pühapäev, märts 18, 2007

Where does Estonia begin and end?

An acquaintance of mine recently said he wanted to take a day trip to Estonia from St. Petersburg and selected Narva as a place to meet up. I have never been to Narva but I am aware that Narva is, for all intents and purposes, a Russian city on the wrong side of the border. While I am happy to meet him there, I'd prefer to show him something "Estonian" nearby so he didn't go home thinking that Estonia is just like Russia with a different flag.

And I got to thinking about, what exactly is this place called Estonia? I am sensitive to this country's place in the world because I feel that most outsiders have a limited clue of what it's really like. Even the tourists -- and the traveling journalists -- only manage to see Tallinn. They never seem to venture into the 'real Estonia' of Viljandimaa. In fact, most of the foreigners I know in Tallinn don't seem to get out to Mulgimaa that often. It's hard to convince native-born Tallinners to leave their little town or to think that Estonia is more than Tallinn too.

Outside of Tallinn, most of the places I have been have been the same. There's moist bogs, birch forests, fields ripe for the plowing. The islands are stunningly pastoral. The north coast is calming and fresh. If it has a food store and a gas station it has a name and it's on the map. So many people worry about the issues of Tallinn. They write about AIDS and unemployment in Narva. But Viljandi? Pärnu? Haapsalu? Hell, even Tartu? It's like these places don't even exist.

When will some important newspaper dispatch their roving journalists to Võrumaa to learn about what life is like in southern Estonia, I wonder? Perhaps never. And if Narva is as Estonian as Tõrva, then how come nobody I know is ever going there? How come, in my mind, Narva seems as foreign as Pskov or Petseri. With my knowledge of Estonian - hardly fluent, but passable - I can go anywhere in this country and ask a question and get and answer. But most people I know that have ventured forth into Narva have been met with a language that is written with characters like: Информационное агентство. Лента новостей политики, экономики, культуры и проишествий.

I have no idea what that means, and the truth is that I don't really want to. Learning Estonian is a fulltime job, and I also want to learn Italian before I die. I am not that talented in languages. I have written off learning French, German, and Russian. I'll stick with my imperial tongue of English for international dialog. Still there it is, the conundrum of Estonia -- a unilingual state -- staring me back in the face. It's been 16 years since Estonia restored its independence. The residents of Narva may have lived there since it was rebuilt following the Second World War. But the place is linguistically Russian.

Isamaaliit can pass all the laws it wants and it will stay that way. Barring some incoming attractive economy that lures all the young people of Jõgevamaa to Narva, instead of Tallinn, Narva will continue to present the Estonian state with that dilemma. "You are pretending to be something you are not," it seems to say. Language reform laws that make sense in Tallinn, where knowing Estonian will get you ahead, seem absurd in Narva, unless of course you intend to move to Tallinn, which isn't everyone's goal.

And then it hits me. Am I really looking at Narva, or am I seeing Vyborg? Like Vyborg, Narva was also founded by the Swedish empire as a administrative and trading post. Like Vyborg, Narva has also always been a political football, changing hands with battles. Like Vyborg, Narva has always been a diverse city. And, finally, like Vyborg, Narva was similarly evacuated during the war and resettled afterwards by people from all over the USSR. In the end, like Vyborg, Narva became a Russian city.

Yet unlike Vyborg -- a gorgeous city that no doubt still arouses negative feelings in Finns about what the USSR took from them 60+ years ago -- Narva is still in Estonian hands. This is a country of 1.34 million. You can drive for hours through the countryside and still only see a handful of people. And yet one of its silent and ambitious long-term projects is trying to get Narva to speak Estonian. It is said that the favorite sport of Estonians is uphill skiing. I am inclined to believe the saying when I think about Narva.

I wonder why, in the early 90s when there were rumors of Narva seceding from Estonia, that the Estonians didn't let Narva go. Was it the historical symbolism of the two castles facing each other? Was it the possibility that the unspoiled beaches at Narva-Jõensuu would be lost? Is it because Paul Keres was from Narva and the new government wanted so badly to feature him on their restored currency? Or was it because Estonians know that Estonia is a peninsula, and they want to keep it that way. Maybe it was because the residents of Narva themselves changed their minds.

And that's the thing. If Narva were polled, they probably would choose to stay in Estonia. And plans are being discussed to rebuild some of the more attractive buildings from Narva's Old Town that were lost in WWII. If and when Narva Old Town is rebuilt, will that mean that more people will visit from the rest of Estonia? Will that mean that people will buy apartments there and work with the city with as much gusto as they have managed to dress up Tartu and rebuild Tallinn? Will Narva eventually become as Estonian city as any other. Or will it continue to be a piece of Russia, floating inside Estonia?

That's the tricky thing about talking about Estonia's situation today. It keeps changing.

38 kommentaari:

space_maze ütles ...

Also if the situations are not comparable - they're opposites really - I would think that, in principle, giving Ida-Virumaa the same autonomy the German-speaking Southern Tyrol has in Italy would be the best plan of action. Unlike with the rest of Estonia, the idea of Ida-Virumaa ever being Estonian again just doesn't make sense - the weeding out of Estonian culture was complete to a level that making it Estonian again is about as ambitious as returning the United States to the Indians.

I do see two obstacles though here:

* Estonians' hurt feelings. The Russification of Ida-Virumaa was too recent for Estonians to just accept it as history being history.

* Fears of getting their own Transnistria. Giving Ida-Virumaa to Russia isn't possible for Estonia from a economic point of view, as Ida-Virumaa has all the natural resources, power plants and the such. If it lost all this, Estonia would become completely dependant on foreign countries.

And if one gives Ida-Virumaa some autonomy .. there's always the risk that big brother in the east will step in to give this autonomous region "a hand".

So bottom line: As much as I'd like to see a Tyrolean solution - one that makes Austrians, Italians and Southern Tyroleans happy - for Ida-Virumaa, I don't think it's possible here yet. Estonia and Russia just don't have the kind of positive relationship Austria and Italy have, that made it possible there.

Anonüümne ütles ...

Narva is part of Estonia just as your limbs are part of your body. If something is wrong with your limbs, you don't just cut them off. Instead, you'll try to fix them.

Also, giving Narva up would not only break Estonia, but also threaten the rest of it. And that is just what the imperialists over our easten border would like to see.

lex ütles ...

to me, Narva is a part of russia, and I wouldn't go there if I were you. I'd go there only when I wanted to be killed :D. to me it is the same as going to Moscow or to the st. petersbourg. SCARY.

lex ütles ...

because it's all full of russians.

Jens-Olaf ütles ...

Part of Russia?
My observation last year. There were representatives from Viljandi, Pärnu, Tartu, Tallinn and Narva in Germany. The event: Hansetage. Narva was a city of the Hanse. Most representatives from Narva were speaking Russian. So I asked silly questions to the students attending the music school in Narva:'Do you take part in the yearly competition among choirs and music of the Estonian schools. The one I asked looked at me bewildered: What are you talking about? Of course we are taking part. And to other people in the city of Osnabrück they explained that Narva is NOT Russia.

lex ütles ...

well... technically it isnt...

Vova ütles ...

You ask "I wonder why, in the early 90s when there were rumors of Narva seceding from Estonia, that the Estonians didn't let Narva go"
Well, the Estonians offered even more to the tibla union, but they (rashka) refused to take it. They needed hostages in Eestimaa to be able to play the "Russian card" in the future as they indeed have done

Anonüümne ütles ...

Like the saying goes: "it's the economy, stupid!"

No matter how nationalist, nobody would have been pissed off and wanted to separate from the CCCP had it manage to provide prosperity to people. For example, if USA would make most its citizens dirt poor, it would take less than a decade for it to dismantle and I am sure you know it.

Everything in this world is about money and money only. All other things come second. Think about it.

If speaking Estonian would make economic sense, if it vould make one rich or at least better off, every single russian would aspire to speak it.
That is clearly not the case and that is why you get the situation you are witnessing right now. If you lived in a desert somewhere, poor as dirt, sick and tired, how would you feel about some local tribesmen insisting that you spoke their stupid language that got themselves nowhere? Youd tell them off, wouldn't you? I would.

So I don't blame russians not being interested in learing estonian.

It is just this one thing here what it all comes down to -

POVERTY! Overall poverty.

Poverty is what foments anger, distrust, crime and everything else nobody likes. Estonia and Ida Virumaa in it are no exceptions here, just proof of this age old truth. Estonia is just plain poor right now.

Make people fat and happy, give them plentyful and they instantly forget who is black, brown, yellow or fuschia or whatever.

It is all about money, always has been and always will be. If I am wrong, then where are the Estonian patriots who should be inhabiting and restoring godforsaken places like Lõõla or Peetri right in the heart of Estonia? Where are they? And you are right. Yes they are where the money is. In Tallinn, in Norway, in Finland, in Ireland and so on.

I feel sorry for poor russians who have no way to leave the hellhole they find themselves in. They cannot go anywhere. They have no passports. They are human beings although many no longer like like they are. Poverty is the most awful thing and it is jsut damn shame and tragic that there is so much of it in Estonia.

I'd say forget all the bullshit about the language when this is a matter survival for people. Hopefully in 20 or 30 years, barring there is no war or explosion of Sosnovy Bor nuclear station on the other side of the river, there will be prosperity in Estonia. Until then, observe the agony and hold your breath.

Anonüümne ütles ...

i'm completely off the topic, but wanted to say, that i really appreciated your posters in the guardian. if you ever come to saaremaa let me know - would love to buy you a beer.

Giustino ütles ...

So I don't blame russians not being interested in learing estonian.

Most young people I meet at the store that have Russian names on thier nametags seem unfazed by me when I speak Estonian to them. In fact, it's often easier to understand non-native speakers.

lex ütles ...

I think that if russians would be filthy rich in Estonia, they wouldn't learn the language either - why should they? - they already would have everything they need. and those "poor" russians can go away from here if it is so bad here for them.

Anonüümne ütles ...

I'd say forget all the bullshit about the language when this is a matter survival for people. Anonym


and those "poor" russians can go away from here if it is so bad here for them. Sten


Giustino ütles ...


I know a lot about leftists. I used to associate with the International Socialist Organization, though I never joined.

The mainfest of the ISO was quite similar to that of the communists behind the October Revolution in 1917. The ISO explicitly told me that they were looking for popular movements to exploit where they could emerge as a vanguard and take power, reorganizing society to meet their academic notions of equality.

My close, personal encounters with the intellectual leftwing, with the people that still read Das Kapital, makes me relish the opportunity even more to tell them that they are wrong and that their naive interpretations of communist actions in Europe and elsewhere in the 20th century are false.

I am therefore always ready and able to counter any argument that the criminal actions of the communist USSR in Estonia were in anyway legal or legitimate.

I love Saaremaa and I would be happy to share an extra alcoholic beer with you next time we are there.


Anonüümne ütles ...

i'm also off the topic and want to repeat as someone just did - i really appreciate your comments and insights in the guardian.
yes, it's a big mess there and many people are talking about issues which are purely 'intellectual' to them or they are simply victims of soviet propaganda. so it was just pleasure to read your well-structured/easy-to-read/great-english posts which explained views held by most of estonians. thank you.

martintg ütles ...

The Estonian nation has existed for thousands of years, so I don't think we should entrench a situation that has been in existence for a mere 50 years by implementing some kind "Tyrolean solution". Narva is an indivisible part of Estonia, and the solution is to encourage mobility of both investment into and labour into and out of Ida-Virumaa.

Jens-Olaf ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
Jens-Olaf ütles ...

Oha, some geostrategical thoughts here. Then I like to emphasize: I was in Kohtla-Järve in 1992. This is a center of oil shale. Oil shale is an energy ressource of Estonia, and a lot of Estonian scientists are involved in that kind of business. Even if they spoke Russian at a meeting at that time. It's Estonia after all.

Anonüümne ütles ...

Having worked in Ida-Virumaa for more than eight years, I can tell you that there is nothing 'scary' in Ida-Virumaa. However, there are some absolutely beautiful examples of nature (both natural and human). You can take your friend to the best beach in Estonia in Narva-Jõesuu while you're there, enjoy some of the un-Estonian hospitality (read: good hospitality)at the sanatorium. If you are with car, then take a short drive to Sillamäe and see an entire city which is one of the best preserved examples of early 20th century 'Stalin' style architecture. Or, if you just want to stay in Narva, then take a quick walk around the castle and then go to the shopping mall and enjoy a beer in the cafe or take in a movie. You could also visit the very nice library and check out the fairly large sized 'American Corner' which has a lot of english language books. In one word, I feel safer in Narva than in, say, Battery Park.

Giustino ütles ...

Hi Anonymous,

We discussed the castle option and he agreed that his kids were big fans of castles and would be satisfied with a trip to see one.

I'm not scared of Ida-Virumaa at all, nor am I of Narva - as you mentioned - having lived in such places as New York City and Washington, DC, has left me prepared to deal with most forms of urban insanity.

As far as I can tell, Ida-Virumaa is your regular Estonian county with a base population of rural residents that eat potatoes almost every day and have jars of pickled vegetables in the cellar. The big difference is the large cities, in particular Narva, population ~60,000.

I am intimidated by visiting a city where Russian is the language because of the language gulf. In Germany, particularly eastern Germany, many people don't speak English. However, I can do basic things, like read signs because of the shared vocabulary and alphabet.

It is the equivalent, for me, of going to a Greek city or an Israeli city - ie. someplace that I'd really like to have a good guide. If I am entertaining a visitor, I'd like to have some kind of grip on what is going on. However, since he is coming from St. Petersburg, it looks like he'll have a better handle of things than I will!


Anonüümne ütles ...

Here is a nice virtual tour around the castle:
Narva Bastions

Anonüümne ütles ...

Narva's ok, but once you've seen the castle, there's not that much to look at there. And it didn't look particularly inviting at night!

But I absolutely fell in love with Narva-Joesuu. As more and more Estonians (of all ethnicities) from other parts of the country rediscover this part of their country, I am sure the property vultures will move in and start building big ugly hotels and such. But for the moment it's still blissfully undeveloped, except for a spa hotel.

Anonüümne ütles ...

Nice and very well written overview.

antyx ütles ...

I remember something said Paul Goble, the former chief of the Baltic desk at the CIA who emigrated after the Bush administration came into power and is now teaching in Tartu's Eurocollege. (Giustino, I suspect you've either met him already or will soon enough.) He said in a speech at an American Studies conference how the Baltic desk used to have a saying - "Europe ends at Narva".

As I've said before, the only viable solution to the Russian problem in Estonia is to wait for generations to change over; the children of today's Russians will be people born in Estonia, grown up in Estonia and educated in Estonia. In the meantime, we should try to think of Narva as the easternmost outpost of the Western civilization, not the other way around.

Anonüümne ütles ...

To tie two previous commentators together: IIRC, Narva was the easternmost Hanseatic city. The League had offices in Moscow etc., but no cities accepting the rules of the Hanseatic League. So Narva has been, definitely, the place where Europe ends.

I agree that it'll just take some time to "make" Narva Estonian. the thing is, no matter the language, most Russian-speaking Estonians refer to themselves as Estonians. Now, personally I would very much like for them all to learn Estonian but then when I think about the broader scope and how the Russian Empire and then the Soviets force-fed us Russian, I get nauseous imagining us doing the same to the Russians here.

The trick is to make them WANT to learn Estonian. A part of that is in the money, as someone already pointed out. One of the reasons Islam spread so quickly in the 6-8th centuries was that the concuered people were freed of a certain tax IF they converted to Islam. the same is appliccable here. Make learning and using Estonian lucrative enough and the people will follow. But what I find also very important is tying the Russian-speaking community more tightly to the Estonian-speaking community. I think that this is going on sufficiently in schools etc. what with the school dance festivals, the acting festivals, the choir competitions etc. And also now with building the new huge concert hall in J6hvi.

Vova ütles ...

Flasher-t, re "Paul Goble, the former chief of the Baltic desk at the CIA who emigrated after the Bush administration came into power and is now teaching in Tartu's Eurocollege" herewith some clarification. Paul was head of the Baltic Desk at State, not Langley (he had another job there). And he is no longer at Tartu. In fact, I talked to him in February while visiting stateside

antyx ütles ...

Ah, close enough. :)

Shame to hear he's left Tartu.

Anonüümne ütles ...


the signs in streets/shops are mostly Estonian or bilingual so you won't lose your way. Asking for directions is more difficult but try using English with
younger people. In Narva Hotel they speak Estonian (we were hiking in the region in October and spent several hours in Narva and it was the only place where they let us keep our heavy backpacks for 50 kroons. They wouldn't store our bags at the train or bus stations (the latter being just a large kiosk), however, explaing: Eto Narva..:). If you're staying overnight, Narva Hotel should be quite OK, there aren't many decent places to spend a night.
It's an interesting experience, like being in the foreign country and yet many things, like shops, banks etc are the same.

BTW, NOVGOROD was the eastermost Hanseatic city:

Anonüümne ütles ...

I agree with Anonymous, who told you signs are in Russian only? If anything they will be in Estonian and Russian, rather than Estonian and English, but as an Estonian speaker you should be fine.

For communication purposes though, you may find it easier to speak with (young) people in English, even though they may know some Estonian. I hope if it's established that the other person speaks fair English, you wouldn't still insist on speaking Estonian just to prove a point! Fair enough if you ARE estonian, but if you're a foreigner, you just make yourself look silly and probably wind the other person up!

We stayed in Narva hotel too, they spoke both passable Estonian and English. But yeah, there aren't many other places you'd want to stay. You'd be better off staying over night in a nice guest house in Narva Jõesuu.

If anybody starts gabbing to you in Russian, just to avoid hassle you may want to know one phrase, "Ya ne gavariu pa russki"! (Ma ei raagi vene keelt):) and keep walking!

Giustino ütles ...

I hope if it's established that the other person speaks fair English, you wouldn't still insist on speaking Estonian just to prove a point!

In the language environment I currently live in in Tartu, I always use Estonian - like at the hardware store, at the Kaubamaja, at the post office, at the bank.

Sometimes the person seated opposite me has a name tag that denotes that he or she may not have ancestors that have lived in Tartu since the dawn of written history.

But I try not to pay attention to these things, as there are lots of native Estonian speakers with Russian last names, and lots of Russian speakers with German-sounding last names too.

I guess in Narva I'll have to change my bearings. Sort of like taking the boat from Turku to Mariehamn.

Anonüümne ütles ...

Heh heh. Some of the estonians I have met with Russian surnames have been the most nationalist of all...

My point was if you have two people communicating in what is a second language to both of them (ie you and a native Russian speaker talking Estonian) and both have a better command of English, one thru being a native speaker and one perhaps because they found it an easier language to learn than Estonian (what a concept!!!) then doesn't it make more sense to adopt English when talking to each other? But if you insist on talking Estonian, even though it is clear to the other person that you are a native English speaker, then it looks like you are less interested in completing whatever transaction or receiving whatever information, than in trying to prove a point to the other person. Capische?

I think making the effort to speak Estonian in the rest of the country is great, since you are have much better odds of speaking to someone ethnically Estonian but with Narva having 98% Russian native speakers, this is a very low possibility. If you meet someone who at least speaks decent English, just be thankful that at least they went outside the box enough to learn a second language, albeit it may not be the official language of the country... it's a start!

By the way, I went back to Tallinn this weekend after 2.5 months (the longest I haven't been there in a couple of years) and I was quite distraught to see how much simple vocabulary I had forgotten! Practice really is key to knowing a language...

Giustino ütles ...

By the way, I went back to Tallinn this weekend after 2.5 months (the longest I haven't been there in a couple of years) and I was quite distraught to see how much simple vocabulary I had forgotten! Practice really is key to knowing a language..

I was very pleased last weekend when we visited relatives in Suure-Jaani. I recently learned the word 'vahva' (cool) from a book, but I had never heard anyone use it.

However, Epp's aunt Helle likes to use the word "vahva" a lot, as opposed to my sister-in-law, who prefers "lahe".

It was nice to see the word in use!

By the way - I got your point. I don't need to prove anything to the Narvalased.

Oudekki ütles ...

Well, my last trip to Narva was in January, and I felt it was the Estonian city like any other - with its own specialities. They speak mostly russian, in Võru you still hear dialect and that is it. The soviet architecture is no other than in other parts of estonia, what isn't soviet is typical of estonia, or the czarist-russia estonia. Some places of Narva really reminded me Kopli. But the overall mentality and ways of communication was very much the same than in other parts.

The russian villages around Peipsi are much more different of their culture, but by no means I can say that they are not estonians (they have lived here this way for hundreds of years).

Even if a little country, Estonia just has some cultural variations - which you should be used to, coming from New York.

Giustino ütles ...

Even if a little country, Estonia just has some cultural variations - which you should be used to, coming from New York.

I went to Union City, New Jersey once to use the library. This was 10 minutes from my home at the time.

It was like going to Mexico, New Jersey. Everywhere I saw the Mexican flag. Most signs were in Spanish. Most people on the streets were speaking Spanish. In the library I asked someone a question in English and got a blank look. They gestured towards the director who at last answered my question.

It was like visiting a foreign country - 10 minutes from my home.

Giustino ütles ...

I also went to a public meeting of seniors in another job (as a reporter) where they were up in arms about this phenomenon of Little Latin Americas popping up everywhere.

They were demanding from the local politician that English be made the official language of New York.

I had a hard time supporting them. I mean New York, at first, spoke Dutch. We've also managed to handle some serious waves of immigration without passing such a law.

How were we failing this time?

Anonüümne ütles ...

Couple of friends of mine from Spain went to New York a few years ago and thought they'd try an experiment - try to get through an entire day around the city without speaking English only Spanish. To their amazement they were able to manage it.

Anonüümne ütles ...

Narva was NEVER a part of Hanseatic League - Tallinn with it's veto saw to that. Narva would have been unwelcome competition in transit business.
PS neither was novgorod - there was only a so-called Hansa Office in town.


Jens-Olaf ütles ...

The Hanse league had no constitution. Members were invited or send their delegates to the Hansetage. It always was different. There are "Oberstädte" like Cologne who decided for others who called themself member of the Hanse. And as far as I know Narva traders were members in the Tallinn Gilde. So it is not easy to say this one was a Hanse city and this one was not. But a historian from Narva is needed.

drEsolve ütles ...

So it is not easy to say this one was a Hanse city and this one was not. But a historian from Narva is needed.

Anton Weiss-Wendt is a historian who should be able to give us a definitive answer on this one. I will do my best to reach out to him.