In Estonia, almost 25% of the population is Russian. The two communities are still fairly separate: there are living areas that are considered more Estonian or Russian, kids go to separate schools, and sometimes even buy groceries from separate shops. In the context of growing tensions between Moscow and Tallinn, can anything bring these two worlds together?
TALLINN – “How can you tell a 4-year-old that he is an occupier?!” Tiiu asks her partner, Vadim. Vadim is one of 85,000 people living in Estonia with a so-called “grey passport,” meaning his citizenship is unconfirmed and he is technically stateless. Lying on the table, the cover of the passport matches the colour of the walls. “My grandfather lived in Estonia his entire life,” explains Vadim, who doesn’t understand why he should be blamed for where he (like his mother) was born. “Why do I have to demonstrate that I am a worthy citizen?”
Vadim (32) and Tiiu (30) met in 2015. Tiiu hails from Tartu, the second biggest city in Estonia, and barely spoke any Russian when they met. Vadim was born in St Petersburg and moved to Tallinn with his family when he was four years old. The couple now live together and share an flat in the district of Mustamäe.
When he met Tiiu, Vadim barely spoke any Estonian. “I spoke in Estonian and he just nodded ‘yes, yes’,” recalls Tiiu. Music was the spark that ignited their relationship. Tiiu, a professional conductor, had noticed Vadim at a concert: he was the singer and guitarist of Junk Riot, a Russian band very popular among Estonians. “I just plucked up the courage and wrote him a letter saying that I fancied him, and that he could take me out if he wanted to,” laughs Tiiu.
Vadim learned to speak Estonian in the space of three months. Now it’s the only language they speak at home. Tiiu’s comprehension of Russian is improving as she gets closer to his family: Vadim’s mother talks to her in Russian, and she replies in Estonian. “But Vadim’s family mixes languages anyway, since his sister is married to a Chinese man. When we visit each other, we speak a sort of mix of Estonian, Russian, English, and Chinese.”
Vadim is one of 85,000 people living in Estonia with a so-called “grey passport,” meaning his citizenship is unconfirmed.
The city of Narva, close to the Russian border, has a predominantly Russian-speaking population. Only 3% of the residents are Estonian.
Four Estonians in a Russian-speaking town
A few hours away from the capital, in Narva, Rene (33) and Bronislava (37) are preparing to go out for a meal with their children. They speak energetically in Russian: Narva, which is close to the Russian border, has a predominantly Russian-speaking population.
In their daily life and at home, this mixed couple mainly converse in Russian, though Rene is Estonian. “I was Russified here,” he jokes, adding that his identity is completely mixed up. Here, only 3% of the residents are Estonian – “us and our three friends,” as the joke goes. Russian people do not understand that Rene is Estonian, and Estonians cannot decide if he’s Russian. Rene can’t even figure out what language he’s thinking in. Bronislava was raised as a Russian, and therefore considers herself as Russian as well. However, she identifies with Estonia and enjoys living here.
Their two children, Evangelina (8) and Emil (6), also speak Russian to their parents. Eva goes to a language immersion class to learn Estonian, and Emil will be starting school in the same programme next year. “One of the reasons was to relieve her of any stress associated with starting to talk in Estonian,” says Bronislava, knowing that it is very difficult to practise in Narva.
The family lives in a private two-storey house in the suburbs of Narva. Rene works for the city government as an urban planner and as the area manager of the Pindi Kinnisvara real estate agency. Bronislava is in charge of the cafeteria of the Tartu University Narva College. When she’s looking to hire people, it is difficult to find someone who speaks both Estonian and Russian. In their home, books about Narva’s history in both languages sit side-by-side on the shelves. Bronislava remembers the time when new Estonian arrivals were still very rare. “Estonians were hounded as recently as 20 years ago,” adds Rene, remembering his childhood.
Back then, people were scared to speak Estonian on the streets. “I have run from Russian boys who wanted to beat me up,” Rene muses as he prepares the table for a round of Menedzer (the Russian version of Monopoly).
“We were people of another sort”
Vadim, who grew up in the district of Õismäe in Tallinn, has similarly run away from other boys. But he was running away from Estonians. Because he grew up in a Russian-speaking environment, surrounded by Russian news and culture, he tends to identify as Russian. “In my childhood, we were just Russians living in Estonia,” he says, “yet we already have this Nordic flavour to us, and we like to keep more distance than the Russians living in Russia.” But when he sees his sister’s child, who has Asian facial features but acts like a Russian, he feels one’s nationality is less and less important.
Relations between Estonians and Russians became especially strained during the restoration of Estonia’s independence, in the 1990s. “From that moment on, it seemed that we were people of another sort.” Russians living in Estonia were seen as an unwelcome reminder of soviet rule, and routinely ejected from their professional and social circles.
For Estonians like Tiiu, in contrast, the independence period was all a win-win situation. She still remembers the party at her family house, with everyone crying out of joy and celebrating.
“These things belong to the past,” says Vadim. “Now we play basketball or football with some of these guys.” Today, He and Tiiu live in Mustamäe, a district that both Estonians and Russians call home. But when their son was born in October, the couple first felt cultural tensions when it came to choosing his name. “While Russians like traditional names, Estonians want to pick names that would be as special and original as possible,” says Tiiu. She wanted to name their son Irek, while Vadim thought that Maksim would be a proper boy’s name. “Naming your son ‘Maksim’ is as predictable as choosing Nike when you buy trainers,” mocks Tiiu. “I also liked Putin Ivanov, of course, but Vadim did not like it that much.” After some debating, they agreed on Jakov.
Vadim and Tiiu intend to put Jakov in an Estonian-Russian kindergarten so that he can practise Russian. Language proficiency in both languages is useful in Estonia. Sometimes, Tiiu wonders about the kind of country Jakov will grow up in.
68.5% of the Estonian population speak Estonian as their mother tongue, 29.6% (more than 383,000 people) speak Russian. At the same time,
68.7% identify as Estonian (889,000 people), 24.8% identify as Russian (321,000 people), and 1.7% identify as Ukrainian (22,000 people).
Estonia is home to 85,000 people with undetermined citizenship.
Several national integration programmes have been carried out in Estonia, the first of which was in 1997 and focused on the integration of Russian-speaking residents into the Estonian society. The next projects were wider in scope, aiming at mutual integration.
In 2000, language immersion programmes were launched, which means that some Russian-speaking classes gradually adopted Estonian as the language of study. Today, Russian-speaking schools implement a 60-40 system, which means that 60% of the curriculum is taught in Estonian and 40% of the subjects may be in Russian.
“This is my homeland”
Rene and Bronislava are more optimistic. They see the Estonian and Russian communities as more connected to one another, since more and more Estonians are coming to work and live in the city. “Estonian was not heard in cafés or shops before,” says Rene. “And if you did hear Estonian, you turned your head in amazement,” adds Bronislava, recalling how she first met an Estonian when she was 10 or 12 years old. She thinks this new “diversity” might have coincided with the fall of the Soviet Union, when people started to differentiate more between nationalities.
In the past, she was offended by the expression “If you do not like it here, leave.” “This is my homeland and I like living here,” explains Bronislava, adding that it doesn’t matter what language she is speaking. “I would say that you are more Estonian nowadays,” adds Rene, as they both laugh.
The couple do not associate the current political issues with nationality, since both nationalities include people who are pro- and anti-Russia. They tend to think that political views, like integration, are tied to levels of education and standards of living. “These are global issues over which we have no influence,” says Bronislava.
Rene and Bronislava, like Vadim and Tiiu, see that the Estonian and Russian communities are increasingly more tied to each other and they are hopeful about their children’s future.
However, Vadim intends to take the Estonian citizenship exams in the near future. “I thought it was unfair that we were considered occupiers, but the people who were born later were not,” says Vadim. He dreams of reconciliation and an end to unjustified rules. “I think that I might even go and vote now.”