How Russia's war in Ukraine has changed Estonia's outlook

1 August 2022

9:48 PM

1 August 2022

9:48 PM

Estonian Independence Day – celebrating the country’s 1991 emancipation from the Soviet Union and the Kremlin – takes place on 24 February each year. This year, Independence Day for the Estonians was horribly ironic. ‘Instead of opening the news in the morning and seeing the expected ‘Happy Independence Day Everyone!’’ Lidia, a language-specialist, told me, ‘the headline was ‘Russia has invaded Ukraine’.’ How do you celebrate independence from Russia while reading about the Russian invasion of an independent near-neighbour?’

One result of this, Lidia said, was a ‘deep connection to Ukraine (developing) overnight, something that couldn’t have existed before’.

This seems to be true at all levels. Unlike in many other post-Soviet countries – Georgia, for example, whose rulers have, to much popular outrage, dragged their feet – Estonia’s government has led the way here. Not only has their bracingly outspoken PM Kaja Kallas been one of the leading hawks against Putin, but there have been numerous practical measures to ease Ukrainian asylum-seekers’ lives. As well as welcome courses for the 29,000 now living there, they have been offered free university tuition, rent subsidies (however shakily provided) and no charges for many museums, cinemas or forms of public transport. Local ferry company Tallink has turned one of its boats into a floating hostel, with a kindergarten, psychologists, and even pastors. Estonians have donated more proportionately to Ukraine than any other country in the world. A public apology was made to Ukrainians by their composer in excelsis Arvo Pärt: ‘Forgive us for failing to protect you from a disaster unimaginable in our time.’

They are also clearly preparing for the worst. Arp, a local journalist, told me of stockpiling provisions and firewood for a possible Russian invasion, others of putting in stores of seeds and medicines. Evacuation plans are being prepared by the authorities, bomb shelters reclaimed and renovated, while private citizens’ militias of men and women with day-jobs are learning about shooting, camouflage and forest-fighting.

Among those in Tallinn a ‘live for today’ philosophy seems to be developing or, as they say in Estonia, a ‘party in the plague’. Arp told me about a flurry of reunions he had recently attended, to see friends and family while it was still possible. One old friend in her late forties said she’d had false eyelashes applied for the first time, painted her toenails bright red and started to ‘shop manically for pretty dresses’. Others had gone in for extreme sports or set off for Antarctica or the Tropics. ‘Everyone,’ my friend with the bright toenails said, ‘is trying to get the last bit of excitement out of every single moment of life. Mindfulness at its best, ironically.’

But it was the Estonian relationship with their 320,000-strong Russian minority which interested me. When I lived in Estonia in the late 90s, just a few years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, navigating one’s way between the two ethnic groups had been a fraught business. Russians were still raw about the end of their Empire and often spoke about the ‘good old days’, muttering that Estonia, tiny as it was, was never meant to be an independent country.

Among the Estonians themselves there was a wary ambivalence towards the Russians living there. ‘You cannot trust them, so many of them want the old times back,’ said one Estonian, ‘but they can be charming as individuals.’ Many Estonians – who hated the eyesore of the cupola-ed Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral on the skyline of their capital – nonetheless loved Pushkin, Dostoevsky and the Russian language. At the same time, you felt the Estonians had better things to think about than old Soviet wounds. They were far more interested in finding ways to embrace their new independence than in looking back on a period many felt to be a brutal 50-year hiatus in their history.

This didn’t mean the Estonians took their new freedom for granted. ‘I feel like I’m sitting on a bomb,’ said one lady. ‘Everything we are creating at the moment – our new democracy – can be destroyed in a heartbeat.’ The virulence with which the Kremlin attacked the Estonian decision to remove a Soviet war memorial in 2007 seemed to bear it out. There were riots – suspiciously well organised and well-funded – in which one person died and dozens were injured. ‘Thus far and no further,’ Russia seemed to growl at its tiny neighbour, and the abiding Estonian fear was of when they themselves would have to say the same thing – perhaps fruitlessly – back to Russia.

Ask about the Estonian relationship with their Russian minority post-invasion and you will get a complex picture. An American friend, domiciled in Tallinn since the early 90s, told me of a Russian teacher’s written plea to parents after 24 February that they wouldn’t allow their children to confuse Kremlin aggression with the language itself, and how reasonably the (Estonian) parents had responded. Journalist Arp told me of the shock some Russians – though not all – had felt after 24 February, their bewilderment and, he imagined, feelings of guilt.

But a programme director from a local Russian-language TV Channel, Ekaterina, was more categorical, describing three types of Estonian-Russians: ‘The first supports Ukraine, the second stands for Russia, and the third thinks that everything is much complicated (i.e. ‘Nato and the West’ etc.)’. Some Russians in categories two or three, she added, had found it difficult to get work, and as a result there was now little candour on the topic.

There have been calls to take away Russian access to gun-licences, but also a statement from the Internal Security Service in March that there was no Russian fifth column to speak of in the country. Added to this is the fact that Estonia is not the easily divided country it was in the 1990s. Estonian language laws, much-resented at first, have led to a closer relationship between the two groups, and intermarriage is quite common. Ask many Estonians about the Russian minority now, and a careful relativism is what you’ll get. In a country one of whose sayings is ‘three thoughts for every one word’, caution is the Estonian way.

Yet those you know well are more forthcoming. ‘So many lives wasted, such barbarous bombing,’ Tiia, a literature professor, said to me. ‘Everything Russian has lost all its lustre, if it had any.’

In confirmation of Tiia’s words, Lidia, my language specialist friend, told me the story of her mother. ‘She’s very liberal minded, a natural hippie and if she were British, probably a Corbyn voter.’ Before 24 February, Lidia said, Estonian and Russian differences had meant nothing to her mother. She read Russian novels and built friendly links with her Russian neighbours. ‘I wouldn’t go so far as to call her a Russophile,’ Lidia told me, ‘but Russo-friend would certainly have been appropriate.’

Since 24 February, the situation had changed. There was no longer a single Russian book on her mother’s shelves. Now, if a family walked past blasting music, Lidia’s mother would mutter darkly about their Russian ethnicity.

‘The Russo-friend had gone overnight,’ Lidia said to me. ‘It’s yet another little something that would have been unthinkable less than half a year ago.’ She added wryly: ‘I can make a good guess where all those books went.’

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