Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Roadkill Café

Tartu is a wonderful city. Its spirit infected me when I first stepped off the train. The smell of tar from the railway station, the wooden map that showed the entire city yet offered no street names and was thus utterly useless. I looked forward to getting lost on its streets, and I felt safe doing so. More than a decade later, I still feel safe wandering the tree alleys, cobblestoned roads and grassy parks that dot the town.

As I got to know the history of this city on the Emajõgi River, I heard hard-to-believe claims that Tartu has been destroyed fifty-five times throughout its history. I can’t see how that’s possible, but it was largely destroyed by the Great Northern War and the Second World War. If you stand on Town Hall Square and look toward the big pink Town Hall, it’s mind-boggling to know that everything to the left of and behind City Hall is a product of the Twentieth Century. I’ve seen the photos that show the wasteland after the Nazis and Soviets rumbled in the bog that is Tartu. This place is no stranger to violence.

During the Soviet occupation, Tartu “happily” hosted a massive airbase that was home to the bombers that would nuke Europe in the event of a failure to communicate between a couple old white guys in far-off cities east and west of here. For that reason, it was a “closed city”, meaning you couldn’t just come and go as you pleased. These days, you can buy a used car and test-drive it on that old runway. There are plans in the works to plop down a museum in the same place. A really, really long museum.

One of my favorite things is that instead of monuments to the people who have interfered with and intervened on behalf of Estonian history—warriors, I mean—you instead have monuments to scientists and artists. Well, there is Barclay de Tolly’s bust, and a General Laidoner on the other side of town, and Kalevipoeg, who looks suspiciously like Tõnis Lukas, the Minister of Education. De Tolly is an interesting character. A Lithuanian-born, German-speaking Scotsman with a French name who was raised in Livonia (now Estonia and Latvia) and who fought for Russia and invaded France.

Estonia has been ruled by Sweden, Denmark, Poland, Germany, Russia and, of course, Estonia. I’m probably forgetting a couple as well. There have been two successful drives for independence. Estonians obviously don’t like people telling them what to do, which is fully understandable. I wouldn’t want anyone telling me to fight in a war I’m not personally vested in. I wouldn’t want anyone telling me to not question the nature of my government. I wouldn’t want anyone telling me I have to live with people I don’t like.

But we don’t really live in that world anymore. At least Estonia doesn’t. It’s free. The people of Estonia are free to think and act as they choose. The people of Tartu are free to create their own image. Yet no one is free of the consequences of their actions. If you do something, you will have a reputation for doing that thing. If you get caught driving drunk just once, you will be known as a drunk driver for an awfully long time. I’m satisfied with Tartu’s current international image—that of a blind, drunk driver who got caught twice, and where people have sex on top of the bridges in broad daylight. Some local students placed a bed with an inflatable sex doll in the same place. If that isn’t a great sense of humor, I don’t know what is. Maybe we should all dress in bandages today, to mock ourselves for our recent actions.

Every city in the world has been victimized by the actions of its own citizens. A foreign tourist getting mugged in New York City would hardly make the news. A gang-related shooting in Compton, California? That’s just the world we live in. Anyone who doesn’t like it is free to up and leave.

Or you can stand up and say, “Wait a minute, this is not right. This is not the world I want.” As a foreigner, I cannot say that about Tartu. Only its citizens can, right?

I am free to leave Tartu, yet I choose to stay. My children are Estonian, and I make damned sure to teach them about the histories of two countries, to be proud of two peoples. I choose to raise my family in Tartu, Estonia. And I choose to stand up, have my voice heard: We will not tolerate violence in our city, on our streets.

A lot of people might disagree with the use of “we” and “our” in that statement, and that’s their right. But Tartu is not a closed city. It is part of the world, and the world should be embraced.

There have been several beatings of foreigners over the years. Nothing anyone would refer to as an actual problem, because the ratio of Estonians and Russians getting the crap kicked out of them is undoubtedly the same. Yet in the past few days, there have been three incidents of violence against foreigners.

The Postimees newspaper today wrote about a fight outside Pattaya, a local nightclub. Mace was involved, and everyone was drunk. Rumor has it one of the foreigners is still in a coma.

On Saturday night, a foreigner was walking home with two Estonians. Two different Estonian men apparently approached them on Võru Street and sprayed mace in the face of one of the Estonian friends of the foreigner. The other Estonian victim managed to escape and call the police. When they arrived, the two attackers were caught red-footed, repeatedly kicking the foreigner in the head. I’ll assume that alcohol had been consumed by at least some of those involved, but the foreigner must be over fifty. He’s not going to pick a fight with anyone. The attackers in both of these cases were arrested.

[The details concerning nationality and profession regarding the specific story above have been changed per the request of the victim, pending the trial of the attackers.]

Monday night, another foreigner was outside Püssirohukelder, the famous Gunpowder Cellar—the tallest pub in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. A group of three guys asked him something in Russian, he replied (I assume in English) that he didn’t speak Russian, and then they beat the hell out of him. He was taken to the hospital and his head X-rayed, but he’ll probably be fine. One of his eyes is completely shut though. I don’t know if the attackers were arrested.

[I received information via a mutual friend regarding this incident as well. The victim had been at Püssirohukelder but was walking in front of the Hotell Tartu, behind the Statoil on Turu Street, when he was attacked. The victim further learned that the same night, a coworker—an Estonian, not a foreigner—was also attacked by three people speaking Russian one hundred meters from the same location, just two hours earlier. The attackers asked him for a cigarette, and while he was distracted with pulling one out, he was attacked.]

I have not personally spoken to any of the victims, but I have first-hand accounts from mutual friends regarding the last two incidents.

As I said at the beginning, I’ve never felt unsafe in Tartu. Never, not once. But three incidents in a week is borderline suspicious. I choose to give Tartu the benefit of the doubt and say that it’s merely an ugly coincidence. Maybe people are fed up with the economy and the snow. But it is the duty of the city government and the police to assume otherwise and act accordingly.

But what could they possibly do, right? These three incidents all took place in what locals would refer to as problem areas. Yet if it is a problem area, where is the police presence? These “problem areas” are all right downtown. One of them is across the street from the main building of the university, not to mention immediately behind city hall. And sure, alcohol might have been involved at some level or other, but alcohol is merely an enabler. It is an explanation. It is not an excuse.

I find it extremely ironic that the city is currently campaigning itself as “Tolerant Tartu”. What a slap in the face. As much as I love Tartu, it hurts to admit that if a city has to advertise itself as tolerant, then said city probably has a problem with tolerance.

Originally I wanted to invite people to list any incidents they had personally experienced, or even just heard about. I decided against it. One reader went so far as to politely request that I not make this an “us versus them” post. That is a very wise thing to think, I might add. This situation is, however, an “us versus us” scenario. We all live in this city together. What we do to ourselves is everybody’s business.

It’s doubtful that the perpetrators will get any serious punishment. Jail time is unlikely. But if you know anyone who would pick a fight, beat someone up, harass a nerd, anything like that—I invite you to laugh at them for their cowardice. Perhaps shame is the only thing that will change their ways.

Perhaps the city could provide bumper stickers, buttons, pins and so on that say “Tolerant Tartu”. I know I would proudly sport one.

A lot of you might be thinking now, “How very American of Mingus.” might be right. But is it a bad thing to want the city you live in to be safe? America has an international reputation as a warring country. I hope you can look beyond that, just as I know that these random acts of violence do not represent the people of Tartu as a whole. It is what the people of Tartu do about it that will define their reputation.


Markus said...

Thank you for the intresting and relevant post, I am a native myself and I am also concerned about recent increase in violence in Tartu, because the way I see it, all of these beatings are/were hate-driven, these crimes are not commited by muggers, the motivation for such crimes lies deep inside "our" soviet past and in the socio-economical present caused by the earlier soviet regime. Even if the Tartu seems to be a quite modern city in Eastern Europe, it still doesn't fully share the same values as the old europe. IMO we should be more strict about hate-crimes, penalties should be harsher and unavoidable. Of course we shouldnt forget to work on the value issues, but this takes much more time and meanwhile we must deal withe issue using some other methods.

keelek6rv said...

Every semester at least one of my students who doesn't look like Estonian enough, has some kind of unpleasant experience with intolerant tartu. It bothers me a lot how a few racist/nazi teenagers can rule the centre of the town, and IMHO, the police doesn't take this seriously enough. Especially when there are no injuries reported, just mocking and pushing, for instance.

Justin said...

The police clearly aren't doing enough. The ECRI report about Estonia came out just recently, and it appears the police do not track hate crimes well:

It almost seems like Tartu police are covering things up. Every day, the police publish a list of major crimes that took place in each district:

What's interesting is that for Tallinn, fights and attacks are always listed there. In Tartu, at least for the last month (I didn't check back any further), there were no reports of any attacks or fights. I'm sure they happen, and I'm sure some are written up, but they don't consider them "important" I suppose.

Among my friends who are foreigners and have been living in Estonia for a while, Tartu has long had the reputation of "rassismi pealinn" (racism capital). Everyone I know who looks a bit different has gotten into many more altercations in Tartu versus Tallinn, even though Tallinn is a much larger city.

Mart said...

Let’s not blow this way out of proportion.

Mr. Mingus has correctly pointed out one important thing that should put things well into perspective but which has been largely ignored by other posts.

People are being fed up with the economy and the snow.

I don’t think I have to reiterate that we are having the worst economic downturn since 1991 accompanied with the worst winter in a decade. As the history has repeatedly shown, crime always follows these sorts of things.

The city of Tartu itself has been somewhat sheltered from the mass layoffs because of the disproportionately high effect that public and semi-public institutions like the university, the hospital, the ministry, the courts etc have on the local job market.

You do have to realize that the counties surrounding Tartu have been hit the hardest, if we discount Ida-Virumaa for now. Jõgevamaa has been the poorest county for some years now and Võru, Põlva and Valga are not much better. At some points, those kinds of things tend to spill over.

I do agree with Justin that the police are not doing enough. Keep in mind, however, that they have also been subject to pay and personnel cuts and are must now handle a considerably worse situation with less manpower than before. This doesn’t excuse the number-cooking, of course, because the number of robberies and muggings at the moment is definitely way higher than what their page suggests.

Still, the bottom line is that what has been mentioned in this article is simply a reflection of the overall situation and not “hate crimes” or “relics of Soviet past”. Don’t forget that every crime is a hate crime.

Justin said...

It does seem logical that a bad economy = increase in crime (I've never considered the theory that snow affects this, though).

However, a number of crimes are actually down this year versus last year:

The article isn't conclusive, but at the same time, I think we can't assume that a decline in the economy automatically translates into more beatings and attacks. (And to my knowledge, these attacks were not for economic gain i.e. the victims were not robbed).

As an aside, I've always found it interesting that J6gevemaa has had the lowest unemployment rate in Estonia for a while:
It may indeed be a very poor county, but I can't quite figure out why the employment situation is so good, at least according to official statistics.