For Estonians June is a month that holds two elemental milestones in Estonian, one that boosts our self image as victors, one that makes us pause in rememberance as victims.
On June 14th Estonians world wide commemorate the first Soviet mass deportations of Estonians to Siberia in 1941, an action of large scale ethno-cleansing co-ordinated by Moscow to be launched exactly at the same time in all three Baltic states. Its brutality and clock-work exactness bespoke of the fine-tuned organization that preceeded its execution.
On June 23rd Estonians celebrate the decisive battle at Võnnu in 1919, in northern Latvia, a battle that was decisive in Estonia’s eventual victory in its War of Independence of 1918-1920. The war was fought on two fronts against Soviet Russia and against the German Landeswehr. Estonian forces, vastly outnumbered, achieved a victory, never repeated.
One can theorize that the deprtations were possible because of the smallness of Estonia versus its totalitarian neighbour. Likewise, Estonia’s victory in the War of Independence is all the more intriguing because of the smallness of the nation.
Oftentimes it seems as if the small size of the country is that attribute that has been a determinate in Estonia’s failures, successes or its unpredictable position in a rapidly evolving international community of nations.
Smallness can lead to: ignoring small countries; relating to small countries only on the basis of larger policy issues; wanting to support the weak against the strong, wanting to support democracy against dictatorship; making smallness synonymous with being a victim; equating smallness with vulnerability; making smallness as the inevitable precursor of being a victim.
The size of Estonia has always been a major feature inherent in any description of the country. Jakop Hurt, preacher, folklorist, writer, widely renowned observer of Estonia’s cultural development and promoter of things ‘Estonian’ had a goal, in the 1800’s for Estonians having a small nation: they should strive for cultural and spiritual greatness.
It’s obvious that Estonia cannot take a place in the line-up of the world’s economic, and military superpowers. Neither can it compete with countries abundantly endowed with natural resources.
But Jakob Hurt’s two-centuries-old commentary still resonates fairly accurately. The documentary film, ‘Singing Revolution’ captures Hurt’s observation fairly accurately. A nation joining in song was a significant aspect of its ability to withstand the daily burden of a totalitarian regime. Singing helped to replace the drudgery of coping with the absurdities of communist ideology. Singing together was an effective spiritual rebellion against a foreign occupant. It helped to negate the necessity of a physical or armed confrontation with the enemies of independence and freedom. It helped to avoid possible victims of such a conflict, the only Soviet occupied nation to regain independence without splling blood.
Small is a quality that economic excperts say also partially accounts for Estonia’s ability to normalize economic growth and to survive the world-wide recession. Although still suffering from record unemploymenmt, Estonia is able to proceed with negligible national debt compared to ‘advanced’ economies such as Germany and Spain.
Smallness does not have to be incompatible with victory. In fact when Estonians celebrate victory smallness makes the occasion much more meaningful. We can proudly acklnowledge our size and well as our determination to succeed.
June, a month for victors as well as victims