Putin’s War Fuels a Bitter Breakup With the Russian Language
NARVA, Estonia—The quick and glorious victory Vladimir Putin expected when he launched a war in Ukraine has turned into something of a punchline, and with each day bringing more humiliation to the Russian army, Moscow is looking as lonely as ever.
Baltic countries have been important supporters of Ukraine since the beginning of the war. In Estonia, nearly three-quarters of the total population supported financial and armed support to Ukraine, despite the fact that a quarter of the country’s population is ethnically Russian.
Now, Estonia is taking another step away from Russia—by investing in the Estonian language through education.
The growing divide is especially evident in Narva, the third-largest city in Estonia, separated from Russia only by a river. The city is currently constructing two state high schools, a primary school, and a kindergarten—and even though 95 percent of the population of this border city speak Russian at home—the primary language taught in those schools will be Estonian.
Estonian officials have been pushing for the language shift ever since their country gained independence from the Soviet Union. The war in Ukraine, however, has accelerated this process, Narva mayor Katri Raik told The Daily Beast.
“At the beginning of the war, a situation developed where Estonians and Russian-speaking residents had quite different understandings of the situation in the world,” the mayor said, explaining that the war had exposed how the country had failed to establish schools that “unified Russian and Estonian students.”
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One of those new schools, a high school, is expected to open by September. Irene Käosaar, the future principal and current head of a neighboring immersion school, proudly toured The Daily Beast around the construction site, a few blocks away from Narva city center, and a 10-minute walk from the Russian border.
“This school must protect the Estonian language and Estonian culture in this border city,” Käosaar, who will be in charge of some 800 students’ total when the new school is opened, told The Daily Beast.
Four months ago, the Estonian Minister of Education, Tõnis Lukas, laid the cornerstone for the new high school. It’s something of a prestige project for Lukas, whose ministry is leading the way in promoting the use of Estonian in the country.
The government has been investing heavily in the Estonian language as of late. By raising the salaries of teachers who are fluent in Estonian, they hope to motivate educators to come and work in the north-eastern regions of the country.
The Estonian language uses the Latin alphabet, and is closer in structure to Finnish than it is to Russian.
Starting in 2024, all Russian-speaking kindergartens in Estonia are expected to switch over to the Estonian language. A legislative proposal is also being prepared to require, among others, taxi drivers and food couriers to be proficient in Estonian.
These developments have not been welcomed by everyone in the country. The language goals, and compulsory use of Estonian in kindergartens, are perceived as an imposition by some ethnic Russians in Estonia. The Estonian-based NGO Russian School of Estonia, committed to the position of the Russian-speaking community in Estonia, has even lambasted the decisions as discriminatory.
“The reform in the education field is aimed not only at optimizing the school system but at the gradual eradication of Russian education in Estonia, which would eventually lead to the assimilation of the minority,” the group said in a statement urging the Estonian government to reconsider this new language policy.
The Russian government, for its part, has even gone so far as to accuse Estonia’s prime minister of Hitlerism for encouraging Ukrainian refugees in the country to take Estonian language courses.
“Hitler would be proud of you [the Prime Minister of Estonia]. Without you, it would be much more difficult to prove the dehumanization of the collective West. Estonia for Estonians, right?,” Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson of Russia’s foreign affairs ministry, said on Telegram. “Say it, at last, stop wrinkling the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with sweaty palms.”
Though some Estonians worry that Russia will use the new language policy to justify threats against their country, Raik says she’s not frightened. “If I were worried about Russian politics every day, I would not be able to work in Narva. Of course, I sincerely hope that Estonia will not come under Russian attack. This does not imply that we should consider our neighbor when enacting state policy,” she told The Daily Beast.
Veronika Gorbatenko, a spokesperson for the ministry, emphasizes that Estonian has always been the language of instruction in all state-funded schools “The recently passed legislation will extend that to privately operated schools or schools that operate under local governments,” she told The Daily Beast.
Estonian as a primary language is also necessary for integration, at least when it comes to education, according to Käosaar. Her new school, she argues, will provide more opportunities for Russian-speaking students in the future. “Otherwise, they cannot study in the future, in high school, for example, or they have fewer choices in the labor market,” she said. “This school has the potential to change that in Narva."
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Denis, a Narva resident, agrees. He was born in Narva, where he spoke Russian at home, and Estonian at school. “Most people here will always speak Russian amongst themselves because that is their first language,” he said, but “We are living in Estonia, and in Estonia you should be able to speak Estonian. If you are traveling to other parts of Estonia, you should be able to speak the language.”
The Russian language became more established in Estonia after World War II, when a wave of Russians came to Estonia during the Soviet occupation. Narva has a particularly long history with the language—and you’d be hard pressed to find people speaking Estonian to each other on the streets.
Estonian demography expert Allan Puur, a professor at Tallinn University, does not expect an abrupt change to happen soon.
“We see new generations of Russian speakers emerging. They are turning into minorities who are more integrated into Estonian society and can speak Estonian as a second language. But in the meantime, I assume that most of them keep self-defining their mother tongue as Russian and speak that language at home at least,” he told The Daily Beast.
Principal Irene Käosaar doesn’t expect the shift to happen overnight, either. Russian language classes will still be given at the new school, she said, and other subjects might even be taught in Russian or bilingually.
“I hope the government helps with that. We were told about this project in the last 30 years,” she said. “But we need the law to go forward more quickly and in a more intensive way. This is not easy to realize.”
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