November 24, 2011

The President’s Polyphonic Voice

President Ilves’s book, published in Finnish, unveils a philosopher and a statesman who impels readers to think.

President Ilves’s book, published in Finnish, unveils a philosopher and a statesman who impels readers to think.

The President’s Polyphonic Voice

President Ilves’s book, published in Finnish, unveils a philosopher and a statesman who impels readers to think.

Seppo Zetterberg
Toomas Hendrik Ilves
Omalla äänellä (In Your Own Voice)
Editor and compiler: Iivi Anna Masso
Translators of Part II: Jouko Vanhanen, Petteri Aarnos and Saska Saarikoski
WSOY 2011, 375 pages

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves’s book, targeted at Finnish readers, is divided into two parts. The first one, making up almost half of the book, is an interview with Ilves; the second part contains his essays and speeches from 1998 to 2011. In the interview, Ilves follows up on the issues raised and discussed at length in the essays and speeches. The two parts complement each other, making the end result impressive.
Books by politicians often make quite a depressing read. With plenty of platitudes, bone-dry propaganda and shallow self-promotion, they do not usually include any ideas and even more rarely suggest any new perspectives to readers; not to mention the chance that they would provoke educated readers to enter into fruitful conversation with their authors and challenge them to reflect on their own opinions in the light of those put forward by the authors.
I may be a victim of my own prejudices or my extensive experiences as a historian and a reader of texts produced by all kinds of pen-pushers might have made me cynical. So, let me state right away that Ilves’s book was a very positive surprise. It may come as news to many Finnish readers that their southern neighbours have a classically educated and truly reflective president who impels his audience to think and even to present counterarguments.
In the Republic of Estonia, the president’s powers are quite limited, but he has more influence as a torchbearer. Of course, this presumes not only the desire, but also the capability to do so. Ilves’s book offers a fine example of how to perform this role. I recommend his method to other leading politicians, admittedly within the limits of their abilities.
A nation’s own language is its spiritual flag
I have been engaged with the academy for decades, which is why I am deeply interested in the author’s views on education and the university world. He claims that unless young people are offered a decent education in their mother tongue, the most talented ones, i.e. the future elite, will take up studies abroad – and I agree with him. The brain drain in Estonia will accelerate.
The relationship between one’s mother tongue and university education is a topical issue. I have criticised the situation where a Finnish lecturer teaches Finnish students in pidgin English, with students understanding just as much as they can. This is not international cooperation, but a farce! Sadly, I seem to have noted similar pseudo-internationalisation in Estonia, while people are abandoning the principle that university education and research should promote the use of both one’s mother tongue and foreign languages.
“You are good enough”
History has demonstrated that the Estonians have had eternal patience and faith in the arrival of better times. Ilves defends Estonia and the Estonians, but he can also be fairly critical of them. For example, he cannot understand why people are still dissatisfied, even though Estonia has now joined the EU, NATO, the OECD and the eurozone, plus there is Skype and the nation has its own armed forces. “I think we suffer from delusions of grandeur,” writes Ilves. “We do not realise that our population is equal to half of Stockholm or half of Hamburg; we want to be as great as Germany or at least Finland.” He claims that the Estonians are offended every time somebody fails to know their country and that they need someone to tell them constantly: “You are good enough.”
It is characteristic of the Estonians – just like the Finns and other small nations – to ask: what does the elephant think of us? After all, this means that we, visitors, should provide food for thought to an elephant munching away in a zoo and that we should be familiar to it. Ilves suggests that the Estonians themselves should think more and worry less about what others think of them: “We must be more self-confident.”
Scandinavia provides a helpful backdrop for positioning Finland on the map. This pinpoints its location for many people, although technically speaking Finland is not part of Scandinavia. Estonia is not included in a similar kind of category. The concept of the Baltics is too vague, which is why Estonia would like to distance itself from it and to be more affiliated with the Nordic countries.
Ilves argues quite rightly that the Baltics do not form a coherent whole and that the ‘Baltic idea’ does not have a strong cultural foundation. The three Baltic nations are united above all by their analogous histories in the 20th century. Indeed, they have shared the same fate, but cultural or historical unity has never existed among them.
Finland was ‘forced’ to team up with the Nordic countries one thousand years ago. Since the 20th century, Estonia’s has wanted – and still wants – to join the club. It has not been easy to gain access to it. For example, from the historical period between the two world wars, we remember Estonia’s aspirations, to which Ilves also refers: Estonia was more than willing; Scandinavia was not.
Sometimes I am taken aback by Estonia’s claims about its Nordic roots and, in particular, by references to the years of 1561/1629–1710 when Estonia formed part of the Swedish Empire. In the 17th century, Swedish governors really made efforts to Nordicise Estonian society, but all fundamental transformation attempts drew fierce opposition from the Estonian and the Livonian nobilities. It was contrary to the interests of the Baltic Germans to have Estonia and Livonia adopt the Nordic model of society.
The Nordic region also pertains to a concept coined by Ilves – the ‘Northern Baltic Rim’ – comprising Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, with many common characteristics that Ilves identifies. In his opinion, they form a cluster, not a compact group. He insists that as they follow the same path of development, the small North European nations that are embedded in this cluster should better coordinate their policies towards the EU and cooperate with states that share their core values. Motion seconded!
Vergangenheitsbewältigung and research freedom
Ilves is grieved that Estonians still live in the myths of the past. Let me comfort the ailing head of state. Every nation fosters its own myths because what matters in history is not what actually happened, but what people believe happened. They use these beliefs as building blocks to reconstruct the past and the facts necessarily do not take centre stage in this. That is the hard truth.
Research into history is the only method for debunking myths and for perceiving different phenomena in their accurate proportions. Ilves insists that research into Soviet Estonia should be top priority, as it is more interesting than the ‘First Republic’. I am not as categorical as him – both eras have to be studied. The years of Soviet rule must definitely be explored, but the period of 1918–1940 also includes plenty of material for critical and impartial analysis.
The state’s role in this is to finance research projects in history, but just to finance and not to influence the results. Only free research can produce independent results.
It warms my heart that the president looks ahead to the future, while he also appreciates the importance of explaining the past. The past must not be forgotten. I have compared this with driving a car: it is dangerous to drive on if your rear-view mirror has frosted over and the driver cannot see what is happening behind him. Ilves was perfectly right when he said in his presidential inauguration speech in 2006 that ‘we should not apply the past as a cudgel’.
Finland’s diminishing role
Ilves believes that the relationship between Finland and Estonia is multi-faceted, encompassing not only great happiness, but also some darker aspects, which he highlights. And it is good that he does so. In Soviet times, we, Finns, got too used to being Estonia’s number 1 friends abroad. Now the whole world is open to the Estonians and Finland’s significance for them has inevitably decreased. Ilves admits that for him Finland was never a ‘window to the world’, like it was for thousands of Soviet Estonians, including Lennart Meri who is held in high esteem (also by Ilves).
That is how it has been – Finland has eagerly offered Estonia advice on what it should have done in one situation or another. These suggestions, for example, calls for the adoption of two official languages or for submissive obedience to the East, have often come from people who are not well versed in history. The Estonians, however, are quite disillusioned about the country on the other side of their eastern border because they had to be part of it; they had to live in the belly of the beast for decades.
Finland, however, was not forced to be part of the Soviet Empire, but managed to keep the enemy behind its eastern border, which admittedly had shifted westward. Those Finnish political ‘doctors’ who diagnose Estonia with post-traumatic stress are not always aware of this difference.
Ilves claims that having been attacked by the enemy during the Second World War, Finland attracted much more sympathy than the three Baltic nations because Finland was perceived as a democracy, while Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were considered to be democratic only to a limited extent. It is true that the latter three suffered from a democratic deficit, but the sympathy won by Finland also stemmed from the fact that Finland fought back against the enemy.
The submission and ‘voluntary’ accession of the Baltic states to the Soviet Union offered Stalin an effective propaganda tool, a lure that also proved irresistible to his Western allies who admitted only afterwards that there was a hook attached to it. But it was already too late by then. The official ‘truth’ of the Soviet Union still continues to be Russia’s truth.
It is, of course, another issue whether or not the lack of democracy led to Estonia’s, Latvia’s and Lithuania’s surrender without any resistance. I do not think that it did. When the great power had decided to absorb its smaller neighbours, it would not have mattered much if these nations had free civil societies that had taken a stand against their excessively acquiescent governments, challenging their policies.
The ticket to Europe was expensive
It is interesting to follow Ilves’s thoughts concerning the impact of German culture on the Estonians. He emphasises quite rightly the dual meaning of Germanism for Estonia. The Germans turned the Estonians into Lutherans and Lutheranism gave rise to the early spread of literacy. “It has to be admitted that what was the most excruciating experience for the Estonian people was simultaneously the very phenomenon that enabled us to live today in Western democracy.”
My thoughts have often taken a similar path. Approximately one thousand years ago, Finland and Estonia lived in a clerical and a cultural vacuum, if I may use this slightly misleading, but meaningful concept. In the East, there was the Slavic world; the South was dominated by German culture; and the West was where Scandinavian nations were forming. This ‘vacuum’ attracted all of them. The race for Estonia was won by the Roman Catholic Church and the German knights, while Sweden took the first prize in the race for Finland. Did it really matter who was the first to cross the finish line? Yes, it did. German culture, i.e. Central Europeanness, arrived in Estonia with great force straight from Germany and subjected Estonian peasants to feudalism. The same Central European culture reached Finland in a softened form via Sweden, without leading to the introduction of feudalism in the country. This meant that Finnish peasants retained their freedom.
This very contact with German culture was the reason for Estonia being richer and more European than Finland until the 19th century, as Ilves asserted in an essay published in Helsingin Sanomat on May 1, 2004. More European – sure, but the claim that Estonia was richer needs some clarification. The wealth of the German upper class in Estonia indeed surpassed that of the Finnish Swedish nobility many times over, but most Estonian peasants who lived under serfdom were not richer than Finnish peasants who actually owned their land.
The fruits of this race between neighbours can still be seen today. Estonia resembles a Central European country more than Finland. However, as Ilves emphasises, the Estonians paid a heavy price for the arrival of the Germans. The ticket to Europe was expensive.
The meaning of 1989 and 2008
Ilves claims that a free and democratic state built on freedom of choice, responsibility and civil society does not treat its citizens as a faceless mass to be manipulated. This must be his way of extending his greetings to the other side of Lake Peipus!
Ilves believes in the applicability of democracy anywhere in the world. I myself have become a cynical relativist. In absolute terms, democracy might be possible everywhere. In practice, however, it cannot emerge in a state where the leadership and most people do not want it, or do not know how to get it. Democracy is the best form of government, yet also the most complicated one. It presumes freedom, together with active citizen participation and responsibility. A passive citizen does not deserve democracy.
Estonia’s democracy is better protected against internal and external threats due to its membership in the EU and NATO, Ilves claims. Still, there is cause to remember August 8, 2008. He writes that the Russo-Georgian war in itself marked the collapse of a paradigm, of an era, and the beginning of a new one. The international organisations’ and their member states’ reactions to it indeed give us some serious food for thought, Ilves insists. “Moreover, they enable us to pass judgement on the future,” he asserts.
In addition, Ilves expounds on the meaning of the 1989 tectonic shift in the history of our neighbourhood and illustrates it with numerous striking examples. Attractive business opportunities opened up in the East and Western companies were quick to enter new markets and to find new customers. It strikes me that when the boats of Hanseatic German merchants reached the northern shores of the Gulf of Riga 900 years ago, similar ideas must have occurred to them, which must also have represented a breakthrough in its own time.
A diagnosis of Ilves
What kind of a man is revealed on the pages of Ilves’s book? In Finland, the mental state of the Estonian people has been diagnosed often enough, but let me – in conclusion – diagnose the Estonian president by his book.
The author is a philosopher and a statesman with a classical education which he puts to full use; who places accuracy in following the letter of the Constitution above everything else; who values both transatlantic relations and Europeanness; who emphasises Estonia’s association with the Nordic countries and intends to develop the Northern Baltic Rim; who underlines the multidimensional nature of Estonia’s relations with Finland, instead of excessively romanticising or idealising them; who respects Jaan Tõnisson; who highlights the meaning of the Georgian war – ‘the paradigm changed on August 8, 2008’; who is an enthusiastic friend of music; and who can be deeply critical of the situation in Russia, but who can also deliver a moving eulogy to Jaan Kross.
The rewards of reading Toomas Hendrik Ilves’s book are twofold – it opens interesting perspectives and offers ‘eureka moments’, but equally important, it impels its readers to think and to formulate opinions, while provoking them to argue with the author. All this makes for a good read.
Translated from Estonian into English by Marju Randlane.

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