Monday, 30 April 2007

True lives in Estonia (Part 1)

Calm has returned to Tallinn for now and there is time to reflect. Jaanus Kase contemplates on national identity, symbolism and much more - a generous and illuminating attempt at understanding the eruptions in Estonia last weekend. Meantime, Russian and Estonian speaking friends in Estonia shared their impressions with me and I hope to share their views in a neutral space.

Sometimes it is easier to understand complex stories by focusing on simple personal stories. Today a Russian Estonian (let's call him Paddy for the sake of his privacy) told me his story. At 3 years old, his family moved to north eastern Estonia to assist in the "economic reconstruction" in 1978. In this corner of Estonia near the Russian border, more than 90 per cent of his neighbours were Russian. His parents were construction workers and their home was given to them by the state (as was with everything under the Soviet regime). They settled there and worked hard. He went to school and worked hard. Paddy did not learn Estonian at school because it was not an option. And he learned a different version of history and culture to you, me and his neighbouring Estonian speakers I guess.

Paddy was a clever chap and made his way to study in Tallinn. He went to work in a Russian-speaking software company in Tallinn. There is a circle of Russian-speaking companies in Estonia which operates in a separate dimension to Estonian-speaking companies. Externally, these circles of companies do business with the same trading partners but internally, the two circles do not mix.

Slowly Paddy started to learn to speak Estonian and, at the age of 28 he was able to take the plunge and apply for work with an Estonian-speaking company. He tends to earn a lower wage because the negotiating strength of the Estonian-speaking employee is higher. But he doesn't encounter any explicit racism in the workplace, although he may not receive as many social invites as his Estonian-speaking colleagues.

But Paddy's parents are not so lucky. They lost everything in 1991 when Estonia asserted her nationhood. They scratch a living in basic jobs to survive and, because they can't speak Estonian, they are victims of the limited reportage in Russian language media. Nothing to go back to and nothing to look forward to.

Paddy is not an Estonian citizen but he has an alien passport. With entry into the EU, he now has the same inter-European travel rights as other Estonians, but he has no nationality - just permanent resident rights. Unless he marries a native Estonian who is a citizen, his children will also not have equal rights to nationhood and citizenship as their schoolmates.

Paddy is one of the success stories - he has made the leap out of the enclosed underclass of his fellow Russian-speakers in Estonia. He is not a sad, disaffected, drunken looter and nor is he an apologist for the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation. But he feels empathy with the Russian-speaking youth who disgraced themselves last weekend in the riots - he understands their pain for their parents, their lackof national identity, their sense of meaningless in a society that consigns them to the dustbin of historical revenge. He comes from a culture that is constrained by lack of cultural exchange - a Russian-only media that has its own agenda - he knows this, understands the impact but has no means of changing it.

Understanding these complex problems is tiring. Tomorrow I will tell Mick's story (another pseuodnym) - an ethnic Russian who is second-generation Estonian. Mick was disgusted with the violence of last weekend and said he was ashamed to share the same language with the rioters. More anon.

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