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The fate of the Russian minority in Post-Soviet Estonia

Twenty years ago the Baltic States regained their independence from the Soviet Union. They thereby inherited many things: a dysfunctioning economy on the verge of collapse, an authoritarian political system suffering from widespread corruption, and a highly polarized nation divided by ethnicity and language proficiency. The Singing Revolution may have brought the Baltic States independence, but this was only the beginning of their relief. What followed 1991 was a slow and painful process that not only involved a political and economic transformation, but more importantly the collective embracement of a new identity. In 1991 the Balts switched allegiances: East became West, Russia became Europe. Yet not all parts of Baltic life could be so easily interchanged from Russia to Europe. There remained the minority issue. What to do with the Russo Baltic minorities, who composed up to 34% of the population, who were often poorly integrated in society and who showed no inclination of leaving? This question has been answered differently over time by Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, partially in response to economic realities, partially in response to EU and Russian demands for minority protection. This essay investigates the situation in Estonia.

Hester Borm

Origin of the ethnic conflict

The Soviet period significantly altered the demographic composition of the Baltic States. Before the Second World War Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had large Polish, German, Jewish, Russian and Swedish minorities. After the Second World War most of these minorities had disappeared or migrated, together with a large part of the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian populace itself, which either perished in the troublesome 1940-1944 period or was sent to labor camps in Russia. To compensate for labor shortages in the Baltics and to enhance integration, the Soviet-Union started a program of enforced mass migration to the Baltics. People from Byelorussia, Ukraine and Russia were imported to live in depopulated areas and to work in factories, often in regions or circumstances relatively isolated from local Balts. Most arrived in the late 1940s – 1960s and only spoke Russian. Russian was the state-language throughout the Soviet period and Balts were forced to learn it. The Russian minorities generally expressed little interest in learning Estonian, Lithuanian or Latvian and few were able to hold a conversation.

table ethic minorities estonia, galapas zomer 2012, hester borm

In the 1980s, when the entire Soviet Union was suffering from a severe economic crisis followed by large scale political turmoil, Balts and Balto-Russians jointly founded the independence movements, Balts hoping for socio-economic, political and cultural reforms, Balto-Russians expecting a reinstatement of interwar minority-rights and economic improvement, through alignment with the West. Both groups were highly conscious of the potential ethnic conflict lingering in the air, but were unwilling to discuss it openly. Only after 1991, when the Baltic States succeeded in gaining independence, and when they opted for a turn West: to Europe, to capitalism and to democracy, did the Russian minorities suddenly become a political issue. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all underwent an ethnocentric period during which they reinvented themselves, from Soviet citizens, to a European fronteer to (currently) an important bridge between East and West. Particularly in Estonia, which had the largest Russian minority of all Baltic States did this period cause tension between the groups.


Case study: Estonia

Estonia opted for a combination of assimilation and integration policies for its Russian-speaking populace, but the success of its policies depended greatly on other factors. The country can be roughly divided into three areas: the north where Russian remains the dominant language, the capital Tallinn where Russian and Estonian are on equal footing and the south where Estonian is the language of conduct. In all three areas the same governmental policies have been adopted with varying results.


Citizenship and naturalization

Baltic states, galapas, zomer 2012Citizenship was automatically granted to all speakers of the Estonian language; to Russian-speakers who were residents of Estonia prior to the Second World War and their successors; and to Russians married to Estonians. Other groups had to meet language, income and residency requirements to be naturalized as Estonian citizens. Yet few Russian-speakers were able to meet these requirements. People without Estonian citizenship were only allowed to participate in local elections and could not take public office. In the early to mid 1990s there was a widespread expectation that the Russians, Byelorussians and Ukrainians who had arrived during the Soviet period would return to Russia or other CIS-countries. The Estonian government actively promoted this return migration, but to no avail. The great majority of the Russophones decided to stay  in Estonia. Some accepted Russian citizenship, but many others remained stateless. In response to this substantial group on non- Estonian permanent residents, the Estonian government eventually adopted special integration programs. The first program started in 1998 and was followed by a more substantial “Integration of Estonian Society 2000-2007” program. These programs focus on language proficiency and education.


Language and education

Estonian was declared the only official language of Estonia, even though a large part of its population was unable to communicate in this language. This meant that all public communication had to be conducted in Estonian. In the first years after independence the government was sometimes accommodating to potential language deficiencies from Russian-speakers, but with time to government’s position hardened and Russian became an increasingly marginalized language. A similar development occurred in education, where Estonia received renewed pre-eminence. After 1998 the government began to actively interfere with language policies in Russian schools and they forced the schools to promote Estonian as the language of conduct. Primary schools were permitted to remain Russian speaking as long as they would devote a significant amount of time to the teaching of Estonian. Secondary schools gradually had to switch to Estonian all together. Universities also exclusively taught in Estonian. The Estonian government argued such measures were necessary to enable Russian-speaking children to fully participate in life in Estonia.


National identity and the past

The declaration of independence of Estonia from Russia in 1991 called for an immediate, radical reinterpretation of both identity and history. The interwar-period was idealized by many Estonians as a time of prosperity, liberty and peaceful coexistence amongst the various ethnic groups. But that was when 88.2% of the population still consisted of Estonians, instead of the 61.5 of the total that was left in 1989. At this moment most memories of the interwar period had died out, either through the suppression of certain ideas or narratives in the Soviet period or, more commonly, through natural ageing. Estonia had been ruled from abroad for fifty years and few could still recall much from life prior to that period. What they remembered was often an idealized past, not a blueprint for the future. Besides, much had changed in the world in this 50-year period. The generous minority rights granted in 1925 (which guaranteed Estonia’s most significant minorities the right to independently decide how they wanted to arrange their own national-cultural matters) would soon prove to be debilitating the Russian minorities in Estonia, by not encouraging integration in wider Estonian society. As they were not required to intermingle with Estonians or learn the nation’s official language, they were far less able to compete for jobs or enter universities and were thus facing a comparative disadvantage in Post- Soviet Estonia, precisely for the interwar minority rights granted. Yet it would take several years for  the consequences of this new reality under old regulation to sink in into society.

First Estonia underwent (and is still undergoing) a process of reorientation towards the West, that called for the diminution of the Soviet period and all its remnants, particularly the Russian minorities that arrived after the Second World War. An ambitious program of national, regional and local campaigns was launched to promote Estonian identity as Baltic, Nordic and Western. The European Union sometimes (partially) funded these programs. Especially in the culturally porous border areas was this project taken on with much vigour. Through official speeches, a transformation of the commemorative landscape, socio-historical publications, maps, tourist brochures and museums an attempt was made to impose a new narrative, which focused on the interwar independence and the pre-Russian period of Swedish rule (1561-1721). That Estonia had been governed by Russia or the Soviet Union from 1721-1918 and from 1940-1941 and 1944-1991 was well known, but the historical focus switched to other areas and periods. In alignment with the political and economic reorientation towards the West, history also turned westwards.

WOII Controversy

A key dispute amongst Russian minorities and ethnic Estonians evolved over the interpretation of the Second World War. Did Estonia voluntarily join the Soviet Union, as had been claimed by Russia, or were they occupied? For Estonians it was important that this period received ample attention, because it legitimized their call for independence and represented a particularly difficult and controversial period in their history. For Russians on the other hand, it was an important moment of glory. Many Russians perished in the Second World War in the attempt to liberate other nationsfrom German aggression. That some local groups would complain against abuse of power by Russian soldiers was unfortunate and just, but given the extreme circumstances under which they operated, not entirely surprising. They therefore insisted on a different interpretation of history.

A key place where the dual struggle for language and history took place was at education facilities. Many Russo-Estonians felt estranged from the new history version, that was so clearly aimed against them. Had these fifty years under Soviet dominion really been purely negative? Did Estonians not recognize the malignancy of Nazi-Germany that their ancestors saved them from?

Perhaps it would be erroneous to consider ethnicity the only defining dichotomy in Estonia. It was clearly relevant, but did not stand alone. A reorientation was needed to come to peace with past, present and future. Unfortunately for the Russo-Estonians, this involved an exclusionary phase of ethnocentrism.


More information?

Ronald G. Suny, The Soviet Experience. Russia, the USSR, and the successor states (1998)
Paul Kolstoe, Russians in the Former Soviet Republics (London 1995)

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