reede, november 30, 2007


In case you didn't realize it, we are now entering the season of anniversaries -- the 90th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, the 90th anniversary of the Estonian manifesto of independence, the 90th anniversary of the War of Independence, the 90th of this, and the 90th of that.

Yesterday while in Tallinn I watched the children's program Lastekraan, and who should be on hand but Indrek Tarand, a historian involved in the Laidoner Museum in Tallinn, who was showing "Anni" -- played by Maria Soomets -- photos from the Estonian War of Independence.

There were grainy black and white photos of tanks and guys in trenches with guns and cannon. I actually hadn't seen so many images of the Estonian Independence War assembled in one place before. "Oi," blushed "Anni", reminding the viewers at home about the birth of the Estonian state. It seemed in a way so surreal to think that here were are in Tallinn, Estonia's city of fashionable haircuts, gushing over the deeds of 1918 some 90 years later.

But I was recently reminded of that conflict after a link at the incredibly idiotic website of Night Watch in Estonia -- which was trying to prove that those who were deported in the 1940s deserved it -- pointed me to a resource where I found the files of two of my children's great- great-grandfathers:

TULEV, Aleksander, Simeon s. 1898 Kirovi obl. Aleksandrovi raj. Nolinsk, arr. 30.01.46 Tartumaa Elva v., trib. 23.07.46 §58-1a, 10+5. [ük]

LAANEMAA, Martin, Mart s. 1898 Läänemaa Varbla v., eluk. sama, arr. 04.08.48, trib. 30.10.48 §58-1a, 25+5, 23.07.56 väh. ärak., vab. 1956, surn. peale vab. 1968. [ük]

Both of these men were arrested during the Soviet occupation for one reason: they fought in the Estonian War of Independence. Tulev's crime was that he was in the white Russian army of Nikolai Yudenich. For that 'crime' he received a sentence of 10+5. Martin's sentence was harsher. He was an Estonian Independence War veteran and he owned land. A big no no. So he got 25+5. Both were released after the death of Stalin and, sadly, both on occasion found peace in the bottle in the years to follow.

I wonder what they would say during these grand anniversaries. What would be their speech at the presidential gala in Pärnu in February. I can imagine Martin saying something to the effect of, "hey, they promised me land. How could I resist?" And Aleksander might say something like, "one day I was mobilized, the next day I was stuck in Elva for the rest of my life -- what gives?"

These are the heroes we commemorate. In some ways they seem so distant and foreign to us in the world of blogs. Yet in other ways, I am sure, we share a lot in common.

kolmapäev, november 28, 2007

official doo doo

I am not sure if you have picked up on the debate over whether or not Tallinn should add another official language. No, not russkie, the native tongue of 43 percent of its inhabitants, but English, the language of those bartenders at Hell Hunt.

When it comes to official languages, sometimes I feel that Sweden got it right. Sweden has no "official language" but I think everyone would agree that you need to know Swedish if you want to get up in the Riksdag and demand to know whether or not Carl Bildt has paid his television license fees.

Finland is often lauded for pampering its Swedish minority -- now some 6 percent of the total population. On the other hand, the languages of the indigenous Sami, Romani, as well as the Russians who form 1 percent of the population are not important enough to be deemed co-equal to Swedish and Finnish. So, in essence, minority Swedish speakers are officially more representative of the state than minority Sami speakers. Reindeer herding peons take notice: your language is only worthy of being co-official in certain regions.

If one were to apply the Finnish method to other countries, you'd wind up with Polish as an official language of Lithuania, Hungarian an official language of Slovakia, Hungarian an official language of Romania, and, of course, Turkish as an official language of Germany. Turks have been living there for decades. They appear to have longstanding ties to Deutschland. This is the ideal of advocates of multiculturalism who think that official languages heal all. Estonia, even, has been advised to take more official language, because that would make all its social cleavages disappear.

Except, I actually think Estonian is developing a more interesting approach to the conundrum to making one person's language "official", another person's "regional", and denying a third person's language any recognition at all. In Estonia, there is one "official" feel-good national language. But following Estonian laws, minorities without long-standing ties to the country, like Ingrian Finns and Ukrainians, have been granted opportunities to learn in their native language and achieve cultural autonomy. In other countries, these groups would not enjoy such protection at all.

Meantime, official work continues in the national language. Estonian, despite its curvy vowels and many cases, is not an impossible language. I have lived in and out of this country for nearly five years and if Edgar Savisaar wanted my opinion of how he is running Tallinn, I'd be happy to give it to him. I'd say that Tallinna liiklus on vastik (Tallinn's traffic is awful), Tallinna uued majad on inetu (Tallinn's new buildings are ugly), and kõige inglise joodikad peaks olema keelatud (all drunk English people should be forbidden).

How hard was that? I don't see why that should ever change. Meantime in cities like Narva or Sillamäe, local officials have every right to communicate with one another and with their constituents in their native language -- Russian. They also must continue to serve their Estonian constituents in the national language too. And in Tallinn, you don't have to pass a law to make English official because it's already being used everyday in correspondence and at meetings by the city's large foreign business population.

So in a sense, Estonia is inching closer to being like Sweden. Estonia will become in time a place where you "officially" can speak whatever you want with your colleagues at work, but if you want stand in the Riigikogu and ask a politician about her mother's salary, it would be best to ask politely ja muidugi eesti keeles.

teisipäev, november 27, 2007

vaikiv enamus

For me and many others yesterday's 'devaluation scare' in Tallinn reached me the usual way -- through the websites of Postimees and Eesti Päevaleht.

There were no silent whispers in downtown Tartu yesterday. No one pulled me aside and said, "get out your savings and exchange it for euros at the currency exchange, ASAP" in Estonian. Like so many occurrences in this country, the latest international news simply ... did ... not ... occur ... here.

Watching the images of the lines of people standing outside currency exchanges in Tallinn at the Postimees website, you were struck by the immediate thought of: What are those people smoking? But the truth is that I wonder if Estonians in Viljandi or Võru really bothered to think about it all.

This was Tallinn, after all, the place where crazy things happen. To your average Estonian, who is female, speaks Estonian as a first language, doesn't live in Tallinn, and is between the ages of 45 and 49, the capital must increasingly look like some revolving circus of riots, stag parties, ugly post-modern buildings, and devaluation fears. It is the capital of Estonia, sure. The only problem is that it doesn't look too much like the Estonia most Estonians see from their kitchen windows.

It wasn't always like this. Most Estonians went through a similar carnival of dysfunction in the early 1990s. Maybe they lost their savings when the kroon was introduced. Maybe they lost their property when its pre-1940 owners arrived from Canada to reassert their claims.

Younger people, of the "winning generation", flocked to Tallinn or Tartu to find work in banks or IT firms, creating a property-owning class of 30 year-olds with children, perhaps a divorce under their belts, nice wheels, a smart mobile phone, and the notion that this country belongs to them. Older people settled in for the luckless life of the pensioner. And the guys somewhere in between got lost in the shuffle. A few lucky fellows became CEOs and government ministers. The rest became incorrigible drunks.

This is the story of most Estonians. In recent years though a measure of pride returned to the men and women of Tõstamaa, Anstla, and, my personal favorite, Rannapungerja. They were proud when their country joined the club of democratic European countries -- the EU. They feel more secure that their country is in a military alliance with countries that include the US, the UK, Germany, and France.

So one could say that for those average, 47-year-old women working as school teachers somewhere in Läänemaa, a blanket of normalcy has returned after a jarring period of absence. Maybe they have extra money, enough to renovate their apartment. Maybe the dirt roads of their villages have been repaved with EU funding. And as far as Tallinn is concerned, they are interested, but not that interested.

Finance Minister Ivari Padar is from this Estonia. A Võru native, he has a nice farmhouse in the countryside where he probably does Estonian things like chop wood and whip himself with birch branches on occasion. Watching him once more explain that devaluation fears were unfounded, I could sense his impatience with the carnival of Tallinn. The more outrageous things get, the more, to most Estonians, they almost seem boring.

esmaspäev, november 26, 2007

Dying in Narva

I was a bit shocked to read the findings of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, which showed Estonia to have the highest rate of HIV infection in Europe.

According to the report, there are currently 6,286 HIV-positive people in Estonia — with 555 new cases registered this year — and 176 people have died of AIDS.

Kristi Ruutli, spokeswoman for Estonia's National Institute for Health Development, said in the report that the HIV virus is being spread among young, male drug-users, many of whom belong to the country's sizable ethnic Russian minority.

Prostitution has also contributed to the spread, Ruutli said, and the virus has also been transmitted with increasing frequency through heterosexual contact.

6,286 people is a lot for a country of 1.34 million people. But when you consider that the virus has been localized to ethnic Russians in northeastern Estonia, it's even more worrisome because you are dealing with a smaller community of people. The jump in the HIV rate also coincided with a similar spread in northwestern Russia, so one can assume that the junkie community has spread the virus from St. Petersburg through Narva and into Tallinn.

Narva currently has a population of around 67,000 people, the lowest since the early 1970s, of those about 53,800 are ethnic Russians and just 2,700 are ethnic Estonians. About 28,000 are Estonian citizens, 23,000 are Russian citizens, and 15,000 remain stateless. Since 1991, Narva has lost 19 percent of its population. The city is already dealing with higher rates of unemployment and chronic diseases, like HIV/AIDS, only compounds the problem.

What's the solution? Greater investment? Sure. If Estonia is searching for workers then some are to be found in Narva, that's true. A softer, Western European approach, like free needles for addicts? Perhaps they already have this. More obligatory HIV testing? Could work. The only scary question is, if there are 6,300 people in Estonia who know that they have HIV, how many are there that don't know they are carrying the disease? No one can accurately estimate that number, but it is most certainly higher than the number of known cases.

pühapäev, november 25, 2007

Your fifteen minutes are up, Lavrov

In less than 10 days there will be elections in Russia. Will they result in a new foreign minister or a new foreign policy towards the "near abroad" -- I think not.

Chances are we'll be stuck with more Sergei Lavrov and more typical useless Russian foreign policy towards Estonia and more denial on basic facts of history that even the Politburo archives support.

The central problem in Russia foreign policy towards Estonia is thus: Russia is too proud to use national guilt to its advantage. This plays easily into the hands of Isamaa Liit -- Russia is too proud to acknowledge the crimes against humanity in Estonia in the 1940s and 50s. Estonian right wing parties acknowledge this simple truth and win elections.

If I were Sergei Lavrov and I wanted to make nice with Estonia, I would steal all of Isamaa Liit (and Reformierakond)'s thunder. I would pack up my Lada with wreaths and set out from Sankt Petersburg for Tallinn where I would cry and cry some more for Konstantin Päts, Lydia Koidula, and everyone in between. I would say that these were awful crimes that should never be repeated, all the while meeting with local business leaders t o cut sweetheart deals.

And because Venemaa had made amends and no one could challenge the sovereign word of sovereign democracy, the Russian bogeyman would dissipate , and Estonian right wing parties would have a harder time winning elections.


That's not going to happen. Instead Lavrov and Putin and Yastrzhembsky will continue to build a state on Stalinist newsreels about the Red Army while at the same time alienating every other human on Earth. They will continue to deny basic historical truths about Estonia with the weak idea that they somehow have any say in what the West (TM) believes. And they will continue to fail in bringing Estonia over to their side or at least cutting a "friendship treaty" with Estonia ala Finland because Sergei Lavrov has yet to load up the Lada with wreaths and travel to the kalmistu to honor the dead; to show empathy; to show that to Russians, Estonians aren't really barbarian fascist shite.

A smart foreign minister would see the road ahead and be willing to take it. But Russia does not have a smart foreign ministry. Instead we see nationalist chauvinists that only make sense to Russians. And they wonder how they managed to lose Estonia. Let them keep on wondering.

neljapäev, november 22, 2007

European nonsense

When the forces of history were distributing nationalities they got a bit sloppy when it came time to fill the Balkans.

Slovenia and Croatia basically worked out OK. But when confronted with buckets of Serbs, Montenegrins, Kosovo Albanians, Bosnians, and one bucket clearly marked "FYR Macedonians", the forces got frustrated and just sort of randomly packed them into the area that would come to be known as "the power keg of Europe."

In the 1990s, Americans switched channels from the OJ Simpson trial to the ongoing Yugoslavian break-up saga. It looked to be another unending soap opera, one that could last perhaps even longer than Days of Our Lives. But in 1999 the forces of history conspired to create the environment for NATO military intervention in the Serbian province of Kosovo. Since that time it has been administered by an international force. Now it looks to become the latest successor state to Yugoslavia, the Kingdom of Southern Slavs, if the UN, EU, US, NATO, and RF can't figure out what to do ASAP.

Some European countries with angst-ridden, long-settled minorities like Spain and France might not like the idea of giving independent statehood to any old random group of human beings. If the Kosovo Albanians get their own state, why not hand one out to the Kashubians, Basques, Frisians, and Sami, not to mention the Catalans, Scots, and Welsh?

Other European countries like Sweden are miffed at the idea of another Balkan country emerging that will vote for their neighbors in the Eurovision Song Contest, meaning that the contest will be held somewhere between Athens and Vienna for the rest of its existence.

The Russians obviously don't like the situation because it could continue the general devolution of their conglomerate state, especially at a time when the government is centralizing political structures and the opiate of the masses is Russian nationalism -- Russia for the Russians, not the Chukchi!

From the Euro-Atlantic perspective though, it's hard to see any alternative. If Montenegro gets a state, why not Kosovo? Do you really want to tell the Kosovo Albanians that they may have a serious list of grievances, but they aren't as believable a state as Montenegro, so they have to suck it up and stick with their former ethnic cleansers for eternity?

There is another alternative you know. Because the Kosovo Albanians speak Albanian, and there exists a state for Albanians right next to Kosovo called Albania maybe it would make sense to make Kosovo in some way part of Albania. I know, it's a far-fetched idea.

The reason this option wouldn't work is because it might make some actors in the region even more unhappy than they already are. It would reconstruct the fear of "Greater Albania" -- of sword-wielding guys with two-headed eagles on their shields riding from village to village and giving residents one choice: to either make burek the Albanian way, or stop making bureks all together!

Balkan residents quake in their boots at this option; they'd rather have an independent Kosovo than be force fed bureks from Greater Albania. But seriously, I guess the European strategy is that sooner or later all of this territory will join a strong European Union where driving from Slovenia to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (where mostly FYR Macedonians live) will require zero stamps in your passport, and you'll be able to pay for bureks in Euros from Ljubljana to Skopje without first bribing armed border guards.

And because it will be almost impossible for a small landlocked state to have its own functional foreign policy, it will most likely have to defer to the larger EU states on union-wide issues, allowing, say, Germany to speak on behalf of more people while saying exactly the same thing. So if Kosovo becomes a state soon, don't fret. It's the European way.

kolmapäev, november 21, 2007

Paradiis Viljandis

I do not recall the first time I heard about Mulgimaa. Perhaps it was through the food -- mulgikapsad (a kind of sauerkraut) or mulgipudru (mashed potatoes mixed with pork rinds). Or maybe it was just because outside of Tallinn and Tartu, my destination in Estonia is often Viljandimaa.

I am also not sure where I first heard the term "mulk", an inhabitant of part of Viljandimaa in southern Estonia, but I sensed immediately it had an ambiguous connotation.

A friend in Tallinn explained that back in the day (the 19th century), Viljandimaa was a wealthy county populated by thrifty farm owners who wore pointy black hats and sat on their front porch all the time displaying their wardrobe, stroking their pet cats, and sizing up the neighbor's property for acquisition.

Mulks, in a sense, were ruthless agrarian capitalists that imagined themselves as powerful. So being a "mulk" not only means a person is ambitious, but that they are perhaps too ambitious. How odd then that my publisher / author / journalist / mother-of-two wife happens to be from Mulgimaa. Together with other "mulks" like Mart Laar and Lembitu of Lehola, stubborn ambition seems to run in the blood of all who first saw the world from the hilltops of Viljandi.

But nowadays Mulgimaa is not where the big deals are made. The ruthless mulks have resettled in Tallinn and bought BMWs. The dinosaur bones of collective farms are strewn across the hills of Mulgimaa, and the county retains a "place that time forgot" ambiance . There are still wily farmers. But there are often wily alcoholics too. There are also regular Estonians who get up and go to work everyday.

I was shocked once driving through Abja-Paluoja to see so many houses. I couldn't believe that that many people lived in Abja. In Karksi too there is a veritable community. There are tree lined streets and school plays and holiday festivities. Of course Viljandi is the county center and between the local folk musicians and aspiring actors, it celebrates rural Estonian culture. So, yes, quite a few people live in Estonia outside of Tallinn and some of them live in Mulgimaa.

Recently President Toomas Hendrik Ilves -- who also has mulgi blood, if you can believe it -- erected border posts for the historic county of Mulgimaa. There has been something of a renaissance in mulgi cultural identity, reflected in traditional dress, folk culture, dialect.

I am not sure if any of these really means anything to tänapäeva mulgid. But personal experience has shown that the water down there in Mulgimaa is definitely a little different.

teisipäev, november 20, 2007

Happy birthday to me ...

Today is my 28th birthday. Most people tell me that I am young, but sometimes I feel a bit old -- and it actually has little to do with having two kids (though I am sure that's a factor).

I have felt this was about my age for awhile, perhaps since even my late teens. All one would have to do is pick up a book printed from the turn of the eighties and look at the photos of the people inside and think ... "This just can't be right. Why do all the men have sideburns and plaid sports jackets on?"

Sure I remember the days of sideburns and mustaches and plaid too. But it all seems ... so detached from my current reality. I know I shouldn't whine. Two of my colleagues are turning 39 next year. They are as old as Woodstock. Hell, they could have gone to Woodstock. Or Altamont. Take your pick.

I could have been at one of Jimmy Carter's garden parties, sandwiched in between his brother Billy -- who would have been drinking Billy Beer, of course, and Zbigniew Brzezinski. I could have been on the piano when Joe Strummer and The Clash were recording Sandinista. My little baby car seat could have been on the first Soviet tank as it rolled into Afghanistan. Thankfully, I was never at any of those places.

Hmm. Afghanistan. Iran. Why do these names ring a bell? 28 years ago, the Soviet Union was just preparing for its invasion of Afghanistan. The US embassy in Tehran had just been overrun. And for these reasons I sometimes don't feel old at all, but young. Tehran, Afghanistan -- they still dominate the headlines for similar reasons. The USSR fell apart, but the Russian Federation is trying to recapture some of its mojo.

When I walk down the street I can imagine that if I was magically whisked back 15 years to 1992, things might not be so recognizably different. There'd still be a president named George Bush, just with different middle initials. They'd still be trying to iron out a settlement for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (those of you who are older may groan now). Russia would still be doing its wounded soul routine over the Baltics. And The Simpsons would still be on the air.

So many things have changed yes. The Internet. 9/11. OK Computer. Emilio Estevez and Paula Abdul broke up. Estonia has certainly changed. Most of the current Estonian government were but school kids ready to be captured on film by Priit Vesilind during his visit as part of National Geographic that year. Now they are plucky, 30-something (and sometimes 40-something) public servants.

And they are not even young anymore. They are seasoned. Urmas Paet, then a 5-year-old, has been minister of culture AND minister of foreign affairs. Minister of Economics and Communications Juhan Parts, then 13, has even been prime minister. We all grow up you see. Even me. And Juhan Parts.

pühapäev, november 18, 2007

Fred Jüssi

I recently finished reading "A Sense of Estonia" by Estonian naturalist Fred Jüssi. 'Naturalist' is what you call people who like to hang out in the woods with cameras, journals, and recording equipment.

Naturalists, like Jüssi, also know things, like the names of trees, birds, et cetera. Not only that, they know the songs of birds, their migration patterns, how they rear their young. They observe the things that we too often ignore and dedicate some of their time to explaining it. Intriguing people, these naturalists.

Jüssi is even more intriguing because he was born on Aruba when his family was stationed there with some connection to the pre-war Estonian government. When I first heard this, I thought it was, excuse me, total bullshit. It just had to be made up. But no, it's true. Fred's from ... Aruba.

I met him once at the Olympia Hotel in Tallinn. It was mid- September 2004 and it was already chilly out in the city. As wild as Estonia's capital gets in the summer, it calms down as soon as September rolls in, bringing its gray skies and ice cool air blowing down from the northeast. "There is a poem about this weather," said Jüssi. "It's by Juhan Liiv. Sügisetuul raputab puud."

Every time it gets a bit dark and windy out I think of Fred Jüssi, and Juhan Liiv, because of that moment. But I am still intrigued more by Jüssi because I know that besides being a naturalist, he lives in Tallinn, has been married, has kids -- so where exactly did he find all the time to kill in a cabin on Hiiumaa?

I can imagine that if I bought a camera and told my naine that I was going to disappear for the weekend to the west coast to record the songs of tits and swallows and photograph ice, she'd be a bit cross with me. But Jüssi managed to fit nature into his life in an important way. How he continues to do it, I will never know, but it is certainly a feat worthy of respect.

reede, november 16, 2007


Please note, this is the only time I will write about this issue until there is a verdict in the case.

As you know, just when you thought the Bronze Soldier memorial relocation controversy/BS was over, the Estonian state prosecutors office charged four activists with inciting the riots which cost millions of kroons in damage and resulted in over a thousand arrests, countless injuries, and the death of one man.

Dmitri Klenski, Dmitri Linter, Maksim Reva, and Mark Sirõk could face up to five years in prison for assembling the mob that ransacked downtown Tallinn for two nights in April.

As is typical of anything to do with the now placid and pleasantly gardened square on Tõnismägi, the interest in the Klenski-Linter-Reva-Sirõk trial is marked by the usual hysteria and paranoia about the evil intentions of the Estonian state.

It is also marked with the unnerving naivety of people who support Klenski and Linter about how democratic states operate and how, yes, you really can go to jail for assembling thousands of people with the intention to "go to war" as Linter's text message to all his arm-band wearing, 'anti-fascist' friends supposedly put it.

Though it is not a crime, all four should also be charged with being morons. What did they think was going to happen? That the cops weren't going to arrest people for throwing rocks at them? That the state was going to pack up and go home because they were mad that they moved a statue? That they were really going to go to war over the relocation of a war memorial? Sirõk is just 18. He has an excuse. But the others are grown men. What were they thinking?

Most people in Estonia have a mostly good relationship with the state. It operates fairly transparently, one doesn't need an accountant to pay their taxes, they give you a mother's salary when you have a child, they take care of public parks and siphon off EU funds to repair damaged infrastructure.

In short, Estonia is a nice place to live and work, and most people don't appreciate mobs of drunken youths sacking their stores, throwing rocks at their friends and relatives in the police force, et cetera. Maybe they empathize with you over the plight of your favorite statue, but ... empathy has its limit. It is also understood in most democratic countries that if you challenge "the peace" violently, the state has all the rights it needs to make your life a living hell.

Anyway, I feel bad for the four defendants. They could have done something more productive with their lives. Instead they decided to get into a chest-beating contest over a war monument. What a shame.

Eh Noh Ei?

Some people think that Estonian is some kind of Finno-Ugric cave language. Once in awhile I have to agree.

Because the vocabulary is so different, one has to memorize huge numbers of new words. That's fine. At least there's no future tense or gender. There are trade-offs in every language.

But because Estonians often only speak the language amongst themselves they often slur their words together. Particularly in southern Estonia, consonants are given a light treatment and one needs to listen attentively to differentiate the words and swallow the sentences.

In North Estonia, the pronunciation is more clear and it is easier to break words apart to digest their meaning. Unfortunately, last night I wasn't playing basketball with North Estonians. They were from South Estonia and try as I might there were times when I had no friggin' idea what the hell they were talking about.

Typical sentences might go something like this: 'Kas oli nii või? Ei, noh, ei. Tõesti või? Eh, noh, eh. Laisk või? Noh, ei, noh." Other Estonians listening would sometimes chime in with a grunt, which I am sure can be written down on paper and assigned a meaning in the dictionary, but pretty much sounded like "Grunt" to me.

Epp has a friend Kaja who is from north Estonia. Kaja's family comes from near Lahemaa National Park, and it is easier to understand Kaja because she enunciates. I have tried to emulate this way of talking more because it seems easier that trying to muddle-up my words with the Lõuna-Eesti murre or dialect (and make sure to add that extra 'r' sound, mure can mean 'troubled').

But between my awkwardness with the language and inability to correctly say 'õ' there is a bit of a drunken islander style to my way of speaking Estonian. So, in true Estonian fashion, I have decided to say as little as possible.

neljapäev, november 15, 2007

Katariina Kolledž

If you've been following the Eesti news recently, you'll see that the latest scandal is over the establishment of a branch of Tallinn University called Katariina Kolledž that will offer students bachelor's studies in the Russian language.

According to some members of Isamaa-Res Publica Liit, the establishment of a Russian-language college in Tallinn will undermine the school reform legislation that seeks to increase Estonian language competency in high school graduates. The logic is that students that get a degree in a Russian-language college will be at a greater disadvantage in the labor market.

My opinion is, so what? If they already take their high school Estonian-language classes and are able to enroll in Tallinn University and choose freely to do a Russian-language bachelor's, then that's their decision, and they can reap what the market has to offer them upon graduation.

The reality though is that the market could offer them something good. A lot of foreign businesses like doing business in Estonia because they can operate in mostly clean, manageable, EU-approved, NATO-protected business environment while at the same time serving sectors of the northwestern Russian market.

I know that parts of the business class in Russia absolutely adore the strong hand of Vladimir Putin, but Russia is a corrupt country. Boyscout Finns and Swedes and Germans might prefer to do their business in Estonia even if their main market is next door in St. Petersburg. The multilingualism of Tallinn's residents makes it a more attractive hub.

Also, as great as your second language skills may be, there are simply some students that might find higher education in Russian more attractive, even if the Estonian-language universities -- and English-language ones too, I might add -- are technically better. That is in fact the only real legitimate critique here. Isamaa calls Katariina an institute that will create a more segregated society.

When I think of segregation, I think of Plessy vs. Ferguson. I think of the lovely phrase, 'separate but equal.' And I have to wonder, is it possible to achieve such a thing? Will the queenly Katariina Kolledž really become 'crappy, second-rate kolledž'? I'd be lying to you if I wrote that it wasn't possible.

Beyond that though I think that the idea that bottling up a Russian-language college is going to hurt Eesti more than help it is misguided. It's rooted in the Estonian experience with Russification -- that creating enough obstacles will force people to integrate, like it or not.

One of the chief criticisms of Estonia -- though poorly researched -- is that it doesn't offer enough Russian-language higher education. It does offer it, but this addition could dispel that criticism. Moreover, it could act as a social safety valve for people that wish to pursue higher education in their native language -- and Russian is the native language of about 40 percent of Tallinn.

I personally think that the best way to integrate people is establish institutions that reinforce the dominant culture, but at the same time give people the freedom to choose and to preserve their culture too. That way you invite people into the majority culture without creating negative or reactionary feelings by demanding that they enter it.

Anyway, the icing on the cake is that the college's name reflects indirectly Estonia's tsarist past. I wrote earlier how Estonia could use its tsarist past as a tool for integration. That is, rather than have Russian Estonians imagined as 'Soviet remnants' set adrift on the seas of Estonian nationalism, they see themselves simply as a national minority that maintains links to their Russian, not Soviet, past.

The irony here of course is that Catherine the Great didn't speak Russian as a native language. She spoke German. Catherine I was the daughter of a Livonian serf and also spoke German. She was also illiterate. Perhaps they want to name the college after another Russian monarch? May I suggest Nicholas II?

teisipäev, november 13, 2007

Even more Rasmussen

It appears that Danish Prime Minister Andres Fogh Rasmussen will hang on to his position, according to exit polls.

Yet to retain a parliamentary majority he has to somehow reconcile the government's current partner, the Danish People's Party, which is led by Pia Kjaersgaard and whom many suspect of not liking immigrants enough, and the New Alliance, whose leader is named Naser Khader.

It seems an impossible task, but much like the political situation in Estonia and, indeed around the Baltic Sea, it seems the parties there are set in a constellation that will be hard to budge.

Rasmussen's "less lenient on accepting refugees, less tolerant of raising taxes" stance won him the wrath of the rather loud Danish left wing but catapulted him to office in 2001. I was held up on the Radhuspladsen in central Copenhagen that autumn by a very concerned protester who was worried about Rasmussen's platform.

The only problem was that I couldn't quite figure out who this Rasmussen was. You see, Anders Fogh Rasmussen's predecessor was named Poul Nyrup Rasmussen. And it took awhile for the fact to sink in that there were actually two guys running against each other with the same last name.

That Rasmussen had been in office since 1993. If the current Rasmussen stays in office for another four years, that will be 18 blissful years of Rasmussen for Denmark. Ah, Denmark. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

esmaspäev, november 12, 2007

Baltic BS

Do you ever get tired of the "Baltic States"? I do. I find it a counterintuitive construction for several reasons, beyond the obvious linguistic factors.

One constant source of irritation is "Baltic history" books that try to somehow address only Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania yet always manage to drag Poland and Finland into the mix.

You see, you can't really discuss Lithuanian history without discussing Polish history. That is because for a large period of time both countries were part of a unified state -- Rzeczpospolita, the commonwealth of Polish-Lithuania.

Likewise with Estonia, it is difficult to discuss the Estonian national movement or the Estonian War of Independence without addressing the involvement of Finland. You can't really discuss the background of Kalevipoeg without bringing up the Kalevala. The histories are mixed.

The greatest myths, though, are to be found in the "Latvian" history books, which spend about as much time discussing Germans, Russians, Poles, and other nationalities as they do discussing Latvians proper. Try to write a history of Latvia without discussing Baltic Germans. You can't.

Current Baltic unity is part convenience, part institutional. Nobody wants to have an "Estonian" policy. They want to have a "Baltic" policy. While Condoleezza Rice might be content to meet with her Icelandic counterpart one on one -- she would not feel a pressing need to invite Denmark, Norway, and representatives from Greenland and the Faroe Islands. But when it comes to Estonians, it's preferential to lump them in with the boys down south.

And people wonder why it is so hard for these countries to agree on anything. Instead of asking why don't they get along, perhaps we should ask, why should they get along? Poland and Finland are also both formerly tsarist, both have felt the Russian threat in past decades, both are situated on the Baltic Sea -- yet no one expects them to formulate a common policy. Catholic Poland and Lutheran Finland are allegedly too different, yet Catholic Lithuania and Lutheran Estonia supposedly have more in common. They are "former Soviet republics" ... like Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan.

Coming back to the counterintuitive -- the orientations of these countries are different. Estonia, a country of islands and bays, is oriented to the north and west. Estonians have local names for Helsinki and Turku and the Aaland Islands. I know where Kotka is, and not only that, I know what Kotka, Lahti, and Joensuu mean.

When it comes to Lithuania though, I am a bit more sketchy. And not only does your average eestlane probably not know where Kalvarija is, the characters there are more foreign. Belarusians? Poles? Latgallians? Kaliningraders? How are Estonians really supposed to take part in constructing meaningful policy over a neighborhood that is unknown to them? And furthermore, how exactly did Estonia get to be perceived as belonging to that neighborhood?

The antidote to this odd political entity known as "the Baltic States" has been supranational organizations and activities -- regional programs that are based on a defined regional self interest, ideas as familiar as the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or the Northern Dimension.

Estonians no longer are expected to have identical policies to Latvians. Instead sometimes they can work with Latvia and other times they can work with Sweden. This reconceptualization of Northern Europe is based around economic interest and common history, rather than linguistic borders .

This is the vision of the future put forward by Danish diplomat Uffe Elleman-Jensen, chairman of the Baltic Development Forum. This modern day Danish strategist sees a Baltic sea region stitched together by Scandinavian banks and transport companies enriching not only the Nordics, Baltics, and everything in between, but also the St. Petersburg region. A modern day Swed, er, Hansa League, if you will.

Perhaps Elleman-Jensen has the correct conceptualization of the region, one that is more true to its historical, linguistic, and economic realities than the ones that seem so convenient on paper, but often turn to stumbling blocks.

pühapäev, november 11, 2007

In Soviet times ...

Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of Leonid Brezhnev's death. The Soviet holday was characteristically marked in the Estonian press which enjoys to indirectly feed Soviet nostalgia.

The turn of phrase "in Soviet times" is often heard among Estonians, especially among the 25ish-45ish set, ones old enough to remember "Soviet times" but not genuinely old enough to partake in them beyond singing carols to Lenin in school or having their photo taken next to the "Soldier-Liberator" in central Tallinn.

I have heard here in Estonia that all sorts of things can be attributed to "Soviet times". For example, why people are quiet on public transportation. Supposedly it is because of the icy public life that prevailed during the long, dark winter of "Soviet times." Estonians dare not mention that in Copenhagen, Oslo, and Helsinki the passengers are just as quiet. Northern Europeans are generally commatose on trams. It has nothing to do with "Soviet times."

Or how come Estonian students don't raise their hands in the classroom. I was told this is also due to "Soviet times" when the best students were the ones who asked the least amount of questions. But the students in my classes aren't all from former Soviet countries. The Norwegians and Finns in class don't talk much either. Getting them to discuss something is similar to pulling teeth. So is it a cultural thing and not a "in Soviet times" thing?

My favorite "in Soviet times" stories revolve around totally pointless things that have no bearing on modern realities. I was once told by two women, both about 40, that "today is Thursday, and ... in Soviet times we would be having fish today!" I was too disinterested to ask them why they needed to inform me of this.

For the sake of nostalgia, I thought I'd share with you an "in Soviet times" story. "In Soviet times" I was a little boy. I do not recall the death of Brezhnev. I do, however, recall when Conan the Barbarian was dominant in popular culture. And Conan, above, made an Austrian body builder named Arnold Schwarzenegger famous in the year 1982, the same year Leonid Brezhnev died.

But there's more. In Soviet times there was a student in my school named Igor. Like so many students he was one of those lucky people who managed to escape from a communist country to the glorious West. In my school there were Croatians and Poles and Rumanians and, yes, Russians like Igor.

It was in the heady days of the late 1980s that the Cold War finally made its way into daily scholastic discourse. And one way it manifested itself was by yelling terrible things at Igor about his collapsing country.

I can still recall sitting on the bus and several bus windows being lowered as poor Igor stood on the sidewalk near the school waiting for his bus. From the windows was put forward the kind of language one wouldn't expect from an old sailor, let alone a class of 12 year-olds. Something to the tune of "up yours, you Goddamn Commie!" To which Igor indulged us by thrusting his middle finger up in the air and yelling back, forgive me, "fuck you, you stupid, capitalist pig Americans, fuck you!"

As you can tell, Igor was proficient in the English language. He also had that hysterically awful accent that nearly no Russian can lose, no matter what language they speak. So all the kids on the bus absolutely loved to tease Igor into butchering our swear words with Slavic aplomb.

And that is sort of what I remember about those days. Nobody really hated Igor because he came from the Soviet Union. Instead we loved to pretend that we hated Igor. Likewise, Igor didn't really hate us. He liked to pretend that he hated us.

In the United States though at that time it was impossible to not know someone who had been affected by communist rule. On Long Island where I grew up there were large communities of Poles, many of which predated the imposition of communist rule in Poland. Were the Poles different? Sure, they had extremely long names and produced quite talented junior high school basketball players.

But these people, these nations, were never "foreign" to me or suffered from some "East-West" civilizational distinction that made them different at their core because their country happened to live at sometime under communist rule. Poland today has a communist heritage. But Polishness is obviously much greater than "in Soviet times."

So why do we continue to elevate this period in our consciences? It's true that certain generations grew up "in Soviet times" but it is also true that my wife's grandparents' generation had a childhood surrounded by the Estonian republic. They remember it too. I had an old lady chew my ear off this spring about how today's politicians are just as corrupt and self-interested as they were in the 1930s. I guess that should make some Estonian leaders proud. They've genuinely managed to restore the republic!

But, seriously, what will become of "in Soviet times" as these generations age. Will it be a mark of age, something casting them into pre-seasonal crotchedy misers who shuffle around saying, "What day is it today, Piret? Why in Soviet times we'd all be eating fish today ..." I hope not.

Remember that in Soviet times, on the day Brezhnev died, Arnold Schwarzenegger was famous for playing a sword-wielding barbarian seeking revenge from James Earl Jones. Today he is the governor of California. In other words, times have changed.

reede, november 09, 2007


Who can you count on in November? You can't count on the sun anymore. Any you can't count on the snow, which comes and goes in its own rhythm. When you walk home in the dark late afternoon, passing by the orange lit windows of your little Estonian town, who can you count on?

My answers these nights seems to be the pines. It might be wicked and November, but they look the same all year round. They offer a sense of continuity in a land where June days go above and beyond the call of duty and November days as they always are, a dull brown prelude to Jõuluaeg.

Scattered among the wraith like deciduous garden trees of Tartu are the pines of the forest reaching upwards towards a light that on some days you aren't even sure exists. I have never had a favorite tree before, and the Estonians seem to revere the oak, but these days I like the pines.

neljapäev, november 08, 2007

Saslõkk Shock

When not paying attention to the fallout over the nightmare up north, attention is paid to happenings far away in the land of Georgia, where violent demonstrations have given way to a ban on protests, shutting down of independent television stations, presidential outbursts, and a scolding from NATO.

In the West, Saakashvili has been portrayed generally as a good guy who wants a higher standard of living for his people. But the complex (aren't they always?) domestic politics of the Caucasian country have captured international attention as Saakashvili's former defense minister Irakli Okruashvili accused him of ordering a hit on opposition leader Badri Patarkatsishvili.

The labyrinthine nature of Georgian politics makes it hard to digest what is going on there, and the completely cynical nature of Russia makes it difficult to get to the bottom of Saakashvili's claims about foreign interference. Nobody really believes that Russia is concerned about human rights in Georgia, for example. They just want Saakashvili out. Will they get their wish? Hmm.

kolmapäev, november 07, 2007

we interrupt this broadcast ...

Terrible things have happened in Finland today. An 18-year-old with a gun ... yes, you know the rest -- 7 people are reported dead.

Finland for Thought
has a discussion. Could it happen in Estonia? I guess the message here is that it can happen anywhere.


On the margins ...

I am working on several projects now related to the Estonian Swedish community. It may come as some surprise to you that they a) exist and b) achieved a cultural autonomy in accordance with the Law on the Cultural Autonomy of National Minorities this spring.

That law, adopted in 1925 and again in 1993, enabled citizens belonging to an ethnic group numbering more than 3,000, or members of the national minorities -- Russians, Swedes, Jews, and Germans -- to elect a cultural council to oversee institutions that preserve their culture.

People have said that discussion over the Swedish minority is a distraction from the more pressing issue of talking the Russian minority issue to death. But I am actually finding it quite interesting. In one area, I am confronted with the following questions: how are Estonian Swedes distinct from Estonians and are there some problems in interrelations between ethnic groups.

After turning over these questions, I came to the conclusion that Estonian Swedes do have a certain unspoken minority status in Estonia: they are marginal. No one writes about them. No one thinks about them. They exist, are deemed somewhat exotic, but then forgotten. They are simply unimportant. They are considered similar enough to Estonians to not be constructed as a social problem, and left at that.

I am interested in your opinions though about Estonian Swedes and Swedes. I am badly in need of some 'voices off the Internet' that can discuss how they are viewed in Estonia nowadays. The man of the street would question their existence. But now that they have cultural autonomy, they are definitely contemporary.

esmaspäev, november 05, 2007

Jumala Külm

A week ago I was carving pumpkins with American ex-pats. Now I am scraping ice from the car window. At 2.30 pm the sun hangs low in the sky, warning us of its eventual descent into the dark of December, and then, at the solstice, the climax -- a day mostly made up of night.

Some people are intimidated by the nordic latitude. To them it brings to mind the work of Edvard Munch and Ingmar Bergman. But nighttime is the time when many people are their most creative, and in a season made up mostly of night, the imagination is allowed to run wild with the thoughts that come out to play.

In winter, too, we drink more. It's a regional condition. Alcohol, chocolate, kodujuust (cottage cheese) -- they all supposedly contain the magic ingredients needed to survive the vast darkness. You also feel more alive. The cold shock of air keeps one moving. The local people have a saying -- there's no such thing as the wrong kind of weather, only the wrong kind of clothes.

In Estonia, I might paraphrase. There's no such thing as the wrong latitude -- simply the wrong kind of attitude.

Last night we watched Tantsud Tähtedega, again. The Rootsi Suursaadik Dag Hartelius was voted off the show, but he seemed relieved at the end. Perhaps the cold weather slowed his desire to samba in public. We'll never know. Let this be a lesson to you, Russian Ambassador Nikolai Uspenski. Learn to dance and speak Estonian, and everyone will love you. Anyway, now my sympathies are moving towards Koit Toome, who reminds me of a guy on spring break. He's that consistently happy.

As for the title of this post, it means 'heavenly cold' or something of that nature. I was approached by some Estonian Jehovah's Witnesses last week who wanted to know about my relationship with God. They asked me what I thought about 'Jumal' [mis te mõtlete jumalast?], to which I replied, "Noh, ma mõtlen, et täna on jumala külm."

reede, november 02, 2007


Ed Lucas of The Economist has an excellent post over at his blog. It's comforting to know that as I trudge these leaf-littered paths of Tartu, the same things are on the mind of journalists that only stop into Tallinn once in a while for coffee, talk, and -- of course -- the requisite chillin' with Mart Laar.

Rather than clutter up his blog with my rambling thoughts and feed several of the hungry trolls who comb through Lucas' musings for signs of fascist sentiments or Russophobia, I thought I'd post my thoughts here and urge you to go read Lucas for yourself.

Lucas Excerpt One

A tasteful cemetery alone will not save Estonia. The current approach of smug passivity is a recipe for disaster. Policy towards Russia and local Russians needs pepping up, urgently.

I think one thing people fail to understand when looking at Estonia minority policies is that up until the Pronksöö, society achieved a very sensitive social equilibrium. It has kept two ferociously opposed camps -- the nationalist extremists and the Stalinist apologists -- in check.

When looking back in time, it's clear that the Intermovement to preserve Soviet rule in Estonia was terribly wrong. Estonia has benefited enormously from independence. Those chic shops that were looted in April would not be there if it wasn't for the efforts of the Estonian nationalists.

On the flip side, the Estonian right-wing discourse on minorities is also flawed and often counterproductive. The terms "occupant" and "colonist" are emotionally flagrant. They seek to elevate the status of the Estonian majority but in reality undermine it.

If we are to look at Estonia in 2007, the real reforms that are needed are not so much in language reform -- which has already been agreed upon and put into law -- but in values reform. Estonian values -- liberal democracy, high-tech innovation, European culture -- are being under stressed, while more right-wing values -- loyalty to the state, appreciation of historiography, fluency in the national language -- are overly stressed.

The solution is to craft a more integrative framework unique to Estonia that retains the position of the national language but enables minority enclaves in Narva, Sillamäe, Kohtla-Järve, and elsewhere to feel more comfortable in retaining their ethnic identity while embracing core Estonian values, like liberal democracy, fiscal transparency, high-tech innovation, and European cultural orientation. This will ultimately result in the kind of Estonia most people want anyway and to some extent this has already occurred. But certain right-wing constituencies -- among both ethnic Estonians and Russians -- continue to hinder this process to the detriment of society as whole.

Lucas Excerpt Two

A wider plan—suggested by Anne Applebaum—is to highlight positive aspects of Russian history that the Kremlin ignores.

This is interesting, particularly in light of Estonia's policy towards its past as part of the Swedish Empire. Swedish monarchs are invited to unveil memorials in Estonia. But what of Estonia's tsarist past? Is there nothing good there? It was Tsar Alexander I who ended serfdom in the Baltic provinces and re-opened the University of Tartu. These were indisputably positive decisions for Estonia. In Helsinki he is remembered with his own street, Aleksanterinkatu.

To what extent is he honored in Estonia? Too much of the Estonian discourse is influenced by the thinking that a Russian influence is a bad influence. But I think most Estonian intellectuals disagree. But could some efforts to honor the more positive moments in the tsarist past massage the soul of a St. Petersburg-dominated Russia, not to mention the local Russian minority? Who knows.

Some think that emphasizing the tsarist past somehow references Russian hegemony over Estland. I would disagree. During Tsar Alexander's rule, both Poland and Finland were parts of the Russian Empire. Nobody questions their sovereignty. Moreover, drawing attention to Estonia's tsarist roots reminds people of how exactly it was that the tsar was overthrown. His execution and the defeat of the White Army sent the first large wave of Russian exiles into Estonia who found a country more innovative, European, and democratic than the one they left behind.

In other words, addressing this past allows Estonia to air its core values in a roundabout way. President Ilves has already drawn on his own family's experience in some speeches to stress this version of Estonia -- as a sanctuary of liberal democracy.

Lucas Excerpt Three

PACE is a misleading moniker. The assembly should really be called DRAG. It is a talking-shop even less relevant to the continent’s future than the European Parliament. But it sounds important, and having the top spot will be a most useful pulpit for the Kremlin to denounce Europe for its hypocrisy, arrogance, weakness, Atlanticism, greed, malevolence and general failure to follow the constructive, reasonable and disinterested policies of the former German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder.

Ever since US Rep. Tom Lantos called Gerhard Schröder a political prostitute, his name has become synonymous with selling ones national interest out for personal benefit.

Indeed, if we can talk of Benedict Arnold today, two hundred years after his death, and the first word that comes to mind is 'traitor', is it possible that in the year 2207, someone might utter the name Gerhard Schröder and mean 'political prostitute'? Things appear to be trending in that direction.

Is PACE Chairman Rene van der Linden 'pulling a Schröder'? Is PACE turning into a 'Schrödocracy'? You be the judge ...