teisipäev, juuli 01, 2008

nordic paternalism

I was leafing through Geert Mak's In Europe: Travels Through the 20th Century, and I read the chapter on Riga, which is loosely about the Baltic countries, with great interest.

Mak traveled around Europe in 1999, and even back then the discourse in the Baltics was as hung-up on the past as it is today. My interest was piqued when Mak, and interviewees cited in the book, consistently referenced Estonia's Scandinavian orientation.

According to Steven Johnson, the former editor of the Baltic Times who was quoted, Tallinn would forever be a "Danish village," Riga an East-West German trading port, and Vilnius, an eastern European metropolis ala Warsaw and Minsk. "Danish village, eh?" I thought to myself.

Outside of Estonia, Denmark is perhaps the European country I know best, as I lived there in 2001 for four months. Once asked at a party in Tallinn to summarize the differences between Danes and Estonians, I fixated on the Danes' Scandinavian elitism, versus the Estonians' lack of self confidence.

The Danes are still a bit irritated that they don't run the world. If they did, they'll assure you, everything would be much better. But the Estonians never speak of running the world. They know it's not up to them, and so they cast their lot with others. The Danes think of themselves as equals, nay, leaders in the Nordic world. The Estonians think of themselves as a kind of supplement to Scandinavia.

That being said, both countries are equally proud; arrogant even. When TH Ilves and Mart Laar went on their "Estonia is a Nordic country" roadshow back in '99, the Balts balked at the Estonians' self-importance. "They think they are better than us," they opined. That's right, they do, and if you explore the Estonian worldview, you'll find they think they are better than everyone else, too.

The Finns? Inbred drunks luckier only in size and history. The Swedes? Pompous windbags, but preferable to the Russians. The Russians? They think cockroaches are lucky. The Germans? Land-hungry morons. The Latvians? I don't know any Latvians, do you know any Latvians? In this atmosphere, to be all other nations is to be in someway cursed. To be Estonian may bring with it undesirable baggage, but it is worth it when you are the smartest and best little country on Earth.

And, so, how interesting that I realized that Mr. Mak and Mr. Johnson were kind of right. The Danes and the Estonians had something in common. Just as the Danes think that everyone should adopt their egalitarian social welfare state, the Estonians believe that it is only a matter of time before everyone realizes the genius of their flat taxation policies and e-governance. It's pure nordic paternalism; Danmark and Eesti know best.

And if there are problems, well, there aren't actually any, because you are in Denmark/Estland, where everything is perfect, or at least as good as it can get given the circumstances. Danes will tell you that their society is open and tolerant. But in private they confess that they have no idea how to integrate people who wear head scarves and torch buildings when cartoons of their prophet are published in Danish newspapers. And, so, they ignore it. "Oh yeah, the cartoon scandal," they sigh dreamily. "I seem to remember reading something about that."

The Estonians have the nerve to tell you that there is no discrimination in their country, although of course there is; there is discrimination in every country. Paris is occasionally in flames and you can get stabbed in the Netherlands for making a film, but everything in Estonia is as it should be; and if it isn't, it's somebody else's fault. "Ah, yes, the cyber attacks," they say aloofly. "I remember seeing an article on that in Wired magazine."

Still, Tallinn is not Copenhagen. There are not enough bicycles, not enough jazz festivals, not enough guys selling sausages on sticks. But there are plenty of northern individualists riding around in expensive cars. And if you ask them in which direction they are headed, they will assure you that it is the right way.

18 kommentaari:

Kristopher ütles ...

Hey, I picked that book up briefly in Helsinki and did the obligatory index/contents check for Baltics. Seemed fascinating, though unanswered was the question of how the reportages were dated from the 1930s through the 1990s. Some sort of stylistic device, I guess.

But I would ask: where people are NOT hung up about the past? America prides itself in its national mythology as a place where people can live rootlessly (just as it can ignore foreign countries and languages) . But Hillary can't mention RFK without being accused of God knows what , and there have been plenty of other examples from recent months. Talk about obsession with the past.

Are the Baltics (or the discourse) really that hung-up about the past? I think an apology etc from Russia is the only thing missing. That's the elephant at the table. There has been reconciliation from Estonians but the other side is missing from the former aggressor -- no truth.

As for comments from locals, I kind of suspect they are engendered by foreign journalists who are assigned pieces on the Estonian national identity, and thus there is for ever an attempt to position Estonians as some sort of hybrid.

Ly Kesse ütles ...

I think one would be hard pressed to find a country that didn't have that kind of arrogance.

Americans certainly cannot understand why every other country is not organized the way they are, especially since the world is clamoring to get in here.

I spent a summer in France, and the French have certainly got it.

But in some ways that might be healthy: one should be most comfortable where one is. Unfortunately that often translates into arrogance.

Some of Estonia's preoccupation with the past is that the past is ever so present. First it is a land of castles, reminding everyone of the German conquest in 1200 something or other.

Also, WWII only ended in 1992(?) when the Iron Curtain fell. For Americans it ended in 1945, almost three generations earlier.

I remember going to Estonia in 1993. Everything that had been suppressed and illegal to talk about was now permitted. That was when relatives sent to Siberia told me of their terrible experiences.

Many Estonians told me of how the flag had been hidden in attics, as that was a forbidden object. My cousin finally learned the truth of her father's experiences during WWII. It had been illegal to talk about.

One relative that had been on the run from Stalin/the Soviets since 1944 could only finally use her own name again, when she was almost 80 years old. She was in hiding until 1992.

One Estonian woman who was 35 in 1993 told me that she had known nothing of the Estonian flag before 1992 and had known nothing about Vaba Eesti Riik.

So for Estonians, the past is present because without those conversations the experiences could not be integrated into the past. Unspoken, they remained silently ghost-like in the present.

Jens-Olaf ütles ...

The Estonians can be Scandinavians but do Old Scandinavia thinks the same about Estonia?. I doubt it. Denmark is the major power of the medieval times. Thinking of Norway: They tried to establish a distinctive written language, seperated from Danish. Sweden is the other power 1600-1700. And German was an important second language there nowadays replaced by English. So Finland joined the club. And Iceland is most related to Norway and Denmark.
Estonia is not represented in Old Scandinavians media. Read Aftenposten or Dagens Nyheter regulary. Where are the comments, analyses about Estonia? They are random.

LPR ütles ...

As hard as it is, I have to admit that the biggest culture shock after leaving Estonia to me was the realization that we are NOT the best in the world. Not the worst, but definately not the best.

It is always funny to see folks from the old country who make it fresh to these shores to go through the process of this realization.

Must be the same for the yanks going the other way. Nobody gives a rat's ass about you or your country.

Giustino ütles ...

But I would ask: where people are NOT hung up about the past?

It's not the past; it's particular parts of the past. The book, I admit, is about the 20th century. Maybe I have ODd on the 20th century. Need a little 17th century.

The Estonians can be Scandinavians but do Old Scandinavia thinks the same about Estonia?

Ah, but do the Estonians care what they think and vice versa? Who has time to look next door, when you are so busy fixing your hair in the mirror?

stockholm slender ütles ...

Yeah, it is pretty universal to think that your society, your culture is the best and basically only imaginable way of life. Sometimes it seems though to be a bit of a shock from people from great powers to encounter this attitude even in smaller countries. It admittedlly can be quite upsetting to encounter this unthinking Nordic superiority complex. We have it even in Finland and that with our otherwise weak self-confidence: there is very little doubt that this really, genuinely is the best there is. It is of course quite parochial and limited world view, but I must confess being actually bit partial to this attitude also: it is quite a feat to combine social justice with dynamic economy. Social mobility is extremely high, comparatively, in the Nordic countries, in a way that actually leaves the American dream far behind... It may not go on for much longer, but it has been quite an admirable way to organize society.

Unknown ütles ...

It seems you have not been socialising very actively here. My own excperiences tell me something else - I constantly keep hearing from my friends (Estonians, btw) how Estonia is the WORST country there is in the world, everything here is wrong - taxes are too high, medical care sucks, teachers are idiots, politicians brain-dead, salaries too low, army too small... in early 90s Estonians were in such a hurry to get away, to Finland or USA, because everything was perfect there. And it was a shock for them to find out it wasn't so.

Talking about and knowing about past is important, while it gives us an opportunity not to make the same mistakes once again. And it is quite hard not to think and remember, when you see tears in your mothers eyes, her reaction to some statements of some politicians and activists, who announce boldly, that occupation in Baltic countries never happened and that mass deportations were justified (mr Klenski said - deportations were just a picnic trip, a vacation..).

It's only after re-establishing the Estonian independence, when I heard the truth from my mother - that she was deported with her family. She told me, how her grandmother, a German woman, who survived Nazi conzentration camp (she was a threat to Nazi regime as being a social democrat), told her - Red Army committed more war crimes, killed more civilians and was much more brutal then nazis.. she must have known, she was living in Germany. She told my mother how the Soviet regime had taken over the nazi concentration camps and ... started using them again for similar purposes. It is hard to see, that the lessons have NOT been learnt, and that the same madness is taking over in countries so close to you, where Jossif, Vladimir and Felix are hailed as heroes and the sufferings of millions of people are constantly denied. Do you understand Russian? Read Russian blogs and forums and you'll see, how the new generation spits on the memory of their own ancestors, and on ours, too.

It is hard to see your mother's fear, that her children may have to go through the same torture she did. Not nice, no no.

Unknown ütles ...

Katrin has a point, but there is missing one side of the story, yes, we are complaining much, but actually we are hoping that rest of the world still thinks of us better than we do/ or sees the better side of us. But if it doesn´t- especially swedes-finns-danes-noweigians, then most of us really doesn´t give a s...t about that, we´ve get used to their arrogant and condescending attitude towards us because of our history.

cjc ütles ...

Täpselt! Ja, sådan er nu engang danskerne og esterne, lige sådan! This time You are better to find out the point then before when You was going back to "german" history.
Of course, Denmark and Estonia are not the navels of the world, so why should danish and german newspapers spent black for this issues. But - Jens-Olaf - in the danish newspappers You will find more informations about Estonia then in the germans, but , of course, they are random.

LPR ütles ...

I am usually content explaining Estonia that this is where the Encino Man is from and that we have problems with Elbonians in North East part of the country because we removed their totem pole. By accident, of course. People in California seem to sympathize and they get quickly back talking about the brushfires.

Indrek ütles ...

Why should news about Estonia in a Danish newspaper be any less random than for example news about Hiiumaa in Eesti Päevaleht or Postimees?

Veiko Spolitis ütles ...

"The nation state is not dead yet", as Stephen Krasner said back in 1999.

Egalitarian and individualistic EST and DEN are, but the question is whether they and other Baltic sea states can provide this egalitarianism and individuality in the long run? Li-Bennich Bjōrkman argues, that certain historic developments are the major reason for Estonian individualism, and I agree with her, because the roots for any individualism and civic mindedness in Latvia were squashed after events in 1959.

For Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles or Russians to achieve the level of nordic paternalism would mean painful structural changes. How ready these countries are to do those structural changes, particularly RUS with all their petrodollar bonanza? I am sceptic, especially seing how this petrodollar money corrupts the political class in LAT...

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


Ja Dansker spillet en mer aktiv rolle. Og de skriver mer om Estland na for tiden.
"Business Borsen, 6. April 1995:

Var det danske industrifolks uselviske indsats, der sikrede den nye estiske republik i 1919 - og lagde det statsredelige fundament for staten Estland i dag? Meget tyder pa, at svaret pa dette sporgsmal er. - Ja det var det!"

I only was a little bit dissapointed about the media coverage in Norway and Sweden during the years 1988-1991. Otherwise everything is back to normalne.
I would criticize more about Germany and the attitude of many politicians toward Estonia.

cjc ütles ...

"Meget tyder pa, at svaret pa dette sporgsmal er. - Ja det var det!"
Nej, det er sludder.
"I would criticize more about Germany and the attitude of many politicians toward Estonia"
Yes, I´m going with You

Giustino ütles ...


There are two faces to these societies. On one hand, they privately curse taxes, politicians, immigration problems, et cetera. On the other hand, I think each individual Estonian or Dane thinks high of his or herself and part of this high personal self esteem is nationalist in discourse.

Hence, in Estonia, the women are the most beautiful in the world, the Estonians are among the smartest and most talented in the world, the lifestyle is among the healthiest in the world.

I mean, why have Estonians done so well since 1991? Because they are of superior northern European stock, of course! They're not like those primitive Uzbeks, Moldovans, or even Russians -- they are quasi-Scandinavians, and so more is expected of them and they expect more.

LPR ütles ...

We got some big chips on our shoulders G, you are very observant, though on the other hand, it's like ... duh!? It's so obvious, isn't it? It does not take long to realize it. All this feigning the low self esteem is just a fig list to hide a major ego boners we estos have. Individaully and collectively.

That's why it pisses us off to high heavens when we see fellow estonians behaving in an unworthy manner. Liek some undermench. And you know whom I am talking about.

Oh well, OK. Maybe I am just speaking for myself and we ARE the white niggas of the Europe and desrve to spat in the face. By russians and everyone else.

We are not worth shit.

I have not figured any of it out, really.

Give one scotch, one whisky, one beer!

LPR ütles ...

Ah, never mind, I need to go to sleep ...

Sorry guys.