On the feasibility of integration

Merle Karusoo

The following article deals with the integration project Who am I, which has been operating since spring 1999, and the problems that have arisen from this experience. Believably, this is a universal model for facilitating the adaptation difficulties of any minorities, provided that the minority has a need for adaptation and the majority is ready to accept the minority.
In order to present this experience more clearly, voices from Kohtla-Järve, Narva, Sillamäe, Jõhvi, Maardu and Tallinn have been used, moreover, time is not ripe (yet?) to pronounce any conclusions.

"Who am I"

FROM SILLAMÄE: My father's father and mother were born in Värska, they lived and died in Värska, too. Father is Estonian. But my mother is a Tatar.
Me and my father have been christened in a church in Värska. Mother is a Moslem.
My nationality is Tatar, Russian, Estonian. I cannot tell exactly. I speak Russian, I was born and grew up in Russian tradition, but now we live in Estonia and we are surrounded by Estonian culture. Maybe I am Russian, but I want to become Estonian.

The operating environment and incentives of the project. The formation of the ethnic composition in the former USSR republics significantly differs from European immigration phenomena. The goal of the USSR integration policy was to form the Soviet nationality disregarding any interests of historical ethnic groups. The measures that were taken were deportation, drawing labour forces to large construction sites, directing university graduates of some specialities to compulsory service out of their home republic.

During the entire Soviet period (50 years in Estonia) people of other nationalities did not have to integrate into the local culture, because according to the dominating objective, it was the native people who had to integrate. Although education (including higher education) was provided in the Estonian language in Estonia, Russian still had to be considered the ruling language. The top government and party officials communicated in Russian, Master's and Doctor's theses had to be defended and written in Russian.

Merle Karusoo. Photo: Kalju Orro.

The non-Estonians in Estonia (those who even now speak only Russian) are the children of several nations. Also the children of Estonians. Their task was to integrate into the Soviet nation and their staying away from their ethnic roots helped with the process.

FROM NARVA: My mother's father was born in Tartu, where he left for St. Petersburg in 1927 to study there and after his studies he was offered a job in Pskov…
My father's parents are Russian, I don't know anything else about them.

FROM JÕHVI: My mother's father comes from Jõgeva. His name is Robert Mürk. But, well, it happened so that they did not speak Estonian at home. His wife was Russian, and my mother is Russian too.

FROM MAARDU: I think I am Byelorussian.
I don't know my nationality because my mother was born in Estonia, but her mother was Ukrainian. Mother has a grey (foreigner's) passport and I don't know exactly what her nationality is.

FROM MAARDU: My mother speaks Tatar. I speak little Tatar.
At the moment my grandmother has been the leader of the Tatar community in Maardu for two or three years, but my grandfather sings there and I dance - in that Tatar community.
The Tatar god is Allah. My grandmother and grandfather pray in the evenings, but not my mother - she does not follow these traditions.
I thought she was Ukrainian, but she is Byelorussian and her mother is Byelorussian and father is Byelorussian.
The second father is Russian.
I am Tatar.

Integration process lasts through three generations. The decomposition of the USSR broke off the Soviet integration process before its climax. People who lived in Estonia but whose only language was Russian, lost their confidence and largely also the options. By language they should belong to Russia, they even call themselves Russians, but they do not have a place in Russia to return to. Their links with countries of origin have reduced to almost nothing and their way of life has changed under the influence of Estonian culture. They are strange to their own people and strange to us.

FROM MUSTAMÄE: I would not go to Moscow, it is a large, beautiful city, but I've heard that we - we are also Russians, only a bit different Russians. Estonian Russians are more hard-working, they are different.

FROM SILLAMÄE: I wouldn't like to live in Russia, because when I was in Moscow, they said I am not a Russian any more. I am something in-between. I am neither Russian, Ukrainian, nor Estonian. And I don't know really. I want to live in Estonia, this is best of all.

The Estonian state has not demanded the occupying nation to be deported together with the occupying army. Therefore we have taken the responsibility to help them integrate.

Target areas, target groups. The higher the proportion of people who do not speak the official language in the area, the longer is the term of the integration process, because the people do not have the environment where to use the new language. Therefore this Who am I project is most needed by Tallinn and Ida-Virumaa and the non-Estonian-speaking inhabitants there.

In order to heal the socio-psychological atmosphere in a certain area, it would be useful to involve a parallel group of children of Estonian origin in the project. Group work, where children with different mother tongues meet, will give a comparable output as a result.

The approach used in the project can also be applied to other groups who have adaptation difficulties.

The expected effect of the project on integration process. To integrate one needs to gain self-awareness. Young people as a rule are not interested in their origin. 50 years of integration that worked in another direction has purposely led them away from such interest. The Who am I project values the origin of those people, whatever nationality it was; leads them to understand under which circumstances their ancestors arrived in Estonia. It values the ethnic groups, from which Soviet integration directed them away. Knowing themselves and their parents' and grandparents' story makes it easier to understand us and our story. Respect for us as natives starts from respect for themselves.

On the other hand, the target group of the project introduces itself through presentation to the Estonian community, who will undoubtedly find common features in the fate of different Soviet nations, and makes the natives see non-Estonians more as the victims than the representatives of the system.

FROM SILLAMÄE: My mother's ancestors came from Germany in the 18th century, because czarina Catherine called masters from Germany and England to Russia. My mother's mother was born near the city of Ufa and my mother's father in the Ukraine, in Rostov province. They were both Germans and they met in Siberia in Sonalnoya village. The German villages in the Ukraine and near Ufa were in whole deported to Siberia at the beginning of the Second World War in 1941, because Russians were afraid that they would join the Germans. Sonalnoya village was like a prison, life was very hard there. Grandfather and grandmother married there and moved to Tashkent in 1958, because it was warm there and plenty to eat.
Mother's mother and father came to Estonia with their three daughters in 1969 because they heard in Tashkent that in Estonia life is better and work too.
Father was born in Byelorussia.
I am half-German, half-Byelorussian.

FROM KOHTLA-JÄRVE: My grandparents on father's side were born in Ida-Virumaa. In 1933 they went to Kronstadt to build ships. There my grandmother was born. In the year thirty-seven they came back to Estonia.
My father and mother were born in Kohtla-Järve.
Maternal grandparents were born near Tartu. In the thirties they went to Pskov, because in Estonia life was poor. In forty-nine they were sent to Siberia. My grandmother and her parents were born in Minsk. Grandmother came to work in Kohtla-Järve in the year fifty-six.

Sponsors, donating organisations. So far the project activities have been supported by Eesti Caritas, Open Estonia Foundation, Foundation for Integration, municipal and borough governments, the Embassy of Holland.

Publications related with the project area. The model of the project Who am I was created in spring 1999 with the young people of Ida-Virumaa and it was tested in spring 2000 in Maardu. Purposeful development started in spring 2001 with the first group in Mustamäe.


  • In Ida-Virumaa, Jõhvi Youth Centre on 13 and 14 March 1999 (groups from Jõhvi, Narva I, Narva II, Kohtla-Järve, Sillamäe, Ahtme).
  • At the festival Youth without Violence in Tallinn on 8 April 1999 (groups from Jõhvi, Narva I, Narva II, Kohtla-Järve, Sillamäe, Ahtme).
  • At the festival of school drama groups in Kohtla-Järve on 16 April 1999 (groups from Jõhvi, Narva I, Narva II, Kohtla-Järve, Sillamäe, Ahtme).
  • In Maardu Gymnasium on 12 March 2000 (the group from Maardu).
  • At the international seminar Traditional history in Tartu in Estonian Literary Museum on 12 May 2000 (the group from Maardu).
  • Performances of the integration project Save Our Souls from 31 May to 11 June 2000 in Tallinn Liiva Centre, in the 2000/2001 season in Tallinn, Tartu, Pärnu, Narva, Sillamäe, Kadrina (the joint group of Ida-Virumaa and Maardu).
  • In Mustamäe Culture Centre Kaja on 10 March 2001 (I group from Mustamäe).
  • At the festival Youth without Violence in Tallinn on 26 April 2001 (I group from Mustamäe).
  • In Paldiski Russian Gymnasium on 26 May 2001 (the group from Paldiski).
  • In Mustamäe Culture Centre Kaja on 30 May 2001 (II group from Mustamäe).

In spring 2000 youth hobby leaders from Viljandi Culture College, Reet Filippov and Karin Undrits defended their diploma thesis, which was based on their experience with the project in Ida-Virumaa and Maardu.

Project task. The main task of the project is to implement the actual naturalisation process of Estonian non-Estonians into the Estonian community.

The project implementation involves the performance of the following special tasks.

A study of origin is carried out among a group of sixteen selected non-Estonian-speaking children (to find out their parents'-grandparents' route from their place of birth to Estonia, their reasons for coming here, visions of memory, the future plans and dreams of children).

The target group engaged in the project undergoes practice in the Estonian language (primarily the techniques of speech and communication in Estonian).

The group of children engaged in the project practises team work (group studies for creating communicative habits in a second language environment, to encourage language use and experience the value of partnership, communicative games are organised, etc.)

General work arrangement of the project. The specific nature of the work preconditions strict regime in the group as regards discipline.

The time needed for the execution of the project with one target group is two months. Work with children is done on both weekdays and weekends. On weekdays 4 hours of individual and group work is done a day, on Saturdays and Sundays six hours a day.

Resources for project execution. The execution of the Who am I project is led by director Merle Karusoo, MA. The main team consists of people with the qualifications and experience of children and youth hobby leaders from Viljandi Culture College and a project administrator.

Pirgu Development Centre as the executor of the project supports the project team with respective methodology, implements and materials.

Project output. The direct output of the project is a live presentation-report based on the results of the origin study Who am I. Who orders the project will also be given the text and the video record of the staged programme.

The above outputs also serve as the reports on the execution of the project.


Problems and conclusions

Because of invitations to perform and the drama project Save Our Souls (1) we had contacts with the children from Ida-Virumaa and Maardu during one and a half and one year, respectively, after the end of the Who am I project. They are doing well; several of them are continuing their studies in Estonian universities. The problem is that if they do not go to an Estonian school, they will not find friends among Estonians, i.e. there are no activities that could draw the two communities together in a natural way. This gave rise to need to use the project Who am I for a mixed-nationality group. If half of the participants are Estonian-speaking children, the others will make friends with them in the course of work, because foreigners with Russian background are eager to communicate and make friends. It would be even better if the Estonian children involved did not speak Russian, because due to differences in ethnic temperament they would start using Russian as soon as possible. Here the next problem arises - how to motivate Estonian children to participate in such a project? Estonian society as a whole has not yet answered this question. We lack the motivation to communicate especially with such non-natives, who have been living here for the third generation without speaking our language and taking part in the life of our community.

Non-Estonians whose home language is Russian have mostly come to Estonia to look for better life and they have been needed for jobs here.

FROM MUSTAMÄE: Father's mother was born in St. Petersburg. It was wartime, when the war was over, she didn't want to live there and Estonia is, well, next to St. Petersburg and she wanted to come here. Father's father was born in Byelorussia in Mogilyov province. Somebody had told him that it is very good here in Estonia and there are jobs here and in fifty-six grandfather came to work in Estonia.
Mother is Ukrainian, but she does not speak Ukrainian. They spoke only Russian at home. I don't know why. Mother does not know either.
I don't know, if father says he is Russian, then I am Russian too. I don't want to be Ukrainian or Byelorussian. I want to be Russian.

FROM MUSTAMÄE: Well, I don't know am I Byelorussian or who?
My father is Tatar, but he was born in Tallinn. His parents are from Kazan. They came to Estonia after the Second World War, because during the war Tallinn had been destroyed and they came to restore it. Father speaks Tatar, but he has forgotten it. He has no strong relations with the Tatar community, he doesn't know himself why.
My mother is Byelorussian. Her parents were born in Mogilyov. My mother speaks Byelorussian.
And then my mother studied commerce in a Ukrainian university. And afterwards she moved to Tallinn, because one of her brothers lived here already, because at that time Pribaltika
[the Baltic states] was something new for Byelorussia. And then mother came with her brothers and she tried to live here too. They wanted to know if it was better or not? It was in the year nineteen eighty.

A similar process is taking place elsewhere in Europe today: production is expanding, reaching out of the natural frames of the country and the community, new and cheap workforce is required, foreign workforce is brought in and at a certain moment these foreign workers will consider themselves the masters of the country despite the opinion of the native inhabitants. Foreigners cannot be blamed: they have been needed and they want payment for that. It is clear that this payment does not only mean the wages paid in money. The natives cannot be blamed either, their reluctant and, in certain circumstances, aggressive attitude is justified - it is their land the foreigners have come to, it is their language and culture that is clogged, eventually their jobs are taken or they are forced to accept salaries that have been lowered due to foreign workforce. Guilty is the social formation that fails to care about natural development and enforces progress. And at this point it seems that there is no difference between capitalism and the socialism we have experienced. In other words: the authority will not ask the people, the power has estranged from people.

To this day the problem, which in essence has existed from the beginning - Whom should we introduce ourselves to? - has not reached the focus of attention. Which audience should we offer the presentation of the Who am I project to? The usual public is the parents of the children, their teachers and hobby group leaders, some closer friends, representatives of institutions who work with integration because it is their task, and donors. To partake of the presentation one needs to understand the language, in this sense the parents and especially grandparents of the children fail to get the message. The Save Our Souls project showed that the children get closest to middle-aged Estonians. How to gather such an audience? What kind of events it should be connected with? Peers among Estonians feel uneasy about the project primarily because the foreign children who have participated in the Who am I know their roots better than Estonian children. Especially, if this is not consistently taught/valued at school. What is more, the natural interest in one's origin arises only after the age of thirty.


The future of the project

To this day we have worked with more than 120 children. The very moment the presentation ends, they start to drift away from the experience. As a rule, the children are sad and wish to continue co-operation, although demands have been high during the two months and practising has sometimes been boring. We would also like to know how to evaluate what we have done, because the efficiency should become evident only in years.

That is why there is a plan to convene the participants of the project for ten days in summer, to learn how the children (and soon young independent people) have lived meanwhile, to introduce them to one another, revise what has been taught and work out a new joint presentation.

The current task is to develop a motive for Estonian children to participate in the project. We have intended that if half of the workgroup were Estonian-speaking, the other half should represent as many languages spoken in Estonian homes as possible.

The Paldiski experiment was the first of this kind. Besides Russian-speaking children there were participants who speak Estonian, Romanian and French (mulattos from Congo) at home. So we had the first participants representing another race.

Unfortunately, current policy makes us think primarily of the Russian community in Estonia, but this accent is likely to shift within the next few years. From earlier times there are already many children in Estonia who grow in other ethnic cultures of the former Soviet Union. Together with capital, which is said not to have a nationality, the new time has brought along capitalists: Afghans, Chinese, Japanese, Italians, quite a few Africans; diplomats usually reside together with their families.


For further reflection

Comparing with the group from Ida-Virumaa (spring 1999) and Maardu (spring 2000), the I group from Mustamäe (spring 2001) have relatively good language skills and courage to speak, yet scanty practice. Another problem is that in the schools of Ida-Virumaa and partly in Tallinn the Estonian language is taught by non-Estonians, who have not mastered the pronunciation and who do not represent the culture. These teachers cannot develop in their students the courage to speak, which is of utmost importance from the point of studying.

It also seems that even Estonian teachers do not have enough classroom time to refine pronunciation, to introduce the pronunciation basis of different languages and to practise. Passive language skills are often more developed than active ones. It is strange considering the fact that Estonian-speaking population is all around them and no immigrants of the 'new times' have any problems with the spoken language. This points to a psychological barrier. Hopefully, the opportunistic politics will not add to that barrier. References to two possible official languages, a possibility to demand communication in your own language in local public offices, stories of mutual integration, etc. only serve to secure this psychological barrier.

As a premonition I would like to warn that today the English language has got the same status in Estonia as the Russian language had in the Soviet times. In another ten years any newcomer will demand English skills from us and if we do not agree, he will withdraw into the local English-speaking community.

FROM MAARDU: I would like to study in England. This is my dream.
I would like to live in England, too. I don't know, I love that country very much.
My husband must not be Russian, at the utmost he might be Estonian. I don't want a Russian family name, because it is very difficult to find a job in Estonia if you are Russian.

FROM MAARDU: I want to go to the University of Tartu. This is my dream. I like this school very much, because everybody who studies there is very clever. Afterwards I want to live in Tallinn and work as an economist. I want to go to an Estonian gymnasium. I know it is very hard but I m u s t go to an Estonian university, because I want to live in Estonia and I have to speak Estonian.
I want my husband to be Russian, because I am Russian and I want my children to be Russian too. My children must speak Estonian.

FROM MAARDU: I want to become a journalist or a lawyer. I have to go to the university in Moscow. I want to leave Estonia. I don't want to live in Estonia. I don't want, that's it. I would like to go to Europe.

FROM MUSTAMÄE: I want to live in Russia in St. Petersburg or Moscow.
My wife must be Russian and children - only Russian.

FROM MUSTAMÄE: My wife must be Estonian, if I stay here or … American if I want to live there and get the citizenship there.
Yes! I want to live in America! I want the Kalinaitchev 'rodh' to live in America! Later maybe my son will come to Estonia and but I want! Maybe …I want … to be buried in Estonia … and … maybe not! I don't know yet!

Translated by Ann Kuslap


References from text:

(1) Save Our Souls - integration is the subject of this bilingual drama project, which consisted of three provisional parts. The I part Who are they was based on the biographical interviews of prisoners serving their sentence in Estonian prisons for homicide. The majority of the interviewees were non-Estonians. The II part presented a concentrate of the project Who am I. The III part What will become of us showed a video of non-Estonian small children growing in Estonian orphanages. Actors from Estonian Drama Theatre, Tallinn City Theatre, VAT Theatre, Russian Drama Theatre and Narva Ilmarine Russian Theatre participated in the project. Back