étienne

Étienne is one of my oldest friends, not that I have known him for so long, but because, literally, at age 74, he is among my oldest friends. I had known this French geneticist for years before I had the courage to ask him the question, “So, if you’re about 40 years older than me, does that mean that you remember the war?”

“I do have a few recollections from WWII, not tragic ones, my family and myself didn’t go through particularly tragic moments, especially, of course, as seen through a child’s eyes…” said  Étienne. “I do remember German soldiers playing with my little sister’s pram, sitting in it and launching themselves down an incline,” he said. “And I remember, really remember, not because people told me about it, the liberation of Paris, the noise of tanks driving through our street, the hurried cutting of a few flowers in our garden and the rough, unshaven cheek of a solider I was kissing on the tank on which I had been hoisted — these were French tanks from the “Division Leclerc”, as the Allies had gracefully allowed them to come in first. Of course I wasn’t aware of all the awful things that were taking place.”

I share these stories of Étienne’s because they remind me of my wife’s grandmother’s story about the March 1949 deportations. The Laanemaa (nee Landmann) family was on Stalin’s shit list for a number of reasons. One: Martin, the father, had served in the Estonian War of Independence. Two: Martin, the father, had been a member of Omakaitse, the Estonian national guard, both before the war and during the German occupation. Three: the Laanemaa family was wealthier than average. Because of this, Martin had already been deported in 1948. In 1949, they came for his wife and two daughters. The eldest, Salme, was arrested and sent to Siberia. The mother, Anna, and her younger daughter, Laine, hid in the forest and managed to escape deportation. They made an attempt to return to the village (on the west coast of Estonia), but decided against it when they saw other villagers walking around wearing their clothes. Their house had apparently been looted.

That is the kind of detail you can only get from talking to your older relatives. We know so much about what happened in occupied Paris, but who can now forget the image of two young German soldiers stealing a little girl’s carriage and taking turns riding it down a hill? Likewise, who can now forget — for I surely can’t — the image of a woman and her teenage daughter, who had been living in the forests in March, peeking out from behind some bushes only to see a neighbor walk by wearing one of their coats? So, if you get a chance, talk to your older friends and relatives about their memories of certain events. You may be surprised by what you hear.

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winners/losers

One aspect of the Yana Toom affair that I brought out in my talk in Stockholm was a generational dimension, and it’s one that’s been on my mind in recent weeks. I was thinking about my friends (roughly my age) who travel around the world, and then I thought about two very famous Estonians, Marko Matvere and Jaan Tätte, who also travel around the world. Except when our friends travel around the world, it’s just traveling around the world. But when Matvere and Tätte travel around the world, it’s a Big Fucking Deal. Oh, look, Tätte sent home a postcard from Hawaii. Let’s put it in a museum! Why are they so important? Sure, they write songs. But my friends also write songs. Sure, they appear on TV and in film. But … so do some of my friends. And yet, whatever Matvere and Tätte do seems to be more imbued with meaning, more relevant. They are, ühesõnaga, culturally significant.

The only real difference between the Tätte and Matveres of Estonia and people my age, is that they are a little older. They are of the so-called “Winner’s Generation.” (They are both pushing 50). This is pretty hilarious construct for Americans, because in America, the generation born in the 1960s was pretty much seen as getting screwed at every stage of their life [See Reality Bites]. But in Estonia, people born in the 1960s are number one. Think of the first Laar government from 1992. Much has been made of their youth at the time. Laar was 32. Foreign minister Jüri Luik was 27. Defense minister Indrek Kannik was 28 (just checked these by the way, though I recall Laar boasting at a conference about the young members of his first government). Two decades on, not much has changed. The big boys are still running the show. There are younger ministers, some even my age, but they are usually somebody’s protege. Who makes the big decisions about Estonia’s future? The Winners.

But who is a Winner? I usually think of Savisaar as the first Winner, not because he wins so many elections, but because he thinks he’s so important. He may count on some pensioners’ votes, but the painstaking/philosophical/academic approaches of say Paul-Eerik Rummo or Jaan Kaplinski are absent. People wonder what Savisaar stands for. That’s easy. Savisaar stands for whatever Savisaar happens to think at the time, naturally. End of story. It was this combative nature that earned him the nickname, “Piggy.” And what you see down the line after him is a long list of Piggies. They are significant just because … they are significant.

And, to draw Yana Toom in here a little, all of the issues that molested their psyches during the Brezhnev stagnation continue to plague Estonian politics. Russification is one of those issues. It’s not unlike Vietnam in the United States. Remember the 2004 election and the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth”? Somehow, what happened in Southeast Asia at the tail-end of the 1960s became more important than what was happening in Afghanistan and Iraq in the middle of the 00s. And for younger, less diverse generations of Estonians, these questions about language and history are not as important as being able to find a good job. But for the Winners they were, and will continue to be, among the most significant issues we face. A discussion about minority issues in Estonia today does not occur in the context of 2013 but, too often, in the context of 1980. But, as Kaplinski alluded to in his essay (see discussion in previous post) Estonian-Russian interpersonal relations before the war, before the Winners came onto the scene, and in the tsarist era, were actually pretty okay. Not that it matters much what he says. It’s got to be frustrating for the Kaplinskis of Estonia. He’s now an elder in society, and yet all this wise old man can do is write essays and hope that somebody reads them.

The thing about Yana Toom is that she is a Winner, at least technically. She’s the same age as Juhan Pärts, Jüri Luik, a year younger than Matvere, two years younger than Tätte. Except Yana Toom is not a winner. She’s a loser. I would not like to see the conditions under which she becomes the foreign minister of the Republic of Estonia. But Estonian Russians of her age have to deal with that. While their EstoEsto peers climbed quickly to hold the top positions in the land, meet with presidents and kings and queens, and generally can count on having things named after them when they are dead, the Yana Tooms of Estonia cannot point to a similar amount of success. These are people who were completely socialized in the Soviet system, who became adults before it fell apart, who looked forward to one future and yet were handed a very different one. That’s bound to generate some bitterness.

re: toomsayers

So the talk went well. I reread some of the opinion pieces regarding MP Yana Toom’ s {some say misinterpreted} characterization of Estonian as a dying language/culture and came away with two perspectives: she’s right and she’s wrong. I leaned toward Rikken’s retort: that Estonian language/culture was really in danger in the second decade of the 18th century after the Great Northern War when there were about 150,000 people left on the land. Here, I was reminded of my gradeschool study of the other peripheral northern land, Iceland. Their fragile tongue was in even greater peril. There were about 60,000 of them up until the middle of the 19th century. Which is why the idea that Estonian is a dying language seemed so ridiculous to me. If countries could dwindle to sizes one tenth (or even less) of what currently exists in Estonia, then how could we expect the whole language/culture to vanish in a few generations?

When I did my Iceland project in 1991, the population of that country was about 250K. Today it’s about 320K. So, they have grown, while Estonia’s population has gotten smaller. Why? As I noted in the talk, their climate is just as depressing — darker, and with no trees. Sure, they don’t have Russia {and Germany} in the neighborhood, but they do have volcanos and plagues — 37 plagues in the past few hundred years which consistently eroded and tested the population base. Icelanders leave the island to find work elsewhere {such as Hallgrímur, the friendly agent we met at the car rental service in Munich} and they have Slavic immigrants too — 13 percent of the nation is foreign born, the largest minority is Polish. Oh, and they had an even more apocalyptic recession during which Christmas trees were burned. No, any excuse you can come up with to explain away their population growth won’t stick. So, what makes people stay in {and make more babies in} Iceland?

The only honest answer I could come up with is a higher standard of living. In any system of rankings, you will find this other economic pirate country at the top of the heap. Estonia is farther down, not as far down as some of its other neighbors, but far enough down to make it a less desirable place to live. Want to keep Estonia healthy? Continue to make raising the standard of living your national goal. Not just wealth, mind you, health, education, blah blah … I’ll stop now before your soc dem radar goes off …

But the Estonian population is a bit tricky. The 2000 Census shows 930K ethnoEstos, 350K russoEstos. The 2011 Census shows 890K ethnoEstos, 320K russoEstos. So, the number of ethnoEstos is about the same as it was in the 1934 census (888K) at which time the number of russoEstos was about 92K [in case you have been misled to believe in the myth of a purely ethnoEsto prewar Estonia]. Mind you, there was a terrible war, mass deportations (and fleeing) from Estonia after 1934 (and Soviet population transfer) and Estonian is still spoken, at least in my home.

And to bring Yana Toom back in here … the russoEsto population has declined significantly in this country. If ethnoEsto language/culture appears to be on the way out, then russoEsto lang/cult is one step ahead out that oblivion door. Two more things/thoughts: Soviet population transfer was not an organic means of population growth (birth rate+controlled immigration). And the idea that the Estonian population would continue to grow after 1989 beyond that 1.6M (or whatever it was) is … well … not a good idea. So, honestly, I am not sure what the {real, sustainable} population of Estonia should be.

Finally, talked about generational differences — Winners, Losers. But that’s already another post …

oht on õhus

This weekend – Saturday – I will present/lecture/speak at the Estonian House in Stockholm. It’s in honor of emakeelepäev (mother language day, in Estonia, language is feminine, but the country itself is masculine, isamaa, father land, national anthem – mu isamaa, mu õnn ja rõõm, ‘my fatherland, my happiness and joy …’) enough of that! The question put to me is “Is the Estonian language (and culture) in danger?” Oh, should I chucklechortle and say, “No, it’s not, nothing to see here folks, now move along, Ansip’s got it all taken care of …” Or should I peddle negativity (decreasing population, emigration, naughty girls marrying foreign boys, russians, WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!)

I’d argue — to start — that the language isn’t in trouble, but the culture is, and the threat isn’t from the East but the West, as American-style consumerism commands the adoption of America’s commercial culture, right down to the fact that holidays never celebrated in this land have become Marketing Opportunities and I can now hear the Everly Brothers sing “Bye Bye Love” when I go shopping at the local home improvement store. And — most cringeworthy — I’ve heard tale of Esto teenagers who speak english to each other because it’s like, just so cool, and that’s how they speak on Jersey Shore (sort of).

To me, as an American, it’s embarrassing. You are so ashamed of your language that you’d rather pretend to be Homo americanus (a nation of other people who abandoned their national identities in the pursuit of “fitting in” and “success”)? If you’re going to do that, you might as well leave Lasnamäe for Las Vegas … Get a new more Hollywood last name too — Sepp won’t do, but SMITH! {and it means the same thing!}

Listen, I am as proud of Phil and Don Everly as any other American. Their music was/is great [“Wake up, little Susie, wake up …”] but Estonia has its own Phil and Don Everlys. Be proud of them. Give them more airplay at the home improvement store … they deserve it.

badass e.e.

-Why do you wish to go to Russia?
-Because I’ve never been there.
-(He slumps,recovers). You are interested in economic and sociological problems?
-No.
-Perhaps you are aware that there has been a change of government in recent years?
-yes(I say without being able to suppress a smile).
-And your sympathies are not with socialism?
-may I be perfectly frank?
-Please!
-I know almost nothing about these important matters and care even less.
-(His eyes appreciate my answer). For what do you care?
-my work.
-Which is writing?
-and painting.
-What kind of writing?
-chiefly verse; some prose.
-Then you wish to go to Russia as a writer and painter? Is that it?
-no; I wish to go as myself.
-(An almost smile). Do you realize that to go as what you call yourself will cost a great deal?
-I’ve been told so.
-Let me earnestly warn you(says the sandyhaired spokesman for the Soviet Embassy in Paris)that such is the case. Visiting Russia as you intend would be futile from every point of view. The best way for you to go would be as a member of some organization
-but,so far as I know,I’m not a member of any organization.
-from e.e. cummings’ EIMI (1933)