Brave New Estonia
By Abdul Turay
Published Postimees 21 February 2010
When my editor called me to write a piece about Estonian Independence day my first thought was: “why me?”
I am aware there are a lot of people interested in reading what I have to say about this, that and the other, but surely a big patriotic event like Independence Day is best covered by native writers?
But then I realised, everything that can be written about Estonian Independence Day and the new national awakening Estonia currently is going through has already been exhaustively covered.
I can imagine the words.
“Estonians fought to preserve the nation’s freedom, Estonians must still fight to preserve the nation’s freedom.”
What else is there left to say?
Well actually looking at it from as an outsider there is quite a lot to say. I can say this with authority. Patriots from other countries envy Estonia. This is an exciting time to be alive and be Estonian.
To us outsiders what is going on in Estonia is an heroic human endeavour, it’s nation building, it’s “a brave new world” in the sense Shakespeare originally meant it.
Let's see how they do things in other countries. I'll use my country, because I know it.
Britain doesn't have a national day. We have the Queen’s birthday but nobody knows when it is, and nobody cares.
Wear a British flag in London and you are liable to get beaten up. Yes really ...I knew of a French guy who went down to the Notting Hill Carnival in a Union Flag T-shirt. He got the crap beaten out of him.
I have an army friend who has been in two wars. I have never seen him in uniform, soldiers are not allowed to walk around with their uniforms on, for fear of being attacked by pacifists. Pacifists can be a pretty violent bunch in England.
In British towns you rarely see the Union flag. If you do, it’s usually some hotel or public building; somewhere it has to be displayed. In Scotland you never see it.
Sport divides the nation, the Scots cheer when England loses. There used to be so-called Home Nations football games between England, Scotland Wales, Northern Ireland. They had to stop it because at every match fans would riot.
Estonia has soldiers confidently and proudly walking down the street fully kitted out. A flag in every home, a long list of patriotic songs which are sung with gusty at patriotic song festivals.
Not everybody is going to be celebrating Independence Day though.
A friend said to me that he found the nationalistic sentiments of many of his countrymen ugly and distasteful.
He described an incident one night, about the time of the troubles in Georgia, when he came across couple of girls merrily drunk on Freedom Square and shouting at the moon in English: “We’re Estonians and we hate Russians.”
“They can’t have been older than 17 or 18; it always amazes me that it is very young people, too young to even remember the Soviet times can be so angry, and so full of hate,” he said.
A student I teach, an exceptional bright young man, described the feeling of togetherness as so superficial as to be almost bizarre. He said suddenly people are holding hands and singing with the same neighbour that they quarrelled with two days ago.
“Eestlane olen ja Eestlaseks jään.”
He said you can be sure that in a few days they will be quarrelling again.
Some people are more prosaic in the objection.
“Estonia may be free, but I’m not free because I am poor,” a female friend told me.
“What good is national freedom. I can’t eat it, I can’t use it to pay my rent,” she said.
Besides is Estonia really free? If the banks are owned by Sweden and most industry including this paper are owned by other Scandinavian interests, who really controls the country?
Is it even possible for any country to be truly sovereign in a globalised world?
Anybody reading about the history of nationalism is bound to be cynical. Nationalism evolved out of war and intolerance and has been responsible for genocides as we have seen in Rwanda, Serbia and other places.
But nations are just another way of organising people into groups. People have always lived in groups. Nationalism is neither good or bad it just is.
When my father stepped off the boat six decades ago he came to a Britain as poor and as hopeless as Estonia was in the early 90s.
As the saying goes, he learned three things. “The streets weren’t paved with gold, the streets weren’t paved at all, and he was expected to pave them.”
Despite being a scholarly man, my father and mother ended up doing factory work. In the process they rebuilt the country. It was only later in life that my father started to do an academic job and started to make a lot of money. Millions of ordinary people did the same. It’s the ordinary tale of an ordinary man.
When I think of my father, I think of a friend, an electrician, a true blue-collar Estonian. He just lost his job. He didn't complain, he just put a note off his car the next day “willing to clear icicles” taking advantage of the wintry conditions. It's people like him who make the county great.
In countries like Germany, France, Britain and Holland the process of rebuilding took as least until the early 70's , longer if you count the time it has taken to catch up with the United States.
It’s been 19 years since independence, so Estonia is at the point that Britain was in the 1960s. Britain was a dreary place then. But at hat time America started to take Western Europeans seriously again. It was just before the British Invasion.
It's about time we in Western Europe started to start New Europe seriously.
Of course there are problems. You have politicians wrong-footing people. Instead of talking about building a fairer society they were setting impossible goals about making the country rich. Do you remember when Estonia was supposed to be in the top five richest countries in Europe? Ironically this idea sounded kind of Soviet. Like one of Stalin's five year plans. Merciful the recession killed off that nonsense.
Also how to deal with the country's Russian-speaking minorities.
You don’t need me to tell you that there is no quick fix to this problem.
And there is the falling population. Immigration can not solve this problem and the Government campaign's for people to “get busy” as we say in English, has been only partially successful.
But at least you have a project. Estonia is like a man that is building a grand house. He may face setbacks from time to time but ultimately he will finish the task.
As anyone who has built a house will tell you, it is a tremendously satisfying process.
You see people going about their daily lives they are are just trying to make ends, to take care of their family and provide for their children, they don’t think that they are part of any heroic human endeavour. They don't think of themselves as heroes, but they are, they really are.