President Ilves on Europe’s mental geography

“Europe is not just a geographical term: Kaliningrad is not very European, even though Königsberg used to be the heart of Europe in its time.”

The President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves is a rare European leader who has proved that holding high political office is not incompatible with free and creative thinking. I had the honor of interviewing President Ilves for the Finnish online news site Uusi Suomi in 2008 in connection with Estonia’s 90th anniversary, and for the Finnish cultural magazine Korjaamo Tabloid, issued by Korjaamo Culture Factory, in winter 2009. Korjaamo magazine is not online, but the Finnish version of the interview can be found here. Below is the interview, on questions concerning Estonian, Nordic and European identity, in English. It can also be found on the President’s home page, where you can also read Mr. Ilves’s lecture on related topics that he gave at Turku University in Finland on April 22, National Identity and Mental Geography. The Finnish translation of the talk was published in Kanava, 4-5/2009. A longer interview and a collection of essays by President Ilves has been published as a book in Finnish, Omalla Äänellä, by WSOY, in 2011.

Barack Obama is the second president who is a graduate of Columbia University. The first was the President of the Republic of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves. At the turn of the year, Newsweek selected Mr. Ilves as the only European politician to give the incoming President of the United States advice about solving the problems of the world. Some of his thoughts are given below.

IAM: President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, how would you identify yourself?

THI: People have many identities. For example, I could identify myself as someone who knows the novels of Thomas Pynchon, I consider myself an expert on modern alternative rock or an overweight person who would like to lose some of that extra burden. The simplified explanation that I am an American is quite limited.

Some people think that being American defines who I am. Since I grew up in the United States and speak English with an American accent, then many people assume that I automatically support the foreign policy of the US.

IAM: It means that along with an assumed identity comes a package of assumed opinions?

THI: Yes, it is so incredibly primitive. I have seen this way of thinking even among foreign ministers. I cannot take people seriously if they think that the place where I used to live fully determines who I am. The other side of the same coin is being an exiled Estonian, which reminds me of the nativist approach of the 19th century – if you do not have Blut und Boden, ties to blood and land, then you are a stranger, an “other” – one’s identity is tied to a place, not to a culture.
This attitude also entails the understanding that those Estonians who did not live in the Soviet Union have no right to speak about the Soviet Union. On the basis of the same logic, people who grew up in the Soviet Union should not have the right to speak about democracy and freedom of speech, because they did not live in the West.

IAM: What does having grown up in the United States of America mean to you?

THI: It means that there are certain cultural phenomena that I understand. I got an excellent university education – better than I would have got anywhere else. I think that my belief in a state based on the rule of law and freedom of speech also stems from there.

IAM: Is this belief stronger in the US?

THI: I think so. Many Americans share my instinctive reaction to certain things, but it is not so strong in Europe. Freedom of speech is very important for me.

IAM: Is Europe just more politically correct or can we talk about something deeper, a reluctance to deal with difficult issues in public?

THI: What I mean is the intellectual and moral tradition of telling the truth. The freedom of speech, and especially the freedom to speak about unpleasant things, things that are complicated for the state, is traditionally not so strong in Europe as it is the US, perhaps with the exception of the United Kingdom.

IAM: In your foreword to the Estonian translation of Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, you said that the nature of cultures is understood better in their peripheral areas rather than in their centres.

THI: Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin all came from the peripheries of their cultures: Corsica, Austria and Georgia.

IAM: What does this observation say about the position of ‘new Europe’?

THI: I believe the Finns also understand everything European better than many people from Central Europe for whom everything is so self-evident. But especially new EU Member States that suffered under communism feel the same about everything European. Europe is not just a geographical term: Kaliningrad is not very European, even though Königsberg used to be the heart of Europe in its time.

IAM: Does the fact that you spent your childhood outside Europe help you understand Europe better?

THI: To me, being European meant that I did not understand who and where I was. We spoke Estonian at home, but the country whose language we spoke was not even on the map. This is why Europe interested me – it could not be just the fact that my parents spoke English with an accent or that a knife and fork were used in a certain manner. I thought that there must be something else in Europe and I started looking into it. I have always been an Occidentalist, I am interested in Western culture. I read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty twice during the high school already. To me, Europe is the carrier of the idea of freedom and democracy.

The university where I studied is one of the most European in the US; it employed many European refugees, such as Jews who had fled the Nazis. As the other so-called elite universities in the US stuck to the white, Lutheran and Anglo-Saxon tradition, then Columbia University was European, even Eastern European. It was one of the first universities in the US to accept Jewish, Eastern European and Black people as professors and students.

IAM: The current President of the United States of America Barack Obama also studied in Columbia University.

UHI: Yes. He is the second graduate of Columbia University who has become a president.

IAM:  Do you believe in Huntington’s idea of a clash of cultures?

THI: I think that culture is much more important than people admit. A clash of civilisations can be avoided if culture is not turned into a militant ideology. The people Marlène Laruelle writes about in her book Russian Eurasianism: an Ideology of Empire, Aleksandr Dugin and Lev Gumiljev, are real Huntingtonians. They identify themselves in strong opposition to the West. Radical Islam also defines itself through its opposition to the West, instead of discussing the interpretations of Mohammed’s teachings with other Muslims. It is dangerous when culture is used as the basis of ideology due to the lack of other ideas.

Indeed Western secular culture that is based on Christianity and the traditions of Roman law is least inclined to define itself in opposition to other cultures.

IAM: In your foreword to Huntington’s book, you emphasise the importance of religion in culture even if people are not actually that religious.

THI: The role of religion is extremely important in Estonia. Literacy came to Estonia through Lutheranism and even the most devoted atheist has to admit that we would not have our present culture without Lutheranism. This is evidenced by comparison with the part of Estonia that remained outside the cultural influence of Germany. According to the census of 1896, literacy in the Province of Estonia was 92.1%, in [Orthodox] Setumaa it was 7%. Therefore, these “700 years of slavery” that Carl Robert Jakobson spoke about were beneficial for us in some ways.

IAM: What is “the right of self-determination of one’s mental geography” that you have written about?

THI: This is Milan Kundera’s expression. In 1984, he created the concept of Central Europe, wondering why Vienna, that is located 250 kilometres east of Prague, is considered an important centre of Western culture, while Prague – the city of Jan Hus, Max Brod and Franz Kafka – is seen as a grey Eastern European place. I have brought Kundera’s concept to our own context.

IAM: What does it mean in the context of the Nordic countries? You have used the term ‘Yule-lands’, meaning the region where the pre-Christian word for Christmas, ‘Yule’ – or the Nordic ‘jul’ – is used [the same word is used also in Estonian – ‘jõul’ and Finnish – ‘joulu’].

THI: That was mostly humor, but these cultures are united by certain things – whether the responsibility of individuals, the use of the Yule-word, sun crosses or Viking ships. Some elements refer to contacts before Christianity, although we do not have much information on them. Today, the area is characterized by relatively low corruption, for example. Some people have claimed that Estonia cannot belong to the Nordic cultural space, because the Nordic states are social democratic and Estonia is not. I think that Estonia would be a welfare state as strong as those set as an example to us today if the Soviet Union had not occupied Estonia.

IAM: In 1998 you wrote that the world does not acknowledge Estonia as a Nordic country. Has the situation changed in ten years? Can we say now that Estonia is a part of the Nordic countries?

THI: It is the strongest regional identity we can carry.

In his book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson introduced the idea that nationality is a social construction, an imagined reality. Similarly, being Nordic is a social construction. Finland’s Nordic identity is also constructed, but it has established its position by now. Earlier, it was just Scandinavia. The creation of the Nordic region was a conscious move made largely due to security policy, which started in the 1930s when Sweden decided to focus on one of the Baltic countries – Finland. As late as in the 1920s, people were talking about the four Baltic countries [Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania], nobody spoke about Finland as a Nordic country.

IAM: Do you consider national identity as genetic or acquired?

THI: It depends on whether we’re speaking about Europe or America. There is no national identity in the US. The state’s philosophy is that everyone who recognises the state’s fundamental values and speaks English is an American. In Europe, blood ties have historically been more important.

IAM: How is Estonian identity defined? Who are ‘we, the Estonians’?

THI: The Estonian identity is strongly associated with language: if you speak Estonian, you are an Estonian. Language is our religion and ideology; language is what defines an Estonian.

In addition to language, Estonia identifies itself through liberal democracy. It was important in the 1920s that Estonia became a democratic republic and that the independence of Estonia was not based on ethnicity alone. Russians who lived in Estonia fought in the Estonian War of Independence and the Declaration of Independence of Estonia and the first constitution that also stipulated the cultural autonomy of ethnic minorities were strongly rooted in democratic ideology, a Lockean view that a state is a contract between its citizens.

IAM: Does it mean that you do not have to be born an Estonian, but anyone who learns the Estonian language and respects the fundamental values of the state can be an Estonian?

THI: I cannot see why not. It is rather impossible to say who is Estonian genetically. We have [hero of the War of Independence] Julius Kuperjanov, Aleksei Strekavin founded a unit of the Defence League in Viljandi in 1917. My mother is half-Russian, my son is half-American. We have coastal Swedes and Russians who consider themselves Estonians. On the other hand, we have immigrants like elsewhere in Europe and America, who do not identify themselves with their new homeland.

IAM: Which cultural minorities live in Estonia today?

THI: Estonia has a strong Jewish community, Russian cultural associations, the Ukrainians, the Azerbaijani. Young Belarusians study in the University of Tartu, they learn Estonian in a couple of months and are happy that they can live in a free country.

One article asked the question that as Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, then when would Estonia get a Russian president? The emphasis of this question is completely wrong. Estonia elected its Obama in 1930. Estonians became free of slavery only 40 years before African-Americans. An Estonian president in Estonia was as big a miracle as Obama being elected President of the United States, because Estonians had been living as slaves in their own country for most of their recorded history.

IAM: How would you evaluate the current position of the largest linguistic minority in Estonia?

THI: I think it is similar to how Vladimir Nabokov sees his ideal Russia: it is the place where people can live in a Russian cultural environment, speak Russian and still enjoy liberal democracy; where everyone’s civil rights are guaranteed, complete freedom of speech prevails and the state is based on the rule of law.

It is important for us to consider everyone an individual. People’s identities are manifold, and ethnicity is just a part of it. We feel solidarity with the late Anna Politkovskaya, because she was a democrat. We do not regard her as “different” or “other” because she was Russian, believing in democracy and freedom of speech is a strong identity in itself. On the other hand, I have nothing in common with people who oppose basic freedoms or shout anti-Semitic slogans in Estonian.

IAM: How is social cohesion, and a society based on shared basic values developed in Estonia?

THI: The President of the Republic cannot do much here. Independence Day will be celebrated in Jõhvi this time and the parade will take place in Narva. If we want the whole of Estonia to feel togetherness, then taking the Independence Day reception to North-Eastern Estonia is a good way to support this wish. The government in its turn can improve the opportunities for learning the language.

IAM: What do you think about the European multicultural ideology, that has been promoted, but also criticized a lot during the last decades?

THI: It has become a bit of a slogan and is not working that well in reality. Repeating slogans is easy, especially in relatively monocultural countries.

Sociologist Robert Putnam, who launched the concept of civil society in his book “Making Democracy Work”, demonstrated in a more recent study that civil society is the weakest in more heterogeneous societies. That result contradicted his own premises and principles. Putnam talks about a phenomenon he calls “turteling”: in very heterogeneous societies, people withdraw into their own communities and are more reluctant to participate in the civil society at large. So if he is right, and if he is also right about a strong civil society being a precondition for working democracy, finding good solutions is difficult. We do need solutitons for how to live togehter, but they cannot be found in slogans alone. Multiculturalism is not just running around and declaring multiculturalism, the reality is more complicated than that.

IAM: In the issue of Newsweek that was dedicated to President Obama, you mentioned the relations between the US and Europe as one of today’s most important challenges. Do you think that those relations will improve during Mr. Obama’s term of office?

THI: Europe is facing some interesting tasks. It is hard to hang on to the primitive and condescending attitude towards Americans as simple-minded cowboys when the opposite side has an intelligent and learned dark-skinned president.

But on the other hand, expecting the black president to be a European liberal like us is also an example of simplified thinking. People forget that a black American is no less patriotic or religious than a white one. Americans have elected Obama to design politics that need not always be to the liking of the Europeans.