Ideas Archipelago Ukraine | Estonia

Ukraine war opens the wound of Estonia’s Soviet past

For Estonian historian Aro Velmet, the war in Ukraine has revived the never fully resolved tensions between the former Soviet republic and the former colonial power. Starting with the place of the country's large Russian minority in society. First part of a new series of essays on the war in Ukraine seen by authors from Central and Eastern Europe.

Published on 7 July 2022 at 10:00
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I was about as far away from Ukraine as possible, when the war started. On 24 February, when Vladimir Putin announced his “special military operation”, my home country Estonia was celebrating 104 years of independence, and I was teaching a history class on apocalyptic movements in Los Angeles, 10 000 km from Ukraine. The distance from Tallinn to Kyiv is exactly ten times less.

What a difference 9,000 km makes. A friend told me he couldn’t sleep, because he kept reaching for his phone to scroll through the latest news from the front. Another friend was stocking up on canned goods and generator fuel. Relatives of mine, a couple with two young children, were discussing which country they should flee to, if push came to shove. “I don’t really think Putin is going to invade here – but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared” – was how most people expressed their sentiments at the time. I found myself following a similar logic.

Surely, they were overreacting – but then again, that’s what everyone said before 24 February as well.

In Los Angeles, Ukraine was – unfortunately – easier to compartmentalize. Fewer people had personal connections to the regions, news reports from the war were quickly overshadowed by discussions of rising petrol prices, and the rightward turn of the supreme court, while attempts to make sense of the crisis were confounded by suggestions that the war was a product of NATO overreach, and therefore, like everything else in this narcissistic country, ultimately about the United States. 

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Occasionally, someone would remind me that LA was not a different world after all. One student told me they had a Ukrainian designer at the indie game company she worked for. The designer had missed several deadlines lately – he was working from Kharkiv, and he kept getting interrupted by air raid signals.

By the time I returned to Estonia in early May, the war had become a part of everyday life for most everyone I knew. Initial panic about a possible Russian invasion of the Baltics had been replaced with a sober push to support Ukrainians at home and abroad. To date, Estonia has received over 40,000 refugees. That is comparable to the number of refugees in the UK, which has a population over fifty times larger than Estonia, or a rate of over 300 per 10,000 population. 

The cultural center across the street from my house had become a volunteer hub, where people collected and sorted through donations. One friend was sending out e-mails asking for help delivering fuel to refugees they had housed in a spare apartment. Another one was arranging deliveries of medical supplies to the front. Everyone was still losing sleep because of endless scrolling.

Politically, the war brought to the surface tensions that some thought had long been buried, and made others much, much easier to see. 

One conservative politician, who had consistently fought against EU resettlement policies during the Syrian refugee crisis a few years ago, was now proclaiming that Eastern European states could surely not shoulder the influx of refugees alone, and calling for more solidarity from the Western members of the Union. I was reminded of the old definition of the term ‘chutzpah’ by Leo Rosten: “that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.” 

After a brief period of being uncharacteristically quiet, the far-right Conservative People’s Party attempted to play its usual “immigrants coming to take our jobs” tune, but thus far, it seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps this isn’t all that surprising. Suddenly, Estonian mainstream media seems to have lost all interest in moral …

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