Estonia: War of words over Russian

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon May 14 00:29:42 UTC 2007


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>>From the Baltimore Sun
A war of words over Russian Former Soviet republics limit use of language
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By Erika Niedowski
Sun Foreign Reporter

May 12, 2007

NARVA, Estonia -- In this quiet Estonian city on a wide river separating the
small Baltic nation from its mammoth Russian neighbor, the official state
language, in practical terms, is also a foreign one. One hardly seems to
need Estonian in Narva, where the majority of residents are ethnic Russians
and where ordering a taxi, getting medicine at the pharmacy, even
instruction in school, are done in Russian.

The use of Estonian is so limited here that many have a similarly limited
ability to speak it. That, the Estonian government says, is the problem.
Estonia is a staging ground in a conflict over the Russian language, a
conflict steeped in cultural identity, politics and national pride. The
fight is being waged not just in this nation of 1.3 million people - where
Russian is the native language of nearly one-third of the population - but
elsewhere on former Soviet soil, where far fewer people speak Russian since
the Soviet Union's fall.

In Estonia, the state has adopted an education reform requiring
Russian-language schools to switch to Estonian instruction in some grades
and subjects. A more extreme version of that policy in neighboring Latvia
prompted protests. Members of a radical Russian party set fire to Latvia's
Education Ministry in 2004, calling the policy "genocide" against Russians.
Similarly, in Ukraine, the country's Ukrainian and Russian speakers are
sparring over what status to afford the once-dominant Russian language, even
as Russia's political influence there has waned. Even in Kazakhstan, a
strong ally of Russia where the lingua franca is Russian, officials are
trying to do more to support the development of the Kazakh language.

With an estimated 285 million Russian speakers worldwide, including 160
million to 170 million native speakers, Russian is the fourth-most commonly
spoken language, behind Chinese, English and Spanish. Russian is hardly in
danger of extinction, but after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, most of
the former republics did what Boris N. Yeltsin, then the Russian president,
urged Russia's republics to do in 1991: They took as much sovereignty as
they could. In many cases, that meant rejecting all things Russian,
including the language. An estimated 70 million fewer people speak Russian
now than did in 1991.

"Russian turned from a great and powerful language into a foreign one," said
Yadviga Yuferova, deputy editor in chief of the Russian newspaper Rossiskaya
Gazeta and chair of an international contest to promote Russian abroad.
Language is hardly just vocabulary and grammar; it is also one of a nation's
most cherished signs of identity, even more than an anthem or flag.
"Language is the basis of national life," said Eleonora Mitrofanova, head of
the Russian Foreign Ministry's Russian Foreign Center, which operates
language centers in 43 countries.

In Russia's case, language is also a sign of international influence. That
is why Moscow has pushed for Russian to be made a state or official language
throughout most of the former Soviet Union. It has succeeded only in
Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

But just as Russia has promoted its language in the post-Soviet era -
President Vladimir V. Putin declared 2007 the Year of the Russian Language -
so has Estonia, where Russian has been relegated to a foreign tongue like
English or German.

Despite being neighbors, the two nations are worlds apart: They are at odds
over whether the Soviet army freed or occupied Estonia during and after
World War II, a question at the center of a dispute over a Soviet-era
monument in the Estonian capital, Tallinn.

Russia has sullenly watched Estonia and other former satellites edge closer
to the West. Many ethnic Russians have been left stateless, ineligible for
citizenship because they don't know the Estonian language.

Such differences and long-held prejudices continue to manifest themselves in
a clash of mother tongues.

"They fought for their independence, and they want to show to the world, to
their own people, that they are self-sufficient," Mitrofanova said of the
majority of former Soviet republics. "And this self-sufficiency is, of
course, connected with one's own language."

The painted sign inside the front door reads "Paju Kool," welcoming visitors
in a colorful swirl of letters, one of the few indications that this is an
Estonian school.

The children scuttling through the halls of the three-story brick building
in Narva are speaking Russian. Save for Estonian language class - and, as of
fairly recently, art - instruction is in Russian. The principal, Lyudmila
Smirnova, and most of the teachers are native Russian speakers.

But starting this fall, Paju Kool and other schools like it will have to add
a subject a year in Estonian; the goal is 60 percent Estonian instruction.

The argument in favor of the reform is that students in Estonia, regardless
of their parents' ethnic background, should know the state language, which
would make them more competitive in Estonian universities and careers.

Many ethnic Russians see discrimination. The change, in addition to
compromising the quality of education - most Russian-speaking teachers don't
know Estonian language well enough to teach it - will dilute Russian
culture, they say.

Smirnova seems resigned to the change, even though she doesn't have enough
Estonian-speaking teachers to implement it. It is hard to tell whether she
thinks it is the right thing to do because her 390 students need more
Estonian or because the law tells her they do.

Vladimir Kalinkin, a retired Russian-speaking social studies teacher who
spent 13 years at Narva's Russian-language Kesklinna Gymnasium, doubts that
Russian-language schools will survive.

As part of earlier national reform efforts, the principal there introduced
Estonian instruction in some subjects, too quickly in Kalinkin's view.
Students practically drowned in the material, he said, and many left for
schools not yet teaching in Estonian.

Kalinkin thinks that teaching in the Russian language has dropped sharply.
"It means people lose their culture and their identity, he said.

"Integration is the union of two cultures," he said. "Assimilation means the
destruction of one culture by another."

Estonia has passed laws promoting its national language, which is closely
related to Finnish and is considered one of the hardest to learn.

Speakers of Russian who hold certain government and public-service posts
must be proficient in Estonian. Teachers in Russian-language schools must
have an "intermediate" knowledge of Estonian. Officials from the Language
Inspectorate test their proficiency in on-site interviews.

The inspectorate's head, Ilmar Tomusk, said many Russian-speaking teachers
and others obtained proficiency certificates in the 1990s without
demonstrating proficiency, a situation the inspectorate is trying to remedy.

The division has tested about 2,000 of the 4,500 Russian-speaking teachers,
and 80 percent did not meet the standard, Tomusk said.

He dismissed the complaint that his inspectors are like "inquisitors," which
is what Kalinkin calls them (Kalinkin was once fined the equivalent of $17
after an interview revealed his lack of Estonian). Tomusk said the issue has
been politicized and distorted.

"Every Russian has a right to speak Russian in Estonia. It's not forbidden.
It has never been forbidden," he said.

Russia is sponsoring more than 1,000 events in 76 countries as part of the
Year of the Russian Language, which began at a linguistic exposition in
Paris, where Russian was lauded as the "first language of communication in

In his recent state of the nation address, Putin said the Russian language
"preserves an entire layer of truly global achievements."

"As the common heritage of many peoples, the Russian language will never
become the language of hatred or enmity, xenophobia or isolationism," Putin
said. "Looking after the Russian language and expanding the influence of
Russian culture are crucial social and political issues."

Andrei Krasnoglazov agrees. As director of the Pushkin Language Center in
Tallinn, it is his job to promote Russian the way the state does Estonian.

He is an ethnic Russian, still a Russian citizen, who married an Estonian
and speaks Estonian. His daughters, ages 9 and 13, attend Estonian schools
but are fluent in the native languages of their mother and father.

"There was a period when everybody said, 'We don't need Russian.' They
refused to teach it and learn it in schools," Krasnoglazov said. "Now, the
generation that doesn't know Russian grew up. They are our clients, because
they now need Russian."

They are businessmen, notaries, border guards and military men. A group of
officers from the Estonian Defense Ministry enrolled in classes at the
center, which teaches 500 students a year.

Still, Krasnoglazov knows that deep divides remain. "The Estonian people are
allergic to Russian," he said. "It's in their blood."

 erika.niedowski at<,0,4526743.htmlstory?>

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