neljapäev, september 30, 2010

max laossoni suusad

I always found it a little sad that Vyacheslav Molotov died on November 8, 1986. Had the Old Bolshevik lived five more years, he could have seen his old pact with Joachim Ribbentrop come undone. In this alternate reality, I imagine how Molotov is awakened one morning in his pajamas in his penthouse suite at the top of the foreign ministry in Moscow to be informed by a nervous aide that the Kremlin has recognized the independence of Estonia. "It can't be," Molotov whispers from his bed upon hearing the news. "It just can't be."

Several Estonian Bolsheviks did live to see independence restored in their country. One was Max Laosson, a Communist Party functionary who was notorious for a 1950 speech in which he accused former "June Communists," like Nigol Andresen, Johannes Semper, and Hans Kruus, of bourgeois nationalism. The result was a purge of the pre-1950 Communist elite, which ended for many in sentences of 25 years plus hard labor.

Born in 1904, Laosson lived until 1992, long enough to see the birth, death, and rebirth of the Estonian state. I imagine him in some Tallinn apartment, distressed by what he's seeing on his television. It's November 7, 1991, and there's no parade. Laosson keeps hitting his TV with his cane, hoping the parade will come on.

Laosson's name came up about a month ago in Kuressaare, the capital of Saaremaa. Our friend Mele was telling us of her childhood in Kingissepa, where she lived on Kingissepa Street and attended the Viktor Kingissepa School, named, like Kuressaare, for the famed Estonian Communist. From 1952 to 1988, Kuressaare was called Kingissepa, and in little Mele's world, all was red. "My aunt knew Max Laosson," she recalled suddenly. "We have his skis."

In that moment, the old Communist became real. When he wasn't accusing people of bourgeois nationalism, Max Laosson found time to ski. He had watched them all fall: Kruus and Semper, and, before them, Tõnisson and Päts. Estonian domestic political history in the 20th century was like some kind of Shakespearean tragedy: the murders, the suicides, the "accidental deaths." In a land of rotating masters, someone could always be found to serve the new boss. When it came to the Bolsheviks, that someone was Max Laosson.

Those were the days when Estonian political life was passionate and dangerous, a time when someone was always plotting something. The dark memories of betrayal still stalk Estonian political discourse to some extent. While all officials serve the Estonian state, but there is always the insinuation that so-and-so is on the Kremlin's payroll or is in bed with the CIA or is a puppet of the Bilderberg Group or the Knights of Malta. The Singing Revolution gels society, but the 20th century political history, the Shakespearean tragedy, picks it apart. Who was your grandfather? Who was your grandmother? Whose side were they on?

Don't ask, don't tell. People around me talk about Swedish politics and American politics and British politics, but few care to talk about Estonian politics, and parliamentary elections are but months away. In person, Estonians tend to keep their politics tucked away in the closet with Max Laosson's skis. Eighty years ago, this country's politics were scatterbrained and firebrand. Today, they feel kind of dull.

neljapäev, september 16, 2010

the best offense

An interesting opinion piece by the central and eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist. According to the writer, security in the Baltic region has actually increased more under US President Barack Obama's administration than it did under his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Still, there is the perception about some leaders in the region that Obama's "reset" policy with Russia has lessened the importance of Baltic issues in transatlantic relations. Being a Democrat, the Obama administration has been portrayed as soft by critics on the right since before he was even sworn into office. John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN, and others have consistently drawn a parallel between Obama and former President Jimmy Carter, for instance, who is generally not recalled for his adroitness in international relations.

The "Democrats are weak on national security" talking point can be traced back at least to the 1950s, when Eisenhower lieutenants, like then vice president Richard Nixon, attacked their Democratic opponents as being soft on Communism, and security in general. It has been trotted out in every election since then (and will be again in 2012). An argument could be made that conservative lawmakers, the allies of the US right in the Baltic region, have similar prejudices against Democrats today. They recall fondly the Reagan administration, though there is less nostalgia for the George H. W. Bush administration.

As an American who lives in Estonia, I often wonder exactly how US interests, European security, and local political issues will balance out. From my American perspective, I think it is obvious that the United States cannot completely dictate the Estonian-Russian relationship to Moscow. In some big ways, it does, by pledging to defend a Europe "whole and free." But, remember that twice in the 20th century, American soldiers were dispatched to die in European wars. It is in the US' interests to prevent that from ever happening again.

When it comes to the minutiae of the relationship, it is up to the Estonians to make their warm peace with the Russians. The US maintains its policy on the Baltic region, but that does not in every case correspond to reciprocal moves by the Russians. In other words, looking to Washington to solve your problems is a false hope. Don't expect Hillary Clinton to bring back Päts' regalia.

Obama has also been criticized for dabbling in realism. The embrace of realism by US geopolitical thinkers could be seen as a threat to Estonian foreign policy, which is tied up in the idealism of international organizations: the European Union, the OECD, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and so on. Being a small state, Estonia has attempted various international positions (neutrality was one), but has recently settled into a combination of the two main IR schools: joining and working within organizations to its benefit when the opportunity arrises, attending Russian May 9 celebrations when invited.

What intrigues me about the piece in European Voice is the extent to which northern European security is obscured. It mentions Russia's Ladoga 2009 military exercises. It neglects to mention that Lake Ladoga is closer to Finland than it is to Estonia, and was the scene of multiple military conflicts that involved Finland (and before it, Sweden). Yet somehow, Finland manages to exist in a mental gray area for both Western and Russian geopolitical thinkers. The fact that one could even mention a Ladoga military exercise and draw implications for, say, Estonian security and not Finnish security, given the history of the region, exemplifies this mind trick. It's almost as if the Finns have developed some kind of invisible force field that protects them from future "what if" scenarios. The only question, is if Helsinki is willing to sell its secret defense machinery to Tallinn.

esmaspäev, september 13, 2010


R-Kiosk is a Finnish convenience store chain that has expanded south into Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and beyond. As of my writing this, there are more than 700 of the yellow and blue shops in Suomi and around 200 outlets in Eesti.

There is pretty much something to read for everyone there. Barbie magazine? Got that. Fashion? Take your pick. Home improvement? Get your drill ready, and speaking of which, there is a healthy pornography section too.

But when considering the languages of the magazines in our local shop relative to the demographics of our community, things get more interesting. At the R-Kiosk in town, Estonian publications obviously dominate, and there is a reason for that. Of the 55,657 people who live in Viljandi County, 52,499 (94 percent) consider themselves to be "Estonians." The second largest ethnic group are the Russians (1,901 people), followed by Finns (493 people). A quarter of the reading material in the R-Kiosk in Viljandi, though, is in the Russian language, and, at last glance, the store only contained one measly Finnish-language magazine. To round it out, there was also a sizable selection of German, French, and English magazines the last time I checked.

From a national perspective, this makes sense. A quarter of the Estonian population is Russian, right? But from a local perspective, I was kind of amused by it. Standing there, looking at all the Cyrillic on the wall, you would think that the Viljandi R-Kiosk served a bilingual community. Viljandi, though, is a monolingual place. While my daughter attends school with and is friends with children whose parents speak Russian at home, all of those children are fluent in Estonian. I speak Estonian, the Swedes I know in town speak Estonian; put any foreigner in Viljandi, and he or she will eventually become an Estonian speaker. I should add here that my daughter learns two "foreign" languages at school -- Russian (spoken by the neighbors) and English (of which she is a native speaker). She is in first grade.

I do wonder how magazines and books are ordered for Estonia's R-Kiosks, based on my experience. I wonder how they are ordered for its Apollos and Rahva Raamats and other purveyors of reading materials. Who decides how many Estonian language newspapers will be available in a shop versus Russian language newspapers? Who decides how many Finnish magazines will be on display? On what grounds are some languages included and others excluded? Do the R-Kiosks in Pärnu and Narva carry the exact same titles as the one in Viljandi? I hope not. That would be silly.

kolmapäev, september 01, 2010

kooli aeg

Estonian children's culture is so saccharine it will make your belly ache, replete with songs about everything wholesome and good, sung with gusto in a pre-pubescent soprano.

Christmas is typically the epicenter of such youthful clamor, but September 1 is a close competitor, for on September 1, school officially begins, and that means that children must look smart, stand with a straight back, and sing until their parents' eyes grow dewy with nostalgia.

It's not so military actually, but I can see it now, the same way I can see the blue, black, and white flag flapping in the air, a gentle breeze blowing across the land, the sun warm, the blue heavens tantalizingly close, and the children singing it all along, singing about how happy they are to be in school and how much they adore their teachers. I still can't believe it, but it's true: Estonians actually like school.

Our neighborhood in Viljandi is run by wild children. These kids are like outlaws from the Wild West. Each one has got a nickname, a scar, an agenda. "Hey kid, want to hang out later?" one pint-sized gunslinger will say to the other. "Come by my house and knock at my window at night. I'll still be up." And they really do it, like Tom Sawyer, like Pippi Longstocking, like The Little Rascals. It's so ideal, you would almost believe, given the local architecture, that you had stepped through some porthole to the 19th century. Then one of their cellphones rings.

I asked the little rascals today though how their first day of school went. Usually, their posture is sluggish, their manners coarse. But mention school and they change automatically, almost uniformly correcting their posture and clicking their heels together. "Hästi!" the little outlaws smile, beaming from the question. They are excited. They are ecstatic. They have been waiting for it all summer. Oh kooli aeg, oh kooli aeg, millal Sina tuled? they sing like angels. Mul on valmis juba pliiatsid ja suled.

On the way to the opening ceremony at my daughter's school, I was informed that my t-shirt was not appropriate for such an event. "You sure you want to go looking like that?" my wife asked, an eyebrow arched to drive the point home. And so I changed into a sober-looking lightweight black sweater. "Much better." You've got to take September 1 seriously. It's an important day. The start of a new year, a new school year. The flags must be whipping in the wind. The lumepallisupp should be frothy. I stand at attention and think back to my own school years. The freshmen on LSD. How so-and-so got an abortion and whats-her-name killed herself . Then I try to push it all out of my mind. "Why do I always focus on the bad?" I ask myself as the children sing and smile. "I'm tired of being bad," my eyes finally grow dewy. "I want to be good."