Autumn in Setomaa to me is more appealing than summer. Sure, summer is just like one big sõir* and sauna party. But you can barely get any work done without being harassed by sweat and insects.
In autumn, you are alone with your thoughts and the pleasing cool colors of the northern foliage. From an American perspective, you might as well be somewhere deep in the mountains of Vermont. You develop a sudden urge to hear pedal-steel guitar licks and twangy vocal harmonies, even if you've never really enjoyed country music.
This is the mindset that sweeps in as you put up one wall of an outhouse. I said I was going to build one, and I am building it, even if it takes a really long time. Even if it falls over after its first Christening. I am building the outhouse to prove to myself that I am not only useful for writing funny blogposts and changing diapers. I am building it to show that I am capable of building an outhouse. Other people do sillier things -- run marathons, scale buildings, sail solo around the world -- to test themselves. And here I am with my powerdrill and saw. This is my test. The outhouse will be built. I can feel it.
Poor Indrek Teder. The chancellor of justice stepped it in earlier this month. He got up in front of the Riigikogu and did the Estonian political equivalent of asking for diarrhea. He suggested Estonia change part of its citizenship requirements for stateless persons. The procedure for naturalization in question concerns minors born to stateless parents. At the moment, the parents must request that their stateless child be given citizenship in order for the child to receive it. Teder suggested that the child be given citizenship automatically. Why deny the Estonian-born child a passport if his or her parents are too lazy to do the paper work?
Now, to be fair, it's not like it was his idea. When Thomas Hammarberg, the Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, last visited Tallinn, he suggested the same change be made. That is because, in most of the world, statelessness is viewed as a problem. Diplomats undertaking human rights missions are mandated to urge countries to reduce it. Estonia officially says it is working hard to cut its number of stateless persons. It has, slowly and steadily. Over the past six years, the number of stateless persons has been reduced from 12 percent to 7.5 percent of the population, or around 100,000 people. An issue, though, is that many of the newly naturalized do not acquire Estonian citizenship. They acquire Russian citizenship which, if you take the Russians' moral imperative for intervention in Georgia last year, can cause big headaches for a state trying to maintain its sovereignty.
But proponents of the current policy say that they cannot force Estonian citizenship on anyone, even children without a passport. The Estonian state is run by nice people. They don't even force ice cream on anyone. It's up for the parents to decide, they argue. Of course, they might force an Estonian integration program on you in schools, or mandate a certain level of linguistic proficiency for you to hold certain jobs. But, that's just their way of helping you get along so that one day you can get that passport. According to this line of thinking, an Estonian passport is like the ripe, sweet cherry atop the multi-layered cake of integration.
The argument against naturalizing more people at a faster rate through the years has rested on several concepts. One is legal continuity and the idea that those who are currently stateless did not enter Estonia with the permission of its citizens, who were under a military occupation (and they were, you needed special permission to visit Hiiumaa). Plus many of those stateless persons were born in Russia and did not have longstanding ties to Estonia. A significant chunk of them went back to their mother country in the nineties (about 150,000 people, off the top of my head). But, from the vantage point of 2009, it looks like those who are still here are here to stay. They're not going "home." They are "home."
Another argument rested on loyalty. How could Estonians know that those stateless people were not Intermovement-backing saboteurs? How could they be trusted with the right to vote for the parliament at such a critical time in the nation's history? This argument also made sense, considering the large number of Russian military personnel and pensioners in Estonia in the early 1990s. And Estonia was trying to navigate its way into the EU and NATO, two Western clubs that didn't especially want it, but seemed like the best antidote to post-Soviet detritus.
That argument made sense for a long time. But then came the Herman Simm case, where a birthright Estonian citizen traded security secrets to the Kremlin so that he could buy up more land in Viljandi County. Those who opposed the merits of the "loyalty argument" in the citizenship discourse suddenly found themselves with a powerful counterargument: citizenship does not guarantee loyalty. Just look at Herman Simm.
For some one with nasty social democratic tendencies like myself -- and they are hard to shake -- I tend to be attracted to the idea of the state as a steamroller, or even a crazy monster from a Japanese science fiction movie. The Estonian Godzilla emerges from the Baltic Sea. Everywhere you hear air-raid sirens. People are fleeing this way and that. There's chaos on the streets of Tallinn. But the Estonian Godzilla does not care. It does not ask its stateless victims if they want to be citizens or not. There's no paper work. With a determined, pissed-off look on its face, it grabs them, tosses them towards its killer jaws, and gobbles them up. "Mmm, tasty," it belches as it breaths fire and heads towards Lasnamäe. "Who's next?"
And you can't help but cheer on Godzilla. I mean, why should the lizard just stay there lounging in the ocean when real fun can be had on the streets of Eestimaa? Sometimes, you need a little bread and circus. Entertain us, oh Estonian state. Then again, I never get eaten in those movies. I'm always sitting safely with my passport and loved one in the theater.
But Teder didn't sell the proposed change to his skeptical audience that way. He's too polite. He said that Estonia is too "nationality-centered" right now, and that he wants to build a happier country where citizenship, or state identity, is paramount. You're not defined by your language or the folk costume hanging in your closet, according to this line of thinking. You are defined by your nifty, society-leveling state-identity card. That's a sweet, bureaucratic thought, but the current coalition isn't going to change anything related to citizenship laws. And why would they? These are the kinds of issues that elicit hundreds of angry comments on Postimees' online edition. As I said, it's like asking for an intestinal disorder. Anybody who opens up that shit box is destined for ruin.
An interesting aside is that Estonia is "nationality centered" because Estonians actually are the largest group of people in Estonia. Seven out of every 10 individuals on the soil of this land speak Estonian with their mom and/or dad. And one of those 10 is loyal to Dmitri Medvedev or some other president -- typically Yuschenko, Lukashenka, or Halonen, so they aren't part of the parliamentary equation. That means that people speak Estonian in the Riigikogu because that's the language that most people speak. These days, the official language is de facto, not just de jure. But don't tell anybody that. It'll be our little secret.
When you are building an outhouse, you learn that life is a series of compromises. Oh yeah, you think you measured those posts correctly and spaced them evenly apart. You think that your outhouse frame is a model of geometric perfection. But then you take a few steps back and realize how badly you've messed the whole thing up.
So you hammer a bit here, and dig a bit there, and screw in an extra piece of wood here, and lean on it a bit there, and, when you look at it again, it's not perfect, but it's standing. It might even last the winter. And you see that every last piece of it is a compromise. The whole structure hangs on slight alterations, each fixed to the other. To put in another way, the sturdy whole is built on interlocking flaws.
I turn over mismatched concepts as I saw another piece of wood. Russia claims a "sphere of privileged interest" in the post-Soviet space, which includes Estonia. NATO reiterates that the cornerstone of the treaty is collective defense, which includes collective defense of Estonia. Nuclear-armed NATO also does not see little Russia as a real security threat, supposedly because if Russia did threaten NATO, the organization would drop an Article 5 bomb on Moscow. At the same time, Russia has decided that Ukraine will not join NATO, and there are some tremors of badness originating from the Crimean peninsula. I read about this everyday. I read about geopolitics so much I even dream about it.
Our friends regularly make the pilgrimage to the Russian side of Setomaa. I've even thought of getting a multiple entry visa so I can see what life is like over there in Asia. Supposedly, the bake shops in Petseri are not to be missed! But I'm worried they've got me in their secret files. I'm worried Russian Ambassador Nikolai Uspenski has a dossier that reads, Giustino: Enemy Blogger.
"I haven't written nice things about Putin," I told my spouse. "I'm sure they'll deny any application I put forward."
"Then why don't you write something good about him for a change?" she suggested.
"Good? About Putin?"
The other night, I dreamed I was in a beautiful European city filled with canals and fountains and outdoor cafes. I thought I was back in Turku, or Stockholm, or Amsterdam, but no, I was in St. Petersburg drinking beer at an outdoor cafe with Putin.
"I read your blog all the time," Putin says and guzzles his beer. "It's pretty funny, but why do you write so much nasty shit about Russia all the time, eh?"
"Nasty? Like what?" I feign innocence.
The waiter comes and asks if we want another round. Putin tells him we do, and that it's on him.
"You said our ambassador Nikolai Uspenski is incapable of smiling," Putin glares at me. "How would you feel if I said that your Estonian ambassador is incapable of smiling?"
"He probably is. I mean, he is Estonian."
Putin laughs, and when Putin is drunk and laughs, he really loses it. He's slapping his knees. He's pounding his fists on the table. After a minute, he wipes the tears of laughter from his eyes.
"You're not so bad, Giustino," Putin says. "You should spend more time in Russia. We have pretty girls. Old buildings. Great literature. Here," Putin rummages through a knapsack. "have you ever read The Brothers Karamazov?"
"Take it, take it," he hands the book to me. "How about," he dips again into his bag, feeling around, "Anna Karenina?"
"I haven't read that either."
"You haven't read it? My God. Here, here, take it. It's yours." Putin pushes the other thick book across the table.
"Thanks," I say, flipping through the Cyrillic text, "but I don't know Russian."
"Don't play with me, Giustino," Putin sneers. "Everybody knows Russian."
"Wait, I think I have something written in fascist, I mean English," Putin chuckles, feeling around in his book bag. "Here!" he thrusts a third book in my hands. I look down. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.
"You'll love it," Putin says. "It's right up your alley. Sick," he chuckles again, "sick." He chugs his beer and slams the glass on the table.
I put the books aside and finish my beer. "You know, Putin, you're not so bad," I say, wiping the foam from my mouth. "You should come to Tartu sometime. We've got pretty girls. Old buildings. Great literature."
It snowed yesterday in Tartu and I was a little annoyed. I am enjoying autumn. I want it to extend for as long as possible. Some people are summer people. They're hedonists. Their idea of a good time is grilling meat in their swim trunks eight days a week. Other people like spring. The river ice is melting. The pollen's in the air. The girls are apt to try out exotic fashions. It's mating season. A third group of oddballs enjoy winter. It's so dark and sinister, and yet, by withstanding all that pressure, you are ultimately enlightened. For them, winter is like a really good Radiohead album.
But me? I am enjoying autumn, especially autumn in Setomaa. I want it to last. I want the trees to stay the way they are. They soothe me. Yes, I think I've decided. I am an autumn person. I want to finish the outhouse before it's too late, before it starts snowing every day from now to April 1.
In the distance, I hear a the muffled explosion of a gunshot. Our neighbor and some of the other locals have gone off hunting deer. It's all supervised by the state. When you drive into this corner of Võrumaa, you can see the hunt supervisors, dressed in neon orange vests, making sure nobody gets out of line.
I know I am not like the locals. They are country boys. They build outhouses that actually are geometrically perfect. The Estonian giant mythological figure Kalev himself could use it. The locals are different. They speak Võro language, albeit only when they are drunk or joking. But they don't mind me. Maybe they'll even compliment me on the outhouse when it's finished. Nothing like a New York tenderfoot greenhorn trying to manage in the Montana of Estonia. But I enjoy it. I could just stay here in this moment for a long time, powerdrill in hand, having a meaningful dialogue with a half-finished outhouse.
* Sõir is a kind of cheese popular in Võromaa and Setomaa,. The word sõir is of Slavic origin (the Czech word for 'cheese' is sýr) . The local varieties of sõir are soft, often with caraway (not rye) seeds mixed in. The Estonian word for 'cheese' is juust. It is of Germanic origin (the Swedish word for 'cheese' is ost). The etymologies of these words could be seen as examples of the different influences on Estonian and Võro/Seto culture.