IN ESTONIAN, the word is kurnatud. Embittered. The word came to me last night when I went to fetch a drunk friend. Why are we like this? I wondered. Even in our prime of youth, no one remarked on the optimism or forward-thinking zest of the youth of the day. Instead there was a rash of self-destructive tendencies. Suicides. Drug overdoses. They blamed it on the parents, the heavy metal, the gangster rap. But those were just manifestations of this curmudgeonly beast. When I look down at people 10 years younger, I see a resilience that among my peers is not there. When I look into the eyes of people 20 years younger, I see beauty and hopefulness. But we never had these things. Instead we have been kurnatud. Embittered. Again, why? I tried to explain it to a friend like this: maybe we just saw too much at an early age. Maybe we just burned out too young. The late 1980s and early 1990s were a dizzying era of change. Countries collapsed. New ones sprung up. It became almost boring — “Oh, Czechoslovakia is two countries now? So what?” “Oh, they cracked down on those Tienanmen Square protesters? Sad, but it happens.” Space shuttles were blowing up, nuclear reactors were melting down. Yeltsin was standing on a tank and then sending tanks against the parliament. Normal. Normaalne. This theory doesn’t hold up though when you think of people 20 years older than us who saw presidents assassinated, missile crises, and mass protests. Who saw the tanks roll into Prague. So why are we so embittered, when we’ve arguably had it quite good? I just don’t know. There was even a song that came out in 1996 by a forgotten alternative rock group called Cracker, “I Hate My Generation.” The thing is, I understood it then and I understand it now. Recently, while enjoying coffee with a friend here who is two years older than me — she is 42, I am 40 — I said something like, “Oh, to be young and hopeful again.” To this, she responded in dry way, “But were we ever really young and hopeful?” Were we ever?
I JUST RECEIVED word that my old friend Rein passed away. I believe he was born in ’41, so he would have been 78. Quite respectable by Estonian standards, but he had health problems going back many years and could barely walk toward the end. For years he walked with a cane, and I would see him making his way across the street with his hat and cane. Then one day, I noticed Rein was walking, but without a cane. A miracle, I thought. I called out to him, “Tere, Rein!” but no answer came. Then I realized that the man was just a little different from Rein. It looked like Rein, but it was just a bit different. It was a completely different Estonian person. Rein actually read some of my books and taught me about the Greek origins of the words kaheksa and üheksa, which mean “eight” and “nine” in Estonian. In Finnish, they are kahdeksan and yhdeksän. The Greek word for “ten” is δέκα, or “theka.” Kaheksa means “two before ten” (kaks (two) – kahe (two, conjugates) – kahe-theka (two-ten) – kaheksa). Üheksa is “one before ten.” It makes sense. I’m not sure how Rein knew these things. I just saw him in the supermarket two days ago. He was pushing a cart and leaning on it to hold himself up. He really could barely walk. Rein once held some high rank in the Soviet army, but I could never recall what it was. I think he was a captain. I always saluted him though as a general. “My general! Mu kindral!” I said. Rein laughed and said, “You know, people always ask, kuidas käsi käib? How is your hand doing? I say my hand is doing fine, käsi käib hästi, but my legs don’t go so fine. Mu jalad enam ei käi.” Rest in peace, Rein. Puhka rahus.
IT SEEMS THE TORIES’ plan is just to ignore the Scots. Their position is that there was a referendum on independence five years ago, and so there’s no need for another. This view conveniently leaves out the fact that something called Brexit has been going on since 2016, and that Scotland unanimously voted to stay in the European Union. So why won’t the Conservatives support another referendum? Simple — they are afraid they will lose. Sturgeon’s party won Scotland again. Consider this. It’s the Scottish National Party. It’s a party that has as its main goal the independence of Scotland. The majority of Scots are voting for the independence party. This is not because they feel particularly patriotic. They are choosing the party that has promised them another referendum. Boris is going to feel quite confident now that he got his electoral majority (and wasn’t the UK supposed to leave on October 31? Remember all those signs and promises? Never happened.) That kind of short-term amnesia will be on full force as Nicola Sturgeon pushes ahead with her plans. Ultimately, there will be a conflict between the Tories and SNP and one of them will blink. Maybe the Conservatives think the Scots can be ignored, or they can get some good dirt on the leadership. Maybe they can. Maybe they can crush SNP and no one will care. People wonder about how this impacts the US election. American Conservatives are gloating. The truth is, it has no impact on the US election. The reason Boris Johnson was reelected, in part, is because he seems like a dynamic leader. Corbyn never stood a chance. But Bernie Sanders is not Jeremy Corbyn. Sanders is Old New Left, but Corbyn is Old Old Left. And the contexts are so different. Corbyn was fighting to preserve what Labour governments built in the past. Sanders wants to build things that Democratic-led governments never got around to doing. It’s just a different dynamic. Great job figures can’t obscure the daily pressure Americans are under related to education, healthcare, and ubiquitous debt. Americans have to put up with crap that Britons would never have dreamed of, and with good reason, because they were given these benefits because the Attlee government feared there might be a popular revolt. Here in Estonia, the temperature hovers around freezing. Seems like business as usual. Funny to see Prime Minister Jüri Ratas in all those EU and NATO photo-ops. Nothing like getting your picture taken with Macron and Merkel, Jüri.
WELL, BORIS GOT HIS MANDATE. But so did the Scottish National Party. They gained 13 seats! Meantime, Corbyn at long last announced he would step down after losing yet another election. Labour is really searching for a reason to exist. Votes are bleeding to SNP, the Liberal Democrats, and their bold new direction is some old man in a sweater prattling on about the future of the NHS. Scotland did not vote for Brexit in any way. Nicola Sturgeon is right that her country is being taken out of the EU against its will. It would be very difficult to sympathize with Boris Johnson on this matter, unless we just prefer to pull up the couch, eat popcorn, and watch Boris figure things out on the fly. Boris will become our hero, anyone who stands in his way will become the enemy. How the Estonians will react to Scottish independence will be interesting. The London government has always been an ally, going back to the Independence War. But when Tallinn needed help, it was actually Iceland that led the way in recognizing the re-establishment of independence in 1991, followed by Denmark. Would the Estonians lend a hand to the Scots in the case of independence, or would they sit it out and wait?
WORLD WAR II METAPHORS abound and are misused, but the Russian leadership is such a cynical lot that it’s impossible not to see parallels between these bitter ex-WWI vets living in Germany in the 1930s and these aging old Soviet middlemen who pine for some kind of lost “greatness.” To see the president of the United States in the Oval Office with Herr Lavrov therefore is disarming, disturbing. To think that Western leaders — such as Trudeau or Macron — are somehow peripheral to the Trump administration’s core relationship with Russia, is depressing and undermines any feeling of solidarity that still exists among the West. Why are the president’s best friends all autocrats? In all of this, one wonders what the Russians really want? The end of NATO? Some kind of restored greatness? Perhaps a world where nothing exists except Russia and its satellites, and Russia wins every Olympic medal there is — gold, silver, and bronze — or perhaps “allows” some aligned country, the Armenians perhaps, to take home a few medals of their own? Total global control by one small aging man seated in Moscow? Who would want to live in such a world? Not I, said the free thinker. Not I.
Is NATO brain dead? Are the Russians not a geopolitical foe? I actually don’t think Macron is completely wrong. Here we see some interesting geopolitical factors at play.
- Syria is at the intersection of a variety of post-imperial spheres of influence. Syria was once a French mandate. Before that, it belonged to the Ottomans. Now the Russians are deeply involved to support their client. The US, heavily compromised by the Trump presidency, is ceding its Western foothold in Syria to the Russians and Turks. But the Turks are officially a US ally. And yet Trump is in bed with the Saudis and Russians. Trump giving a green light to the NATO member Turks is actually — on paper — one ally supporting another. And yet the Turks have been happy to shoot down Russian planes, if necessary. Meantime, the French are not pleased about what is happening to the Kurds in Syria, like everyone else. Therefore, yes, Macron is right, NATO is pretty brain dead here. What the hell is the policy exactly?
- Russia is a geopolitical foe of Europe, just not specifically of France (at the moment). However, instability on the eastern flank of Germany threatens the core of Europe. A war in, say, the Baltics, would create a humanitarian and geopolitical crisis in Scandinavia and Finland. An expansion of the war in Ukraine to the west would not only prompt incursion by NATO forces, it would lead to a hard war against Russia. This would also endanger the Russian city of Saint Petersburg and the Russian western frontier. This city is right in the neighborhood of both Tallinn and Helsinki. One should bear something in mind here — the last time there was a war in the Baltics, Germany was occupying Paris, Helsinki was being bombed, and Germany and Russia had dissected Poland. German troops were in the Low Countries. German troops had occupied Norway and Denmark. This is what happens when Europe goes to war. All of Europe goes to war. A country that uses force to alter the borders of Europe, even in the murky east of Ukraine, is starting a war in Europe and therefore is a geopolitical foe of Europe. I think Macron knows this, but is still trying to preserve a pre-Georgian War status quo that doesn’t exist.
- I actually think some elements of Estonian foreign policy have been okay in light of all this. I think Kaljulaid was right to invite Putin to Tartu, and to try and normalize relations. I have never understood the actions of some parliamentary members who want to make the border an issue still. Or even the Treaty of Tartu. It’s clear that the Estonians view it as their birth certificate — which it is — but, honestly, even if the Russians honored it, would it make any difference? Any document they sign isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. So what real difference does it make to what extent they acknowledge Estonian history or not? It’s not the Estonians’ job to play psychologist to the Russian psyche. They’ve killed loads of people. Why are the Estonians so special?
- I agree with Macron’s idea of a European army. Europeans have a common territory. Yet they have outsourced security to the Americans, an unreliable partner. You just don’t know how the folks in Ohio or Florida are going to vote in the future, and you can’t always bet that they will be willing to ship Americans overseas to fight European wars as they have in the past. The weakest links here are America’s internal culture war and Europeans’ inability to defend their own borders. There are far more Europeans than there are Russians. Let that sink in, because yes, I know Russia looks huge on the map. Forty million Poles. Eighty million Germans. Seventy million French. Those are just three countries. There are only 145 million people in Russia. But they have a willingness to project hard power. The Europeans do not. That should change.
Just some thoughts from the Green House Cafe in Viljandi.