Russian Minority Struggles In Post-Soviet Estonia The country took a hard line when it declared independence, refusing to grant citizenship to ethnic Russian families who were not in the country before Soviet times. Now, the government has intensified its efforts to push the Russian language out of public schools.
NPR logo

Russian Minority Struggles In Post-Soviet Estonia

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Russian Minority Struggles In Post-Soviet Estonia

Russian Minority Struggles In Post-Soviet Estonia

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

The tiny nation of Estonia is wrestling with the question of how to deal with thousands of ethnic Russians. Many didn't immigrate to Estonia, they were left behind after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Almost two decades later, ethnic Russians say Estonia is taking old resentments out on them. NPR's David Greene has our story.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVID GREENE: Estonia has come a long way from the dark days of Soviet rule. This feisty little country has rediscovered its past. The cobblestone streets of the capital Tallinn are bursting with music. Performers are in European, medieval clothing. Cafes proudly serve up Estonian cheese soup.

But a 10 minute walk from the old town, you find places like this bar, known as one of the Russian hangouts. Estonians and Russians do often keep to themselves in this country. Of the nation's roughly 1.4 million people, two-thirds are Estonian, a quarter are ethnic Russians, the only large minority.

Mr. ANDREI ZARENKOV: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Andrei Zarenkov is ethnic Russian. He runs a music and cultural center outside Tallinn, and he works with communities to help Russians integrate. Minorities suffer everywhere, he says. But what makes the situation here unique is the sudden change in 1991. Estonia became independent. The country returned property to Estonians, and gave them voting rights in this new democracy.

Mr. ZARENKOV: (Through translator) They had the land, they had the money, they were reborn in very good conditions. Russians had nothing. It wasn't fair. Russians were living in this country, and became strangers.

GREENE: Zarenkov loves living in Estonia, and he says Estonians and Russians do often get along. But there is discrimination. It can be subtle, he says, something only Russians feel in the workplace, or when they're speaking Russian at a cafe.

And there are more public displays. Zarenkov recalls a local paper recently reporting on an I hate Russians T-shirt that showed up in one community.

Tensions like this aren't new. Across the former Soviet Union, countries have struggled with integration since the 1991 Soviet collapse. But in Estonia at least, Russians say their struggles have grown worse.

(Soundbite of train)

Much of Estonia's Russian population is concentrated in the east, near the Russian border, in cities like Narva.

(Soundbite of train)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: As soon as you get off the train, all you hear is Russian. This is a working-class city, and many people are part of what amounts to an under-class. Roughly 100,000 ethnic Russians carry a special gray passport, which labels them aliens - legal, but not a citizen of Estonia, or anywhere. They can't vote in national elections. And that gray passport gives them trouble finding work.

Sergei Zavyalov's family relocated to Estonia during Soviet times. Zavyalov says, 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. And in Estonia, like in the neighboring country of Latvia, ethnic Russian families who moved here during Soviet times were generally not granted citizenship.

Mr. SERGEI ZAVYALOV: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: I'm a nobody in this country, Zavyalov says. He works at a construction company, but he desperately wants to move to Russia. Estonians, he said, still treat him like someone who occupied their country. As he puts it, we don't feel much love towards each other.

To gain citizenship, Zavyalov would have to learn Estonian language. But he was never interested and he never learned it in school. The government is now trying to re-shape its public schools. They're tightening their enforcement of a national language law, to make sure most classes are taught in Estonian, not Russian.

Around the country, language inspectors have the power to roam schools and test teachers' fluency. Rosa Ivanova is 68, and was the head mistress for 25 years at a public high school in Russian-speaking Kohtla-Jarve, in eastern Estonia. Inspectors came to interview her four times.

Ms. ROSA IVANOVA: (Through translator) I tried to pass the exam. I studied, but every time I didn't have enough points. It is a humiliating procedure.

GREENE: Finally, two years ago, she says, the government pressured the city to fire her. She agreed to take a 30 percent pay cut and a demotion. Her pension is the only thing keeping her here.

Ms. ROSA IVANOVA: (Through translator) If I were 20 years younger I would leave at once. Believe me. I would leave for my Russia.

(Soundbite of chimes)

GREENE: The President of Estonia is Toomas Hendrik Ilves. He invited us for an interview on his farm in the rolling hills of southwest Estonia. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, he says, people in this region were Estonia's wealthy intellectuals, so Stalin deported them to Siberia and many died.

President TOOMAS-HENDRIK ILVES (Estonia): So that's what this part of the country is. It was it did the best and did the worst.

GREENE: Considering this country's painful history, Ilves says ethnic Russians have been treated pretty well. The language requirements for citizenship, he says, were carefully designed at Cambridge University to make sure they were fair. As for the gray passport, Ilves says they're a compassionate gesture, giving ethnic Russians without citizenship the ability to travel abroad.

President ILVES: I don't see what people are complaining about. I mean Germans were beaten up for years and years after the end of World War II. I mean that was a very bad situation. We don't have that here.

GREENE: What Estonia has, he says is the plenty of ethnic Russians who are happy to live in a democratic country, and then a small number who feel some connection to Russia and don't bother to learn Estonian. Allowing Russian to exist as an official language, he says, would be letting the Soviet legacy live on.

President ILVES: Yeah. Well, right, you know, you occupied us and now you're going to make your language the state language? I mean that's - it's just too much. And it's a given that it is so many people who come here, who want to be here, have no difficulty with the language.

Ms. IMBI PAJU (Writer and Filmmaker): Our language is our identity.

GREENE: This is Estonian writer Imbi Paju, who recalls how the Soviet government forced Russian language on people here. That, she says, makes her small country determined to protect its own language today. She's optimistic that relations between Estonians and Russians can improve. Her book, "Memories Denied," is the story of her mom's deportation.

Ms. PAJU: Sometimes people ask me: Your family was in Siberia and camps, and most of them, killed; and how it's possible that I talk with Estonian Russian people about this topic?

GREENE: She 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 to communities to build something better.

David Greene, NPR News, Tallinn, Estonia.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.