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Contemporary Estonian culture – better or worse than that of the pre-war era?


Mart Helme, member of the Estonian parliament, leading politician in the Estonian Conservative Nationalist Party (EKRE), stated in early April at the party congress: "If we compare the 22 years of the pre-war period with the curerent 25 years, then the current achievements in culture have been, mildly put, modest."
Helm's comment elicited passionate opinions from various societal sectors. (One may note here that Arnold Rüütel, a party colleague of Helm's, a former chairman of the Presidium of the Estonian Supreme Soviet, a former member of the Estonian Communist Party Central Committee's polit-bureau, agreed with Helm's evaluation.) An opposing view, backed by credible and relevant facts was presented by Sirje Kiin, an Estonian literature scholar, writer and journalist, now living in the USA.

Herein a summarized version of her postion: Never in Estonian history have there been as many books published as now. In 1938, 1636 Estonian language books were published, with only a small percentage being original Estonian fiction or poetry. The last few years over 3000 works each year have appeared , with over 2000 being original Estonian language books. Never before have so many manuscripts been translated into other languages. Before the war only Marie Under and Friedebert Tuglas were proposed as Nobel Prize literature candidates. Now Jaan Kross, Jaan Kaplinskli and Doris Kareva have been presented numerous times.

Helme asks where are the A.H. Tamsaares or Henrik Visnapuus of today. Kiin says, Helme is obviously not familiar with Ene Mihkelson's, Mats Traat's or Enn Nõu's series of novels set in the milieu of Estonian history. He hasn't bothered to read Hando Runnel's or Kalev Kesküla's patriotic verse, Indrek Hirve's love poetry or Hasso Krull's powerful epics.

Estonian theater and music has never had the vitality they have now, enjoying prestigious international awards and enthusiastic domestic acclaim ( Arvo Pärt, Veljo Toris, Erki-Sven Tüür, Lepo Sumera, Raimo Kangro, NO99 theater, Estonia Theater, the Philharmonic Chamber Choir, world famous National Academic Men's Choir, Priit Pärn flim animator, Sven Grünberg composer for films, the Oscar nominated fim "Mandarines" etc. The list of achievements winning international kudos is lengthy.

The number of people who speak Estonian has never been as high as now. 'Ethnologue' gives 1,124,250 as the current total; Estonia encyclopaedia puts the figure at 1,250,000 of which 1.1 million have the language as their mother tongue. But more important, the number of Estonian speakers is steadily growing this century, as determined by demographic data. The language is studied and taught at 30 foreign universities.
According to an index measuring a country's contribution in benefitting a 'world culture', Estonia rated as sixth in 2014 and as 11th in 2016. In the combined fields of science and technology, culture, international peace and security, world order, the planet and climate, wealth and equality, health and prosperity, Estonia placed 39th in 2016. These were comparisons amongst 163 countries, giving Estonia a high rating. Kiin is convinced that Estonian culture has and will be its most valuable asset.

Cultural traits that distinguish one ethnic group from another can be identified, studied and probably even measured in some fashion. But to ascribe a good/not so good rating to a culture is meaningless. This not to imply that in a free society one cannot express one's opinion as to the quality of culture be it on a good/bad or any other scale. Observations such as Helme's and Kiin's are not based on any empirical study, and thus not objective. Kiin tries to refute Helme's assertion about the poor 'quality' of current Estonian cultural achievements by supporting part of her argument with established facts. But even the international ratings to which Kiin refers are fully subjective with all the human bias associated with such evaluations.

Helme also accuses Estonian culture creators of abandoning the previously ever-present trait of patriotism. This reminds one of the control of culture of a previous era, culture that suffered official condemnation or at the very least public disregard if it did not involve 'socialist realism, ideals of the revolution or the gallantry of the worker, etc'. Knowing EKRE's insistence that the European Union is deplorably obtrusive politically, economically and culturally, threatening Estonian sovereignty in many areas, Helme sees the more isolationist existence of pre-war Estonia as being more conducive to Estonian cultural development. Some say that's an overly kind statement and suggest Helme's was obviously polictically motivated.
The uniqueness of Estonian culture, seems to be holding its own amidst the assimilating pressures of cultural globalization. Would it be wise to assert some sort of official approval mechanism on Estonia's cultural output, even a moderate process that would not be as heavy-handed as that of a totalitarian regime? No!

Even a system that would beningly distinguish between good and not so good? No. Estonians, basking in the recognition their culture has received internationally, attribute this success to the freedom of expression they now enjoy after 50 years of repression and reject any form of offcial control.

 

 

Laas Leivat, Toronto

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