The Thinking Revolution

06/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Estonians just might be the most skeptical people on earth: they have sayings like "Hope is the comfort of the stupid" and "Crying always follows laughter." Their male suicide rate generally ranks in the world's top ten. Depression is not uncommon. The country's divorce rate is the sixth highest in the world. And to add insult to injury, the Estonian language has no distinct future tense.

All this with good reason. The nation's second largest city of Tartu has been sacked and burned to the ground 54 times since its recorded history. Estonians themselves lived in serfdom for roughly seven hundred years -- ruled by the Germans, Swedes, Russians. Most recently, they were enslaved by the Soviets. Consider that the country's latitude is 59 degrees north, and you have a nation living literally in the dark a good part of the year.

But despite a history full of negative vibes, Estonians are surprisingly ambitious and goal-oriented. And their goals are not what anyone could call modest.

They wanted independence. Check. They got it in 1991 through what's become known as the Singing Revolution.

They wanted Russian troops off their soil. Check. Gone by 1994, with the West footing the bill for their housing back home.

They wanted NATO membership. Check. 2004.

They wanted EU membership. Check. 2004.

The Schengen Agreement, easing travel within the EU. Check. 2007.

They want the Euro. Most agree it's just a matter of time.

Given all that, it might seem ironic that critics say today's Estonia suffers from having no clear goals. "It's almost as if you carefully made your list and Santa brought everything at one single Christmas," says popular Estonian columnist, Vello Vikerkaar. "What to give the nation who has everything?"

But the columnist believes that while Estonians are outwardly skeptical, it does not retard their ambitions. "On rare occasion, you can get an Estonian to admit the successes of his nation," says Vikerkaar. "If you trap him in a corner, stand on top of him, and refuse to let him up to take his sauna or attend choir practice, then he'll admit his country has done rather well."

So to slightly amend columnist Vikerkaar's question: What to give the nation who, if it did have everything, would probably still be profoundly dissatisfied?

Enter Rainer Nõlvak. If he physically resembles a "younger, tauter Vladimir Putin," as a journalist from The Times described him -- he is an accomplished Ironman triathlete -- then in spirit he may be the Eastern incarnation of Barack Obama with his famous "Your voice can change the world" speech. Nõlvak has no trouble believing that one voice can change Estonia, and he has the track record to prove it. An Estonian tech millionaire and one of the driving forces behind the organization last year of 50,000 volunteers -- from a 1.4 million population -- to remove 10,000 tons of trash from the forests and countryside, Nõlvak is Estonia's poster child for citizen-led initiatives.

This year, Nõlvak and his team organized "My Estonia," a nationwide network of think tanks for the first of May. Over ten thousand Estonians showed up at hundreds of locations across the country to discuss one issue: How could life in Estonia be improved. If Estonia achieved her independence through the Singing Revolution, then this May's effort might be termed the Thinking Revolution.

Nõlvak is part of a growing number of Estonians who embrace the idea that society's ills can be fixed by the citizens themselves, and that waiting on government is rarely an expedient solution.

"In today's Estonia people have become consumers -- people are clients and the users of services," said Marju Laurisitin, a Tartu University social scientist and politician, at a preparatory meeting for the brainstorming event. "Now the consumer must transform himself into a citizen who knows what to do and is not satisfied with a stock answer."

So in the name of making citizens, this journalist decided to take part.

I chose an international group of twenty-eight with participants from eleven countries and four continents. Despite an open-minded group and a day devoted to optimism, it didn't take long for skepticism to surface.

"I don't know a single person who took part in this event," Kristi, one of the group's Estonian members, told me at the first coffee break. "My friends and family are worried about their own problems. They worry about money. They even worry aloud about the diseases they have. Not a single one of my friends took part today. And I wasn't going to, either. But then I thought my English was rusty, and this would be a good place to practice."

Before the break, the group had discussed a question posed by Kristi: How can Estonians become more proud of their nation? The issue was discussed and debated in a breakout group by a Norwegian, Dutchman, Bangladeshi, Estonian, and an American. Soon, a Venezuelan and Kazakh joined the group. "Self esteem," seemed to be the consensus. If über-modest Estonians might feel better about themselves, they might feel better about their nation.

The self-esteem issue would not go away. Regardless of the topic chosen by a breakout group, the issue continued to surface. "This is a society blind to psychological needs," Liis, an Estonian, diagnosed her nation. "Feelings are something to be afraid of."

Reports from participants in other groups across the country varied. Some featured more analysis, some focused on practical solutions, but all I talked to reported some degree of soul searching. Everyone I spoke with agreed the day was a success, though few could put a finger on what concrete results might follow. Over the next few days, despite at least one negative report in the local media, most would agree the fact that ten thousand souls gathered to discuss making one corner of the world a better place was, in and of itself, a remarkable event.

After our meeting broke up, I asked Kristi if she'd gotten any more from the event than just a chance to practice her English. "I was also curious," she said, "to find out why foreigners might come here to discuss how to make Estonia better. I was extremely skeptical about strangers coming together to discuss abstract topics." But she seemed pleased that they had.

"We Estonians are complicated people," she continued, somehow gravitating to the issue of self-esteem. "There was a study done a year or two ago which said fifty or sixty percent of Estonian children have never heard the words 'I love you' from their parents. The same study was done on their parents, who responded that if they gave the children a roof over their heads and food, that that was all the proof of love the kids should need."

I asked about her personal situation. "My parents have never said it to me," she said. "But I say it every day to my own children."

If Estonia happens to be, as one participant characterized it, a nation of people who carry on a "side-by-side monologue instead of a dialogue," then for most the first of May was clearly an exception. But it was more than an exception. For skeptics like Kristi, it was perhaps a brand new start. And for Rainer Nõlvak and his team of ten thousand optimists, the day was simply business as usual.