kolmapäev, veebruar 24, 2010


To All The Peoples of Estonia

Never in the course of centuries have the Estonian people lost their ardent desire for Independence. From generation to generation Estonians have kept alive the secret hope that in spite of enslavement and oppression by other nations the time will come in Estonia "when all splinters, at both end, will burst forth into flames" and when "Kalev will come home to bring his children happiness."

Now this time has arrived.

An unprecedented struggle of nations has destroyed the rotten foundations of the Russian Tsarist Empire. All over the Sarmatian plains ruinous anarchy is spreading, threatening to overwhelm in its wake all peoples living within the borders of the former Russian Empire. From the West the victorious armies of Germany are approaching in order to claim their share of Russia's legacy and, above all, to take possession of the coastal territories of the Baltic Sea.

In this fateful hour the Estonian National Council, as the legal representative of our land and people, has, in unanimous agreement with Estonian democratic political parties and organizations, and by virtue of the right of self-determination of peoples, found it necessary to take the following decisive steps to shape the destiny of Estonian land and people.


within her historical and ethnic boundaries, is declared as of today an


The independent Republic of Estonia shall include Harjumaa, Läänemaa, Järvamaa, Virumaa, with the city of Narva and its surroundings, Tartumaa, Võrumaa, Viljandimaa, and Pärnumaa with the Baltic islands of Saaremaa, Hiiumaa, Muhumaa, and others where the Estonians have settled for ages in large majorities. Final determination of the boundaries of the Republic in the areas bordering on Latvia and Russia will be carried out by plebiscite after the conclusion of the present World War.

In the aforementioned areas the only supreme and organizing authority is the democratically supported Estonian Salvation Committee created by the Estonian National Council.

The Republic of Estonia wishes to maintain absolute political neutrality towards all neighbouring states and peoples and expects that they will equally respond with complete neutrality.

Estonian military forces shall be reduced to the extent necessary to maintain internal order. Estonian soldiers serving in the Russian military forces will be called home and demobilized.

Until the Estonian Constituent Assembly, elected by general, direct, secret, and proportional elections, will convene and determine the constitutional structure of the country, all executive and legislative authority will remain vested in the Estonian National Council and in the Estonian Provisional Government created by it, whose activities must be guided by the following principles:

1. All citizens of the Republic of Estonia, irrespective of their religion, ethnic origin, and political views, shall enjoy equal protection under the law and courts of justice of the Republic.

2. All ethnic minorities, the Russians, Germans, Swedes, Jews, and others residing within the borders of the republic, shall be guaranteed the right to their cultural autonomy.

3. All civic freedoms, such at the freedom of expression, of the press, of religion, of assembly, of association, and the freedom to strike as well as the inviolability of the individual and the home, shall be irrefutably effective within the territory of the Estonian Republic and based on laws which the Government shall immediately work out.

4. The Provisional Government will be charged with the immediate organization of the courts of justice to protect the security of the citizens. All political prisoners shall be released immediately.

5. The city, county, and township local governments will be called upon to continue their work, which has been violently interrupted.

6. For maintenance of public order, people's militia, subordinated to local governments, shall be immediately organized and citizens' self-defence organizations established in the cities and rural areas.

7. The Provisional Government in instructed to work out without delay, on a broad democratic basis, bills for the solution of the agrarian problem, and the problems of labor, of food supply, and of finances.

E s t o n i a ! You stand on the threshold of a hopeful future in which you shall be free and independent in determining and directing your destiny. Begin building a home of your own, ruled by law and order in order to be a worthy member within the family of civilized nations. Sons and daughters of our homeland, let us unite as one man in the sacred task of building our homeland. The sweat and blood shed by our ancestors for this country oblige us to do it, and we must do it for the sake of our future generations.

May God watch over Thee
And amply bless
Whatever thou undertake
My dear homeland!

Long live the independent democratic Republic of Estonia!

Long live peace among nations!

The Council of Elders
Estonian National Council
February 24, 1918

laupäev, veebruar 13, 2010

west end girls

There's something utterly depressing about hearing the Pet Shop Boys in a supermarket in Estonia. Maybe it's the cold synthesizers or the singer's sad tales of broken romance, but I'd rather hear anything else, I even welcomed Madonna's "La Isla Bonita" after suffering through one of their tunes.

I guess it reminds me of being on the Brighton waterfront at 2 am, with some guy screaming at me that his boyfriend OD'd. I told him, "What do you want me to do? Get him in one of those taxis and take him to a hospital." But he didn't. All he did was cry and scream. What a nightmare. And of course I didn't help, being not only a foreigner with a dead cellphone but a callous bastard, too. But that was then.

I think little of Estonian politics these days. The Ansip years stretch on, buoyed by the prime minister's steadfast belief that he is always right (Crisis? What crisis?). Ansip has supposedly modeled his career on Denmark's Andres Fogh Rasmussen's but he actually reminds me a bit of his overly confident counterpart to the north, Matti Vanhanen. In the same way that Ansip can argue that his country's concerns about the planned Nord Stream pipeline are solely environmental, Vanhanen can tell the Finnish press that an underwater pipeline is good for the environment and European energy security. Matti and Andrus, two sides of the same Balto-Finnic coin (which will hopefully be a euro on both sides of the gulf by this time next year).

I think Estonians are bored with Estonian politics too. Party support has ossified. Reform and Centre trade leads every few weeks, depending on whose leader most recently said or did something dumb. IRL and SDE limp by with their reliable slices of the remaining electorate. The same tired politicians continue to hurl the same insults at each other and few care. The central spread in this weekend's Postimees isn't about Estonia at all; it's about Ukraine. I have to say, I am more eager to read about Ukraine than Estonia.

The underwhelming victory of Viktor Yanukovich over Yulia Tymoshenko last week has caused all sorts of soul searching in Estonia and, in general, the West. Estonians look at the electoral map of Ukraine with its Russophone, industrial east and see Ida Virumaa, perhaps glad that they've only got one county like that, rather than half a country. Americans look at the electoral map of Ukraine and see the irreconcilable "red states" and "blue states." Geopolitical nerds fantasize about a velvet divorce between West Ukraine and East Ukraine. As usual, we blame ourselves. If only we had done more, Ukraine wouldn't have fallen back into the hands of the Kremlin's stooges, some analysts argue. We've missed a prime opportunity and it's all our fault.

Indeed, there are lessons to be learned. I think everyone in the West sympathized most with Yulia over Viktor, even if, as any Ukrainian-born cab driver will tell you, she's just as mercurial and crooked as the rest. It started with her role in the Orange Revolution. I did enjoy watching her spar with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a series of articles, because anybody who gives it to Lavrov is ok with me.

Tymoshenko, let's not forget, also has the hair. Never underestimate the power of the hair. With Tymoshenko, for the first time, perhaps ever, people in the West had a distinct image of Ukrainians, and a positive image at that. She became Ukraine's romantic nationalist face, with a mug more magnetic than Viktor Yuschenko's or Viktor Yanukovich's. Show the photos of Yulia and the Viktors to anyone on a street in Tartu or Stockholm or London or Vancouver, and most people would probably choose Yulia. She seemed so different from what we've come to expect from Soviet and post-Soviet leadership: not only was she dynamic and charismatic, but she was also female.

Think about it. Who was the last female leader of Ukraine? Actually, I did a little research, and Serafima Hopner was secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine for a few months in 1918. That's better than Estonia, though, where there has never been since 1918 a female state elder, president, or prime minister. In the West, especially after 12 years of Margaret Thatcher, gender seems less of an issue. Ireland's had two successive female presidents. Even in Finland, Latvia, and Lithuania, women have held the highest office. But still in Estonia, it seems that we are faced with an ensemble cast of middle-aged men who are always right.

Despite the progressive, northern light in which Estonians would like to view themselves, I think the population would actually be uncomfortable with a Yulia-like candidate serving as prime minister or president. At one level, some female candidates have done well as mayors and parliamentarians. But at the top? Estonians swear they are not religious, but they prefer their leaders to be like their Evangelical Lutheran pastors: dour, conservative, plain, righteous, and, most of all, male.

There have been a few exceptions. Marju Lauristin comes to mind as an Estonian leader who was one of the faces of the Popular Front in the '80s and continues to play a role in the domestic debate. She was also the head of SDE for five years, from 1990 to 1995. But Estonia hasn't had a woman running for PM since then and there will probably be no female face at the debates in 2011, either. How is that possible? How is it possible that in a country where 54 percent of the population is female, the heads of all the major political parties are male, and only one minister out of 13 ministers in the government is a lady?

I am sure there is a logical, Estonian explanation for that, and I'd be glad to hear it. In the meantime, while some analysts say that the Ukrainian presidential elections are an example to Russia, which does not have free elections, one could also see them as an example for Estonia, too.

neljapäev, veebruar 11, 2010


People talk about war too much, maybe because violence seems so profound, maybe because for people like me who have never been in one, it's hard to connect with those who have, people who have known true horror, those who have run through the woods with weapons, hunting one another like they were wild game. Alfred Käärmann was intimately acquainted with such terror. He died Feb. 4 at the age of 87.

Käärmann's story is similar to that of many metsavennad, the Estonian republican "forest brother" guerrilla groups that fought the Soviets in this country deep into the 1950s. He was drafted into service by the German Reich in February 1944, fought on the eastern front, and went into the woods in Võrumaa in October 1944. The next year, he lost his arm after a fight with Red Army troops. Despite this, he spent seven more years in hiding until his capture in 1952. He did time in Soviet labor camps until 1967, and was only allowed to return to Estonia in 1981.

In his later years, Käärmann was a member of the Congress of Estonia that led the movement to restore the Estonian state. He was also an author and wrote several books about his experiences. Most importantly, unlike many forest brothers, he lived to tell his tale, to even make it into the New York Times as their Saturday Profile in 2003. Because of his high profile, Käärmann is sort of the forest brother to me, the one who represents all the others. I feel connected to him because of those interviews and books, though I never had the pleasure to meet him in person.

Estonia is a country with strong folk traditions, and I personally feel that the drama that went down in the woods more than 60 years ago is being woven into these traditions. There is something deeply Estonian about going it alone, preferring to live off your wits in a hole in the ground for seven years, even if you've only got one arm, rather than be captured and sent to a prison camp. Resilience is the word. Käärmann was resilient. Some might call such a person a hero. But heroes are still just people, and people die. When they die, they become history.

neljapäev, veebruar 04, 2010

communication breakdown

Our friend and business partner Tiina composed a letter to an American publishing company informing them of our decision not to reprint the entire appendix of a book we had translated into Estonian. The reason? Many of the sources were either inaccessible or irrelevant for Estonian readers.

Though Tin's English is strong -- it's one of the main languages in her home, along with Estonian and Swedish -- I was asked to edit this letter, just in case. I was glad I did. To put it bluntly, Tin was blunt. Too blunt. Absolutely rude. Tactless. Rather than trying to assuage the publishing house about our good intentions in cutting part of the book, she went to work on detailing exactly why we had absolutely no need to republish all that crap in their manuscript.

With some buttery, flowery, feel-good American language, I was able to smooth out the kinks in Tin's text to make it sound as polite and quasi-British as possible, cutting of course the obligatory insincerity that pollutes English discourse ("I'm terribly sorry"), and dressing it up in sunny, optimistic tones ("Let's work together to make this book a success"). Our relationship with our partners would remain cheerful but still smart and businesslike.

It wasn't really Tin's fault that the letter came out that way. It's just that if you communicate the way Estonians communicate in English, you can come off sounding like a rude bastard. If your newly renovated house is ugly, they won't tell you that it's different, they'll tell you that's ugly. If they don't like your food, they won't tell you that they're full, they'll tell you it stinks. Estonians are not liars. They'll tell you to your face what they think of you and not even feel the slightest need to polish it with niceties. This cultural idiosyncrasy, as you can imagine, might pose some troubles for Estonian diplomacy.

Such problems work in other ways though. Just as an Estonian might come off as blunt and tactless in English, an American might come off as abrasive and downright ridiculous in Estonian. It was recommended to me, for example, that for a certain media project I contact a university professor who I'll call Virve. "You should work with Virve," said one academic. "She's quite talented." "Oh, you should talk to Virve, she'll help you, she's really good," said another. Finally, even Epp gave it her blessing. "Talk to Virve. She's one of the best."

So I wrote a letter to Virve and said I was contacting her because her colleagues recommended her and said she was quite talented - päris andekas. I thought such flattery might automatically win her friendship. People are vain, right? They like to hear good things about themselves, right? It works in New York. My colleagues always tell me when someone says something good about my performance. But in Eesti?

"Päris andekas?" Virve was surprised. "Should I take this as a compliment or does it have anything to do with my age and gender? This is something we usually say to a school girl."

A school girl? Shit. I checked it out with Epp who confirmed that, in this context, telling someone they are talented, especially a man telling a woman she is talented, is rather patronizing. "Patronizing?" my body temperature dropped. "Oh no, what have I done? What have I done?" I felt like an idiot. Not only had I been patronizing to Virve -- who, surprise, was too busy to help me -- but my patronizing tone had perhaps even been laced with subtle sexism. And all because I told someone that they are talented! (Still ashamed, I'm rubbing my face even as I write this).

These are just the things that happen when multiple cultures collide. There's no stopping it. It's hard though to rectify some situations because some Estonians, particularly some male Estonians, are the opposite of open. There are infrequent displays of, "That's ok, bro, it's all water under the bridge." There's a paucity of self-deprecating jokes. In short, a lot of the Estonians I've met are convinced that they're just about perfect; it's pure coincidence that they happen to be surrounded by assholes. Nobody's perfect, though, not even these Estonians. Life is messy. People are messy. Even people with the best intentions make mistakes. Maybe honesty and openness in these situations are the best policies because not every letter can be edited by a well-meaning friend, nor every conversation monitored for correct usage of vocabulary.