kolmapäev, veebruar 15, 2012


But how do you feel about Russians?

Tea and pastries the other day with an older Estonian couple, well, a homegrown Estonian and a väliseestlane from Sweden. He was a social democrat so we engaged in dull conversations where each of us agreed with everything the other was saying. "There should be more money spent on education." "Precisely!" I also quizzed him on his loyalty to the Swedish throne too, stuff like:

"Olaf Palme - good or bad?" "Good, mostly. I mean his principles were good, but I didn't like how he carried himself, you know." "Carl Bildt - good or bad?" "He's not bad, but he's certainly not honest." "Ah, you mean like the financial investments?" "Yes, I don't trust him. He's always up to something."

We went on. "How often do you eat Swedish meatballs?" "Quite often, I think. At least once a week." "ABBA - good or bad?" "Mostly good. But I listen to classical music."

Okay, fine. At some point when those around us heard our conversation, especially those parts concerning social democracy, one Estonian offered her support for the Estonian social democrats. Another announced her undying support for IRL. "Well, I have nothing against Russians," said the Estonian social democrat. "Not our Russians, the ones who live here." But the IRL supporter wasn't moved. There are still integration problems, she said. And I was holding my face in my hands, because this is Estonian political discourse.

Are Russians really the biggest political issue facing Estonia today? From what I have read, one fifth of the country lives in poverty. Unemployment is higher than 10 percent. But put a social democrat and a conservative together in a room and they talk about Russians.

One such "burning" issue is the pending merger of the Estonian social democrats and the Russian Party. The latter supposedly wants to table discussion on the Soviet Occupation and leave it to courts or historians or whomever, which prompted an outcry, because Occupation denial is the same as Holocaust denial ... or so the line goes.

That the Holocaust should rear its ugly head in this matter is rather interesting, and, I believe, telling. All of the issues that factor in the domestic debate about loyalty, citizenship, language, and nationality, are intertwined with postwar ideas of nationalism, among them collective guilt. There are righteous nations and guilty nations, all of whom are defined by what role their citizens played in the crime of the century. The Holocaust here is a metric of humanity: the Americans are naturally good, Hiroshima and Nagasaki aside, because they defeated the Third Reich. The Germans and their collaborators, including some Estonian nationals, are inherently bad, given the blood on their hands and in their veins. The only way out is to atone for the sins of your forebears. Atone and you will be set free.

I think collective guilt is at least partially based on totalitarian ideas, be they of the Nationalist Socialist persuasion or the Soviet one. How else could one explain the extermination of Jewish children or the deportation of relatives of "class enemies" to Siberia? Surely, Jewish children could have been raised Christian, or the children of class enemies turned into loyal party members ... but the central idea here is that being an enemy of the state is genetic: the Jewish children will grow into adult Jews, the children of class enemies will grow into class enemies themselves, so they had to be liquidated, one way or the other.

It's a ridiculous and racist idea if you think about it, but here in the present we've been gratuitously using collective guilt since 1945. It's been passed down, from generation to generation. Little do the little German babes born at this very moment in Osnabrück and Heidelberg and Potsdam know, but they are all guilty of something.

And that is what the Estonian Russians most fear: the stigma of being "occupiers" because their family was removed from Donetsk to Tallinn six decades ago. This is what troubles them about the 'O' word. It's not the legal question of what happened in Estonia in the summer of 1940, it's the shame of accepting the yoke of collective guilt in perpetuity.

I think the whole context for these ideas is flawed. There are no righteous nations and no evil ones. There are evil men who give orders to do evil things, but this is a matter of following orders rather than genetics. There is no Nazi or Commie gene. I don't think that Germans, as a people, are responsible for the crimes of their grandparents. I don't think that Estonians, as a people, are responsible for war crimes some of their forefathers committed, either in the service of the Führer or the Comrade or just for the hell of it.

Finally, I don't think that Russians, as a people, are responsible for what the leaders of their predecessor state decided. They may say it was wrong, as a moral judgment, but their guilt is no greater than yours or mine, because we are all related, no matter how distantly. This applies to national greatness too. I may be an American, but I didn't free the slaves and I didn't put a man on the moon. I didn't invent baseball or the personal computer any more than I dropped the bombs on Japan. Why should any of us should bear collective guilt or collective pride for anything we ourselves did not accomplish? I shouldn't blame a Japanese national for Pearl Harbor any more than I should congratulate him for writing Norwegian Wood or creating Nintendo. Just because he shares some ancestors with the men who did write Norwegian Wood or create Nintendo, does not mean he gets to take credit for their greatness. I didn't write The Sound and the Fury did I?

Here I am reminded of football games where the fans of the winning team sit around and congratulate each other: "Hey man, we won." I appreciate your loyalty to your teams. It is good to be loyal to something. But, unless you were on that team, you didn't really win anything. Likewise, the Russian Federation, founded in 1991, did not defeat fascism in Europe. This is a crap idea anyway. Franco was a facist. He was in power in Spain until 1975. Salazar ruled Portugal until 1974. So, Europe was not rid of fascism in 1945. The idea is bogus, propaganda, a myth. The Russians did not defeat fascism. Some of the dwindling numbers of veterans who fought for the Red Army did defeat nationalist socialist Germany, but Vladimir Putin, Sergei Lavrov, and the rest of the gang weren't alive and therefore defeated nothing. Someone should send a diplomatic cable to that effect.

Nationalism is a nice idea. In the collapse of the old multinational empires it became the only viable option, a Poland for the Poles, an Iceland for the Icelanders, a Montenegro for the Montenegrins. Imagine it: your own flag, your own official language, your own seat at the UN, your own bikini team! It's wonderful. But it has its limits. And in a country where one-tenth of the population has no job and one-fifth lives below the poverty line, it should definitely not be the dominant question in the public discourse.

kolmapäev, veebruar 01, 2012

shakespeare and company

Tere Tulemast!
Even typing those three words gives one an idea of how far Estonia is from the heart of Europe, the Europe that we all know and love, from films and books, and half a century of uninterrupted, guided international travel. It's remote. The word "backwater" is coming to mind but I will suppress it because it is unkind. But what other word would you use to describe the least populated state on the Baltic Sea?

Here the cursed Soviet legacy is actually blessed, because the Soviet legacy is what puts Tallinn on the map, allowing it to rise above other expat havens like Paris or Prague or wherever those no good traitors mill about these days. Ooh, you've got your haute couture and your bustling sex industry, but we've got our Soviet legacy. Estonia is indisputably the most successful of the republics once under direct Soviet control. Number three on the Press Freedom Index, baby! And it sits right beside scary Russia, which means a faint whiff of danger is always in the air. Russia is a dormant dike. You never know when it could burst.

The Estonian foreign community has always been plagued by Baltic solidarity. That is, it never made economic sense to have an English-language newspaper solely for foreigners living in Estonia. It always had to be peddled down the Baltic route, a "pan-Baltic" newspaper or magazine or online news resource, which meant that so much effort and print had to go in to constructing a Baltic identity ("What do Balts think about each other?") or comparing the three countries ("How are Lithuanian wines different from Estonian wines?") That's what I want to know.

Fortunately, the community now has its own used bookshop. It's called Slothrop's and it's in the Old Town of Tallinn, located at Müürivahe 19. I believe the effort is a month old. I am unsure of the origin of the name. I am guessing it is in homage to a character in Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, which I never read but my college roommate adored. He even befriended a homeless saxophone player who had dreads and paint on his face who called himself Gravity's Rainbow. "Gravity" and my roommate would sit around playing music and talking about Thomas Pynchon. Gravity liked to drift between Mexico City and Washington, DC, which, being a street person, he said was the most dangerous city in which he had lived: "People in Mexico City will rob you," he was fond of saying, "But in DC they will kill you."

Here I have a faint memory of jogging over a bridge at night near a memorial for the USS Maine and looking down to see two homeless men groaning in a heap of garbage.

But enough of this digression. Slothrop's is open from 11:00 - 18:00, Monday through Saturday. "We also are looking to buy books from you!" the shop claims on its website. "If you have English-language books, bring them by and we'll take a look. We are especially interested in non-fiction." Fine. I've got loads of books I'd like to unload on any willing taker. And, I'm told, I can get rid of them in exchange for store credit. This means that I might not have to stock up on books in the US or pay exorbitant prices for English-language titles at one of Estonia's larger book chains.

As everyone says in Estonia everyday Eesti on nii väike - Estonia is so small. So it's going to take more than bored vodka tourists to make this thing turn. It's going to take you, and me, and Mingus, and Scott Abel, and Kris Rikken, and Flasher T, and that guy next to Balti Jaam who is throwing up on himself as I type this. Come on, The Sound and the Fury is only €5. You get stream of consciousness for €5! I think I'll take it. But what we really need is a Slothrop's imprint, something along the lines of the Obelisk Press. If only I had some contacts in the publishing world.