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There are altogether approximately 140 different ethnic groups living in Estonia, but this diversity is easily overseen because many of these people use Russian in their daily lives, study in Russian-speaking schools and inform themselves about the world through Russian media channels. About half of the Finno-Ugric people who arrived from Siberia, now consider Russian as their mother tongue. For example when asked about our president a student in Narva spontaneously answered Vladimir Putin. There are about 300 000 Russian-speaking people in Estonia - one third of the entire population. Half of the 300 000 have applied for Estonian citizenship, a quarter has Russian citizenship and the remaining own the so called “grey” alien’s passport.
Since the re-independence of Estonia in 1991 the ethnic minorities, too, yearn for more independence and many cultural societies and clubs have been founded all over the country where people can “re-learn” their ancestors’ culture and language. The Ingrian Finns who collectively escaped Stalin’s repressions after World War II are one of the most active ethnic minorities in Estonia. They have founded eleven cultural societies and several dozens of dance, song and music ensembles. There is also several Ingrian-Finnish houses all over Estonia. An annual festival takes place in Tartu which is supported by the state of Finland. Four years ago the Ingrian Finns received cultural autonomy in Estonia – since then they organize their own kindergartens, schools, societies etc. Before World War II the German and the Jewish minorities also received cultural autonomy, now most of them use Russian in their daily lives.

Round tables in Tallinn, Tartu, Pärnu

Year 2008 is the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue and the Estonian National Folklore Council decided to organize three round table discussions about the shared values of the ethnic minorities in Estonia. The main question of the round tables was “What unites us? What are the shared values?” It goes without saying that all the ethnic minorities in Estonia are unique but at the same time they might also have something in common.
The first round table took place in Tallinn at the house of the Union of International Ethnic Societies “Lüüra” on February 7, 2008. There were 40 participants from 20 cultural societies. The second session on April 3rd took place in Tartu at club Atlantis (33 participants from 17 cultural societies) and the third one on September 29th in the House of the Inger-Finnish Cultural Society in Pärnu (32 people from 20 cultural societies). On November 16th a concert-performance in Tallinn concluded the round tables with folk songs, dances and music of most of the participating ethnic groups (the Estonian Latvian Society, the Slavic union “Läte”, the Estonian Polish Society Polonia, the Inger-Finnish Society of Pärnu, the Union of Ethnic Minorities’ Cultural Heritage amongst others).
Ene Lukka-Jegikjan, the organizer of the round table discussions says that all ethnic minorities have been positive about the outcome. Participants appreciated the rare opportunity to express themselves in Estonian language in public and many also hoped to continue the discussions in the future. On the other side there were people, especially in Tallinn, who are not content with their living conditions in Estonia and principally oppose themselves, they for example demand Russian to be the second official state language.
Ene Lukka-Jegikjan notes that best understanding and agreement was reached at the round table in Tartu. Ethnic minorities in the Tartu region are also most integrated in Estonian society, partly because the majority of them have studied at the Tartu University and know that Estonia did not join the Soviet Union voluntarily, it is not necessary to explain to them that Soviet Union liberated a part of Europe while occupying another (East Europe and the Baltic countries) etc. Rafik Grigorjan, Doctor of Philosophy from the North-Estonian Armenian Cultural Society pointed out that it is very important that people with higher education participate in the dialogues of cultures. Lydia Kõlvart, chairwoman of Lüüra, added that a dialogue can start between carriers of different cultural ideals.
On the other hand it was stated that folklore is a good starting point because it gives people a sense of dignity and national pride and knowing one’s own culture helps to understand other cultures. For instance Ljubov Petrova, a Russian-Estonian farmer said at the Pärnu roundtable that influenced by the Estonians’ keen interest in their folklore she also became interested in her own Russian roots. Now she has an Estonian farm in Aurdu municipality which is full of Russian folklore art.
„Naturally there were disagreements too, but everyone was open for dialogue”, Ene Lukka-Jegikjan says: “we were looking for what unites us and not for what separates us”. All participants shared the value of language and culture, education, family, security, democracy and citizen society. Each of the round tables ended with communal singing. The songbooks included folkloric songs in Latvian, Mordvan, Mari etc, and also the Estonian anthem. When the participants of the first round table were asked what song they would like to sing at the very end, then following the suggestion of Cecilia Rasa, the representative of the Lithuanians, the Estonian anthem was chosen.

Forest University in Toila

Another important dialogue with Estonian ethnic societies took place a year earlier in Toila, North-East Estonia, where the Estonian Non-Formal Education Union and the Estonian Union of National Minorities organized a joint Forest University. This was literally a forest university because the participants visited Estonians’ ancient burial sites and sacred stones in the forests of Toila. It was a great surprise for example for the Siberian Finno-Ugric people that such places exist in Estonia too.
Participants of the Forest University came from a wide spectrum of cultures and nationalities: Võru Society of Tallinn, the Swedish Free University in Estonia, the Estonian Ethnic Minorities’ Union Radoga, Tšuvaši Cultural Society, Mordvan Cultural Society, the Polish society “Polonia”, Mari Community, Ersa-Mokša Cultural Society, Udmurtian and Byelorussian Community to name just a few. The aim was to enhance communication and co-operation between ethnic minorities and organizers of non-formal education. The Estonian Union of National Minorities represents 49 organizations of national minorities in Estonia and the Estonian Non-formal Adult Education Association has more than 70 member organizations – thus the preconditions for collaboration were already there.
The very beginning of the meeting was slightly uneasy – the Russian speaking people kept to themselves and the Estonian-speaking societies did not understand why meeting other nationalities was necessary for learning handicrafts – a good ceramic oven seemed more effective. But the initial disbelief was quickly overcome and participants then discussed what could be done for the good of all ethnic minorities in Estonia. Participants suggested that local municipalities should have centres for ethnic minorities where people could get to know their ethnic culture and also learn about Estonian culture and folklore. Such a centre already exists in the town of Narva. Many people also wished that the Estonian Non-formal Adult Education Association organized more courses for ethnic minorities about citizen education, Estonian language and culture, and the minorities’ own culture. This idea is now being realized – the National Folklore Council of Estonia will start a series of folklore courses of Estonian ethnic minorities. These courses will be open for everyone interested and the first course will focus on the folklore of our neighbouring country Latvia. The Forest University participants also wished to become more involved in the development and reforms of Estonian Russian-speaking schools. Another simple but good suggestion was that local municipalities could invite the ethnic minorities in their area for a reception at least once every year, for instance on the independence day of Estonia. Apparently until now this idea has not been realized.
The Forest University concluded with a joint visit to the house of ethnic minorities in Narva, where participants could taste Ukrainian, Byelorussian, Russian and other national pies and drinks, look at handicrafts, photos and dance different national dances together.
Ene Lukka-Jegikjan: „The most positive aspect of the round tables and the Forest University was the fact that we were looking for what unites us and indeed a lot was found. This has built a good basis for future collaboration.”