The Historical Roots of Environmental Conflict in Estonia

By Auer, Matthew R. | East European Quarterly, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

The Historical Roots of Environmental Conflict in Estonia


Auer, Matthew R., East European Quarterly


"Estonia's environment and nature are special," the Estonian scholar observed, as we sipped coffee in a dingy cafe in Tallinn.(1) "But to them," he said, lowering his voice, and nodding slightly toward a table of Russian-speakers, "it means nothing. To a Russian, the environment is a 100-meter square area around him and his home. He does not care ... no, it's more simple -- he is not aware of my country's environment."

This bitter remark reminded me of questions I began asking months earlier about the roots of environmental conflict in Estonia. What are the origins of Estonian and Russian-speakers' differing attitudes toward the environment? How do these different attitudes fuel conflict?

Environmental devastation in the former Soviet Union and the nations of Eastern and Central Europe has been profiled in American and European newspapers, magazines, scholarly publications and books.(2) However, the vast majority of written material glosses over the historical roots of contemporary environmental conflict. This paper considers the foundations of recent discord over environmental problems in Estonia. Historical evidence reveals that such conflict is older, more perplexing, and more enduring than recent popular accounts suggest.

Two forms of environmental conflict exist in Estonia -- cultural and political. The first form of conflict is rooted in Estonian and Russian-speaking peoples, traditions, customs and behavior. Cultural conflict over the environment in Estonia has not been widely discussed on television news programs, nor in newspapers nor academic journals. It is largely unidirectional -- an anger that smolders inside ethnic Estonians, and is closely linked to other social grievances and prejudices Estonians bear against the Russophones in their midst. Political environmental conflict is more conspicuous than cultural environmental conflict. Ecopolitical conflict pits citizens against the state in a battle over natural resources and the welfare of nature. it is spontaneous, destabilizing, and in the late 1989s, helped ignite a revolution against Soviet Russia.

Cultural and political conflict are not mutually exclusive. They inform one another, feed on one another. Estonian opinions about the environment are shaped by cultural perceptions of nature, but also by political changes. However, cultural discord is older, rooted in the divergent values, mores, and traditions of two peoples. Different attitudes toward nature and different ways of using natural resources are the stuff of Russian and Estonian culture rather than Soviet and Estonian politics.

THE HISTORICAL ROOTS OF CONTEMPORARY CULTURAL

ENVIRONMENTAL CONFLICT

Estonia is a Baltic Sea nation of 1.6 million people. Slightly more than sixty percent of the population is ethnic Estonian, speaking a language of Finno-Ugric origin. One-third of the remaining population is ethnic Russian with the balance composed of small numbers of Ukrainians, Belorussians, Finns, Germans, Poles, Tartars, other Central Asian minorities and Jews.(3) Virtually all ethnic Estonians interviewed for this project insisted that "Russians (or Russian-speakers) and Estonians have different attitudes toward nature and the Estonian environment." Most striking, however, were confirmations of this notion by Russian-speakers: almost all affirmed that Russian-speakers are generally less concerned about the condition of natural resources in Estonia and that the two peoples do not share the same attitudes toward nature.

So many interviewees mentioned culture as the basis for environmental conflict in Estonia that I am convinced that the phenomenon exists. However, the origins of this conflict are poorly documented. My inquiry commenced with archival materials dating to the 18th and 19th centuries, after the period of Swedish regional hegemony. Three aspects of post-feudal agrarian history are germane to a discussion of cultural differences between ethnic Estonians and Russophones: 1) the social impact of the German manorial system in Estonia versus the Russian manorial system in Russia; 2) traditional religious and educational differences between Estonians and Russians, and 3) Estonian vs. …

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