Interview: Jaak Juske on politics and the history of Pelgulinn
Jaak Juske occupies an unusual place in Estonia in being both an active, sitting MP for the Social Democratic Party (SDE), and an avid local historian, with published books and a popular social media page, mostly focussing on the Pelgulinn district of Tallinn, though other areas and other aspects of history are also very much in the picture for him. He kindly agreed to taking time out for a written interview with ERR News, which follows.
Background and politics
You have a broad background, from working as a journalist, being involved in politics, a NATO association project leader, as a local councillor - where you championed better kindergartens, at Sangaste EELK church, and now in the Riigikogu, where you are on the national defence committee. Are these all things you had ambitions to do, or did they just sort of happen one after another?
The list has some missing parts: for the past six years I have held a teaching profession too. And over 7 years I have written history books and conducted history tours. I have always been interested in history and in society. This interest comes from the family, but also from growing up during the exciting days of the Singing Revolution. I have always acted on several fronts.
And all my work today is more or less related to history. Either by teaching history or actively doing it.
You have a radio show called "Roosiaed". Would you like to tell us something about that?
"Roosiaed" is radio program on Raadio 7 that talks about medieval culture. It is run by my good friend Heiki Haljasorg. For the last 20 years we have been talking about the history of the medieval Estonian city, as well as Holy Roman emperors, for example.
Who or what are some of you main political influences?
I like the welfare society created by the Nordic Social Democrats, that views society as a family. The concept is to keep one another as we do in the family. And nobody is left behind, because this is how it should be in the family.
You have been in SDE for about 20 years I think, but before that I think you were in the right-leaning people's union party. We have a joke in Britain that people usually become more right wing as they get older, but for you it seems to have been the other way – is that fair?
In the 1990s, in addition to the traditional left-right scale, Estonian parties were divided on the scale of innovative and old-fashioned. And 20 years ago, this cooperation led to the merger of two pro-European political parties Rahvaerakond and the Social Democrats (i.e the present-day SDE-ed.).
What was your motivation for going into politics?
To contribute to the minimization of inequality and social stratification in Estonian society, and in all areas.
What does a typical day as a Riigikogu member look like?
A member of the Riigikogu must keep abreast of all draft laws. A typical parts of the day are the meetings of the Group, the Commission and the plenary. I consider it very important to keep in constant touch with the communities in my constituency. But I will also continue to give lessons in the school and organize history tours.
What does your work on the National defence committee involve?
I am taking a closer look into defense topics. We analyze the security situation in Estonia and in the world. Contacts with our allies are important. An extension of the mandate of Estonian soldiers on foreign missions is currently on the agenda.
SDE did not do so well in the last general election, why do you think that is?
It might have been that as long-standing government party, we have been weak in explaining some of our decisions.
On the other hand, the main SDE candidate at the European elections was by far the most popular (Marina Kaljurand). Is it the case that, not just SDE but Estonian politics as a whole, is too 'personality'-driven? Or is it that the European elections are a whole different thing.
In the elections to the European Parliament, the people essentially elect Estonia's foreign representatives. And this is where the Social Democrats have always had very strong candidates, who have also guaranteed a successful party.
Did SDE make a mistake in ruling out EKRE as a partner? Centre had previously (sort of) done the same and yet now they are in office with them?
I do not imagine the Social Democrats would work with EKRE, because we share very different values. The SDE stands for an open democratic society where minority interests are also established. EKRE represents the opposite.
Did SDE and Reform gamble too much that they were going to get enough seats together to form a majority?
With the current composition of the Riigikogu, either the Centre Party or the Reform Party can form a government. Today's government is dominated by prime minister Ratas' desire to be in office at all costs.
Why did SDE not stick with Isamaa and maybe go into coalition with Reform?
The SDE is the smallest party in the Riigikogu today. If the current coalition breaks down and the Reform Party, for example, invites us to a new government, we will certainly be ready to give it serious consideration.
What about the current coalition? Do you think it will survive for the longer term, as many now say? Why or why not?
As I mentioned before, the current government is held together by the prime minister's desire to retain his power. The risk is the bitter statements of the Helme family. I predict, however, that the government will collapse at the latest during the local elections (in 2021-ed.).
What are SDE's targets for the next (local) elections?
The party has begun preparations for the local elections, although the election day is two years away. We want to improve our position across Estonia. One of the goals of getting into the coalition in the capital is certainly one of the goals. However, this requires a strong program that we want to start developing early.
There has been a change of leader at SDE. What positive things might this bring and what changes might it bring, or is it business as usual?
As the party's election result was worse than expected, the incumbent chairman resigned (Jevgeni Ossinovski-ed.). The new chairman (Indrek Saar-ed.) and management are setting new goals. The fight against inequalities in society will certainly be the focus of the party. And also environmental issues!
Was the hike on alcohol prices a mistake? Have the subsequent lowering of the excise duties been a mistake?
The availability of alcohol must definitely be restricted, no matter who runs the government. Perhaps the rise in alcohol excise duty was too steep.
I live in Pelgulinn too so it's interesting to see both the book you wrote and the many old photos you share. Are you a native of Pelgulinn?
My ancestors built a house in Pelgulinn already at the beginning of the last century. I was born and went to school in Tartu. My wife is also from Tartu, but in 2004 we moved to Pelgulinn.
What exactly are the boundaries of Pelgulinn? Sometimes there is a 'grey area' between it and Kalamaja, Kopli, Kristiine and Kasisaba.
Pelgulinn is a historical suburb of Tallinn, bordering the Pelguranna, Sitsi, Karjamaa, Kalamaja, Kelmiküla and Kassisaba areas.
What does its name actually mean? If it was literally translated, it would mean "escape town"!
Just 150 years before the railway was established, the area was a pristine, wetland seaside meadow where one could find a refuge at different times of war. But surely it has been a good hiding area for criminals.
Where do you find all the photos?
Old photos of Estonian cities have been of interest to me for the last quarter century. I've bought them over the years, and people have given me their photos. But in Estonia, archive photos are also digitized.
Something that struck me is while a lot of things have of course changed, how many scenes look almost the same, in the older photos, as they do today. What do you think have been the biggest changes in the region in recent years or decades?
Just 30 years ago, there were only a few cars on the streets of Pelgulinn. Today, however, it is sometimes very difficult to find a parking space. The other change is that the houses that were ruined during the Soviet era are largely nicely tidied up.
One obvious change is the gentrification of the area. When I first moved there, coming up to 10 years ago, there was only Boheem, which is in Kalamaja really, and F-Hoone, but now all of the developments that have spread up Telliskivi have moved into Pelgulinn too. The obvious benefits of this are there, but what are some negative things? Is it pushing house prices up too much, for instance?
Yes, 20 years ago, the Baltic railway station marked the start of an ugly area, with a high crime rate. The transformation in Pelgulinn and Kalamaja this century has been wonderful. The best example of this is certainly Telliskivi Loomelinnak and its surroundings. A disintegrating suburb has become a prestigious neighbourhood. At the same time, real estate developments have led to an increase in the number of inhabitants, which has created new challenges for the region.
What are some of the most interesting historical facts about Pelgulinn?
Some of the street names of Pelgulinn in the 19th century are based on the family names of Albert Kooba, the property owner here. Later they were named as we know them today. It is said that for example the current Timuti Street was called Tarabella Street – Tarabella was Kooba's dog!
Can you clear up one interesting fact. I live on Õle Street, and someone said that one V.I. Lenin lived on that street, for a short time, probably when he was running away from the authorities, which could be in the summer of 1917. Have you heard this story and is there any truth to it?
No, I don't believe it. However, a communist coup attempt was organized from Pelgulinn on Dec. 1, 1924 (which attacked the Tondi barracks, killing several cadets-ed.).
What are some of the challenges facing Pelgulinn right now – for instance parking, will paid parking ever come in? Kindergartens and schools? Doctors and other facilities? Road improvements? Crime?
The biggest problem at the moment in Pelgulinn and Kalamaja area is the lack of basic school places. There are several major real estate developments around here and the populations is mainly young families with children. The city government will definitely have to build another schoolhouse here.
Jaak Juske was talking to ERR News. You can visit his blog (in Estonian) here, and a wealth of historical pictures from Estonia and beyond here.
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Editor: Andrew Whyte