"We could have been Bosnia,” said Eerik-Niiles Kross, a center-right Estonian politician, former intelligence chief—and much more besides. He didn’t have to tell me why. Estonians remain haunted by the memory of their doomed interwar republic. It inspired their drive for independence from the Soviet Union, but it reminds them that what was lost can never be truly restored.
The early stages of Soviet occupation saw some 60,000 Estonians killed, imprisoned, or deported (primarily to Siberia and Kazakhstan) out of a population of 1.1 million. Even more escaped to the West. In their place hundreds of thousands of mainly Russian settlers moved in, transforming Estonia’s demographics as they did so. By 1989 the Estonian share of their own country’s population (by then expanded to more than 1.5 million) had shrunk to a little over
60 percent, down from close to 90 percent in 1939.
As Estonia slid towards independence in the late-perestroika era, some 300,000 of its Russian inhabitants voted in a poll organized by a pro-Soviet organization to stick with the USSR. Immediately after the break with Moscow in 1991, there was a strong push for autonomy in Ida-Virumaa, a predominantly Russian-speaking region of the northeast. Russian troops stayed in Estonia until 1994. Meanwhile, the revived Estonian state was operating as the legal continuation of the interwar republic, a constitutional arrangement that denied automatic Estonian citizenship to those who had settled there during the Soviet occupation (or their descendants). The scars of Soviet rule were very raw. Estonia could indeed have become Bosnia.
That it did not owed much to (relative) Russian restraint, a product both of weakness and the comparative liberalism of the Yeltsin years. (A plaque honoring Boris Yeltsin was put up here in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, in 2013; Vladimir Putin will not be remembered so fondly.) Estonia’s Russians also understood that Estonia was headed West, a shift that promised something better than the lawlessness and seemingly perpetual economic crisis engulfing the land of their forebears. What’s more, Estonia’s new Western partners were adding to the pressure for more liberal citizenship laws. This was hard for a people with a dread that they might be the last of the last, but Estonians tend to be a pragmatic bunch: Naturalization has been made easier, although language, residency, and civic knowledge tests remain.
Of Estonia’s “Russian-speakers” (roughly 28 percent of the population), about half are Estonian citizens and some 25 percent are Russian citizens. Most of the rest are “noncitizens” holding what are known as “gray passports,” a status that Putin has denounced as “shameful,” although not so shameful that some of its holders don’t prefer to hang onto it. Unlike either Russian or Estonian citizens, they can travel visa-free to both Russia and almost everywhere in the EU (which Estonia joined in 2004). It is already easy for the children of gray passport-holders to become Estonian citizens. Next year it will be automatic. Not so for those where one or more parent is a Russian citizen (a twist resulting from the interplay of Estonian and Russian citizenship laws). To some, that risks storing up trouble for the future. To others, it involves too few people to be of significance.
Regardless of citizenship, permanent residents can vote in local elections and are entitled to the same social benefits as Estonian citizens, but the sense of exclusion still stings. Unable or unwilling to empathize with the Estonian fear that demography might finish what Stalin began, many Russian-speakers resent being required to apply for a fresh citizenship of the country in which they had lived (and maybe even been born) as full citizens of a now-vanished empire. “What have I to do with Stalin?” asked Valeri Tšetvergov of the Union of Russian Compatriots as we sat chatting in Narva, the most populous city in Ida-Virumaa and the third largest in Estonia.
Narva was a jewel of the Northern Baroque flattened during the Second World War, purged of ethnic Estonians (perhaps 4 percent of its population today), and rebuilt in Soviet concrete and gloom. Divided from Russia by an alarmingly narrow river, it is, along with Daugavpils in eastern Latvia, regularly identified as the next Crimea. “We have had a lot of journalists here,” sighed one local, as we discussed a slew of recent articles about her adopted hometown.