The other day I asked a typically boisterous friend about her hometown. Noh, kus sa oled pärit?
"You mean, like, where I was born?" she answered. I replied in the affirmative. Then she grimaced, and blurted out ... "Kohtla-Järve."
The funny thing, is that I have seen that look of "please don't kill me because I am from Kohtla-Järve" before. Last summer, another friend similarly confessed her origins, with the same startled hesitancy.
I have driven through Kohtla-Järve. In the Estonian psyche, or as much of it has rubbed off on me about how eestlased view the place, Kohtla-Järve is one of these Soviet labyrinths of apartment blocks, poverty, and Russophones, where if you ask for milk in the store in Estonian, you might get carbonated water or eggs. Since there are no water parks or medieval buildings, it is undeserving of a visit, and so nobody goes. But when I drove through, it looked pretty normal. Why, they even had their own Selver.
Intrigued, I pulled our friend aside and asked her why she made "that look" about her hometown. She at first denied having made a look, but launched into a long tale of a small village called Järve that had blossomed into a Soviet factory town home to "Homo Sovieticus" -- Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Kazaks, Koreans, and every other nationality under the sun of Stalin that had been uprooted and replanted on conquered Estonian soil.
With little connection to the actual place where Kohtla-Järve was located, the logic went, its first and second-generation residents cared little for its upkeep, and "the city" -- actually a grouping of several, geographically distinct islands of settlements, went downhill after 1991, hit hard by the collapse of the Soviet state-planned economy.
The population censuses from the second half of the 20th century tell the story of Kohtla-Järve's rise and fall. In 1934, there was no city of Kohtla-Järve. In 1959, the city claimed 40,000 residents. By 1979, KJ was home to 87,000, and in 1989, 92,000. Today, 20 years later, around 44,000 people live in Kohtla-Järve, one fifth of whom are older than 60. How low will Kohtla-Järve go? I don't know, but I expect Pärnu to to replace Kohtla-Järve as the fourth largest city in Estonia -- after Tallinn, Tartu, and Narva -- within a few years.
According to our knowledgeable and very young friend, who -- surprise, surprise -- has no intention of returning to her hometown, KJ is dominated by an aging class of Keskerakond politicians and little old ladies who adore Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar and represent reliable votes in parliamentary elections [indeed, KESK won 55 percent of the votes in Ida Virumaa, compared to rivals Reform, who garnered only 15 percent support in the March 07 parliamentary elections].
That may represent her political interpretation of Kohtla-Järve's political life, but it does not seem like a sustainable dynamic for the future. Eventually, Kohtla-Järve's geriatric voting class and the politicians they favor will pass from this Earth. And then what? Sadly, neither of our Kohtla-Järve-bred friends will be there. Nor will KJ native and former Estonian Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland. Like so many Kohtlakad [or whatever you call residents of that city], they have simply moved on.