Monday, December 27, 2010


I’m reminded of two things by this holiday’s snow. One is that popular catchphrase accredited to Marie Antoinette that is associated with the kickoff to the French Revolution. The other is a book and movie titled The Road. Christmas dinner, celebrated at the Mingus-in-Laws’, was delicious as usual. Blood sausage, pork roast, sauerkraut, vodka. A meal that can easily compete with the American Thanksgiving dinner. We were all too full to finish the gargantuan cake served for dessert. We did, however, manage to snack on gingerbread cookies and my homemade Pfeffernusse and eggnog while opening presents.

Mrs. Mingus-in-Law sent us home with a box of leftover cake. In our family, we combine traditions. Santa visits twice. Once in the evening for gifts from the Estonian side of the family, when he rings the doorbell and comes in and chats, and again during the night via the chimney to drop off gifts from the Americans. We had to tell the kids that because of the snow, Santa would have to make his second visit hopefully sometime next week. The packages never arrived. I woke up on Christmas Day and spent much of it shoveling out my backyard so I could drive to the shop, as the sidewalks were not yet passable in my neighborhood.

When I finished, I was very hungry, so I ate cake. It was my own fault for not thinking ahead and stocking up on food for a storm that did not predict. Neither did really, which just predicted “snow”. Snow happens in winter, and I usually think nothing of it. We also had cake for dinner. I entered the pantry and found a can of chickpeas, and made some hummus. “What is it, Papa?” Little Mingus asked.
—It’s a treat, I said. For you.
“Mmm, it’s good. I’ll never have this again, will I?”
—No, probably not. This is quite possibly the last can of chickpeas in Tartu.

I had to bribe a snowplough driver Soviet-style to get my road reconnected to the network on Sunday. We piled into the car and drove to the Tasku mall for a cup of delicious chai in a café called Cookbook. The mall was closed on what is one of the biggest shopping days of the year in the West—Boxing Day—and it was our fault for not magically knowing this. Let me clarify: one of the parking garages in Tasku said it was open, but the door was shut. I thought the opening mechanism was just frozen, as there was no sign indicating it was locked. The other garage allowed us in, and we even made it into the mall itself, only to find all the shop doors closed, the mall populated by elderly bus travelers snacking on cans of fruit on benches.

Starting to get very weak at this point. Must get food. “Let’s go to Werner, on Ülikooli Street,” Mrs. Mingus suggested. “Or let’s at least drive by and see if it’s open. They have some really good pastries and I hear the kitchen serves good stuff.” Werner. I hadn’t been there since, well, since they had chessboard tabletops and the venue was populated with local intelligentsia sipping tea and contemplating where to send their rook. If you managed to get a table there and didn’t play chess, you would soon be joined by complete strangers, who were usually the only Estonians and Russians to have any communication between them. Not spoken communication, mind you, but the international language of math as expressed by little plastic figurines vying for domination of a checkered board.

Wener, as their webpage calls it, was open, and had been completely remodeled. An extensive cake display would have made my mouth water on any given day, but I needed savory, warm food. “Do you have a menu?” I asked Krista, the waitress. She informed me the kitchen was closed. Cake it was, then. I ordered a white chocolate cheesecake topped with gelatin. It was mild. I got up to ask for a fork, as I just cannot figure out how to eat cake with a spoon. “Um, let me go to the back to look for a fork,” Krista responded. I looked around. No chess tables. A nice interior, and about twenty other people sitting with their cake and spoons.

My mother used to say, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Of course that’s not her phrase—we all grew up hearing it—but I think it should apply to restaurants as well. If you can’t serve anything nice, don’t serve anything at all. Other restaurants and cafés open this day, if there were any, were probably serving stale leftovers. The cake was decent—not my personal favorite, but it was presented well and the lattes were large. About half the price for what you’d get in Komeet in Tallinn, but in Komeet you also get a killer view of the Old Town.

So this review of Werner doesn’t really count as a review, as you can’t judge a café by its cake. Or can you? I’ll let you decide. But I still have things to say. What can I talk about? The big topics at the moment are Tallinn mayor Savisaar accepting Soviet-style bribes from the Russians and the last few days of Estonia’s own currency, the kroon. Next Saturday we’ll all be paying in euros. Basically, the topic of the day is Western integration, and moving away from Estonia’s Eastern history, so I’ll talk about that.

I’ve lived in Estonia for more than a decade. I came to the startling revelation yesterday that I didn’t know any Russians. Well, a couple, but they were only half Russian, either the product of a Russian-Estonian marriage or one of the relatively few Russians whose families had been here for centuries. They weren’t Soviet-style immigrants and so didn’t really count, at least not for this conversation.

What I know of these mystery people mainly comes from Russian literature from more than a hundred years ago (I love the classics—Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev to name but a few) and derogatory Russian jokes as iterated by Estonians. I did have one close encounter with a Russian once. The day I got my Estonian driver’s license, I went out for a celebratory drive. I was annoyed by a large SUV tailing me at less than half a meter. He felt the need to pass on a single-lane, one-way road with cars parallel parked on either side. As he drove by, I flipped my middle finger in the window. He didn’t like this. From my point of view, showing someone the middle finger while driving is no more serious than honking the horn. I didn’t know it was a capital offense in Estonia, as I was new to the local driving culture.

He stopped in front of me to where I couldn’t drive, and there was a car behind me. I was trapped. A huge muscleman who looked like Mr. Clean got out and approached the car. Fortunately I hadn’t locked the door because he would have merely broken the window. Opening the door while I was trapped by my seatbelt, he slapped me twice with the butt of his hand and screamed in Russian, to which I replied in Estonian, “Sorry, I don’t speak Russian.”
—Kussa oled? he continued, now in Estonian. This means, “Where are you?”
“Olen Tartus” (I’m in Tartu), I cautiously answered. What was this guy on? He didn’t know where he was.
—Nyet, kussa oled? Anglisky, Deutsch, kussa oled? I realized he was trying to say, “Kust sa pärit oled”, or “Where are you from?” So I used my knowledge of Russian literature.
“I’m from France,” I answered in Estonian. He immediately calmed down.
—Tell people in France, “Meh meh meh!” And he stuck his tongue out and showed me his middle finger. Then he left.

I understood immediately that this man didn’t behave like this because he was Russian. It was because he drives an SUV. I have had a lot of very positive encounters with Russians in Estonia as well. “There are people who have lived here for fifty years and can’t say ‘Hello’ in Estonian,” I am told by almost every person I meet when they discover I speak Estonian. And they have a point: Why do so few Russians speak Estonian? I think a more relevant question would be: Why would Russians speak Estonian?

There has been a lot of controversy of late because of new integration laws basically forcing Russian-language schools to switch to Estonian, and the Language Inspectorate “raiding” businesses and schools to make sure everyone’s speaking the official lingo. It’s not like Russian cashiers are being fined for speaking Russian with Russian customers, but a lot of Russians do feel harassed. You can’t blame someone for how they feel. From an Estonian’s point of view, if you want to live in this country, you gotta’ learn to talk Estonian. Period. This is common throughout the world. Russian is the language of the occupier. But has the Russian point of view been considered? They lost their empire, and they didn’t even choose to come here in the first place. To learn Estonian would be to admit defeat. And let’s face it—Russian culture is rich. They even have their own unique religion. While I’m no fan of organized religion, this is still impressive. Even if their Santa Claus is blue. What possible benefit could a Russian, who lives in a region of Estonia where almost a hundred percent of the population speaks Russian, gain by learning a language spoken by just a million people?

What I am ineptly trying to say is that both sides need to give concessions. It probably is a good idea for young Russians to learn Estonian. But Estonia has a problem: nearly a hundred thousand ethnic Russians in Estonia don’t have citizenship in either country. Estonians say that the people in question don’t have to choose Estonian citizenship, and there is no such “go back to Russia” rhetoric that I’ve picked up. Obviously there is some, but no more than English people telling Normans to go back to France. But the problem is that many of these people don’t have health care or access to proper schools because of their residence status. Why would they go to Russia? They don’t even have Facebook there, as you can see in this image of European Facebook usage. Why would they choose Estonian citizenship? They don’t feel welcome. Then again, I also don’t see these Russians taking much initiative to “get out of Narva”, as it were.

A lot of people will understandably be angry with me for saying this, for even talking about this. “You’re not Estonian, you don’t understand the situation,” many might respond. And these people would be right, I’m not Estonian. To these people, I would reply, “But this is how it looks.” Consider that, please. It doesn’t really look that bad, but it could be a lot better. Mrs. Mingus is Estonian, and our children are dual citizens. We are raising them to be proud of two cultures. I write this not to be an unsolicited critic. I write this because I care about the country my children will grow up in. If I did not care, I would say nothing.

I hereby designate the seventh of January as National Hug a Russian Day (the sixth of December is Hug a Dutchman Day). Go to your neighbor, the one you’ve never spoken to—the Russian neighbor—and give him a hug. Speak English to him. It’s a neutral language I’m sure everyone can accept. All schools in Estonia teach it anyhow. The way I see it, Estonians have already chosen not to force Russians to pay in kroons. Both sides together chose to pay in euros. That’s good progress.


Anonymous said...

many of these people don’t have health care or access to proper schools because of their residence status

Can you elaborate on that?

Mingus said...

In my work I often deal with instances where a stateless, ethnic Russian does not have a proper identity document because of their "in limbo" citizenship status, thus resulting in difficulties acquiring access to health care and education. It's not that common, but it shouldn't be an issue at all.

Anonymous said...

When it comes to Russians, my first impulse is to tell them to get the fuck out of here. But when I think about it longer, I'm thinking I would rather have the local Russians do the cheap labour here than import Muslims for example. But it still doesn't mean I have to like them.

Justin said...

Let's see what happens over the next 10-20 years. From what I've read, Russians in Estonia, especially the younger ones, feel like they have no future in Estonia and want to move abroad (West not East). I'm sure many people will say "Let them go" but the population in Estonia is declining rapidly. One thing the country doesn't need is even more emigration.

Joshua said...

Don't want to be a smartass or anything, but... that russian Santa picture you have there. That's actually Chys Khan... a Bull of Frost... Siberian Santa with shamanistic origins. From Yakut.

Yakut Santa.


But he and Ded Moroz are obviously buddies. So... I'll stop now.

notsu said...

I am puzzled by this "access to healthcare" remark as well - AFAIK, every resident who pays their social insurance here has right to health care, regardless of citizenship. And I, being a self-employed Estonian citizen, wouldn't have that right if I didn't pay my social insurance tax.

notsu said...

...annd I have a freelancer friend, Estonian citizen, without social insurance, so whenever she goes to see a doctor she has to pay. Social insurance doesn't automatically go with citizenship.

Mart said...

Well, the most glaring misconception in this post is that everyone in Estonia speaks Russian anyway.

In fact, in the age group of 25 and younger, less than 20% of Estonians speak Russian (and those who do usually have some family connections to Estonian-Russians).

Russian is on its way out and the sooner Estonian-Russians realize that, the better for them.

Anonymous said...

Mart, what are you talking about? Author did not say anything like everyone speaks Russian in Estonia.

To other comments: I finished medical school and was resident in East Viru county. Every day saw a Russian with no insurance card. I am 25 now and speak Russian lnaguage. I have no Russian family.

Mingus said...

Hi Mart!

I think you misunderstood about the misconception you mentioned. I wrote, "...a region of Estonia where almost a hundred percent of the population speaks Russian..." Region, not the whole country. I'm talking about Ida-Virumaa of course. 98% Russian-speaking.

Thanks for reading!

Mart said...

Well, I did put my foot in my mouth with that one. How embarrassing :(

Ida-Viru county is a special case, no doubt about it. For the rest of Estonia, though, I believe that my point still stands.

Mingus said...

Of course your point still stands. It was my point too! Why would non-Estonian-speaking Russians want to integrate if they're all bunched up in the same place?

David Haslam said...

I am very pleased to see that someone understands the Norman problem in England. Speaking as an Anglo-Saxon....blah! blah! blah!