esmaspäev, detsember 31, 2007

collective guilt: collective future

I am in the US for the holidays and that means late night, alcohol-fueled debates about World War II and slavery. In an odd moment of compassion for our krautrock-loving German friends, I came to understand what a sad lot in life it is to be German and live with collective guilt for something you had no role in nor chose in utero to be associated with.

I came to think that perhaps many of us suffer from collective guilt. Russians, Germans, even Canadians (Bryan Adams? What were you thinking?) For my part, I realized that as an Italian I carry the collective guilt of the Roman Empire on my shoulders. It was us who killed Spartacus. We bear collective guilt for the death of the Thracian gladiator and his Hollywood good looks. As my Roman ancestors would say, mea culpa.

Now, let's start 2008 with less of an eye on the rear-view mirror, and more of an obsession about the future and what goodies it can bring. In Estland I am tired of old, cynical, funky politics. I want new blood, new ideas, and new accomplishments. There are so many things that could be better, fitter, happier, more productive. Why not greet them?

reede, detsember 28, 2007

the tsar's madman

No one lives for ever, not even great national writers. However, unlike many, great national writers leave behind immortal works of fiction. Your thoughts on the passing of Jaan Kross (1920-2007).

kolmapäev, detsember 26, 2007

ma igatsen ahju järele

Kui me kolisime eestisse veebruaris ma kartsin, et me pidime elama koos ahjuga. Eestlased ise arvavad, et ahi on maailma kõige mõnusaim asi. Aga kui me elasime enne eestis, siis meie korter oli Kalamajas Tallinnas, kus asub palju puumaju. Igal tänaval seisis üks või kaks maja, mis olid mustad, sest et maja põles üks või kaks korda. Ma otsustasin seal Kalamajas, et ahjud on tegelikult vastikud asjad, ja mina eelistan raadiatorit ahjudele.

Aga tagasi Tartus veebruaris, me leidsime, et ainult head kohad elada olid ahjudega. Minu arvamus muutus, ja edaspidi ma arvasin, et kui ainult üks maja põleb tänaval kus asub kümme maja, siis meil oli 90 protsenti võimalus elada koos ahjuga. 90 protsent on tegelikult täitsa hea ellujäämise määr!

Siis hakkasime elada koos ahjudega. Igal õhtul me tegisime tuli ahjus. Mina tõin puid korterisse. Ja panesime ikka meie paber prügi -- tualeti paberi rullid, vanad reklaamid, vanad Eesti Päevalehed -- ahju. Elu ahjuga on meie rutiin. On tavaline asi ahju kütta.

Praegu oleme külas New Yorgis ja meil ei ole siin ahjusid. Meil on ainult kaminad, kuhu me ei tohi vanad tualetti paberi rulli panna. Eriti hetkel, kui palju paberi jõulukingitustest on kumuleerinud, mul on päris suur vajadus ahju kütta. Ku ma näen need suured mäed pakkimispaberidest ma tunnen, et ahju on tarvis. Mu silmad kasvavad suuremaks iga vana kartongiga - ohoo, see sobib ahju. Aga ahjusid siin ei ole. Ainult kaminad ja keskküte. Mis on lahendus? Mis me peaks tegema meie vanade WC paberi rullidega?

Kas te saate kujuta ette, et ma pean elama ühe täis kuu ilma oma ahjuta? Kui raske on see elu.

[ENG] At first suspicious of Estonian wood heating, I now find myself missing it while spending the holidays in New York. The main reason is that -- with all the leftover wrapping paper around -- there are simply so many useful things to burn but no place to burn them. I find myself missing our Estonian 'ahi' for that purpose.

reede, detsember 21, 2007

sacre charlemagne

If you read enough books about European foreign policy, you'll encounter curious ideas forged in time. One such nugget is found in Anatol Lieven's The Baltic Revolution from 1993 which states that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were attempting to rejoin the Europe of the 1920s and 30s, not the Europe of the 1990s.

At the Lennart Meri Memorial Conference in March, I heard Bruce Jackson, another East European expert, claim that the Europe Ukraine was attempting to join was the Europe of 1914 (before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, of course).

These are interesting ideas. As Alice would have pondered in Wonderland, "curiouser and curiouser." But what do they mean? On the surface they are utter nonsense. Estonia, home of free wireless Internet, did not wish to return to the era of fascist Europe where life was broadcast by radio. Ukraine certainly doesn't wish to return to 1914 when it was a constituent part of the Tsarist empire.

But looking at Europe from this northern European perch, I might identify some eras in which Western Europe -- the arbiter of modernity -- is stuck. I would say that if some parts of Europe yearn to return to a fabled past, Western Europe itself is living with an image of itself that is outdated. Western Europe is stuck somewhere in the 1960s and 1970s, with these base national images of themselves, a tourist industry that still rests upon those images, and an image of eastern Europe as still lying beyond some civilizational curtain.

You can meet this version of Europe in any Western European capital. The Scots are still selling plaid and Sean Connery. The Danes are selling Tivoli, open-faced sandwiches, and Hans Christian Andersen. The Italians are selling the leaning tower of Pisa, the gondolieri of Venice, and Fellini. The Norwegians have Thor Heyerdahl, the Swedes have ABBA. And the French? They're still selling Serge Gainsbourg, even though he's been dead for 16 years.

Worse than the circa-1965 prism through which Western Europeans view the world, is the circa-1991 prism through which they view formerly communist Europe. For those who have come and enjoyed, the nightlife of Tallinn, Prague, or Bratislava are not to be missed. But for sadly too many, this half of Europe is a black hole, and empty space, someplace unknown and potentially threatening.

I think of all the times I have heard about Estonian women interrogated in passport lines about their intentions of entering country X. Then there are those provincial Europeans who have heard terrible stories about "Eastern Europe" and simply cannot believe that a person would live there willingly. They are baffled by the whole idea, even as they step over the local heroin addicts at the train station. One can imagine their shock when they arrive to Tallinna sadam and find out it doesn't look too different from the country they left behind. In some cases it looks even better.

For all these reasons, I think today's expansion of Schengen is a landmark event. A blanket of equality has descended on Europe. While Western Europeans might cringe in fear of Estonian drug dealers and Polish plumbers, it's about time that they were brought up to speed on the Europe too few of them know about. In a way, it's as if the Europe of 1965 has finally joined the Europe of 2007. Welcome to the present.

neljapäev, detsember 20, 2007

tallinn talvel

Another day in Tallinn, yet so much better than the rest. Some people think that summer is the season when eesti comes alive. But my favorite time to be in Tallinn is right around now -- jõuluaeg.

Tallinn in the off season is free of most of the hassles of Tallinn in suvi. The throngs of Yorkshiremen and Neapolitans thin out, and all that's left is silent Tallinnlased making their way through the heavy streets of Estonia's pealinn.

The air is usually clean and cool and it rolls right off the Gulf of Finland, blanketing every breathing soul in icy moisture. It is at times like these that I believe that the 'Talsinki' marketing scheme may have been correct. For the only other city where I have encountered the same emotional temperature has been Helsinki, just 80 kilometers away.

I brought my camera this time to record any monstrosities I could find in the city center. When I used to live in Tallinn five years ago, it seemed that every block housed a condemned building that was in dire need of being plowed under and turned into a trendy bar with Asian food, Brazilian music, blond hosts, and carpet on the ceiling.

But this time, nearly all the buildings in the center looked decent. And even that rotten wooden ship of a home at Sakala and Kentmanni has been gutted by fire and has a fence around it. It's time too has come to say head aega and to serve as the bedrock for a nordic sushi joint.

During the day, with half an hour to kill, I decided to head over the Jõuluturg on Raekoja Plats. I really didn't want to enter the Old Town just because I have been there so many times. But it was worth it. While I was trying to decide whether I should buy glögi from booth A or booth B, who should I spy but Rootsi Suursaadik Dag Hartelius, clad in informal sweater, gingerly making his way across the town hall square.

I wanted to ask him for an autograph and say that I had voted for him at least 10 times over the past few months, and that it was total crap that Koit Toome won because he was the best dancer -- but the New Yorker in me kicked in and I decided to leave Dag alone to the knitted wear and glögi, or glögg på svenska.

Instead I headed to the sõõrikukohvik for some pannkoogid meega and to enjoy the really terrible pakapikud in Eesti Ekspress' year-end edition. There's even one of Rene Van Der Linden. Häid Jõule!

teisipäev, detsember 18, 2007

tools of foreign policy

After reading through Chris Schüler's piece in The Independent which blends his trip through a neighborhood of Latvia with random facts about Estonia to synthesize a generic attack on 'the Baltic republics' in true "I'm a brave reporter in an unsafe place" British fashion, I got to thinking about how any random report can be used as a political weapon in the hands of foreign policy thinkers. (Hat tip to Ivan vs. Jaan by the way)

First, I would like to slime Schüler, not for insulting the fatherland of Estonia, but because he was unable to put several concepts together to better explain the situation for his readers.

Schüler writes about Estonia's large industrial ethnic Russian population brought here during the Soviet period. Then he writes about the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then he writes about high unemployment and drug use that has contributed to a high rate of HIV among Russophones in northeast Estonia. Then he writes about the high percentage of ethnic Russians in Estonian jails. And what's to blame for all of this? The Language Act.

You see, if all Estonia's institutions had Cyrillic lettering on their signs, everything would be better. Even though ETV offers news in Russian, most commercial forms are available in Russian, and even Postimees -- the newspaper of Jaan Tõnisson who encouraged the switch from German to Estonian in public life a century ago -- has a Russian edition (!), it's still not enough.

If Estonia was like Finland, then everything would be different. There would be no large unemployed minority in industrial northeastern cities that turned to crime and drug use to ease their pain and accidentally contracted HIV. Why? Because Finland kept the Soviet Union out of Finland.

If only he could have managed to connect the obvious dots of large migrant population + economic collapse = unemployment = increased crime and drug use and suicide, Schüler might have managed to serve his readers. But he didn't.

In his article he uses reports by Amnesty International and others to back up his interpretation. But that got me wondering about how Russian speakers were treated across the Gulf of Finland where they now make up nearly 1 percent of the population, putting them in striking distance of the Swedes (5.5 percent) for having their language coequal with Finnish.

It turned out that in the Council of Europe's latest report on Finland, published just last month, it was found that Russian speakers there are complaining about their level of support there too:
Representatives of the speakers informed the Committee of Experts during an "on the spot" visit that they have difficulties in developing a dialogue with the government regarding the status of the Russian language.

In addition, during the on the spot visit, the Committee of Experts was informed by the speakers about the possible closure of the Russian public library of the Institute for Russian and East European Studies. As a result, the books would be dispersed in different specialized libraries not open to the public.
Russians have difficulties in developing a dialogue regarding their status? The Finns are closing Russian libraries and dispersing their books to "specialized libraries" where they will be kept out of the hands of Russian speakers?

Did I mention that Finns like to wear rings with swastikas on them? They even defend their collaboration with Nazi Germany during the Continuation War in 1944? I know, it's really ugly up there in Halonen country.

One can only hope that the next time The Independent sends a reporter to Estonia, they'll wind up writing about Finland. Seems like a natural choice.

esmaspäev, detsember 17, 2007

the auld argument

Crap. I just finished several long days of writing a 12-page foreign analysis paper for school. My chosen topic was to explain why Estonia seeks to integrate with and identify as part of the Nordic community -- I know, how predictable.

Reading through the literature it really brought back splendid memories of arguing over the significance of different periods of submission to foreign powers in Estonia.

But after reading through many sources and weighing those in terms of different IR analysis approaches, I came to the conclusion about arguing the merits of Estonian Nordic affinity is something akin to arguing over astrology -- definitions are highly subjective and there exists no genuine test to say whether someone on the cusp is exhibiting traits more similar to Leo or to Virgo ...

What I did find out though is that the whole discourse has been bogged down in Ilves' Jõulumaa construction of a northern culture of workaholic, joyless alcoholics who like sitting in front of the Internet all day long. People, like me, sitting around trying to convince people that Estonians and Finns have stuff in common.

If anything the reason that the concept hasn't been warmly embraced in Estonia is because Estonians don't really embrace anything. They know who they are-- Estonians, and that's all they know. It took them awhile to warm up to Lutheranism. It took them a long time to figure out they were Estonians. I don't think they ever enjoyed the USSR in any capacity -- maybe the cartoons. And when they joined the EU? Yawn. Estonia is like a little northern island. Who cares what is going on on the other side of the Läänemeri or Peipsi järv? Tantsud Tähtedega is on.

But back to the main point. I discovered the reasoning behind these policies is quite deep. There is the economic factor of attracting investment from the ultra-wealthy Nordic countries. It makes sense to assuage their provincial paranoid selves about investing in the "Wild East."

Then there was the constructionist argument -- that if Russia is going to construct the former-Soviet Union as the "near abroad", then it made sense to construct Estonia as part of the West for security in the widest sense. It was just a post-Cold War region-building exercise.

Finally, the clincher that drives this policy -- Finland and Sweden have stuff and they are right next door. Question: What's the closest foreign capital to Helsinki? Answer: Tallinn. Question, what is the closest foreign capital to Stockholm? Answer: Tallinn. Given that basic geography, the fact that these are all relatively small European states sharing maritime borders -- the lifeblood of Baltic trade -- it kind of makes sense that Estonia might wish to pursue highly-integrated relations with both countries.

But more to the point, which one of those flags is your favorite? I am sort of partial to the one in the third column on the bottom row ... it's quite striking.

laupäev, detsember 15, 2007

the stalin show

I was browsing through the Singing Revolution website -- which is getting amazing reviews in the United States I am happy to say -- and found this interesting transcript of the meeting between representatives of the Republic of Estonia and the Soviet Union in 1939.

In it you get to follow Estonian Foreign Minister Karl Selter, Prime Minister Jüri Uluots, Ambassador to the USSR August Rei, and Multitasker Ants Piip as they try to negotiate with Soviet demands for military bases on Estonian soil.

The best part is the encounters with Stalin, which give you insight to how he, like many bullies, used the combination of the threat of violence together with patronizing humor to massage his partners into giving in to his demands.

Russian Foreign Minister Molotov: Estonia is to give to the Soviet Union the right to keep in various places in Estonia for the duration of the present European war up to 35,000 of infantry, cavalry and air force, in order to prevent Estonia and the Soviet Union to be drawn into war, as well as to protect the internal order in Estonia.

Selter: Because this proposal is new and is presented for the first time, the Estonian government, of course, has not been able to take its position in respect to such wishes of the Soviet government. But without needing to consult my government about them, I can reply to you that this new proposal is unacceptable to Estonia. By form and substance the measures indicated in this proposal would mean a military occupation of Estonia by the Soviet Union, to which neither the Estonian people nor the government could agree under any circumstances. I find that our negotiations will become very difficult, if we do not confine ourselves to the limits, which both sides themselves so far had drawn for their position.


Molotov: The government of the Soviet Union insists upon this proposal. If you wish, Stalin himself can tell you that, as well as explain the proposal. Do you want to talk to him?

Selter: Yes, we do.

Molotov: (into the telephone) Comrade Stalin, come here. Mr. Selter and the other Estonian gentlemen are here with me. He and his associates argue against our new proposal. They call it occupation and other dreadful names. Come and help me to persuade them of the necessity of our proposal.
The minutes then go to Ants Piip's diary:

“In about 3 minutes Stalin enters the room with firm steps, clad in his garment of the well-known cut. He quickly shakes the hands of the Estonians, sits down at the place previously taken by Molotov, who changes over to another seat at the side of the table opposite to us.

Stalin gives permission to smoke.12 Selter introduces me to Stalin, mentions good humoredly that my name, Piip, means “tobacco pipe” in Russian and that I took part in the Estonian-Soviet peace conference.

Stalin remarks: “That’s good. Let us’ light the peace pipe again at this table. Or, maybe you prefer Russian cigarettes?” Molotov informs Stalin in greater detail of our arguments against the new Soviet proposals. Stalin cuts him short by saying impatiently: “What is there to argue about. Our proposal stands and that must be
Then back to the minutes:

Selter: Your new proposal would mean a military occupation, because in accordance with it a foreign army of 35,000 men would be brought to Estonian territory and this foreign army would be stationed “in various places in Estonia” to protect the internal order in Estonia, i.e. it would engage itself with interfering in the international affairs of Estonia. In conjunction with that, all assurances about the preservation of Estonia’s sovereignty, the form of government and the economy would be only a dead letter.

The military occupation of an independent country, based on your motives, cannot be regarded anything else but punishment, in the present case a groundless and unjust punishment.

Stalin: Our new proposal is not intended to serve as a punishment. It is a measure of prevention. We do not know who helped the Polish submarine to escape from Tallinn. We, of course, are not guilty of that. Also we believe, that the Estonian government, too, is free of the guilt, but evidently there are certain international forces nestling in Estonia who are engaged in such matters. Also they have influence with the masses of the Estonian people.

You have General Laidoner who hates us. But he is a good general, brave general, a clever man of the old Russian school. He has great influence with your people. If you sign a treaty with us, some people will find such an act insufficient. Others will say, the government sold the country. Out of such a controversy troubles and diversions may follow. Such kind of danger must be prevented. It is for this purpose that a strong unit of the Red Army must be placed in Estonia. Then nobody would dare to undertake any trouble making.


The placing of Red Army units into Estonia as stipulated in today’s proposal is absolutely necessary. Otherwise the Soviet naval and air bases cannot be considered secure in the present time of war. This is a temporary war-time measure only. As soon as the war comes to an end we will take back all the troops mentioned in our proposal of today.
On the way out of the meeting with Stalin, he is quoted as saying:

“I used to have many Estonians working in my archives. Estonians are tough people, good workers. I remember, at the time when I was Commissar of Nationalities, in the Commissariat there was an Estonian girl-secretary. Wonderful worker. But Anvelt cheated me and swindled badly.”

After some deliberation and putting feelers out to Germany about procuring military supplies -- which are rejected -- the Estonian leadership agrees to a bases pact with the USSR.

After they sign the pact in the Kremlin, Stalin says:

Stalin: (turning to Selter) The agreement has been achieved. I can tell you that the Estonian government acted well and wisely in the interests of the Estonian people by concluding the agreement with the Soviet Union. It could have happened to you what happened to Poland.

Poland was a great country. Yet, where is Poland now? Where is Moscicki, Rydz-Smigly, Beck? Yes, I am telling you frankly—you acted well and in the interests of your people.

Piip notes in his diary:

Back at home, talks among ourselves lasted until 3. Talking about the outcome of the negotiations we found that there was no other way out. Though we had been drawn into the orbit of Soviet Russia, our people were saved from massacre. The future alone will show.

Ants Piip died in a prison camp in Perm Oblast on October 1, 1942.

kolmapäev, detsember 12, 2007

ametliku ajalugu

I recently picked up a book by Mart Laar called The Estonian Way or Eesti Tee. At first glance, it is a history book written by an Estonian holding a doctorate in history from the University of Tartu. Laar has authored many books on Estonian history, and has recently published three about the Second World War, Sinimäed 1944, Emajõgi 1944, and September 1944.

After browsing through the latter three, I found them welcome additions to the history of the eastern front during World War II. But in the first book, The Estonian Way, I was a bit confused -- this is the best word -- when I noticed that not only did Laar cover the period of Estonian history that included himself, but also addressed the actions of some of his longstanding political rivals, like Edgar Savisaar.

To me, this was both odd and normal. One could imagine any contemporary politician writing about themselves and their relationships with other politicians. But the historical backdrop gives the book the appearance of a history textbook that just happens to be authored by one of the major players in that history. It would be as if Thomas Jefferson wrote a history book about the American Revolution and ... oh, by the way ... he wrote the Declaration of Independence too.

What are we to make of these writings by a historian cum politician? Are they official history or just one version of history expounded by a restorer of the state? I think some in Estonia might easily confuse Laari ajalugu with eesti ajalugu. But Laar ajalugu is but one component of a healthy debate about the past. There have been great debates about history, and indeed attempts by certain political parties to enshrine parts of history in law. But most of these debates have only led to more debates, or, on occasion, symbolic gestures from the state.

In a reconstituted state, the efforts to find a definitive new interpretation of history is fleeting. Under Stalinism, a genuine account of Estonian history could not be written. Since the mid-1980s, various trends have been discussed and the debate has enveloped younger generations for whom these events are actually quite immaterial to their daily lives.

At the very top, the state cannot leave this interpretation alone to historians, because, as we have seen, historians can wear other hats too. I was recently impressed with a speech by President Ilves about the soomepoisid, Estonian students who volunteered to fight in the Finnish Winter War and Continuation Wars.

While few, even in Russia, question the state's tributes to the Estonian Army of 1918 that liberated the country from Bolshevik and German troops, the role of Estonians in World War II is highly controversial. Even at the supermarket, you can find books about "Estonian soldiers through the ages" and World War II is represented by three uniforms -- the Red Army, the Waffen SS, and, in between them, a plain-clothes metsavend guerrilla fighter.

In the thick of this, Ilves' approach stresses a) cooperation with Finland; b) personal sacrifice; and c) defense of democracy -- which seem to be recurring memes in his speeches, as much as Laar's work continuously references the partisan struggle as a symbol of Estonian resistance to foreign-imposed tyranny.

All of these values and ideas are part of a wider effort by Estonia's entrenched political generation to purify Estonians institutions -- it's army, it's parliament -- into a psychological unwillingness to surrender sovereignty or its values to external actors. Prime Minister Andrus Ansip struck a similar tone recently when asked about his decision to remove one controversial war monument from the city center last April. For him it was about reassuring the public of Estonian sovereignty -- in other words, pushing a button the Kremlin told him not to push to prove that he is capable of pushing Estonia's buttons.

But in the midst of all this use of ajalugu in politics, where does it leave, well, real ajalugu, the work of non-politically aligned historians digging through Politburo archives or examining the failure of Baltic cooperation in the 1920s? In the book stores of the US you can read about the American Revolution from multiple sides. I am sure there exist even books about the Quebecois interpretation of the American Revolution. Do these perspectives exist yet in Estonian historiography and are they as well known among the public to the extent of the more politicized history?

All countries have [and need] their Thomas Jeffersons. They need their critical historians too.

teisipäev, detsember 11, 2007

from estate to corporation

It should be clear to all Russia watchers now, that Vladimir Putin's real role in the state is not really president, nor national leader, nor will it ever truly be just prime minister, should he choose that position for himself.

No. Putin is chairman of the board of Kremlin, Inc. He is not the head of a country, but of a business. In light of this interpretation of his role in Russian politics, it makes sense that he has decided to back Dmitri Medvedev, only 14 years my senior, to be president of the geographically largest country in the world.

For, under the interpretation of Putin's Russia as a corporatist state, Medvedev will certainly be president, but in the sense of a corporate president -- the face of the company, the person you send to conferences and luncheons, the person whose face greets you when you open up the first page of the company's annual report. Putin will remain chairman and CEO. But Medvedev will be the investment-friendly face of the company called the Russian Federation.

Indeed, Putin's decision to select Medvedev to be the next president had an immediate impact on the stock market. It has been interpreted as a decision that favors business, not a popular endorsement from the masses. It should raise the value of Russian stock, given its recent slump in the wake of widely criticized elections.

In light of the history of Russia, I am beginning to see the Putin government as not the successor to the communist government of 1991, and only partially to the Yeltsin government of 1999. Instead, the Russian tricolor reveals for us the philosophy behind the machinations. The Russian flag first flew on the ships of Peter the Great. It was the flag of Tsar Nicholas II, the flag of a system of government saw Russia not as a country, but as one of my professors put it, as a large estate owned by the tsar.

So, in the past 90 years, we have seen Russia move from estate to collective farm and now to corporation. If we Russia watchers wish to understand better our eastern neighbor, perhaps it would make sense not to view it as a country or a nation, but rather as it is operated, as a corporation. And for those of you worrying out there, if you interpret Russia as a corporation, then the term "hostile takeover" takes on a whole new meaning.

pühapäev, detsember 09, 2007

jõuluaeg, millal sina tuled?

It reached me the way the best things do: by word of mouth. Epp's cousin's husband informed me yesterday evening that there would be a super sale between the hours of 10 pm and 2 am at Lõunakeskus, the gigantor shopping center on the edge of Tartu, where prices would be insane.

I was told that everything at Lõunakeskus would be 50 percent off and my wife informed me that this might be a good opportunity to do some Christmas shopping. I decided to wait until midnight to drive there though, thinking that I would beat the crowd. But it seemed that all of south Estonia had decided to show up at the same time I did. Automobiles were parked everywhere, and you could barely navigate the parking lot for fear that you might run somebody over.

Inside of Lõunakeskus I was shocked to see everything operating at midnight as it typically did during the afternoon. They were even serving food at the cafes. Estonian teens lingered while pushy older people with bags full of discount stuff elbowed their way through the crowd, all while the loud sound of eurodisco emanated from the ice skating rink which was covered in a blanket of mist.

I tried to get into Timberland, but there was a line outside the door. Instead I drifted through the throngs of holiday shoppers to Seppälä, lured by the promise of staring at advertisements featuring attractive Finnish models. Suddenly I was surrounded by cute pajamas and thoroughly modern dresses, bathrobes with hearts on them, and jackets with too many pockets and zippers.

The best part about the Finnish models is that most of them look like my wife. This happens to me all the time. I see a woman somewhere, like in an advertisement on a wall in a store in Lõunakeskus and I think, "Hmm, there's something about her that's different. I feel some strange connection with this person." And then it occurs to me: ah, she looks like like Epp. That would explain the cosmic connection. How embarrassing.

The only problem with being in Seppälä is that I just didn't want to buy anything. This feeling really scared me, because as I passed all the other shops filled with unruly passionate crowds, I couldn't think of anything I wanted to buy. Did my cousin really need another shirt? No. Does my daughter really need another box of colored pencils with Moomin Papa cartooned on them? No, though I genuinely like Moomin Papa. Does my naine really need another paper mache reindeer? Absolutely not.

I couldn't believe it, there were thousands of people going crazy at Lõunakeskus at midnight, and everywhere I looked, all I saw was useless crap. It was if some combination of Ebeneezer Scrooge and Mikhail Gorbachev had seized my soul, sucking all the Christmas capitalist American delight out that I knew as a child.

But wait. After waiting to get into Sportland I realized that there was one gift I wanted to get my daughter: a set of cross-country skis. I have a fantasy of loading up the Woody sometime in January and setting out with my tüdruk for Otepää to recreate the Olympic heroics of Kristina Smigun and Andrus Veerpalu in our own time.

The only problem was that I know nothing about cross-country skiing. And I was unsure, at 1 am in Lõunakeskus surrounded by south Estonian pagan shoppers, how tall my daughter was. Did she come up to my belly button or just my waist? I couldn't remember. And as attractive as it was to go home with a really great deal, I saw that the cross-country skis for kids didn't cost that much anyway, and I decided I'd rather buy the real thing than settle for any random set up lastesuusad just so I could go to Zavood one night and tell everyone about how I saved 100 krooni.

And so I trudged back to my car through the layers of mist and eurodisco, perhaps the only empty handed shopper in all of Lõunakeskus. I definitely felt less festive after encountering the hard candy of Eesti Christmas consumerism. Yet at the same time I felt refreshed that I still knew that the spirit of the season is not to be found at an ice skating rink at a south Estonian mall at midnight, but at home after sharing a few steamy cups of hõõgvein mixed with red wine, vodka, and everything in between, with your loved ones.


kolmapäev, detsember 05, 2007

vahva kaart

There's a cool map in today's Postimees that divides Estonian parishes up by monthly salary. As expected, the southeastern and northeastern corners of the country are earning the least, while Tallinn's wealth has been spreading from Nõva to Vihula.

The only surprises? Toila in Ida-Virumaa is in the same category with the wealthiest part of the country, as are parishes on Hiiumaa and near Pärnu. Do I smell a summer house/Hamptons effect?

teisipäev, detsember 04, 2007

prints trubetsky

If you hang around long enough on the Internet, chances are you will eventually bump into monarchists, virtual oddballs who despise democratic republicanism and imagine a better world ruled again by kaisers, tsars, and queens.

It was during a fascinating exchange with one of these monarchists, that I was told that Estonia should actually be ruled by Maria Vladimirovna, the pretender to the non-existent throne of Russia.

I informed the monarchist that not only did the tsar abdicate in 1917, but Estonia would probably not support the restoration of the Russian empire or its monarchy.

I mentioned that the Swedish royal family typically plays the role of monarchy in Estonian society, as witnessed by the recent 375 anniversary celebrations of the University of Tartu. The monarchist responded by saying the Treaty of Nystad was still in effect, and that the Swedish crown had no valid claims to Estonia.

Shortly afterwards, the monarchist offered that given Estonia's feelings about the Russian empire, it might make sense to petition Empress Maria for Estonia to be made part of the Grand Duchy of Finland. I responded by saying that not only does Estonia not want to be part of Russia, it also doesn't want to be part of Finland.

The monarchist was puzzled by this and sometime passed before he contacted me again. This time he said he had a solution to the problem of satisfying his need for the world to be ruled by monarchs and Estonia's need to not be a part of the Russian empire.

He pointed out that Estonian punk musician Tõnu Trubetsky, the front man for the group Vennaskond, is the grandson of Władzimir Wałoc Trubetsky, a Ruthenian-Polish prince. It was Tõnu Trubetsky, the monarchist claimed, that would be the most appropriate prince for Estonia, while Tõnu's father Jaan would officially be the monarch.

I am not sure what to think of the idea of installing Trubetsky as prince of Estonia. But at least he's got the fashion part of princedom mastered.

pühapäev, detsember 02, 2007

connecting the dots

In Lennart Meri mythology, the former Estonian president was known for being able to assemble a mosaic of events happening simultaneously around the world and somehow be able to plot the right move in foreign policy.

Sometimes, I must admit, I wish there was someone like that around, a foreign policy savant with all the answers. That is because we are entering a season of uncertainty in Europe and abroad.

Next door in Russia the people are endorsing Putin in a national referendum to give him the moral obligation to lead the nation over Zyuganov and Zhiranovsky -- contain your chuckles. In the US, the real campaign is just about to start. And in the middle of this milieu you have Paavo Lipponen telling Estonia to start building relations with Russia now and to abandon hopes of security cooperation with Ukraine and Georgia.

It would be too easy to dismiss Lipponen's comments as Eurocratic spinelessness from the usual suspects -- the Finnish Social Democratic Party. But Finland is Estonia's twin brother, and Lipponen does have experience and he does have access to information. Maybe rather than being a coward, Lipponen is trying to give Estonia some advice -- that winter is coming, that it is time to insulate the windows, stack the wood next to the ahi, and launder the long-johns because it is about to get cold outside.

If we look decades ahead to the future of the Estonian state, what should we see? How will it remain secure even in the face of a hypothetical crumbling of current international security institutions? What will its options be? Will it someday be forced into the kind of accommodating relationship that Kekkonen's Finland had with the Soviet Union?

What is the smartest next step to keep the ship of state ship shape?

väike taani linn

In Tartu when you see someone you know walking down the street -- which basically happens every day -- you are sometimes encouraged to shout out "väike Tartu linn" to get their attention, inferring that Tartu is so small that such continuous bumping into one another is to be expected.

But what about Tallinn, that sprawling metropolis of 400,000 people? Does the "väike Tartu linn" situation occur there too? I am here to tell you yes, it does.

A "väike taani linn" moment can happen anywhere in Tallinn. When I first lived in Tallinn several years ago, I saw then TV host Alex Lepajõe at the Söörikukohvik on Kentmanni street. Then there was that time that then foreign minister Kristiina Ojuland was on our plane. I saw Juhan Parts at the cash machine at Hansapank, and, of course, I happened to cross paths with Arnold Oksmaa -- teine Arnold -- who is probably now used to getting odd looks in public.

But the best place to have a "väike taani linn" moment is at Stockmann in downtown Tallinn. This is where you will find basically every semi-famous person in Estonia picking up some pere leib and kotletid. Usually when I am in Stockmann, it's celebrities I spy. Sometimes Anu Välba. Occasionally Margus Saar. And for some odd reason I ran into the guys from Soul Militia one too many times.

Last week in Stockmann I saw my favorite Keskerakond politician, Olga Sõtnik, loading up on leib and kotletid after a laborious week of working for the people of Tallinn. The only reason I like Olga is because her last name reminds me of my favorite bakery treats, which are called Sotsnikud. If Olga was ever to add an additional letter to her name, she could potentially win more votes from people who also enjoy sotsnikud kohupiimaga.

Anyway, I am hoping to see Edgar Savisaar filling his cart up with blood sausages next time I am in Stockmann. Who have you run into in Tallinn? Feel free to share your "väike taani linn" moments.

reede, november 30, 2007


In case you didn't realize it, we are now entering the season of anniversaries -- the 90th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, the 90th anniversary of the Estonian manifesto of independence, the 90th anniversary of the War of Independence, the 90th of this, and the 90th of that.

Yesterday while in Tallinn I watched the children's program Lastekraan, and who should be on hand but Indrek Tarand, a historian involved in the Laidoner Museum in Tallinn, who was showing "Anni" -- played by Maria Soomets -- photos from the Estonian War of Independence.

There were grainy black and white photos of tanks and guys in trenches with guns and cannon. I actually hadn't seen so many images of the Estonian Independence War assembled in one place before. "Oi," blushed "Anni", reminding the viewers at home about the birth of the Estonian state. It seemed in a way so surreal to think that here were are in Tallinn, Estonia's city of fashionable haircuts, gushing over the deeds of 1918 some 90 years later.

But I was recently reminded of that conflict after a link at the incredibly idiotic website of Night Watch in Estonia -- which was trying to prove that those who were deported in the 1940s deserved it -- pointed me to a resource where I found the files of two of my children's great- great-grandfathers:

TULEV, Aleksander, Simeon s. 1898 Kirovi obl. Aleksandrovi raj. Nolinsk, arr. 30.01.46 Tartumaa Elva v., trib. 23.07.46 §58-1a, 10+5. [ük]

LAANEMAA, Martin, Mart s. 1898 Läänemaa Varbla v., eluk. sama, arr. 04.08.48, trib. 30.10.48 §58-1a, 25+5, 23.07.56 väh. ärak., vab. 1956, surn. peale vab. 1968. [ük]

Both of these men were arrested during the Soviet occupation for one reason: they fought in the Estonian War of Independence. Tulev's crime was that he was in the white Russian army of Nikolai Yudenich. For that 'crime' he received a sentence of 10+5. Martin's sentence was harsher. He was an Estonian Independence War veteran and he owned land. A big no no. So he got 25+5. Both were released after the death of Stalin and, sadly, both on occasion found peace in the bottle in the years to follow.

I wonder what they would say during these grand anniversaries. What would be their speech at the presidential gala in Pärnu in February. I can imagine Martin saying something to the effect of, "hey, they promised me land. How could I resist?" And Aleksander might say something like, "one day I was mobilized, the next day I was stuck in Elva for the rest of my life -- what gives?"

These are the heroes we commemorate. In some ways they seem so distant and foreign to us in the world of blogs. Yet in other ways, I am sure, we share a lot in common.

kolmapäev, november 28, 2007

official doo doo

I am not sure if you have picked up on the debate over whether or not Tallinn should add another official language. No, not russkie, the native tongue of 43 percent of its inhabitants, but English, the language of those bartenders at Hell Hunt.

When it comes to official languages, sometimes I feel that Sweden got it right. Sweden has no "official language" but I think everyone would agree that you need to know Swedish if you want to get up in the Riksdag and demand to know whether or not Carl Bildt has paid his television license fees.

Finland is often lauded for pampering its Swedish minority -- now some 6 percent of the total population. On the other hand, the languages of the indigenous Sami, Romani, as well as the Russians who form 1 percent of the population are not important enough to be deemed co-equal to Swedish and Finnish. So, in essence, minority Swedish speakers are officially more representative of the state than minority Sami speakers. Reindeer herding peons take notice: your language is only worthy of being co-official in certain regions.

If one were to apply the Finnish method to other countries, you'd wind up with Polish as an official language of Lithuania, Hungarian an official language of Slovakia, Hungarian an official language of Romania, and, of course, Turkish as an official language of Germany. Turks have been living there for decades. They appear to have longstanding ties to Deutschland. This is the ideal of advocates of multiculturalism who think that official languages heal all. Estonia, even, has been advised to take more official language, because that would make all its social cleavages disappear.

Except, I actually think Estonian is developing a more interesting approach to the conundrum to making one person's language "official", another person's "regional", and denying a third person's language any recognition at all. In Estonia, there is one "official" feel-good national language. But following Estonian laws, minorities without long-standing ties to the country, like Ingrian Finns and Ukrainians, have been granted opportunities to learn in their native language and achieve cultural autonomy. In other countries, these groups would not enjoy such protection at all.

Meantime, official work continues in the national language. Estonian, despite its curvy vowels and many cases, is not an impossible language. I have lived in and out of this country for nearly five years and if Edgar Savisaar wanted my opinion of how he is running Tallinn, I'd be happy to give it to him. I'd say that Tallinna liiklus on vastik (Tallinn's traffic is awful), Tallinna uued majad on inetu (Tallinn's new buildings are ugly), and kõige inglise joodikad peaks olema keelatud (all drunk English people should be forbidden).

How hard was that? I don't see why that should ever change. Meantime in cities like Narva or Sillamäe, local officials have every right to communicate with one another and with their constituents in their native language -- Russian. They also must continue to serve their Estonian constituents in the national language too. And in Tallinn, you don't have to pass a law to make English official because it's already being used everyday in correspondence and at meetings by the city's large foreign business population.

So in a sense, Estonia is inching closer to being like Sweden. Estonia will become in time a place where you "officially" can speak whatever you want with your colleagues at work, but if you want stand in the Riigikogu and ask a politician about her mother's salary, it would be best to ask politely ja muidugi eesti keeles.

teisipäev, november 27, 2007

vaikiv enamus

For me and many others yesterday's 'devaluation scare' in Tallinn reached me the usual way -- through the websites of Postimees and Eesti Päevaleht.

There were no silent whispers in downtown Tartu yesterday. No one pulled me aside and said, "get out your savings and exchange it for euros at the currency exchange, ASAP" in Estonian. Like so many occurrences in this country, the latest international news simply ... did ... not ... occur ... here.

Watching the images of the lines of people standing outside currency exchanges in Tallinn at the Postimees website, you were struck by the immediate thought of: What are those people smoking? But the truth is that I wonder if Estonians in Viljandi or Võru really bothered to think about it all.

This was Tallinn, after all, the place where crazy things happen. To your average Estonian, who is female, speaks Estonian as a first language, doesn't live in Tallinn, and is between the ages of 45 and 49, the capital must increasingly look like some revolving circus of riots, stag parties, ugly post-modern buildings, and devaluation fears. It is the capital of Estonia, sure. The only problem is that it doesn't look too much like the Estonia most Estonians see from their kitchen windows.

It wasn't always like this. Most Estonians went through a similar carnival of dysfunction in the early 1990s. Maybe they lost their savings when the kroon was introduced. Maybe they lost their property when its pre-1940 owners arrived from Canada to reassert their claims.

Younger people, of the "winning generation", flocked to Tallinn or Tartu to find work in banks or IT firms, creating a property-owning class of 30 year-olds with children, perhaps a divorce under their belts, nice wheels, a smart mobile phone, and the notion that this country belongs to them. Older people settled in for the luckless life of the pensioner. And the guys somewhere in between got lost in the shuffle. A few lucky fellows became CEOs and government ministers. The rest became incorrigible drunks.

This is the story of most Estonians. In recent years though a measure of pride returned to the men and women of Tõstamaa, Anstla, and, my personal favorite, Rannapungerja. They were proud when their country joined the club of democratic European countries -- the EU. They feel more secure that their country is in a military alliance with countries that include the US, the UK, Germany, and France.

So one could say that for those average, 47-year-old women working as school teachers somewhere in Läänemaa, a blanket of normalcy has returned after a jarring period of absence. Maybe they have extra money, enough to renovate their apartment. Maybe the dirt roads of their villages have been repaved with EU funding. And as far as Tallinn is concerned, they are interested, but not that interested.

Finance Minister Ivari Padar is from this Estonia. A Võru native, he has a nice farmhouse in the countryside where he probably does Estonian things like chop wood and whip himself with birch branches on occasion. Watching him once more explain that devaluation fears were unfounded, I could sense his impatience with the carnival of Tallinn. The more outrageous things get, the more, to most Estonians, they almost seem boring.

esmaspäev, november 26, 2007

Dying in Narva

I was a bit shocked to read the findings of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, which showed Estonia to have the highest rate of HIV infection in Europe.

According to the report, there are currently 6,286 HIV-positive people in Estonia — with 555 new cases registered this year — and 176 people have died of AIDS.

Kristi Ruutli, spokeswoman for Estonia's National Institute for Health Development, said in the report that the HIV virus is being spread among young, male drug-users, many of whom belong to the country's sizable ethnic Russian minority.

Prostitution has also contributed to the spread, Ruutli said, and the virus has also been transmitted with increasing frequency through heterosexual contact.

6,286 people is a lot for a country of 1.34 million people. But when you consider that the virus has been localized to ethnic Russians in northeastern Estonia, it's even more worrisome because you are dealing with a smaller community of people. The jump in the HIV rate also coincided with a similar spread in northwestern Russia, so one can assume that the junkie community has spread the virus from St. Petersburg through Narva and into Tallinn.

Narva currently has a population of around 67,000 people, the lowest since the early 1970s, of those about 53,800 are ethnic Russians and just 2,700 are ethnic Estonians. About 28,000 are Estonian citizens, 23,000 are Russian citizens, and 15,000 remain stateless. Since 1991, Narva has lost 19 percent of its population. The city is already dealing with higher rates of unemployment and chronic diseases, like HIV/AIDS, only compounds the problem.

What's the solution? Greater investment? Sure. If Estonia is searching for workers then some are to be found in Narva, that's true. A softer, Western European approach, like free needles for addicts? Perhaps they already have this. More obligatory HIV testing? Could work. The only scary question is, if there are 6,300 people in Estonia who know that they have HIV, how many are there that don't know they are carrying the disease? No one can accurately estimate that number, but it is most certainly higher than the number of known cases.

pühapäev, november 25, 2007

Your fifteen minutes are up, Lavrov

In less than 10 days there will be elections in Russia. Will they result in a new foreign minister or a new foreign policy towards the "near abroad" -- I think not.

Chances are we'll be stuck with more Sergei Lavrov and more typical useless Russian foreign policy towards Estonia and more denial on basic facts of history that even the Politburo archives support.

The central problem in Russia foreign policy towards Estonia is thus: Russia is too proud to use national guilt to its advantage. This plays easily into the hands of Isamaa Liit -- Russia is too proud to acknowledge the crimes against humanity in Estonia in the 1940s and 50s. Estonian right wing parties acknowledge this simple truth and win elections.

If I were Sergei Lavrov and I wanted to make nice with Estonia, I would steal all of Isamaa Liit (and Reformierakond)'s thunder. I would pack up my Lada with wreaths and set out from Sankt Petersburg for Tallinn where I would cry and cry some more for Konstantin Päts, Lydia Koidula, and everyone in between. I would say that these were awful crimes that should never be repeated, all the while meeting with local business leaders t o cut sweetheart deals.

And because Venemaa had made amends and no one could challenge the sovereign word of sovereign democracy, the Russian bogeyman would dissipate , and Estonian right wing parties would have a harder time winning elections.


That's not going to happen. Instead Lavrov and Putin and Yastrzhembsky will continue to build a state on Stalinist newsreels about the Red Army while at the same time alienating every other human on Earth. They will continue to deny basic historical truths about Estonia with the weak idea that they somehow have any say in what the West (TM) believes. And they will continue to fail in bringing Estonia over to their side or at least cutting a "friendship treaty" with Estonia ala Finland because Sergei Lavrov has yet to load up the Lada with wreaths and travel to the kalmistu to honor the dead; to show empathy; to show that to Russians, Estonians aren't really barbarian fascist shite.

A smart foreign minister would see the road ahead and be willing to take it. But Russia does not have a smart foreign ministry. Instead we see nationalist chauvinists that only make sense to Russians. And they wonder how they managed to lose Estonia. Let them keep on wondering.

neljapäev, november 22, 2007

European nonsense

When the forces of history were distributing nationalities they got a bit sloppy when it came time to fill the Balkans.

Slovenia and Croatia basically worked out OK. But when confronted with buckets of Serbs, Montenegrins, Kosovo Albanians, Bosnians, and one bucket clearly marked "FYR Macedonians", the forces got frustrated and just sort of randomly packed them into the area that would come to be known as "the power keg of Europe."

In the 1990s, Americans switched channels from the OJ Simpson trial to the ongoing Yugoslavian break-up saga. It looked to be another unending soap opera, one that could last perhaps even longer than Days of Our Lives. But in 1999 the forces of history conspired to create the environment for NATO military intervention in the Serbian province of Kosovo. Since that time it has been administered by an international force. Now it looks to become the latest successor state to Yugoslavia, the Kingdom of Southern Slavs, if the UN, EU, US, NATO, and RF can't figure out what to do ASAP.

Some European countries with angst-ridden, long-settled minorities like Spain and France might not like the idea of giving independent statehood to any old random group of human beings. If the Kosovo Albanians get their own state, why not hand one out to the Kashubians, Basques, Frisians, and Sami, not to mention the Catalans, Scots, and Welsh?

Other European countries like Sweden are miffed at the idea of another Balkan country emerging that will vote for their neighbors in the Eurovision Song Contest, meaning that the contest will be held somewhere between Athens and Vienna for the rest of its existence.

The Russians obviously don't like the situation because it could continue the general devolution of their conglomerate state, especially at a time when the government is centralizing political structures and the opiate of the masses is Russian nationalism -- Russia for the Russians, not the Chukchi!

From the Euro-Atlantic perspective though, it's hard to see any alternative. If Montenegro gets a state, why not Kosovo? Do you really want to tell the Kosovo Albanians that they may have a serious list of grievances, but they aren't as believable a state as Montenegro, so they have to suck it up and stick with their former ethnic cleansers for eternity?

There is another alternative you know. Because the Kosovo Albanians speak Albanian, and there exists a state for Albanians right next to Kosovo called Albania maybe it would make sense to make Kosovo in some way part of Albania. I know, it's a far-fetched idea.

The reason this option wouldn't work is because it might make some actors in the region even more unhappy than they already are. It would reconstruct the fear of "Greater Albania" -- of sword-wielding guys with two-headed eagles on their shields riding from village to village and giving residents one choice: to either make burek the Albanian way, or stop making bureks all together!

Balkan residents quake in their boots at this option; they'd rather have an independent Kosovo than be force fed bureks from Greater Albania. But seriously, I guess the European strategy is that sooner or later all of this territory will join a strong European Union where driving from Slovenia to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (where mostly FYR Macedonians live) will require zero stamps in your passport, and you'll be able to pay for bureks in Euros from Ljubljana to Skopje without first bribing armed border guards.

And because it will be almost impossible for a small landlocked state to have its own functional foreign policy, it will most likely have to defer to the larger EU states on union-wide issues, allowing, say, Germany to speak on behalf of more people while saying exactly the same thing. So if Kosovo becomes a state soon, don't fret. It's the European way.

kolmapäev, november 21, 2007

Paradiis Viljandis

I do not recall the first time I heard about Mulgimaa. Perhaps it was through the food -- mulgikapsad (a kind of sauerkraut) or mulgipudru (mashed potatoes mixed with pork rinds). Or maybe it was just because outside of Tallinn and Tartu, my destination in Estonia is often Viljandimaa.

I am also not sure where I first heard the term "mulk", an inhabitant of part of Viljandimaa in southern Estonia, but I sensed immediately it had an ambiguous connotation.

A friend in Tallinn explained that back in the day (the 19th century), Viljandimaa was a wealthy county populated by thrifty farm owners who wore pointy black hats and sat on their front porch all the time displaying their wardrobe, stroking their pet cats, and sizing up the neighbor's property for acquisition.

Mulks, in a sense, were ruthless agrarian capitalists that imagined themselves as powerful. So being a "mulk" not only means a person is ambitious, but that they are perhaps too ambitious. How odd then that my publisher / author / journalist / mother-of-two wife happens to be from Mulgimaa. Together with other "mulks" like Mart Laar and Lembitu of Lehola, stubborn ambition seems to run in the blood of all who first saw the world from the hilltops of Viljandi.

But nowadays Mulgimaa is not where the big deals are made. The ruthless mulks have resettled in Tallinn and bought BMWs. The dinosaur bones of collective farms are strewn across the hills of Mulgimaa, and the county retains a "place that time forgot" ambiance . There are still wily farmers. But there are often wily alcoholics too. There are also regular Estonians who get up and go to work everyday.

I was shocked once driving through Abja-Paluoja to see so many houses. I couldn't believe that that many people lived in Abja. In Karksi too there is a veritable community. There are tree lined streets and school plays and holiday festivities. Of course Viljandi is the county center and between the local folk musicians and aspiring actors, it celebrates rural Estonian culture. So, yes, quite a few people live in Estonia outside of Tallinn and some of them live in Mulgimaa.

Recently President Toomas Hendrik Ilves -- who also has mulgi blood, if you can believe it -- erected border posts for the historic county of Mulgimaa. There has been something of a renaissance in mulgi cultural identity, reflected in traditional dress, folk culture, dialect.

I am not sure if any of these really means anything to tänapäeva mulgid. But personal experience has shown that the water down there in Mulgimaa is definitely a little different.

teisipäev, november 20, 2007

Happy birthday to me ...

Today is my 28th birthday. Most people tell me that I am young, but sometimes I feel a bit old -- and it actually has little to do with having two kids (though I am sure that's a factor).

I have felt this was about my age for awhile, perhaps since even my late teens. All one would have to do is pick up a book printed from the turn of the eighties and look at the photos of the people inside and think ... "This just can't be right. Why do all the men have sideburns and plaid sports jackets on?"

Sure I remember the days of sideburns and mustaches and plaid too. But it all seems ... so detached from my current reality. I know I shouldn't whine. Two of my colleagues are turning 39 next year. They are as old as Woodstock. Hell, they could have gone to Woodstock. Or Altamont. Take your pick.

I could have been at one of Jimmy Carter's garden parties, sandwiched in between his brother Billy -- who would have been drinking Billy Beer, of course, and Zbigniew Brzezinski. I could have been on the piano when Joe Strummer and The Clash were recording Sandinista. My little baby car seat could have been on the first Soviet tank as it rolled into Afghanistan. Thankfully, I was never at any of those places.

Hmm. Afghanistan. Iran. Why do these names ring a bell? 28 years ago, the Soviet Union was just preparing for its invasion of Afghanistan. The US embassy in Tehran had just been overrun. And for these reasons I sometimes don't feel old at all, but young. Tehran, Afghanistan -- they still dominate the headlines for similar reasons. The USSR fell apart, but the Russian Federation is trying to recapture some of its mojo.

When I walk down the street I can imagine that if I was magically whisked back 15 years to 1992, things might not be so recognizably different. There'd still be a president named George Bush, just with different middle initials. They'd still be trying to iron out a settlement for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (those of you who are older may groan now). Russia would still be doing its wounded soul routine over the Baltics. And The Simpsons would still be on the air.

So many things have changed yes. The Internet. 9/11. OK Computer. Emilio Estevez and Paula Abdul broke up. Estonia has certainly changed. Most of the current Estonian government were but school kids ready to be captured on film by Priit Vesilind during his visit as part of National Geographic that year. Now they are plucky, 30-something (and sometimes 40-something) public servants.

And they are not even young anymore. They are seasoned. Urmas Paet, then a 5-year-old, has been minister of culture AND minister of foreign affairs. Minister of Economics and Communications Juhan Parts, then 13, has even been prime minister. We all grow up you see. Even me. And Juhan Parts.

pühapäev, november 18, 2007

Fred Jüssi

I recently finished reading "A Sense of Estonia" by Estonian naturalist Fred Jüssi. 'Naturalist' is what you call people who like to hang out in the woods with cameras, journals, and recording equipment.

Naturalists, like Jüssi, also know things, like the names of trees, birds, et cetera. Not only that, they know the songs of birds, their migration patterns, how they rear their young. They observe the things that we too often ignore and dedicate some of their time to explaining it. Intriguing people, these naturalists.

Jüssi is even more intriguing because he was born on Aruba when his family was stationed there with some connection to the pre-war Estonian government. When I first heard this, I thought it was, excuse me, total bullshit. It just had to be made up. But no, it's true. Fred's from ... Aruba.

I met him once at the Olympia Hotel in Tallinn. It was mid- September 2004 and it was already chilly out in the city. As wild as Estonia's capital gets in the summer, it calms down as soon as September rolls in, bringing its gray skies and ice cool air blowing down from the northeast. "There is a poem about this weather," said Jüssi. "It's by Juhan Liiv. Sügisetuul raputab puud."

Every time it gets a bit dark and windy out I think of Fred Jüssi, and Juhan Liiv, because of that moment. But I am still intrigued more by Jüssi because I know that besides being a naturalist, he lives in Tallinn, has been married, has kids -- so where exactly did he find all the time to kill in a cabin on Hiiumaa?

I can imagine that if I bought a camera and told my naine that I was going to disappear for the weekend to the west coast to record the songs of tits and swallows and photograph ice, she'd be a bit cross with me. But Jüssi managed to fit nature into his life in an important way. How he continues to do it, I will never know, but it is certainly a feat worthy of respect.

reede, november 16, 2007


Please note, this is the only time I will write about this issue until there is a verdict in the case.

As you know, just when you thought the Bronze Soldier memorial relocation controversy/BS was over, the Estonian state prosecutors office charged four activists with inciting the riots which cost millions of kroons in damage and resulted in over a thousand arrests, countless injuries, and the death of one man.

Dmitri Klenski, Dmitri Linter, Maksim Reva, and Mark Sirõk could face up to five years in prison for assembling the mob that ransacked downtown Tallinn for two nights in April.

As is typical of anything to do with the now placid and pleasantly gardened square on Tõnismägi, the interest in the Klenski-Linter-Reva-Sirõk trial is marked by the usual hysteria and paranoia about the evil intentions of the Estonian state.

It is also marked with the unnerving naivety of people who support Klenski and Linter about how democratic states operate and how, yes, you really can go to jail for assembling thousands of people with the intention to "go to war" as Linter's text message to all his arm-band wearing, 'anti-fascist' friends supposedly put it.

Though it is not a crime, all four should also be charged with being morons. What did they think was going to happen? That the cops weren't going to arrest people for throwing rocks at them? That the state was going to pack up and go home because they were mad that they moved a statue? That they were really going to go to war over the relocation of a war memorial? Sirõk is just 18. He has an excuse. But the others are grown men. What were they thinking?

Most people in Estonia have a mostly good relationship with the state. It operates fairly transparently, one doesn't need an accountant to pay their taxes, they give you a mother's salary when you have a child, they take care of public parks and siphon off EU funds to repair damaged infrastructure.

In short, Estonia is a nice place to live and work, and most people don't appreciate mobs of drunken youths sacking their stores, throwing rocks at their friends and relatives in the police force, et cetera. Maybe they empathize with you over the plight of your favorite statue, but ... empathy has its limit. It is also understood in most democratic countries that if you challenge "the peace" violently, the state has all the rights it needs to make your life a living hell.

Anyway, I feel bad for the four defendants. They could have done something more productive with their lives. Instead they decided to get into a chest-beating contest over a war monument. What a shame.

Eh Noh Ei?

Some people think that Estonian is some kind of Finno-Ugric cave language. Once in awhile I have to agree.

Because the vocabulary is so different, one has to memorize huge numbers of new words. That's fine. At least there's no future tense or gender. There are trade-offs in every language.

But because Estonians often only speak the language amongst themselves they often slur their words together. Particularly in southern Estonia, consonants are given a light treatment and one needs to listen attentively to differentiate the words and swallow the sentences.

In North Estonia, the pronunciation is more clear and it is easier to break words apart to digest their meaning. Unfortunately, last night I wasn't playing basketball with North Estonians. They were from South Estonia and try as I might there were times when I had no friggin' idea what the hell they were talking about.

Typical sentences might go something like this: 'Kas oli nii või? Ei, noh, ei. Tõesti või? Eh, noh, eh. Laisk või? Noh, ei, noh." Other Estonians listening would sometimes chime in with a grunt, which I am sure can be written down on paper and assigned a meaning in the dictionary, but pretty much sounded like "Grunt" to me.

Epp has a friend Kaja who is from north Estonia. Kaja's family comes from near Lahemaa National Park, and it is easier to understand Kaja because she enunciates. I have tried to emulate this way of talking more because it seems easier that trying to muddle-up my words with the Lõuna-Eesti murre or dialect (and make sure to add that extra 'r' sound, mure can mean 'troubled').

But between my awkwardness with the language and inability to correctly say 'õ' there is a bit of a drunken islander style to my way of speaking Estonian. So, in true Estonian fashion, I have decided to say as little as possible.

neljapäev, november 15, 2007

Katariina Kolledž

If you've been following the Eesti news recently, you'll see that the latest scandal is over the establishment of a branch of Tallinn University called Katariina Kolledž that will offer students bachelor's studies in the Russian language.

According to some members of Isamaa-Res Publica Liit, the establishment of a Russian-language college in Tallinn will undermine the school reform legislation that seeks to increase Estonian language competency in high school graduates. The logic is that students that get a degree in a Russian-language college will be at a greater disadvantage in the labor market.

My opinion is, so what? If they already take their high school Estonian-language classes and are able to enroll in Tallinn University and choose freely to do a Russian-language bachelor's, then that's their decision, and they can reap what the market has to offer them upon graduation.

The reality though is that the market could offer them something good. A lot of foreign businesses like doing business in Estonia because they can operate in mostly clean, manageable, EU-approved, NATO-protected business environment while at the same time serving sectors of the northwestern Russian market.

I know that parts of the business class in Russia absolutely adore the strong hand of Vladimir Putin, but Russia is a corrupt country. Boyscout Finns and Swedes and Germans might prefer to do their business in Estonia even if their main market is next door in St. Petersburg. The multilingualism of Tallinn's residents makes it a more attractive hub.

Also, as great as your second language skills may be, there are simply some students that might find higher education in Russian more attractive, even if the Estonian-language universities -- and English-language ones too, I might add -- are technically better. That is in fact the only real legitimate critique here. Isamaa calls Katariina an institute that will create a more segregated society.

When I think of segregation, I think of Plessy vs. Ferguson. I think of the lovely phrase, 'separate but equal.' And I have to wonder, is it possible to achieve such a thing? Will the queenly Katariina Kolledž really become 'crappy, second-rate kolledž'? I'd be lying to you if I wrote that it wasn't possible.

Beyond that though I think that the idea that bottling up a Russian-language college is going to hurt Eesti more than help it is misguided. It's rooted in the Estonian experience with Russification -- that creating enough obstacles will force people to integrate, like it or not.

One of the chief criticisms of Estonia -- though poorly researched -- is that it doesn't offer enough Russian-language higher education. It does offer it, but this addition could dispel that criticism. Moreover, it could act as a social safety valve for people that wish to pursue higher education in their native language -- and Russian is the native language of about 40 percent of Tallinn.

I personally think that the best way to integrate people is establish institutions that reinforce the dominant culture, but at the same time give people the freedom to choose and to preserve their culture too. That way you invite people into the majority culture without creating negative or reactionary feelings by demanding that they enter it.

Anyway, the icing on the cake is that the college's name reflects indirectly Estonia's tsarist past. I wrote earlier how Estonia could use its tsarist past as a tool for integration. That is, rather than have Russian Estonians imagined as 'Soviet remnants' set adrift on the seas of Estonian nationalism, they see themselves simply as a national minority that maintains links to their Russian, not Soviet, past.

The irony here of course is that Catherine the Great didn't speak Russian as a native language. She spoke German. Catherine I was the daughter of a Livonian serf and also spoke German. She was also illiterate. Perhaps they want to name the college after another Russian monarch? May I suggest Nicholas II?

teisipäev, november 13, 2007

Even more Rasmussen

It appears that Danish Prime Minister Andres Fogh Rasmussen will hang on to his position, according to exit polls.

Yet to retain a parliamentary majority he has to somehow reconcile the government's current partner, the Danish People's Party, which is led by Pia Kjaersgaard and whom many suspect of not liking immigrants enough, and the New Alliance, whose leader is named Naser Khader.

It seems an impossible task, but much like the political situation in Estonia and, indeed around the Baltic Sea, it seems the parties there are set in a constellation that will be hard to budge.

Rasmussen's "less lenient on accepting refugees, less tolerant of raising taxes" stance won him the wrath of the rather loud Danish left wing but catapulted him to office in 2001. I was held up on the Radhuspladsen in central Copenhagen that autumn by a very concerned protester who was worried about Rasmussen's platform.

The only problem was that I couldn't quite figure out who this Rasmussen was. You see, Anders Fogh Rasmussen's predecessor was named Poul Nyrup Rasmussen. And it took awhile for the fact to sink in that there were actually two guys running against each other with the same last name.

That Rasmussen had been in office since 1993. If the current Rasmussen stays in office for another four years, that will be 18 blissful years of Rasmussen for Denmark. Ah, Denmark. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

esmaspäev, november 12, 2007

Baltic BS

Do you ever get tired of the "Baltic States"? I do. I find it a counterintuitive construction for several reasons, beyond the obvious linguistic factors.

One constant source of irritation is "Baltic history" books that try to somehow address only Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania yet always manage to drag Poland and Finland into the mix.

You see, you can't really discuss Lithuanian history without discussing Polish history. That is because for a large period of time both countries were part of a unified state -- Rzeczpospolita, the commonwealth of Polish-Lithuania.

Likewise with Estonia, it is difficult to discuss the Estonian national movement or the Estonian War of Independence without addressing the involvement of Finland. You can't really discuss the background of Kalevipoeg without bringing up the Kalevala. The histories are mixed.

The greatest myths, though, are to be found in the "Latvian" history books, which spend about as much time discussing Germans, Russians, Poles, and other nationalities as they do discussing Latvians proper. Try to write a history of Latvia without discussing Baltic Germans. You can't.

Current Baltic unity is part convenience, part institutional. Nobody wants to have an "Estonian" policy. They want to have a "Baltic" policy. While Condoleezza Rice might be content to meet with her Icelandic counterpart one on one -- she would not feel a pressing need to invite Denmark, Norway, and representatives from Greenland and the Faroe Islands. But when it comes to Estonians, it's preferential to lump them in with the boys down south.

And people wonder why it is so hard for these countries to agree on anything. Instead of asking why don't they get along, perhaps we should ask, why should they get along? Poland and Finland are also both formerly tsarist, both have felt the Russian threat in past decades, both are situated on the Baltic Sea -- yet no one expects them to formulate a common policy. Catholic Poland and Lutheran Finland are allegedly too different, yet Catholic Lithuania and Lutheran Estonia supposedly have more in common. They are "former Soviet republics" ... like Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan.

Coming back to the counterintuitive -- the orientations of these countries are different. Estonia, a country of islands and bays, is oriented to the north and west. Estonians have local names for Helsinki and Turku and the Aaland Islands. I know where Kotka is, and not only that, I know what Kotka, Lahti, and Joensuu mean.

When it comes to Lithuania though, I am a bit more sketchy. And not only does your average eestlane probably not know where Kalvarija is, the characters there are more foreign. Belarusians? Poles? Latgallians? Kaliningraders? How are Estonians really supposed to take part in constructing meaningful policy over a neighborhood that is unknown to them? And furthermore, how exactly did Estonia get to be perceived as belonging to that neighborhood?

The antidote to this odd political entity known as "the Baltic States" has been supranational organizations and activities -- regional programs that are based on a defined regional self interest, ideas as familiar as the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or the Northern Dimension.

Estonians no longer are expected to have identical policies to Latvians. Instead sometimes they can work with Latvia and other times they can work with Sweden. This reconceptualization of Northern Europe is based around economic interest and common history, rather than linguistic borders .

This is the vision of the future put forward by Danish diplomat Uffe Elleman-Jensen, chairman of the Baltic Development Forum. This modern day Danish strategist sees a Baltic sea region stitched together by Scandinavian banks and transport companies enriching not only the Nordics, Baltics, and everything in between, but also the St. Petersburg region. A modern day Swed, er, Hansa League, if you will.

Perhaps Elleman-Jensen has the correct conceptualization of the region, one that is more true to its historical, linguistic, and economic realities than the ones that seem so convenient on paper, but often turn to stumbling blocks.

pühapäev, november 11, 2007

In Soviet times ...

Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of Leonid Brezhnev's death. The Soviet holday was characteristically marked in the Estonian press which enjoys to indirectly feed Soviet nostalgia.

The turn of phrase "in Soviet times" is often heard among Estonians, especially among the 25ish-45ish set, ones old enough to remember "Soviet times" but not genuinely old enough to partake in them beyond singing carols to Lenin in school or having their photo taken next to the "Soldier-Liberator" in central Tallinn.

I have heard here in Estonia that all sorts of things can be attributed to "Soviet times". For example, why people are quiet on public transportation. Supposedly it is because of the icy public life that prevailed during the long, dark winter of "Soviet times." Estonians dare not mention that in Copenhagen, Oslo, and Helsinki the passengers are just as quiet. Northern Europeans are generally commatose on trams. It has nothing to do with "Soviet times."

Or how come Estonian students don't raise their hands in the classroom. I was told this is also due to "Soviet times" when the best students were the ones who asked the least amount of questions. But the students in my classes aren't all from former Soviet countries. The Norwegians and Finns in class don't talk much either. Getting them to discuss something is similar to pulling teeth. So is it a cultural thing and not a "in Soviet times" thing?

My favorite "in Soviet times" stories revolve around totally pointless things that have no bearing on modern realities. I was once told by two women, both about 40, that "today is Thursday, and ... in Soviet times we would be having fish today!" I was too disinterested to ask them why they needed to inform me of this.

For the sake of nostalgia, I thought I'd share with you an "in Soviet times" story. "In Soviet times" I was a little boy. I do not recall the death of Brezhnev. I do, however, recall when Conan the Barbarian was dominant in popular culture. And Conan, above, made an Austrian body builder named Arnold Schwarzenegger famous in the year 1982, the same year Leonid Brezhnev died.

But there's more. In Soviet times there was a student in my school named Igor. Like so many students he was one of those lucky people who managed to escape from a communist country to the glorious West. In my school there were Croatians and Poles and Rumanians and, yes, Russians like Igor.

It was in the heady days of the late 1980s that the Cold War finally made its way into daily scholastic discourse. And one way it manifested itself was by yelling terrible things at Igor about his collapsing country.

I can still recall sitting on the bus and several bus windows being lowered as poor Igor stood on the sidewalk near the school waiting for his bus. From the windows was put forward the kind of language one wouldn't expect from an old sailor, let alone a class of 12 year-olds. Something to the tune of "up yours, you Goddamn Commie!" To which Igor indulged us by thrusting his middle finger up in the air and yelling back, forgive me, "fuck you, you stupid, capitalist pig Americans, fuck you!"

As you can tell, Igor was proficient in the English language. He also had that hysterically awful accent that nearly no Russian can lose, no matter what language they speak. So all the kids on the bus absolutely loved to tease Igor into butchering our swear words with Slavic aplomb.

And that is sort of what I remember about those days. Nobody really hated Igor because he came from the Soviet Union. Instead we loved to pretend that we hated Igor. Likewise, Igor didn't really hate us. He liked to pretend that he hated us.

In the United States though at that time it was impossible to not know someone who had been affected by communist rule. On Long Island where I grew up there were large communities of Poles, many of which predated the imposition of communist rule in Poland. Were the Poles different? Sure, they had extremely long names and produced quite talented junior high school basketball players.

But these people, these nations, were never "foreign" to me or suffered from some "East-West" civilizational distinction that made them different at their core because their country happened to live at sometime under communist rule. Poland today has a communist heritage. But Polishness is obviously much greater than "in Soviet times."

So why do we continue to elevate this period in our consciences? It's true that certain generations grew up "in Soviet times" but it is also true that my wife's grandparents' generation had a childhood surrounded by the Estonian republic. They remember it too. I had an old lady chew my ear off this spring about how today's politicians are just as corrupt and self-interested as they were in the 1930s. I guess that should make some Estonian leaders proud. They've genuinely managed to restore the republic!

But, seriously, what will become of "in Soviet times" as these generations age. Will it be a mark of age, something casting them into pre-seasonal crotchedy misers who shuffle around saying, "What day is it today, Piret? Why in Soviet times we'd all be eating fish today ..." I hope not.

Remember that in Soviet times, on the day Brezhnev died, Arnold Schwarzenegger was famous for playing a sword-wielding barbarian seeking revenge from James Earl Jones. Today he is the governor of California. In other words, times have changed.