Propastop recently posted a helpful infographic for international journalists explaining the clichés to avoid when reporting about Estonia. Since then, several journalists from abroad contacted us to learn more and have even travelled to Estonia to explore the issues in more detail. That includes the US public radio network, NPR, and the BBC World Service who were both particularly interested in the perspectives of Russian speakers here.
As we explained in our infographic, about a quarter of Estonia’s population speaks Russian as their mother tongue yet it is a cliché to view these people as having a single worldview that aligns uniformly with Kremlin propaganda narratives. They each have their experiences and complex identities, their own agency, and their own stories to tell. And, due to significant progress in integration over the past few decades, a large proportion of Russian speakers in Estonia are Estonian citizens and also speak Estonian.
So both NPR and the BBC spent time in Estonia listening to their voices, which has now reached huge audiences around the world.
NPR reporter Jenna McLaughlin spent a week in Estonia covering a wide range of issues from how Estonia is constantly preparing defences against cyber attacks (first radio report, second radio report, and article) to how Estonia is welcoming Ukrainian refugees and supporting Ukraine’s ongoing struggle to retain full sovereignty (radio report). She also listened to Russian speakers in both Narva and Tallinn as part of a report that also focused on the work we are doing here at Propastop.
Mark Vorobjov, a 28 year old video game designer in Tallinn, was one interviewee. He explained that the Russian government could have a positive role engaging with Russian speakers in countries like Estonia but, instead of helping Russian speakers, they are only using propaganda to sow divisions.
“If Russia was, like, a normal, peaceful, democratic country, they could just offer some cultural help,” said Vorobjov. “Like, Germany has a Goethe-Institut that promotes German language. Russia could do the same, but they don’t do that.”
The BBC World Service has also just broadcast their report, which is a 30 minute documentary called ‘Love-bombing Estonia’s Russian speakers’. Presenter Lucy Ash last visited Estonia in the earlier days of re-independence when there were greater tensions and concerns among Russian speakers in Estonia about their future in the country so wanted to report on an update.
The BBC team noticed not just our infographic, but also this article debunking Kremlin myths about the Russian speaking community in Estonia where we explained the significant progress that has been made on integration. So when the BBC reached out to us here at Propastop, we encouraged them to see and hear that progress for themselves by visiting Tallinn Music Week, which was recently held in both Tallinn and Narva, and brought together musicians and fans from all communities in Estonia. So that’s exactly what they did.
Organiser Helen Sildna explained on the documentary that she has witnessed herself how the younger generation of Russian speakers in Estonia are really proud to be part of Estonia and that Tallinn Music Week contributes to that integration.
“It is all about strengthening the ties within Estonia,” said Sildna. “We don’t go there to give lectures or teach, but just to spend time together. I dream of us dancing together right next to the Russian and European border and just being together.”
Russian speaking Estonian musician Pavel Botšarov, who performs under the name GAMEBOY TETRIS was one of the most well-known musicians at the festival. He spoke about why his music has resonated across communities in Estonia, which earned him an award from the Estonian President for bringing people together.
“I think attempts to forcibly integrate people don’t really work,” said Botšarov. “It happens naturally. You know the most popular bar now in Tallinn is one where Estonians, Russians, and all kinds of other people hang out.”
The BBC also heard from local Narva musicians Nikolay Rudakov and Evelina Koop, whose group Pale Alison recently took part in an Estonian TV talent show and were the first Russian language group to win it. They explained how proud they are to be from Narva and why their city is flourishing culturally right now. They are both proud of their Russian identity too. Rudakov is a Russian citizen who studied in Russia and has fond memories travelling there “but now, you know, I don’t want to go there as a tourist and don’t want to go there to perform because of their government.” Rudakov also opened up about the challenge of discussing this with his parents.
Presenter Ash noted that this generational divide was something she had heard a lot while talking to Russian speakers in Estonia. She explored this in more detail with Artjom, a software developer and aspiring politician in Tallinn, who says he feels confident about both his future and the future of Estonia. Artjom is a Russian speaker who didn’t think it was worth learning Estonian while growing up but has since changed his mind about that. He now defines himself as a Russian speaking Estonian and says he feels a strong allegiance to Estonia, which is very different to the identity and worldview of his mother and grandparents.
“I guess the biggest thing I love about Estonia is freedom. Even being 20 years old, I’m criticising quite actively our local government and government in general and I’m not in any way afraid of this even though my grandparents are saying ‘oh, you should be very careful about this’ …because they were raised in the Soviet Union and back then it was dangerous.”
Intrigued, Ash went to meet with Artjom’s mother, Svetlana. During their conversation, Svetlana repeated several myths promoted by the Kremlin about its war in Ukraine, particularly in regard to well documented atrocities committed by Russian forces, which Svetlana suggests were committed by Ukraine to make Russia look bad. However, as Ash explains, the goal of this propaganda is often not so much to inspire allegiance to Russia but rather to promote the perception that there is no objective truth and so no one side can be blamed. Svetlana describes the war as “a fight between two brothers of mine” and that she “can’t support any of them”, adding that “knowledge and facts we can’t know”.
To better understand Kremlin propaganda against Estonia and its communities, Ash visited the studios of Estonia’s Russian language channel ETV+. There, editor Artur Tooman described what he believes are deliberate disinformation campaigns to sow division among Estonia’s communities. He explained that he sees reports circulate on social media, such as recent alleged accounts of Ukrainian refugees attacking locals, but every time he tries to investigate then the person who originated the claim says it didn’t actually happen to them but someone they know. Yet when he asked for that contact so he can report the facts, they go silent. This is partly why Tooman believes ETV+, a free and credible Russian language channel, is so important.
“If we don’t speak to [Russian speakers in Estonia in their own language] then Russia will instead,” says Tooman. “And, as we know, Russian TV very often uses false information and that’s not good because when a lot of false information builds up in a country, it can lead to war.”
Returning to Narva, Ash spoke to Šamil Gusseinov, a karate teacher in his 50s originally from Russia who now lives in Narva. After Russia launched its full scale war on Ukraine, Gusseinov decided to join Kaitseliit, the volunteer Estonian Defence League, to help defend Estonia if ever needed. In the same period, more than 2700 other volunteers have signed up as well (including 200 in Narva), which is ten times higher than the usual numbers during a 3 month period. As the BBC explains, members of Kaitseliit are involved in everything from weapons training to sporting activities and countering disinformation online (like us).
“I really like this city. I like Estonia. I like the people, says Gusseinov. “I realised that the world has changed. What Russia is doing to another state, a foreign country, is frightening. It acted like a wake up call. I started paying more attention to politics and watching videos of Russian politicians, State Duma Deputies, making threats about our country, Estonia, the Baltics, and all the Nordic countries. I decided that I needed to join the defence force and get training so I can handle modern weapons and know how they work. The world has changed. I hope that the worst will not happen but if you want peace then you have to be prepared for war.”
Gusseinov goes onto explain that events like Tallinn Music Week are great both for integration and also the flourishing of a civil society and opportunities to understand cultures.
“Culture is essential,” he says. “Everything starts with that. If there’s no culture, there’s no nation.”
You can listen to the full 30 minute documentary here or by searching wherever you get your podcasts for the series ‘Crossing Continents’ and the episode ‘Love Bombing Estonia’s Russian speakers’.
Cultural identity is complex, as these reports show, but language alone does not determine someone’s allegiance or worldview. Russian speakers are part of the story of Estonia and all have their own individual stories to tell, which is often very different to the propaganda narratives that the Kremlin uses in an attempt to sow division. That propaganda from Russia remains a huge challenge, but Estonia’s progress integrating its communities is real and the most significant change is generational as younger Russian Estonians find greater opportunities for themselves, mix with other communities of Estonia, and enjoy broader access to free information outside of the Kremlin’s propaganda channels. We’re glad NPR and the BBC both took time to listen to their stories, and will continue to encourage more journalists to do so.
Propastop is run by volunteers at the Estonian Defence League who monitor and fact check propaganda against the Republic of Estonia. For more English language content from Propastop, follow us @Propastop on Twitter here.
Cover photo: Mark Vorobjov, a 28-year-old living in Tallinn. Photo by Nora Lorek for NPR.