Left Behind: Estonia's Russians

By Barber, Ben | The World and I, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Left Behind: Estonia's Russians


Barber, Ben, The World and I


Ben Barber has been a contributor to The World & I since the early 1990s.

Tiny Estonia on the Baltic Sea has but 1.5 million people. Estonians speak a unique language understandable only to their cousins the Finns about 50 miles across the Gulf of Finland. However, Estonia also holds between 400,000 and 600,000 Russians. It is an uneasy situation. The Russians were effectively shipwrecked when Estonia became independent and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Those left behind have been reluctant to learn the difficult Estonian language (without which they cannot become Estonian citizens). Many live in the northeast of the tiny country, near the border with Russia and within broadcast range of television stations in the nearby Russian city of St. Petersburg, once known as Leningrad.

The Russian presence first strikes a newcomer to Tallinn, Estonia's capital, when he notices the multitude of Russian-language newspapers and magazines on sale at newsstands. The Cyrillic Russian publications seem like an intrusion amid the Latin characters of the Estonian- language papers. But the real shock comes among the cobblestoned lanes of the old town in the wonderfully preserved city. Passing 500-year-old houses, halls, and traditional Lutheran churches, you come to the onion- like domes of the giant Russian Orthodox cathedral. It squats atop a hill, dominating the entire vista like a foreign sentinel.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is named after the 13th century Russian warrior who drove off the German Teutonic Knights. (Alexander Nevsky is also the name of the 1938 film by Eisenstein, scored by Sergei Prokofiev, made at Stalin's behest to inflame Russian nationalism against a future invasion by Hitler's Germany.) The name of the cathedral alone tells much of the story of the Russian relationship to tiny Estonia. The Soviets built an icon to Russian nationalism in the heart of Estonia's capital--which had long been dominated by the Hanseatic League of German cities--as a symbol to the tiny nation that a great and powerful neighbor to the east was staking a claim upon it. That claim that would be acted on from 1944 to 1991.

Stuck on Moscow time

This is a part of Central Europe where everyone remembers that Adolf Hitler used the supposed ill-treatment of German minorities abroad in Czechoslovakia as an excuse for invading that country in 1938. Now Estonians fear that nationalists in Russia are beginning to hammer away at the same issue--writing in the Russian media about the need to protect the rights of Russians in Estonia as well as in other former Soviet Republics from the Baltic Sea to Central Asia. The nationalist calls from Moscow have perhaps reinforced the view that it is not really necessary for Russians left behind to integrate into Estonia's social and cultural life. They are choosing to remain isolated in their neighborhoods and their living rooms.

"I think the Russian people in Estonia will stay separate," said Heiki Suurkask, 31, foreign editor of the main Estonian-language daily newspaper, Eesti Paevaleht. "But now some try to interact, more and more, with Estonian society. In football, for example, we do have separate Russian and Estonian teams. But they play against each other, and not very aggressively.

"The main problem of the Russians is economic. But some activists complain about second-class status."

After the end of Word War II, when Russians drove out Nazi troops and installed a pro-Soviet state, Russians were a privileged class, getting top jobs in industries that were set up to mesh with Russian production needs. Everyone learned Russian in school as a second language. But the collapse of Russian economic power after 1990 left many Russians in Estonia without good jobs. And Estonians no longer study Russian, preferring English or French.

Estonia has made a good transition from socialism to a free-market economy. Capitalist system reforms have raised incomes to $11,000 per person in 2002, so high that few Russians actually want to move to Russia, where per capita income in 2002 was lower, at $9,700, and jobs are hard to find. …

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