heljo mänd

I was unable to finish Andrus Kivirähk’s Ivan Orava mälestused, mostly because several English-language books captured my attention, and the library demanded Härra Orav’s memoirs back.

I have been trying to increase my exposure to higher levels of Estonian language recently, because my ability is being stunted by the parameters of everyday conversation.

I can handle myself in a store, I can talk to neighbors and friends, but can I really understand news articles or talk shows? Sometimes, the material is so simple, but depending on the writer or the speaker, I can become completely lost.

It reminds me so much of when I was first exposed to jazz, particularly John Coltrane. At first it’s just noise, but after repeated listening, you find a melody and a rhythm. Soon after, you wonder how it is that you didn’t ‘understand’ the music the first time around.

One new language resource has been the poetry of Heljo Mänd. Mänd, born in 1926 in Narva, is one of the mothers of modern Estonian children’s poetry. There are many poems and songs that you may know by heart that you just assumed were traditional. In fact, the hand behind that poetry is Heljo Mänd’s.

Epp has been overdosing recently on children’s poetry. There are books upon books of material by Erika Esop and Uno Leies lying around our house. I sometimes feel that I must surf upon these waves of books to reach simple destinations, like the toilet or the kitchen. And so it is with Heljo Mänd’s books, which are great reservoirs of memorable vocabulary. Consider the following:


Näe, vist sellel kajakal
päevanorm veel vajaka !
Muudkui nopib kalu veest
tea, kas aitab kalameest.
Või ehk polegi see nii,
miks ta naerab — hi-hi-hii
Narrib hoopis kalameest,
nopib kalad ära veest.

Essentially, the seagull (kajakas) is annoying the fisherman (kalamees) by eating up his daily catch (päevanorm). From this poem, I learned the words “noppima” (to pluck) and “narrima” (to mock). I wonder a bit, though, about a person who spends their time writing about seagulls, cats in trouble, or giraffes with colds, or mice who jump rope.

Is that really the key to happiness, to write poems about baby bears learning to read? Is there some deep wisdom to be gleaned from children’s poetry?

take that, hans pöögelmann!

I used to think that Jüri Liim was a bit too intense for my taste. Sure, it was cute to see a guy in his mid-60s threaten to blow up the Bronze Soldier monument in 2006, because, in my heart, I didn’t think that he would really do it.

Even better is that the stock photo of Jüri Liim used by most Estonian news organizations, as seen at left, is of Härra Liim looking down in a mix of sorrow, disgust, and vengeance, perhaps fantasizing about what old, rickety Soviet monument to take care of next. It is widely assumed that Liim is incapable of smiling, even on February 24, Estonian independence day.

But it gets better. This week Liim, presumably distressed that Prime Minister Andrus Ansip moved the Bronze Soldier to a military cemetery before he could blow it up, decided to drive around Tallinn with a crane and remove two other Soviet-era memorials to a nearby museum.

One of these monuments was to Estonian communist Hans Pöögelmann. Like all great Estonian leaders, from Lembit of Lehola to Jaan Tõnisson to Mart Laar, Pöögelmann was born in Viljandimaa in southern Estonia in 1875. Like many a good lefty, he spent some time in the journalism world before his political leanings got him a full-expenses-paid trip to Siberia courtesy of Tsar Nicholas II (whose portrait hangs in current Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s office).

After doing time in Siberia, Pöögelmann was released and fled to New York where he took in indie-rock concerts, tried ecstasy, and wrote Marxist poetry* until he returned to Tallinn in the heady year of 1917. Pöögelmann was “economic affairs minister” of the short-lived Estonian Workers’ Commune, set up in Narva in November 1918, that lasted six months.

Unwilling to submit to the sinine-must-valge, Pöögelmann fled to Moscow in 1923 where he held various administrative positions in the Comintern and wrote nasty books about Estonian President Konstantin Päts until he, and his fellow Estonian Workers’ Commune members-in-exile Jaan Anvelt, Johannes Käspert, Rudolf Vakmann, and Otto Rästas, were executed during Stalin’s Great Purge in 1938.

For these reasons, Russian state-owned media outlets RIA Novosti and Russia Today have referred to Pöögelmann as a “Soviet war hero” or “Soviet soldier” and raised the possibility that Liim’s actions might provoke some response on the part of the local Estonian Russian community, who it presumes to hold Pöögelmann and his socialist virtues in high esteem. They also have written Jüri Liim’s name as “Yuri Lijm” for shits and giggles.

From my perspective, Liim is looking more and more like some kind of street performer than a rabid nationalist. I mean, how many Estonians even know who Hans Pöögelmann is? How many care if his memorial stone is in a museum or outside a university or part of the foundation for Jüri Liim’s new sauna. Nobody cares.

This is the kind of crap that only news media and blogs will write about. The only unbelievable thing is how an Estonian communist who was executed by Stalin in 1938 is rendered a “Soviet World War II hero” in Russian state-owned media. Liars.

* Pöögelmann never tried ecstasy or listened to indie rock. I was just making that up. He did, however, publish a newspaper in New York, Uus Ilm.


Is there a former Swedish empire? I would like to think yes. I would like to think that the Swedes have managed to pull their heads out of their rocky archipelago and are now involved in an scheme to regain their sphere of influence, and then the world, one Ikea at a time.

And why wouldn’t someone who was pro-Estonia welcome such a development? Ask yourself this, if there was an Estonian Ikea, how different would it be from the Swedish model? Would they also sell simple yet attractive wooden furniture, post-modern spatulas, and northern European jams? Would they also display iconic images of Estonian identity, like wall-to-wall images of young blond couples enjoying themselves at their summer house? I think so.

That’s why I have a hard time figuring out why the decision for Hansabank to abandon its “Hansa” brand and instead use the same branding as its Stockholm-based ownership, Swedbank, leaves me feeling a little sour. The “Hansa” brand seemed to belong to all of us. We were all part of this modern Hanseatic League, writing stories about Helsinki that are published in Riga with taxes paid in Vilnius. We were equals. But no longer. Come this autumn, I can no longer go to “Hansabank”. I’ll have to visit “Swedbank” instead.

While the death of the Hansa ideal is indeed sad, there is good news. The possibility that the Swedes will one day soon abandon their Baltic possessions by signing a financial Treaty of Nystad with Gazprombank seems unlikely. According to Jan Lidén, president and CEO of Swedbank, the rebranding shows the company’s “long-term commitment to the Baltic market.”

doudou’s report

The report on Estonia related to the September 2007 visit of Doudou Diene, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, is now available online.

Diene generated media coverage by trying to peddle Estonia down the official state language route. His comments received attention in both the Estonian and Russian media. Even I weighed in. But what of the actual report? Well, you can see why the Russian Federation has decided not to rebroadcast it through its state-owned media channels.

For starters, Diene regurgitates the Western version of Estonian history, whereby the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact allowed Stalin a free hand in occupying the country. Consider, for example, this line from Diene’s report:

After the German defeat in 1944, the second Soviet occupation started and Estonia became a Soviet republic. The first decade of the occupation, under Stalin, was particularly repressive, as Moscow attempted to implement a policy of Russification of the Baltic states, directly affecting education and cultural activities, including language.

Throughout the report, Diene references Estonia’s challenges of “asymmetrical bilingualism.” Diene also concluded that, “the Estonian authorities, in particular the Prime Minister, have shown political will to tackle the problems related to racism and racial discrimination in the country.” Finally, he states that Estonia has historically shown itself to be accommodating to multiculturalism, and that it must use this innate social feature to deal with present challenges.

To me, though, the real gem was the segment of the report that dealt with a roundtable on minorities that took place in Jõhvi. It’s a gem, because through Diene, I finally get some insight into what Estonian Russians are thinking. Think about it this way — we exist in an Estonian-language information space. No one we know is stateless. We don’t consume Russian media. And my own inability to understand the local Russian media makes them effectively silent. To me, their newspapers are comprised of odd geometrical shapes on a page. I can pick out words, but context? No.

So I found it interesting that the main concerns of the roundtable in Jõhvi were not the “glorification of fascism.” Instead they criticized the language inspectorate, expressed concerns about the school reform and what burdens it would place on Russian-speaking pupils as well as teachers, and Diene himself recommended easing citizenship restrictions for the young and old. Finally, they are tired of being seen as disloyal to the state and would like modern historiography to emphasize the support of some of the community for the restoration of independence.

You see, your average Estonian voter probably rarely thinks about the language inspectorate because he or she has never known anyone who was subject to a language inspection. They don’t think about old, stateless ladies in Sillamäe because they don’t live in Sillamäe and they never encounter those old, stateless ladies. They don’t worry about school reform because their schools are already operating in Estonian language.

They have probably encountered asymmetrical bilingualism, though, and they privately detest it. They can’t figure out how they could have learned a language so different from their own without reciprocity from the other group. Hence, they support policies to end it. If the state says that school reform and a language inspectorate will help, then they support it. They are not experts, after all. Just people with other priorities. They don’t want to turn Russians into Estonians. They just want to be able to go to the hospital in Kohtla-Järve and not have to fumble through their decades-old Russian vocabulary to tell the doc what’s wrong.

But, anyway, I found reading the report valuable. Go and read and tell me what you think.

kolmas arnold

On Voice of America he’s an “ex-officer.” On Russia Today he’s a “war hero.” And on the BBC, he’s a “Soviet war figure.”

The trial of Arnold Meri, an 88-year-old cousin of former President Lennart Meri, began in Kärdla yesterday. The state prosecutors office is charging him with genocide for aiding in the deportation of 251 hiidlased to Siberia in 1949, 43 of whom died either en route or in Soviet concentration camps.

Despite helping to deport women and children, Meri is somewhat hilariously the head of the “Estonian Anti-Fascist Committee.” He claims the case is political, I would agree it is. Meri did not organize the deportations. He collaborated in them, which I will leave it up to you to determine his guilt or innocence. The term ‘genocide’ itself is a hot potato. But if they don’t try Kolmas Arnold (former president Rüütel being esimene, boy genius Oksmaa being teine) then the youth of Estonia might get the impression that you can help send your neighbors to their doom and get away with it. And nobody wants that.

This case is a new field day for the Russian media, which declined to cover the successful Teeme Ära campaign with the same ferocity in which it inspects old war memorials for scratches or graffiti. But that’s just the Russian-Estonian relationship these days, isn’t it? There is only the past to talk about. Only the past, because the two countries are on entirely different trajectories. The Estonians want to be small, tough, efficient, and fabulously wealthy. The Russians lust after status.

Perhaps it is good that the Icelandic foreign minister is in town. The Estonians will have some one with whom they can commiserate about economic crises and talk EU politics. Some are hinting that the next round of enlargement may be northward, rather than to the east. Maybe Estonia and Iceland can adopt the euro at the same time, after being bailed out by the Scandinavian banks, of course.

the road ahead

There’s a funny sort of consensus being reached among Estonians these days, and that is that when it comes to the termination of the current ruling coalition, the question is not if, but when, and perhaps also, how.

It’s hard to put ones figure on when this malaise set in. It could have been lurking even prior to parliamentary elections in March 2007. The removal of the Bronze Soldier and the ensuing rioting {and gray sanctions and cyber warfare} brought about some sort of solidarity with the government. But now, a year plus later, that solidarity is starting to wear off, and the widely advertised fact that the Estonian economy grew by 0.4 percent in the first quarter has people spooked.

Prime Minister Andrus Ansip’s liberal Reform Party still enjoys the most support of the public. But at the same time the coalition of conservatives and social democrats is looking more pre-election than post. Finance Minister Ivari Padar (SDE) is staking out next year’s anticipated budget shortfall as an issue where the sotsid can look like the pragmatists. Meantime, Mart Laar continues to brandish his foreign policy credentials, making some perhaps regret he was not made foreign minister last year.

The transit sector is, as you can imagine, the most sour on the government. Former PM Tiit Vähi has in several articles called for Ansip to step down. Interestingly, when asked who should lead a new, more technocratic government, he rattled off the names of Laar, Padar, and Juhan Parts.

However, the thing is that, with the economy slowing and several outstanding issues — Russian relations among them — yet to be solved, nobody wants to take over right now. They’d probably prefer to let it marinate for as long as possible, maybe until there are signs of improvement for which they can take credit.

I still think, though, that the current government could accomplish something before its number is up. Regional reform, for example, is an issue that requires bravery and a willingness to act. There is talk of reducing Estonia’s 15 counties to four regions, and its 227 municipalities to between 60 and 80 parishes. While such reform would take years to accomplish, it might make some sense to push the issue. What does the current government have to lose?

* the photo was taken outside of Kunda last weekend.

inno ja irja

For those of you interested in the very permeable boundary between journalism and blogging, you are in for a treat. The famous and infamous — which as Steve Martin once said, means “more than famous” — bloggers Inno and Irja are now writing in English.

The Inno ja Irjasphere is wide ranging. Sometimes they are discussing what they had for dinner, other times it’s their interpretation of history, and still other times they are providing insight to the media system in Estonia. A recent piece dealt with some of the Reform Party’s dirty laundry.

I was actually subjected to some discussion on their blog, where visitors were asked to rank my wife’s former associates and colleagues according to “sexiness.” The septuagenarian naturalist Fred Jüssi beat me hands down. And I understand why. What’s not sexy about recording birds in the woods?

Anyway, go there, read, write, frolic.

estonian air

Estonian Air. That about sums it up, doesn’t it? Can all your expectations and all your disappointments in a country be gleaned from an airline? Perhaps.

The branding of Estonian Air, its color scheme, its outrageously blond flight attendants, the cool northern air that wrestles with your clothing all lead you to believe you are flying Finnair junior. And in some ways, you are. The food is semi-decent. The staff is accommodating, yet slightly clinical. The flight to our destination was smooth and on time.

But it was that troubled flight back that changed my impressions. The flight was scheduled for 4 pm, but then it was moved to around 7 pm, then 9 pm, and finally, we were told, it would be arriving at half past midnight. We were not alone, I might add. A group of statuesque blond females were similarly inquiring at the information booth about their flight to Oslo.

Could it be that when air carriers from northern Europe had to pick up travelers from southern Europe, they did it at a nice, relaxed southern European pace? We got vouchers for lunch and dinner, but all the chorizo sandwiches in Spain could not take away the pain of a delayed flight.

When they did arrive, I was just glad that the plane made it and still had two wings. There seemed to be an enormous grouping of Russophone males ahead of us, who I later learned belonged to Estonia’s hockey team. We were seated in the back with them, although an Estophone member of the team let us know that we could have seats up front, if we wanted. we were too tired to move seats, so we stayed with the hockey guys.

Russophones have this funny idea that everyone, or at least everyone on an Estonian Air flight, is capable of speaking their language. Several times, conversations were started with me to which I just looked to Epp to translate. Russian is not like Spanish or French. There are fewer familiar-sounding words to work with. When Epp was a little girl, one of her best friends was of Ukrainian background. So Epp actually was exposed to Ukrainian before Russian, and her early Russian language teachers in school had to correct her “Ukrainian accent”.

I have no idea how terrible my Russian accent is. But I tried out my few words. “Skaska,” I said, pointing to my book. “Mujina”, I said pointing at the very loud gentleman seated in front of us. There seemed to be some Estonian language comprehension on their part. When a young mother began yelling “tasa!” (shut up) at them, they got the point.

At one point there was a heated bilingual conversation between the flight attendant and my beer-supplier where she scolded him in Estonian and he answered back in Russian that the airline should refund our tickets for making us wait eight hours. For Estonians, such bilingual conversations are a part of life. It has happened to me too that I have had conversations where I spoke only in Estonian and the other person only in English.

Some guy violently sneezed three times. I decided that ‘terviseks’ would be the best thing to say, since I doubt he felt like being blessed by God in English or in German. “Pivo”, I then said, pointing at the beer they had smuggled on board. “Do you want some,” the guy next to me said in English. He assumed I was Spanish and started querying my Spanish vocabulary (“How do you say beautiful in Spanish?”) until I let it known that I was from New York and my abikassa was from eesti. Another guy turned to me and gave me the thumbs up, a sign of his approval. Our conversations then proceeded in English.

I had a terrible flight back from the US last time and the associated bumpiness of flying over the Alps was making me tense. I drank two cups of beer. Then he brought out the whiskey. At that moment, I was really glad they sat us next to the Estonian hockey team. I downed a full cup of that stuff, while an Estonian father looked curiously at me from the seat ahead, as if I had broken one of the rules of fatherhood. Maybe our daughters would now grow up to drink whiskey with hockey players. And they could only say, “I learned it from watching you, issi!”

Anyway, the whiskey was great, and it allowed me to sleep all the way to Tallinn. It also allowed me to rid myself of any harsh feelings towards Estonian Air. The flight attendants were nice, and I got some free sandwiches and whiskey out of my dilemma.

While I was in Spain, I suffered from one might interpret as the common questions about Estonia’s European identity. ICDS’ Maria Mälksoo published a very insightful and readable article on this in February. Even though Estonians look like Europeans and call the Evangelical Lutheran church theirs, they still don’t feel themselves to be as European as the French or the Spanish. “Where are the supermercados staffed by Turkish immigrants?” they ponder. “How come nobody knows who we are?” they opine. And, my absolute favorite, “How come our politicians are corrupt?”

Europe, after all, feels safe, right? Europe doesn’t continuously fight over the past! Europe doesn’t have recessions! Spend some time in Spain and try to figure out the inheritance of the Spanish Civil War, though, and I believe, you may begin to think you’re back in Estonia. There are similar characters — partisans, nationalists, communists, fascists. There are similar icky feelings that people would prefer you not dredge up. And there are similar instances of blatantly self-serving interpretations of history. It seems that Europe is actually quite complicated. And Estonia is definitely part of that Europe.

villa lituania

Here in Barcelona, we wandered one day into the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Ironically, I had to come all the way to Spain to experience an exhibition known as the Villa Lituania, which combines pigeon races, Soviet artyfacts, and angst over the non-return of Lithuania’s swanky pre-war embassy in Rome, still occupied by the diplomats of the Russian Federation.

A funny thing happened that I thought I had left the exhibition and entered one on Spanish post-war culture. Here were old movies of dark-haired women singing songs in some deeply Indo-European language. Was it Spanish? No. More like Portuguese, but, not quite. Hmm. Perhaps it was this mysterious Catalan they keep taking about, even though most people here say “gra>th<ias” instead of “si us plau”. Then it dawned on me. They weren’t Catalan. They were Lithuanian.

It must be a Catholic thing.

the top of europe

During last year’s “events” I found it somewhat amusing that major news outlets, like The New York Times, sent their Moscow correspondents to cover the situation in Tallinn.

To me, this seemed like an ass-backward approach to reporting on Estonia, let alone even conceptualizing Estonia. Wouldn’t it make sense to send someone from Stockholm, considering most of Estonia’s financial sector is seamlessly integrated with Scandinavia? Or even to send a journalist from Berlin, seeing that the kroon has been, for 16 years now, pegged to first the mark and then the euro? How about Brussels? EU member. NATO member. Anyone? Anyone?

There’s a real conceptual problem out there, mostly born by an older, lazier, less-globalized cadre of thinkers, who still think in terms of Cold War-era school maps covered in expanding seas of nauseous red.

Estonia is “post-Soviet”, sure. But the thing is that there are degrees of post-Soviet. And when ‘post-Soviet’ is defined by countries like Belarus and Uzbekistan, then a country where the parliamentary parties are boringly divided between the liberals, conservatives, populists, social democrats, greens, and agrarians, looks rather unfamiliar to those standing in Moscow, but rather similar to those standing in Berlin or Stockholm.

In the post-Cold War era, northern Europe was divided by those seas of red. But today, the great Nordic community project that peaked in the early 1970s has been replaced by the great European community. I myself felt astonished this past week when, after having my bag scanned at the Tallinna Lennujaam, I walked right into the rest of the airport without having to produce my passport. Schengen has a significant psychological impact on pan-European consciousness. The 1960s post-war ‘nation state’ suddenly seems about as kitschy as an old 45 record. It’s cute, but, what do you do with it?

So the question is, therefore, whither the nordicbalticpostsoviet jabberwocky? A recent concept floated by the Baltic Development Forum has been to ‘rebrand’ the region. While older concepts, the sleek Scandinavians, the technical-savvy Nordics, the ballsy Baltics, will still float, a new conceptualization should ring that will allow even the blokes at the New York Times to know what’s up.

One idea is that Estonia is part of the “top of Europe”, or, in the words of Tina Turner, simply the best, better than all the rest. The best universities. The best technology. The best living standards. The best haircuts. Feel like dumping $2.6 billion on an Estonian technology company? Look no further. You’ve come to the top of Europe. I am not sure if this regional branding thing will work out in the end. Maybe it’s just another European money pit. But I do feel that the BDF is onto something.