I came across this map on the wall of the Taarkataro cafe in Obinitsa, which is in Setomaa, this rather interesting border region separating, in some people’s minds, Estonia proper from Russia proper. For centuries, the Piusa River formed a boundary between the lands of the Estonian and Livonian Governates and the lands of Pskov. Those on the “Estonian” side became Lutherans, attained a high level of literacy already in the 17th century under Swedish rule, and developed a different kind of relationship with authority from those on the “Russian” side, who became Orthodox and remained illiterate deep into the 19th century. In some ways, the Seto people who lived in the border region were similar to other Finnic peoples in the Russian Empire who were not historically under Swedish or German rule, such as the Mari, Udmurts, Komi, Moksha, etc. They thought of themselves as one ethnic group within the greater Russian Empire. The border here, as most borders, has always been in flux. Many note that much of what is now Estonian “Setomaa” was, until 1920, always under Russian administration. Looking at this map, though, I noticed that a small village on the other side of Lake Peipsi, the “Russian side,” was apparently part of Livonia for some part of history. This is called “Soztinez” on the map, which dates to the 1790s. According to Google Maps, there is still a settlement there, but I cannot find a name for it. I wonder how many people there know that they were once part of the provinces that later became Estonia.
I SAW THIS news item on ERR and felt like saying something. President Kersti Kaljulaid sent a congratulatory message to Putin in the even of his re-election. Some people are obviously not thrilled by the Estonian head of state congratulating the Russian president, who has been in power for more than 18 years and runs an illiberal country. Russia’s recent botched assassination in the UK certainly has left a cloud of gaseous stink over any relations with the Kremlin.
In times like these though, when it seems that Estonia is becoming “Finlandized,” I remember that Estonians actually wanted that to happen 30 years ago. The drive for independence was for a) national preservation; b) material gain; c) to achieve the same successes of their Finnish neighbor. They wanted to be a free country, as free as Finland.
Bringing about political changes within Russia weren’t at the top of that list, though there is a strong argument that they might increase Estonian security. That being said, any kind of political collapse in Russia could have an opposite effect. It could actually lead to a full-scale European war across the east. I recall something that Finnish President Tarja Halonen said in the prior decade about Finnish-Russian relations. “We’ve never had it so good.” The reality is, in her lifetime, which started at the peak of the Second World War, up to the moment she uttered it, the Finns probably hadn’t had it so good. It does leave one feeling a bit uneasy. It’s not easy to bite your tongue all the time. It feels dishonest.
Hi there! Tere päevast! This blog is largely ignored as I work on various projects, which is unfortunate. However, the archive is quite good. I think that for me, as a writer, many of the things that once seemed odd or noteworthy to me became mundane or routine as I acculturated to Estonian life in the years 2007-2017. So it doesn’t make much sense for me to post here anymore. Most of my regular work as a columnist appears on my other blog North!
I urge you to check out my new book Sketches of Estonia. A new collection of columns and unpublished pieces, called Mirror Man, is set to appear later this year. My life these days is still deeply Estonian and sometimes I do still wonder at the curious ways of these adorable and prickly people from the north. Mostly I am at the Rohelise Maja Kohvik ja Pood in Viljandi writing. So if you stop in, feel free to disturb me and we can go to the garden, weather permitting, and share an espresso!
The first currency of the Estonian Republic was the mark. It was introduced in 1918 and tied to the German ostmark. It remained in circulation through the late 1920s, at which time the kroon became the new currency. I have heard interesting anecdotes about Estonian children finding stacks of old 1000 marka or 100 krooni bills stashed away in attics during the Soviet era, and presenting them to their parents and grandparents who just shrugged as if they really had no recollection of seeing them before. Interesting that the Estonian mark was once pegged to the German ostmark, just as the reintroduced kroon was once pegged to the Deutsche Mark and later the euro, before full euro adoption in 2011.
It is a good example of the centrality of Germany’s influence on the Estonian state.
Head aega! This is the all-purpose Estonian goodbye. It is more sincere than the forced nägemist which implies that you might see the person again, and though you most likely will, there is the possibility that you won’t. (There is also the presumption that you might actually want to see the person again). Then there is the androgynous nägemiseni. I once used this with my friend Mart, but he blushed a bit and said, “Justin, men don’t say nägemiseni.” That’s nägemiseni. It’s for little girls. Yet head aega! It just means, literally, “good times.” Isn’t anyone worthy of good times? I can still hear Nile Rogers’ chinkalink guitar on Chic’s old disco hit “Good times/These are the good times/A new state of mind/These are the good times.” The funny thing is that for the Estonians, head aega is something an older serious person would say to you. The cry of the old men. For Americans, it sounds like leftover stoner. “Good times, man.” “Same to you.” Like you should be munching on chocolate chip cookies in the corner of a college keg party in Connecticut listening to Chic. Not that I know anything about that. Gotta run now. Head aega!
All of life is a process of tuning in, and a process of making decisions. I can find the very places in my old journals where certain decisions were made. These are silent, internal decisions. I wonder sometimes to what extent the Estonians around me have mastered these kinds of facts. Many seem to be experts when it comes to the human condition. I recently asked K. and M. at the cafe if they believed that it is possible to feel another person’s feelings, even if they never express them, even if they are in another city. Both of them looked up from their coffees and said, in unison, muidugi! Of course. M. is a woman and so a witch. Most Estonian women see an equals sign between nõid (witch) and naine (woman). There is no separation between the two. If you are an Estonian woman, you are a witch. So, yes, we are dealing with some ‘next-level’ stuff here. The idea that your heart can correct itself, can choose to tune into something, if it so decides, makes perfect sense in this eerie place. The twin enemies of these things are fear and doubt, I’ve learned. If you can ignore your doubt, accept your fear, you can get somewhere.
A morning where it’s hard to get out of bed. I used to have these long ago, before and after. After school, too I would come home and just try to sleep through the rest of the evening. And then the morning too. I felt myself in free fall without any catch. You cannot expect anyone else to bail you out in your life, but what if you can’t be bothered to catch yourself? I realize this is depressing, but that’s how I feel. There is something truly isolating about this country too, and this feeling does come to other foreigners here. The distance between people is greater, the embraces are not genuine, at times, or feel awkward, and beautiful women run roughshod over your heart, like one of those primitive plows they use out in the countryside. But what do you do when the heart goes silent? You try to tune in, but it tunes out. The signal is lost. No frequency.
N. needs a man with a hammer, but M. is a höövel sort of man. This was related to me recently by an estranged yet amiable couple, one that cooperates at all levels, and yet whose personal life is that of sister-brother, not man-and-woman. I had to look up höövel. It’s a carpenter’s plane. M. would prefer to slowly and easily work his wood into shape, but N. wants it all done, now. She wants a man with a hammer to take over and nail things into place, not some easygoing höövel. “I don’t even know what I want,” I tell this troubled duo. “Maybe just some kind of Inuit woman, in a warm igloo, with a lot of sled dogs,” say I. “And we just lay there in the furs and have a lot of sex and that’s pretty much it.” As if caught in a dream, I end my vision of the perfect relationship. “You know, you don’t need hammers or a höövel if you live in an igloo.” “You still have to provide,” says N. “Are you really willing to go out and tackle some seal, pull it out of the ice, and eat it?” “It doesn’t sound so complicated,” I say. She squints. My seal-catching talents are in doubt. “Ready to come home to an angry Inuit woman grunting to you, “Noh, kus su hüljes on?” (Where’s your seal?) This idea sours me out a bit, leaves me cold. I was there with the steamy igloo sex, but demanding iglunaised are all the same I guess.
Sunset is the time I usually arrive back home to V-town, I can see it riding up beyond the horizon as I come up past Vana-Võidu, Jaan Tõnisson’s birthplace, etc., those shadowy pillars in the smoky dusk, the outline of an ancient city. I am so eternally grateful for the stars in the deep Atlantic blue sky, that come out just beyond dusk, which lingers so deliciously, those gold paint splashes of sun, the white gold light all over the facades of Old Town, the hills that roll down and away, then curl up on the horizon, with blue-green evergreens patterned up upon. Where better to be than here among the verandas and wood barns and moss? I’ll take the silence, the quiet traffic hum, the too familiar faces and maddening conversations … I feel somehow beyond the kaubanduskeskuse maailm of Tartu and Tallinn and anywhere else here, safe from that department store world of discount sausages and organic soaps, where most of the remaining good of the cities has been encased and surrounded and jailed in plastic and metal and escalators. There’s more. When you get lost in life, as I have, you must live on not by your wits, but your “heart.” If you don’t, you betray yourself and get ever deeper into this labyrinth of life illusions. High rows of green hedges rise spreading to gray horizons. Somewhere a bird sadly singing. Sometimes I wonder how many other people are lost and if they even know it.
You used to all come here for the geopolitical analyses, okay. People are worried, the media shows British troops amassing in the Estonian hinterlands, the American tanks in Narva, specter of Russian aggression, the pro-Kremlin zombie stooges amok on the commenting boards, like the worst case of Montezuma’s Revenge. Shit. I just don’t feel it though. Maybe I am just too blissed out by the advent of spring, those lovely little birds chirping (and yes, spring did come to Europe, even in 1939) but I just don’t sense the danger and here’s why: because short of invading Estonia, losing a lot of little green men, getting into a nuclear eye-for-an-eye, city-for-a-city, and imposing Yana Toom on the throne as a yes woman (who will be perpetually pelted with rotten potatoes and turnips until driven into exile in Damascus where she can behold and becoddle her boyfriend Assad’s hand lovingly), the Estonian leadership now is, quite honestly, the best the Kremlin could hope for. The President, Kaljulaid, is a born and raised Estonian woman whose outlook east is not the outraged Atlanticism of her predecessor, but the rather common moral superiority of the nordics (“the situation is not ideal, but the ethical state must make do, etc.”) making her sound, in a roundabout, removed, unfinlandized yet way, like Tarja Halonen. The prime minister’s party had that deal with United Russia in the ’00s, which probably doesn’t mean much, but it does mean so very much to the Kremlin (“our guys are in power there”), the same way that Lavrov still talks about Swedish “neutrality” as if it really meant something, or that they’re flustered about being “engulfed by NATO,” when it’s obvious the West is in shit shape. That doesn’t mean that the gasket protecting us from global meltdown isn’t going to blow soon, but if it does, it’s probably going to steam in Korea or some such place, where heavy missiles land in the seas. In which case, we all should feel alert and alarmed, no matter where we are.