[lg policy] Soviet Legacy Lingers as Estonia Defines Its People

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Mon Aug 16 14:03:56 UTC 2010

August 15, 2010
Soviet Legacy Lingers as Estonia Defines Its People


TALLINN, Estonia — Oleg Bessedin’s main travel document is called an
“alien’s passport,” as if it were a gag item. But it is all that he
has when he ventures abroad — a reminder of his conflicted
relationship with this country, and of the explosive ethnic tensions
that endure across the former Soviet Union, nearly two decades after
Communism’s fall. Mr. Bessedin, 36, an ethnic Russian, was born and
raised in Estonia, and lives here with his family. Legally, though, he
is not Estonian, nor a citizen of anywhere else. He is among 100,000
people in Estonia, most of them ethnic Russians, who are stateless, as
if they were refugees in their own homeland. “I love my country, and I
have done a whole lot for my country,” Mr. Bessedin, a television
producer, said. “But my country has not done a whole lot for me.” He
blames the Estonian authorities for ostracizing him, and they in turn
blame the former Soviet masters for the mess they left behind.

Whoever is at fault, deep friction is one legacy of Soviet ethnic and
demographic policies that moved millions of people around — and
shifted many borders — in order to cement Kremlin control over a vast
patchwork of territories. The fallout endures, and the post-Soviet
countries are constantly confronting it. Just scan recent headlines:
Major rioting breaks out in areas of Kyrgyzstan that Stalin gave to
the Kyrgyz, but are still populated by Uzbeks; a firefight erupts over
an enclave disputed between Armenia and Azerbaijan; Georgia asserts
that Russia wants to go to war again in support of two separatist
territories, as it did two years ago; Moldova demands that Russian
troops leave its own breakaway region.

Here in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, the slow burn offers a chance
to see just how the process has worked — both in history and on an
individual level. Relations between Estonia’s government and its
Russian minority have long been strained. And if the past is any
indication, it would not take much to set off disturbances with
repercussions in Moscow and Washington. In joining NATO, Estonia
brought the alliance to the Russian border — much to the Kremlin’s

In 2007, there was a brief spate of violence in Tallinn when ethnic
Russians protested the removal of a Soviet war memorial. In the last
year, Russia has criticized Estonia over its treatment of ethnic
Russians. Estonia has expressed fears of new encroachment by Moscow
and recently raised alarms after Russia stationed missiles nearby. The
citizenship policy has been perhaps the most provocative issue; in
some sense, it represents the Estonian government’s pointed response
to what Stalin wrought.

Before Estonia was seized by the Soviets in 1940, its population was
largely ethnic Estonian; resentment was strong enough that many sided
with the Germans when Hitler invaded in 1941. In subsequent decades,
to assure future loyalty, the Soviet government settled many ethnic
Russians and others here. Today nearly half of the people in Tallinn —
not all of them ethnic Russians — speak Russian as their mother

With independence in the early 1990s, the government has reversed
Russification. It mandated the Estonian language in schools and
government offices. And it adopted a policy that left people like Mr.
Bessedin stateless: With few exceptions, Estonia granted citizenship
only to people who had it before the Soviet takeover, as well as their
descendants. Latvia is the only other former Soviet republic with a
similar rule.

Non-Estonians can obtain citizenship by passing a language test, but
that is difficult for many ethnic Russians, who felt no need to learn
Estonian during Soviet times. (There is also a civics examination, in

Estonian society, in other words, has undergone a turnabout, and
ethnic Russians have lost their privileged status, just as the Soviet
collapse has reordered ethnic relations across the Soviet space.

Yet Kristina Kallas, an analyst at the Institute of Baltic Studies in
Tallinn, said she has been struck by the attitudes of many young
ethnic Russians, who act as if they had the stature of their

“The memories and reflections are handed down to the next generation,”
Ms. Kallas said. “Even when we speak about the second or third
generation of Russians in Estonia, you can see that they refuse to
identify themselves or their ancestors as immigrants. It’s not just
that the older generation dies, and the legacy disappears.”

About 7.5 percent of Estonia’s 1.35 million people are stateless.
Their “alien’s passports” allow them to enter many European countries
without visas, just like Estonian citizens, though they tend to face
more bureaucratic hurdles. In Estonia, they cannot vote in federal
elections or hold some jobs.

Ethnic Russians in their 30s and 40s seem most disaffected, as if
adrift between cultures. Some have successfully gone through the
citizenship process. But others have refused as a protest, even if
they speak Estonian.

“The government is not for Estonia; it is only against Russia,” said
Igor Matrosov, a software engineer. “Right now, I could become a
citizen. But I have been betrayed.”

The government is encouraging integration by offering language classes
and trying to improve job opportunities for ethnic Russians. Estonia’s
president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, has defended the citizenship rules.

“As for the language examination and history examination, these are
requirements in every country,” he told a Russian newspaper.

The counterargument, of course, is that elsewhere such policies are
intended for immigrants. Ethnic Russians in Estonia their whole lives
are not exactly immigrants. But what are they?

“We feel like we are not Russian — and we are not Estonian,” said
Vladimir Dzhumkov, a stateless theater director. “We are stuck in the
middle. And both sides are taking advantage of us.”



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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