This is the first part of a transcript from a roundtable discussion on the subject of “being a minority in a small country”, held on 23rd March 2017 in Narva, Estonia during the launch for the magazine U19-Deep Baltic – a one-off Baltic-themed issue, produced as a collaboration between Deep Baltic and the Estonian Urbanists’ Review, concerning itself with urban issues throughout the Baltic states. Particular articles focus on the problems and projects taking place in cities including Valga in Estonia; Cēsis and Ventspils in Latvia; and Kaunas and Visaginas in Lithuania.
Narva is a particularly interesting place to discuss minorities and identy, being more overwhelmingly minority-majority than any large city in the Baltics. Right on the country’s border, divided from Russia only by the Narva River, it is more than 90% Russian-speaking, a place where it is relatively unusual to hear the Estonian language in the street, and where Estonian citizenship is held by less than half of the population – with large numbers either being Russian citizens, or “non-citizens”, having not obtained citizenship of Estonia or any other state after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The lively discussion was moderated by Deep Baltic editor Will Mawhood, and on the panel were Kristina Kallas, Jiri Tintera, Francisco Martinez, Madli Maruste and Ivan Sergejev – all living and working in Estonia, and either representatives of minority groups themselves or particularly knowledgeable about the subject.
WM: My name is Will Mawhood, and I’m the editor of Deep Baltic, which is a website on the subject of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – and I’m interested in minorities partly because of having been a member of the quite small British minority in Estonia, as well as of the also quite small British minority in Latvia. So now I’m going to ask everyone to introduce themselves, say who they are and why they are interested in the topic of minorities.
IS: Hi everyone, my name is Ivan Sergejev, and I’m the local city architect [of Narva]. And the topic of minorities is interesting to me, because I’m a representative of one – I’m a Russian-speaker.
WM: And you said to me earlier, Ivan, that you were actually born in Russia, not in Narva itself.
IS: Yeah, so that makes me more of a minority, I guess, as a Russian-speaking person who was actually born in Russia.
JT: I’m the city architect of Valga [in Estonia, on the Latvian border], and also a student at the polytechnical university, and the topic of my studies is shrinking cities. That’s why I’m in Valga, but why I’m here today – first, I’m the representative of a really small minority, because I was born in the Czech Republic, and I think there are permanently living maybe ten Czechs in Estonia, maybe twenty, and most of them are in Tallinn, and I don’t live in Tallinn, I live in Tartu, and around Tartu there are another two Czechs who live there permanently – one is my friend, and the other I don’t know. So that is one explanation, and secondly, because of this situation of Valga, because Valga is a town that is full of minorities, so I hope we will also talk about this presence of borders…
KK: My name is Kristina Kallas and I’m the director of Tartu University Narva College. I’ve been working here for a year and a half now, but I don’t actually live here, so in a sense I’m a commuter from Tartu – I also live in Tartu. And on minorities – well, I’m a political scientist, and all of my research that I’ve ever done is on minorities. That’s my area – that’s what I’ve been studying for fifteen years now, a bit more even. So when it comes to minority issues in Estonia, I know a lot, but still there’s a lot to learn.
Because the words we use to talk in political science, but also in sociology, in anthropology, if we talk about minorities, this is really vocabulary from the 20th century, because this was the blooming century for nation states – there was the national majority and national minority, and I think it doesn’t really help us nowadays any longer to understand what societies are. So this vocabulary is not contemporary, and I think it confuses a lot – explaining the social conditions of nowadays is difficult with this vocabulary. In a sense, if someone asked me if I was a member of a minority or not, it’s difficult to answer because sometimes I am and sometimes I’m not. In one way I am, because I was born in this region here, as an Estonian – so I was sort of a minority here, because everyone around was Russian. And then I moved to study in Tartu, and I felt like a minority here, because everyone was so Estonian there, and I felt Russian there, and now I’m back here in Narva, and I feel like a minority again. So it’s like constantly floating in and out of this minority status, and it’s a different type of status every time you move somewhere, and every community you enter, you have a different status there. So I think it will be interesting to have this debate about this constant changing of your status and identity, depending on the location where you are.
MM: Hello, I’m Madli Maruste, and I’m a lecturer at the architecture department [at the Estonian Academy of Arts]. We have moved here [to Narva] for one week actually, and I’m teaching MA courses about social and political space. But actually I did my PhD on the ethnic and national identity of the “children of freedom”, which is the generation that was born around 1991 in Estonia, and I came to the same kind of conclusions as Kristina: that there are not these fixed categories. And also these young people who our official discourse wants to label as either Estonian and Russian – they are not Estonian or Russian, they are really mixed, and we have represented here really hybrid national and ethnic identities. And during this research I also found out that my identity is mixed. I guess we can say that these topics are not really discussed because they are so political and loaded in most countries.
FM: I’m glad to be here, and first of all, thanks to Keiti, to Andra, to Will, to Eesti Kunstiakadeemia, to Narva Residency for organising this event, which I believe is important as a platform for discussion. I’m an anthropologist who did research on Narva for my doctoral studies. I have lived in Russia, and speak Russian. My interest is related to the distinct intensities of Narva and also to the invisible subjectivities that are not accessible by reading or watching TV, from the media.
WM: And you are yourself kind of a member of a minority, being Spanish in Estonia.
FM: That’s complicated, to reduce people to citizenship, as we all know in Narva. But what I like about Narva is the superabundance of connections and scales in this place. I believe that Narva is very rich anthropologically.
WM: I want to start off with quite a broad, quite a speculative question, because this issue [U19] and the website I edit, Deep Baltic, is concerned basically with the three Baltic countries, with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all of which are quite small on a European scale. Estonia has 1.3 million, Latvia has slightly under 2 million and Lithuania has 3 million. So they’re all very small in terms of population, compared to most countries in Europe. I wanted to pose this question: is it more difficult to be a minority in a small country, compared to a larger country – if we think of the UK or France or Germany, these larger countries in Europe. Is there a difference, given that small countries may have a more intense sense of belonging?
IS: I have no idea. It’s very difficult to think of myself in relation to this question, but I can think of my wife – she’s American, she came to Estonia with me almost three years ago. And I remember that we went to the Estonian Song Festival, which took place I think a couple of years ago. And I love the Estonian Song Festival, I’ve been participating ever since I was a kid; this is like my event for myself, regardless of the fact that I’m from Narva, I’m a Russian-speaker. But for her, when she made it there, she could only stand fifteen minutes of it, and then she left. For her, the experience was – I feel like I’m just intruding into a sacred place, one which I have no place in. So for her, an American, a person who is very easy-going, taking things in very easily, the experience of being at the Estonian Song Festival was almost devastating in a way – or she suddenly felt that she wasn’t at home.
WM: Did she feel unwelcome in any way?
IS: It wasn’t about not being welcome; it was that it was almost a religious experience, that only people of a certain ethnic group, or a certain group I think I could say, share, and she wasn’t in that group. It made me understand how independence was restored through singing. I thought – shit, if an American comes in and feels uncomfortable with this, I wonder what the Soviets thought. So this was really interesting to me, as far as being in a smaller country goes, because you have 10% of the population of the entire country in one place, singing. And if you intrude on this moment, you understand “whoops, I’m not welcome”. I don’t know – maybe that smallness, and that cohesion that you experience. But it’s a spectacular and very unique event, the Song Festival; the cohesion that Estonians themselves experience through it is amazing; it’s probably like the Superbowl in the United States – you have half the population rooting for a certain team. In a general sense, in an everyday context, I don’t know if it makes a difference – for example, I’ve experienced Coney Island in New York, and Coney Island is almost entirely Ukrainian and Russian identity. And I don’t know – their accents are even worse… I can’t see any specific differences between Estonia and Coney Island.
WM: That’s an interesting example – the example of the Song Festival, which is something that does seem to be quite unique to this kind of small country, in that I can’t imagine something in the UK or the US uniting people in quite the same way. How do you feel about this, Kristina?
KK: I was just listening to Ivan and thinking that, well, it is a religious experience for Estonians. And if you went to a community church in the United States, you would probably feel very uncomfortable as well, that you were intruding on some kind of ceremony. It’s a very tight-knit community that gathers there every Sunday; they have their traditions; they have their methods of talking and meeting, and suddenly a stranger comes in, and you would feel uncomfortable. Although they might be welcoming, you would feel uncomfortable. And I think the Estonian Song Festival is the same thing.
IS: The scale is different.
KK: The scale is different, but it’s a religious thing to go there, basically. I think the thing about being a minority in a small country is that if you are a small community like the Estonians are, your identity is much more contested by the others – than those of the big nations are. It’s a daily habit of contestation of your existence or your expression of who you are. If you think about Russians, they don’t have to constantly remind the rest of the world who they are, while for an Estonian, this is like a job – this is a heavy job, to constantly talk about yourself, because people keep forgetting you. And therefore if you’re a minority within the minority, then it is a little bit confusing in terms of integration – because the question stands: do you want to do this heavy job of being an Estonian? It’s a hard job – do you want to take this job?
IS: I would actually argue with this a little bit, because being remembered as a Russian is not necessarily a good thing, so do you want to justify the actions of the president of the neighbouring country that you happened to be born in?
KK: It’s not a positive image, but at least someone knows who you are.
IS: In the case of being Russian, you need to remind everyone each time that you’re not just a Russian, you’re a human being, and you’re not responsible for Crimea. So contesting identities, contesting ethnicities or whatever, it’s a universal thing; it just depends whether you run into it sooner or later – you will.
WM: I wanted to ask, Jiri – you’re from the Czech Republic, which is not a very big country, but is significantly larger than Estonia. How do you feel when listening to this discussion about the Song Festival – is there something similar in the Czech Republic?
JT: No, but I feel that Czech society is seeking for something like this. I was there, but I didn’t have the same feeling. Maybe because I have already changed my identity – I don’t feel apart anymore. For me it’s normal, I felt good there. I didn’t have any such feeling.
IS: For her it was a pretty early experience [of living in Estonia].
JT: And when I showed a video of this on YouTube to my mother – and my mother she really doesn’t like how Czech society is developing just now. And she really felt that what is missing is this sense of being together – so she did like it a lot, even if she didn’t understand anything of the context. So I feel that maybe it’s an advantage.
But I wanted to comment on this small society issue, because you can ask any Czech in the Czech Republic how they are feeling, and they will tell you that they are the member of a small community, small society. Because we are a country of ten million people, next to big Germany, and with this experience of Soviet occupation – so it’s more about the feeling than the [actual] size of the society. Maybe one difference is that Estonia has experience with this quite large minority, and they know already how to behave. The Czech Republic twenty years ago was almost entirely homogenous – because after the Second World War, all the Germans had to leave; after the collapse of Communism, Slovakia left. And because the economic situation is improving now, there is quite strong immigration from Ukraine and Russia, and Czechs are not used to this.
WM: Well, that’s something I’d really like to come back to a bit later: the question of the immigration that is happening now, because we also see this in the Baltic countries. Francisco, how do you feel about this subject – because you’re from a rather larger country. Do you feel there’s a difference in mentality between being a minority somewhere like Estonia, and in Spain?
FM: First, I want to say that when I experienced laulupidu [the Song Festival], it seemed to me the same feeling as a football match, in the sense of emotion and the sense of belonging. For some people when attending a football match, they feel they belong to a community – and there is a sense of emotion, drama. I felt the same, with all respect, when I was at there at laulupidu.
Also, I think there is a misleading assumption that we have to resolve – It’s not the same thing being small and being peripheral – because Luxembourg or Switzerland are small, but they are not peripheral. Estonia is peripheral – and so are Latvia and Lithuania. With regards to being small what I wanted to say is that the Russian community are not only a minority, but they are a majority in some places. We should approach this with a scalar perspective, because the so-called Russians in Estonia, they used to be a majority, nowadays they are a minority because the empire has collapsed, so there is a revanchist atmosphere, or there has been – now it is perhaps changing with the generational transformation.
Also, the fact of being a minority and majority is changing with the new technologies and the way globalisation is penetrating into localities. If we talk to Narvians, we will discover hybrid identities, but also plural identities – or non-identities, with the grey passport [held by “non-citizens” of Estonia, who have not obtained Estonian citizenship following the collapse of the Soviet Union]. Some people will define themselves as Russian and Estonian; some people will define themselves as European – which is another scale. We were talking about globalisation, which is another scale, but there is also the local scale – like, “I am from Narva”. And I have met many people who are from Narva, and they are proud of being from Narva, and they don’t feel any envy of Tallinn or Tartu. So there are different scales that we should be aware of, when we are approaching these questions of minority, of community, and of what it means to be Russian in the east of Europe.
WM: OK, lots of interesting points there, Francisco. I wanted to pick up on something you said though. You compared being at the Song Festival to being at a football match, and I think I can see there’s that kind of unity, but it’s a football match where everyone is supporting the same team. For this kind of unity that comes, is it necessary for there to be an opposition to this? And is there a possibility in which this sense of very intense identity could lead to a sense of intolerance to people who do not share this sense of identity? What do you feel about this, Madli?
MM: Well, yes, because the Song Festival is actually a nation-building festival, a national-building event – it’s organised by the state. So you can’t compare it to this kind of really communal event – it’s really orchestrated. If you pay attention to the texts, if you read the songs, they’re actually highly nationalistic texts, and actually the event is really exclusionary for the foreigners who don’t agree with this narrative. And these people don’t have to always be foreigners – you can be Estonian but you don’t agree with this nationalistic narrative, then you’re also not included, you don’t feel that this is your event. But this is not discussed; if you start speaking about this publicly, you’re labelled as unpatriotic and maybe pro-Russian or pro-Soviet – this kind of discourse is often used. And even I wrote one article that was based on my PhD, and it was a really kind of critical analysis on the Song Festival. And I have interviewed a lot of young people, asking about this – young people from Narva, Tartu, Tallinn. Young people with this mixed heritage, maybe Russian-speaking – they told me stories of how they had not been included in the festival. Let’s say they wanted to participate because they told me “this is an Estonian party and I really wanted to participate. And I went to this choir training and I had learnt all the songs, etc., and then my teacher told me ‘no, no, you can’t attend, because this is an Estonian party.’”
MM: Seriously. And people from Narva told me this.
FM: There are some interesting aspects related to this. The first one is performativity, that there is a buddy-buddy relation – that people go there and sing, and they feel they belong to a community in the same way as at a football match. They feel they belong to the same community because they are standing together and singing to something performative. Also another interesting aspect is the generational change, the way the new generation doesn’t accept so easily the narrative of the recovery of the independence of Estonia being based on a singing revolution. This affects created by the post-’91 idea in which the whole history, the whole narrative was reinvented. And the new generation is approaching the past in a more neutral way, I believe. And the third issue I wanted to put on the table is that I come from a big country which is also suffering from post-imperial syndrome too. I was born in Spain, and we have been discussing what it means to be Spanish for three hundred years – so it’s not only in small societies or big societies.
MM: But I want to finish with an idea – as you said, it’s performing of the identity; it’s a very performative act. I wrote one very critical, one very analytical article about it, and it was not even published. So you have to kind of be aware that this is a very sensitive topic. And also I once visited the Song Festival with a French friend, and he was there for the first time, and he was also kind of shocked, and he said “wow, it’s like the Woodstock of nationalism”.
WM: There’s one related point which I wanted to bring up, which is connected to having lived in Estonia and Latvia. It’s very interesting that not only is there a very strong sense of identity in both Estonia and Latvia, but also with the minorities, there is a sense that they are reduced to one identity, despite being quite varied – in that, if you are a foreigner and you come to Estonia, you would think there are Estonians and Russians, and the same in Latvia. But in fact in both Estonia and Latvia, there are I think 2% Ukrainians; and in Latvia there are also 2% Poles; there are also large numbers of Belarusians in both countries, and all these people are generalised under the label “Russians”. But if you go to Ukraine and say “you are all Russians”, people will not be very happy. So I’m interested in knowing if a strong national identity means that this happens to minorities, they’re generalised into one group. Kristina, how do you feel about this?
KK: This is because they are post-imperial minorities, because the empire, the framework that is used to explain why they are here, who they are is the Soviet Union, and they were Russified heavily during the Soviet Union – and at the time, they were not minorities. There is this term for the Russian-speaking people of the post-Soviet spaces – it is a minoritised majority – they used to be a majority, and then they were minoritised. They were told eventually that “no, no, no, you are now a minority”. And this is a huge identity conflict in them, because they have never thought of themselves ever in their lives growing up as a minority; this was never part of their identity. But overnight they became a minority.
Because they were carriers of imperial identity, very strongly, and that’s why they are grouped together because there is a certain aspect of identity that joins them together. It doesn’t matter what ethnicity they are – this is not that relevant in this context. Of course, they are free to identify themselves ethnically the way they want, but there are certain identity features that join them all together. We have Ukrainians in the audience here, from Ukraine, and if they met a Ukrainian from Estonia, they would feel they were very different – because these are post-Soviet Ukrainians, who had very heavy impact of Sovietisation on their identities; many of them actually have abandoned the Ukrainian language and they are very – not Russified in the sense that they were not made Russian, but they were Soviet people. And that’s the group that joins them together, whether they are Poles or Belarusians or Ukrainians or Russians, in this sense they all share some kind of common features of their identity, and that sets them heavily apart from what in Soviet times was called “titular nations” – Estonians or Latvians or Lithuanians that had completely separate processes, because being an Estonian in the Soviet times and being a Russian-speaker in the Soviet times, in the same territory, even here in Narva meant very different things. You had different narratives about the history in parallel, you had different stories about the countries in parallel – and none of them actually met each other.
I’m from a mixed family – my mother is from Russia and came to Estonia in 1973. And in 1987, she said “that’s the first year where I learnt that the Second World War started in 1939” – and she had lived in Estonian by then for fifteen years already, and this was the first time that she heard “oh my God, not 1941, but 1939”. And Russians here lived all their conscious life knowing that the Second World War started in 1941, and Estonians had a parallel narrative – a completely parallel narrative. Everyone who was Estonian knew the other narrative, and these two stories didn’t meet. And when the Soviet Union collapsed, it was quite a shock for both sides, both saying “no, how can you think of it that way?” Because they lived in parallel worlds.
WM: So it seems to be as much a case of identifying with a narrative rather than with an ethnicity or a language as such.
KK: Yes, it’s not the language, not the ethnicity.
WM: How do you feel about this, Ivan?
IS: I mean getting away from all the historical and political topics, I feel it’s a bit to do with psychology as well. You just lump unimportant shit together and you call it shit; you don’t differentiate between what it’s made of – you just don’t care about it. The word comes from “minor” – not important, smaller. So you just lump it all together and you don’t care – Poles, Belarusians, Russians, whatever. And it’s not only as far as ethnicity is concerned – it’s everything. If you think about it, the things that don’t matter you lump together, exactly because you don’t care about them enough to differentiate between them. If you do that, that becomes a new majority, it becomes a new interest, purpose, something. But here’s, again – like I used to call all the people in Coney Island Russians, because they speak Russian all of them, with a funny accent, so Russians they are – and the reality is that they’re mostly Ukrainian Jews. So it’s a whole different thing. But I didn’t care enough, and that’s why it was just like “whatever”. I completely agree with Kristina – completely. But I think on top of that, you also have this general not-caring.
KK: Well, it’s also a narrative, right? If you’re not Estonian, you’re something else. So what is the else? It’s easier to put it into one picture than seventeen different pictures. So that’s understandable, but I still think we have to talk a little bit about how ethnicity was used in the Soviet times, because in Soviet times ethnicity was instrumental: it was used for the purpose of – what was the sentence they used? “Nationalist in form, socialist in content”. I mean, you were allowed to call yourself Ukrainian, but Ukrainian nationalism was not allowed. So being a Ukrainian meant you could put on this nice costume and just dance around – but that’s it. Don’t mention anything else related – discussion of a Ukrainian state or the Ukrainian nation was out of the question. And the Ukrainian community in Estonia is very numerous actually: 23,000 people identify themselves ethnically as Ukrainian. But if you start talking to them, then you find that people who identify deeply with Ukraine are maybe 5,000 people. Because the rest like to put on the costume, but when it comes to being a Ukrainian, it doesn’t have a meaning to them – a deeper meaning. In the sense that it all boils down to the Soviet Union still – their whole identity.
WM: Well this is certainly something I’ve found to a large extent in the work I’ve done with the Poles in Latvia [2% of the population], because I wrote an article on the Polish community in Latvia. And you also have a similar situation, in that the majority of Poles in Latvia do not speak Polish – they are Russian-speakers. But it seems that for various reasons some of the younger generation are developing a connection to Poland in a way their parents did not, because they could not really, and that this sense of the Polish language and Polish identity is developing again, among some people.
And this is something I want to ask you about, Madli, because I wonder if that is something you have seen in your research on the younger generation – because we’ve been speaking more about people who were alive during the Soviet Union so far. Do you get a sense that young people who are Russian-speaking but are not ethnically Russian have more of a sense of this other identity, and that it means more to them?
MM: Yes, what I found is that young people who were born since 1991, they are in this state of, let’s say, confusion about their identity. When I did the interviews, I interviewed all these people who are from these different kinds of ex-Soviet minority backgrounds – Armenian, Belarusian, Azerbaijani – and a lot of them said exactly this: that they really connect with this identity. Let’s say that one parent is from Armenia, and they visit Armenia and and they talk in such amazing terms about Armenia, or Azerbaijan, and they really connect with these countries. You can see they have found their identity in their roots, in their other society. So they don’t feel that they really belong here.
They told me “I don’t know if I’m one or the other. And if I have a child, I don’t know what kind of identity I should give to my child – I don’t feel Estonian or Russian.” So they were looking to gain this kind of identity from their roots. Actually the connection might have been extremely small, so they are kind of creating this narrative, and they were really taking part in these small communities, like Azerbaijanis in Tallinn – in Lasnamäe [a Soviet-era district of Tallinn], for example. They were taking part in all kinds of events, and children, young people, camps. So I agree that there is this kind of tendency for young people to look for their roots, and want to find somewhere to belong, if they are not among this majority of Estonian identity.
KK: But I want to ask, because I understand if it’s true for Armenians and Azerbaijanis, because first of all, they’re a visible minority – they’re visibly different from Estonians, so they kind of almost need to identify themselves differently, because it’s hard to blend in – but with Russians, is it the same or not? Because you can never tell Estonians and Russians apart, so it’s much easier to blend in as a young Russian person. It’s easier to claim you’re an Estonian.
I had an interesting experience in Pskov [Russian city near the Estonian border]. We were at Pskov University with a delegation of Estonian universities, just marketing our programmes. There was one young guy; his name was Maksim, and he was representing the Estonian Business School. He was presenting it in English. And a Pskov student asked “but Maksim, who are you? What ethnicity are you?” And he said “I’m a completely pure Estonians”. And it was strange, because with me he spoke English. And it turned out he actually has a Ukrainian background, and he has lived in Estonia since he was five months old or something, but he clearly identified himself as an Estonian, very strongly – which was very surprising to me. And as an Estonian I took it a little bit like “woah, wait a moment”. My first reaction was “no, you’re not”, but then I thought – oh, no, no, I can’t say that, because that’s what he identifies with. Despite the fact that he didn’t speak Estonian. And he was young: he was 22, 21 or something like this.
IS: That’s a little bit like Americans. You know – “who are you?” “I’m American”. I could be Brazilian or Estonian or Russian or whatever. “I’m American”. And it’s amazing, actually, that there is this unity about being an American – whether you’re a Mexican or something else, that is a little absent here.
KK: It’s an immigrant country. America is an immigrant country.
IS: I guess so, it’s like they just try to be all together. But for example, I can’t say I’m an Estonian without kind of having a little twitch. Because I’m not – I know I’m not. I can speak the language and I can learn about the culture, whatever, but it’s kind of like the Armenian youth: you know you’re different. And you can blend in, but… I had that question I was asked a lot in the United States – “so who are you?” And the answer I came up with was that “I am an ethnically Russian Estonian”. Which is perfectly politically correct, because that’s exactly what it is. But that’s also the best way to say who I am, because I am ethnically Russian, but Estonian. And it kind of blends all the things together without necessarily differentiating between which one is more important. Because I think when you start asking yourself, especially in my situation – because I’m not too far from ’91 – [I was born in] ‘87. So it’s the same thing, it’s a lot of confusion. In a way, it doesn’t really matter that much, as long as you respect your roots, and respect the culture you’re in. Taking on two identities is actually better than taking none.
The second part of the discussion will follow next week on Deep Baltic. It will also shortly be available in Estonian in Müürileht.
U19-Deep Baltic is available from selected outlets in Tallinn and Riga, and also accessible online
Header image – Narva castle on the left, and Ivangorod castle in Russia on the right, divided by the Narva River [Image: narva.tourism.ee]
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