February 16, 2018

One Thing is for Certain: Geography Doesn’t Change, Does It?

Russian shall be used in Estonia in the future as well

Russian shall be used in Estonia in the future as well

When I look out from the window of my room I see two fortresses: Narva Castle, with its squat quadrangular Tall Hermann, and the immensely larger Ivangorod, the historic Jaanilinn, swallowed by darkness. This must be the world’s most symbolic border between two cultures, two churches—Western and Slavic Orthodox—and two mentalities. It was through Narva that Samuel P. Huntington drew the border in his 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. But the US scholar did not consider it the most conflicted border in the world.
I will try to write about Estonia in 100 years’ time at the gates of Europe in Narva. One hundred years seems like a frighteningly long time, but the 25 years that have passed since Estonia regained independence is one-quarter of that. A few weeks ago I experienced that little has changed in this time—too little. I was one of a few dozen people who recently met Prime Minister Jüri Ratas at Narva. The PM had a very reasonable suggestion: everyone should converse in the language they felt most comfortable with. I am equally comfortable in Estonian and Russian. I do not feel anything special or political when speaking Russian; language is a means of communication. Unfortunately, for many members of the Narva delegation, Estonian was incomprehensible. It was clear that a large part of the message was lost in translation. I felt sincerely sorry for the listeners. The feeling when you are listening and understand nothing or only a little causes uncertainty as well as embarrassment. But it would pass in a moment because the PM left in a hurry.

Increasing Importance of Russian

The situation described does not match the picture we painted of Estonia in 1991. At the time we were confident that our Russians would very soon learn Estonian and by 1994 the language of study in upper secondary schools would be mainly Estonian. We reached this solution in 2007, after a rocky road.
I do not dare to believe that much will change in 100 years. The Russian youth of today will learn Estonian and the next generation will have no problem communicating in Estonian. The accent will stay, and it is time all Estonians accepted this. But new Russian-speaking people will come here, and we are expecting more of them than migrants from further away, from other climates and distant countries.
In 1918 Russian-speakers constituted 4% of the population in Estonia and there are currently still less than 30% of them, but in 100 years this number will have increased somewhat. Russian was, is and will be the second most-used language in Estonia. My statement is confirmed by the fact that every third person that comes to Estonia speaks Russian. We probably need more and more migrants to maintain the Estonian population. Huntington saw the biggest tension to be between the Western and Islamic cultures, so we are knowingly choosing less tension.
What becomes of the new people coming to Estonia today and 20 years from now depends on our schools, our education system. Today it is popular to speak of a uniform Estonian school—rather cautiously, because all Estonian politicians keep in mind the coming elections, the Estonian and Russian votes. Let us create this uniform Estonian school and stop separating the youth. A hundred years from now—although I believe even ten years from now—people will be grateful to the decision-makers of today.

We Need Sticky Notes to Distinguish Citizens

Politicians are the first to be blamed, no matter how much they explain. In reality this uniform Estonian school that the author is referring to is not a terrible idea. The first languages in this school will be Estonian and Russian, according to one’s native language; some subjects will be studied in Estonian by all students together, some separately. And in the end, nothing bad will come of IT or Geography being studied together in English.
Hopefully the first action of the next parliament will be to adopt the decision that all children born in Estonia are given Estonian citizenship. The current system is so complicated that you need coloured sticky notes to understand it: Estonian citizens, Russian citizens and aliens. This is how I used to learn about the X and Y chromosomes. In any case, the child of an alien or of a Russian citizen and an alien is currently not given Estonian citizenship.
The newborn Estonian citizen will not be asked in the maternity ward which citizenship he or she would like. The child is simply given Estonian citizenship and everyone can make an informed decision regarding their citizenship later in life. If all children born in Estonia were given Estonian citizenship this issue would finally be resolved, and 100 years from now it would be distant history, which probably would not even be mentioned in social studies textbooks. Today migrants understand that they need to learn Estonian. That is, of course, if we do not tempt them with fully Russian- and English-language education systems.
The question of common values, however, remains open, today and in the future. I dare say that it will still be so in 100 years’ time. The Estonian government and the parliament (Riigikogu) are definitely more diverse in nationality terms than before and are still trying to figure out how the state can reach everyone who lives here, especially in the capital and the east of the country. In these parts of Estonia, newcomers find a community that speaks their language and it is easier for them to create a home there from a cultural perspective.

Narva—Gateway or Backyard of Estonia?

A recent discussion in Narva resulted in the idea to create the Estonia bus, similar to the nature bus programme. This project should be led by someone with an excellent command of Russian who loves Estonia. Every summer and spring weekend, this person should take local Russians to different places in Estonia. Who should pay for this—in part the people themselves, of course—is a secondary issue. I believe that there will still be a need for such an Estonian omnibus 100 years from now, because nothing unites us more than our love of a plot of land.
What will have become of Narva itself by then—the symbolic gateway to Estonia and its current troublesome child, although it is not politically correct to say this (but no one forbids us to think it)? A hundred years ago, life in Narva revolved around Kreenholm, which took people from the old town, from houses with small windows and thick walls, to the most modern environment of the time. In the following decades shale oil mines started up and people moved on to better earnings. The population of Narva decreased by 17% in 17 years.
People are also moving away from the border today, although Narva will still be the biggest city on Russia’s western border in 100 years. Simple mathematics confirms that the city’s population has fallen by 10% in the past ten years. Of course this does not allow us to conclude that the city will be empty within a century. But it is probably true that, although Narva today survives on production because it is customary in the city to work in a factory, there will be a breakthrough here in 100 years. The standard of living in Estonia will probably have improved so much that it is not reasonable to do simple subcontracting, not even in Narva. The people of Narva will not settle for a salary that is 10–20% lower than a few hundred kilometres away.
The basic education that the city provides will determine the level of entrepreneurship in Narva. I am confident that its share of tourism will increase compared to today. This border between two worlds will be visited from near and far, and by that time the fortresses will be another 100 years older. I am certain that, even in three generations’ time, people will still love the sea and pine forests. Nobody can take this away from Narva-Jõesuu!

What Will be Left of Narva in 100 Years?

The problem today is not so much how to support local entrepreneurship, but rather how this entrepreneurship can find workers. At the moment you can find a woman or man in Narva, 30–55 years of age, who is willing to stand behind an assembly line. But you cannot find a top engineer. The lack of a highly qualified workforce is a problem throughout Estonia. But if a suitable person is found in Tallinn or St Petersburg, s/he will quite understandably be pretentious about the living environment.
This is less the case for those who come from St Petersburg (or Ukraine) than for those from Tallinn. The first to come here will face difficulties. I hope that in the near future we will forget about our built-in cowardice and overly developed patriotism and allow as many top specialists into Estonia as are needed in the fields that are important to us. Especially here, in the east of the country.
Buildings and things outlive people, but most of the buildings in Narva—the Khrushchyovkas and nine-storey “Great Walls of China” from the 1980s—will not stand the test of time. What will become of this urban environment, designed for 85,000 people with less than half that number living there? Will we have the wisdom in the coming decades to direct the transformation of this city and not fear opposition? Fear of criticism—the constant sweating over public opinion—is starting to hinder Estonia’s progress. In any case, the development of Narva’s urban environment has the potential to become a true Estonian success story, something that can be read about in architectural collections a century from now. For example, Narva needs a street where people come to take walks, visit cafés and browse. Narva needs a place for meeting up. Will it be the Town Hall Square that is about to be developed? Will the city have a street leading to the river?
I look around me and wonder what in my home will still exist in 100 years’ time to remind people of life in Narva today. It must be a book, because CDs with video clips or photographs on a memory stick will probably have been destroyed—or you will be able to marvel at these in a museum, where there is an ancient machine to revive history. Now the next question—which book? Understandably there was no proper comprehensive overview of the history of Narva 100 years ago, and there isn’t one today. But history is a great teacher. And there is much to learn from the history of Narva. It appears that the book to be read in 100 years’ time has not yet been written in this city.
One thing is for certain—even 100 years from now, it will be 210 kilometres to Tallinn and 140 km to St Petersburg from the Estonian border, the gateway to European culture. In fact, it was only 101 years ago, in February 1917, that all of Narva became part of the Governorate of Estonia. Before this, Narva was part of the Governorate of St Petersburg and Kreenholm was part of Estonia. We cannot escape Russian influence; we grow accustomed to it, learn to live with it and, perhaps, use it to our advantage. This is where the great challenge of our foreign policy lies. I am certain that, a century from now, the people of our beloved country will think as we do (tacitly) today—if Narva is ours, all of Estonia is ours.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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