Sometimes, dealing with the Estonians is not easy. At first we had a hard time understanding why so many people seem to be so unhappy. They seem prosperous, the weather is nice in the summer time – sure, it gets dicey in the winter, but no worse than Norway or Sweden, and those people are pretty happy, by and large. We think the answer is in Estonia’s difficult history, and how that’s affected the different generations. Older people remember the years of war and Russian domination: from 1939 to 1944, the free nation of Estonia was invaded by the Russians, then the Germans, then the Russians again. During the brief period of Nazi rule, more than a thousand Jews, Gypsies and gays were sent to the death camps. When the Russians invaded again, they stayed for 50 years, doing their best to make Estonia a part of the Soviet Union, indistinguishable from any other part.
It was difficult for the Estonians to hold on to hope. In the years following WWII, many of them thought that the United States and Western Europe would come to their aid. There was a rumor that deliverance would come in the form of white ships that would appear on the shores. The Americans would drive out the Soviets and restore the prewar republic. The people lost a measure of that hope when the Soviet army brutally put down the Hungarian uprising of 1956, and the Prague Spring in 1968, and the West didn’t intervene. Still, they had something left. There was still a small number of the “Forest Brothers,” the civilian resistance during the war years, who remained active – not as active as they had been during the war, but still out there. Communities kept up the Estonian tradition of group singing, although they were often forced to sing in praise of the leaders of the USSR. In general, the country was a shadow of its former self. People can’t be productive, creative and energetic when stepping out of line carries the risk of KGB surveillance, deportation, prison or firing squads.
The Soviets were also bent on a policy of Russification, a sort of reverse irredentism. They relocated tens of thousands of Russian citizens into Estonia to make it more ethnically Russian, and so harder to split away again. Today about 30% of the people identify themselves as Russian or Russian/Estonian.
All of this started to change in the late 80’s, with the general thawing of Perestroika and Glasnost. It came about in one of the remarkable stories of that time: the Singing Revolution, where a campaign of non-violent action culminated in hundreds of thousands of Estonians – a third of the population – gathering together in the Song Festival Grounds near Tallinn to sing traditional folk songs, Estonian popular music, and especially “Mu isamaa on minu arm” (“Land of My Fathers, Land That I Love”) – the anthem of the resistance movement, banned by the Soviets. Bit by bit, the non-violent independence movement took over even the Estonian Communist Party. In the face of this opposition, the Soviet government did not have the will to impose itself any more. Estonia was granted independence in 1991, and became a full member of NATO and the European Union in 2004.
Understandably, there is a real dichotomy in the population. Older people are still feeling the after effects of the years of Nazi and Soviet domination. People born after 1991 are doing their best to be European. Without a personal experience of those dark days, they know only what they read in the history books and what the older generations tell them. They’re not ignorant of their special predicament, of being balanced on the brink between Western Democracy and Russian domination – but it isn’t part of their being, the way it is for their parents and grandparents.
Maggie and I have gotten along well with all sorts of people here, but we have noticed that some people, especially older people, can be pushy. If you’re in the market, standing in front of the tomatoes (as I was), some old lady is likely to try to shove you aside so she can get hers. That happens on the street or the bus, too. At first this was irritating, but now that we’ve learned a little more, we can see how all those years of scarcity may have affected people’s personalities in ways that don’t change easily with the times. We look at the care and worries that old face has borne, and our attitude is immediately changed. We have no idea how we would have responded in similar circumstances, but we would have been hard pressed to respond as well as the Estonians did.