neljapäev, august 30, 2007

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Tammsaare

School time is almost here and with it the long delayed and highly controversial Estonian 2007 school reform, whereby all incoming tenth graders in Russian-language high schools will have one course in Estonian language. This year's course is, appropriately, Estonian literature.

If you ask any eestlane with a pulse these days who the Estonian national writer is, they are likely to respond that it is Andrus Kivirähk, the 37-year-old author of the infamous novel Rehepapp where Estonian serfs are portrayed as the greedy masterminds behind naive landowners.

Estonians enjoy the image of themselves as the backstabbing, crafty, downright evil people portrayed in Kivirähk's book, but the truth is that his scheme borrows from characters in the master work of Estonian literature, whom every 16-year-old Maksim and Darja in Ida-Virumaa will come to know intimately this autumn, Tõde ja Õigus by Anton Hansen Tammsaare.

As an Estonian who lives through the 1905 revolution as a young man, the establishment of the Estonian state in near middle age, and managed to check out just two months shy of the June 1940 Soviet takeover (lucky fellow), Tammsaare painted in this national epic a vision of his young country coming into being. It is still an important work, important enough that Tammsaare is still regularly name dropped -- though ironically -- by those in the arts.

However, he is less famous for his sweeping tale of Estonia's birth than for his portrayal of regular country Estonians, the maarahvas, who are the same swindling, double-dealing bastards depicted in Rehepapp. This is how Estonians see themselves. National self-deprecation is part of being an Estonian. It's all there in the literature.

Anyway, as part of the Haridus ja Teadus Ministerium's evil plan to make all Russian-speaking teens in Estonia miserable, other subjects in Estonian language will be added so that by 2011, the 20 percent of Estonian pupils who attend Russian-language schools in Estonia will have 60 percent of their upper education in Estonian, condemning them to a life of alcoholism, mulgipuder consumption, and ironic references to Tammsaare.

It is hoped that other than the difference between the words 'puder' and 'põder', the school reform might teach them a bit more about what exactly it means to be part of this tribe called Estonians.

esmaspäev, august 27, 2007

Setomaa Hämmätüs

For Estonians, the border region of Setumaa is of deep cultural importance. It is viewed as a region of dislocated Finno-Ugric-ness, perhaps on par with the Finnish reverence for Karelia as something more Finnish than Finland proper. Setumaa plays this role in the Estonian mindset, a region populated by Setu -- who speak their own variety of Baltic-Finnish -- that is in someways more Estonian than just plain old Estonian.

Setu are considered people that have kept true to their roots more than the people of Tallinn of Tartu, and it is for this reason that people from these cities, as well as others in Estonia, got into their cars and traveled south to the village of Lüübnitsa this week to celebrate the Setu and to load up on onions.

We were among the many that went to Lüübnitsa. First we traveled south to Räpina, which is a pleasantly Estonian town, dominated by a Selver and a bus station, and then onwards through Võõpsu to the gravel road to Lüübnitsa. For Estonian roads, this one was crowded, and as we got near we could see why. Cars were parked on both sides of the road straight up to the little village which actually overlooks the waters of Lake Pskov, a section of Lake Peipsi.

Sibulla Paradiis

As we discovered during an earlier trip to the Old Believer's villages north of Lüübnitsa -- Kasepää and Kolkja -- this week, the cash crop of the Peipsi region is onions. The Setu festival at Lüübnitsa proved no exception. People walked through the streets with baby strollers brimming with freshly bought onions. The dominance of onions in the marketplace is such that you really can't decide who's got the best, so you just randomly pick a seller and buy from them. In our case in Kasepää, the seller happened to be an attractive young woman. What luck!

The Old Believer's villages on Peipsi and the Setu villages have some things in common. They share the Orthodox religion and all its peculiarities -- babushkas, priests with long, dark beards and robes, and the Slavic habbit of building villages in tight groups of buildings, as opposed to the spread-out 'villages' you will find in Western Estonia of one homeowner per kilometer.

The greatest difference, of course, is the language. In Kasepää they speak Russian as they have been doing since they first arrived in Estonia in the 18th century to escape Orthodox Church reform. They also know Estonian, as my experience with the seller proved. But they speak Russian, with a slight accent, or even perhaps their own dialect. Where the urban Russian-speaker of Narva has a very straightforward "Da" for "yes", the old ladies of Kasepää said theirs with more 'ä', as in 'Dää'.

The Setu language, sometimes considered an off-shoot or sub-group of Estonian, is actually its own tongue. The linguistic similarities are such among Baltic Finnic language groups that even I can watch Finnish TV and understand what they are saying, or hear a Karelian song and know what it's about. Rather than having distinct border lines, the languages flow into one another, from Estonian to Ingrian to Karelian, or from Estonian to South Estonian to Võro to Seto.

Despite these similarities I still needed a translator when I tried to order food at the Setomaa Farm Museum in Värska, a Setomaa town right on the border with Russia, where we visited after we had enough folk music and onions at Lüübnitsa.

The top of the menu was dominated by a strange substance called suulliim, which I roughly translated to "suu" (mouth) and "liim" (glue). "Hmm, mouth-glue," I thought. "Not sure if I want to try that." Then there was oa-liha hämmätüs, which was total gibberish to me. 'Hammastas' in Estonian translates roughly as 'he bit', as in Andres hammastas mind (Andres bit me).

I was later informed that suulliim is 'külm supi' (cold soup) while 'hämmastüs' is 'kaste' (sauce). So much for Estonian helping me out there! They also sold sõir, the famous south Estonian cheese, which, quite telling, is also the Russian word for cheese.

Piiri Probleemid

One interesting factor that comes into play in Setomaa is the nearness of Venemaa, the mighty Russian bear, whose land stretches from Lake Peipsi to the Bering Straights. In fact, part of Setomaa lies on the Russian side of the border. In the years 1920 to 1945, a good chunk of what is known as Setomaa was in Petserimaa, which was later added to the Russian SFSR in 1945.

During the Soviet era this division of land meant relatively little. But since 1991, and the restoration of independence this arbitrary line through the heart of Setomaa marks the boundary between the European Union and the Russian Federation, making it difficult for Setus from Petseri Rajon to travel up to places like Lüübnitsa to sell their onions on special occasions.

During the run-up to the signing of the border treaty with Russia in 2005, then President Arnold Rüütel addressed those concerned about signing over Setomaa to Venemaa forever by saying that Setu from the Russian side of the border could be 'repatriated' to Estonia. However, like a lot of things that came out of Rüütel's mouth, I am not sure if that ever happened.

neljapäev, august 23, 2007

Nord Stream: The Dumbest Idea Ever

There is a fine article in the International Herald Tribune today that reveals that the boys at Gazprom are trying to think up ways to reroute the underwater pipeline from Russian-occupied Vyborg to Germany so as to piss off as few important European countries as possible, while dicking over some less important ones, like Estonia.

According to the article, there are plans to move the pipeline north of the Danish island of Bornholm because Poland and Denmark have yet to agree on a maritime border and also because "somebody" -- also known as the the two countries overseeing the Nord Stream project -- dumped a sh*tload of ordinance south of Bornholm about 60-odd years ago.

More complicated is the path through the Gulf of Finland, where the magnanimous soomlased have determined that their huge swath of the gulf is too rocky for some stinky Russian-German pipeline, and that they'd rather have it in Estonian waters, even though Estonia and Finland are allegedly brothers, and brothers don't ok gas pipelines in their sibling's backyards do they. Do they?

In all, this project may now cost about 6 billion euros to complete. Or the Germans and Russians could just admit that there are a few countries in between them, and spend a lot less money to pipe their gas through Belarus and Poland. Which would you choose and why? Personally, I might face the fact that building an undersea pipeline through the international waters of several EU countries is just not worth it.

Giustino Läheb Tallinnasse

On August 21 I had to travel from Tartu to Tallinn to pick-up my jet-lagged folks from Tallinna Lennujaam. The last time I had made that journey was in the rain, and I have to say it felt more like Luke Skywalker's life-threatening trip into the Death Star in the first Star Wars film than any pleasant sojourn across the Estonian country side.

Estonian drivers, as previously discussed, are jerks. They pass people just for the sake of passing them, and often do it in groups (!) even in the face of oncoming traffic. So I was hoping that Tuesday would be a rain free day, but when I opened my eyes, Tartu was at the eye of a thunderstorm that lasted all morning.

I waited for the nasty weather to disperse but it never did and I decided to take a different, less life-threatening route to Tallinn, through Jõgeva. I would take the road to Jõgeva north, take the fork towards Tallinn at Järve-Jaani, and connect with route 2 somewhere after that. I knew it would add time to my journey, but I figured that the peace of riding alone through Täbivere was worth the extra 45 minutes.

It took me 20 minutes just to get out of Tartu and onto the road leading to Jõgeva, but once I got on it, I couldn't believe my luck. Somewhere south of Jõgeva the rain disappeared, and there wasn't a car to be seen plying the smooth roads of Jõgevamaa. I was so overjoyed at my luck I boasted to my wife on the phone about the good luck I was having. I guess I spoke too soon.

As I made my way north, I began to hit patches of gravel roads that hadn't been paved yet. Slowly these roads became longer in stretches. And I began to doubt the intelligence of my decision to go via Jõgeva instead of Põltsamaa and Paide. Another issue that reared its head was that I was traveling through an extremely unpopulated part of Estonia, with limited signs, lots of forests, and several intersecting counties. One moment I was in Jõgevamaa, then Lääne-Virumaa, then Järvamaa, then back into Lääne-Virumaa.

At one point the road to Tallinn was blocked. There was literally a big sign that said Tallinn with a red 'X' through it. Instead they put me on the road to Rakvere. So I kept heading north, thinking that at least I could get to the Tallinn-Narva road if I got lost and take that into Tallinn. Then I wound up back on a road that allegedly was heading to Tallinn. At all times these roads were empty. I envisioned myself in my own film. Rather than Jan Uuspõld Läheb Tartusse, it was Giustino Läheb Tallinnasse.

That's why when I began to feel the urge to spring one, I began to ponder, Could I just park my car in the middle of the road and pee right there? Was that allowed? I ask this question because I know that public urination is regulated in some countries. For example, one time in Helsinki, I got off at a random bus stop, just to spray some random bush and wander around lost for an hour or so. I was later informed that there are strict laws against peeing on bushes in Finland, and that the Finnish Secret Police could have caught me and -- needless to say -- I could have been subject to unspeakable acts of torture at the hands of guys named Pekka and Jaako.

After several kilometers of debate, I decided that I was willing to risk a run-in with KAPO just to take a leak on the side of the road. I pulled into a place called Ambla Vald, in the northern reaches of Järvamaa, parked near a bus stop, and relieved myself. This was a very interesting place to do it, because Epp's father's family is originally from Ambla Vald. For centuries, people looking like Epp had wandered these roads, perhaps taking a minute to pee in private not to far from where I was unloading my bladder. It was a true historical moment, as if all the streams of our family's Eesti past had been combined into one.

As I headed north I began to wonder if there actually was an end to this huge expanse of fields called Estonia. There were small villages, but they all looked the same. Plus I hadn't seen a sign for Tallinn in quite sometime. I was afraid that I might turn off the road and be in Narva, or even worse, Latvia. Finally a sign said Aegviidu. That looked sort of close to Tallinn on the map. But I wanted to get straight across, from Aegviidu to Kehra to Jüri and then north to the airport. The map said it was possible, but I would have to go through small Harju villages like Peningi and Vaskjala.

The windy roads did not prevent me from speeding like a devil as I could taste the sweet asphalt of the Tallinn-Tartu road in my mouth. First Lükati, then Peningi, then Kalesi, then Aruküla, then Pajupea, Vaskjala, and finally, Jüri. Finally the large box-shaped stores of the Tallinn metropolitan area began to appear. I have to say that I was surprised that Harjumaa was as empty as most Estonian counties. I zoomed along north to the airport, boldly passing every automobile in my way.

When I got to the airport, my folks were there. Two of our relatives had come up to keep them company while I had been pissing in Ambla Vald. And as the sun shimmered on Ülemiste Järv, nobody seemed like they really believed my 'bullshit' story that there had been bad thunderstorms in Tartu, and that's why I had to take the Tartu-Jõgeva-Aegviidu-Peningi-Tallinn road.

pühapäev, august 19, 2007

Chillin' with Nashi

I usually don't embed YouTube videos on this blog, but for this translation of an interview with Nashi-in-Estonia Kommisar Mark Sirõk from Thursday's Eesti Ekpress, I thought After the Fire's 1983 hit, "Der Kommisar" wholly appropriate.

Sirõk is between a rock and a hard place in life. He loves Russia, but he lives in Estonia, where mostly Estonians live. He wants to lead a consequence-free youth movement, as it is in Russia, but he finds himself in Estonia, where if you help incite a riot, you can actually go to jail.

Mark found himself in this situation after the nonsense in April, where young Russian fantasies of confronting 'fascists in Estonia' -- also known as Russian-speaking policemen and women -- came true for two nights before the authorities turned off the tap and prohibited sales of alcohol, which strongly reduced the bravery level of these grandsons of the Red Army.

When he's not out shacking up with Nashi cuties, Sirõk enjoys wearing Hawaiian t-shirts, listening to Tchaikovsky, and fighting the good fight against fascism, which is obviously rearing its evil head all over the world right now. Politically, he leans towards Keskerakond,I have decided to just translate some key sections of Mark's interview, and I recommend having the YouTube playing while you read for the full effect.

Do you acknowledge the Estonian state and constitutional polity?

Yes, naturally. I support all of what is written in the constitution. But I don't like the rewriting of history. History is what it was, not what is written by Mart Laar. Right now is this moment when Estonia forgets its own old heroes and searches for new ones, but I think it will come to remember both.

Does the 24th of February mean anything to you?

Yes, this is Estonian Independence Day.

Have you celebrated it?

I have gone to watch a parade. I really like it when something is happening in the city. In addition to Estonian holidays, we also celebrate Russian holidays.

What kind of republic is Estonia?

Generally speaking, this is really a democratic state, but after the April events ... At school the director said to me, do you want to shut up or get expelled from school? Then this came to my mind, that what kind of country is this, what kind of democracy, what kind of freedom of speech?

Did you vote in elections in Spring?

No, my birthday was a bit later.

But will you go next time?

I don't know exactly, but I hope so.

What party do you support?

It's hard to say at the moment, but when I think about it, then I would support Keskerakond.


Their politics are more or less normal. They aren't from the right and aren't from the left. They defend the interests of both Estonian and Russian speakers.


Are the Soviet Union and European Union similar?

Also in the Soviet Union they had freedom of movement, like they have in the European Union.

Sirõk's Nashi companion Roman Jelfimov answered the question this way --

Every union means that a part of independence is lost. Are we agreed? Some decisions are now made in Brussels, not in Tallinn. Of course, they both have their own pluses. Let's discuss this more after 10 years.

Is Nashi an anti-Estonian movement?

Not at all. We are anti-fascist, not anti-Estonian.

kolmapäev, august 15, 2007

Mida?, NB!, ja Korp!


In case you haven't noticed, I don't look like an Estonian. That's because most of my blood comes from here and here, and also a bit here and here. But today, standing in the supermarket at Eedeni Keskus in Tartu I was approached by an older lady who saw me joyfully kissing my daughter's cheek while my wife went to hunt down some taignas(dough).

"Oi, kui kena," she said. "Mis tema nimi on?"

"Tema nimi on Anna," I replied.

"Mida?" She said looking at me with curiosity.

"Anna," I said.

"Mida?" she replied.

"Anna, nagu Anna Haava," I tried again. Anna Haava was a famous luuletaja (poet) for whom several streets are named in Estonia.

The old women looked puzzled, perhaps not remembering who Anna Haava was, but finally digesting that the kid's name wasn't Kadri.

"Ah," she said. "Väga armas."


On August 16 and 17 the foreign ministers of Eesti, Läti, Leedu, Soome, Norra, Rootsi, Island, and Taani will meet . The five 'Nordic' [rich, cradle-to-grave welfare giving] countries and the three 'Baltic' [less rich, ok, poor, your on your own, don't ask me for free dental] Baltic states, will be meeting in Turku, Finland as the Nordic-Baltic 8.

The last time they met was last August in Norway. Fortunately for all eight FMs, the menu this year will likely include fish and potatoes, as it did last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. Topics of concern will likely include energy issues, including the grotesque plan of Germany and Russia to build a giant gas pipeline right next to Estonia, Finland, and Sweden's most awesome coast lines.

Ed Lucas has of late been recommending that Georgia join NATO ASAP to prevent its descent into the pre-2003 Kremlin hell hole where everybody is Russia's stooge. May I suggest that the boldly dressed FMs of the Nordic countries do something reasonable -- think about making one or all of the Baltic countries part of the Nordic Council. This would address the reality of Estonia's inclusion in the nordic space, and allow the right-thinking trio of Fredrik Reinfeldt, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and Matti Vanhanen, to do away for once and for all with the idea that social democracy is the nordic countries and nothing but.


Finally, I am currently writing my last piece of August before I head off into a sunset of vacation time. It's a freelance story for The City Paper about Tartu korpi life and the extent that it influences Estonian political and business culture.

While the Korp! life is certainly interesting -- imagine rules for drinking beer! -- I am having a hard time getting to the bottom over whether or not it pays to be in EÜS if you want to be Minister of Agriculture one day or not. The Korpid have been telling me that they are apolitical, but I didn't see a lot of Keskerakond symbols around election day here in March.

It would be very helpful if you contacted me or told me in the comments section what you know about the influence these ancient institutions have on the wheels of Estonian life. Is it all it's cracked up to be? Is the feuding (EÜS vs. Sakala) for real or just for giggles? Do the female corporations matter? If you join EÜS will you get to get wasted with Tõnis Luukas in the basement? And what's up with those hats? Let me know what you know. Then we can go and tell the world.

reede, august 10, 2007


So I have decided to chart a new course with this blog and present the viewpoints of others in the Estonian media, translating segments of their work into English for the benefit of readers who do not know Estonian, as well as for the benefit of mina, a person who needs as much linguistic exercise as possible.

The first piece I would like to make available is an Aug 11 op-ed by Tartu professor Marju Lauristin, which generated 732 comments at last count, dwarfing the amount of commentary spawned by funnyboy writer Andrus Kivirahk's piece on suveteater, and encouraging the kind of 'kurat' and 'tibla' talk that accompanies any article containing a quote from the dark lord, Vladimir Putin.

A Family Affair

Before we get to the actual arvamus (opinion), it is important to know who exactly Lauristin is. Lauristin is the daughter of Johannes Lauristin and Olga Lauristin, two Estonian communists that served in the Eesti NSV government. In fact it was Johannes -- a statue of whom you can find in the basement of the Museum of Occupations in Tallinn -- who went to Moscow in 1940 to request admission to the USSR on behalf of the Republic of Estonia. Olga held various positions in the Eesti NSV government in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The popular interpretation of Estonian communist participation in the overthrow of the Estonian republic is often boiled down to the idea that they were but simple idealists who were cynically used by the Stalinist state. This interpretation makes sense when one considers that the June communists of 1940 were poets and intellectuals, rather than the Soviet mafia that dominated Stalin's USSR.

Indeed, there is a Huey Newton meets Mao odor to the relationship between the Estonian left and the USSR. It is important to remember too, in these days of right-wing government, that many prominent Estonian politicians in the pre-war era were left wing. For example, August Rei, who set up the exile government in Oslo, was a staunch social democrat.

Anyway, it was because of Lauristin's background, rather than in spite of it, that she -- an academic -- was able to speak with extra gravitas about rejecting the Soviet Union and putting Estonia on the path to restoring independence. Imagine Laidoner's son speaking out against Estonian independence or Ronald Reagan's son speaking in favor of stem-cell research. Here was living proof that Estonian communism was dead.

Lauristin helped found the Popular Front in Estonia -- which organized the Baltic Way in 1989 -- and served as minister of social affairs in the early 90s. Since then she has returned to the world of academia, publishing influential books like 1997's Return to the Western World. These days she remains a 'thought leader' -- someone who is still obviously capable of stirring the public discussion about important issues.

It is also because of this background that one commenter replied to the following piece by saying, "Well, you are your parents' child."


Lauristin's arvamus from Aug. 11, is entitled "Estonians' Intolerance Feeds the Russian Propaganda Machine." It is a heavy-duty work to translate which sent me to my dictionary only to find out the word in question translates as 'coherence.'

Her main point is that despite Estonian language acquisition, Estonia's Russian community is isolated in Estonia by a lack of government initiative and a majority that is suspicious of its entrance into politics.

"During the years that integration monitoring has been done it has been shown that citizenship and Estonian language utilization by foreigners helps grow a positive attitude about Estonia inside, but this has not been brought together among at the same time tolerance and openmindedness," she writes.

"For Estonian-speakers and those that are not originally from Estonia that have gotten Estonian Republic citizenship, the Estonian community's views have been encumbered by distrust to the deepest root of Russian-speaking residents' participation in Estonian economy and politics," she adds.

She goes on to say that this mistrust, along with the failure to address problems in the Russian-speaking community have furthered this division among Estonia's residents.

"There is no need to wonder that growth of knowledge of Estonian language is for Russian-speaking resident a big letdown and their motivation grows weaker to apply for citizenship," she writes. "Although the necessity to draw more attention to community stability and social coherence has been spoken about for years, integration's social side has not first of all been able to mitigate risks like drug addiction, HIV, and level of unemployment."

In a very long section, that I am hesitant to translate, she goes onto to describe how the Bronze Soldier controversy widened this division, where ethnic Russians feel more distant from ethnic Estonians and ethnic Estonians believe that they must take a more hard line stance (kõva käe) in reaction to the youth shouting 'Rossija, Rossija'

Lauristin's solution is that Estonia must make a strong effort to counter Russian propaganda in Estonia. She calls Estonia's current response of not responding to the onslaught of negative information about Estonia manufactured by the Russian Foreign Ministry "submissive and cynical."

"Estonia should not downgrade the Estonian answer to this propaganda capmaign and high-pressure effect, when one significant aim is to influence Russian compatriots in Estonia," she writes. "Estonia needs a professional propaganda response strategy. The Estonian central media can certainly be widened so that it supports the needs of most Estonians and non-Estonians."

Lauristin writes that "the opinion, that we should not answer what the Russian media does to Estonian Russian consciousness (and at the same time also what Russian media tells to Western journalists), is submissive and cynical."

She argues that in "the Russian-speaking auditorium (especially for the young) they are offered in their mother language the possibility for discussion that is emotionally charged and interesting via audio visual messages that create Estonia (and Estonian short-term and long-term history) and other images while it brings Russian propaganda. In this place it must not be allowed to forget that in the Russian auditorium there are not only Russians. The audio visual output also influences nationalities."

In conclusion, Lauristin says that it "must be argued that the biggest thing is that the non-Estonians that live in Estonia do not believe Russian politicians nor wait for Russia to solve their own problems. The Estonian government needs to make all possible, that that our Russian-speaking compatriots are not receptive to Russia's propaganda war."

teisipäev, august 07, 2007

Let's Change the Topic, Shall We?

As a denizen of the Interweb, I have spent more time than I would like to admit battling Russian nationalists, Kommisars of the Net if you will, who are ready to spring into action at the drop of the name 'Estonia', or to deflect all criticism of Russia by pointing to Estonia in order to fight over Baltic citizenship policies, rather whether or not next year's presidential election in Russia will be free and fair (it won't).

After talking to these gentlemen and ladies at length, I thought I would provide you all with a tutorial on how to flip their arguments on their head, and move the discussion into territory so foreign to them, they will find themselves actually agreeing with you because they have no idea what you are talking about.

I have decided to divide the lessons I have learned into three handy points that may help anyone who cares about the future of this country engage publicly and confidently parry any thrusts from Stalinist apologists in the electronic public space.

Talking Point A: 1918 is the Year One

Estonians have tried so many times to get Russian nationalists to 'see their perspective' on World War II. This only encourages them to commence with a smear campaign linking Estonia to Nazism. In fact, this is a major effort of the Russian Foreign Ministry as part of its effort to weaken Estonia's attempt to undue the Soviet criminalization of resistance to Bolshevist power. They call it rewriting history. We all know that if Estonia really rewrote its history, the 'revision' would be much less depressing.

The answer is not to attempt to fight back, but rather to draw all arguments back to the Treaty of Tartu, and Estonia's declaration of independence in 1918.All arguments -- about citizenship, about legal continuity, about Russia's policies towards Estonia should continuously reference 1918.

Why is this helpful? For one, Russian nationalists are World War II buffs, but I have found that they know very little about the founding of the communist state in 1917-1920. They know the Great Patriotic War like the back of their hand, but they are sketchy on the power struggles of the teens and 20s. This was a time when Lenin sent Adolph Joffe to sign Bolshevist Russia's first foreign treaty with Estonia. It was a time when Leon Trotsky was managing red forces.

All of these characters -- Trotsky, Lenin, Joffe -- were communist intellectuals. The nuances of Soviet politics at that time are totally lost on the black and white version of the Great Patriotic War dished out every year by Putin. The idea of these political characters passionately debating the future of Russia is anathema to the Russian Federation of today. I mean when was the last time Putin name-dropped Leon Trotsky?

1918 also works because it stresses, above all, Estonian independence. There are no Estonians in Finnish uniforms, or Estonians in German uniforms -- just Estonians in Estonian uniforms. It also underscores Estonia's connections to Finland and Britain. The fact that Estonians fought Germans too, decreases the 'anti-Russian' tone of the debate. It's all about Estonian independence in 1918. There's no way they can argue with that because, quite honestly, it's too boring for them. Finally, the constant referencing of 1918 also makes Estonia look unique. When is the last time a foreign minister got up and babbled on about the war, no, not that war, the one before that war? Who can get worked up over 1918 in 2007? No one.

Talking Point B: Go on the Offensive on Minority Issues.

No matter what the discussion is about it will always touch on the fact that some Estonian residents don't have citizenship. Here it is important to know your facts, above all, that only 8.5 percent lack citizenship and decreasing. But I find the best to shut up this criticism is to agree.

Yes, it is unfortunate that there are stateless people in Estonia. Yes, Estonia is working hard to decrease the number of stateless people in Estonia. Yes, you would be very happy if there were more ethnic Russians involved in the political process. Yes, you would be ecstatic if tomorrow all the stateless people in Estonia magically naturalized

They'll reference the Amnesty Report. Point out that no report has criticized Estonia's unilingual state policy. None. Say that Amnesty has a right to make a report, and that Estonia is a democracy where such reports will be discussed and, if warranted, their decisions will be implemented.

The rightwing Estonian approach is to attack Amnesty or Rene Van der Linden or whomever. This doesn't work. The best approach is to reassert that Estonia is a democracy and that it welcomes international reports like those of Amnesty International. And Estonia very well can choose not to do anything Amnesty says. It's just the polite, PR way, of dealing with criticism.

Talking Point C: Estonia as part of the Nordic Space

As with discussions about 1918, Russian nationalists don't know jack about Nordic politics. They perhaps have no clue who Carl Bildt or Tarja Halonen or Anders Fogh Rasmussen are. As far as they know, Estonia is just some random, little Eastern European country where they hate Russians and love fascism.

One rhetorical trick I like to use is to constantly draw Estonia into the Nordic space and Russia's relations with those countries. Constantly link Estonia to Sweden and Finland. As discussed in an earlier post, Estonia really does have strong links to these countries. I mean -- other than one portly Aruban -- Swedes have been the only foreigners to represent Estonia in Eurovision -- twice.

Oh whatever, convincing you all doesn't matter. What matters is that the constant linkage to the Nordic economy -- which conveys a sense of stability from Tierra del Fuego to the Bering Straights -- changes the dynamic of the discussion. Estonia is no longer small and vulnerable and backwards. It's a player of one of the most elite economies in the world. And it's no longer a question over one country they know little about, it's a question about a lot of countries they know little about.

The more Russian nationalists are forced to think of Estonia as an extension of Sweden and Finland, the less apparent their route of attack will be. Because Estonia is 'near abroad' (meaning they can do with it whatever they damn well please) and Finland is just 'abroad' (meaning they know little of it). Constantly drawing Estonia into a paradigm where it is part of the 'abroad' and no longer the 'near abroad' will confuse your opponent. Talk about "we here in the nordic countries" and they won't have anything to say.

The point is to get them to shut up. By talking about 1918, stunning them by appearing to agree on the minority issues debate, and talking about Finland all the time, you just might achieve this very desirable result.

laupäev, august 04, 2007


In my life I come into regular contact with three Estonian guys in their 50s -- Andres, Tiit, and Toomas. Andres is my father-in-law or my äi, and Tiit and Toomas are my wife's uncles. Andres and Toomas are in the construction business. Tiit is a composer and musician. Andres dwells in Karksi, Toomas lives in Viljandi, and Tiit is a Tallinlane.

They have some things in common. Each was married at age 21. Each sports facial hair. Of the three, Tiit is the tallest, while it's a toss up over who is sturdier -- Andres or Toomas. They don't look like triplets, but you can tell they are brothers. And one salient factor that no doubt is the bread and butter of their brotherly relationship is that they all are involved in some serious renovation or remont projects in their homes.

It would be interesting to ask them when the remont will be finished. Because, in all honestly, I don't think that their work will ever be done. This is because the point of remont is not to finish it, but to keep doing it. This is Estonia, and in Estonia, remont is one of the national pastimes, along with drinking õlut and explaining Estonian history from the 13th century to unsuspecting listeners.


Part of that long history includes an Estonian epoch that ran from the early 1990s to the early 2000s when the Swedish-owned banks ended it by blessing Estonia with generous lending schemes. This period was known as a time of mass Euroremont, when households were cheaply outfitted to look as if they had been renovated, but actually were every bit as fall-apart as before, this time only with a 'new' linoleum floor designed to look like genuine mahogany.

The 'point' of Euroremont was to make your apartment look like any old apartment in Europe. The problem was that many Estonian apartments were in rambling early 20th century wooden homes or crumbling Soviet-era tenement blocks. Solution? Linoleum disguised to look like wood. Styrofoam paneling designed to look like saw-cut moldings.

While searching for apartments to buy in 2003, the wife and I met many an apartment that looked gorgeous from a distance, but when you touched the paneled wooden ceiling, it gave way to reveal that it was actually styrofoam. That wooden floor was actually just a piece of linoleum cut to fit the room. Often, it wasn't even glued down.

Tõeline Remont

Beginning somewhere around 2003-2004 a huge wave of genuine remont hit Estonia. Living in Kalamaja, an older section of Tallinn, I could watch as each week a new crew of motivated eestlased would descend upon a ruined old wooden home, perhaps partially burned, with the requisite commune of an extended family of cats living beside it, and within weeks the structure had been salvaged, repainted and was ready for Finnish-manufactured appliances.

This switch to genuine remont came at a time when, encouraged by Estonia's forthcoming European Union accession, Scandinavian banks felt extra frisky and basically loaned money to anyone with a pulse residing in the territory of Eesti. You're a drunk with no hope that wants to buy a shiny new apartment? Here, have a bag of money. Construction firms bought old wrecks, made them shiny and new, and sold them to people that -- thanks to the happy-go-spendy banks -- could 'afford' to buy them.

This period sort of coincided with a lot of good feelings in Estonia. Estonia was in the EU, which made it European. Estonia was in NATO, which made it safe. And Estonians -- usually young and urban -- were moving into genuinely refurbished apartments -- the physical proof that communism was crap and capitalism is, as Austin Powers would put it, 'smashing.'

One lucky building to be washed over by this typhoon of tõeline remont is the Tartu train station, which up until a few years ago looked so condemned that if a person sneezed inside it, the whole rotting shitbox might easily come down. Today, as you can see in the above photo, it's all coming together, your tax dollars at work.

A side issue that sometimes comes up is that Estonian neighbors who co-own homes cannot decide on what color to paint their house. Sometimes it happens that one extra motivated neighbor decides to paint his 'half' of the house, while another, less motivated neighbor, decides to leave his at it is, resulting in houses that are painted yellow on the bottom, and blue on top.

A National Preoccupation

As mentioned earlier, Estonians are pleased as punch to have so much renovation work to do. Even though Estonians never attend church ever, except to perhaps snap a photo of a dead relative, Estonia's Lutheran churches are still hard at work beaming workaholic impulses to Estonians in a three county radius.

In Tallinn, it is Olaviste Kirik that receives the workaholic impulse from Taara -- through its renowned steeple -- and then retransmits it to Estonians all over Harjumaa, urging them subconsciously to get back to work. In Tartu, no one can resist the call of the Jaani Kirik, making them pick up another task as soon as the previous one is finished.

Each morning as Estonian men sleep off the previous night's booze intake, the magic of Lutheran Estonia comes alive, striking them with the urge to cut wood and turn over the earth in the backyard for a new potato patch. Don't believe me? I drank kurati palju beer with our friend Kaja's father one night two years ago, followed by endless consumption of Saku gin long drinks.

The next morning the first thing I heard was Kaja's Issi's saw. The dude was cutting wood at 8 am in the morning! He couldn't resist it you see. He was in range of the Ilumäe Kirik and had been awakened to do remont.

Ehitus Service

The new temples of worship for the remont-obsessed, workaholic Estonians are not Lutheran churches though. Instead they have names like Ehitus Service or Decora or K-Rautakeskus. In Tartu all three of these Home Depot-like stores are within five minutes of one another, and all three are consistently servicing their eager customers, especially on the weekend, which is prime time for remont projects.

Inside you'll meet fellow remont addicts, many of their partners pregnant, as they mull over which shade of green they want to paint the floor of the esik in their new apartment. Even in Estonia, loading up the shopping cart for future remont projects is an international affair. See the Ukrainian guy trying to explain himself to the Estonian clerk. See the Polish guys loading up their van with wood. See the dumb American guy trying to ask whether or not the paint he is about to buy is oil based.

One often overlooked part of the Ehitus Service experience is the fabulous music they play there. If I only had a kroon for every time I heard Robbie Williams sing 'She's Madonna', I'd take all of you blog readers out there to Hesburger!