Monday, January 15, 2007

Estonica: Rowan Ring

Just discovered Justin Petrone's excellent Itching for Eestimaa, and upon reading the comments, realized there was a recent event that may be of interest to those who participate in these conversations. One of the reasons I started AnTyx was to present an interior perspective on Estonian affairs to an external audience. So here's something that, while not groundbreaking, is quite curious.

In Runet, the Russian-speaking segment of the Web, the predominant blogging platform is LiveJournal. Whereas in the US it is the stomping ground of 14-year-old Goth girls, in Russia its first-mover advantage gave it a massive user base, which then turned into a perpetuum mobile; people prefer LiveJournal over more powerful, easier-to-use platforms because it comes with a built-in audience. The upshot of this is that anything you post is liable to generate a massive grassroots response in the predominantly Russian population of net rats led by propaganda puppetmasters; Живой Журнал may be popular because the author of the Night Watch books runs a blog there, but as with any sufficiently large community, most of it is lemmings.

LJ user Rowan-ring is a young woman of Russian mother tongue, living in Estonia. Not long ago, she posted a particularly annoyed commentary on the behaviour of Russian tourists that have flooded to Tallinn for the year switch holidays. Apparently she had been in line at a particularly charming coffee shop just off Town Hall Square (I know the place; it really is very charming) behind a Russian tourist lady, very obviously the trophy wife of some businessman; an objectionable sort at the best of circumstances. In the event, the fur-coated, cowboy-booted tourist was offended by the salesgirl's failure to comprehend Russian; she turned to Rowan-ring and commanded her to translate in an exceptionally bitchy way. To which our heroine reacted by stomping the domestic equivalent of a Doc Marten very satisfyingly into a cowboy boot, and storming out before she was done considering the pros and cons of shoving a broken latte glass down the trophy wife's throat.

The post itself is only mildly interesting - it is nothing new to locals, who are much too familiar with both tourists being assholes, and the appalling standard of Estonian service. What is significant, is the subsequent flashmob of Russians in Rowan-ring's comments section, denouncing her for daring to criticize the Russian woman. I will not list details - you're welcome to look up the post if you know enough Russian - but suffice it to say, the outrage was as preposterous as the best Internet flame wars, and extended to the lofty upper ranks of LJ users, opinion-makers with thousands of subscribers. The entire force of Russian supremacist thinking, in an environment where the most massive bullshit may be expressed without fear of immediately being punched in the face for being a moron, came down on Rowan-ring (who, I must say, handled it admirably).

So, the first point is that Russians will respond vigorously and violently to any criticism that can be taken, by however big a stretch of credibility, as a slam of Russianness. The lemmings' objection was that the trophy wife was entitled to any amount of ass-kissing, because she was the one with the money; and if Rowan-ring objected, it was only because she was jealous, and by logical extension fat, ugly and worthless.

The second point is this: why was Rowan-ring sufficiently put out by the episode to write a seething blog entry? Tallinners are supposed to have developed an immunity to such things by a decade-long exposure to Finnish vodka tourists getting absolutely plastered on cheap local booze and misbehaving - and that's before the advent of direct easyJet flights from Stansted, when Old Town bars started hanging signs in their windows saying "No stag parties".

The answer is that the fucked-up attitude of Russians is a lot more annoying to people like Rowan-ring, and myself; people who live in Estonia and consider it their homeland, and yet cannot hope to pass for ethnic Estonians. (As mr. Petrone rightly pointed out, it is very difficult indeed to fake being an Estonian.) We've got the moral right to be offended by bitches in fur coats a lot more than anyone else, because we have to live here.

I am a birthright citizen of Estonia; my ancestors on both sides have lived here, for all I know, since the times of Kalevipoeg. Yet biologically I am half-Russian and half-Jewish; I speak Estonian with an accent; and every single Siberian oil tycoon's trophy wife is one more bad experience that I have to deal with after the tourist season is over.


stockholm slender said...

As a Finn I'm often simply flabbergasted at my compatriots' behaviour in Tallinn - no wonder the customer service is often icy. I usually try to avoid guilt by association by speaking either Estonian or English... Russian tourists have actually an excellent reputation in Finland, but they probably don't expect (or demand) automatic service in Russian here.

antyx said...

Oh, don't worry - Estonian customer service is bad by definition, it's not just you. :)

That said, my old Estonian teacher always said that even if you speak very poor Estonian, you should still start the conversation in it; it lets people see you're making an effort, and there's a lot of goodwill in that.

stockholm slender said...

Yeah, I must say, initially I thought it was bit rude, especially in Tallinn (in Tartu people are much friendlier), but these days I'm more philosophical about it (when in Rome etc.), probably the Soviet heritage shows still in this, as the consumer wasn't definitely the king then... Bars, however, are an exception: the staff seems to be quite invariably friendly and polite - which is nice as bars are definitely my favourite places in any country!

Jens-Olaf said...

Too bad that users of blogger don't read backwards, that was a good post.

antyx said...

Maybe I'll link it in the sidebar...


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