Today we took a trip out to visit Epp's great uncle Leo, who is approaching his 79th birthday, and despite stagnant living standards and chronic illness, is still taking care of his business and is probably in better mental shape than some of his offspring.
Leo was actually born Leonid and christened in an Orthodox church in Värska. His father was an ex-White Army soldier from Vjatka in the foothills of the Ural mountains; his mom was a local girl from south Estonia. To add to the cultural palette, Leo married an Ingrian Finnish woman who has since passed on.
Leo's generation in Estonia has gotten consistently screwed at nearly every stage of life, it seems. As children they suffered through the economic and political crises of the 1930s, only to spend their teens living in fear of a war that ravaged every community in this country. The post-war "peace" meant that nearly any man with a brain and a pulse quickly found himself arrested and sent to Siberia, and Leo's father was gone for nearly a decade.
After the war, the young men of Leo's generation had to quietly stomach years of Stalinist intrusion into almost every part of their lives, baptizing their kids in secrecy, watching their children going to school with a little hammer and sickle on their lapels to ensure that they knew who was boss.
It is for these reasons, perhaps, that older Estonians seem to be defiantly apolitical: even if they scrape by on a pension and live in impoverished conditions, they say little as their representatives glide around Tallinn in shiny, black cars. They just want to be left alone; they have no interest in ideology. They also have no money and no power, so no one listens to them.
After a lifetime of serving Eesti NSV, the rebirth of the Estonian Republic caught guys like Leo when they were just nearing retirement. Their savings were suddenly worth nothing, and their assets -- typically a worn down apartment or farmhouse in the countryside -- were worth little as well. I am told that when another side of the family received compensation for the property lost following the Soviet takeover, they spent the proceeds on car parts. Today, alas, the same property would be worth much more.
Things could be worse, and they are. Leo has two sons. One has a steady job and is a family man. He does what he can to help out and it good that he does because the other son is a joodik -- a drunk. When I asked Leo what his sons do, he informed me that one works in forestry and the other is a drunk -- he stated it plainly, as if being a drunk was a full-time job. maybe it is. It amazes me, though, that given the steady stream of bad news about Estonia, including its oft-exaggerated ethnic and economic problems, people seem to leave out the social ill that plagues nearly every family I know -- booze.
Apparently, the joodik has passed on his love of the bottle to at least one of his children, who was allegedly conceived with another joodik. Other children, one of whom we met, are fine, but typically these "normal" relatives spend their time compensating for the lifestyle of the more afflicted members of their family.
Another uncle -- the first cousin of the previously described joodik, is a joodik as well and he's never getting better. He could handle daily intoxication for a few decades, but now he's pushing 50 and making routine visits to the hospital. You can imagine the stress it puts on his octogenarian parents, with whom he still lives.
This paucity of responsible, middle-aged adults in these families means that there is no one around to fix up the sagging ceilings or the nightmare electrical work that has been done on these homes to give them some semblance of modernity. There is no money and so life just keeps drifting on in a sea of tattered decay. A few improvements are made, here and there, but one can paper over the cracks only so many times.
Leo, though, doesn't seem to complain much, and I don't blame him. How do you really complain about things that you have come to accept as your reality? That's just how it is and it really isn't that different from family to family. Some Estonian cities -- like Tallinn, Pärnu, or Tartu -- are awash in reconstruction and if you are young and you have a good head on your shoulders, you can graduate to a decent living standard.
But while society infatuates itself with monuments and arguments about the past, fellows like Leo and the alcohol-infused villages of south Estonia are typically relegated to the obituaries section of the newspaper. It's going to take a long time for any economic morsels to find their way to his door, and I doubt that a last ditch effort to give him state-supplied laptop and turn him into a day trader will have a positive outcome.
I wish a campaign to lessen these troubles would find their way onto some social agenda, but I am not holding my breath.