On February 13 the Estonian-Finnish writer Sofi Oksanen made an important speech in Tallinn. This is great polemical rhetoric and is, in my opinion, essential reading for both the world at large and the Baltic states. Oksanen addresses the persistence of Russian imperialism in eastern Europe and the dangerous, corrosive influence that subversive Russian propaganda is having in Trumputin times. I have translated it (with a little help from an Estonian friend) into English. HB
Estonia and Finland must stand up for themselves and no longer look at the history of Europe through a Soviet lens, says writer Sofi Oksanen
Clear boundaries were drawn on the maps of Finland that hung on the walls of my school classrooms. Finland and the USSR were marked out but Estonia was nowhere to be seen. The invisible country may as well not have existed, for whatever reason. There was an uncertainty about this land. It was difficult to talk about the country and the injustices and dangers endured by its people. The existence of such a land is hard to affirm when it does not appear on a wall map, in a school textbook or newspaper and when it has no visible flag. Maps, however, retain a strong visual memory for a long time.
Our neighboring countries and the USSR used the same maps - those that did not show an independent Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania. I remember the confusion when, in the mid-1990s, our Earth Sciences teacher began to re-draw the old boundaries and ordered we students to do the same in our school textbooks. Young Finns were already aware of the restored independence of the Baltic states, but this re-drawing, like the borders of the Balkan countries, although it was something new, did not arouse much interest . My lack of enthusiasm was due to the fact that I had to learn new and complex names. It was not, however, explained to us why it was necessary to learn these names, note the new boundaries or know how they came about. Looking back it boils down to this: in my schooldays Yugoslavia was seen through Soviet spectacles.
Yugoslavia was clear and simple. We knew little of the new countries or a war in which only a few were thought to be responsible. It is difficult to study and memorize in this context. The Earth Sciences lesson where Yugoslavia was discussed, however, was lively but it was the only time mention was made of the issues involved.
I could imagine similar reactions elsewhere, perhaps because, occasionally, there is still confusion between the Balkans and the Baltic, this is becoming less as time passes, but it also happens in the Nordic countries.
Our maps and school textbooks were dominated by a Soviet narrative. Finnish school books, under the influence of Finlandization, repeated Soviet stories about how the Red Army “liberated” the Baltic states and how a peace-loving USSR had been at peace since WWII. The many victims of the Afghan War were deemed a "problem", but criticism of the Vietnam War took up many pages. Finlandization of school books can be seen clearly when comparing treatment of the USSR with the USA in, for example, the series "History and us". Massive growth of industrial production schemes is reported from the USSR while charts of the USA show the growth of violent crime in cities. Poverty, drug problems and other aberrations of the American system took up a lot of space, while everything was beautiful and blooming in the USSR
Some Finns visited and saw with their own eyes a little of Tallinn, Vyborg, St. Petersburg and Moscow, but for the most part information about the USSR came from official textbooks. Some Finnish librarians compiled secret home libraries of forbidden books destined for destruction . I believe there were readers for such libraries.
Rumours circulated by ordinary people spread through chinks in the Iron Curtain, but the majority of people in the west never saw with their our eyes, what , in fact, lay behind the Soviet propaganda. They embraced what was remembered from the school textbooks, read in the papers and seen on TV. Those who were allowed out of the USSR, saw only officially permitted places and stayed in officially approved hotels.
Western imperialism was thoroughly discussed in schools. The word "imperialism" has never been linked with the USSR. Russia has never been associated with the collapse of the USSR, “Bronze night” in Tallinn or the war in Georgia. Instead, the language of the news and in schools still uses bland phrases such as a Russian or Soviet "prerogatives " or "- politics" with the Baltic states and eastern Europe deemed "buffer zones.”
“Imperialist” rhetoric is not heard in connection with Russia or the USSR when referring to either the former colonies or the former “motherland,” even though the words are compatible with the pillage and slave labour of Soviet oppression and the aims of the new Russia.
Finland only began to make reference to Russian “imperialism” after the western media began to use this term in connection with the war in The Ukraine, and even now the Finns appear slightly embarrassed in some way. The word occurs only in guest columns and editorials and is thus a subjective definition not really seen as fact-based news and neutral language. But, it’s a start.
One of the reasons for the success of Russia is that people in the West are not accustomed to associate imperialism with Russia despite the fact that the prosperity of the USSR was based on pillage and slave labor, and that half of the countries in eastern Europe were, for decades, colonies. It was thought in the west that imperialism was only relevant to the history of the USA and western Europe. Colonies were portrayed as something overseas, populated by non-white skinned people. Soviet propaganda was effective: a scenario that showed a voluntary union of peoples in a cradle of friendship lingered.
A classic game of tactics with Russia accusing the USA of imperialism went on for many years. Positive adjectives dispelling doubts were used in reports about the USSR and broadcast on many foreign channels. As long as imperialism was associated with the USA, it could not possibly be applied to the USSR. Russia succeeded in retaining long-term support for this myth of natural development..
Many of the former colonial powers have moved in a completely opposite direction. France and Britain are not able to intervene in the history of their former possessions. Their interference in the affairs of their former colonies was not looked on favourably, except when it sought to improve the harm done. Thanks to development of the former “motherlands” as well as the oppressed peoples of the former colonies , the situation is much changed. Postcolonialism has made power visible. Developments include the women's movement, anti-racism activities and a postcolonial awareness that the use of language is, in reality, a tool to process power.
Laws are not enough - equality cannot develop if language creates inequality and supports a system where the voice of the underdog is not heard.
After the collapse of the USSR and times and the political situation changed in Estonia a timely clear out of Soviet propaganda followed. It was important to tell the real experience of the people. People started to talk about the occupation, deportations and mass murders - things not allowed under Soviet propaganda. The same correction of the Soviet narrative did not take place in the west. The former empires of the west had already moved away from the time in which an awareness of former colonial robberies were recognized and discussed: the Soviet narratives did not start to unravel in this way.
Russia, the former “motherland” of the USSR has still not reached a time when these narratives have started to break out. On the contrary. Russia has long sought to deny its former possesions their rights to write their own history and it does this by using the language of Soviet propaganda. This means denying facts such as occupation, deportations and mass murders. This is familiar to the former subjugated peoples of the so-called Russian sphere of influence. The aim is to keep pressure on the former colonies and to give rise to confusion in the west and enable Russia to create opposition to the unmasking of Russian war crimes.
The USSR, throughout its existence, actively strived to be influential in the West. As a result, half a century of European history was viewed through a Soviet lens. Given this, how was the west to see the USSR and its legal successor Russia? The West was not accustomed to seeing Russia as an imperialist country, and thus the country's core activity – expansion- remained undetected. Correspondingly the west also continued to think about eastern Europe in the same old way.
Russian imperialism also went unnoticed because former empires such as France, the UK and even Belgium, moved in a completely different direction: no one in the West imagined that any country wanted to move to a position that the West considered to belong to the past, to be unfashionable and obsolete. This is a failure of imagination. The Russian American editor Masha Gesseni thinks that the popularity in the West of both Trump and Putin came as a surprise just because we do not have sufficient capacity to imagine something like this. Gessen tried for years to explain to western opinion leaders, editors and politicians the risks that Putin and Russia posed to the world. She has been proved right. Putin has said and done exactly what Gessen said he would. At the same time, Putin himself offered the west additional evidence. Killings of journalists and dissidents, restriction of freedom of expression, nulled election results. The Russians too could not believe that Putin could be as bad as Gessen said. The problem was not lack of evidence, but the fact that people could not imagine such a future as Gessen described. That is why it is not enough to give people facts and evidence of what is happening, it is not enough.
We should, therefore, also support the ability to imagine what these facts and the evidence means. Facts and evidence must be supported by images and this brings us back to words, to the use of expressions that people, both here and elsewhere already understand. That is why it is important to talk about colonialism and to use vocabulary related to this. These expressions connect to reflexive, associative emotional reactions, actions that Russia exploits for psychological influence. Words can connect to negative feelings and narratives which Russia keeps successfully at a distance from itself.
The war in The Ukraine came as a surprise to the west, but Moscow began preparation at the time of the Orange Revolution (2004). Colonialism hid behind a policy of protection for fellow nationals, Russian culture and the rights of Russian speakers in the near abroad. This policy was (and is) supported by Kremlin propaganda campaigns, familiar in Estonia as Soviet-era nostalgia and manipulation of political symbols. If the west had seen Russia as a colonial state, it would have seen the warning signs.
If Britain suddenly restored and exalted the glory of the British Empire in Ireland, a strong international response would have ensued. If all of a sudden, independent opinion polls showed that the Germans saw Hitler as the most important great man in its history, this would have shocked the international community and Germany would immediately have been seen as dangerous. Russia acted in this way with regard to Stalin and although the news was considered strange, this new direction was not broadly condemned
Above all: the west did not think that such action would have any effect on them. It was seen as happening in a strange, far away land and, even if Russian support of the extreme right of most of the European political parties was thought odd, it was not considered the right time to react.
This is an example of how far-reaching the effects of propaganda and psychological atmosphere may be - traces remain in language and mindset for decades. The USSR left, on the surface, a favorable impression that gave Russia a good psychological advantage. Entanglement in Cold War era rhetoric prevented Europe and the USA from seeing Russia's expansionist activities. The fact that the USSR defended Communists everywhere was forgotten, just like the fact that Russia wants to dominate the world today.
Few novels are written in the west about Russian spheres of influence, the idea of historical precedence and Russian prerogatives. Neither are these issues the subject of films. There is much more about colonialism and thus the narrative of colonialism is easier to live with as is sympathy with victims of colonialism. Exploitation or affiliation to a former “motherland” is in the west, no longer considered natural.
The need for national security was easier to recognize and it was not felt that the claim for Russian prerogatives in the buffer states was worsening. It sounded more natural to talk about prerogatives and buffer states. Opportunities, as well as economic benefits, were wasted. But the Estonians know the world's largest animal - the Estonian pig whose legs and head were under the counter in Estonia while the body was on the counter top in Moscow.
Prerogatives in the “buffer states” are not associated with the same oppression as colonialism, even though Finno-Ugric peoples in Russia are held in an iron grip because they happen to live in areas that have great natural resources. That is why Russia can prosper while the nation is oppressed: the leaders are not interested in life at the grass roots.
The idea of Finlandisation lost its charm somewhat after the collapse of the USSR but the political handling of the process is still ongoing. For this reason, the western countries have set forth the idea that Finlandisation would be well suited to Ukraine, an idea also considered attractive in some Eastern European countries. But even Finnish supporters of Finlandisation do not recommend Finlandisation for The Ukraine. The idea that someone would recommend Finlandisation as a positive option for eastern European countries stems from old Soviet propaganda.
Mika Aaltola, head of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, regards the Finlandization years as Skinner's operant conditioning chamber where a hungry rat was placed without water and food in a “Skinner box” and the rat has to press a lever to get food and water. The rat is taught to act in a certain way to access sometimes just a little food and a splash of water. A bonus system directs the rat how to behave.
After World War II the fate of Finland was very similar to a “Skinner box” rat. There were a variety of bonuses, such as more exports to the USSR and climate mitigation. Finland obedience was carefully controlled and tested, as demonstrated by the Diplomatic Note Crisis (1961) when the USSR sent a note, a very strong diplomatic weapon, to Finland, which warned about the increasing militarism of West-Germany and its allies and called for military consultations with Finland. Carrot and stick went hand in hand. Finland was decoy for the rest of the world, a display cabinet that the USSR used to prove to others that it was able to co-exist peacefully with a neighbor. The actual relationship was one of control. Finland was an exhibit, like the USSR was a kolhoz exhibit, a showcase for foreigners.
Since Russia now is also psychologically manipulating western leadership to respond in the desired manner, it can be said that Finlandization was a success. Finland learned to react to stimuli in the required manner. It must be remembered that Finlandization took from Finland the freedom to write their official history and an independent public view of Russia. It also increased censorship. Finnish people themselves supported censorship without understanding, claiming that there was freedom of speech in Russia because it was possible to criticize politics there.
Finlandization influenced how the Finns got used to talking about Russia. Any criticism of Russia's policy was often light. I consider this to be problematic because any criticism of state expansionary policy should not have to be deemed special and "courageous". It should be normal, as normal as the freedom in China to criticize the state of affairs. It is not a case of a state of emergency or a marginalized position, it is a case of normality: this is how it should be. It would not be permissible in China for a critic to hear that he is a fascist, a provocateur, a slave of NATO. These are the words used by Russia to criticize the actions of people in Finland. Such invective was not routinely used for example, for those in the USA, who criticized the activities of the Guantanamo Bay prison.
But any critic of the actions of Russia is, sooner or later, called a provocateur, a fascist or a Russophobe and we hear in this abuse the echo of the insults and language of Soviet propaganda, which succeeded in creating a situation where it was normal to talk about Russia in a friendly way and where negative adjectives were deemed abnormal.
At the same time, Russia has tightened its political rhetoric. For years, it has constructed bogus plots that Russia is surrounded by enemies. It has long been normal for the Kremlin to talk about its nuclear weapons
Alexander J. Motyl of Rutgers University, a specialist in researching the USSR and Russia, has analyzed Russian public speeches and has noticed that the political tone has recently changed. Talking, for example, about mass murder and ethnic cleansing has taken on a new shade. These are not now conjectures, but political speeches normal in Russia. Detailed presentation of this ilk has become normalized. For example, the Russian economist and former official of the Office of the President, Mikhail Hazin has suggested that the independent Ukraine should be dissolved. Russia would annex north, south and east Ukraine and ban the Ukrainian language. Russian north and central Ukraine would be stripped of any military activity and industry and converted into an agrarian enclave. The western part of The Ukraine (with all its nationalists) would be handed over to Poland. People living in so-called overcrowded areas would be sent to Russia's Far East. As there are still millions of people who cannot work the land, some should be annihilated and some deported.
Such talk is, of course, intimidation, part of Russian psychological warfare. It is also a step-by-step normalization of violence. This was how, in the same way, step by step, in the history of the world mass murder came about. That is the way people were quietly accustomed to the idea that those in society who are different are repulsive.
The use of tougher language is also part of the so-called new world order, predicted by Russia. Sergey Karaganov is a political scientist who heads the council for Foreign and Defence Policy, a security analytical institution. According to Karaganov: "The old world order has been destroyed. Now is the time to begin to build a new one. " This new world needs its own language and that language has gradually been introduced.
We cannot influence Russia's domestic policy or the kind of programs on Russian national TV, but we can influence what happens in Europe. We can affect what kind of epithets are used about Russia and expose the reasons why Russia has, with great pains, tried to keep certain words outside its vocabulary. There is a need to talk about colonialism; there is a need to talk about imperialism; there is a need to talk about war crimes and the pillage of colonies. There is need to talk about them, because we need the truth, and because it destroys the dominant image of Russia manufactured in Moscow and so that the west is enabled to understood the meaning of these words.
We must use concrete examples. The USSR or Russia, for example, may seem as distant as Columbia, but Colombians know about domination. And a Spaniard, for instance, who has never been to Russia, knows what it means when people disappear. Basques may not understand the USSR, but they know the struggle for independence. Mexicans may not understand what went on in the USSR but every Mexican knows what terror means. Every Irishman knows well what it means to be occupied and about displacement. This is the way forward.
Bringing together comparative experiences can create empathy and compassion. It is therefore very important to Russia to prevent talk about common history. It is very important for Russia to exclude words recognized by all other former colonies. And this is precisely why we have to use those words.
The world was different when the west began to study WWII and to hold a public discussion of the Holocaust. This was a time when there was only one version of the truth. Such a world is not good for minorities and women, but it helped to expose the Holocaust and its message. Condemnation of the Holocaust was unanimous, but by the time the Iron Curtain came down the west was entrenched in a world where people no longer believed only one truth. Journalism had new journalists who had to present multiple perspectives - the truth could be found somewhere in between. This way of thinking did not take into account that a lie is not “a point of view” and that the Soviet point of view is not a point of view, but a lie and a lie that must be demonstrated to be propaganda and untrue.
The Post-colonial world was thus a world in which the past USSR was not treated in the same way as the German Nazi past had been treated.
WWII had ended in 1945 in western Europe and the west had moved on. WWII only ended in Estonia when the last Soviet troops left in 1995. Estonia’s treatment of the immediate past was not considered as important as pre-war Estonia and WWII was forgotten. At the same time, of course, Russia did not want to debate the past.
Populism, Donald Trump, and the rise in the west of the extreme right-wing has highlighted the importance of truth and that facts are an intermediary. This is something that is good for us, and it is time to introduce those postcolonial tools that can bring us benefits.
Postcolonialism in western countries has, at least partially, brought inequality and injustice out of the shadows. It has supplied tools, vocabulary, language and a rejection of oppression used in universities. It is understood at least by some journalists and educated people. It is also a tool which can be used to communicate our situation elsewhere …
Estonians can observe Russia at research conferences or seminars about security, but how many Estonians attend postcolonial- related international meetings? Or, other Baltic and eastern European researchers in their own country? We turn up at post-Communist-related international meetings, but not in a Postcolonialist context. Rather in a context of racism and related international discourses. Russification is racism and we have experienced it. Russia is now adopting a racist attitude to those who do not look like Russians, including Finno-Ugrians: it is very necessary to call this attitude racist, particularly necessary, because Russia accuses Estonia of being racist and Estonians of being Russophobic. It is necessary because western countries either do not understand the term “Russification” or they cannot relate it to racism or colonialism.
Anti-racist Soviet propaganda related only to the USA. Thus the west is not accustomed to associating racism with Russia. If those ethnic minorities who live in Russia and who are experiencing racism were better known elsewhere, there would more of an interest. The ethnic groups in the diaspora are not loud enough. These are no films or books. No stories that bring them up.
Russia's uniqueness is a myth. This myth supports the fact that Russia cannot be placed in the same lineup as other imperialist countries. It supports the error that Russia cannot be regarded in the same way as other empires. Of course it can and must.
Each culture is unique in its own way, but Russia feeds on its uniqueness and particularly on its myth of uniqueness in a manner that leaves critics toothless.
This is essentialism, the view that for any specific entity there is a set of attributes which are necessary to its identity and function. Essentialism belongs to a bygone world. It was smashed to smithereens by the struggles of the women's movement for the same rights as men and the necessary to demonstrate that biological differences do not make women less intelligent or talented. When women succeeded (pretty well) in demolishing essentialism in a large part of the world, they also demolished the myth of Russia's uniqueness.
Finns also often use the phrase "One cannot understand the Russia lands" but this is a myth that it is possible to dispel. One way is to use phrases that correspond to reality. The same applies to Russia's own myth of so-called “unpredictability.” In fact, Russia is not in any way surprising or unpredictable when its actions and motives are examined. On the contrary. Russia is particularly predictable and has absolutely clear objectives. The Russian election results are predictable. Hardly anyone believes that Putin will leave power voluntarily. This, too, is predictable- hardly anyone in the Federal Security Service (FSB) or other security organs is starting to lose their grp. And, in this big oil state whose culture is borrowed and whose big bosses are borrowed manages to retain the belief in its uniqueness and singularity and repeats this as a mantra.
There is another reason why the Baltic states and the countries of eastern Europe should take part in the global debate on colonialism and its legacy: many writers in the west are in the middle of this discourse. Some are people who are or whose parents were, for example, the French left-wing or the radical Finnish pro-Soviet left wing. In other words, they and their circles are moving in a world where, in Soviet times, there were many Soviet-backed operations. Echoes of the activities of this world remain. And the eastern neighbor knows it.
Take, for example, Johan Bäckman, who was well known at the end of the Estonian independence movement era and who is still a frequent guest of TV channels in Russia. He is a scholar of the Sibelius Academy who recruits people from cultural spheres to write texts. People from exactly those spheres in the eastern Europe and Baltic states that should be spearheading presentation to the west. We do not need to worry that the rest of the world knows little enough about our troublesome past, because worry does not help. But we must be visible and understandable. The powerful imperial narrative cannot be easily changed. And success is not instant just as with the former colonies of other empires.
I am writing books about contemporary Estonian history as one way to bring the country alive. No power in the world can wipe away a land and its people from the literary map of the world.
Written culture is always stronger than the cultures whose legacy is just oral. The literary world is created in books and in the minds of readers, and this world is the most important world of all: it is a world of the mind. Maps hanging on school walls create perceptions, but the literary world atlas is able to create something that other maps cannot – it can tell the stories of individuals. Figures, statistics, maps and the school does not have a voice. They do not have a faces. People can’t feel a sympathetic connection with them.
Books and art highlight individual stories, the stories of people who are the same as us. Therefore, there is no stronger weapon than a story: one person's story about another person with whom the reader can strongly identify told from a geographical distance, a personal story of a stranger, seemingly getting close.
That's why shared experience wards off, for example, racism: empathy does not lead to killing. Its preferable for “others” to be killed, people who are considered inferior, enemies, inhuman. It is harder after sharing experiences for people to see the “other” differently, and this is why dictators seek to secure their power through confrontation and the creation of fictitious enemies. Dictators require imaginary enemies from whom they will be able to protect the people.
A few years ago I was in Iceland and met with Icelandic cultural and political activists. The approach to literature there is different from the other Nordic countries - Icelanders identify easily with the history of the Soviet occupation of Estonia because they have known occupation and the oppression of the strong. Iceland, like Estonia, is a small nation, which has felt the oppression of a larger neighbor but still has a strong native culture and a mother tongue, in defiance of all probability. I remember one thing in particular about my trip to Iceland: these people are few in number and they do not have their own army, but their standpoint is clear: Our best defense is our culture.
Considering their history of occupation, Iceland is a success story. After centuries of oppression it grew rapidly into a democratic Nordic country. The fact that Iceland has a clear cultural identity, which none of the occupations were able to erase, plays an important part in this story.
Russia, despite her financial clout, has not been able to destroy the Estonian culture. Centuries of feudalism and serfdom and the subsequent occupations were not able to destroy it, because Estonia, its language and culture, is as much of a success story as Iceland. A strong cultural identity and language are the cornerstones of small nations and a tiny country can be a great cultural power. The Singing Revolution is an example of how , with the help of culture, a bloodless revolution can be carried out. As Solzhenitsyn says: "Words can break the hold of cement."
This is what lies behind so much of Russia’s psychological intimidation: information and words are much cheaper than guns. And so it is that words are a resource for those who cannot afford modern weapon technology.
I will finish with a borrowing from the American poet and human rights activist Audre Lord : "Your silence will not protect you."
Delivered Monday, 13 February, 2017. Enn Soosaare Conference
Translation by HILARY BIRD
Sofi Oksanen: Your silence will not protect you