The Greater Share of Honor
Illustration by Toon Vugts
Of indifference to immigrants and Estonia’s shrinking population.
It’s not a Russian problem. It’s an Estonian problem. But it’s only an Estonian problem if Estonians think it’s a problem. And I’m not convinced they do.
The sky is falling. By year 2050 there will be at least 100,000 fewer Estonians. The birthrate has slowed. Gray passport holders don’t seem to want to trade for EU maroon. University students are currently exiting at four times the rate they’re entering the country. Old and young alike are leaving for jobs in Ireland, Spain, Finland. The world.
At a recent conference called “Freedom’s Children,” Professor Marju Lauristin asked how many in the audience were under 30. Two people raised their hands.
Lauristin then told a compelling story. Denis is a bright young man from Narva. He graduated cum laude from Tartu University. He made a moving, who-could-have-imagined-a-guy-like-me-standing-before-you speech at graduation. He speaks Estonian fluently, as well as German and English. He went to Germany for his master’s degree. He went to Norway for his PhD. Of Norway, he wrote home to his former teachers in his perfect Estonian, “I’ve finally found a society where I want to live.”
They say you can live your whole life in France but if you weren’t born there you’ll never be French. But spend five minutes in America and you’re an American. (An Estonian journalist has said it takes five years to be a New Yorker, but real New Yorkers are too busy to sit around and think up silly requirements.)
An American friend of mine who’s lived in Estonia two decades uses the “five minute” story to explain why he’ll never be accepted as an Estonian. “Estonia is France,” he says. “To the nth degree.” My friend doesn’t especially want Estonian citizenship, though if you press him he’ll admit he wants to be offered it. He speaks the language fluently and plays an active role in society. I don’t know if that necessarily qualifies someone for citizenship, though my friend does seem the type the nation might benefit from having.
I think the foreign press has it wrong about Estonia. There’s no effort on the part of Estonians to keep ethnic Russians down. There’s just no effort to welcome them. Because Estonia welcomes no one. Warmth is not extended to immigrants of any stripe. Finns, Ukrainians, Americans, Brits, Spaniards. No one will miss them when they quit the country. “Welcome to Estonia.” Sure. As long as you’re only staying a few nights. (Fish and guests smell after three days.)
Professor Lauristin said it takes four to five generations in Europe to lose the label “immigrant.” Is it worth the wait in Estonia? Young people like Denis are answering with their feet and going where they feel more welcome. Or more needed. Or more valued. Or at least better paid.
Government is worried of course, but I don’t see average Estonians concerned about the population shrinking by a couple hundred thousand. Maybe it’s too far in the future to get excited about it. Maybe it’s fate. Or perhaps it’s a romantic notion: "The fewer men, the greater share of honor," as Prince Hal put it at Agincourt.
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
That story has a happy ending. But then the English had the longbow.
Vello Vikerkaar is a columnist for Postimees.