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Russian Riots in Estonia, Estonian Humour in English

posted by dru Geography: Europe Estonia Topics: colonialism, humour

May 2, 2007

Russian Riots in Estonia, Estonian Humour in English

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Estonia isn't in the news much, but after the government decided to implement a controversial law to move a Soviet memorial to soldiers who died fighting the Nazis, and unearth the bodies of several soldiers buried near the monument--which is referred to in the Estonian press simply as pronkssõdur, or bronze soldier--an international furor has ensued, with German, US, Russian and other governments weighing in.

In response, hundreds of--one assumes--members of Estonia's sizable Russian community have rioted in the streets, "clashed," as they say, with police, and looted stores and kiosks downtown.

The most important thing to know about the riots is... apparently, how hilarious some Estonians find them, even as the Estonian Ambassador is attacked by a Putin-backing "youth movement" in Moscow and their country is receiving more international coverage than it has in years.

And that leads to the second most important thing, which is that everyone in Estonia born before, say, 1982, remembers the Soviet occupation. More than likely, they have family members or at least know of people who were shipped off to Siberia or Russia and didn't come back. In a country of 1.5 million, 42,000 is a lot of people to have shipped off, especially with a 60 per cent survival rate. I won't make a list of the other forms of oppression and suppression, but suffice to say that such lists exist.

In my view, Estonians are, at least in principle, entirely justified in removing such a symbol from the downtown of their capital city.

What makes the situation more complicated is the situation of the Russian-speakers who were brought in during the Soviet Era, and more recent Russian-speaking immigrants. Many of them don't have citizenship, and from what I can tell, form the bulk of Estonia's underclass. While the country has become relatively economically successful, inequality is also on the rise, and thousands of people live in third world conditions, in squats and (literally) crumbling apartments.

Tensions between the Russian-speaking minority, which makes up roughly one third of the current population, and the Estonian majority are, well, tense, and a constant topic of discussion in the country. How to balance the rights of immigrants with the right to cultural self-preservation and the fact that many of the Russians are there as a result of a Soviet policy aimed at, er, phasing out Estonian culture?

My very tentative impression is that the removal of the pronkssõdur just isn't a productive thing to do. It has the predictable effect of making the Russian minority feel under attack, and inflaming hatred based on language and ethnicity. Any cultural dignity that has been regained is quickly overshadowed by the significance and omnipresence of the conflict that has been stoked.

There are much more delicate rhetorical avenues available to those who want to address the legacy of the Soviet occupation without taking up a symbolic assault on the Russian minority. A perceived assault that Russia will use to make threatening gestures at Estonia, and more.

I haven't read enough to know for certain, but my guess is that what the pronkssõdur debacle does accomplish is polarize the (Estonian-speaking) electorate in favour of nationalist, right-leaning parties. Given that one centrist politician has, in his own inept, self-gratifying way, criticized the manoeuvre along those lines, I'll go with that hypothesis for now.

All this leads back to why I post four images created by Estonians making fun of the rioters. The fake ads illustrate both the animosity of the current ethnic conflagration and the sensibility that comes out of forty years of occupation.

In the Estonian feature film Malev, Estonia's war of liberation is treated as a comedic, almost slapstick, Braveheart-style plot (instead of being impaled on long spears, invaders are knocked out when they step on hay rakes). It's hard not to have a sense of humour about your own cultural self-preservation when you've been overrun by pretty much every eastern-European conqueror in the last 2,000 years. When you're a tiny country with no natural defenses, you learn to roll with the punches (while occasionally dealing them yourself).

However they feel about the pronkssõdur being moved, some young Estonians clearly see the humour in the utimate futility of politicians' grand gestures in standing up to Russia. The backing of the EU and the US is holding them off, more or less, but if that backing were to stop, Russia could take over very easily.

What's also funny, but likely unintentional, is how the fake ads convey the ubiquity of capitalism in all of this. On some level, Estonians know as well as anyone that acts of resistance, no matter their provenance, can be very quickly commodified and sold back to their originators.


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