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 economist.com.

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.

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