Frugal Foresight in Estonia

By Kendall, Judy | Contemporary Review, January 1993 | Go to article overview

Frugal Foresight in Estonia


Kendall, Judy, Contemporary Review


MY first introduction to Estonia was in the visa section of the London Embassy. Unlike Latvia or Lithuania, Estonia were taking their newly-acknowledged borders very seriously, and my visa cost me all of twenty pounds -- four times what I had to pay for my Russian one. I learnt later that in fact my Estonian visa was valid for all Baltic countries and that I could have obtained it free from the Lithuanian or Latvian embassies -- my first taste of the frugal foresight that was so indicative of everything Estonian.

It took me a while to locate the London Embassy, tucked away at the back of a building in West London, down some stairs into a long dingy corridor and off to an unimposing windowless room on the right. Filled with too many tables and stacked chairs and an empty unplugged coffee urn, it bore more resemblance to a provincial church hall than an embassy; the only signs of a diplomatic presence were two rather dejected Estonian flags, and an out-of-date Baltic guide book.

However, the 'lady-in-waiting', a fluent English speaker, was quick and efficient, and had soon whisked off my application to the inner diplomatic sanctum for signing. Some, however, were not so lucky. While I was waiting, a Russian Estonian entered asking for visas for him and his family, rather ashamedly admitting that his passport was 'the red one' -- USSR issue. The official's tone changed sharply once she discovered that he could not speak Estonian, and she told him that he 'would just have to wait like any one else'.

This disapproval of non-Estonian speakers of Russian origin became depressingly familiar to me on my arrival in Estonia. 'Ich hasse die Russen. Ich hasse sie!' one old lady told me in her best German learnt under occupation in the Second World War. I had been invited up for coffee, (an inordinately expensive luxury for Estonians) in her beautifully spacious lounge in a second floor flat in the centre of Tallinn, Estonia's capital. She immediately started to tell me how much she hated the Russians, and got so worked up that she spilt the expensive coffee all over the saucers.

She had her reasons. Her husband went to America in 1939. She and her young son were planning to join him, but the Russians arrived in Estonia before she was able to leave, and she never saw him again.

Under Soviet rule her flat was divided in two, portioned off for use by another family. 'Now I don't mind,' she said, 'my second husband is dead and it's enough for me.' But the bitterness still rankles.

She is not the only one. Although Estonia now belongs to Estonians again, they are far from happy. Forty per cent of the population come from Russia, and have remained ethnically and culturally separate. Few Russian Estonians can speak Estonian -- a fact that is fiercely resented by native Estonians. I became quite accustomed to the routine testing of boundaries and patience. My Estonian friends, as a matter of principle, would address all officials or strangers in Estonian first. Too often, the answer came in Russian. 'Sorry, I can't speak Estonian'. And I would have to listen to yet another angry aside as my Estonian friends expressed their hate of their previous colonisers.

Admittedly, Estonian is a notoriously difficult language to learn, and Russians could argue that they were simply moving from one part of the Soviet Union to another and had no reason to learn this difficult non Indo-European language spoken by less than a million people. But there has been little change in attitude on either side since independence, except that the Estonians express their resentment more openly now. There is very little integration between the two peoples and little desire for it to happen. When the Estonian government offered citizenship to Russian Estonians very few took up the offer -- preferring perhaps understandably to place their bets on their larger neighbour whilst still enjoying the more favourable lifestyle in Estonia, but Estonia has not forgiven them. …

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