Young Perspectives on
Estonia-Russia Social Tensions

Estonia is special in the sense that almost 30% of its citizens are Russian-speaking. Ethnic Russians even form a majority in Ida-Virumaa, a county in the eastern part of the country. But, being members of a minority group in most of the country, Russian-speaking people still experience discrimination an indication that Estonian integration policy doesn’t work properly.

The main drawback with official reports on Russian-Estonian relations in Estonia is the absence of real people’s voices — especially the young ones.

Youngsters who were born in independent Estonia are not nostalgic about the Soviet past, and they have no hatred towards ethnic Russians because of the past. They look at things from a different angle. The way young Estonians (both ethnic and Russian-speaking) see the problem, its roots, and its solutions will likely define the way the problem will be treated and resolved in the future. That’s why it is very important to give them the right to express their opinions.

So I reached out to young Estonians and ethnic Russians to hear their thoughts on Russian stereotypes and interrelations.

Ethnic Estonians speak out

“I myself don’t have Russian friends and it’s sad because there are so many Russians here and we don’t communicate with each other,” says Karel Kranich, a 21-year-old student of the University of Tallinn. He comes from Voru, in the southern part of Estonia. Karel looks younger than his age but speaks calmly and with confidence. (His black sweatshirt reminds me about the fashion preferences of Nordic people, who love the look of all-black.)

(Karel Kranich)

Karel smiles when my colleagues ask him to tell us about himself. But when we switch to serious questions, he becomes thoughtful. He keeps his fingers crossed on his legs and makes gestures from time to time while he speaks. Karel agrees that there are some barriers between ethnic Russians and ethnic Estonians like living in different neighborhoods, which makes it difficult to get to know each other. Besides, stereotypes about Russians influence Estonians’ mindset a lot: “I think there are many stereotypes about Russians, but they are definitely not true,” says Karel. “If you have never met any Russians, you get the stereotypical views.”

Discrimination is something Karel witnessed at school. He claims that his Russian classmate experienced verbal bullying, such as name calling, although it didn’t seem to cause much tension: “Nothing serious, everyone got insulted at some point. Typical kids, I would say…When you grow up, the discrimination level drops. The discrimination level dropped significantly when I got older.”

In Karel’s opinion, there is no systematic discrimination against Russian-speaking Estonians. Regarding career opportunities, Karel is sure that ethnic Russians get as many career opportunities as native Estonians do: “It’s more about yourself, not your ethnic background,” he said.

While Karel hopes there will be no tension at all in the long run, he makes clear that there are still a lot of measures that must be taken to improve the situation: “I think we should change the law that says that every Russian should study Estonian since kindergarten. We should find more teachers who could resolve the problem because we don’t have many teachers who can speak both Russian and Estonian,” he says. “But it’s not all about Estonian people, it’s also about Russian people themselves. They should do something to integrate more, to integrate better. Like getting more interested in Estonian culture and history.”

Sten Kaar also studies at the University of Tallinn. He is a tall, slim 21-year-old man with stubble on his face and black-rimmed glasses. He was born in Haapsalu, a city on the west side of Estonia, where not many Russian-speaking people live. He agrees with Karel about the existence of stereotypes about Russians. According to Sten, stereotypical beliefs are disseminated both in his home city and around the rest of Estonia, and it causes problems.

(Sten Kaar)

“The war between being Russian and being Estonian is well spread,” Sten says.

Sten has an interesting background: he used to have radical views on life that were inspired by his grandmother. “At young age, I was a bit of fascist. I’m not ashamed to say it because when you are at school you are young, unexperienced. You have only stereotypes but no experience. Even I discriminated them (Russians) 2 or 3 times. I wasn’t a bully or something, it was more about cultures disagreement.” However, he has changed his opinion.

According to Sten’s own experience, negative attitudes toward Russians arise because of both the Internet and knowledge of history. Sten believes that the division between ethnic groups starts from a young age and continues at the universities. There, students usually form their own private groups, which often turns out to be ethnic separation – Russians with Russians, Estonians with Estonians.

“Society is stratified. We can see it at our university,” he says. “Even on our course, there are Russians who form their own private group, and we (Estonians) our own group — which doesn’t mean we don’t like them, it just happens naturally.”

Sten suggests: “The best way to solve the problem probably would be just talk, meet people, get to know each other.”   But he also feels that the problem of Russian-Estonian relations will never be completely resolved, because “people will never be able to forget history.”

Katri studies at the University of Tartu and works at the Tartu Art Museum. When I recently visited a local bookshop, I noticed that she was doing her Russian homework there. I started a conversation and wondered why she is interested in learning Russian. She said that she is keen on Russian culture, and in her opinion, Estonian and Russian cultures can’t be separated from each other: ”We are neighbors and our cultures are so connected. If you don’t know Russian, it’s difficult to understand cultural background.” After a bit of discussion, Katrin admits that she doesn’t see any tension between ethnic Russians and ethnic Estonians. She has several Russian-speaking colleagues she gets along with very well.

Nevertheless, Katri emphasizes that people tend to choose a neutral language to interact with each other: ”One linguist says that because of the tension that basically comes from our parents, older generations use English to communicate, not Estonian or Russian.”

Ethnic Russians weigh in

Roman is a tall and strong young man from Kivioli, an industrial town in Ida-Virumaa county. He’s a 24-year-old engineer in Tallinn. Roman’s mother is Estonian and his father is Russian, but both parents are Russian-speaking. He identifies himself as a Russian-speaking Estonian.

The first time he experienced discrimination was when he went to an Estonian school. A teacher there prohibited him from speaking Russian with his friends during the breaks, even though speaking any other language was allowed.  ”For me this was discriminating, this was not normal,” he says. Roman also witnessed other people having problems because they were Russian-speaking, and he heard from his friends about such tensions. But it’s not very common. To Roman’s mind, tension between ethnic groups should never be considered normal, so as to help create the feeling “in the whole world there is no bad nation.”

”I don’t care what happened 1000 years ago,” he said. “I have Russian friends, I have Estonian friends. I don’t have any problems. We all get along very well.”

Estonian language skills are essential to succeeding in Estonia, whatever you do. The problem is that if you haven’t learned Estonian at school or university for some reason, you will probably have to take expensive language courses:  Roman’s friend pays 700 euro per month for it. Also, Roman finds it wrong that Estonian law requires older people to learn Estonian: “If we are talking about young people, they should know this language,” he says. “If we are talking about people who are older than 40, and who have no time to learn this language and have no obligation to know it namely they don’t need this language in their work I see no sense in imposing them learning it.”

Ekaterina and Angelina (pseudonyms) come for an interview at 19:00 sharp. We recognize each other quickly. Ekaterina is a quite tall, blonde girl who greets me with a kind smile. Her friend Angelina greets me too, with big brown eyes. While we wait for a waitress to take our order, they start telling me about their background. Ekaterina was born in Estonia, as were her parents. She is now 23 and doing her 4th course as an architecture student in Estonia. “I do my best to get in one group with Estonians, communicate with them and make project together,” says Ekaterina.

“I get sincerely happy when my Estonian classmates invite me to a birthday party, or I just to come to their place as a guest,” she says. “I’m usually the only Russian there. I always feel happy when it happens, I feel like I got accepted by them.”

Ekaterina claims there is no real tension in relations between ethnic Russians and ethnic Estonians: “I don’t feel any pressure. Any enmity,” she says. “First, everything depends on the particular person… Secondly, sometimes…the  media states that the problem exists. On the one hand it does, on the other hand, it doesn’t.” She continues: “I don’t consider Russia my country. My country is here.”

Even though Ekaterina speaks fluent Estonian, she faces some problems with expressing her feelings. For this reason, it’s more comfortable for her to make friends with Russian-speaking Estonians.”It’s easier to communicate with a person of the same culture,” she says. “You have the same traditions. It’s easier to communicate in native language. To express your feelings.”

Angelina is 24. Her family moved here from Armenia when she was 2. ”I could say that Russian is my second nationality. I went to Russian school and all my friends are Russians. I read and write in Russian and think in Russian too,” she says. Now Angelina studies and works as an editor on Russian radio. She respects Estonia as a country that sheltered her and gave her a lot.

Although Angelina speaks fluent Estonian, she can’t always fully express what she feels in a foreign language. I find it very difficult to express my feelings in Estonian. Some expressions are impossible to translate from Russian.”

Angelina sees no problem in relations between ethnic groups in Estonia: “I don’t feel any tension between Russians and Estonians in Estonia. And I never experienced it. Maybe because my name and surname are not Russian. When I grew up and started working after school, I only heard good references from Estonians like Russians are ‘cool’. Estonians say they want to communicate with us. So I have only positive references from them.” She believes that everything depends on yourself that if you create a barrier at the beginning, it will persist,  but if you are sociable and show your desire to make friends with Estonians, you will definitely find them. Angelina suggests that Estonians and Russians have more common parties and children’s holidays to build communication from childhood.

“I believe that all insults between Russians and Estonians should be left in the past,” she says.

A wise perspective from the field

Kristi Raik is a native Estonian who works at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. From her point of view, Estonia is now in a post-Soviet transition period of redefining relations between ethnic Russians and ethnic Estonians. She sees the trend as generally positive: “People with extreme views who have a hostile attitude towards other groups can be found among both ethnic Estonians and ethnic Russians. But it doesn’t represent the majority of the population. Most people want to get along.”

Kristi claims that one of the biggest challenges to making integration policy work is to ensure a good level of teaching the Estonian language. According to her, the media has been exaggerating tension in Estonia, especially after the annexation of Crimea:

“From the Estonian point of view, having tensions between ethnic groups is something that serves Russia’s interests in destabilising the West. To have tension between ethnic groups is a way for Russia to increase its ability to control and influence the neighbouring countries. Estonia’s interest in this context is to try to alleviate the tensions and to make sure that society’s cooperation gets better.”

by Daria Belyaeva  (Moscow)


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