In light of a new survey on Russian Estonians' attitudes on Russia's war in Ukraine, ERR's "Impulss" guests discuss the integration of Russian-speaking youths: choreographer Sveta Grigorjeva said that speaking Estonian is not enough to bring people together, and MEP Yana Toom suggested teaching media literacy in high schools.
The Government Office compiled fresh data for the October 3 broadcast of the ERR program "Impulss." The topic of the discussion was the integration of Russian-speaking youths into Estonian society, some of whom are opting to continue their education in Russia despite Russia's full-scale war in Ukraine.
The hosts requested the most recent data from two age groups of Russian Estonians regarding their attitude toward Russia's war in Ukraine.
In the age group of 15 to 24 years old, 66 percent of respondents condemn the war, 11 percent are inclined rather to condemn the war, 4 percent are more inclined to support the war, and 4 percent fully support the war. At the same time, 15 percent of respondents in this age group declined to respond or were undecided.
Thirty percent of respondents between the ages of 65 and 74 condemn the war unequivocally; 18 percent said they would rather condemn the war; 9 percent said they would rather support it; and 6 percent support the war fully. The largest proportion, 36 percent, of respondents in this age category did not respond or did not know the answer.
MEP Yana Toom (Center) said that the majority of those who responded "I don't know" are likely to be war supporters. "I think that many people have said 'I don't know' not because they don't have an opinion on the issue, but because they don't dare talk about it."
The program examined how Kremlin propaganda recruits young Estonians to Russian institutions. Maria Zvonova, who graduated with a gold medal from Estonian high school, accepted Russia's offer of free university education and is now enrolled there. She is also using social media to encourage other Russian Estonians to do the same. According to the Estonian Internal Security Service (ISS), however, Russia recruits Estonian students for its secret service using soft power.
Security expert Meelis Oidsalu said that "we have only a limited target group; about 100 people have been invited to study in Russia, but only a few dozen have accepted."
"If we were to position Maria Zvonova on a scale with extremists on one end and naive people who don't know what they're doing on the other, I would rather place her on the latter end of the scale. However, there are clear indications of deliberate organization here. /.../ The Kremlin still has long-standing plans for the region and the Russian-speaking population here. We must not forget this, and this may not depend at all so much on the outcome of the war in Ukraine," he added.
According to director and choreographer Sveta Grigorjeva, the ISS is "going a bit too far" with their portrayal of young Estonian students in Russia.
"Personally, I would consider such influence broader. It is clearly understood that the older generation, the [Russian] target audience, is aging and declining, the so-called TV generation; thus, the Kremlin presumably wants younger blood," she continued. "But at the same time, it appears to me that it goes a little too far – yeah, perhaps a little too much. In the case of Maria Zvonova, it seems to me that her cultural affiliation is Russia, and I probably agree that she is naive, but the question then is, What can the Estonian state do?"
Grigorjeva, who is of Russian descent and attended an Estonian high school (fully taught in Estonian), believes that while such explanatory work is important, more emphasis should be placed on integration. "I would still prefer to see the situation in the context of integration. We keep on thinking of integration as a language-based process, as if language is what brings people together, but it seems to me that language doesn't necessarily correspond to someone's mentality."
According to Grigorjeva the Russian community in Estonia has been caught between the political ambitions of ruling parties for too long and that such confrontation does not help.
Jaak Aaviksoo, former defense minister, education minister and rector, said that Russia has always been one of the best in the world at brainwashing. However, just because Estonian Russian youths go to study in Russia does not mean they become traitors, he said.
"We are aware of many universities during the Soviet era that produced a generation of African revolutionaries, something that didn't happen naturally; this will undoubtedly continue. And I do not believe it's accurate to state that every Estonian student who studies in Russia will become a traitor to their country. However, some will inevitably wind up on that road, and many of them may not even realize when the decisive incident occurred," Aaviksoo said.
"To say it simply, we do not need another Herman Simm. Even one in 300 can do a lot of harm," he added.
Aaviksoo agreed with Grigorjeva that opposing Estonians and Russians would get us nowhere. "The trouble is that there are Putinists of all nationalities on Estonian soil; we have more of this susceptibility to totalitarian ideology among Estonians than I would like there to be. What is true, however, is that probably many of the young people who make this choice to go to Russia, who actually grew up and graduated from high school here in Estonia, feel this connection to Russian culture and the messages that reach them more strongly than we would like. We have not addressed this problem," he said.
MEP Yana Toom said that people's ability to think for themselves should not be underestimated, pointing out that many Estonian politicians and social figures studied in Russia during the Soviet era (including Aaviksoo and other presently working diplomats) and did not return brainwashed.
Toom referred to the survey, according to which, since the outbreak of Russia's full-scale war in Ukraine, attitudes toward Russian Estonians have worsened. The country should respond, she said.
To combat Russian propaganda, Toom suggested teaching media literacy in high schools as a separate subject. "You have to be taught to do fact-checking; it does not come naturally."
Transition to teaching in Estonian only can bring change over decades
The panelists found that while the move to teaching in Estonian in all schools in Estonia is a good thing, it will bring about changes in Estonia's Russian-speaking community in the long term only.
Grigorjeva said that while a unified Estonian school will reduce divisions, it will not solve all the problems. "The picture is complex. Instead of asking who is to blame or whether something could solve the situation, we need to ask a bit more interesting questions, and then maybe we will come up with more interesting answers and answers that actually help," she said.
"Often, it seems to me that people think of integration in terms of 'they have to integrate with us.' I am seeing a little bit of a different approach in some civil society organizations. I tend to have less and less faith in politicians, but civil society organizations have a very real opportunity to make a difference. This is untapped potential," Grigorjeva said.
Alina Vorontšihhina, a former music teacher in Narva who on May 9 wore a shirt with an offensive message directed at Vladimir Putin and came under fire at her workplace, said that it is time to stop referring to ethnic Russians in Estonia as Russians and recognize that children who are born in Estonia and study the Estonian language and culture are Estonians.
"If we discuss integration and bringing Estonians and Russians together, it may be time to say that a new phase is needed and that a new understanding of it must be developed so that children born in Estonia who study the language and culture are considered Estonians. So that there would be no need to mention that we are Russians here," she said, adding that this would alter the perception of language learners.
In response to Vorontšihhina, Toom said that Estonian and Russian pupils should study together in the same school and that, indeed, nationality in Estonia is often equated with ethnicity and cultural background rather than the state.
The host asked Vorontšihhina if Russian youth in Estonia have adequate protection from Russian propaganda. "I can only speak from my own experience, but after the t-shirt action, I was often approached by young people about the relationship between the concert [on May 9], Putin and the conflict in Ukraine... Some understand the connection, because they have had opportunities, taken courses, or read something online, but it is not such a homogeneous group, which is why media literacy in schools is so important, so that they see the connection for themselves," she said.
Aaviksoo concluded on an upbeat note that changes are already observable in Estonia; for example, there is a growing number of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds in political parties, and Estonians and Russians are collaborating on cultural projects. Although, there could be even more of them, he added.
Editor: Kristina Kersa