In late March, as the Kremlin was consolidating its annexation of Crimea, I journeyed to Narva, in northeastern Estonia, for The Christian Science Monitor to inquire as to how the industrial city of 65,000’s predominantly Russian-speaking inhabitants felt about Russia’s shock invasion, and whether they would be amenable to a similar move from their kinsmen across the border. It was an interesting trip, to say the least. Below is the original draft of my dispatch, which was published in slightly condensed form on April 3, along with several of the photos I took of the border city and environs.
‘Narva is not Simferopol,’ says Aleksandr Dusman, a member of the Board of Integration of Idu-Viru County, the northernmost county of Estonia and the center of Estonia’s large Russian-speaking population, over coffee at the Narva King,a cozy tavern-cum-hotel in Narva, the county capital,and Estonia’s third largest city, overlooking the Estonian-Russian border.
‘And Estonia is not the Ukraine,’ said Mr. Dusman, a businessman and engineer who has been active in regional government affairs for fifteen years, said. He was referring to the recent Russian annexation of Crimea and the acclaim with which the Kremlin’s shock invasion, and the referendum which paved the way for it, was greeted by the Russian-speaking majority of the Ukrainian peninsula.
Mr. Dusman was one of a number of local officials and residents whom this reporter spoke to during a listening tour of this gritty, five hundred year old, war-scarred industrial city of 65,000 in order to see how the fast-moving events in the Crimea were viewed by the 97% Russian speaking majority here. Most of these Russian-speakers, roughly half of whom have taken Estonian citizenship, migrated to Narva during the long half century when Estonia was the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, and before the second republic of Estonia was declared in 1991, upon the fall of the USSR.
The question is a relevant one: recently a Russian diplomat raised the issue of how Estonia was treating its Russian-speaking population, an issue which the Kremlin has raised in the past with the three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, each of which have large Russian-speaking populations.
‘Language,’ the diplomat told the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, ‘should not be used to segregate and isolate groups,’ going on to note that Russia was ‘concerned by steps taken in this regard in Estonia.’ The statement understandably raised hackles in Tallinn, along with the question of how a similar move—however unlikely in light of Estonian membership in NATO– would be received by Estonia’s Russophone population, who are concentrated in this part of this country of 1.5 million.
As it happens, there is a local precedent for a comparable referendum in Ida-Viru County, where the fall of the USSR and the establishment of the second Estonian republic two decades ago met with considerable dissatisfaction, restiveness that led to local demonstrations against the shaky new government in Tallinn and the so-called Narva referendum.
That referendum, held on July 16,1993, proposed autonomy for Narva and its sister city of Siilamae–a referendum which the Tallinn government, like its beleaguered contemporary counterpart in Kiev, also declared illegal.
In the event, the Tallinn government sent a special envoy to Narva and the contentious vote did not go through. Nevertheless, the precedent, and the possibility, however unlikely, of Narva and the surrounding area once again becoming a trouble spot, as well as potential East-West flashpoint is not entirely a hypothetical one.
All one has to do is to take a stroll through the former ‘Baroque pearl of the Baltic,’ which was virtually levelled during bitter fighting between Nazi Germany, which had previously occupied Estonia, and the Soviets who were fighting to retake it, in 1944, past the rows of brown Soviet era tenements which replaced the decimated Old Town, down to the banks of the Narva River and see the large Russian flag defiantly waving from the top of Ivanogrod Castle, a little more than a stone’s throw away, or read the graffiti praising Vladimir Putin.
A number of Western commentators have sketched out a scenario in which Russian border guards are ordered by the Kremlin to cross the 400 meter bridge connecting the Estonian side of the riverine border with the Russian one, and join the local populace in an uprising against Estonian rule.
‘Not going to happen,’ said Aleksandr Dusman over a samovar at the Narva King. ‘It is not possible to repeat the Crimea in Estonia.’ Dusman is a director of the Ida-Viru County Integration Board, an NGO which tries to foster better integration of Russian-speaking population with the larger Estonian population, as well as between and amongst Estonia’s rainbow of other groups.
Dusman knows whereof he speaks. Born in Soviet Uzbekistan in 1944, he grew up in Crimea where he lived from 1946 to 1965, before moving to Moscow to train to become a mining engineer. After receiving his graduate degree, he was sent to work Estonia in 1969. Like most ethnic Russians, who constitute 27% of the entire Estonian population, he does not ‘really’ speak Estonian, which is quite different from Russian, and difficult to learn.
Dusman is proud of his ethnic Russian roots, as well as his Jewish ones—he is chairman of the Jewish Community of Northeast Estonia organization—but, he emphasizes, he is first and foremost an Estonian citizen, and most proud of that.
He feels that the situation in Estonia vis-à-vis its Russian speakers is not comparable for several reasons. For one, ‘there are no limits’ to the use of Russian in everyday life and in schools and Russian culture is well-protected.
For another, he points out, unlike in the Ukraine, the Russian speaking population of his country is heterogeneous and comprised of large numbers of Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Jews, Finns, Tartars, and others, who have other priorities besides the advancement of the Russian language.
Thirdly, and most importantly, life is simply much better on the Estonian side of the Narva than it was twenty years ago, at the time of the Narva referendum. Perhaps Narva isn’t in the same league as Tallinn, the booming, zooming Estonian capital, 200 kilometers to the west–an observation that was underlined by the sight of the sleazy strip tease joint across the street from the Narva King, as well as the mendicants who occasionally shuffled by.
But things are definitely looking up here. ‘We have hospitals and shops now. We have a growing middle class.’
To be sure, Dusman conceded, the Tallinn government could do more to improve the lives of the local populace, especially that of its poorer residents, and particularly for the large group of Russian speakers who are considered ‘stateless citizens.’ There is some potential for a ‘5th column there,’ he conceded. However he strongly doubts that that potential will be realized.
Ilja Smirnov, the editor of the local Russian-language newspaper, Pohjarannik basically agreed with that assessment when he met the reporter for breakfast at his hotel the next day. Like Dusman, the 38 year old editor is something of an Estonian booster. He points out that although the was born in the Soviet Union and voluntarily remained a Russian citizen for more than a decade after the dissolution of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, three years ago he decided to become an Estonian citizen, because, he said, “I think like an Estonian.”
‘I really love Estonia,’ he said. Like his co-linguist, Smirnov remembers well the ‘hard’ post-independence days of the early 90s. ‘I remember the bread lines of those days. I remember my father trying to earn more money as a taxi driver after he finished his shift at the Narva power plant.’
‘Perhaps life is not exactly easy today here,” he said, ‘but conditions are definitely looking up.
The Russian-speaking editor was vehement on the subject of Russian actions in the Crimea. ‘I think it’s despicable,’ he said. ‘Putin stole something that belonged to Ukraine.’ Unfortunately, he notes, the Russian president does have his fans amongst the Russian-speaking community, especially amongst our younger women,’ although he contends that there is little sympathy for the havoc he wrought in Crimea amongst his kinsmen in Narva.
That certainly seems to be the case amongst the staff of the Narva King. ‘I think it’s terrible what he did,’ said Daria Pinchuk, a 23 year old barmaid, of mixed Russian and Ukrainian parentage. Nor did she have a crush on Putin.
‘No way! I think it’s crazy,’ said her colleague, Juvi (he declined to give his last name). ‘Basically people want a nice life, and a house, and they know they have a better chance of having those things here than over there.’
Or, as Daria put it succinctly, ‘We sell a lot of Russian flags,’ she said referring to a white-red-and-blue grenadine-base concoction in her alcoholic arsenal, ‘but,’ she added with a sharp smile, ‘my Tequila sunrise is far more popular.’
And what would the residents do if and when Russian special forces did cross the Narva? Aleksandr Dusman, for his part, was in no doubt how he would react. ‘I would fight,’ he said. One suspects that quite a few of his neighbors would join him.
Unfortunately, in light of intervening events, the prospect of such an unlikely event actually transpiring—in which case Estonia’s NATO partners would be contractually bound to come to the country’s defense and help Mr. Dusman and his neighbors parry Putin The Marauder (as Ilja Smirnov calls the Russian leader)–seems a little less unlikely than it did in late March. Shades of 1939! Stay tuned.
(posted April 25th)