neljapäev, detsember 31, 2009

kakstuhat üheksa

According to Barbi Pilvre, the chronically dysfunctional state of the Estonian Victory Monument -- which has been in various states of illumination and repair since its grand opening in June -- is the failure of the year 2009. I agree.

But there have been other failures. Having more than 100,000 unemployed people in a country of 1,340,000 people is a failure, for one. Then there was the horror of watching both Sweden and Finland succumb to the overtures of the German-Russian Nord Stream project, a geopolitical energy deal that sends shivers up the backs of all on the east coast of the Baltic Sea. And Obama didn't even visit Tallinn. Failures, failures, failures all. Line them up. Watch them fall into the sea.

Ouch, Nord Stream. That one really cut. It hurt to see two larger adjacent countries fold in the face Saxon-Slavic pressure, to admit that even with 9 million people and a coastline to rival India's, Sweden is still, in the context of northern European geopolitics, about as intimidating as a lobster. Their security environment and Estonia's are not so different. If Russia really is to buy that Mistral warship from the French -- capable of transporting and deploying up to 16 helicopters, 13 battle tanks and 450 troops -- then surely, they could anchor that sucker off of Gamla Stan or Suomenlinna and bring down hell and fury there, too. But the Swedes and the Finns do not object. Such scenarios are regarded as outlandish. Why?

It appears there is not so much a difference in actual threat, but a difference in threat perception. One central difference between the foreign policies of the Swedes and the Finns and the Estonians, is that the Russian state lacks overt political objectives in the prior two countries. The Russians do not provide the Swedish ambassador with a list of demands to improve relations, as they did in 2002 to the then Estonian ambassador to Moscow. Russia has demands for Estonia, any tango over the laying of pipe in its waters would lead to more avenues for the Slavic octopus to slide its tentacles up the trousers of Estonia's decision makers and play this country like a puppet show. "Hi, I am your prime minister," the Russian Octopus would throw its voice holding up the doll-like Estonian PM. "We've now decided to give the Russians a more privileged interest in our land, because if there's one thing the Russians love, it's having a privileged interest."

No, no, no. Nasty, slimy, grotesque, icky. No. Keep your clothes on. Keep the Russians out and the boys from NATO in, at all costs, even if it means a stronger commitment to the war no one can ever win, Afghanistan. Anglo-led divisions have been in and out of there since the 1830s and yet, the tribal rivalries, the cumbersome terrain, it still feels brand new. And now there are Estonians there, again. To borrow a line from the esteemed Scottish-born poet Byrne: "And you might find yourself living in a shotgun shack/ And you might find yourself in another part of the world/ And you might find yourself being a 20 year-old from a small northern European country patrolling the steppes of Helmand province." And he always finds himself marching in the same direction.

But enough about failures. Who needs failures? Why dwell on failures when everyone knows that failure is just another word for success? Barbi Pilvre may say the monument is a failure for being mired in a state of perpetual renovation. Others might say it's a success for even having been built at all. Even if it was lit up for only a few minutes, what wondrous, successful minutes those were. Sure the economy is still down, but we might get the euro next year, even though we were supposed to get it years ago. The country might have taken a few punches thanks to the financial crisis, but it hasn't burned up in the same decadent, spectacular burst of mismanagement that characterized the Icelandic or Latvian crises. That's success, not failure. The ship of state is in good hands. Estonia is a success story.

Who to salute? Prime Minister Andrus Ansip. According to Ansip, the Reform Party [his party -- Ed.] has welded today's sleek, slick 2009 model Estonia from the corroded junk metal of Soviet socialism. You don't have to wait in line for hours anymore to obtain matches to start the wood furnaces in your homes: there are boxes and boxes of matches at the local Selver or Säästumarket or Comarket or Rimi. That's progress. That's why the Reform Party was and continues to be the most popular party in Estonia according to all polls. Even when they went down in municipal elections, the polls still showed them on top. They've got the upper hand. Great success.

But what do I know, anyway? I could just be making all of this stuff up. But if I am capable of making up the past, and capable of distorting the present, then I might as well predict the future as well. Estonia, I think you are in for a long, boring year. Political life will ossify. The glögi at the local Selver will taste the same as it did in the first decade of the 21st century. Cultural life will ferment with a hint of artsy superficiality and a pinch of dastardly behind-the-scenes badmouthing. And as for getting by, existential politics, well, mu kallis Eesti, we have been getting by, little by little, by and by, for decades. Like the Estonian foot soldier in the central Asian mountains, we know we can march in but one direction.

Piparkoogi mees ja naine courtesy of Nami-Nami, a food blog.

pühapäev, detsember 27, 2009

new yorgi hing

Italians and Jews. Jews and Italians. For a significant chunk of my life, these were the two main ethnic groups around me, the bread and butter of my existence.

Sure there were Canadien transplants and Irishmen and Germans and even the old ice-blooded melange of English, Dutch, and Scotch, not to mention Indians and Pakistanis and Chinese and Taiwanese and Koreans but, no, when it came down to it, the others were but patterns on the wallpaper. Here, it was either Jews and Italians, or Italians and Jews.

Take my high school band. The guitarist? Jew. Bassist? Italian. Drummer? Jew. Singer? Italian. Backing singer? Jew. Trumpeter? Italian. Saxophonist? Jew. And, yes, other trumpeter? Jew, too. There was a third backing singer on occassion. A Pole. That's diversity.

Where did we come from? How did we get here? New York has been overdeveloped but the wildness still sneaks through the cracks. This isn't really our land. This isn't the Mediterranean. This isn't Poland. This is a place where the indigenous names are sprawled across palate-tickling consonants and vowels. The latest addition to the roster of federally recognized tribes is a local one: Shinnecock. They have the luxury of owning the original real estate deed to a piece of Long Island now frequented by the likes of such titans as Billy Joel, Jerry Seinfeld, and Martin Scorcese. But they'll have the last laugh. After receiving recognition 10 days ago, it's almost guaranteed they'll build a casino. They just want what their neighbors have. Call it a case of keeping up with the Seinfelds.

Yesterday I sat in a mall here and the strangest thing happened to me. A man sat down next to me and started to talk. From his looks, he could have been an Italian. Or a Jew. Either way, within five minutes I knew his daughters' ages, knew the story of how he had once plopped all three of them on a wagon and dragged them around this very mall on Christmas Eve way back during the first Clinton Administration when they were all just little girls.

"My oldest is 22, my youngest is 17," he said. "Is she your first?" he pointed at my younger daughter, who was asleep on my chest.

"No, I have an older one, too."

"Well, I guess you just got here. You should take off her hat. Unbutton her jacket. It's hot in here."

I did as I was told but I was concerned. Something was not right. Who was this strange man and what did he want? Money? A special favor? No. His story checked out. The 17-year-old daughter emerged from a nearby boutique and they left together. He even wished me a Merry Christmas. I was puzzled. I tried to think if any random Estonian had ever started a conversation with me in a public place. And I sat. And I thought.


Epp wanted to know if I felt nostalgic at the mall. But when I was a child, most of this overdeveloped stretch of Long Island was just fields. It wasn't like this, I tried to explain. The subdivisions, big box stores, acres of parking lots, Lowe's, Sports Authority, Target, Home Depot, K-Mart, Starbucks, none of it was here. I watched them plow it under, piece by piece. And yes, I felt a little bit hurt as they did it. I felt like it was not exactly theirs to develop. Even if I did not own those fields, they were still part of my environment. Once the new temples were erected, though, the curious bystanders went inside. I was one of them.

When I think of my childhood, I think of this reflexive grasping for nature. I remember the snails crawling along the wooden fence in our backyard. I remember the smell of low tide at the beach. The most enthralling entertainment around was The Muppet Show. If my childhood had a host, it might as well have been John Denver. Well, maybe just part of it. Because the mall did make me nostalgic. I was thinking of how my cousin and I went shopping when we were adolescents. I bought Pink Floyd, he got Psychedelic Furs. We stayed up late at night listening to Depeche Mode, discussing the plot twists of Die Hard. These were our totems. Audio, cinema: they linked us to something much greater than ourselves.

I imagine that Estonia is undergoing a similar experience as it watches its fields give birth to shopping centers. You have not been bombarded by a shopping experience until you've walked through the mall at Lõunakeskus in Tartu around the holiday season. It's a disorienting, mind altering experience. You cannot even walk anymore; your brain is overpowered by each advertisement, each revolving sign. You become one with the Coco Chanel perfume, the Timberland boots. It's non-stop action, Lõunakeskus. On one day the ice-skating rink at the center of this commercial octopus might serve as a platform for a hockey game, another day might see it host a figure-skating competition. Lõunakeskus will not rest, it will not stop until you reach into your pocket and buy something.And in the midst of this muddle my older daughter is asking me questions.

Do you believe in God?

I, uh ...

Was Jesus God or God's son?

God's son. At least, that's what they say.

If he died, then how could he come back to life again?

It's complicated.

Good thing we have Christmas presents to blow the hell out of all theological discussions. How did he come to life again? Who cares? Who can care when there are more boxes to open or chocolate to consume? Say grace? Say, how about some more mashed potatoes? God bless you Christmas. God bless you for stuffing your gingerbread dynamite in the cracks of self awareness and laying waste to it all. Destroy, destroyed, destruction, enlightenment. The paper ruffles and the boxes tear, the high of opening gifts lights the air afire. I care to know the answers to no questions other than the one question, the most important question of them all: What did Santa bring me this year?

Santa brought me Henry Miller's Quiet Days in Clichy and a new brown belt. I needed both. Almost a month ago our bus pulled into Roma at 5 am. We all got out in the rain, and I waited on a platform next to a Nigerian drunk who was vomiting all over himself for a train to take me to Termini. I got out at Termini and followed the streets down to the River Tiber, over the river, and onwards to Vatican City. I sat at the foot of the city finishing off Tropic of Capricorn and eating a leftover sandwich of prosciutto and mozzarella. All around me priests and policemen floated by as I regaled myself with Miller's foul language (he's fond of words, all of them). And I wondered if Ratzinger had read this book. He should. He should read it. He might like it. Ratzinger can communicate in dozens of languages. Why not know one tongue more intimately? Miller was from a southern German Catholic family, so's Ratzinger. Why, they're practically cousins.

For the longest time, I have been trying to explain away some of these attributes that allow me to wallow in vulnerability. How come I do not think about God? Ever? Why are they lining up for mass and I am asking Santa for another dirty book? The soul is important and yet, I am not nourishing it, not even at Christmas time. Or am I? I try to explain it away. It's not me, I might think, it's my roots or it's the town I grew up in. It's the company I keep, or the books I read, or the stars that were in the sky on the day I was born. But, as I get older, I am understanding to an even greater extent that it is none of those things. It is simply me.

I even once met a guy who was born on the same day of the same year as me. He had been living one floor above me during my last semester of college. The university had taken possession of a particularly unruly fraternity's house and turned it into student housing. By some turn of luck they had housed me there, along with a group of other seniors who were keen on making use of the premises for wild keg parties. We even invented a name for our imaginary frat: Lambda Lambda Lambda. And this guy, my birthday twin, was at the center of the racket. He asked me for $20 the day before the first party. They day after the first party, he returned to my door with $80.

"We need to throw a few more parties before March," birthday twin said. He wore a black leather jacket, had potato peel-colored hair that was already fading to gray, spoke in a dry deadpan, and always looked a bit amused. "I'm saving up for spring break."

"Where are you going?"


"You're excited about going to Mississippi?" I cocked an eyebrow.

"Southern belles!" he grinned. "Southern belles! I've got a friend at Ole Miss and he's promised to hook me up with some Southern belles!" He played with the remaining cash in his hand. "So are you in for the next one?"

"Sure," I said.

"You had a good time last night?"


"Good," he snatched $20 back from me. "I'll need this to get us started."

That was my birthday brother. We shared rising signs and moon signs, but when it came down to it, I lacked his adroit business sense and fondness for the Southern lifestyle. It's like I said. It's simply me. Me and nothing else.


I went for a walk through a nearby nature preserve yesterday, still hung up on the question of culture. The wild and raw land of the original inhabitants here has been beaten back and reshaped into the image of America's mother country: England. Even now the process is not complete. Everything will be ordered and manicured and named. When I was a teenager I could disappear into the thickets of the nearby forests for hours. Now, most have been tamed and converted for public use or razed to give way to new housing units. I could not resist, though, to just stroll off the path into the forest and then out the other side. To avoid the paths altogether. In the center, I met animal tracks of all different shapes and sizes. Deer had certainly been here. But maybe something else. Maybe a bear? Probably not, but, what a thought.

I know none of the names of the trees or bushes or birds. I wish I had Fred Jüssi along for the stroll. I wish I was Fred Jüssi, just so I could disappear into the forest with a great excuse ("It's my job!") I need to learn more. Right now I know little of nature and little of God and I am 30 years old. There is obviously still much to do. In the evening my father called me from my grandmother's house with a boyish urgency to his voice.

"There's a photograph here," he said. "It's of cousin Cosmo in San Giorgio, except he's dead."

"I don't understand."

"It's like a photo of his wake. He's in the coffin. Do you know who Cosmo is?"


"Me neither."

"But where did you get the photo?"

"It was on my mother's kitchen table."

"And where did she find it?"

"She said she doesn't remember."

Grandma just turned 91. She's forgetful. But how did she dig up a photo of a man nobody remembers from a village our family left over a century ago? It had been a century until I returned last month. But I'm getting ahead of myself. That's another story.

"She doesn't remember?" I was skeptical.

"She says she doesn't know how it got there."

When my grandfather died, he lingered. I never saw him again, but I felt him in interesting places. He'd just be there, sitting in the chair when I came home late at night. And I was never scared, because it was him. His air was in the chair. He was just relaxing. Maybe flipping through a celestial magazine. Sometime after that he faded away. I figured he was gone for good. Now, I wasn't so sure again. Who knows what goes on in that house at night? Of course, there was a manicured, orderly, curated explanation for it all. Grandma had simply resurrected cousin Cosmo and then forgotten about him altogether. There were a lot of memories in her 91 year-old head. How to balance the events of, say, Dec. 26, 1939, with the events of the same day 70 years later? I decided, though, to believe that some other power had compelled cousin Cosmo to resurface. The photo on the table. My father at the house. For me, the whole thing seemed too perfect.

pühapäev, detsember 13, 2009

christmas in tallinn

I would have walked right past him had two other people not stopped to help him up. And when I saw them stop, I knew they must be foreigners. Only foreigners would stop to help a disheveled drunk with a bleeding head wound in the frosty streets of Tallinn's Old Town.

"Are you ok? How can we help you?" said one foreigner, a man.

"Your head is bleeding! Do you need help? What happened?" said the second, a woman.

"I have a passport!" slurred the drunk. He looked to be about 50 years old, and the top of his shirt was unbuttoned. When he leaned forward, I saw the blood stains on the medieval stone wall.

I stood back, ready to assist. The man turned to me. "Can you speak Estonian?"

"Yeah," I said. "Kas ma saaksin teid aidata?" (Can I help you?) I addressed the drunk in Estonian, but knew it was no good.

"I have a passport!" he said again and reached towards his inner pocket.

"Oletko suomalainen?" (Are you Finnish?) I tried in my best Finnish accent.

"Yes, I am Finnish," he nodded. "I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm just," he paused to hiccup, "fine."

"Maybe you can call someone?" said the foreign man.

I went into a nearby shop and approached the clerk, a young, dark-haired woman who was texting a friend.

"There's a guy outside your window. His head is bleeding," I told her in Estonian.

"There's a guy outside my window," she murmured, still mesmerized by her mobile.

"Can you help at all? I mean do you have any tissues, paper towels?"

"Oh, ok." She finally put her phone in her pocket, and pulled on a jacket. "Where is he?" We went outside together with some tissues for the drunk's bleeding head.

"What am I supposed to do?" she panicked when she saw him.

"I don't know. Call the police?" I said.

"The police? I don't know." She looked around and accosted a round, bearded man in the street and they began to speak in Russian. The man called to someone while the foreigners helped the distressed Finnish drunk up.

"I'll just go back to my hotel," he said, staggering towards the street. "I'm fine, I have a passport," he lunged towards me.

"I have one, too. Are you going to be ok? It's cold. Kylmä," I said.

"Yes, yes," he buttoned his top button. "Fine, just fine, just."

The burly Russian man hung up his phone. "Is everything going to be ok?" I asked him, this time in English.

"Yeah, he'll be alright" he said and walked away. The clerk also returned to her shop and beloved mobile phone.

"Are you sure you'll be ok?" asked the foreign woman.

"Yes, I have a passport, I am going to my hotel," the drunken Finn slurred and limped towards the Town Hall Square.

On the way up the street the foreigners introduced themselves: two tourists, a husband and wife from Oslo. Oslo: I had been there before. I recalled there were drunks and junkies aplenty lining the streets from Prince Haakon's doorstep straight down to the train terminal. And yet these two cared enough to help some stranger in a foreign city. Were the Norwegians just the penultimate specimens of human dignity, or was it just by luck that these two kind ones had passed the drunken Finn, Tallinn's own Little Match Girl?

I bid the Norwegians God Jul and felt ashamed for not having stopped by myself to help a fellow human in distress. Had it not been for the Norwegians, I would have stepped over him like a crumpled, day's old copy of Postimees. Was that the spirit of Tallinn in me, or the spirit of New York, or just the plain old mean-spirited spirit of indifference?

esmaspäev, detsember 07, 2009

matilde ja mina

Disappointment. Utter disappointment. When did it set in? First I had to use the restroom. But it was midnight at the Tallinn bus station and the public pay-for-relief toilets all close at 11 pm. Which means that if you've got to go and you're on the night bus to Tartu or Saint Petersburg, you are quite literally shit out of luck.

"Is there a toilet around here?" I ask the night watchman at the station.

"Not at this hour," he frowns. "Believe me, it's a big problem."

The poor fellow had to hold it until morning. It's amazing what people are forced to do in order to earn a living.

So I let myself go behind some trailers parked on the other side of the bus station parking lot. I tried not to make too much noise, should I attract the attention of adjacent alcoholics. When you think of the term "alcoholic," you might think of an old man with a strawberry for a nose and the stink of rotten innards that shocks the air with its outrageous foulness. But the alcoholics at the Tallinn bus terminal weren't old, they were kids.

I watched them pass a bottle of moonshine around. It had no label. Just a bottle of vodka. Not water. Not juice. Not even limoncello or a 40 oz. Pure alcohol. And how old were they? 19? There was some commotion at the Tallinn bus terminal. Some yelling, some chest beating. Some cry of the frustrated Estonian youth. Maybe it had something to do with unemployment, I don't know. But when Epp told me that the meteorologist for Postimees was beaten to death with a baseball bat outside of Tallinn's Old Town two weeks ago, it didn't come as a complete shock. There are evil people in that city, Tallinn. They lack hope and access to necessary facilities.

The taxi driver was bad. He broke the cardinal rule: don't bitch to your customer about how great things were during "Russian times' (vene ajal -- which actually means "Soviet times" in Estonian, he wasn't talking about life as a subject of that affable chap Nicholas Romanov). Oh, vene ajal this and vene ajal that. "In Russian times, trains were going everywhere all the time: Riga, Moscow, Minsk."

"Who the hell wants to go to Minsk?"

That shut him up.

And the worst thing is that I was coming from Copenhagen airport. All of Kastrup was enlightened by Tivoli-like goodness. There were oceans of Tuborg Julebryg, the Danish beer maker's delicious Christmas blend, waiting to be swum, steppes of chocolate waiting to be traversed, armies of titanic flight attendants waiting to be noticed, and, the most endearing, my old girlfriend, Matilde, waiting for a late-afternoon rendezvous.

For me, my study abroad period in Denmark in 2001 was deafening in its destruction of all things sentimental and sane. It was like trying to sleep inside a timpani during the 1812 Overture. My neighbor was your typical Scandinavian nutcase. Every time she got in a fight with her boyfriend, she'd visit my room just to make him jealous. He'd sit there in her room moping, blasting "I Just Can't Get Enough" by Depeche Mode, while she would tuck herself into my bed and light up a smoke. This happened two or three times, and each time I told her, "I'm sorry, but you just can't smoke in here."

But there were others. The Swedish aristocrat who hated my guts. The Faroese girl who invited me to fix some furniture in her room and then rewarded me with morss (juice from concentrate). The ex-model who used to date the son of the star of an American 1980s TV show, and kept telling me about how she really preferred his dad. "He was just so funny." Only once did I see a normal pige in all of Denmark: she was wearing a shirt with a picture of the Buddha on it and seemed genuinely pleased by the efficiency of Danish mass transit. She was smart. She didn't talk to me.

Through all of this, there was Matilde, the chocolate milk I drank every morning on my way to school. She was always there waiting for me, soothing me in times of distress. And when I saw her there in the airport -- I actually saw about 50 boxes of her there -- my eyes moistened. It had been too long. Yes, I cut my teeth on sweets in Denmark. I pounded the sugar, I saturated my blood. And in the airport I had to relish one more. One more Matilde for old times. It was good. Just as I remembered.

The dark is rising now. In Denmark and in its former possession, Eistland. The dark consumes us, breaks our souls on a wheel of mist and moisture and night. It's sinister. It's the kind of creeping dread that can make a man fall in love with a box of chocolate milk. In such a despondent crapper of humanity as the Tallinn bus terminal, you'd think they'd make it an all night party, just to help us live through this. There should be batches of fresh piparkoogid, vats of simmering hõõgvein, Hanseatic bus drivers in medieval costumes, and toilets that stay open all night long that you can use for free. Free toilets? I know, what you're thinking: that's socialism.

The bus that night eventually dropped me off in some foggy forlorn armpit of south Estonia called Veeriku. I walked past the glimmering Selver, the oase di pace of Tartu, a spark of northern commercial vibrancy in a junkyard of imperial trash, then crossed the miserable railroad tracks where trees are ugly and want to die, and the buildings look as if they permanently contemplate suicide. This was my spot on the earth, for now, the only thing redeemable about it being my little family, a family of women so resplendent they could light up a mining shaft.

As soon as my head hit the pillow, I knew that I would have to procure the necessary ingredients just to survive here. Lemons would have to peeled for more limoncello, armfuls of spaghetti, fusilli, and penne bought just to keep our insides aglow. We would need kalamata olives and pesto and a lifetime supply of passata di pomodoro. And, most of all, dolci, sugary sweetness, loaves of gingerbread dough, ladles full of glögi. There is light at the end of the tunnel. I believe in it, I can almost see it. The more chocolate milk I drink, the brighter it gets.


By the way, My Estonia is now available via Amazon (finally). It should also be available soon through, Amazon UK, Barnes and Noble and other online bookstores. Enjoy.

reede, detsember 04, 2009

dead parrot

I couldn't resist. Here's a quick deconstruction of British conservative journalist John Laughland's piece in The Brussels Journal, "The De-Russification of the Baltics Serves a Geopolitical Purpose."

While I will not reprint the whole article here, I believe it contains some interesting and all-too-familiar anti-Baltic memes. Taken one by one, each can be unfolded and discussed. But put them all together, and you have one mesmerizing anti-Baltic ideological stew.

Laughland, Point One: Take the case of the Baltic States. These territories formed part of the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1991, when they became independent a few months before the Soviet Union itself was dissolved completely. They had enjoyed a brief period of independence between the wars, as a result of the humiliating peace forced on a defeated Russia, weakened by revolution, by Germany and Austria at Brest-Litovsk in 1918.

Here are two memes in one paragraph: Baltic independence was brief and the result of a humiliating peace treaty forced on a defeated Russia. I take issue with both. First, the interwar period of independence was not brief. 22 years is not brief. 22 years is a whole generation. Within 22 years, a person is born, raised, and may even get married and sire offspring. Georgia's period of independence from May 1918 to February 1921 was brief. Second, when countries lose wars, they are forced to sign treaties, weakened by revolution or otherwise. I am sure it was "humiliating" when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, too. Nobody feels empowered after losing a war and signing away real estate.

Laughland, Point Two. During independence, the Baltic states became dictatorships (Lithuania in 1926, Latvia and Estonia in 1934). Prior to 1918, Latvia and Estonia had never existed as states: they had been part of the Russian empire from the 1720s onwards, i.e. since shortly after Scotland and England united to form the United Kingdom, and before that they had belonged to Sweden and earlier to the Teutonic Knights. (The history of Lithuania is different.)

Meme three and four: the Baltics were under dictatorships in the '20s and '30s and there is a lack of historical precedent for statehood. But, wait a minute, a lot of countries were ruled by dictators in the 1920s and 1930s. Poland, Germany, Italy, not to mention the USSR. So, the point here is? Second, plenty of states devolved from empires without having experienced recent periods of independence, especially in the 20th century. At least half of current EU countries were not independent in 1914. Good to see though that, in regards to this point, Lithuania doesn't count as a Baltic state.

Laughland, Point Three:
Their incorporation into the USSR in 1944 was therefore not, as many claim today, an act of naked Russian aggression but instead the restoration of a status quo ante which had existed for centuries and which in any case was supported by a significant section of the Baltic political class, many of whose members were ardent Communists.

Meme five and six: a) That whole blockade Tallinn harbor, shoot down commercial aircraft, and threaten to invade with our vastly superior military unless you do everything we say thing wasn't "naked Russian aggression" at all. That was just, like, you know, the "restoration of a status quo ante which had existed for centuries." So if the British took back Ireland in 1940, shot de Valera, and deported the Irish ruling class to Tasmanian slave labor camps, it wouldn't have been "naked British aggression," just a restoration of the way things had been before. I'm telling you, there is a Monty Python sketch in here somewhere. "I didn't kill you, mate, I just restored the status quo ante." b) Baltic political class? Ardent Communists? Really, in whose political interest was it to get a) executed or b) deported by the Soviets? The "Communists" they found to play the roles of statesmen in their orchestrated coups weren't even politicians (or communists for that matter). The prime minister of the Soviet-picked government in Estonia was a poet and doctor, his assistant PM a historian, and his foreign minister was a school master. These men were neither ardent communists nor members of the political class.

Laughland, Point Four: As a result of their long existence as part of Russia (and, later, the Soviet Union) these territories, especially Latvia and Estonia, have large Russian minorities.

That's true, though not in the way he means it. Estonia's largest minority before the Second World War was the Russian minority, about 8 percent of the population.

Laughland, Point Five: When they achieved independence in 1991, the Baltic States decided to adopt as their founding constitutional principle a piece of political fiction known as the theory of occupation. They claimed that they had been “occupied” by the USSR, rather than incorporated into it, and that their independence was merely the restoration of an interrupted statehood.

Meme seven: the occupation never happened. The problem is that, be it political fiction or not, most countries in the world believed it because they had never recognized the original occupation and annexation. They rightly returned Baltic assets kept for 50 years to said countries. Call it a return to the status quo ante. Or maybe just a nefarious Western conspiracy.

Laughland, Point Six:
This theory of occupation is, quite simply, a lie. Occupation is a specific situation in international relations when one country dominates another by installing troops on its territory.

So, according to this definition, the ultimatum to create the bases pact in 1939 and uninvited entry of Soviet troops in June 1940 would count as an occupation. Good to know. From this point on, Laughland careens into the stratosphere. He's bouncing off satellites, diving through black holes. Here's an example: The most important of these measures has been, in Latvia and Estonia, the dogged introduction, over two decades now, of laws on citizenship whose goal is to erode the national identity of Russians by closing their schools and by preventing them from voting.

Say wha? 2+2=5? I keep reading that sentence over and over again, and I get the feeling like he wrote this late at night from a jumble of talking points provided by the Russian foreign ministry.

I think the Russian argument, transmitted via Laughland, is that if all the people in Estonia were allowed to vote for parliament (since they already can vote in municipal elections), regardless of where they were born or what passport they held, then Edgar Savisaar's Centre Party would be running the show and eating out of the Kremlin's hand. But that's not really true. When Savisaar raised the issue of reforming citizenship laws during his address to the Centre Party congress last week, the Social Democrats (SDE) and the Estonian People's Union (ERL), the two parties that would most likely form a government with the Centrists should they win in 2011, quickly said they would not back such reforms. It's just not going to happen the way you want it to happen, Moscow. It just isn't. Sorry.

Supposedly the Russians are gearing up for another exhausting propaganda campaign to waste more time trying to slime Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, with the desperate hope that if they repeat the same lies over and over again, they will suddenly become true. I find these campaigns dull and so tiresome I regret even writing this blog post. I also regret actually reading Laughland's article.

neljapäev, detsember 03, 2009

la dolce vita

I just got back from a whirlwind trip of Puglia and Calabria in Italy. I'd love to tell you about it, but I already have a 70-page manuscript and it's growing and growing and growing. It's a book, not a blog post.

At dinner one night in Puglia, though, I was asked a harmless question. We were munching on olives, waiting for the first course.

"Do they have pizza in Estonia?" asks cousin Beppe.

"Sure," I say in Italian. "There's a great restaurant in Tartu where I live called La Dolce Vita. The boss is Italian."

"Boss?" Cousin Lino shudders at the word.

"Boss?" Beppe is equally as astounded.

"Hah," snorts Lino. "I can't believe the mafia is in Estonia, too."

"Mafia? No, no, no, no, no," I throw my hands up in protest. "He's not in the mafia. He's just the boss. The owner. The proprietor."

"Then why didn't you say so?" Beppe looks incredulous. "Don't you know that 'boss' in Italy means only one thing: mafioso?"

"No, I didn't know that."

"Well, now you know," Lino spits out another olive pit.

"Anyway, I didn't think they had mafia in Puglia," I say. "I thought the mafia was in Sicily, the 'Ndrangheta was in Calabria, and the Camorra was in Napoli."

"I can't believe how much he knows," Beppe shakes his head. "How do you know these things?"

"Everybody knows these things," says Lino. "It's common knowledge."

"But who's running things in Bari?"

"The Sacra Corona," Beppe and Lino simultaneously announce and roll their eyes.

"Sacra Corona?"

"They're not Barese," Lino cuts swiftly through the air with his hand to deny the association. "They're from Lecce."

"Lecce," Beppe sighs and grabs another olive.

"And you guys aren't in Sacra Corona are you?"

Lino smiles and raises his right hand, palm facing me. "No," he swears.

Beppe also raises his hand. "No," he gives his word of honor.

"Me neither," I laugh and raise my hand to face theirs. "No."