Estonia, Narva, Paldinski, July 2018
In your own house, in your own bed: in the morning you wake up and suddenly you are in a different country. This experience seems impossible but it happened to many.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union on the 26 of December 1991 created a tremendous change in the personal lives of many. I have often wondered how such an event would feel. What would I have done then if I had been here at that time? And also: would I have been able to abandon my original identity so closely linked to my language in this new situation.
Suddenly the great motherland vanished, the whole structure of society was turned upside down and all the underlying tensions so artfully covered up (and systematically denied) by the totalitarian regime led by dictators like Stalin became visible in full light. And I would have been caught in the middle.
The scars from the past totalitarian regime still remain painfully visible in all former East block countries but most of all in those that were absorbed inside the Soviet Union (which was the successor to the equally repressive Empire of the Tsars). There are scars in the landscape, particularly the buildings but the real scars I think are inside people’s heads.
Where in countries like Poland and Lithuania always a strong national feeling and a remembrance of a national past was deeply rooted this was far less the case in countries like Ukraine, Belarus, and Modavia where a majority was already forgetting they were not uniform standardized Sovjet Russians but shared a different cultural identity. Estonia had a brief period of independence at the beginning of the 20 th century but was always ruled by Denmark, Sweden, German knights and then Russia. For the Estonians living in the semi-dark had become second nature.
Vyacheslav and Svetlana live in Voka, close to Narva in the most eastern part of Estonia. They met in the uranium extraction plant of Sillamäe some twenty years ago and married. Both were sent there to work by the Sovjet planning system. Sending individuals to criss-cross around the Union was a deliberate way to make society uniform and to destroy any feeling of geographic, linguistic and cultural identity and enforce the process of becoming a citizen of the great motherland.
Many of the Russian speaking Estonians once had to leave their home and landed somewhere where their skills were needed. Born in Kazachstan, Ural, Modavia or otherwise, they had to start a new life somewhere else where the only binding element was being a Sovjet citizen. Svetlana originally came from a village close to Donetsk in the eastern part of Ukraine, now annexed by Putin (or what we are told “freed by separatists”). Her mother still lives there, in the ‘grey zone’ just outside the annexed territory where there is still daily fighting going on and young boys and girls are killed or wounded for a few square meters of land in a war that has its roots in the same process of forced migration. In the Sovjet period, criminals were freed of their sentence when they agreed to move to the Donbas area (there was a need for labor in the coal and steel industry there). Life is hard in this war zone depleted from the economical wealth it once had. She visits her mother every year and has supported her for state pensions are minimal and living conditions are abominable.
Vyacheslav is a Chemical Engineer, aged 62, and studied a.o. in St. Petersburg. All this moving around was ”normalna” (the expression not meaning “the way it should be” but “it is the way things always go”), he says, the way things were done then and they never thought that it could have been different in the different situation they are in now. There was no choice for him nor Svetlana.
With the independence of Estonia, which started in August 1991 with a public revolt they suddenly awoke nearly from one day to another in a new country and they decided to stay. They set up their own business, based on their skills in chemistry and this worked out for them. Many choose differently and left, back to distant families, to find a new home and job where they came from or where simply relocated to a new station. The latter especially happened to those who were in the army or navy or in governmental positions.
Both Vyacheslav and Svetlana are now full right Estonian citizens. They both have Estonian passports and can vote (a right not granted to non-passport holders, who are Estonian but of a “lower” rank). Svetlana had to pass the language test (a requirement to obtain Estonian full citizenship). It was not so difficult she tells me but at home Russian (or rather mixed Russian and Ukrainian) is spoken. For them, it is not really a problem, on the contrary. Their daughter goes her own way in this new environment. They feel they are better here and with the EU there are many possibilities. Their choice turned out to be a good one.
Sillamäe, close to Voka and the city built to house the workers in the Uranium extraction plant is empty now with many derelict uninhabited concrete apartment blocks with blinded windows. The Uranium plant closed down and was reconverted to other purposes. Nuclear waste is stored in imposing concrete storage (with the help of the EU and the neighboring Fins and Swedes who value their own well being). To me, it now feels like a Stalinistic open-air museum. It lacks the desolate feel present in e.g. the outskirts of Ventspils (Latvia).
The town is visibly under construction, the Stalinist architecture makes it nearly a small St.Petersburg and the Estonian government seems to honor the past by renovating this planned town in the original style. Not all has been finished but and effort is clearly made.
While walking around Sillamäe I look for an inhabited but not yet renovated block. I take some pictures when I find a typical example and then Ljudmilla notices my attention and appears in the window. In broken Russian I gather she understands what I am doing.
“Thanks to Stalin I live here in this place, he was a great leader”
she tells me with very clear irony. Despite the desolate state of the flat block she is happy here she tells me, her grandson Victor stays with her while her mother enjoys the sunshine and some rest on the beach. With this weather any place is ok and this is her home. Nie, no pictures she gestures .. but then she changes her mind, together with her grandson she shines with pride and affection (feature picture). Family bonds are the same everywhere. I would have liked to know more from her but my linguistic skills do not allow it. The smiles compensate for the lack of verbal communication. She waves me goodbye, a small encounter in what feels to me a world that has hardly changed.
The younger generations are caught in the middle. For the native Estonians, the world has opened and the future has begun. For those with a different background, the search for a new identity is more difficult and prospects are not so clear.
Nastya is sixteen now and lives in Narva. She attends a Russian school and visits her mother’s friend in Paldinski, not far from Tallinn where I meet her. She speaks a little Estonian and often she is told not to speak Russian by ethnic Estonians. Though she actually understands this it is unpleasant to be confronted with daily. She definitely feels Russian (I write this not with capital as it defines a group here, not a nationality) but also realizes she lives in a new country. Both her parents are originally come from somewhere in the old empire. It is confusing she tells me in quite passable English, the new lingua franca that has been adopted by many also in Estonia. I was told there is even a term for it: Estenglish as often words lack in their native language and some English is thrown into the conversation.
I ask some clearly Estonian looking teenagers nearby if they speak Russian. They tell me: No not really, we have to learn it at school. We live in Estonia so we understand it is handy to know but we have mixed feelings about it knowing our past. The Russian Estonians are ok but that does not mean we have to know the language.
I look around and let the feeling sink in. Paldinski (or Baldinski, Baltic port) was once a Sovjet nuclear naval base and a closed city with 40.000 inhabitants while the number is now around 4000 now. When I visit the town is celebrating its 300 year anniversary and commemorates its turbulent history with games for children in the playground areas between the old Sovjet style apartment blocks.
The flats are again mostly renovated and despite the clearly Sovjet feel the atmosphere is modern. Without foreknowledge of where I am there is even an EU feel with modern supermarkets and well-maintained infrastructure (hardly any holes in the roads). It is remarkable how the Estonian government has managed to catch up with the rest of the EU. Estonia and here Paldinski are a strong contrast to many other places in the new Eastern countries where modernization is progressing at a much slower pace.
Estonian and Russian are both spoken on the playground without much noticeable resentment between the competitors. For the children, it seems all the same. They are eagerly awaiting their rewards: goodie bags are handed out at the end of the games.
Apart from the language, the difference between the inhabitants is quite visible in the physique of those present, Estonians are mostly blond with blue eyes and have distinct physical features. Those who came from other places in the former Soviet Union (which was not just present-day Russia but all the other countries like Belarus, Kazachstan, Ukraine) look clearly different with darker eyes, hair color and also in the way they dress. Just a bit more casual, less stylish, conventional, uniform.
The organization committee is well aware of the difficulties of the Russian speaking minority. They tell me there are many broken families, often the women stayed here while the husbands were sent elsewhere by the military. A heartbreaking choice at that time with bitter consequences. I ask them if someone would be willing to speak about it but they say this is difficult and most prefer not to speak too much about the past. I may be back, better prepared, and have some interviews, now the time is too short. Broken families seem to be also a feature of the former East countries.
Nastya likes the games and actually feels quite at home here. She is cheerful, enjoys the life she tells me. But still… I imagine to be a near foreigner in your own country is not easy to live with. She has no boyfriend she tells me but if it would come to it she would prefer a Russian-speaking one. It is just easier to relate to one’s own (mother) language. Would she rather live in Russia, a few kilometers away I ask? No definitely not, this is her home country, at least home environment, she may go study abroad somewhere, who knows what her future may bring. Will she one day also wake up in another country?
At the time of writing this article, I did not fully recognize I was a witness of a conscious effort of the Estonian government to further integrate the Russian-speaking minority into Estonian society. In the spring of 2007 widespread disinformation fuelled unrest nearly resulted in a Russian annexation of the eastern part of their country like later became reality in Donbas, Ukraine. It all centered around the statue of the “Bronze Soldier”, a relic from Sovjet times. The book “How to lose the information war” by Nina Jankowicz describes these events very well. Disinformation can only work if there is a kernel of truth and a susceptible audience.
The best way to counter such a threat is by taking away the dissatisfaction, and this is precisely the course the Estonians adopted. A branch of the University of Taru opened in Narva to enable Russian speakers to qualify for academic degrees, secondary education in Russian was modernized and the government changes seats once a year to Narva. In addition, programs were set up for the renovation of buildings and, as I saw with my own eyes courtyard activities to promote the integration of those who had different first languages. It will take a long time but my impression was that Russian speakers realize very well they are better off in Estonia compared to the other side of the eastern border.