kolmapäev, aprill 28, 2010

talle see sobib

One of the perks of living in Estonia is that you are far removed from the endless barrage of propaganda that is American political discourse. On the downside, the longer you stay in Estonia and, especially, the stronger your command of the local language becomes, newer, potent forms of propaganda manifest themselves in your daily life.

Consider the case of Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar. He was prime minister of this country for a short period of time in the early 1990s. Ever since then he's been running a never ending, so-far unsuccessful campaign to win back his seat in Stenbock House. Savisaar likes to lavish his voters with free firewood, potatoes, electronic greeting cards, and public advertising campaigns that border on harassment. His political demagoguery has earned him the exasperation of many an Estonian, not to mention the ridicule of his rivals. But the problem for his political opponents is that his critiques are not completely untrue.

Savisaar's most recent attempt to woo voters is to pin the economic crisis on the ruling coalition. He's been trying to do it for years now, with some success. His party did win the most votes during the municipal elections last October. And here's their narrative, as put by Ain Seppik, an MP and Savisaar's right-hand man. Seppik said in a recent article that when Centre was in coalition with Reform from 2005 to 2007, all was well. The economy was up, unemployment was down; Estonia was looking forward to an endless summer. Then things took a turn for the worse. Following the March 2007 elections, Reform callously dropped Centre and decided to steer to the right with their new best friend and coalition partner Isamaa ja Res Publica Liit. The economy subsequently tanked, unemployment grew, there was rioting in the streets, and Estonia now faced cold, endless winters.

So Savisaar blames the ruling coalition for the high unemployment rate and the deep economic decline of the last few years. And who could argue with him? It's true! Estonia does have high unemployment. Estonia has experienced an extreme economic slump. Of course, other countries have these phenomena too, his opponents point out. But little Estonia has the third highest unemployment rate in Europe. GDP meantime dropped 14 percent last year. The EU on average saw a decline of 4 percent. Anyone who travels around Estonia can see that the money from the economic boom did not exactly trickle down to all. There are plenty of disgruntled have-nots in this country, and most of them can vote in parliamentary elections. So why not appeal to their interests?

Savisaar's opponents fire back that they aren't responsible for Estonia's problems. Estonia's paternalistic rulers instead argue that they are only responsible for the good in this land. As Prime Minister Andrus Ansip put it, his Reform Party has made Estonia what it is today. But the bad? Well, that's like the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. Some other superior force is behind the bad. Not the local politicians. I mean, without their foresight and wisdom, things could be much worse and when I say worse, I mean Latvia. Estonians owe their leaders everything, that lightning-quick wifi connection, that efficient online tax system, those gold medals our skiers won at the Olympic Games in 2006. But, wait a second, Centre was in the coalition in 2006. Looks like Ansip and Savisaar will have to share the gold.

So you see, there are different narratives competing in Estonia. Flasher T, an Estonian blogger, has constructed his own, which is closer to Reform's than to Centre's. In Flasher's narrative, Estonia's friends in high places secure it the green light for Euro adoption next month, filling the sails of the ruling coalition with wind that will earn them the top slot in next year's parliamentary elections. Since Eesti Pank director Andres Lipstok will be the point man for the currency change, Flasher hypothesizes that Ansip will retire to some sinecure in EU or NATO, while Lipstok becomes the flashy, new, attractive face of Reform's 2011 ticket. And Flasher may be right. The Estonian media is undoubtedly slanted towards the ruling coalition: they are certain to make a hero out of Lipstok if that's the way events shake out.

But they may not turn out that way. If American political discourse (and personal experience) has taught me anything, it's that journalists tend to favor the winner. When the Centre Party won the municipal elections last October, I noticed how the Estonian media suddenly went a little easier on the victorious party. And they have to go easy on them: you can't interview politicians if they won't speak to you, and if you can't write your articles, then you are out of work. All journalists have to trade a little integrity for access, and that's why if Savisaar does come out on top, and he is able to put a coalition together, the media spin might turn quickly in his favor. The Centre Party's narrative will prevail.

For some reason, the British parliamentary election of July 1945 comes to mind. Winston Churchill's Conservatives were favored to win. Churchill had led the country through the war and enjoyed a certain hero status. With the war in Europe over, though, the British public turned their concern to employment, housing, social services, and they voted for Labour's Clement Attlee instead. Of course, that's an elementary school textbook's version of events, but take it as an example of how fast the national mood can change, and how a prediction that would seem rather obvious -- the Allies' triumph in the war leading to Churchill's certain reelection -- was not fulfilled. Not to say that Savisaar is Estonia's Attlee -- the local Benny Hill jokes are often not off their mark -- but don't count on the "victory" of Euro adoption translating to votes.

We will have to wait to see how Estonians vote next March. Either outcome will be interesting.

pühapäev, aprill 25, 2010

a short history of estonian comedy

"Does Estonia have a stand-up comedy tradition?" So one Australian Swede named Louis asked me weeks ago. I never answered, but during long walks along the overflowing Emajõgi in Tartu I turned the question over and over again, trying to find one.

Despite the Estonians' taciturn public image, they actually are a humorous people. They have funny writers (Andrus Kivirähk), funny sketch comedy groups (Kreisiraadio), funny actors (Jan Uuspõld), funny 'journalists' (Mart Juur), and even funny politicians (Edgar Savisaar), but do they have a verifiable stand-up comedy tradition?

I would like to tell you that, yes, they had a week-long Laugh In during the St. George's Night Uprising in 1343. Or how about Johan Voldemar Jannsen's gut-splitting intro monologue to the first ever National Song Festival in 1869? And who could forget Gustav Ernesaks' bawdy attempt at musical comedy, "Sillamäe Slapstick"? Sadly, it isn't so. To date, Estonia has lacked its own Chris Rocks. Until now.

On April 27th and April 28th, the Tartu Comedy Festival 2010 will take place at the Eduard Vilde Lokaal ja Kohvik. Each night's performance begins at 8 pm, and admission costs 50 EEK. Another performance is scheduled for April 29th at the Drink Baar in Tallinn.

Both the festival and the Tallinn performance boast the "best comedians from around Scandinavia" and one could see them as another example of Swedish empire-building in its former province. The aforementioned Louis Zezeran is one of the prime movers behind the festival and will be performing there. Based in Stockholm, Governor General Louis has enlisted other Nordic imperialists, most notably the notorious Finnish propagandists Phil Schwartzmann of Finland for Thought and Zöe Chandler, along with American Swedish soldier of fortune Joe Eagan to take part in the shows.

Of course, what imperial project would be complete without local collaborators? Fortunately, Estonia has always been a jackpot of sorts for imperialists, an over-flowing well of unscrupulous characters out to make names for themselves in the service of whoever is asking. This time around, Andrei Tuch, who will basically do anything for money, will be on hand to represent Estonia, while other miscreants and ne'er-do-wells tapped for the festival include American Estonian playboy Stewart Johnson and Baltic German monarchist and warlord Eric von Ungern-Seufert.

So, after thousands of glacial years, an eternity of darkness, Estonia will at last have its stand-up comedy. The only question that now remains is how funny the show will be. Considering the potent, even toxic mix of wit and A. Le Coq, it is likely that things will get out of hand.

teisipäev, aprill 13, 2010

välismaa mees

Estonian manhood seems to be going through a crisis. Postimees journalism godfather Priit Pullerits polishes off article after article about the perils of eesti naised falling into the malevolent clutches of foreign men; columnist Jüri Pino compares Estonian men in the magazine Eesti Naine to pigs "or some other lower life form"; and the cover of Õhtuleht greeted me the other day with one question: Eesti mehed on jobud?

I really wish I could define for you the meaning of the word jobu. At first I took it to be a relative of the word joodik -- a drunk. But a jobu is not merely a drunk. A jobu is something different, something more profound. My favorite online English-Estonian dictionary equates jobu with the following words: berk, birdbrain, blithering idiot, bumpkin, daff, jerk, prat, sucker, turkey, and zombie(!) And this is how Estonian men see themselves. I've even heard talk that there is a Jobu magazine in development.

The arch nemesis of these jobud is the välismaa mees -- the foreign man. He's everything the Estonian man is not, allegedly wealthy, supposedly slick; a smooth operator. In Pino's piece, the Estonian man actually goes so far as to give up smoking so that he can compete with this imaginary foreign man because välismaa mees doesn't smoke. As much as it irks me, I find this wallowing in the meandering river of disillusionment necessary for Estonian guys, because if the specter of välismaa mees can get them to eat right and quit smoking, if their foreign foe can help them lift their chin above the bar to get the average Estonian male's life expectancy to inch over 70 years, then I'll be more than happy to play the villain. Competition is good.

Still, there are elements of the eesti mees/välismaa mees discourse that are unsettling. One is that by marrying foreigners, Estonian women are somehow betraying their country. There are so few Estonians, this argument goes. Estonians need to make more of them, together, in Estonia. By partnering with the dread välismaa mees, the pure bloodstream of the Estonians is tainted, polluted. The future of the nation is flushed down the toilet the second that välismaa sperm connects with eestimaa egg.

This is, of course, complete jama. Biological diversity should be welcomed, not shunned. National homogeneity is wonderful if you want to study rare genetic diseases across generations in one population, but it's not going to make your population any more flexible, healthy, or open to the world. And the great tragedy of the slow death of the "pure" Estonian, is that, as Rein Taagepera describes the local attitude, "There are really only two pure Estonians in Estonia, me and you, and I'm not so sure about you." Scratch an Estonian and you'll find a Swede or a Finn or a Russian or a Pole or a Latvian or a German or an Ingrian or a Seto. I've even heard there is an abundance of brunettes on Saaremaa because some Portuguese sailors once docked at Kuressaare and went on a spree. So you can mix your purity in a bowl with some kama and eat it. The well was contaminated long before I showed up.

Eesti mees. Välismaa mees. The two closest "minorities" in my neighborhood aren't Russian or Ukrainian or Finnish. One's a Swede, the other is Latvian. The Swede is a few years older than me and, naturally, married to an Estonian lady. He likes Depeche Mode and good restaurants. Svensson's cool and well traveled; a dormant rock star who pays the bills by working for a local Swedish call center where his language skills are put to good use by arranging for little old ladies in Umeå to get a state-subsidized ride to the hospital. See, that's Scandinavian solidarity for you. Old-fashioned Swedish help to self help. The only problem with Estonia, we lament, is that there is no Polarbröd, a tasty baked good from northern Rootsi. There is a spark of hope that by merely mentioning its absence on this blog, Selver might start importing it. Keep your fingers crossed.

The Latvian is the pioneer foreigner here. Born in Riga, this septuagenarian rides about the neighborhood on an old bike, wearing a Parisian black beret. Like all of us, he's also married to an Estonian lady and when I yell out "Sveiks!" to the Latvian, he usually responds to me in Estonian. Still, the Latvian is different -- he's friendly and outgoing, easily the friendliest in the 'hood. My daughter calls him "uncle." Sometimes when I see the Latvian grandpa riding his bike with his black beret, I feel as if the spirit of Old Europe has passed me by. We're all here in this neighborhood, välismaa mehed, Old Europe and New Europe and the New World. I wonder if anyone notices us.

Sometimes at the supermarket I do cross paths with tough-looking locals with tattoos and t-shirts that are covered with Germanic or Scandinavian imagery. Maybe it's a cross or Thor's hammer. I can't always tell. These gentlemen don't look especially happy as they buy their lunch of beer and cigarettes, but they never seem to pay me any mind, and they are by no means your standard issue eesti mees.

In reality, most Estonian guys are pretty helpful and I think we foreigners have a lot to learn from our Estonian counterparts. These men are our partners' fathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers, cousins, friends, and co-workers. They inform what is to be expected of us, and one can imagine the sharp pangs of shame the välismaa mees feels when his eesti naine discovers that, unlike most Estonian men, he a) doesn't know how to build his own house; and b) doesn't particularly feel the need to do so. Or so it seems. Because as the time a välismaa mees spends in Estonia increases, the probabilty of him becoming involved in a joyously miserable construction project approaches 1.


A Note: when I started working on this post five days ago, Lech Kaczynski was still president of Poland. I cannot help but feel terrible about what has happened since. My condolences to the Kaczynski family, the families of all on that flight, and to the people of Poland.

esmaspäev, aprill 05, 2010


My wife sat in our bedroom spellbound by YouTube clips of The Adventures of Buratino, a 1975 Russian-language made-for-TV film. For her the song at the finale, with an auditorium full of children shouting "Bu-ra-ti-no!," brought back warm memories of a happy childhood. And there always is this question in Estonia of how fondly to recall life in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic.

It reminded me of an interview I read with Toomas Hendrik Ilves conducted by Mikhail Veller and published last month in Nezavasimaya Gazeta:


What do you think now, many years later – aside from the bad, did Soviet rule bring Estonia anything good?

If I’m not mistaken, Brodsky has an essay on this topic. He answers it this way: yes, but no.

But didn’t Estonia have a dynamic, intriguing and rich literary, painting and musical scene? A foundation was laid for science; the Estonian Academy of Sciences was founded…

Yes. But it all took place under pressure. It would appear that a totalitarian regime is still too high a price to pay for artistic development.


Too high a price to pay for artistic development, most certainly. But what about all those kids clapping and shouting about Buratino? If that film was made under Stalinist guidelines of Soviet realism, where everything has but one meaning, I couldn't tell. Besides, little Buratino didn't even have a red star on his nose. Wait, Buratino? Who the hell is Buratino?

If you are from the Anglo world like me, then Buratino is Pinocchio. But in the Russian world, Pinocchio is Buratino. Just as Puff Daddy took The Police's 1983 hit "I'll be Watching You" and made it his own in 1997 with "I'll be Missing You," Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy borrowed the motifs from Carlo Collodi's 1883 masterpiece The Adventures of Pinocchio and made them his own in his 1936 book for children, The Golden Key, or the Adventures of Buratino. Tolstoy had read the original as a child, tried to recreate it as an adult, and came up with something slightly new, he said. "Geppetto" became "Papa Carlo," and other new characters were thrown into the mix. The book soon spawned a series of cartoons, films, records, dolls, and other Soviet merchandise. It's still somewhat popular. While Estonians now consider their land to fall under the protective umbrella of the West, to this day they put on Buratino plays. In the Estonian language, of course.

That was another "Say wha?" moment the other night. The 1975 film my wife was watching was in Russian. Except my wife's native language is not Russian and, even though she lived within the USSR as a child, Viljandi county in the southwest of Estonia is a pretty monolingual environment, unless you want to consider Mulgi dialect a separate language from Estonian. "Did you understand what they were saying back then?" I asked her. "Muidugi," she replied. Muidugi? Of course?

For me, and a lot of Americans, this one is a bit hard to fathom. The most of any other language I knew as a child was gleaned from listening to Speedy Gonzalez, Warner Brothers' "fastest mouse in all of Mexico," shout ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba! French lessons were provided by a skunk named Pepé Le Pew, who was always searching for "l'amour." Affaire d'amour? Affaire de coeur? Je ne sais quoi ... je vive en espoir. Mmmm m mm ... un smella vous finez. So, no, I was not functional in any language other than inglise keel as a child. How did she do it? I don't know. But she still knows the Russian words to the songs in Buratino.

An interesting aside: as a child, a lot of the programming I consumed was not produced in the United States. Instead, other than Looney Tunes, I watched imported British television (cartoons like Danger Mouse, spooky serials like The Third Eye). In my formative years, I saw enough British TV that I still get excited when I see the old logo of Thames Television. Whenever I see the reflection of London in the river, something stirs in my chest; I know that something really good is about to happen. "Ah, the good old Thames," thinks this New York-bred 30-year-old who lives in Estonia, "how I miss it."

What does this really mean? It means that we are dinosaurs. How small is the demographic of Estonians for whom that Buratino film from 1975 brings back warm feelings of nostalgia? It's a preciously thin slice of the local population. Likewise, how many Americans really care about Danger Mouse? For most, he's a successful DJ, not a mouse detective. And Mikhail Veller can reference Eesti NSV and the triumphs of the cassette generation, but how many Estonians today are still leafing through the nearly 50-year-old works of Leelo Tungal and Jaan Kaplinski?

When our 15-year-old babysitter gets a case of childhood nostalgia, she starts talking about the Moomin TV series from the early 90s. I don't understand it, but she can sit and watch those old Finnish cartoons dubbed into Estonian all day long.

neljapäev, aprill 01, 2010

põhjamaade satelliit

It's all becoming very clear to me, the whole thing. My perspective is informed by time and distance. Only with time and distance is it possible sometimes to make sense of things.

It began with a newspaper on a Wednesday morning. Sami Seppänen, CEO of Finnish telecommunication firm Elisa's Estonian office, had finally done it. He had unearthed the domestic Holy Grail. The chalice of Kalev. Estonia's Nokia. What is it, you ask? I wanted to know too, so I read the whole article.

Nordic trade unions, Sami wrote. They are always on strike. It's such a pain, that it makes sense for the Nordic countries to outsource their manufacturing to nearby Estonia. And they are already coming.

"Electronics producer Elcoteq is expanding its manufacturing in Tallinn, the Danes' Flexa is closing its factory in Denmark and moving its furniture manufacturing to Estonia, the Finns' Incap wants to close its Finnish factory and bring its electronics production to Estonia, the Swedes' car tire maker Trellborg is bringing from Sweden part of its production over to Estonia, and Ericcson Estonia's production is also growing."

It's like a perfect storm, no, even better, a shooting star, a Nordic meteroid of manufacturing jobs is headed this way, set to recreate the awesome collision in Saaremaa that Lennart Meri hypothesized gave the Scandinavians their "Thule" so many years ago. But how should we feel about this? How should we feel now that the search is over, and Eesti Nokia is on its way across the Baltic, packed away in boxes of electronic equipment?

The Scandinavians and the Estonians have a long, intimate history. As far back as the fabled year of 1991, when the Estonians regained their independence, historians familiar with old chronicles agree that it was not the Americans or Brits or French who were most eager to recognize it. Instead it was Reykjavik, followed quickly by Copenhagen, that, two days after the August 20 reaffirmation, restored relations on the basis of the de jure relations that had existed since 1922. Reading Seppänen's article, I began to wonder, maybe this was the secret plan all along: to pry the Estonians away from Moscow so that they could become the "sixth Nordic country," akin to the "fifth Beatle," a nifty little R&D and assembly shop, a satellite across the sea.

Of course, no Estonian is content to be the fifth Beatle. Even if he just plays organ on a few songs, he wants full membership in the band. He wants to be on the album cover, not in the liner notes. The Estonian wants to see his somber tricolor up there, tossing in the air alongside the crosses of the giants. He aims to look Stockholm in the eye, not up the nose. And so the joy with which Estonia's Nokia is received is muted. Others whisper. What can sate the Estonian's hunger for status, money, and international prestige?

At night, I pace back in my workshop, trying to put it all together. For years, the Estonians have dreamed of their own Nokia, their own launching pad to prosperity. But what if Seppänen is right? What if Estonia's Nokia doesn't come in the form of shiny communication devices, but as manufacturing jobs outsourced to a sunny corner of an often troublesome galaxy of labor. I worry as I pace. Will the Estonians be content? It's up them, I determine. Something to mull over as they assemble consumer electronics and detail rubber tires.