People don’t reproduce children, they reproduce families. This is the phrase that came to me following the two days of debate I participated in at this year’s Metsaülikool on the subject of Estonia’s falling population numbers. Given that the theme of this year’s annual Summer Camp for Esto Intellectuals was billed as “Land, Ecology and Land based beliefs”, a surprising amount of discussion went into this off-the-subject topic.
Speaker Jaan Männik, a mobile phone mogul from Estonia, introduced the subject on the Thursday of MÜ discussion. He posited that if Estonia wants to keep its current socio-economic structure, it needs to find ways to boost its population numbers. The other option would be to accept the decline in population and alter the socio-economic structure. Of course, both have economic and social implications and this was the crux of the discussion: bring in “muulased” and face what this might mean to Estonian culture, or clamp down on immigration and sacrifice the bottom line?
During the second day of this debate, it became clear to a group of women who chatted informally over lunch, that some key questions were being ignored – like why are young Estonians, women in particular, leaving the country and settling down elsewhere? Why are ex-pat Estonians, women in particular, reluctant to “return” to Estonia? Why are Estonians worldwide reluctant to bear quantities of children? Why are the social issues underlying these realities not being discussed? And why has Estonian society – informally and in terms of its state institutions - been so reluctant to address issues such as gender inequality, rampant alcoholism and disaffected youth?
The topics of gender and sexism have never been easy to bring up in mixed Estonian company. They exist amongst us like unexploded mines, waiting for the unwary or naïve to stumble upon them. The suggestion that perhaps the exodus of women and their unwillingness to bear children might have something to do with the quality of relationships possible with Estonian men is definitely explosive. After I waded out into the minefield, one heckler suggested that Estonian women marrying outside the country are simply gold-diggers. Another launched a more personal attack suggesting that such ideas might prevent me from “hanging onto a man”. Whatever.
The reality is that 60% of Estonian men are alcoholics and that gender relations in Estonian culture are archaic at best and downright abusive at worst. Gold-digger or not, why would any self respecting woman want to partner with a drunkard who thinks her place is barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen? What’s in it for us? Which leads me back to my original proposition: thinking people don’t just reproduce children, they reproduce families. They have children because the experience of participating in the life of a family appeals to them. Usually, they’ve had a good experience of it themselves or want to right the wrongs of their families of origin.
Growing up in Toronto’s Estonian community, I have quietly subscribed to the notion that there are healthy Estonian families and unhealthy ones. Perhaps the better terminology would be healed and unhealed Estonians. The difference is obvious. Healthy families focus on positive cultural and social values, unhealthy ones on loss, pain and poor coping strategies. One is open to new ideas and change; the other is fixed, rigid and closed. To one, the content of life’s experiences is the point, while appearances often rule in the other.
It was no surprise to me to find the representatives of at least three of Toronto’s quintessentially “healthy families” at Kotkajärve. Their culture of origin has been a grounding and positive experience for them and hence they seek to continue it and to participate in it. All of them have reproduced families. In Jaan Männik’s terminology, they are the “strong ones,” the ones supported and encouraged by the current Estonian state. But unlike the economic tigers of Estonia, these individuals, these families, have a collective concern for their kaasmaalased and are interested in dealing with the social issues that have swamped Estonian culture.
800 years of occupation, oppression, various forms of genocide and the imposition of foreign religions, cultures and mores have left a profound mark. No amount of joining the capitalist rat race and hoping for the miraculous and elusive trickle down effect is going to alter the despair and victim mentality that many Estonians suffer from. Nor will economic power repair the damaged and conflictual relationship between ethnic Estonians and ethnic Russians in Estonian. Nor will GDP render sober the hundreds of thousands of Estonian men (and increasingly women) who are trying to drown their powerlessness in liquor. Not all the cash in the world will make Estonians want to reproduce dysfunctional, painful, broken or abusive families.
Healing an entire culture is a much more profound process that requires a clear and unrelenting social and political will. It requires men, particularly in places of power, to stop being defensive and come to the aid of their brethren. It requires a collective cultural step out of denial and into creative thinking and a commitment to people. It requires not just the inclusion of women in the discussion but of women taking the lead in creating and working on solutions. Letting women – who have traditionally been strong healers and rulers of the hearth – show the way.
It requires not a return to old ways, but a bringing forward of strong Estonian cultural values that know how to honour the land and its people. This work is being done by people like the Taarausuliste ja Maausuliste Maavald. The most wonderful part of MÜ for me was hearing Ahto Kaasik, an elder of this organization, speak about the work that’s being done to renew these values, to bring to life our much abused, but nevertheless surviving, indigenous worldview. If you read Estonian, a fascinating article about this can be found on the web at www.suri.ee/etnofutu/4/omausk.....
Let’s not just stem the tide of young Estonians leaving the country; let’s stem the haemorrhage of our cultural blood. It is from within a strong culture that we can enlarge the diversity of our society without risking further losses. I believe we’re capable of it. Now all we need is the collective will.
Populating Estonia with healthy Estonians (16)