Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves says that given Estonia's painful Soviet-era history, ethnic Russians have been treated pretty well. "I don't see what people are complaining about," he says.
Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves says that given Estonia's painful Soviet-era history, ethnic Russians have been treated pretty well. "I don't see what people are complaining about," he says. David Greene/NPR
Estonia, a tiny nation along the Baltic Sea, has come a long way from its dark days under Soviet occupation. But one Soviet legacy remains: the difficult question of how to treat thousands of ethnic Russians who relocated to Estonia when it was part of the Soviet Union.
The issue stirs emotions as much as any immigration debate, pitting people who want to protect their heritage and erase a difficult past against a minority who is demanding equal rights and a fair chance for a good life.
Estonia, a two-hour ferry ride south of Finland, has roughly 1.4 million people. Two-thirds are Estonian, people of European and Scandinavian descent. A quarter of the population is ethnic Russian.
'Russians Had Nothing'
Like neighboring Latvia, Estonia took a hard line when it declared independence, refusing to grant citizenship to most ethnic Russian families who were not in the country before Soviet times. A newly free Estonian government in 1991 returned land to Estonians and gave them voting rights in an open democracy.
"They had the land, they had the money, they were reborn in very good conditions," recalls Andrei Zarenkov, a leading voice in Estonia's Russian community and the director of a Russian cultural center near the capital, Tallinn.
"Russians had nothing," he remembers. "It wasn't fair. Russians were living in this country and became strangers."
And many remain so, nearly two decades later. In fact, some Russians say their struggles are growing worse, as the Estonian government has intensified its efforts to push the Russian language out of public schools, and as the government has continued to insist on knowledge of the Estonian language for citizenship.
Pre-Soviet Past Rediscovered
"I don't see what people are complaining about," Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said in an interview.
He said that given Estonia's painful history — which saw Soviet leaders deport Estonians to Siberia and force the Russian language on Estonians left behind — ethnic Russians have been treated pretty well.
"I mean, Germans were beaten up for years and years after the end of World War II," Ilves said. "That was a very bad situation. We don't have that here."
This feisty little country has rediscovered its pre-Soviet past.
The cobblestone streets of the capital burst with music and overflow with tourists. Performers are in European medieval clothing. Cafes proudly serve Estonian cheese soup.
But after a 10-minute walk from the old town, you can easily begin to pick out more Russian hangouts — restaurants where Soviet music is blaring and Russian language is flowing.
Many Estonians and ethnic Russians get along just fine, and no doubt the communities intermingle, and in many cases intermarry. That said, ethnic Russians complain of discrimination — sometimes subtle, other times not. There were news reports recently of an "I hate Russians" T-shirt that showed up in one community.
Tensions boiled over in 2007, making news around the world. Estonian authorities relocated the bronze statue of a Red Army soldier from a central place in the heart of Tallinn. Estonians considered it another reminder of a tortured past. Ethnic Russians rioted, decrying the removal of a symbol of the Soviet struggle against the Nazis.
More than 100 people were hurt, and an ethnic Russian man was stabbed to death, perhaps by fellow protesters.
'I'm A Nobody'
Tensions remain and are especially evident in the predominately Russian eastern edge of Estonia, near the Russian border, in working-class cities like Narva. Here, many people are part of what amounts to an underclass. Roughly 100,000 Estonian Russians, many concentrated in this region, carry a special gray passport, which labels them "aliens" — legal, but not citizens of Estonia or anywhere.
Sergei Zavyalov, stands in Narva, Estonia, with Russia across the river behind him. The 26-year-old was born in Narva in 1984. When Estonia gained independence, ethnic Russians like him were generally not granted citizenship. Today, Zavyalov has a gray passport, which means he's an "alien" with no citizenship. As he puts it, "I'm a nobody in this country."
Sergei Zavyalov, stands in Narva, Estonia, with Russia across the river behind him. The 26-year-old was born in Narva in 1984. When Estonia gained independence, ethnic Russians like him were generally not granted citizenship. Today, Zavyalov has a gray passport, which means he's an "alien" with no citizenship. As he puts it, "I'm a nobody in this country." Sergei Sotnikov/NPR
They can't vote in national elections — and that gray passport gives them trouble finding work.
"I'm a nobody in this country," said 26-year-old Sergei Zavyalov, whose family relocated to Estonia during Soviet times.
Zavyalov said that in his life, timing was everything. If he'd been born after Estonia became independent, he'd be a citizen.
But he was born earlier, in 1984. So he was not automatically granted citizenship. To become a citizen, he would have to pass a language exam. He said he's never had much interest and is determined to leave Estonia — in part, he says, because Estonians still treat him as if he were an "occupier" of their country. As he put it, "We don't feel much love toward each other."
Zavyalov also never had Estonian language training in his public schools, which during his school years had classes taught mostly in Russian.
Tightening Language Rules
The Estonian government is now trying to change that. It is tightening its enforcement of a national language law, which will ultimately require secondary schools, even in almost uniformly Russian communities, to use Estonian in 60 percent of all classes.
Around the country, language "inspectors" are empowered to roam schools and test teachers' fluency.
Rosa Ivanova, 68, spent a quarter-century as headmistress at a high school in eastern Estonia that served primarily Russian-speaking students. The Estonian government sent inspectors to test her fluency in Estonian language, and she failed four times. "I studied," she said. "But every time I didn't have enough points. It is a humiliating procedure." She says the city was pressured by the government in 2008 to fire her. She accepted a pay cut and a demotion.
Rosa Ivanova, 68, spent a quarter-century as headmistress at a high school in eastern Estonia that served primarily Russian-speaking students. The Estonian government sent inspectors to test her fluency in Estonian language, and she failed four times. "I studied," she said. "But every time I didn't have enough points. It is a humiliating procedure." She says the city was pressured by the government in 2008 to fire her. She accepted a pay cut and a demotion. Sergei Sotnikov/NPR
Rosa Ivanova is 68 and was the headmistress for 25 years at a public high school in Russian-speaking Kohtla-Jarve, in eastern Estonia. Inspectors came to interview her four times, and each time she failed.
"I tried to pass the exam," she said. "I studied, but every time, I didn't have enough points. It is a humiliating procedure."
Finally, two years ago, she said, the government pressured the city to fire her as headmistress. She agreed to take a 30 percent pay cut and a demotion. Her pension is the only thing keeping her here.
"If I were 20 years younger, I would leave at once," she said. "Believe me. I would leave for my Russia."
Language As Identity
President Ilves, who grew up in New Jersey and went to college in the U.S. before returning to Estonia after Soviet times, invited us for an interview on his family farm in southwest Estonia. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, he said, people in this region were Estonia's wealthy intellectuals.
So, Stalin deported them to Siberia — and many died.
"That is what this part of the country is," he said. "It did the best, and it did the worst."
He steadfastly defends his country's policies toward ethnic Russian minorities. The language requirements for citizenship, he said, were carefully designed at Cambridge University to make sure they were fair. As for the gray passport, Ilves calls it a compassionate gesture, giving ethnic Russians without citizenship the ability to travel abroad.
A majority of ethnic Russians left stateless after Soviet rule have successfully obtained citizenship — and Ilves said they are generally happy to live in a free democratic country. There is a minority, he says, who feel a connection to Russia and its language, and have shown little interest in learning Estonian.
Allowing Russian to exist as a secondary official language, he said, would be letting the Soviet legacy live on.
"Well, right, you occupied us, now you're going to make your language the state language? That's just too much," he said. "So many people who come here and want to be here have no difficulty with the language."
As Estonian writer and filmmaker Imbi Paju put it, "Language is our identity."
Room For Optimism
The process of "Russification," which included pressuring Estonians to learn Russian, makes her small country determined, she said, to protect its native tongue today.
But Paju is optimistic that relations between Estonians and Russians can improve. Her book, Memories Denied, is the story of her mother's deportation.
"Sometimes people ask me, 'Your family was in Siberia and camps, and most of them killed. How [is it] possible that I talk with Estonian Russian people about this topic?' "
Paju often does talk about her book at libraries in Russian communities. When she gets a cold reception, she speaks about how both Estonians and Russians were victims in Soviet times. And she tells her audience that mutual suffering should be inspiring the two communities to build something better.
"It's our country," she said.