So many things have happened in recent weeks that I haven’t discussed on this blog. Microsoft bought Skype for an exorbitant sum, making the front page of The Financial Times and causing much “We’ve made it!” rejoicing among Estonians, but eliciting grumbles from this writer, who desires not to see his lovely Skype cluttered up with useless Microsoft applications that don’t work.
Another Lennart Meri Conference took place, which I did not attend as a) I was in Moscow at the time and b) I was not invited on account that I am nobody. “And you, who are you?” That’s the thing about that conference. You have to be somebody. You can shake hands with the greats but then you notice their eyes lowering to your name tag to see what country or think tank you represent. Then when they see you are unlikely to write a blurb praising their genius on the back of their forthcoming book, they turn away and flee to the nearest person, who hopefully might be somebody.
Time is money.
Anyway: highlights of the conference were the fact that Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves sat on the floor during one of the sessions (because he’s a man of the people!) and gave a great keynote speech, which was covered with gusto on The Economist blog, Eastern Approaches. The main thrust of the speech was to “lambaste the prejudice that the secure, rich countries of the western half of the continent manifest towards the east and south alike,” according to the blog. The full text of the speech can be found here. Do not read it on an empty stomach. It involves turkey and fish soup.
It’s interesting to see the Estonian leadership assume the “voice of the East,” when during the 1990s it often seemed keen to separate itself from that East, appearing innately Nordic, when it came to European Union enlargement, and staunchly Baltic, when NATO enlargement was involved, but never the cursed former Soviet. No, Estonia was formerly Swedish in those days (and now is Swedish again, according to some critics).
To be honest, Western Europeans are known the world over for being self-satisfied windbags who are thoroughly convinced — in state-run schools, perhaps — that they are the zenith of mankind, the crown of creation, and that some horrible stitch up in history has given the trigger-happy Americans, the barbarian Russians, and the labyrinthine Chinese the keys to the future. The attitude is noxious and deserves to be lambasted. But there’s one problem. The Estonians do it too.
In this aspect, the Estonians are deeply Western European. Even when it comes to the “Lazy Latvians” referred to in Ilves’ speech (he didn’t call them that, someone else did). What is the national sentiment toward Latvia, apart from jokes that they have six toes (maybe a dig at inbreeding, much like the anecdotes about the “fish-faced Finns”)? An acquaintance of mine just got back from Latvia yesterday, where he complained of the indigenous people’s slowness in accomplishing anything. Things there went kuradi aeglaselt, he said, “fucking slowly.” Estonians complain about getting shaken down by hungry cops in Riga, forced to pay so-called “traffic fines.” The association is clear: Latvia is a sketchy, Eastern European country.
And why hasn’t Latvia reformed/performed as successfully as Estonia? It’s hard to find a reason without falling prey to so-called “Orientophobia.” Not that Estonia is so great. In a recent interview, Ilves claimed that there are no oligarchs in Estonia. “We don’t have oligarchs in this country,” he said. “Estonia, I think, is the only country in the post-Soviet area that does not have oligarchs.”
This is true, in the sense that no one in Estonia actually uses the term “oligarch” to refer to influential local businessmen. But such influential local businessmen do have a lot of power, and can make life easier or more difficult for you. Then again, such influential local businessmen exist in every country I assume. Certainly they exist in my home state of New York.
But what does all of this have to do with Russia? Here is an interesting fact for you. Throughout most of the past century, the most popular names in Estonia have been Russian names. This is not because of the enormous size of Estonia’s Russian minority. The Estonian Statistical Office recently reported that 75 percent of babies born in Estonia last year were born to ethnic Estonian parents. And yet the top names given to children in April 2011 were Darja and Maksim.
This is not a new phenomenon. In an Eesti Ekspress article, I learned that the number one name given to males in Estonia in the 1920s was Nikolai. For girls it was Maria. In the 1930s, the top names were Vladimir and Valentina. In the 1940s, Vladimir and Valentina ruled, only to be replaced by Vladimir and Tatjana in the 1950s. The 1960s were the decade of Sergei and Irina. The 1970s? Sergei and Jelena. Only in the 1990s and the 2000s have “Estonian” names returned to top the list: Martin and Kristina in the 1990s, and Markus and Laura in the 2000s. Not that there is anything particularly ethnically Estonian about those names. They might as well belong to German or British children.
So, what does this all mean? One could hypothesize Estonian Russians are using far fewer names than their ethnic Estonian counterparts. And Estonians have a multitude of variations for the same name. From the root “Martin” comes Marten and Märtin and Märten and Mart and Märt and Marti and Martti. All of these get counted as different names. So if 10 babies are born, two of them are named Maksim and the other eight are named Martin, Marten, Märten, Märtin, Mart, Märt, Marti, and Marti-Mart, then Maksim becomes the most popular name in Estonia.
Can any great, horrendously formulated stereotypes be drawn from this data? Can the name-poor Russians be considered as collectivists for their habit of giving children the same names? Can the name-rich (well, sort of) Estonians be considered rugged individualists who dare to be different by tearing proper names to shreds and dancing all over them with tremas and tildes?
I just don’t know.