Saturday, January 24, 2009

Stop that. Right now.

Estonia is undoubtedly well served by having a voice as prominent as Edward Lucas speaking for us, but that doesn't mean the Economist's Eastern European correspondent is infallible, or insightful without exception. I may be a blogger, but the one thing I have always tried to avoid being is a pundit; a professional voice representing a particular set of beliefs or causes. The problem with pundits is that they are of very limited value to the everyday functioning of a society. They tend to manhandle any event or factor into their unified theory of reality, and that makes their conclusions and their advice flawed. Worse still, their neverending search for controversy and hardship can have a very negative effect on the general mindset. Master Lucas is entirely guilty of this, even if he is our bastard.

Submitted as evidence, his review of Detsembrikuumus. Nevermind his odd misreading of the plot (he writes that "only quick thinking and bravery by the protagonist (...) save the six-year-old Estonian republic from disaster", whereas the protagonist is in no way the heroic figure, nor all that central to the defeat of the coup). Nor will I dwell for long on the notion that "as the events of April 2007 showed, a cyber-attack can have roughly the same effect [as capturing a country's telegraph and post office in the 20s] without firing a shot", which shows a misunderstanding of the attack's nature that is shameful for anyone undertaking to draw such wide-ranging conclusions so publically.

I take far more offense to the assertion that "economic hardship has discredited the idea of independence in the eyes of many". Lucas admits elsewhere in the article that the 1924 attempt was executed (if not planned) by "idealists hoping to build a workers’ paradise" who are not to be found these days. So why does he, or anyone, seriously think that the economic crisis will be a test of Estonia's national spirit? We may become disillusioned with Europe - although on any significant scale, that's highly unlikely - but why would we become disillusioned with our country, a free and democratic state? Latvians and Lithuanians may throw rocks at their parliament buildings, but the petitions to foreign powers are still no more than a postmodernist comment (and besides, Estonia already got the principal benefits of such a union by placing the responsibility on the Swedish taxpayer to bail out our banking system).

Yes, we may be disgusted by our politicians, but that's what elections are for. I am disappointed that master Lucas has fallen victim to the fallacy that a government is tantamount to the state. The Republic of Estonia is a country where the ultimate power rests with its people. And as a people, we may be malcontent and reluctant to celebrate - or even recognize - our achievements. But we can do that, because in the heart of an Estonian lies the unshakeable belief that this is our land, and it is preposterous to even suggest that independence relies on prosperity, and that economic hardship might somehow challenge it.

Estonia has been frequently conquered, but it has never been crushed. Edward Lucas, please stop filling the minds of Economist readers (and Estonian emo kids) with this nonsense. Just stop.


Kristopher said...

It's a Marxist frame of mind, isn't it? Superstructure determined by the substructure and all that.

But one thing should not be overlooked: in 1924, people had very little to begin with.

People are spoiled and soft today. We don't know what a major balance of payments problem with utilities would do (which has been mentioned as a possibility by many), if all of a sudden Internet service and power became spotty in a country, like gas pressure did for a few weeks in some places.

Karla said...

Splendid posting, astute comment - sadly leaving windy ol' Karla with naught to add but "Hear, hear... Well said, gentlemen."

Giustino said...

I think Lucas is writing about Estonian attitudes in the 1920s towards independence. The damage from the First World War cast a pretty awful shadow, and the early 1920s were not an easy time for the young Estonian Republic.

One historian, Olaf Mertelsman, argues that the Wabariki Aeg only became sweet in the public's imagination during the Soviet Era. And why would it have been seen as a golden age? You had the foolish politicians playing musical chairs on Toompea; you had Päts' coup to stop the election of Larka. By the time the ultimatums of 1939 and 1940 came along, Estonia was easy pickings for the Kremlin.

And that is the threat of today -- that Estonia will be weak and easy to pick off. That if the government refuses to act, it will make the state a target for external powers that will undermine the rule of law and freedom in this country.

If you look around at the post-Soviet world, you'll notice that the Russians have been doing precious little annexing of adjacent states. And why would they see the need to annex Uzbekistan when they have Islam Karimov in power there. But is Uzbekistan free? Hell no.

The threat is of a public subdued by the inability of their government to act giving in to the sales pitches of populists who will become, with the help of the Russian card, your own, Estonian version of Urho Kekkonen or Islam Karimov.

Imagine an Estonian politician at the helm of state deep into advanced age. Why, Kekkonen ruled for 26 years. Karimov has been in office for 18 years. Could you imagine a certain Estonian politician in power for 18 or 26 years? How progressive and free would that state be? It could happen if the public is not true to its ideals.

Karla said...

Re: Mertelsman, Wabariki, Waikiki and all that jazz...

Beware of those who would use historical revisionism to reduce the accomplishments of the Old Republic, however flawed, to mere euphoric recall, and somehow ascribe a foreign takeover to a failure of democracy. Historians who were active 'on the ground' in Estonia during the Vana Vabariigi aeg saw it otherwise.

The 1920s, for all the frequent changes of government (all constitutionally effected) have been characterized as "the hey-day of liberalism" by J. Hampden Jackson, who lived and taught in Estonia at the time.

Prof. Ants Oras wrote of the period: "A state of effervescence set in that is still a delight to remember."

And Count Hermann Keyserling, from the Baltic Germans' perspective, wrote that "...there was suddenly revealed in existence a new people capable of self-government; so sudenly, that I made a solemn vow never again to juge reality by appearances."

The post-1934 Päts' authoritarian phase cannot be viewed in isolation from what was happening throughout Europe at that time (not just in Germany and Italy, but in the UK, France, Hungary, Romania, Poland, etc). Although my own people were staunch Tõnisson supporters and deplored the Vaikiv ajastu, in no wise did they regret the sidelining of that twit Larka (a stalking horse for the more robust Artur Sirk). Pre-empting the blue-bereted Vaps boys was undemocratic, but may have spared the country worse - though not in the long run. In any event, having a crypto-fascist Vaps government would surely not have dissuaded either Hitler or Stalin from moving in.

As Philip Guedalla said, "History repeats itself. Historians repeat each other." But sometimes they begin to revise one another, and to project on the basis of models which may be totally invalid.

"Clio, the muse of history, is as thoroughly infected with lies as a street whore with syphilis."

--Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

The worst sort of revisionism of all is that which tells people that how they collectively felt or did not feel. Surely the untold thousands who struggled against Red and Brown fascism to maintain their state did not do so in total despair which decades later they transmuted, in a sudden access of dementia, into a false euphoria?

Beware! We've seen this sort of stealthy 'blaming-the-victim' strategy at work before, and not that long ago:

Räägi mulle ajast,
räägi mulle ruumist,
räägi isamajast,
räägi tollest juunist,

mille kohta ringi
käib üks loll legend,
nagu meie ise
oleks tapnud end.

--Hando Runnel, "Laulud eestiaegsetele meestele," 1988.

Kerli said...

in the heart of an Estonian lies the unshakeable belief that this is our land

Estonia has been frequently conquered, but it has never been crushed

What’s with the cheese? Been watching Braveheart again?

why would we become disillusioned with our country, a free and democratic state?

For plenty of reasons which you might see if you came down from your ivory tower and stopped the elitist bs.

Also, stop the misuse of postmodernist. I don’t think you can extend the meaning to anything, no matter how cryptically you explain your case.

Giustino said...


I think that you should come to Tartu and enroll in one of Mertelsman's classes. I would like to be in that class as well, just to watch the sparks fly. Now that would be worth the tuition!

Doris said...

The worst thing people do with history is that they take some facts and then usually project the present onto those facts, then add their own hopes and/or fears so that they can "read the future from the past". And that is also why history is considered an art rather than science - no matter how hard a historian tries, the perception of history is always, always subjective.

History never repeats itself, it's the human nature that does the repeating.

also, funny: your random word verification at the moment spells "anisp"

antyx said...

"People are spoiled and soft today."

Every adult today lived through 1992 and 1998. Suck it up and get to work.

"And why would it have been seen as a golden age?"

It wasn't a golden age, but I think it's generally accepted that Wabariigi Aeg was a hell of a lot better than what followed.

"For plenty of reasons which you might see if you came down from your ivory tower and stopped the elitist bs."

Wtf? I practice what I preach. If my condition is better than that of others, it's because I worked on it - and that's what they should be doing.

"I don’t think you can extend the meaning to anything"

Yes I can, that's the point.

Giustino said...

It wasn't a golden age, but I think it's generally accepted that Wabariigi Aeg was a hell of a lot better than what followed.

100% nõus. Just like the vana hea rootsi aeg. Anything that preceded famine and a decade of total war must have been täitsa hea indeed. But that doesn't mean your average Juku was sitting around drinking beer in 1692 saying, "Mari, bring me some more küüslauguleivad, I want to enjoy this good old Swedish time as much as I can."

Giustino said...

By the way, sorry about the Wabariki/Wabariigi spelling error.

Kristopher said...

You were probably thinking about Wabarikipedia, an mid-1930s version of the current tech. Sadly only open to Päts's cabinet for contributions.

Karla said...


I wasn't being snide, just indulging in a bit of silly wordplay with the Wabriki/Waikiki configuration. At least they didn't manage to make it into a totalWabrikuriik, else there would have been even more rusting infrastructure to clear up after 1991.

Don't think I'll take you up on your suggestion to audit Prof. Mertelsmann, though. Academics pitching lofty theories and paradigms from a safe retrospective perch always bring out the worst in me. My native mischief could lead me to make inappropriate references to a Ribben who was a real tropp in redrawing borders, much as his contemporary errant kinsmen might be in rewriting history in contradiction of collective memory. Hell, I might even start quoting Henry Miller: "The Teutons have been singing the swan song ever since they entered the ranks of history. They have always confounded truth with death." (Plexus, ch. 17 (1963). All sorts of ad hominem or ad Hun ibidem shit. It could get pretty ugly. ;)

Kerli took exception to Flasher's:
Estonia has been frequently conquered, but it has never been crushed

Nothing cheesy there. IMHO Flasher was reiterating the importance of a certain mindset, a theme he's propounded eloquently before both here and on Baltlantis. Not at all that different from what Irish statesman Edmund Burke said in a speech in the British House of Commons on 22 March 1775:

A nation is not conquered which is perpetually to be conquered.

Burke wasn't talking about the Irish here, but about the American colonists -- urging the King and Parliament to "give it up, boys, they'll do what they've set out to do, and wasting lives and gunpowder ain't really worth it." Burke's sound advice, of course, was disregarded, and we all know the outcome of that particular fracas.

Giustino said...

Only worse than Ribbentrop was that lipitseja and tallalakkuja Leopold Pakt!

Edward Lucas said...

Hi there. thanks for the comments. I did specifically say at the start of the review "Now it looks uncomfortably prescient—if not yet for Estonia, certainly for its southern Baltic neighbours Latvia and Lithuania."

Secondly, I don't think I misread the plot. Tanel Rõuku shows bravery under fire, beats up the putschists, and highlights the danger of the telegram

Third, the cyberattack of 2007 did bring down the vital government websites for a time. It came close to knocking out bits of the phone network (I think the emergency numbers were down for an hour or so). I am not saying it is precisely the same, but to compare cyberwarfare with taking over the telegraph office seems to me to be fair

I am not saying that the economic crisis has destroyed Estonia's national spirit. But I do think that it will test it. The economic crisis of 1991-94 (which I experienced first hand) was mitigated in its political effects by a feeling that this was the price of the occupation, and that the country's leaders knew what to do. Put bluntly, the Ansip government now does not make me feel quite as confident. More importantly, the shambles in Latvia really does seem to be shaking people's faith in the whole political elite.

Finally, I take exception to the idea that worrying publicly about Estonia is a sign of unfriendliness.



antyx said...

Edward - thank you for taking the time to respond. I'm far from thinking you're unfriendly, quite the opposite, I do appreciate all you're doing for the country, and please know that I didn't write the article simply for the sake of iconoclasty.


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