Jevgeni Krishtafovich: I’d love to see Russian opera in Russia

Jevgeni Krishtafovich is a law student and a Russian born in Estonia. He heads the NGO Open Republic (Avatud Vabariik), whose goal is integrating Russian speaking youth in the Estonian society and promoting its liberal democratic values. The organization has nearly 1400 members, its main centers of activity are in and around Tallinn and in the North-Eastern parts of the country that have large percentages of Russian speaking populations.

The organization grew out of an association of Russian students, founded in 1999 to promote school democracy, and it remains in tight contact with schools. Those who remain interested in civil society, Europe and neighborhood politics, remain members after school. Krishtafovich’s experience indicates that although Russia makes complaints about ethnic relations in Estonia, it does not seem to appreciate the integration efforts that his organization is making – on the contrary.

Krishtafovich identifies himself firstly as Russian. His native language is Russian, and like David Vseviov, he is not very interested in ethnic identification.

Iivi Anna Masso: Jevgeni Krishtafovich, do you see yourself first as Estonian, or Russian, or both?

Jevgeni Krishtafovich: Abroad I am Estonian, and also in Estonia, first of all I am an Estonian citizen. Russian culture is very important to me, and I am glad to be a representative of this minority in Estonia, a carrier of its culture. Sadly, my interest and desire to enjoy Russian culture is greater than my possibilities. If I want to see Bolshoi theatre, I need to go to Paris – it is expensive, and it is hard to get the tickets.

IAM: Why is that? Why wouldn’t you go to Russia to enjoy Russian culture?

JK: I have an entry ban to Russia. They do not give you the reason, but I anticipate why. I have received lots of hints: if you go on with your activities – that is, criticizing Russian authorities in the media, you’ll be banned. I was sent out of Russia in 2004, although I had a visa. It was a private visit, I went to theatre in St. Petersburg – Russian theatre and opera are my weakness. Then I was stopped on the border and sent back to Estonia.

Before that, January 27 2004, on Holocaust memorial day, we had an event that irritated the Russian embassy. We wanted to have a history conference for young people about the crimes against humanity in our near history. We invited people who had researched the issue, including the Commission chaired by Max Jacobson. The keynote speaker was President Lennart Meri. Therefore a lot of media were present. We usually invite about as many Estonian as Russian speakers to our events, to promote dialogue and integration. When in the evening news Russian as well as Estonian youth said that one should not treat the Nazi and the Soviet occupations much differently, because they were both destructive for Estonians, the Russian media reported it with interesting headlines: “the old Fascist Lennart Meri with his Gitler-Jugend, with Jevgeni Kristafovich as their head, making propaganda”. Behind that campaign were the so-called contact organizations of the Russian embassy. Two weeks after that I was sent out of Russia, that was their response.

In the summer of that year I had an invitation to a conference in Russia about European neighbourhood policies. I did not get the visa although I had an invitation signed by the foreign minister. In Russia the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. We had visa difficulties already in 2002, when I visited a UNESCO conference in Novgorod.

IAM: That means you’ve had difficulties long before the Bronze soldier crisis?

JK: Yes. We had always difficult relations with the Russian embassy.

IAM: What exactly does your organization do?

JK: Internationally we are involved with neighbourhood politics, meaning the neighbours of the EU: Ukraine, Byelorussia, Moldova etc. We know those societies, we understand their problems, we have strong contacts. We fight in the Estonian media against the sterotype that all Russian youth are like ‘nashi’ [‘ours’ – the Russian ultranationalist youth organization]. We have also good contacts with young people in Russia, there are many young people there who are interested in Europe and democratic values, but Russian public authorities do not like those contacts. We are not very welcome there – we have good contacts with local NGO-s, but not with local authorities.

IAM: Why do Russian officials dislike your organization?

JK: We work with Russian speaking youth, and our organization is too pro-Estonian. I have to monitor the Russian media all the time, although I do not exactly enjoy it. The Russian press writes about us a lot, but seldom anything positive.

Part of the local Russian language press is connected to the Russian embassy. ‘Molodjozh Estonii’ is directly connected, they follow us a lot. Then there is the paper connected to the Center party, it offers daily news, predicting the end of the world, and blaming the Estonian government for that. They once published pictures of Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip and the MP Mart Laar in Nazi SS-uniforms – that caused a scandal and was investigated as hate speech, but no one was prosecuted. Estonia’s free speech laws are very liberal, you can only be charged with hate speech if you directly incite violence. Saying that the PM is a Nazi is not such incitement, it’s not criminal in Estonia.

IAM: One would expect Russia to appreciate your work to promote integration.

JK: They are not interested in the Russian youth becoming too pro-Estonian. We still need a lot of work to do with the Russian youth, to promote democratic citizenship and civil society. For example, in Narva there are 11 Russian schools, but not one history teacher who was educated in Estonia. Estonian teachers do not want to go to Narva.

In Narva people communicate only in Russian, it is hopeless to get an answer in Estonian, not even in the city council. In the service sector there is some progress, there they want to speak Estonian – especially young people who got their education after we regained independence. There was even a campaign in Narva after the April riots, some service workers wore signs ‘I speak Estonian too’. They were attacked for being “Fascist”.

In Narva people watch the real Russian TV, the same as in St Petersburgh, that is different from the version adapted to the Baltic viewers. They do not even see the local news. The Estonian news program Aktuaalne Kaamera is watched in Russian by only one thousand people in Estonia. The Russian PBK (Pervõi Baltiiski Kanal) is more popular in Estonia that the Channel One of Estonian TV. And Russia thinks that PBK is even too friendly toward Estonia. I haven’t noticed they are very friendly!

IAM: I still find it hard to grasp: if the integration of the Russian speaking minority is so hard to accomplish, why do some people work against it – do they want it to fail?

JK: If it is possible to get short-term political profit from the ethnic conflict, why not do it? The Center party presents itself as the only friend of Russian speakers. It has an agreement with Russia, that also plays a role. Russia is interested in using the Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia to influence local politics. Well funded experts keep saying that we have to take into accout the interests of the Russian minority, especially in foreign politics. Moscow obviously wants Estonia to have Finland’s foreign policy model.

In Estonia and Latvia the situation is very different. In Latvia politicians can directly admire Stalinist terror. In Estonia that is hard to imagine. In Latvia the Stalinists even have a representative in the European Parliament, but they are not omnipotent. They tried to stage Estonian 2007 rioters as victims of “the concentration camps of our times” and found a “victim” – Juri Zhuravljov. He had been criminally charged before, and he had broken windows and stolen some goods during the April riots. He was taken to Brussels as a “victim” of the Estonian police, but then Estonian representatives presented materials with real information about him. His crimes had been filmed, and there were hundreds of eyewitnesses, he had got caught with a half-full box of beer carrying it out of the Westman supermarket. Now they need new “victims” of Estonia, and provocators to show that “progressive” international community is against Estonia, and Latvia.”

IAM: What would you say to those in the West who believe those stories?

JK: It is very hard to know which information is true, which can be trusted, which not – it is hard for us too, so what of the other parts of the world? I recommend that any information coming from Russia be seen very critically. In Russia there is practically no free press. Russian news agencies are not the BBC, there is a politruk sitting and watching which news are shown. And all talk about discrimination in Estonia comes from Russia.

IAM: Does your organization support the Estonian policy of one official language?

JK: Yes, and some call us crazy extremists for that. We support having partial Estonian education in Russian schools. We are against segregation and separation of Estonian from Russian groups. Segregation is exactly what discriminates the Russian population. We should create no artificial ghettos. The Russian school is now the most important factor creating the ghetto. People graduating Russian schools do not speak Estonian, they are only required very limited, basic level skills. Even the middle level that is required in high school is ridiculous. We demand that after school all students speak Estonian at high level.

IAM: Is it a policy decision that the requirements are so low?

JK: It is hard to find teachers. Some people protest against even the most basic language requirements. We cannot ignore the Russian population and their values endlessly, most of them are our citizens. Those with no citizenship are mostly pensioneers. The Center party supports segregation, we had a lot of arguments with their minister of education. We are very interested in the language reform in Russian schools. Now that we have Tõnis Lukas as the minister, things are getting better. The Center party did not want to support us, we got no penny from them, they made up all sorts of justifications for preventing our work.

IAM: Am I getting it right – are the same people who complain most about discrimination the least interested in working for successful integration?

JK: They are absolutely not interested in integration. I do not know how the well integrated minority people see this. They speak the language, they know the basic things about the country, we do not require them to vote for any particular political parties.

IAM: How did you acquire your excellency in Estonian?

JK: I learned it by myself. I did not get it at school. Our teaching of French was great, the teachers were educated abroad even in Soviet times. They speak English too, but their Estonian was zero, very poor indeed. Those students who wanted to, they learned Estonian by themselves. And the situation is not better now. When we arrange our events in Estonian, some of our members have difficulty in participating.

In North-East Estonia there is more interest toward the Estonian language than in Tallinn. They demand more Estonian classes. Because their ghetto is not only a mental ghetto, they want to get out of where they are, physically. They have to leave, to Europe – or to Estonia, which means they need the Estonian language.

Our organization participates at the Independence Day ceremony every year, and we are the only Russian speaking people there. First Estonians wondered, but not any more. When people come from Tallinn, that is not such a big deal. But when a person comes from North-East Estonia three o’clock at night and waits in the –25 C frost to join us, each year, I do not think they are very pro-Kremlin.

IAM: That means there is hope that the integration process will proceed?

JK: I keep comparing us with other states. As long as we have Ukraine, everything is well. Ukraine has areas with problems. Sevastopol, the Crimean peninsula. We have volunteers from Ukraine. People in Ukraine ask what kind of campaign we have done to make people support Nato. We say: not us, Jossif Stalin made the campaign for us.

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