David Vseviov: identities used to manipulate people

David Vseviov identifies himself as Estonian as well as Jewish, and speaks fluent Russian as well as Estonian. He is reluctant to give ethnicity a significant role in his identity. He describes the whole discourse about ethnic conflict as an artificial political game.

Iivi Anna Masso: Professor David Vseviov, what does ethnic identity mean to you?

David Vseviov: Ethnicity is rather like a mirror: you see it from the reactions of others: they call you an Estonian, a Russian, a Jew. People are signified by dozens of criteria. For me, ethnicity is the last one on the list. I see no connection between ethnic nationality and other personal characteristics.

As it is hard to determine what ethnicity is, it is easy to use it to manipulate people. There is nothing as easily manipulable as ethnic passions. In two-three weeks one can turn a normal human being into a representative of an ethnic group – people are turned into Germans, Jews, Russians etc. That is also happening to Estonian inhabitants.

IAM: In Estonia, the question of nationality is tightly linked to language policy.

DV: Language is very important. A person becomes human in a society. It is very hard to understand another human being without understanding their language. It is an important indicator also of the willingness to understand. When you live in a certain linguistic space for twenty years and do not understand ten words of the language, that means you don’t want to, you’re not interested.

Language is also connected to the internal security of the state. It is not normal that information still has to be given in two languages, but one has to do it unfortunately, because we have not managed to make some of the Soviet time immigrants learn our language voluntarily. It can only be done voluntarily. Some of those people can’t do that, beause they have come here, not even knowing that they are entering a different cultural zone. They can only be reached through Russian language media.

IAM: Would the whole issue of ethnic relations lose significance, if Estonia had just one common public language?

DV: Yes, and that would be ideal.

IAM: What prevents that ideal from being fulfilled?

DV: First, the new linguistic minority has come here in a completely different way compared to people moving in Europe. It cannot be compared to, say, the people of Kurdish origin in Germany. This group has come here on the basis of completely different rules. When the political situation suddenly changes, and when ‘my home’ that consisted of 15 rooms turns out to consist of 15 different homes with their own locked doors, that is a priori unacceptable for some people. They will never speak the language of that room, they keep speaking the language that was spoken in the biggest room of the apartment, as they are used to. Suddenly they find themselves in the tiniest room of that apartment. Some of them will never accept it, they can’t understand it, and that makes them angry. Anger is expressed as a will to pull down the door. They don’t want to move away, they want to break down the door, to regain that one apartment with one common language.

Those people cannot be changed, but that is a security issue rather than a cultural issue. Not all of the Russian speakers are like that. Most of them are ordinary, normal people.

IAM: For some Europeans it seems to be hard to understand that the problem in Estonia is that some people have crossed the border without realizing that they were going abroad.

DV: Europeans do not understand it. It is as if the Great Germany of 1942 had remained in Denmark or Norway for a few decades, and then left behind hundreds of thousands of Germans, when Denmark had become free again. What would their relationships be like? There is no such precedent in Europe.

IAM: What could Estonians do to fully integrate that particular minority?

DV: Why does one always insist that Estonians do something for something to happen to Russians? Estonians do not need to do anything. We need to do ordinary, normal things. Sports clubs, NGO-s, arts. If sportsmen gather in their societies, together they forget who they are. Active integration policies cause resistance: ‘they treat me as an ethnic group’. I wouldn’t tolerate that, I want to be talked to as a human being, not as a represenative of an ethnic group. I do not want to be told that something has been done for me.

We can communicate with 80% of the Russian speaking population normally, we do not need to treat them as Russians. To get around with the remaining 20% we need skilful social psychology. That, indeed, is also needed with some Estonian speakers – those who spread hatred in the open Internet forums are harder to ‘integrate’ into society than some of the Russian speakers.

IAM: Do you think ethnic groups need specific political representation?

DV: An ethnic group has no interests, people have interests. What’s the importance of ethnicity if the car sales taxes are raised or the streets are in a terrible condition? Even in case of language and culture, the connection is not obvious. Of course one can create an ethnic political party. As I am a Jew, we could form a Jewish party with the goal to make Estonia a province of Israel. That’s absurd!

I can understand ethnic goals in politics if I am deprived of something because of my ethnicity – like in prewar Germany, I could not have entered a library. But are there any ethnically based legal restrictions in Estonia? Not as I know. Getting work as a state official can be affected by citizenship, but not ethnicity.

In the Soviet Union ethnicity played a greater role. It was marked in one’s passport as the fifth point after surname, first name, paternal name and date of birth. With “Jew” as the fifth signifier, one could not enter certain higher education institutes, like the International Relations institute.

IAM: So the Jews were explicitly discriminated against in the Soviet Union?

DV: Before Stalin’s death there was a preparation to send all Jews to Siberia. A Jewish Autonomous Republic was founded behind the Lake Baikal, they had signs in Jiddish as well as Russian ready. It started with the ‘Doctors’ process’ when a group of Jewish doctors were accused of poisoning the political leadership. As Stalin died that deportation wave was interrupted, but the name lists and carriages were ready.

IAM: What do you think about the talk about ethnic tensions in Estonia?

DV: The Russian TV channel Pervyi Pribaltiiski Kanal asked me that question. I replied by asking if the journalist had personal relations with Estonians, and if those relations had changed. He replied they had not. Mine have neither. So, if people’s personal relations haven’t changed, what has changed? What are we talking about? There is so much talk about tensions, but no one knows where the tensions are. Those things are so easy to exploit and manipulate, but they are not real. This is true also about the interpretations of history. If the young men who rebelled after the transfer of the Bronze Soldier statue in 2007 and claimed that somehow their memories of the war were treaded upon, were asked when that war happened and who fought there, I bet most of them could not give you an answer, they are not interested in it. It is about something else, but it is so easy to use the ethnic card in this.

IAM: Who would use it and for which purposes?

DV: It is in the interest of political power to find the most simplistic tendencies to increase their power and manipulate the masses. Appeal to ethnic nationality is the cheapest populism in human relations. It is hard to incite people, but it is so easy to incite people as Estonians, Russians or Germans. Once the jinn is out of the bottle, it is very hard to put it back. This process can then escalate toward extremes.

IAM: What do you think about talking about ethnic groups as “communities”?

DV: Events based on ethnicity are meaningless, they take us nowhere. Even if their goal is integration, they do not integrate people as citizens. Those events work against their own goals. It is like in medicine – it is better to try to prevent the disease than to try to cure it, even if curing is necessary when things have already gotten out of hand. We are talking about internal security when the surgeon is already operating the broken liver.

IAM: How do you hope Estonia will develop in the future in terms of cultural relations?

DV: We should make an effort to make Estonia one of the five most free and democratic civil societies in Europe – we do not need to become one of the five richest. We need a state, living in which is a value in itself. We need to find values that work for us, an open, democratic society where people are first human beings, not representatives of ethnicities. If we have free exchange of ideas and a working public sphere, who needs ethnic political parties?

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