THE BLOG
04/24/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Integrate Me: The Aftermath Of Russification

I was recently invited to speak to an English class composed of all Russian students. From time to time, it's healthy to experience first hand the bitterness some young Russian speakers hold toward Estonians. This year's understatement: some don't like them very much.

It wouldn't have been so bad if they had disliked Estonians for the right reasons (head cheese, milk soup), but sadly, their understanding of Estonians was about as informed as Borat's view of the Jews. And not even half as funny.

I don't know if the class was representative of the larger Russian population, but there were ten kids, seven of whom claimed to speak Estonian. The three who did not were the most bitter. All ten, though, said they did not interact with Estonians on a daily basis, except in forced environments.

The kids who didn't speak Estonian seemed to sit at home and wait for Prime Minister Andrus Ansip to personally appear and integrate them. They had no interest in learning Estonian and looked to the West--particularly the UK--as the land of opportunity. They thought it a place where they'd be received with open arms, paid well for having no education, and finally be treated as equals. "In Estonia," one told me, "if a Russian and Estonian are up for the same job and the Russian is more qualified, the Estonian still gets the job." I admitted maybe that was true, but that it wasn't only an Estonian phenomenon.

"If you and the girl on your right are up for a job in my country," I said, "and you're more qualified than she is, but she went to the boss' school, who gets the job?" He wasn't pleased to know that his superior CV might count for naught. And by the look on his face, I might have been the first to tell him that the world is unfair.

I don't know where he got this idea of England-as-paradise. Enough Russians have gone there and returned that accurate information ought to be available. But all the same, I tried to dismiss his misperceptions. He wasn't happy to hear that an Eastern European in England has to work twice as hard as any UK citizen. That he would be thought of as poor, dirty, and possibly a criminal--the very same words he used to describe how Estonians perceive Russians.

I made little progress if any. What can you do with angry kids? Their teacher told me it was pointless to argue; they just needed someone to listen, and they'd turn out all right. I hope he's right. I can't be so optimistic. A sixteen year-old ethnic Russian who speaks not a word of Estonian? Who thinks the West is going to welcome him?

I hope the kid gets his ticket West soon. Because the sooner he figures out that the world owes him nothing, the sooner he'll get to start making up for lost time.

But (there's always a but), Estonians could go easier on him.

If there's a period of history when only Estonians lived in Estonia and the Estonian language was spoken by all, I haven't heard of it. Some, who like to talk about the good ol' days, have painted Tallinn as an "Estonian city" during the country's first independence. But Russians in Estonia have been around a long time, and according to the historian and former Prime Minister Mart Laar, half of Tallinn spoke Russian in 1917. It doesn't take high science to know that no amount of legislation, policy, or wishful thinking is going to make a young Russian speak Estonian if he doesn't want to learn. The more laws you pass, the more he'll hate you.

He's got to want it naturally, which is what the free market is for. When the better jobs go to Estonian speakers, there's motivation to learn the language. It of course won't happen overnight--but it can and is happening as you read this. Many of my Russian friends and acquaintances speak Estonian. Most better than I do.

In the meantime, while we non-Estonians are attempting to integrate, the government could call off its dogs. Raids by the language inspectorate on trade schools where the teachers of auto mechanics don't speak Estonian is a pointless and heartless exercise. It's like beating up your neighbor's grandmother just to show you can. Nobody's impressed, and you piss off the neighbors for no real gain. (Yes, I understand the need for some legislation to guide the market. But sometimes those charged with enforcement are like teenagers with the keys to dad's car: they can't resist seeing how fast it will go.)

Is the Estonian language in critical danger? There were once three hundred Native American languages spoken in North America. Now, two-thirds of them are lost. Another died this past year with Marie Smith Jones, the last living speaker of Eyak. But the fact that Estonian has been kept alive two thousand years suggests Estonians may know something Native Americans don't.

If the Estonian language is well-looked-after enough to survive one more generation, what's the harm in the language inspectorate turning a blind eye now and again? Give ethnic Russians a reason to like you, and let the market do its work. I can't recall the last time I saw an ad in the newspaper which read: Wanted: Uneducated ethnic Russian with visible chip on shoulder.

There's clear advantage to learning Estonian. My friend from the English class may not yet see it, but most do. If we stop beating up granny, I believe all but the most hopeless will eventually come around. And if they don't--well, there's always England.