One Area, Several Cultural Spaces: Comparative Analysis of Stories as the Bases of Local Identity

By Jaago, Tiiu | Cultural Analysis, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview

One Area, Several Cultural Spaces: Comparative Analysis of Stories as the Bases of Local Identity


Jaago, Tiiu, Cultural Analysis


It is 14 June 2010. I have just arrived in Kohtla-Jarve from Tartu, and I want to get from the town centre to nearby Vanakula in order to take part in the meeting organised by local amateur historians. I have never taken this road before and I ask the bus driver to tell me when the bus gets there. I am speaking Estonian; the bus driver is Russian and does not understand me completely. We are also using different words to describe where Vanakula is located. As a researcher who specialises in cultural studies, I try to remain alert and pay attention to what language we are speaking, but at some point I notice that I have unconsciously started using Russian. The bus driver has also begun to understand me: "Aaaa, staraya derevnya" ("old village," the literal translation of "Vanakula" in Russian). There is no cultural conflict in our conversation. We both want to understand each other and make ourselves understood. It is a situation that is strange to me but common in Kohtla-Jarve--a meeting on the border of two local cultures.

The focus of this article is on the degree to which different cultural spaces are experienced in the multicultural town. I also examine the places that are perceived as common areas by the different communities (ethnic groups) and where they prefer to function separately. I have been intermittently monitoring the interaction of cultures in Kohtla-Jarve since 1991. My research is based on surveys and interviews conducted during fieldwork, the written memoirs and autobiographies of local residents, and research done by amateur historians. As a researcher, the primary aim I pursue is to observe and interpret: although I proceed from texts pertaining to local life, which have been created for a variety of purposes, I analyse them according to my own research objectives.

In the next section, I will provide an overview of the area in question--Kohtla-Jarve. I will thereafter introduce the points of departure for the article, namely, its source material and theoretical framework. In the main part of the article, I will present a comparative analysis of the texts by people of Kohtla-Jarve based on the aspect of cultural diversity. Cultural diversity can be analysed both at the level of the community (e.g., the Estonian-speaking and Russian-speaking communities in Estonia) and the level of the individual (e.g., the cultural identity of a member of a mixed family). In this article, I look at the manifestation of cultural diversity at the level of small groups: local hobby groups, the staff and students of a school, and miners working in the area. Hobby group activities, school life and the workplace provide representatives of different cultural groups with the opportunity for more in-depth, long-term and varied contact than, for example, random or superficial encounters in such meeting places as the street, public transport or apartment buildings. However, it is probable that the ethnic and cultural boundaries are expressed with different intensity in the aforementioned spheres of activity. For instance, a hobby group focusing on specific cultural features is more likely to create boundaries, while ethnic and cultural boundaries may never become an issue if one works in a mine.

Kohtla-Jarve as a culturally diverse town

Kohtla-Jarve is a mining and industrial town with a population of 44,000 and is situated on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland. It takes about one hour by bus to travel from Kohtla-Jarve to Russia's western border. Kohtla-Jarve became a multicultural environment after World War II when Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union. Although there were people of 30 ethnicities living in the town according to the 1989 census, the two largest ethnic groups are Estonians (23.1%) and Russians (63%) (Valge 2006, 59-60).

The Soviet-era migration brought about a significant change in the ethnic balance compared to the pre-war situation (the status quo during Estonia's period of national independence). …

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