worse than that. By launching his war in Ukraine, Putin has made life very difficult for Russians all over the world. For me, the current Russian Federation is a terrorist and fascist empire that openly justifies war as a means for limiting people's and nations' freedoms. We cannot tolerate this if we hold tolerance to be an important value.

When fiercer Russian critics of the visa ban talk of human rights, unto comparing the situation of Russians to the Holocaust, they are making an important mistake. We are not talking about the degree of cruelty, which is incomparable, but the fact that the Holocaust saw the Jews oppressed based on something their free will had no control over. Nazi Germany convicted the Jews of what they were, which is why the base ideology of the Holocaust is utterly unacceptable for me.

It is also why we cannot take away the human rights of Russians as bearers of cultural identity. However, citizenship is another story altogether because it is a free expression of political identity. In other words, every activity undertaken based on the legal foundation of Russian citizenship is like a passive endorsement of Russia's aggression in Ukraine. For example, traveling as a citizens of the Russian Federation.

In summary.

On the one hand, I see logic in limiting rights pursuant to the will to identify as a Russian citizen. The problem that is still unsolved is tied to Russian citizens who oppose the Putin regime but do not wish to become refugees and rather see themselves as Russian dissidents. They also number in the millions. They are our friends as their political identity opposes the Russian empire, while they are still officially Russian citizens. So, nothing is simple.

It is entirely right and proper to sport a negative disposition toward Russian political identity. We have the moral right. At the same time, everything we do must first and foremost help our allies among Russian citizens. Especially when they form the minority.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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