Most of the news coming out of Estonia over the past few weeks has been largely financial - the acquisition of Silja Line by Tallink, or about Metallica - James Hetfield's interview in Tallinn about the band's next album has been widely circulated around Internet by metal-lovers.
But the other day we were talking in the car about a different kind of issue - the Estonian identity one - because we went to college and like to talk about such crap. We were trained to dig into murky 20th century topics like identity and nationality and, like what does it all mean, man? Zoinks!
One portion of the conversation touched upon something of increasing relevance in Estonian society - when does a non-Estonian (ie. someone who has ancestors that didn't live on the territory of Estonia for 2,000 years) become "just Estonian." Kristina Šmigun - the Olympic skiier - is prime example of this. Kristina is from Otepää, but her father, Anatoli Šmigun, is an ethnic Russian. But no Estonian will tell you Kristina is Russian. She is "just Estonian" - and there seems to be some nuanced way that Estonians can determine who is one of "us" and who is one of "them."
There are lots of mixed families in Estonia - Finns that married Estonians, Ukrainians that married Estonians, Russians that married Estonians, Belarussians that married Estonians, and more frequently, Americans that married Estonians, Germans, Swedes, what have you. They go both ways. The stereotype though is that it is the Estonian women who are more willing to have a "foreign" husband, though this is not always the case.
Unfortunately for the children of Slavic fathers, they have inherited extremely long surnames in a short, punctual language. But if Estonia has room for Jaan Kaplinski, Jaan Manitski, and Julius Kuperjanov, I am sure it will have room for Helle Retsetnikova, Aivar Balanovski, and Pille Pokeshkova. I've even met an Estonian family with the last name Pushkin!
I recall standing in Tallinn Central Hospital looking at the list of maternity doctors on the wall, and seeing either Russian surnames with Estonian last names (Olga Sepp) or Estonian first names with Russian lastnames (Pille Ivanova). I had to wonder, at what point will the established caste of non-mixed Estonians determine that these people - most of whom are bilingual - have become "just Estonian?"
What makes one "just Estonian"? - well, people will say that the number one thing is fluency in the lovely, vowel-laden Estonian language. That's a good start. But even people that were born in Estonia and can speak Estonian, but speak Russian at home and are named Sergei don't seem to qualify as "just Estonian."
It seems that "just Estonians" need to also act Estonian. For example, the lady at the Tartu playground with the colorful paisley dress and fluorescent blonde hair that smiled at my daughter and told me she was an "ilus tudruk" with a bit of a Slavic touch didn't strike me as "just Estonian." She was just too friendly.
So, in order to be "just Estonian" you must also obey rule #2. No smiling. Unless you're drunk. Plus no talking about bullshit of any kind. You want to talk about Colin Farrell's new movie? Go to Ireland. In Estonia the only proper conversation can be:
1) Do you want something to drink? Ok.
2) I think our prime minister is an idiot. Me too.
3) What's with all these Russians living in Lasnamae?
4) What time does the bus leave? 4 pm.
5) Estonians are the most beautiful, most intelligent people in the world. I agree.
Another detail is that Estonians love to drink, but they are more discreet about it. So when a cadre of young males piles on the bus with beer in hand and it's not even noon, I have a hunch that these gents still have a while to go before they become "just Estonian." Ditto for those old guys who sit outside the apartment houses in Tallinn passing around a bottle of vodka. "Just Estonians" don't do that. They go to the designated place to destroy their livers, like the local pub - not the back of the bus.
People think that Estonia is a weak country because it is small and it's people all look the same so you can imagine there are actually only about 35 Estonians and they are all just playing the roles of all the other Estonians you meet. This is untrue. Estonians are actually pretty tough when it comes to integration. Being a non-Estonian speaker in Estonia is like feeling the weight of a fat, honey-loving Estonian-speaking bear sitting on your face. You've just GOT TO LEARN.
This is misconstrued as German Nationalist Socialist-like xenophobic tendencies, coupled with Nordic, Saga-like revenge for that whole USSR thing. But it goes on in every country, even these United States, where every white guy named Smith with a beer is hammering his fist on the table next to his swimming pool and yelling about "those damn Mexicans' whose worst offense is that they "don't speak English."
The fact is, that, after three generations, even Mexicans (!) start speaking English. And Spanish is a big ass friggin' language. It's not some lightweight next to the mighty English tongue. Mexicans could survive speaking Spanish ONLY in the US indefinitely. But for some reason, they switch from "los sandwiches de jamon y queso" to "ham and cheese sandwiches" within three generations. It's because Americans, like Estonians, and like most nationalities, put immense social pressure on those that aren't fluent in the national language and force them into the mainstream. It's some sort of national survival mechanism.
The only question is when that happens - and it is happening in Estonia as I type away - will the non-mixed Estonian community see the Signe Ivanovs and Triinu Pushkins of the world as "just Estonian"?
Ma arvan jah.