this brexit mess

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?

dr. goebbels, I presume

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 macron wrong?

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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.

kuidagi mõnus sügisene tunne

GOOD TO BE BACK as well. It’s not at all bad weather, far from it, the sun is out, the air is cool, there’s a kind of sweet, autumn feeling about, kuidagi mõnus sügisene tunne, and the market is full of berries, yellow potatoes, beans and even mushrooms, big, floppy beautiful ones. I got a good batch of blackberries, my favorite, but watch out, they stain. Tallinn. I guess I belong here, how natural it felt to just glide back into place at a cafe, pull out a pen or a keyboard, jot down some thoughts or type out a column. I’m a savage perfectionist as a writer. I write plenty of mediocre claptrap that never sees the eyes of the world. Long-winded essays that meander, go nowhere. No dialogue, no story.

Story is of the utmost importance though. Story is everything. Here begins another chapter of my story after a good long soak in the United States, where I re-acclimated, only to have to switch back into Estonian again (how funny, I have been writing in Estonian all these weeks, but to actually speak it again feels forced, stiff, not fluid). I’ve spent so much of my life here though it’s in my bones one way or the other. Those potatoes. Those piles of red and black currants. I know why the local people love them. The lines of girls behind the counters and they are so pretty with their yellow straw hair. This not in some lecherous way, they’re just beautiful. What a special, funny little place.

good to be away

I’VE BEEN AWAY for a week now and mostly acclimated to New York life. The famed ‘accent’ (oh-moi-goo-awd) is still jarring and strange (where did they come up with that one?) and there is this odd very newyorkese habit of both seeing one as the center of it all and colorful provincialism. New York is global and provincial, like us all, like us all.

There’s a local mats culture of guys with scruffy hair and pickup trucks. Supposedly, we must fear the wrath of these ultra-American road warriors or they will give us the Trump family for another four years. At a local graduation, a balloon popped in the hot sun, and the students looked around uncomfortably and tugged at their sweaty collars.

Estonia though is not only a nation, it’s a large extended family, with the rivalries, inborn competitiveness. “Anything you can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than you.” If the neighbor has 10 sheep, then, my god,  I’ll succor and nourish 400 of them! You call that tiny thing a bagpipe? This here is a bagpipe. So you got your photo taken with Tom Hanks? Well, I got my photo taken with Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise. So there!

It is my great fortune to not be a real part of that great warring family. I have the luxury of disappearing to New York, where no one knows anything about me. The anonymity is wonderful, dreamy, and yet frightening too. I know none of the neighbors. I know no one in the shops. This is how you wind up with these nightmare stories of kidnappings, murder, people who live with two thousand cats. No one knows what’s going on right next door. We are all from other places: Italy, Ireland, Japan, Israel, Ghana, Australia, India, Bangladesh, Turkey (many), Haiti, China (many more). Many amalgamations.

No one knows what is going on right next door.

These are the trade-offs, I guess. You trade anonymity for the security of knowing that, if someone steals your bicycle in Tallinn, there were at least five witnesses, two of whom are related to the culprit. One wonders what happens in smaller nations, like Iceland.

Perhaps one steals his own bicycle up there?

everybody goes to moscow nowadays

ON ONE HAND, some kind of “normalization” with the regime in Moscow is good for Estonia. For over 20 years, Estonia has existed as a kind of gray area in the Russian mind, and much of that time has been spent airing historical grievances (as the Second World War passes into history). Meantime, we get to see how Mr. Putin makes effortless trips to Helsinki without a similar ratcheting up in public anxiety. For him, it’s just biznes.

Kaljulaid is a bit different from her predecessors. Ilves came out of the exile community. Rüütel was a Soviet-era politician. And Meri was the son of a prewar diplomat, who was also deported as a teenager. Kaljulaid, not yet 50, comes with less historical baggage. She can represent her state, because she has spent her entire adult life within in that state. Historical arguments are somehow superfluous.

Remember — this is where Estonia wanted to be. Estonia wanted to become a normal, European nation state. It wanted the Soviet era to fade into the distance and talk of continuity with the country established in 1918. It’s also worth noting that many of the accouterments of independence were established in the late 1980s, that is, before 1991. The restoration of the flag, the reversion to Estonian as the sole official language, the rehabilitation of prewar historical figures: all of this happened before August 1991.

Prior to Putin’s “greatest catastrophe,” Estonian independence was being restored.

As others have remarked, the threat to Estonian statehood is no longer existential. Estonia will not be annexed at some later date, at least under current conditions. However, the specter of “Finlandization” looms. People should be worried about censorship, people should be worried about a media that self-edits so as to not offend “the Eastern neighbor.” That goes for offending local Estonian politicians as well.

What good is freedom, if you can’t really be free?


echoes of eighteen

A CENTURY SINCE the end of the Great War, but the unraveling of Europe’s old empires at its finish — the Austro-Hungarian and Russian, especially — continues to haunt this peninsular landmass. It’s actually why you see these issues with nationalist governments, not only in Hungary and Poland, but also in Russia.

Russia’s issues with its neighbors mostly date back to this key period between the October Revolution (November 1917) and the Treaty on Creation of the USSR (December 1922). It was in this period that the modern borders of Ukraine, for instance, were drawn up, presumably by the Soviet leadership. Stalin himself no doubt played a role in creating this new “republic” that was never intended to operate independently from Moscow.

In 1991, this republic became independent, and was recognized as an independent state by the international community. But nobody knew what Ukrainian independence would mean. It is only now, nearly 30 years later, that this state is beginning to assert itself as an independent entity. Following the protests that ousted Yanukovich in February 2014 the state was put on a new, nearly irreversible trajectory, especially after Russia occupied and annexed Crimea.

Any political leader that came to power in Ukraine would have to defend Ukrainian sovereignty. But since Russia had annexed a part of Ukrainian territory, no political leader could emerge that would recognize that annexation. There simply is no way for Ukraine to “return” to Russia’s sphere of influence anymore. The West nominally supports the old borders, but what is really happening is that these two states are now finding their actual balances of power. Russia thought it would advance quickly west, perhaps linking its mainland with its outpost in Transnistria, with a defeated Ukraine suing for peace. Several years on, and Russia is still mired in the Donbas. A new line of control emerges.

Estonians look on this situation uncomfortably. Its original border with Russia was not drawn up by Stalin, but rather agreed to via a treaty with Lenin in 1920. It was only after it was occupied by the Soviets again in 1944 that Stalin conducted some cosmetic surgery on the eastern border. Historically, most of the land within Estonia was part of two duchies or governates — Estland and Livland.  The city of Narva, however, was for a long-time part of the Petersburg Governate, and parts of Setomaa in the southeast belonged to Pskov. Narva is an interesting situation because of its Russian super-majority.

Yet among the Russians of Estonia, it’s not language or culture that apparently counts most, but living standards. Russians can and do live anywhere in such enclaves — in London, in New York, in Israel — and that does not mean that the Russian Federation needs to annex Brighton Beach or neighborhoods in Tel-Aviv or London.

The Baltics have always been an interesting, exceptional case when it comes to post-Soviet affairs. They were full-fledged European states that were occupied and annexed at a fraught moment in history, when German Luftwaffe planes were bombing London while ground troops swarmed into Denmark and France. I have long thought that if the Soviets had secured cooperative but democratic governments in the Baltics in 1940, then NATO would have never arrived at its doorstep. This would still be “neutral” territory.

Unfortunately, Russia’s fatal flaw has remained its out-sized sense of importance. Over and over again, the great Russian Bear has been undone by his immense yet fragile ego.

Hindsight is 20/20 as they say. In little over a year, it will actually be 2020. Imagine that.


Bomba Calabrese, essential ingredient for tatrapuder Petrone style

IT’S BEEN A WHILE, but I had something to share. My aversion to some traditional Estonian foods has become the stuff of legend, but I’ve worked my way around with a few ingredients from the Mediterranean. I often eat tatrahelbed  — buckwheat porridge —  though — even without maple syrup — and soolast, salty, savory — but with my own additions.

One ingredient I add to my morning bowl of buckwheat porridge is küüslauk, garlic. Just one clove, thinly sliced will do. I add it to the porridge raw — it cooks through on its own. I also never put milk in my porridge, only ample helpings of salted butter (või soolakristallidega, produced by Saaremaa). This gives the porridge a rich texture. On top of this, I dash some cayenne pepper. This gives it that extra necessary kick.

That’s not all though. At some restaurants, you can order buckwheat with capers, onions, and a fried egg. I prefer to add slices of fried halloumi cheese to the mixture. Finally, for the really adventurous, pick up a jar of red hot Bomba Calabrese from Selver. This is an imported pepper spread — I guess is the right term for it — modeled on the piccante sauces of Calabria in Italy (the home region of the Petrones, for what it’s worth).

It includes Calabrian chili peppers (peperoncino), olive oil (of course), artichoke, eggplant, sun-dried tomatoes, and all kinds of other good things. My great grandmother Maria taught my mother how to cook, but Maria was from Puglia, where the local cuisine isn’t as hot. Still I have acquired a taste for spicy Calabrian food, and this stuff will clear out those sinuses. So a tablespoon of Bomba Calabrese in your tatrapuder is just what you need. Just don’t forget the garlic and salted butter. You’ll be sweating in no time.

ancient estonian land

estonia map.jpg

I came across this map on the wall of the Taarkataro cafe in Obinitsa, which is in Setomaa, this rather interesting border region separating, in some people’s minds, Estonia proper from Russia proper. For centuries, the Piusa River formed a boundary between the lands of the Estonian and Livonian Governates and the lands of Pskov. Those on the “Estonian” side became Lutherans, attained a high level of literacy already in the 17th century under Swedish rule, and developed a different kind of relationship with authority from those on the “Russian” side, who became Orthodox and remained illiterate deep into the 19th century. In some ways, the Seto people who lived in the border region were similar to other Finnic peoples in the Russian Empire who were not historically under Swedish or German rule, such as the Mari, Udmurts, Komi, Moksha, etc. They thought of themselves as one ethnic group within the greater Russian Empire. The border here, as most borders, has always been in flux. Many note that much of what is now Estonian “Setomaa” was, until 1920, always under Russian administration. Looking at this map, though, I noticed that a small village on the other side of Lake Peipsi, the “Russian side,” was apparently part of Livonia for some part of history. This is called “Soztinez” on the map, which dates to the 1790s. According to Google Maps, there is still a settlement there, but I cannot find a name for it. I wonder how many people there know that they were once part of the provinces that later became Estonia.

what everyone always wanted



I SAW THIS news item on ERR and felt like saying something. President Kersti Kaljulaid sent a congratulatory message to Putin in the even of his re-election. Some people are obviously not thrilled by the Estonian head of state congratulating the Russian president, who has been in power for more than 18 years and runs an illiberal country. Russia’s recent botched assassination in the UK certainly has left a cloud of gaseous stink over any relations with the Kremlin.

In times like these though, when it seems that Estonia is becoming “Finlandized,” I remember that Estonians actually wanted that to happen 30 years ago. The drive for independence was for a) national preservation; b) material gain; c) to achieve the same successes of their Finnish neighbor. They wanted to be a free country, as free as Finland.

Bringing about political changes within Russia weren’t at the top of that list, though there is a strong argument that they might increase Estonian security. That being said, any kind of political collapse in Russia could have an opposite effect. It could actually lead to a full-scale European war across the east. I recall something that Finnish President Tarja Halonen said in the prior decade about Finnish-Russian relations. “We’ve never had it so good.” The reality is, in her lifetime, which started at the peak of the Second World War, up to the moment she uttered it, the Finns probably hadn’t had it so good. It does leave one feeling a bit uneasy. It’s not easy to bite your tongue all the time. It feels dishonest.