Tuesday 5 November 2013

The kids are all right?

Last weekend I was in London and got chatting to the waitress who was serving my table. Always wanting to strike up a chat (which usually leads to a discussion concerning Eurovision!) I asked her where she was from. "Estonia". Given my love of all things Estonian, this was music to my ears. The girl in question was from Narva, a majority Russian speaking city in the north east of the country, a city which has faced some serious challenges over the years. Estonia, like so many post-communist countries, has undergone rapid economic and social change in the two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Estonia is now a full and equal EU member and doing pretty well. On the surface, everything looks plain sailing, right? Wrong.

The tensions between Russian speakers and ethnic Estonians have been well-documented, and something that I discussed in my own research. However, the conversation with the waitress was actually rather alarming and highlighted a fundamental incongruence between building a nation with common national identity and coming to terms with recent history. The girl who would have barely remembered Soviet times claimed "everyone was happy in Estonia, there were no problems". Deportations anyone? Forced Russification? She also claimed that Estonians would rather the Nazis had won WWII since "that's what they believe". I tried to point out that the end of the war also marked a period of Soviet occupation in Estonia which is perhaps why Estonians don't mark May 9th like the Russians do. She was having none of it.

In fairness, on the flip side, ethnic Estonians have made some pretty alarming claims too. It wasn't necessarily what was said though, but what it represents. Estonia is effectively a divided country. Narva, is an almost forgotten city, alien to most ethnic Estonians. Tallinn is of course vibrant, multicultural and a rather lovely place to be. However, under the surface old tensions, mistrust and suspicion are still there. Despite massive advances towards building a more inclusive sense of national identity in Estonia, the truth is that many Russian speakers and Estonians live very separate lives. Many younger Russian speakers do speak Estonian, which is obviously a good thing, however tensions still remain. The 2007 riots which took place following the removal of a Soviet era statue exemplify the fundamentally different understandings that the two sides have to their past. The elements were there for an all-out civil war in Estonia. Thankfully this hasn't happened. 

Estonia is now free from occupation, Russian speakers living in Estonia are free too and have many opportunities today. Arguably life is easier in Estonia than in neighbouring Russia and other parts of the former USSR. I could almost understand a person who was from the older generation having such dogmatic views, however, given that this was a young, educated person, I found it surprising. The reality is that it's not been all that long since the Soviet Union collapsed, and I dare say it'll be a while before old attitudes die along with it. 

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