Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Anecdotal Evidence for the Win

Picked up my new credit card today. It's one of those backup cards, that don't actually cost you anything unless you carry a balance (and this one apparently allows you to actually deposit money into its linked account, creating a debit balance above what the bank is willing to lend you). I've had one of these forever, but only remember actually using it once, after graduation, when I moved out of the student dorm and needed quick cash for the deposit on a rental apartment. Yeah; that would have been summer of 2005.

Here's an interesting observation. Since there is no actual cost for having the card in a desk drawer somewhere, I figured I might as well raise the credit limit, to the maximum of what they'll give me. The previous limit had been set somewhere around 2006 or 2007, and my income's grown a bit since. It used to just be a matter of asking for it - the bank teller would bring up my account history, see how much money was coming in, and the software would calculate the pre-approved max limit.

Not so any more. Despite being a fiscally very responsible person with most of my financial business at the same bank and no history of payment troubles at all, I could not reset the credit limit right then and there. Any change now has to go through an actual credit approval board.

Overall, this is a good thing. It's not like I actually needed credit, and a layer of sanity checks at Estonia's large consumer-facing banks is healthy for the country.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Curious Correlation of FennoSwedes and EstoRussians

Here's a bit of a controversial thought for you. This gets really tangential, so try to keep up.

One uniquely Estonian experience is that of two native Russian speakers meeting outside Lasnamäe and talking to each other in Estonian. It's been twenty years; there's plenty of people in my generation who have grown up, gone to university, and gotten office jobs in Estonian-speaking teams. People who have no problem defaulting to Estonian.

But this is a very difficult language, and even if you're fluent, it's incredibly hard to lose an accent. I'm told that my accent in Estonian is not that of Russian, rather an odd and indistinguishable blend, but it's there; with anything more substantial than a conversation with a Selver cashier, people will realize I'm not a native speaker. There is also the issue of names. There is very little overlap between Estonian and Russian namespaces; with the exception of a few universal copouts, once you learn a person's name, you will know whether they are Estonian or Russian.

This is not a hard & fast rule. I've known people with Russian-sounding names who spoke no word of Russian and looked about as Nordic as you can get, and I've seen people with Estonian names born & raised in Ida-Virumaa, struggling to make themselves understood. I've also seen Russians who get married and take the Estonian spouse's last name. This can result in two kinds of hilarity: a girl with a Russian family name that stays in its masculine form, against the rules of Russian grammar, or a guy who took his wife's last name because he thought it might help him succeed in the workplace. (People who think this is a significant factor tend to underestimate the importance of actual competence, and as a result, fail.)

Anyway, as a native Russian speaker in Estonia you will occasionally find yourself in the very awkward position of speaking to somebody else in a language that is foreign to both of you, trying to figure out a non-offensive way to switch to the language that is far more comfortable. The difficulty is that if you just switch to Russian outright, you may end up being perceived as one of those assholes - the ones who go through life with a massive butthurt about linguistic discrimination. The people who actually have an opinion about the Language Inspectorate.

The interesting thing I've noticed is that these encounters have been getting a lot more frequent, and more importantly, people will often not bother switching to Russian any more. Yes, we both know that we can express ourselves more clearly in a different language, but the difference isn't that great any more, and there is a social penalty to switching away from Estonia. That social penalty is higher than the comfort.

You can call it conformism. But there's a more interesting parallel.

One of the enduring memes of Estonian minority politics is the status of the Swedish language in Finland. It's an official language, even though only about 6% of the population are native Swedish-speakers; all the street signs are in both Finnish and Swedish, and so is all the communication with state agencies. This is trotted out as an example to Estonia, proof that a nation state can be accommodating to a national minority, and that Estonians should try not to dislike the stubbornly Russian diaspora so much.

Previously, my reaction to this was that Sweden is not to Finland as Russia is to Estonia. Russia is to Finland as Russia is to Estonia; and Sweden is to Estonia as Sweden is to Finland. Sweden has conquered Finland at some point in the distant past, true; but this is now pure history, not the experiences of any living person. Hell, it would be quite difficult to find a Finn today who was alive before 1917 - the last time that Finland was not a sovereign nation! Finnish society, as it is today, is not threatened from within. It can accommodate the Swedish majority with little effort, and feel good about itself doing it. Just as the 9%-strong Russian community in pre-WWII Estonia enjoyed a broad cultural autonomy - broader than it's been since 1991, despite the fact that Päts's republic had every reason to expect trouble from eastwards. Travel today to the countryside around Haapsalu, and you will find road signs with village names in Swedish; the same will happen in Jõhvi fifty years from now, when Estonia is full of people for whom Russia is a land of St. Petersburg schoolteachers, coming over for a cheap coach tour of medieval castles, or filling up Old Town hotels in the mid-January off season because that's when they celebrate Christmas, the weirdos.

What I've discovered recently is that Finns actually don't like their Swedish population very much, and will not be particularly welcoming (even by Finnish standards) to a tourist attempting to engage them in the Swedish tongue. I've seen it happen, in the Academic Bookstore in downtown Helsinki, of all places: a younger saleswoman pretended to not know Swedish at all, but spoke it passably when chided by an older colleague.

Furthermore, the FennoSwedes - native Swedish speakers living in Finland - are quite actively disliked and distrusted by the general Finnish public. Not just because they speak a different language, but - and here is where I get to the point - because they tend to be the most wealthy, accomplished and happy demographic in Finland.

And the native Russian speakers who no longer care about switching away from Estonian? Maybe it's my own selection bias, but they tend to be yuppies. In the good, original sense: Young Urban Professionals, educated, with above-average incomes, and proud to be self-made. I'm not claiming causation; to say that just learning fluent Estonian is enough to succeed would miss the point completely - in fact, that's exactly what the discrimination paranoids would say. But perhaps there is a correlation. Perhaps the people who have it in them to become proficient in a foreign language or two, to improve their skills and work on their own careers, and to stop caring about nationalities, seeing the Estonian nation as a culture instead - perhaps they will evolve into the natural, meritocratic upper class of EstoRussians that will come to be despised by Pets from Väimela for a completely new set of reasons.

Personally, I can't wait.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Also, Wednesday the 13th at Drink Baar in Tallinn. Tickets for the Tallinn show on sale now at the venue, get them early if you want to be sure of getting in!


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