This month, we heard from Estonia that the court case against three men who attacked me and my family in April of 2004 in Hiiumaa is proceeding. They are being tried only in relation to the attack on my brother. Almost two years has passed since that ugly event and while our feelings of fear and anger have subsided, my thoughts about the incident have developed.
Hiiumaa is known as one of the safest places in Eesti. After the attack, people repeated this to us, as if it could undo what had been done. What was done? Four men, Russians who were former police officers from Virumaa, came back to the Puhkemaja where we were all staying. Our party consisted of five Canadians - two men, two women and a child, three of us Estonian-Canadians. As three of the Russian men drank themselves into a frenzy, they decided to attack us. Fortunately, my sister-in-law and my seven-year-old niece were away from the scene when the men grabbed me, my partner and my brother. Violence ensued. There was no reasoning possible: they didn’t speak Estonian or English, we didn’t speak Russian or the language of drunkenness. We struggled in the language of the body.
Using all my might and wiles, I escaped first into the night. My partner followed me shortly after. We debated going back to help my brother but we were uncertain of whether they had weapons. We decided to flee for help and took the mother and child with us. As we ran, searching for a lit house on the dark country road, two thoughts filled my head: concern for my brother, (please don’t kill him, I pleaded to no one in particular), and sorrow for my niece. I did not want for her to know this particular running-in-the-night-from-Russians terror.
A light was found, police and acquaintances called. Stolen things were recovered, my brother searched for and discovered among the juniper. He was bloody and bruised, his face lacerated by a knife and his nose broken, but he was alive. I suffered a twisted neck and could not move my head for many days. The swelling bruise on my knee cut short our cycling trip a week later.
When the police left, we were taken to safety in the house of new and very generous acquaintances. The Russians were left to drink and rage. They were not taken into custody. All the next day, as we toured Hiiumaa, we leaned toward the safety and comfort of our rescuing hosts knowing these men were on the loose. We stumbled around the island raw and stunned. We offered out statements to the police. My brother’s was taken. I was ignored.
Two years later, I am still angry. But with whom am I angry? Certainly the three men who replaced my hard-won sense of power with fear. It is simple to be angry with them; the world, after all, is filled with men like them - angry, unfulfilled, resentful, ignorant and aggressive.
Written like this, it all seems so simple. They attacked, we struggled, I bit, Martin pushed, Erik ran. Kogu moos. Or is it? In the months following the attack, I was unable to let the incident rest. My brother’s broken nose mended. My bruises faded, my neck swivels and bends properly again, but something is not finished. I wrote a letter of thanks and sent gifts to the people in Hiiumaa who helped us out and took us in. I have spoken to friends as I attempted to explain what it is to be attacked by a Russian. My tears have long dried. What remains are questions.
When a 41-year-old woman, a writer and a guest in the country, is assaulted by three men and the Estonian legal system does next to nothing in response, there is a problem far beyond physical injury. There was the immediate problem of danger to others in Hiiumaa. There is the ongoing problem of three violent men who, as far as I know, are still wandering around Estonia, confident in their ability to brutalize whomever they choose and suffer few consequences. But what does that have to do with me? I’m home, safe in Canada. The chances that they’ll encounter my friends and family in Estonia are few and far between.
The problem, on a deeper level, is more philosophical, but no less real and relevant. Why are Estonian institutions such as the legal system, unwilling or unable to protect those it has been assigned to safeguard? I return to the moment when the police said they wouldn’t be taking the attackers into their custody. I return to the moment the police suggested we attacked the Russians. I return to the moment when the police refused a statement from me. I return to the fact that an acquaintance who researched the incident for a newspaper was repeatedly told no such incident occurred before he uncovered the truth. I return to the moment when the Canadian embassy in Tallinn referred me back to the police officer who had refused my statement. I return to the Estonian friends and family who, though horrified with what happened, turned away, unwilling to discuss the incident.
This became a quintessential part of my Estonian experience: turn your back on the problem, remain silent, or blame the victim. I quickly discovered the extent to which each and every Estonian is still a victim. Perhaps my loved ones turned away because they couldn’t bear to see our powerful innocence shattered: now we too know the humiliation of being Estonians at the hands of Russians. The shame that came with this victimization came as a surprise. Born and raised in Canada, I have not known this particular humiliation personally. My parents’ generation took great care to spare us that experience. Instead, they imbued us with the power of righteous anger and self-confidence.
I was surprised at the extent to which Estonian society and institutions are still caught up in a victim mentality. It’s as though there is an unwritten understanding that Estonians are born to be beaten and Russians (among others) are born to be aggressive. So, why help the one and punish the other when they are just being themselves? Cats are cats and mice are mice. The job of an Estonian is to be smart enough to avoid the aggressors and to be silent if we fall in their trap. This is the way in which we try to leave our pain behind.
But pain doesn’t work that way. We don’t keep silent, the silence keeps us. It keeps us in the form of unhappiness, fear, alcoholism, despair, suicide, family dissolution, depression, sickness, apathy, cynicism, greed, lack of unity. Silence keeps us victims and now, in the independent Estonia, it turns some of us into collaborators. By not holding these men responsible for their actions, the police in Hiiumaa facilitated violence. Their lack of action reminds us that we are not only worthless in the eyes of Russians but that we are worthless in the eyes of our own people. The message the Hiiumaa police gave to me and my companions is that we are not worth protecting. And we are not the only ones to have had such experiences in Estonia in the past few years.
This led me to the question of what I was doing in Estonia. Tourists like us are good enough for hotels, restaurants, buses, museums and business people to take our money. We are good enough for the government to launch a “Welcome to Estonia” campaign. We are definitely welcomed as worthy by family, friends and many strangers. So why are we not worth physical protection and justice?
Victims are passive subjects, people to whom bad things happen. They are weak. In the most admired social democracies of the capitalist world, like Sweden, Denmark and Holland, victims are cared for through programmes funded by the government. Victimhood is seen as a temporary situation that citizens need help to pass through so that the entire society can move forward. Progressive societies recognize that the interconnected chain of community is only as strong as its weakest link. But what happens when a whole nation of people has been collectively victimized? How does one begin to heal such extensive, deep wounds?
I think of South Africa. Shortly after apartheid ended, black South Africans realized that they would have to act in order to live among their oppressors and torturers. They knew action was necessary to create a new society. The dreamchild of these people was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The much-respected bishop, Desmond Tutu, was chosen as its head. The TRC’s job was to hear the stories of both perpetrators and victims for the purpose of breaking silence and bringing truth out into the open. The perpetrators would be granted amnesty if they told the whole truth and their actions were within the context of the political system under which they lived. The hope was that the acts of speaking and witnessing pain would ease the burden of those most affected by loss and grief, so that people could move forward less encumbered. The TRC was an unparalleled and brave experiment in the potential for human healing. Though there have been mixed feelings about the outcome of the TRC, the fact that healing was an important political objective has left its mark.
Estonia is similarly encumbered. Each and every person of Estonian heritage, myself included, is somehow burdened with our collective past. But how will we unburden ourselves? As poet Hando Runnel asks, “Valet me tunneme, tõesti kõik teame, ent kas just meie need pühkima peame?” (We know the wrongs, really we all do, but is it us who needs to wipe them away?) The reality is, no one else will do it for us.
What would it take for us to heal from our losses, hurt and anger? It feels like a pipe dream to wish for this healing, but Estonians have dreamed before and have realized their aspirations. If we truly value ourselves and all the generations of Estonians to come, I believe we will act. Perhaps now is the time. Until then, Hüvasti Eesti…
The silence that keeps us (15)