Estonia’s difficult minority
By Jussi Konttinen
“The Estonian government plans to send 140 soldiers to Afghanistan”, says the news anchor on television.
The ethnically Russian Speranski-Fjodorov family are grouped around their tea cups in their home in the capital Tallinn.
The channel is the Russian language PBK, an strange feature of the media world in the Baltic countries. It broadcasts programmes of Russian State Television, as well as local news produced from a Russian vantage point.
Estonia’s own state television airs just six hours of Russian language programming a week, and its broadcasts do not interest the family.
“It is a state channel. They tell us what is in their interest to tell us. When they praise the government, it raises suspicions”, says plumber Andrei Fjodorov, 30.
The Speranskis and Fjodorovs are second and third generation Estonians. They represent the other, Russian-speaking Estonia. An estimated one third of Estonia’s 1.3 million residents speak Russian as their mother tongue.
Andrei’s father-in-law, Yevgeni Speranski, grew up in Tallinn in a Russian-speaking neighbourhood. In the Soviet times he and his wife Yelena worked at an armaments plant in a Russian collective. Now they work at the ABB factory - again in a Russian-speaking team. They speak little Estonian.
Although they have lived in Estonia all of their lives, only the little girl Polina, who is a year and a half old, has Estonian citizenship. The others are not citizens of any country. They carry an Estonian Alien’s passport.
They could get an Estonian passport if they took part in a language and citizenship test, and they do not want to do that.
“I want to be an Estonian citizen, but I do not want to prove my worthiness. I was born here and I have lived here. That should be enough”, Andrei says.
On Saturday Estonia’s Russians celebrate Victory Day. They gather at war memorials, lay flowers down, and sing songs to honour Red Army veterans.
Relations between native-born Estonians and Estonia’s Russians were inflamed two years ago when the Estonian government moved the disputed Soviet monument, the Bronze Warrior, away from the centre of Tallinn. For the Estonians the statue symbolised the Russian occupation, and for the Russians it meant victory over the Nazis.
Young Russians took to the streets and rioted. Shop windows were smashed, and the police response was severe.
Estonia feels that Russia is using Estonia’s Russian minority as a political weapon. Russia, for its part, accuses Estonia of violating the human rights of its Russian-speakers.
In March a group of Estonian Russians from the Nashi and Night Watch organisations demonstrated against Estonia in Helsinki.
But what do we really know about Estonia’s Russians? How are things really going for them?
And can we already see them without their burden of history - as something other than conquerors?
Andrei, who listens to Russian heavy metal, and who shoots for a hobby, is the political mouthpiece of the Speranski-Fjodorov family. He feels that Estonia treats the Russians badly.
“How many Swedish-speakers are there in Finland? Five per cent? We are a third here, but the Russian language does not have any official status in Estonia”, Andrei says.
He feels that the problems are created by politicians and the media. There is no conflict between Russian and Estonian people.
This is not to say that there are no differing opinions about history. Andrei rolls out the Russian version:
“If, by occupation, people mean the crushing of a country’s culture and language, nothing like that took place here. Authors wrote in Estonian, the leading civil servants were Estonian. The Soviet Union built industry in the country. Stalin deported Estonians, but he deported Russians as well. Estonia was not occupied - it joined the Soviet Union on its own.”
“Well, it was forced to do so”, acknowledges his mother-in-law Yelena Speranskaya.
The Fjodorovs want to live in Estonia. It is where they have their family, their friends, their home, and their jobs. They go to Russia every year to meet relatives.
“I couldn’t imagine living there. We are in shock when we go there”, says 24-year-old Galina Fjodorova.
“Life there is like an action movie. Planes crash, and people are murdered. Here things are quiet and peaceful”, says Andrei, and smiles a bit.
Before the Second World War only eight per cent of Estonia’s residents were Russian-speaking. When the country was annexed by the Soviet Union, Russians moved there to work as soldiers, seamen, and workers. They were attracted by the standard of living. Those recruited to go to Estonia were given a place to live. There was also a deliberate effort to Russify the country.
Now there are 420,000 Russian-speakers in the country. The greatest numbers of them are in Tallinn and the northeast of Estonia. Half of them are Estonian citizens. A quarter hold passports of the neighbouring country Russia, and another quarter are stateless persons.
There has been a decline in interest in Estonian citizenship among the minority. All permanent residents in Estonia can travel freely in the EU, but Estonian citizens need a visa to travel to Russia.
There are Russians in all professions in Estonia. Many work on the railway, in harbours and shipyards, as drivers and sales clerks. Also, some of Estonia’s richest people are also Russian-speaking.
Workplaces in Estonia still tend to be divided in into those where the common language is Russian, and those where people communicate in Estonian. For instance, the supermarket chain Maxima mainly hires Russian-speakers, and the customers also tend to speak Russian.
Russians tend to like ice hockey and figure skating, while Estonians often prefer basketball and cross-country skiing.
Young Russian-speakers working in shops, restaurants, taxis, and banks happily serve their customers in Estonian. They can be recognised as Russians only through a badge bearing a Russian name. In 1989 only 15 per cent of Estonia’s ethnic Russians spoke Estonian. Now more than half have learned the local language.
There are still some inequities, however. The average pay level of Russians is only 80 per cent of what the Estonians earn. The unemployment rate among Russians is double that of the native Estonians.
Those in service professions must pass a test in Estonian. Sometimes language skills need to be demonstrated to inspectors of the Keeleinspektsioon, the Language Inspectorate.
The inspectors can order those with inadequate language skills to attend a language course, or to impose a fine. If the fines pile up, the body can recommend that the employee be sacked.
At the offices of the Russian-owned engineering company Laudon-S, the consensus is that Russians have few career opportunities regardless of how well they speak the language.
“You can’t get a job at an Estonian workplace if you have a Russian surname. I tried to get a traineeship at a bank. When I looked at the list of those who were chosen, everyone had an Estonian surname”, says personnel manager Yevgenia.
“My friend wanted to be a flight attendant at Estonian Air, but only Estonians were taken. They said straight out that they want Estonia to be represented by Estonian faces”, says Dana, the head of marketing at Laudon-S.
However, there are Russians living in Estonia who do not have any problems at all.
A minority among the Russians in Estonia are highly skilled, speak perfect Estonian, and have integrated very well into Estonian society.
Many of them put their children into Estonian day care centres and schools to guarantee social mobility. Some have even changed their names to sound Estonian. For a successful Russian in Estonia, the ethnic background can be an asset, making him or her more interesting.
Roman Zasterinski, the chef at the Tallinn gourmet restaurant Ö, is a good example. Like many of Tallinn’s top chefs, he is Russian. However, if he were Estonian, he might be a sculptor now.
“I wanted to go to the Academy of Arts, but I gave up my dream because the entrance exam would have involved writing an essay in Estonian.”
He did not learn Estonian until he got to know his wife. Now he says that he even thinks in Estonian. Zasterinski feels that it is stupid not to learn the language.
“It is time that we accepted that we live in Estonia. None of the Russians who emigrate to the United States or Finland expect Russian to be made an official language there.”
Businesswoman Marina Kaas, 50, is even more blunt. The native-born Muscovite, who graduated at the respected diplomat school MGIMO, relocated to Estonia in 1981 to be with her husband. Now she speaks Russian with an accent.
“When I learned Estonian, doors and hearts opened for me in this country. Russians in Estonia should display more of the genuine Russian noblesse and think less highly of themselves. They should learn to apologise for the mistakes of history and for their own tactlessness.”
Two hundred kilometres east of Tallinn, Estonia’s third-largest city Narva looks in two directions. On the Estonian-Russian border, two structures, the Hermann Castle on the west side and the Ivangorod Fortress on the east side lurk at each other.
Dozens of people stand in line to clear customs. Many residents of Narva go to the Russian side to buy cheaper food and to collect their Russian pensions.
There is a schizophrenic feel about Narva: the street signs are in Estonian, but the people speak Russian. Only four per cent of them are ethnic Estonians, and one of them is the mayor.
Balancing between Estonia and Russia, a group of young friends who practice acrobatics and parkour, on the railings of the Hermann Castle.
The three, Sergei Klink, Dima Chivarev and Vadim Stupkov are literally teetering on the border between two spheres of influence. Upper secondary school pupil Dima wants to attend university in Tallinn, while Sergei is thinking about studying in St. Petersburg. Vadim, who is still in secondary school, is pondering whether to apply for Estonian, or Russian citizenship.
In front of a shanty for ice swimmers on the western bank of the border river, Vladimir Chaikin and Aleksandr Situnov are sunning themselves. They are pleased to be on this side of the river. “Ask anybody: nobody wants to move to Russia”, says Chaikin, a 60-year-old veteran skier.
Narva is nevertheless struggling with serious economic problems, just like all of Estonia. The biggest employer, the textile factory, has cut 3,000 jobs. One of those who had to leave is Galina Boiko, 55. Now she is working in her garden.
“I am planting vegetables and potatoes so that I might have enough for the winter. I don’t know how I will make it. I don’t have any savings”
Boiko, a widow, got a job sewing at minimum wage, which leaves her with the equivalent of just EUR 100 a month after living expenses.
School is one of the most contentious ethnic battlegrounds.
Under current plans, Estonia’s Russian-language schools should have 60 per cent of their upper secondary teaching in Estonian a few years from now. The Narva Humanitarian Gymnasium has only made it to 20 per cent.
“We have not yet solved the personnel question”, says head teacher Nadezhda Csherkashina.
Pupils in the 11th grade at the school are not enthusiastic about the idea.
“I feel that it will hurt scholastic achievement”, says a boy in the third row.
Yelena Matveyeva, who teaches civics in Estonian, thinks the same way.
“If a pupil has not started lessons in Estonian until the upper secondary level, learning is difficult. Many need to have things explained in Russian.”
Switching over to Estonian is even more difficult for the teachers than it is for the children, admits music teacher Natalia Hadzhiyeva, who has a year’s time to pass an Estonian language test.
Russians need to speak Estonian if they want to continue their studies at the university level, as education in public institutions of higher education takes place primarily in Estonian.
A group of demonstrators stand in front of the Linnhall in Tallinn. The radical Night Watch movement is protesting on the second anniversary of the Bronze Warrior monument riots.
The demonstration is small: only about ten people were on hand. Night Watch representative Alexandr Korobov complains that Estonia’s Security Police intimidate members of the movement by approaching their employers.
The disunity of the Estonian Russians make it more difficult for the minority to promote their interests through political means.
Estonia has six seats in the European Parliament, and all of the MEPs are Ethnic Estonians.
Last time, the Russian candidate to win the greatest number of votes was Georgi Bõstrov, the main candidate of the Unified Left party.
Bõstrov greets his guests in Maardu on the outskirts of Tallinn, where he has served as mayor for 18 years. On the wall of his office hangs a large portrait of Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. In a smaller picture Bõstrov himself stands next to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzkov.
“The Russian-speaking population should be represented in the European Parliament by at least one representative. Latvia’s Russians have an MEP in Brussels, but when they talk about Estonia’s Russians there, the Estonian MEPs insist in one voice that there is no problem”, Bõstrov says.
Bõstrov is working for an official status for the Russian language in local administration, and supports granting citizenship to all who have lived in Estonia for a long time.
In addition, he would like to normalise Estonia’s relations with Russia. Maardu includes the harbour of Muuga, which was an important export point for Russian oil before the “Bronze Night”.
“Why are Finnish harbours full of Russian traffic, while Muuga is empty?” Bõstrov asks.
Citizenship is ultimately the sore spot where the question of Estonia’s Russians culminates. A person can be born, live, and die in Estonia without ever getting its passport.
After the restoration of Estonian independence in the 1990s, Estonians thought that the Russians would take Russian passports and leave. In the new century Estonia got worried that a large population of non-citizens could be a security risk for the state.
Only citizens are allowed to vote in Estonian state elections. When all foreigners and Russian citizens are added up, 16 per cent of Estonia’s population have no say in choosing those who make decisions affecting their lives. This can be seen to be a democracy gap.
If Estonia were to suddenly grant citizenship to all non-citizens who live there permanently, the country’s political map would change at one go. The government might not be led by the political right, and Andrus Ansip; the leadership of Estonia might look similar to that of the City of Tallinn. In municipal elections, all permanent residents have the right to vote. The capital is run by the Centre Party’s Edgar Savisaar, a skilful political player, who is careful not to anger the Russians.
So what could be the solution to the status of Estonia’s Russians?
Viktoria Ladonskaja is a young journalist who moderates a Russian discussion programme on Estonian television. She says that Bronze Night had vast negative consequences in Estonia, but there was one positive side: it drew attention to a problem that needs attention.
“It was then, at the latest, that it became apparent that there are two nations in Estonia, living in parallel worlds.”
Many Estonians and Russians live their entire lives in their own neighbourhoods, circles of friends, and jobs. When young Estonians do not speak Russian, and when many Russians do not know Estonian. There is a large number of people in the country who lack a common language.
Ladonskaya feels that it would be in Estonia’s interest for the Russian-speaking community to be better integrated into Estonian society. Otherwise, people can become apathetic, start to rebel, or fall victim to Russia’s attempts at manipulation.
“It is never bad to love your country. But people cannot love a country where they are constantly shown that it is not their home.”
The basic problem in Ladonskaya’s view is that the Russians never thought that they were coming to a foreign country. They moved to a part of the Soviet Union, but on one fine day they noticed that they were living in the independent Republic of Estonia.
Estonia has two proud nations who need to come to their senses. Estonia’s Soviet occupation is a fact of history, that the Russians need to recognise. On the other hand, it would be realistic for the Estonians to accept that Estonia permanently became a bilingual country as a result of the occupation.
Many Russians have emigrated from Estonia in recent years - not to Russia, but to Finland, Sweden, Britain, and Ireland.
Aleksei Rumyanchev, 52, is on a ferry to Tallinn. He has just signed a contract to work as a bus driver in Vantaa. He plans to move to Finland permanently with his family.
“I plan to learn Finnish. In Finland it is not a disadvantage to be Russian. It is only in Finland that one can understand all of the things that communism did to people in the Soviet Union.”
When a class of 11th graders in upper secondary school in Narva are asked how many of them want to stay in Estonia, only seven hands go up. One wants to move to Russia, but 18 of them are interested in a future elsewhere in Europe.
A show of hands in the 11th grade of the Tallinn Russian upper secondary school gives a similar result, one to Estonia, six to Russia, and 15 to Europe.
On the day that the educated and diligent Russians have left, Estonia might realise that the country has lost something.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 10.7.2009
Previously in HS International Edition:
Hundreds of listeners and a handful of protesters attend publication of book on Estonia (24.3.2009)
Russian nationalists plan Helsinki protest (20.3.2009)
Soviet memorial in Tallinn moved after night of rioting (27.4.2007)
Welcome to Soviet Tallinn (11.3.2006)
Republic of Estonia Language Inspectorate
JUSSI KONTTINEN / Helsingin Sanomat