Estonia gets creative about integrating local Russian-speakers

THE grey Stalinist blocks, potholed roads and intimidating communist-era plazas hardly suggest a hipster hotspot. But Narva, an Estonian town on Russia’s border, is suddenly all the rage. “Within the last six months Narva has become hip in Estonia. Everyone wants to go there,” says Helen Sildna, who runs Tallinn Music Week and who is going to stage a music festival in Narva for the first time in September. The abandoned factory buildings, cheap living space and the frisson of sitting on a cultural front line between Russia and the West will attract trendsetters—or so Estonian officials hope. Making Narva cool is part of Estonia’s new strategy to integrate Russian-speakers in Estonia - writes

After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Western journalists scoured maps for other places that could be next on Vladimir Putin’s hit-list. They stumbled on Narva, where almost the entire population is Russian-speaking. The sight of Russian flags and border guards below the medieval fortress on the other side of a narrow river made for suitably dramatic pictures on news bulletins. Suddenly Narva hit international headlines as “the next Crimea”.

That was always too simplistic. Narva’s residents may have cultural, historical and linguistic ties to Moscow, but few of them want to live in Russia. Wages, pensions and living standards are higher in Estonia than on the other side of the border. Narva is not Crimea, and Estonia is not Ukraine. It is much less corrupt, and also a member of the EU and NATO. So it is far more difficult for Russia to meddle in Estonia than it was in Ukraine. And if any Russophone Estonians ever thought it was a good idea to move the border, the carnage in eastern Ukraine dispelled that fantasy.

But Narva has felt ignored and economically deprived, something which might now be changing. Estonia’s cheeky creative scene has co-opted the media cliché and declared “Narva is next”. Not as a political flashpoint, but as a cultural hotspot. Narva’s local government is using the phrase as part of its bid to be Estonia’s European Capital of Culture in 2024, which would bring in EU money and investment from Tallinn. With the help of funds from central government, a theatre and gallery complex is being built in a disused factory. A residency programme allows artists to live and work in the crumbling 19th-century splendour of the former Kreenholm textile works, which a century ago employed 10,000 people and was the largest factory in the Tsarist Russian empire. Ms Sildna calls it the “East Berlin effect”. The idea, she means, is to make the place cool by attracting artists and the avant-garde, create a buzz that pulls in ordinary people and thus, perhaps, lure private investment.

That is sorely needed. Narva has an ageing and shrinking population and high unemployment, making it one of the poorest regions of Estonia. Years of headlines predicting an imminent invasion have hardly helped. So it is often impossible for local entrepreneurs to get finance. In the city centre there are few cafés, bars or restaurants; and there have been no commercially funded new buildings for 25 years.

Within Estonia the region is also isolated linguistically. Some 95% of its people speak Russian as their first language, so it is rare to hear Estonian on the streets. This makes it difficult for Narva’s residents to learn Estonian. Many struggle with the basics. According to government figures, around 20% of them speak no Estonian at all. For Estonians from elsewhere in the country, many of whom don’t speak Russian, Narva can feel alien.

But Estonia is changing. A new globally-minded generation born in the 1980s and 1990s is coming of age. With no memory of the Soviet Union, young people from both communities are often more interested in the future than the grudges of the past. Estonia’s government is also changing its approach. “In the past we didn’t talk with Russian-speakers, but just told them what they have to do: that they have to learn Estonian, that they have to integrate,” says Piret Hartman, undersecretary for cultural diversity. Ethnic Estonians have now realised that they need to become more open to Russian-speakers, she says. With tensions between Russia and the West rising, Narva might also serve as a reminder to the rest of the EU that speaking Russian as a mother tongue and supporting Mr Putin are not necessarily the same thing.

Read more news of Tallinn on our site.
Estonia localRussian-speakers
If you notice an error, highlight the text you want and press Ctrl + Enter to report it to the editor
I recommend
No recommendations yet


Post your comment to communicate and discuss this article.

Chairman of the Estonian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and one of the owners of construction group Nordecon, Toomas Luman, finds that a prime ministerial candidate should first and foremost be able to answer the question of what will become of the demographic crisis in Estonia. The businessman sees controlled introduction of foreign labor as the solution. A digital construction cluster was created in Estonia a few years back to bring innovation to the s...
Last year saw 27,125 registered offenses, up 0.5 percent from the year before. Violent crime was up by 12 percent to 8,249 offenses. PHOTO: Dominic Lipinski / PA Wire / Press Association Images / Scanpix Growth was biggest for domestic violence – the police launched criminal proceedings in 3,607 cases that constitutes an increase of more than one-third – annual growth of 37 percent from 2,632 cases in 2017. At the same time, reports of domestic violence we...
TALLINN - Ahead of the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, tens of thousands of British citizens have chosen the citizenship of some other country, but only one Brit has recently chosen an Estonian citizenship. Spokespeople for the Ministry of the Interior told BNS that only one British citizen submitted an application for Estonian citizenship last year and the applicant was also granted the citizenship. Before that, no Brits had soug...
TALLINN - Experts from Finland, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands highlighted the importance of decentralization and granting local governments greater decision-making powers at a conference titled "Strong local government -- strong state?" in Tallinn on Wednesday.  All Nordic countries have chosen a model granting local governments significant decision-making powers, thus the central government does not prescribe how local governments are to fulfill the...
The language learning application Drops by game developer Planb Labs, established in Estonia by Hungarian founders, was named Google Play's best app of 2018. With the number of downloads surpassing 10 million, Drops was named Google's app of the year as the revenue of Planb Labs, a company registered in Estonia, increased fivefold, CNBC said. The developer's revenue grew from €335,000 in 2017 to €1.7 million in 2018. The company's shareholders include Hung...
TALLINN - The Estonian Health Board has banned the distribution of chlorine dioxide, also marketed as the Miracle Mineral Supplement (MMS), the A-component of an unused product, meaning the sodium chlorite solution, must be taken to a hazardous waste collection facility. Ester Opik, head of the Health Board's North regional department, said that the banning of the distribution of the product was caused by the fact that MMS, distributed as a cosmetics produ...
Nature cannot abide a vacancy, as the saying goes. If just one year ago, Estonia was battling the sale of MMS and the practice of giving it to children, a new “miracle cure” called Advanced TRS has appeared on the market now. Even though the make-up of the substance is different, the promise to cure autism and cleanse the body of heavy metals, which kind of extreme detox is accompanied by severe side-effects, sounds all too familiar. TRS is recommended to...
Allied NATO battalions will soon mark two years serving in the Baltics. They have worked better than expected but would need prepositioned heavy weaponry and a functional contingency plan in case of a crisis, a report by the International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS) finds. “We do not know how Russia would have acted had we not welcomed allies in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland in 2017. I’m afraid they would have tested our resolve,” one of...
The time of filing income tax returns is nearly upon us. The new income tax system, in effect since last year, will obligate many women who went on maternity leave toward the end of the year to make additional income tax payments, while those who give birth in the middle or at the beginning of the year have no such obligation. What this means is that some women will owe the state simply for giving birth “at the wrong time”. Laura Roop, who went on maternit...