Opinion digest: Estonians have to find their self-confidence ({{commentsTotal}})

Sergei Metlev.
Sergei Metlev. Source: Postimees/Scanpix

The citizenship issue isn't worth getting bogged down in when there is a more important issue to be addressed in connection with integration in Estonian society, writes Sergei Metlev of the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory in an opinion piece published by daily Postimees.

Discussion regarding the "Russian issue" in Estonia takes place in cycles, but the content remains the same, and the situation is slow to change. "I would like to delve into the matter of the self-confidence of the Estonian cultural space, as communities with fluctuating self-confidence don't really attract or grow," Mr Metlev, himself a Russian-Estonian, said, adding that growth is the best means of survival.

Thanking an old Estonian language teacher, he highlighted that learning a language isn't simply a matter of memorising grammar rules, but also a journey through time and an opportunity to learn about different people and customs. Language is an inseparable part of culture, and the Russian language has some 200 times more speakers worldwide than Estonian, an indication that Estonia's rich culture is in greater need of care.

At the same time, Estonia seems stuck, albeit understandably, given its tragic history, on the demoralizing fact that there are only approximately one million Estonians in total. As of 1 January 2019, Estonia's population totalled 1,323,820, but many among the nearly 423,000 "other," residents that are not Estonian by birth are still keepers of the Estonian culture, as will hopefully be their descendants. While a reasonable degree of a sense of danger is healthy, excessive fear can be ruinous for individuals and cultural communities alike.

"Somewhere among those who have read about 'colonial guilt' arose this idea that since the 1990s, Estonia has treated Russians as badly as white people in conquered lands (I'm overstating it)," Mr Metlev observed, but added that nobody had promised that leaving the Soviet kolkhoz and restoring the free republic would be a painless process.

But time goes on, and old conflicts subside, he continued. The Estonian state has provided equal enough opportunities for residents, regardless of background. "Unwillingness to learn the official language, take the citizenship exam, associate with Estonians or accept Estonia's Western orientation and the resulting mental marginalisation ultimately remain within the limits of one's individual choices," he said.

Given that this is the case, it's strange to hear the alien's passport ("grey passport") issue in Estonia blown up into an epic issue, interwoven with the issues of justice and guilt. What is more important is to continue calmly offering any and all services that help people in Estonia become citizens.

Estonians should be proud, as eight years ago, the country was home to over 104,000 grey passport-holders, but the number of grey passports will soon have shrunk to just 75,000. Instead of getting caught up in guilt or destroying one's self-esteem over this, Estonia should "confidently advertise that it is awesome being an Estonian citizen — how many successful and cozy tiny countries are there in the world that boast a safe living environment, untouched nature, a functioning e-state and well-backed personal freedoms and rights?"

Language essential tenet of Estonian culture

Regarding language, Mr Metlev expressed concern about the common practice of taking the path of least resistance linguistically when speaking to Russian-speaking Estonians — with older Estonian-speakers switching to Russian, and, nowadays, younger people switching to English, an increasingly more widespread lingua franca.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with a cultured individual switching to the language of their conversation partner if they also speak it, it becomes an issue when this starts to take place in the public space, in theatres, in schools and elsewhere. This often ends with the other side not even trying to learn the language, because they lack the motivation provided by a linguistic environment. This effect is especially detrimental in cases where Estonian language teachers themselves in Russian schools do not take their mission seriously; one possible area of improvement could be to seek ways of better valuing the efforts of these language teachers.

If the bearers of a culture themselves do not believe that their language is worth teaching, or that Tammsaare is just as important as Tolstoy and Goethe, that Estonian-language culture is exciting and worth exploring, the entire integration issue becomes moot. But this kind of mentality isn't possible without a healthy dose of patriotism, which is integral to the expansion of Estonia's cultural field.

Culture is not a structure to be defended or left behind, however; culture consists of language, values, texts, customs, events, and rituals, which will live on so long as the number of people connected to it suffices and grows. And so the best means of defending Estonian culture is to increase the number of people who measure themselves in this world according to the yardstick of Estonian culture, and speak the Estonian language. Referring to the famous phrase "Carthage must be destroyed,"  Mr Metlev stressed an oft-repeated central issue in conclusion — "Without turning the currently segregated education system into a unified, Estonian-language system, we cannot even begin to dream of increasing the number of Estonian language-speakers."

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Editor: Aili Vahtla



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