An Estonian friend recently moved back to Tallinn from abroad and complained to me, “God, I wish I had paid more attention in Russian class in school.”
Man, that burned me up. Just the idea of it. Here we had an Estonian in the capital of Estonia lamenting her lack of Russian skills. It seemed to challenge the fundamental idea of the state, but also the relationship between majorities and minorities. I was from New York, where one could hear any language spoken. But everyone was supposed to be functional in English, and if they weren’t, well, that was their own problem.
Not so in Estonia. Here people are more polite about such matters. And my friend didn’t want to upset her neighbors, with whom I understand she has had some significant communication problems. Maybe there was a question about who takes out the trash, or where it would be possible to park one’s car. Whatever the issue, the inability of one Tallinner to make herself understood to another Tallinner is frustrating to her.
Now, this friend is from Hiiumaa, the most Estonian place in Estonia. Had she grown up in Tallinn, she probably wouldn’t have these communication problems. Just observing my other friends in Tallinn — those who probably never needed a Russian class — has enlightened me to their linguistic skills. They remind me of cartoon superheroes in a way, their multilingualism is part of their secret identity. The way Bruce Wayne was a playboy by day and Batman by night, my friends can be Estonians to me but Russians to their neighbors. It comes as a surprise to me every time, to learn of an acquaintance’s secret Russian talent. Everything is in Estonian, but when the lady down the hall asks a question about the plumbing, Katrin suddenly becomes Ekaterina and “Jah, jah, jah,” becomes “Da, da, da.”
For Estonians, such situations are what they call “normaalne.” But they offended me in part, not only as an American who has read Mart Laar’s history books, but as someone who had made an effort to learn the world’s second smallest fully functional language.
“How the hell do you expect that lady to learn Estonian if you always speak to her in Russian?” I have said to more than one Estonian. But when I pester my Estonian friends about indulging their Russian neighbors’ monolingualism, they usually shrug. Estonians relish efficiency, you see. They are more interested in getting things done than linguistic power politics, they say.
Still, I think there is actually more to it than that. There are hidden elements of compassion and fear in the Estonians’ approach to communicating with their monolingual Russian neighbors. Compassion in that they feel bad that this great nationality should have to learn their small and unusual language, even to acquire a passport, and fear because of historical reasons, the way most of them arrived a few decades ago, and because the leader of their former mother country is a Judo-practicing former KGB man who nurtures a paranoid world view, and who would probably like nothing more than to see Mart Laar and the entire leadership of IRL in jail alongside Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Yulia Tymoshenko, on corruption charges, of course.
Living in Estonia, I acquired this mix of pity and fear for the local Russian community and maintained it. Until one fateful day at the supermarket.
On that day, my cart was full with Estonian produce, küüslauguvõi, leib, mereväik, and all the other wonderful things you people eat and drink. No, there was no sült, (and there never is!) I was just about to unload my groceries at the checkout line, when an old man in a leather cap cut in front of me and started unloading his. I tried to flank him to regain my old slot in line, but he made some angry gestures with his arms and grunted what I took were some Russian obscenities at me and continued on his way. Of course, he managed to evince some pained beginner’s level Russian from the stuttering Estonian cashier, and then he was on his way, another old asshole grunting and pushing his way into the abyss.
Something changed in me that day. Something hardened, something crystallized. I lost all of my compassion and all of my fear. What was left was pure self centeredness, the same disregard for others that the Russian man in the supermarket had shown me, a true foreigner in his land. For years I had thought about Estonia’s Russian “issue” and argued with wannabe intellectuals and propagandists on websites about official languages and citizenship laws. In all of my reading and arguing, I had hoped that I would happen upon a solution that would make every human being in the universe, or at least Estonia, happy. Why not to adopt the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages? Or why not to ease citizenship requirements for certain groups? If it could keep meddling bureaucrats out of Estonia’s affairs, and keep the local minority happy, then wouldn’t it all be worth it, not to mention more Scandinavian-like and egalitarian?
But after that day in the supermarket, I just couldn’t be bothered to care. I thought of all the nights I had spent with my notebook watching Andrus Ansip on the news and copying down his magnificent vocabulary, rewriting the words ten times so that they would stick in my mind. And then I thought of all those disenfranchised monolingual Russians in Tallinn watching Russian state-owned media and wondered if one of them had ever lost a second of sleep over the integration and accomodation of real newcomers to Estonia, people like me and Abdul Turay and João Lopes Marques and the many others who write columns about them who are living just next door. I thought of the asshole at the supermarket, cursing at me and bullying the checkout girl. I didn’t care anymore if he had citizenship or spoke Estonian or felt at home in Estonia or was waiting for the Red Army tanks to return. He was on his own, as was I, in this little cold harsh land.
Indifference. It’s supposed to be the scourge of mankind, the very opposite of good Christian empathy. But in my case, it was liberating. It felt great. I would have opened the windows and sang, if it hadn’t been so cold outside. A vast rock called the “Russian question” had been dislodged from my chest. And for the first time, Estonia’s Russians stopped being a “question” or an “issue” or a “situation” to ponder or worry about and argue on the Internet about. All Estonian Russians became merely individuals to me, after that encounter in the supermarket. Some were upstanding citizens, some of them were assholes, but they were all different, and there was preciously little I could do about it either way. They were all just people living their lives, worthy of equal respect and courtesy (and intense disdain, if one happened to cut me off in the supermarket).
It was around this time that my first book came out, and it displaced a volume entitled Selgeltnägija by an individual named Nastja from the top of the bestseller lists. My friend told me in private that some Estonians were happy to see it happen, not only “because she’s a Russian,” but “because that witch has been number one for too long.” This caught my interest. Who was this Nastja? What was that book about? Apparently, she really was a witch, but there are a lot of witches in Estonia. So, I think that her fame was at least in part due to her wholly non-Estonian image. And I have to say that I liked her. I liked the insolent look on her face on that book cover, her stormy eyes, her frisbee-sized earrings. She was just so refreshingly … Russian, so different from the milquetoast Estonians I had to contend with day after day, a ray of light in the winter gray.
And yet she was also an Estonian, wasn’t she? How could anyone challenge that? Nastja, as I found out much later, was competent enough in the language that I saw her laugh at some inside joke about men and reindeer antlers on a talk show. Not that I am an nationalist, but it always feels good when I see that someone else has wasted her time learning the second-smallest fully functional language in the world. And history and politics and communication troubles aside, I was was really happy that someone like Nastja lived in Estonia. She made it much more interesting.