How is it, being a Russian-speaker in Estonia?

Posted on 13 July 2022



It is a well-know fact that the Russian propaganda uses arguments about suppression of rights of Russian-speaking populations to justify numerous interventions across the whole territory of the former USSR. In essence, this is what the current war in Ukraine is about – Russian authorities claim that the rights of Russian-speakers in Ukraine and in Donbas region specifically are violated, that the Russian language is being cancelled, and everything Russian is being pushed out of the country. Even more so, they claim that Ukraine is waging a full-scale genocide of the Russian-speaking population which necessitates a reaction from the Russian Federation to protect them.

Similar accusations have been heard during the past 30 years in every country where as a legacy of the USSR and the Russian Empire, large Russian-speaking populations and their descendants live. These accusations mainly involve the Russian language. It is claimed that Russians-speakers are being deprived of rights to speak in their native tongue, that they are not given an opportunity to study or interact with the government in Russian language. I would like to try and clarify the situation in my home country of Estonia, since I am that exact descendant of the Russian-speaking migrants who relocated to Estonia during the Soviet era, and show that despite certain issues, it is not exactly the picture that is painted by the Russian propaganda when it comes to the speaking Russian language.

Photo: Sergey Gorbachev

It needs to be said preemptively that I cannot be a true witness to the situation in other former Soviet states, I can only judge superficially since I have not lived in any of those countries. Even in Estonia, I cannot have knowledge of everyone’s circumstances, and surely some people will feel differently from me, so I will only describe my own personal experience in addition to what I’ve heard from my friends and relatives.

Nevertheless, Estonia is perhaps one of the most compelling countries to study the relationships between the ethnic population (Estonians) and local Russian-speakers, since the percentage of the latter compared to the former here is truly quite high at around 25%, but also the difference between ethnic Estonians and Russian Estonians is quite substantial in several respects.

For instance, Estonian language belongs to the Finno-Ugric family and is completely different from the Russian, while Lithuanian and Latvian (neighbouring Baltic countries with a similar situation) languages belong to the Balto-Slavic family and have common (albeit very ancient) roots to the modern Slavic languages such as the Russian. 

The above similarity does not of course directly point at any presumed tolerance level for modern Russian-speakers in said states. In Lithuania, few speak  Russian these days, while in Latvia ethnic nationalism occasionally takes forms that are more radical than in other Baltic countries. Here I’m simply highlighting the fact that Estonian and Russian languages are completely different, which eliminates a certain “brotherly peoples” sentiment that has potential to be observed, let’s say, between speakers of the Ukrainian and Russian languages.

Day-to-day life of a Russian-speaker in Estonia

Daily life and workplace situation would be the most obvious aspects to explore when trying to find “suppression of Russian-speaking minorities” in Estonia. The truth is, you can easily get by in Estonia only knowing the Russian language. 

Without any doubt, one would feel themselves much better if they knew Estonian perfectly, this would open many work and communication opportunities. This is especially important for white collar jobs, leadership and management positions, and obviously any workplaces with predominantly Estonian workers. 

Yet, in Estonia (and in the capital Tallinn specifically), among the Russian-speakers there are many who were born and lived here all their lives and still cannot say a word in Estonian. It is another question why this is happening at all, but it gives you an idea of whether the lack of knowledge of the local language could create any substantial obstacles to your life in Estonia. Living in a country such as the United Kingdom you will have a very hard time without any knowledge of English. But in Estonia, this is simply not a life-changing problem.

Certainly this means that people who don’t speak Estonian are somewhat limited in access to various social spheres, but for many this does not seem to be an issue. Many will say they don’t need and in fact don’t want to learn Estonian, for various reasons.

Estonians and Russians if they so desire can never cross each other at all except for some brief interactions. This happens more often in certain districts of the capital with significant Russian population, and in the east of the country where Russian-speaking population reaches 70%-90%. 

Estonia is fairly small, any toponyms can be memorised quickly, in the shops no one is forcing you to small talk with cashiers, and names of products are easily understandable for everyone who’s spent at least a few months in the country. In daily life, there’s hardly anything coming to mind that would complicate your life (short-term) if you can’t speak Estonian unless you are looking to join higher tier workplaces, such as office and governmental positions.

In certain jobs and industries people tend to group up based on their native tongue – go to a McDonald’s in Pärnu and you’ll find that all workers here are speaking Estonian. Visit the same chain in Rocca-al-Mare in Tallinn and every single employee will be speaking Russian. People tend to self-organise into smaller language bubbles naturally. In a BLRT Grupp industrial holding where some of my friends are working, among painters, engineers and other specialisations almost everyone speaks Russian, and few speak Estonian very well (unless they are in management).

Essentially, you can lead a decent life in Estonia with very limited knowledge of the Estonian language. Certainly you may have issues if you need to speak to the government to renew your passport or get a driving license, but what also helps is the fact that quite a few Estonians still speak Russian, even if on a very basic level, so it’s rare that people won’t find mutual understanding. But more often than not, they simply don’t need to.

Education in Russian

The language bubble principle to a certain extent applies to education as well. I cannot say much about university and college education – as far as my knowledge goes the majority of top-tier universities in Estonia have been teaching primarily in Estonian or English for decades. Yet I can still talk about my experience of being a pupil in public schools of Tallinn. I studied in two public schools, and both of them were Russian-speaking.

In grades 1 to 9 I studied in a Russian school in Tõnismägi area which is a central district of Tallinn. Every single pupil and almost all teachers in that school are Russian-speaking. All our classes were in Russian, we studied Russian literature, science, and history. To foreigners, this fact that we have many schools where education take places fully in Russian language is often quite shocking, but I can assure you here it is completely normal.

Estonian language was still taught to us in numerous classes along with the English, and social science classes were fully oriented towards Estonian governance system. But aside from getting good grades in the diary the knowledge of Estonian did not have a substantial significance in your day to day. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t important – the aim was still to equip us with enough knowledge of Estonian to be fully integrated into the society, which as I mentioned is also important for those who want to take jobs in the intellectual sector. Yet all of our teachers came from the USSR, had a certain… mindset, and some of them were even proper “vatniks”, such as my history teacher.

The exact same situation could be observed in the school where I studied in grades 10 to 12. It was somewhat of a simpler suburb school but our class was part of a program involved in deeper learning of Estonian, so many of us spoke it quite well by the time of graduation (not all though, a few still had problems). I personally passed my Estonian graduation exam with a very good result (sadly these days my Estonian is rusty since I have not had any experience with it after 12 years of living in the United Kingdom).

There are still many public schools like that in Estonia with full Russian-speaking teaching staff and pupils. Their number is gradually decreasing as the government wants to put an end to it, and it is a contentious topic in the Estonian society with many Russian-speakers fiercely resisting plans to reduce the number of all-Russian public schools. However, I suppose this is something one would naturally expect in a country that is called Estonia.

And there is no simple solution either. In my view, on the one hand moving all native Russian pupils to Estonian-only schools would immediately create substantial tensions. On the other – keeping two groups of pupils segregated leads to the same segregation in their adult life. I’ve often heard of Russian students going to all-Estonian public schools, but not vice versa. It’s a one-way road and Estonia will not re-orient more towards Russian-speakers. So in this regard, Russian-speaking pupils are losing a chance to integrate into the society.

Therefore, a gradual approach works best. After all, it’s been over 30 years since Estonia re-gained independence, and being a very small nation it makes sense it wants to preserve the culture, decrease tension through integration, and equip all citizens with good enough command of the native language to fully participate in the society.

I’m finding it hard to weigh in on this objectively. On the one hand, I wouldn’t enjoy studying only in Estonian. On the other, the segregation cannot go on forever. I suppose that if children are taught in Estonian from a very young age, kindergarten included, they would have much easier time compared to senior pupils being forced to switch to all-Estonian teaching after years of studying in Russian.

Yet, there is no real russophobia or a violation of rights to be talking about. If anything, government’s approach has been quite steady. As mentioned, you can still go to a Russian school if you want to, or learn Russian at home. Just like in Britain, pupils might be coming from all over the world but teaching still takes place in English regardless of your background. It probably shouldn’t be much different in Estonia.

So there are no problems?

While many seem to be finding living in Estonia without any knowledge of Estonian completely adequate, there are still certain issues you may face being a Russian-speaking Estonian.

There is a certain stigma bearing a Russian last name in Estonia, and it is not an uncommon practice for people to change their last names to sound more Estonian, if the heritage allows them (such as if they had an Estonian grandmother). It happens for a reason. While there is no direct suppression of Russians in Estonia, being a Russian is still somewhat disadvantageous by nature.

Representation of Russians in higher echelons of power might be somewhat skewed. In the list of 101 deputies of the Estonian parliament I was only able to identify six names with obvious Russian origin, which does not exactly represent the 25% Russian-speaking population of Estonia. This may be happening due to a variety of socio-economic factors but also due to a basic reluctance of Russian-speakers to get engaged in politics, but it is a fact nevertheless.

Speaking of socio-economic factors, Russian-speakers generally tend to be worse-off than Estonians, work at lower-paying jobs, have less income and lower-quality education, in many ways due the very lack of knowledge of the official language. However, the solution to this is quite simple. No one is stopping you from learning Estonian. In fact, the majority of Russian-speakers born in Estonia have been taught the language from a very young age, and not having a command of it is mostly their own problem and the problem of their parents.

It’s one thing coming to a country as an adult and finding difficulties with a completely alien language, but it’s a different circumstance absorbing the language and its structure from the early age and then failing to capitalise on this and giving oneself an opportunity to progress in career.

Even with a perfect command of Estonian, there might still be an invisible barrier in place that puts someone with a Russian name at a disadvantage. I’ve heard Estonians are more likely to hire an ethnic Estonian over a Russian-speaker. I do however believe that your personality plays a big part in this. The barriers are there to be broken, and Estonians generally love it when you are able to speak their native language with them.

If you don’t speak Estonian, life can still be good in Estonia

Certainly, an ethnic Russian will never feel the same as an Estonian. But the difference is so negligible given all other aspects such as your mindset, education and ambition that affect your life.

It’s understandable there is a distrust towards Russians in Estonia. As an individual, it is too hard for me to accurately measure it, and sometimes I wish we were trusted more, given that many (especially younger generations) were born here and have no other motherland, are patriots and extend solidarity to Ukraine in the on-going war. The burden of responsibility for historical tragedies cannot be fully placed on modern Russian-speakers in Estonia.

Yet from a purely language perspective, even with the existing issues in the society you should have no issues living in Estonia as a Russian-speaker if you so desire, short of moving to Russia. No one is stopping you from learning Estonian. Some of my friends’ parents have lived in Estonia for 50 years, don’t speak the language, and many of the complaints expressed by them stem from their own mindset and a lack of desire to change. So, Russian propaganda claims are blown out of proportions.

Latest posts