By Jüri Estam
Recent days have brought news articles pertaining to the "post-Soviet" condition that Estonia is said to be in.
An Estonian Public Broadcasting news item in English on August 20 was headed "Estonia Marks 19 Years of Post-Soviet Independence.” National Public Radio in the US followed with "Russian Minority Struggles In Post-Soviet Estonia" on August 23.
As a concept, "post-Soviet" is an evasive rascal. Encyclopedia Britannica, in an entry about post-Soviet Russia, notes that the "USSR legally ceased to exist on Dec. 31, 1991," and that Russia, "like most...other former Soviet republics...entered independence in a state of serious disorder and economic chaos."
Disorder and chaos are salient features of the post-Soviet (PS) condition. A post-Soviet condition existed in 1991 and 1992 in Estonia, when there was not enough to eat; when scruffy men exchanged dollars for rubles on the steps of the main post office in Tallinn, before Estonia returned to having a currency of her own.
The literature frequently suggests that PS countries are in transition. After exiting the post-Soviet tunnel, one presumably arrives at a station akin to the Promised Land, but there is a Catch 22 quality to this.
If there is indeed an end to the PS state of being, as there should be, no one knows what the half-life of "post-Soviet" is. When does the Geiger counter show that "post-Soviet" has been reduced to safe levels? No committee will make the pronouncement, unless we convene one ourselves, so to speak, and also encourage others to break with the terminological past.
Other notions of periodization too, such as "postmodern," defy being summed up in one simple sentence, but postmodernity is certainly better defined than post-Soviet. Considering "The Best Way to Love our Identity," in the Spring 2006 issue of the journal Lituanus, the Lithuanian poet, Tomas Venclova, says that in the past, "all of Central and Eastern Europe, seen from the West, appeared grey and monolithic, an expanse bristling with missiles and secret police, a monotonous wasteland, a great Nowhere."
Expanding on Venclova, Harry Weeks, a scholar in Edinburgh who studies the contemporary art of the Baltic States, writes in this year's first issue of Studies in Eastern European Cinema: "This touches on a number of stereotypes of Eastern Europe, formed predominantly during the Cold War, and relating to the supposed backward, militaristic and dour nature of ‘The East.’ Of particular note...is the fact that these stereotypes are of the entire region, and there is no suggestion of local variation. This single conception of an entire region demonstrates the existence of a flattened Eastern Europe as an imagined geography that has outlived the Cold War and its political East/West divide."
The thrust of Weeks's essay is about the need to "re-cognize" what is often called "New Europe" - another arbitrary, somewhat useful, and somewhat disorienting phrase. How can an old part of Europe be called New Europe? Talk of a featureless and lumped together Eastern Europe does a disservice to its parts. Importantly for the Baltic States, Weeks contends that attempts to use a similar catch-all idea about a "unified" post-Soviet condition for many countries and cultures in various states of being is fundamentally flawed. Indeed: some are democratic, others are not, some struggle and others have struggled successfully.
The PS imagined geography "assorted bin" includes Russia, other former parts of the USSR, former members of the Warsaw pact and former communist regimes not aligned with Moscow.
The "post-Soviet" catch-all is by definition bursting at the seams. Why put Croatia, which can seem more Venetian than Venice, or digimodern and substantially Nordic Estonia in one pot with Putin's Russia, which used inhumane fuel-air bombs to flatten Grozny, and which, according to Edward Lucas in his The New Cold War, continues to move from anarchy to greater authoritarianism?
Weeks points to Baltic filmmakers Kristina Norman and Kaspars Goba, who "utilize the documentary...to assert the falsity of a flattened Eastern Europe and post-Soviet condition," "re-cognizing" and "de-flattening" both concepts in the process.
How's the Perception Management Thing working out for us?
Most people in Estonia are in favor of continuing to cast off the last of the undesirable hand-me-downs and behaviors from the Soviet occupation period. That, however, is not the same ball of wax as the art of perception management. What counts in all aspects of life is positioning and reputation. How you're regarded from outside. While the very premise behind attempts to "brand" countries pains me, particularly when clumsily done, isn't it time for us to stop self-identifying as post-Soviet? Shall we not retire the use of "post-Soviet" as a term to describe the state of the nation? It does not serve Estonia well. Identifying specific undead Soviet behaviors and driving a stake through their hearts is important in the struggle to come to grips with the past, but in respect to communication with the world, PS is an albatross around our collective neck.
Per Ahlmark: The Baltic experience in recent European history is unlike any other
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were three European countries in 1939. Part of the Western fold. There were warts on the nose of the Baltic States then as well as now, but we were Western.
After the loss of Estonian independence and while under Soviet hegemony, the other 12 Soviet Socialist Republics were in a different category. The Baltic States were not unlike Kuwait after Saddam Hussein had moved in.
The Swedish writer and politician, Per Ahlmark, said in 1985 that the violent abduction of the Baltic States and their "disappeared" status was unique - a European anomaly. "It was deeply regrettable," said Ahlmark in a speech I was privileged to hear, "that three European parliamentary democracies could simply go missing," and that too few got upset about their absence. It is as though a family member of yours were violently kidnapped in broad daylight on a street in London or Paris, and hardly a word of protest was uttered by witnesses. Actually, the European Parliament had taken notice by then. I refer to the landmark Resolution of the Parliament of January 13, 1983, which condemned the continuing occupation of the Baltic States.
The USSR consisted of 12 SSRs and the three annexed Baltic States. Capricious use of "post-Soviet" erases or clouds this distinction - one that Estonians in the Free World made substantial efforts to render visible before "reindependence."
The Baltic double bind: How long will we continue to be tainted by a bad experience we never wished for?
That which is post-Soviet has to previously have been truly Soviet. Having been "forcibly incorporated" into the Soviet Union, as Western non-recognition policy stated, the Baltic States were not Soviet in character, as Denmark was not National Socialist in character during her WWII occupation. "Post-Soviet" contains more than a seed of logical conflict for Estonians. We weren't "founding" or voluntary members of the USSR. The "post-Soviet" phrase does not make these distinctions. Estonians were obviously subjected to Sovietization and Russification, but the Baltic core is not Soviet, and continuing decolonization continues to return us toward our previous state and also takes us toward a different Estonian and European future. We are changing.
To continue using "post-Soviet" and remain consistent, one should also start referring to the Netherlands of 1940-1945 as a National Socialist country, and to post-war Holland as “Post-Nazi,” but the Dutch would object. Witness how many non-neutral terms have fallen out of usage in the US because of the issues they raise.
Use of "post-Soviet" fuels a carousel that will never stop of its own volition
Much salt sown by the communist and Hitlerian regimes remains in the soil of this region. The former East Germany, for example, has been characterized as an area hamstrung to some degree by the infrastructural disadvantages she inherited. In the above context, the PS phrase or the "p-word" would of some utility. The problem is that continued use of the "post-Soviet" phrase as such (why not then avoid it where possible, and simply talk of the issue as such) doesn't hold hope for those who would like to be free at last. It isn't possible to find a country that was stuck in the Soviet scheme of things that has pulled harder on the oars than Estonia, in order to distance herself from the pox of the unwanted past.
Time and space are both involved. The words "post-Soviet" enable "Westerners" as well as Russia to maintain outmoded labels and boxes. This is starting to become outlandish. Estonia is now in NATO, the EU, and is only months away from entering the eurozone. The Finns, 90 kilometers across the gulf and close relatives of the Estonians, are part of the West, but Estonians themselves keep talking of the West as a faraway place. It takes two to tango. Estonians will become Westerners again when they finish verbally excluding themselves from the West. "Physician, heal thyself." We need to stop talking of Westerners as "them." For as long as Estonians don't have the chutzpah to lay claim to that which is theirs, to make the mental jump; for as long as they perpetuate their own inclusion in something akin to a cordon sanitaire, they strengthen the hand of the Kremlin, as she asserts claims of special influence over her former colonies. By all rights, Central and Eastern Europe should no longer have a security dilemma. Repeating "post-Soviet" like a tic only makes it worse.
To continue using "post-Soviet" is generationally nonsensical and unfair to the kids in Estonian schools and at the malls. Those born here in 1985, or even a little earlier, have not seen "Soviet" with their own eyes. The word "post-Soviet" is puzzling to those born around 1995 or later - kids who don't have dental problems, who use bank cards or a cell phone to pay for purchases, and who have traveled. Who have never worn a red kerchief.
"Post-Soviet" holds out the lousy prospect of never being let off the "imagined geography" hook - one that can contain a pejorative grain, depending on the user and his or her intent. But we are not passive prehistoric ants, trapped in amber forever.
For Estonia, year zero was 1918, not 1991. The Baltic countries are reindependent - a phrase that may disagree with editors, but that many people who write about the Baltic States are using and that deserves to be legitimized.
Our communicative acts should begin by dropping "post-Soviet" from our description of ourselves and by referring to the West in a form that includes Estonians again.
Jüri Estam is a Tallinn-based communications consultant, bilingual writer and Estonian-English translator, voice-over narrator and advisor to filmmakers. He has previously been a broadcaster for Radio Free Europe, a member of US Army Special Forces and a current affairs program host for Estonian Television.
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