aastapäevad

In case you didn’t realize it, we are now entering the season of anniversaries — the 90th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, the 90th anniversary of the Estonian manifesto of independence, the 90th anniversary of the War of Independence, the 90th of this, and the 90th of that.

Yesterday while in Tallinn I watched the children’s program Lastekraan, and who should be on hand but Indrek Tarand, a historian involved in the Laidoner Museum in Tallinn, who was showing “Anni” — played by Maria Soomets — photos from the Estonian War of Independence.

There were grainy black and white photos of tanks and guys in trenches with guns and cannon. I actually hadn’t seen so many images of the Estonian Independence War assembled in one place before. “Oi,” blushed “Anni”, reminding the viewers at home about the birth of the Estonian state. It seemed in a way so surreal to think that here were are in Tallinn, Estonia’s city of fashionable haircuts, gushing over the deeds of 1918 some 90 years later.

But I was recently reminded of that conflict after a link at the incredibly idiotic website of Night Watch in Estonia — which was trying to prove that those who were deported in the 1940s deserved it — pointed me to a resource where I found the files of two of my children’s great- great-grandfathers:

TULEV, Aleksander, Simeon s. 1898 Kirovi obl. Aleksandrovi raj. Nolinsk, arr. 30.01.46 Tartumaa Elva v., trib. 23.07.46 §58-1a, 10+5. [ük]

LAANEMAA, Martin, Mart s. 1898 Läänemaa Varbla v., eluk. sama, arr. 04.08.48, trib. 30.10.48 §58-1a, 25+5, 23.07.56 väh. ärak., vab. 1956, surn. peale vab. 1968. [ük]

Both of these men were arrested during the Soviet occupation for one reason: they fought in the Estonian War of Independence. Tulev’s crime was that he was in the white Russian army of Nikolai Yudenich. For that ‘crime’ he received a sentence of 10+5. Martin’s sentence was harsher. He was an Estonian Independence War veteran and he owned land. A big no no. So he got 25+5. Both were released after the death of Stalin and, sadly, both on occasion found peace in the bottle in the years to follow.

I wonder what they would say during these grand anniversaries. What would be their speech at the presidential gala in Pärnu in February. I can imagine Martin saying something to the effect of, “hey, they promised me land. How could I resist?” And Aleksander might say something like, “one day I was mobilized, the next day I was stuck in Elva for the rest of my life — what gives?”

These are the heroes we commemorate. In some ways they seem so distant and foreign to us in the world of blogs. Yet in other ways, I am sure, we share a lot in common.

official doo doo

I am not sure if you have picked up on the debate over whether or not Tallinn should add another official language. No, not russkie, the native tongue of 43 percent of its inhabitants, but English, the language of those bartenders at Hell Hunt.

When it comes to official languages, sometimes I feel that Sweden got it right. Sweden has no “official language” but I think everyone would agree that you need to know Swedish if you want to get up in the Riksdag and demand to know whether or not Carl Bildt has paid his television license fees.

Finland is often lauded for pampering its Swedish minority — now some 6 percent of the total population. On the other hand, the languages of the indigenous Sami, Romani, as well as the Russians who form 1 percent of the population are not important enough to be deemed co-equal to Swedish and Finnish. So, in essence, minority Swedish speakers are officially more representative of the state than minority Sami speakers. Reindeer herding peons take notice: your language is only worthy of being co-official in certain regions.

If one were to apply the Finnish method to other countries, you’d wind up with Polish as an official language of Lithuania, Hungarian an official language of Slovakia, Hungarian an official language of Romania, and, of course, Turkish as an official language of Germany. Turks have been living there for decades. They appear to have longstanding ties to Deutschland. This is the ideal of advocates of multiculturalism who think that official languages heal all. Estonia, even, has been advised to take more official language, because that would make all its social cleavages disappear.

Except, I actually think Estonian is developing a more interesting approach to the conundrum to making one person’s language “official”, another person’s “regional”, and denying a third person’s language any recognition at all. In Estonia, there is one “official” feel-good national language. But following Estonian laws, minorities without long-standing ties to the country, like Ingrian Finns and Ukrainians, have been granted opportunities to learn in their native language and achieve cultural autonomy. In other countries, these groups would not enjoy such protection at all.

Meantime, official work continues in the national language. Estonian, despite its curvy vowels and many cases, is not an impossible language. I have lived in and out of this country for nearly five years and if Edgar Savisaar wanted my opinion of how he is running Tallinn, I’d be happy to give it to him. I’d say that Tallinna liiklus on vastik (Tallinn’s traffic is awful), Tallinna uued majad on inetu (Tallinn’s new buildings are ugly), and kõige inglise joodikad peaks olema keelatud (all drunk English people should be forbidden).

How hard was that? I don’t see why that should ever change. Meantime in cities like Narva or Sillamäe, local officials have every right to communicate with one another and with their constituents in their native language — Russian. They also must continue to serve their Estonian constituents in the national language too. And in Tallinn, you don’t have to pass a law to make English official because it’s already being used everyday in correspondence and at meetings by the city’s large foreign business population.

So in a sense, Estonia is inching closer to being like Sweden. Estonia will become in time a place where you “officially” can speak whatever you want with your colleagues at work, but if you want stand in the Riigikogu and ask a politician about her mother’s salary, it would be best to ask politely ja muidugi eesti keeles.

vaikiv enamus

For me and many others yesterday’s ‘devaluation scare’ in Tallinn reached me the usual way — through the websites of Postimees and Eesti Päevaleht.

There were no silent whispers in downtown Tartu yesterday. No one pulled me aside and said, “get out your savings and exchange it for euros at the currency exchange, ASAP” in Estonian. Like so many occurrences in this country, the latest international news simply … did … not … occur … here.

Watching the images of the lines of people standing outside currency exchanges in Tallinn at the Postimees website, you were struck by the immediate thought of: What are those people smoking? But the truth is that I wonder if Estonians in Viljandi or Võru really bothered to think about it all.

This was Tallinn, after all, the place where crazy things happen. To your average Estonian, who is female, speaks Estonian as a first language, doesn’t live in Tallinn, and is between the ages of 45 and 49, the capital must increasingly look like some revolving circus of riots, stag parties, ugly post-modern buildings, and devaluation fears. It is the capital of Estonia, sure. The only problem is that it doesn’t look too much like the Estonia most Estonians see from their kitchen windows.

It wasn’t always like this. Most Estonians went through a similar carnival of dysfunction in the early 1990s. Maybe they lost their savings when the kroon was introduced. Maybe they lost their property when its pre-1940 owners arrived from Canada to reassert their claims.

Younger people, of the “winning generation”, flocked to Tallinn or Tartu to find work in banks or IT firms, creating a property-owning class of 30 year-olds with children, perhaps a divorce under their belts, nice wheels, a smart mobile phone, and the notion that this country belongs to them. Older people settled in for the luckless life of the pensioner. And the guys somewhere in between got lost in the shuffle. A few lucky fellows became CEOs and government ministers. The rest became incorrigible drunks.

This is the story of most Estonians. In recent years though a measure of pride returned to the men and women of Tõstamaa, Anstla, and, my personal favorite, Rannapungerja. They were proud when their country joined the club of democratic European countries — the EU. They feel more secure that their country is in a military alliance with countries that include the US, the UK, Germany, and France.

So one could say that for those average, 47-year-old women working as school teachers somewhere in Läänemaa, a blanket of normalcy has returned after a jarring period of absence. Maybe they have extra money, enough to renovate their apartment. Maybe the dirt roads of their villages have been repaved with EU funding. And as far as Tallinn is concerned, they are interested, but not that interested.

Finance Minister Ivari Padar is from this Estonia. A Võru native, he has a nice farmhouse in the countryside where he probably does Estonian things like chop wood and whip himself with birch branches on occasion. Watching him once more explain that devaluation fears were unfounded, I could sense his impatience with the carnival of Tallinn. The more outrageous things get, the more, to most Estonians, they almost seem boring.

Dying in Narva

I was a bit shocked to read the findings of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, which showed Estonia to have the highest rate of HIV infection in Europe.

According to the report, there are currently 6,286 HIV-positive people in Estonia — with 555 new cases registered this year — and 176 people have died of AIDS.

Kristi Ruutli, spokeswoman for Estonia’s National Institute for Health Development, said in the report that the HIV virus is being spread among young, male drug-users, many of whom belong to the country’s sizable ethnic Russian minority.

Prostitution has also contributed to the spread, Ruutli said, and the virus has also been transmitted with increasing frequency through heterosexual contact.

6,286 people is a lot for a country of 1.34 million people. But when you consider that the virus has been localized to ethnic Russians in northeastern Estonia, it’s even more worrisome because you are dealing with a smaller community of people. The jump in the HIV rate also coincided with a similar spread in northwestern Russia, so one can assume that the junkie community has spread the virus from St. Petersburg through Narva and into Tallinn.

Narva currently has a population of around 67,000 people, the lowest since the early 1970s, of those about 53,800 are ethnic Russians and just 2,700 are ethnic Estonians. About 28,000 are Estonian citizens, 23,000 are Russian citizens, and 15,000 remain stateless. Since 1991, Narva has lost 19 percent of its population. The city is already dealing with higher rates of unemployment and chronic diseases, like HIV/AIDS, only compounds the problem.

What’s the solution? Greater investment? Sure. If Estonia is searching for workers then some are to be found in Narva, that’s true. A softer, Western European approach, like free needles for addicts? Perhaps they already have this. More obligatory HIV testing? Could work. The only scary question is, if there are 6,300 people in Estonia who know that they have HIV, how many are there that don’t know they are carrying the disease? No one can accurately estimate that number, but it is most certainly higher than the number of known cases.

Your fifteen minutes are up, Lavrov

In less than 10 days there will be elections in Russia. Will they result in a new foreign minister or a new foreign policy towards the “near abroad” — I think not.

Chances are we’ll be stuck with more Sergei Lavrov and more typical useless Russian foreign policy towards Estonia and more denial on basic facts of history that even the Politburo archives support.

The central problem in Russia foreign policy towards Estonia is thus: Russia is too proud to use national guilt to its advantage. This plays easily into the hands of Isamaa Liit — Russia is too proud to acknowledge the crimes against humanity in Estonia in the 1940s and 50s. Estonian right wing parties acknowledge this simple truth and win elections.

If I were Sergei Lavrov and I wanted to make nice with Estonia, I would steal all of Isamaa Liit (and Reformierakond)’s thunder. I would pack up my Lada with wreaths and set out from Sankt Petersburg for Tallinn where I would cry and cry some more for Konstantin Päts, Lydia Koidula, and everyone in between. I would say that these were awful crimes that should never be repeated, all the while meeting with local business leaders t o cut sweetheart deals.

And because Venemaa had made amends and no one could challenge the sovereign word of sovereign democracy, the Russian bogeyman would dissipate , and Estonian right wing parties would have a harder time winning elections.

EXCEPT

That’s not going to happen. Instead Lavrov and Putin and Yastrzhembsky will continue to build a state on Stalinist newsreels about the Red Army while at the same time alienating every other human on Earth. They will continue to deny basic historical truths about Estonia with the weak idea that they somehow have any say in what the West (TM) believes. And they will continue to fail in bringing Estonia over to their side or at least cutting a “friendship treaty” with Estonia ala Finland because Sergei Lavrov has yet to load up the Lada with wreaths and travel to the kalmistu to honor the dead; to show empathy; to show that to Russians, Estonians aren’t really barbarian fascist shite.

A smart foreign minister would see the road ahead and be willing to take it. But Russia does not have a smart foreign ministry. Instead we see nationalist chauvinists that only make sense to Russians. And they wonder how they managed to lose Estonia. Let them keep on wondering.

European nonsense

When the forces of history were distributing nationalities they got a bit sloppy when it came time to fill the Balkans.

Slovenia and Croatia basically worked out OK. But when confronted with buckets of Serbs, Montenegrins, Kosovo Albanians, Bosnians, and one bucket clearly marked “FYR Macedonians”, the forces got frustrated and just sort of randomly packed them into the area that would come to be known as “the power keg of Europe.”

In the 1990s, Americans switched channels from the OJ Simpson trial to the ongoing Yugoslavian break-up saga. It looked to be another unending soap opera, one that could last perhaps even longer than Days of Our Lives. But in 1999 the forces of history conspired to create the environment for NATO military intervention in the Serbian province of Kosovo. Since that time it has been administered by an international force. Now it looks to become the latest successor state to Yugoslavia, the Kingdom of Southern Slavs, if the UN, EU, US, NATO, and RF can’t figure out what to do ASAP.

Some European countries with angst-ridden, long-settled minorities like Spain and France might not like the idea of giving independent statehood to any old random group of human beings. If the Kosovo Albanians get their own state, why not hand one out to the Kashubians, Basques, Frisians, and Sami, not to mention the Catalans, Scots, and Welsh?

Other European countries like Sweden are miffed at the idea of another Balkan country emerging that will vote for their neighbors in the Eurovision Song Contest, meaning that the contest will be held somewhere between Athens and Vienna for the rest of its existence.

The Russians obviously don’t like the situation because it could continue the general devolution of their conglomerate state, especially at a time when the government is centralizing political structures and the opiate of the masses is Russian nationalism — Russia for the Russians, not the Chukchi!

From the Euro-Atlantic perspective though, it’s hard to see any alternative. If Montenegro gets a state, why not Kosovo? Do you really want to tell the Kosovo Albanians that they may have a serious list of grievances, but they aren’t as believable a state as Montenegro, so they have to suck it up and stick with their former ethnic cleansers for eternity?

There is another alternative you know. Because the Kosovo Albanians speak Albanian, and there exists a state for Albanians right next to Kosovo called Albania maybe it would make sense to make Kosovo in some way part of Albania. I know, it’s a far-fetched idea.

The reason this option wouldn’t work is because it might make some actors in the region even more unhappy than they already are. It would reconstruct the fear of “Greater Albania” — of sword-wielding guys with two-headed eagles on their shields riding from village to village and giving residents one choice: to either make burek the Albanian way, or stop making bureks all together!

Balkan residents quake in their boots at this option; they’d rather have an independent Kosovo than be force fed bureks from Greater Albania. But seriously, I guess the European strategy is that sooner or later all of this territory will join a strong European Union where driving from Slovenia to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (where mostly FYR Macedonians live) will require zero stamps in your passport, and you’ll be able to pay for bureks in Euros from Ljubljana to Skopje without first bribing armed border guards.

And because it will be almost impossible for a small landlocked state to have its own functional foreign policy, it will most likely have to defer to the larger EU states on union-wide issues, allowing, say, Germany to speak on behalf of more people while saying exactly the same thing. So if Kosovo becomes a state soon, don’t fret. It’s the European way.

Paradiis Viljandis

I do not recall the first time I heard about Mulgimaa. Perhaps it was through the food — mulgikapsad (a kind of sauerkraut) or mulgipudru (mashed potatoes mixed with pork rinds). Or maybe it was just because outside of Tallinn and Tartu, my destination in Estonia is often Viljandimaa.

I am also not sure where I first heard the term “mulk”, an inhabitant of part of Viljandimaa in southern Estonia, but I sensed immediately it had an ambiguous connotation.

A friend in Tallinn explained that back in the day (the 19th century), Viljandimaa was a wealthy county populated by thrifty farm owners who wore pointy black hats and sat on their front porch all the time displaying their wardrobe, stroking their pet cats, and sizing up the neighbor’s property for acquisition.

Mulks, in a sense, were ruthless agrarian capitalists that imagined themselves as powerful. So being a “mulk” not only means a person is ambitious, but that they are perhaps too ambitious. How odd then that my publisher / author / journalist / mother-of-two wife happens to be from Mulgimaa. Together with other “mulks” like Mart Laar and Lembitu of Lehola, stubborn ambition seems to run in the blood of all who first saw the world from the hilltops of Viljandi.

But nowadays Mulgimaa is not where the big deals are made. The ruthless mulks have resettled in Tallinn and bought BMWs. The dinosaur bones of collective farms are strewn across the hills of Mulgimaa, and the county retains a “place that time forgot” ambiance . There are still wily farmers. But there are often wily alcoholics too. There are also regular Estonians who get up and go to work everyday.

I was shocked once driving through Abja-Paluoja to see so many houses. I couldn’t believe that that many people lived in Abja. In Karksi too there is a veritable community. There are tree lined streets and school plays and holiday festivities. Of course Viljandi is the county center and between the local folk musicians and aspiring actors, it celebrates rural Estonian culture. So, yes, quite a few people live in Estonia outside of Tallinn and some of them live in Mulgimaa.

Recently President Toomas Hendrik Ilves — who also has mulgi blood, if you can believe it — erected border posts for the historic county of Mulgimaa. There has been something of a renaissance in mulgi cultural identity, reflected in traditional dress, folk culture, dialect.

I am not sure if any of these really means anything to tänapäeva mulgid. But personal experience has shown that the water down there in Mulgimaa is definitely a little different.

Happy birthday to me …

Today is my 28th birthday. Most people tell me that I am young, but sometimes I feel a bit old — and it actually has little to do with having two kids (though I am sure that’s a factor).

I have felt this was about my age for awhile, perhaps since even my late teens. All one would have to do is pick up a book printed from the turn of the eighties and look at the photos of the people inside and think … “This just can’t be right. Why do all the men have sideburns and plaid sports jackets on?”

Sure I remember the days of sideburns and mustaches and plaid too. But it all seems … so detached from my current reality. I know I shouldn’t whine. Two of my colleagues are turning 39 next year. They are as old as Woodstock. Hell, they could have gone to Woodstock. Or Altamont. Take your pick.

I could have been at one of Jimmy Carter’s garden parties, sandwiched in between his brother Billy — who would have been drinking Billy Beer, of course, and Zbigniew Brzezinski. I could have been on the piano when Joe Strummer and The Clash were recording Sandinista. My little baby car seat could have been on the first Soviet tank as it rolled into Afghanistan. Thankfully, I was never at any of those places.

Hmm. Afghanistan. Iran. Why do these names ring a bell? 28 years ago, the Soviet Union was just preparing for its invasion of Afghanistan. The US embassy in Tehran had just been overrun. And for these reasons I sometimes don’t feel old at all, but young. Tehran, Afghanistan — they still dominate the headlines for similar reasons. The USSR fell apart, but the Russian Federation is trying to recapture some of its mojo.

When I walk down the street I can imagine that if I was magically whisked back 15 years to 1992, things might not be so recognizably different. There’d still be a president named George Bush, just with different middle initials. They’d still be trying to iron out a settlement for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (those of you who are older may groan now). Russia would still be doing its wounded soul routine over the Baltics. And The Simpsons would still be on the air.

So many things have changed yes. The Internet. 9/11. OK Computer. Emilio Estevez and Paula Abdul broke up. Estonia has certainly changed. Most of the current Estonian government were but school kids ready to be captured on film by Priit Vesilind during his visit as part of National Geographic that year. Now they are plucky, 30-something (and sometimes 40-something) public servants.

And they are not even young anymore. They are seasoned. Urmas Paet, then a 5-year-old, has been minister of culture AND minister of foreign affairs. Minister of Economics and Communications Juhan Parts, then 13, has even been prime minister. We all grow up you see. Even me. And Juhan Parts.

Fred Jüssi

I recently finished reading “A Sense of Estonia” by Estonian naturalist Fred Jüssi. ‘Naturalist’ is what you call people who like to hang out in the woods with cameras, journals, and recording equipment.

Naturalists, like Jüssi, also know things, like the names of trees, birds, et cetera. Not only that, they know the songs of birds, their migration patterns, how they rear their young. They observe the things that we too often ignore and dedicate some of their time to explaining it. Intriguing people, these naturalists.

Jüssi is even more intriguing because he was born on Aruba when his family was stationed there with some connection to the pre-war Estonian government. When I first heard this, I thought it was, excuse me, total bullshit. It just had to be made up. But no, it’s true. Fred’s from … Aruba.

I met him once at the Olympia Hotel in Tallinn. It was mid- September 2004 and it was already chilly out in the city. As wild as Estonia’s capital gets in the summer, it calms down as soon as September rolls in, bringing its gray skies and ice cool air blowing down from the northeast. “There is a poem about this weather,” said Jüssi. “It’s by Juhan Liiv. Sügisetuul raputab puud.”

Every time it gets a bit dark and windy out I think of Fred Jüssi, and Juhan Liiv, because of that moment. But I am still intrigued more by Jüssi because I know that besides being a naturalist, he lives in Tallinn, has been married, has kids — so where exactly did he find all the time to kill in a cabin on Hiiumaa?

I can imagine that if I bought a camera and told my naine that I was going to disappear for the weekend to the west coast to record the songs of tits and swallows and photograph ice, she’d be a bit cross with me. But Jüssi managed to fit nature into his life in an important way. How he continues to do it, I will never know, but it is certainly a feat worthy of respect.

Jailbirds

Please note, this is the only time I will write about this issue until there is a verdict in the case.

As you know, just when you thought the Bronze Soldier memorial relocation controversy/BS was over, the Estonian state prosecutors office charged four activists with inciting the riots which cost millions of kroons in damage and resulted in over a thousand arrests, countless injuries, and the death of one man.

Dmitri Klenski, Dmitri Linter, Maksim Reva, and Mark Sirõk could face up to five years in prison for assembling the mob that ransacked downtown Tallinn for two nights in April.

As is typical of anything to do with the now placid and pleasantly gardened square on Tõnismägi, the interest in the Klenski-Linter-Reva-Sirõk trial is marked by the usual hysteria and paranoia about the evil intentions of the Estonian state.

It is also marked with the unnerving naivety of people who support Klenski and Linter about how democratic states operate and how, yes, you really can go to jail for assembling thousands of people with the intention to “go to war” as Linter’s text message to all his arm-band wearing, ‘anti-fascist’ friends supposedly put it.

Though it is not a crime, all four should also be charged with being morons. What did they think was going to happen? That the cops weren’t going to arrest people for throwing rocks at them? That the state was going to pack up and go home because they were mad that they moved a statue? That they were really going to go to war over the relocation of a war memorial? Sirõk is just 18. He has an excuse. But the others are grown men. What were they thinking?

Most people in Estonia have a mostly good relationship with the state. It operates fairly transparently, one doesn’t need an accountant to pay their taxes, they give you a mother’s salary when you have a child, they take care of public parks and siphon off EU funds to repair damaged infrastructure.

In short, Estonia is a nice place to live and work, and most people don’t appreciate mobs of drunken youths sacking their stores, throwing rocks at their friends and relatives in the police force, et cetera. Maybe they empathize with you over the plight of your favorite statue, but … empathy has its limit. It is also understood in most democratic countries that if you challenge “the peace” violently, the state has all the rights it needs to make your life a living hell.

Anyway, I feel bad for the four defendants. They could have done something more productive with their lives. Instead they decided to get into a chest-beating contest over a war monument. What a shame.