Would-be Estonians Baffled and Buffaloed By Complex Language

Four times, Leonid Tarasin has tried without success to learn Estonian, he says.

He says it in English. Born in Estonia to Russian parents in a Russian-speaking region, he picked up English in business college and uses it to sell textiles by telephone to buyers in Germany, Italy, and Japan.

But Estonian? A non-Indo-European tongue whose nouns decline into 14 different cases, a cousin of Finnish and Hungarian, it is virtually unspoken outside of Estonia. And of the 1.5 million people living in Estonia, one-third are Russian speakers like Mr. Tarasin. Most can't speak Estonian and never imagined they would have to.

But this is not the Soviet Union anymore.

For ethnic Estonians, the core of their identity as a people is their language. Since independence five years ago, they have made their ancient language the key test for citizenship in their young nation.

Like hundreds of thousands of other Russian-speakers living in now-independent Estonia, Mr. Tarasin is worried about how he can travel without an Estonian passport after November, when Estonia will cease honoring old Soviet passports.

And strictly speaking, the meetings of the town council here are illegal. They are conducted in Russian, the only language that 16 of the 21 council members speak. Estonian law requires that they be conducted in Estonian, and council members do not have the right to an interpreter.

In Moscow, Russian officials protest that Russian-speakers in Estonia are at risk of becoming stateless persons, in violation of their human rights. Yet Western officials, such as Vice President Al Gore on a recent visit, call Estonia a model of ethnic tolerance and integration policy.

The Soviet era

The vast majority of the Russians came to Estonia during the 50 years after the country was annexed by the Soviet Union. Soviet authorities barred ethnic Estonians from working in the sensitive defense industries established in the northeast of the country and brought in Russians as both managers and laborers. They brought their language with them, and Russian was the language of most workplaces and of public life during the Soviet years.

But with independence in 1991, the new nation set about reasserting its identity. "For Estonians," says Minister of Education Jaak Aaviksoo, "language is the core national value. So we think that we have to insist on not allowing a reducing of the language space."

"If we had a special kind of religion, like the Armenians or the Jews, then perhaps we could discard language," says Priit Jarve, a sociologist and head of a presidential roundtable on ethnic relations in Estonia, half-joking.

Another factor is at work as well. To the Estonians, events that occurred before the Soviet takeover in 1940 are legitimate. What happened during the next 50 years is not. That means Americans or Australians who speak no Estonian and have never set foot here can be legal citizens if their parents were Estonian before 1940. But Russians born and reared here post-1940 are not. These people, in Estonian terms, immigrated illegally.

If Estonians expected most Russians to leave for Russia in the first years of independence, that view is wearing off. "The idea is probably getting through that these people are not going to leave," Mr. Jarve says.

The goal now is to integrate Russians into Estonian society. The problems are largely practical. Estonia does not have enough qualified teachers of Estonian to meet demand. And native speakers of Estonian are reluctant to move into northeastern Estonia where over 90 percent of the population speaks Russian.

Even here in the northeast, Russians are eager to enroll their children in oversubscribed Estonian-language schools. Estonian is required not only for citizenship but for attending Estonian universities. The problem is greatest for older people, who have no occasion to speak the language except for the citizenship requirement.

The Estonian language is not only a matter of communication, says Mr. Aaviksoo, whose education ministry designs the citizenship language tests, as well as the teaching programs, "but also a sort of loyalty test."

Russians in Estonia are eligible for Russian citizenship, and Estonia has a "re-emigration fund" to help them if they choose to return to Russia.

Estonians are conscious of what separates them from their ethnically Russian neighbors. They cite the great religious divisions of 1054 AD, when Eastern Orthodox Christianity and the Rome-based church of the West divided, and of 1542 AD, when the Protestant Reformation began. With their predominantly Lutheran culture and its Protestant values of individualism and work, Estonians stand on the opposite side of both those historic divisions from the more collectivist, group-oriented culture of Russian Orthodoxy.

The Lutheran legacy, where believers must learn the word of God for themselves, led to Estonia becoming one of the most literate countries in Europe by the end of the 19th century. But the Estonian reverence for the word may have pre-Christian roots, according to Krista Kaer, a literary translator in Tallinn, the capital. Estonian folk culture has the largest repertoire of traditional songs in the world, second only to Ireland, she says.

The Soviet years only enhanced the significance of the language. "Language became religion and writers its prophets," she says, "and sometimes its martyrs." Readers scoured every passage from Estonian writers for the coded messages and meanings that evaded the Soviet censors.

The Irish, although a far larger people than the Estonians, lost their language in the face of the dominating influence of English. The Estonians may have hung on to theirs because they have been dominated by so many different influences over the centuries - Swedes, Danes, Germans, and Russians, Ms. Kaer speculates.

A tough tongue to tackle

Citizenship requires an ability to manage everyday life in colloquial Estonian. That amounts to a working vocabulary of about 800 words. According to Aaviksoo, a person of average ability can master that level in two months of study.

In practice, Natalia Mukhina has found that difficult to do. Her youngest daughter has a much sought-after place in an Estonian-language school and speaks so fluently that her mother has her in private lessons now to maintain her Russian. Ms. Mukhina is on the city council here. Estonian law allows noncitizens to vote and hold office at the local level. But her own efforts to learn Estonian have proved futile for lack of practice.

Meanwhile, the Estonian government is issuing residence permits and noncitizen passports as fast as it can afford to as a way of replacing the old Soviet passports that many Russians carry. Most countries will honor these passports. Most important, when Russians visit relatives next door in Russia, they can get back into Estonia.

Estonia is a more European place than Russia, Mukhina says. It has a different religion, different holidays, but like most Russians here, she intends to stay.

"I very much like that this little people can keep its culture and pass it on to its children," she says.

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