An acquaintance of mine recently said he wanted to take a day trip to Estonia from St. Petersburg and selected Narva as a place to meet up. I have never been to Narva but I am aware that Narva is, for all intents and purposes, a Russian city on the wrong side of the border. While I am happy to meet him there, I'd prefer to show him something "Estonian" nearby so he didn't go home thinking that Estonia is just like Russia with a different flag.
And I got to thinking about, what exactly is this place called Estonia? I am sensitive to this country's place in the world because I feel that most outsiders have a limited clue of what it's really like. Even the tourists -- and the traveling journalists -- only manage to see Tallinn. They never seem to venture into the 'real Estonia' of Viljandimaa. In fact, most of the foreigners I know in Tallinn don't seem to get out to Mulgimaa that often. It's hard to convince native-born Tallinners to leave their little town or to think that Estonia is more than Tallinn too.
Outside of Tallinn, most of the places I have been have been the same. There's moist bogs, birch forests, fields ripe for the plowing. The islands are stunningly pastoral. The north coast is calming and fresh. If it has a food store and a gas station it has a name and it's on the map. So many people worry about the issues of Tallinn. They write about AIDS and unemployment in Narva. But Viljandi? Pärnu? Haapsalu? Hell, even Tartu? It's like these places don't even exist.
When will some important newspaper dispatch their roving journalists to Võrumaa to learn about what life is like in southern Estonia, I wonder? Perhaps never. And if Narva is as Estonian as Tõrva, then how come nobody I know is ever going there? How come, in my mind, Narva seems as foreign as Pskov or Petseri. With my knowledge of Estonian - hardly fluent, but passable - I can go anywhere in this country and ask a question and get and answer. But most people I know that have ventured forth into Narva have been met with a language that is written with characters like: Информационное агентство. Лента новостей политики, экономики, культуры и проишествий.
I have no idea what that means, and the truth is that I don't really want to. Learning Estonian is a fulltime job, and I also want to learn Italian before I die. I am not that talented in languages. I have written off learning French, German, and Russian. I'll stick with my imperial tongue of English for international dialog. Still there it is, the conundrum of Estonia -- a unilingual state -- staring me back in the face. It's been 16 years since Estonia restored its independence. The residents of Narva may have lived there since it was rebuilt following the Second World War. But the place is linguistically Russian.
Isamaaliit can pass all the laws it wants and it will stay that way. Barring some incoming attractive economy that lures all the young people of Jõgevamaa to Narva, instead of Tallinn, Narva will continue to present the Estonian state with that dilemma. "You are pretending to be something you are not," it seems to say. Language reform laws that make sense in Tallinn, where knowing Estonian will get you ahead, seem absurd in Narva, unless of course you intend to move to Tallinn, which isn't everyone's goal.
And then it hits me. Am I really looking at Narva, or am I seeing Vyborg? Like Vyborg, Narva was also founded by the Swedish empire as a administrative and trading post. Like Vyborg, Narva has also always been a political football, changing hands with battles. Like Vyborg, Narva has always been a diverse city. And, finally, like Vyborg, Narva was similarly evacuated during the war and resettled afterwards by people from all over the USSR. In the end, like Vyborg, Narva became a Russian city.
Yet unlike Vyborg -- a gorgeous city that no doubt still arouses negative feelings in Finns about what the USSR took from them 60+ years ago -- Narva is still in Estonian hands. This is a country of 1.34 million. You can drive for hours through the countryside and still only see a handful of people. And yet one of its silent and ambitious long-term projects is trying to get Narva to speak Estonian. It is said that the favorite sport of Estonians is uphill skiing. I am inclined to believe the saying when I think about Narva.
I wonder why, in the early 90s when there were rumors of Narva seceding from Estonia, that the Estonians didn't let Narva go. Was it the historical symbolism of the two castles facing each other? Was it the possibility that the unspoiled beaches at Narva-Jõensuu would be lost? Is it because Paul Keres was from Narva and the new government wanted so badly to feature him on their restored currency? Or was it because Estonians know that Estonia is a peninsula, and they want to keep it that way. Maybe it was because the residents of Narva themselves changed their minds.
And that's the thing. If Narva were polled, they probably would choose to stay in Estonia. And plans are being discussed to rebuild some of the more attractive buildings from Narva's Old Town that were lost in WWII. If and when Narva Old Town is rebuilt, will that mean that more people will visit from the rest of Estonia? Will that mean that people will buy apartments there and work with the city with as much gusto as they have managed to dress up Tartu and rebuild Tallinn? Will Narva eventually become as Estonian city as any other. Or will it continue to be a piece of Russia, floating inside Estonia?
That's the tricky thing about talking about Estonia's situation today. It keeps changing.