Russians in contemporary Estonia -
different strategies of the integration in to the nation-state

Aksel Kirch

Different initial status for Estonians and Russians

For Estonia, as for Latvia and Lithuania which have also re-established their independence, the total political and economic change has been accompanied by the problems of synchronous shift of collective identities of nations and ethnic groups. This is unique process, with no obvious analogue in Europe. Nevertheless, this will enrich European transformation and cross-cultural context and also the concept of European identity.

For last ten years Russian people living in Estonia have had a live constructive discussion about historical place of Estonian Russians and about possibilities to find a stabile position in quickly developing society. The deep idea of the named discussion was to confirm that although the powerful Russian culture ties together all Russians living in Estonia, the historical fate and direction of political interest of people should be Estonian-centered.

The purpose of this chapter is to represent more general approach to the problems of the integration. According to our conception the process of integration means the re-shaping of the social, cultural and political aspects of contemporary Estonian society which will promote the new integral unity and will bring along a positive synergetic effect in social relations. For ethnic minorities integration is a continuous process in which they step by step, more and more stand closer to Estonian society without forgetting at the same time their original ethnic roots and cultural heritage. This is not simply working and living in the different culture but obtaining at the same time equal possibilities for social position and professional career for all members of the society with different ethnic origin and mother tongue. Thus, this is acknowledgment of the multicultural society and restructuring of social relations between Estonian and different ethnic minorities cultures.

Integration is considered as a process of the formation of a cooperating, democratic and well-functioning society. Estonia is re-establishing the principle of a nation state. The higher status of the Estonian language is one of the main guarantees for the Estonians for the maintenance of their own ethnic identity in Estonia’s nation state.

The second guaranty is the politic loyalty and acceptance of Estonia’s territorial integrity of the Russian population. We have data on a tendency toward strengthening the state-loyalty of Russians towards the Republic of Estonia, on the increasing respect of Russians towards Estonian culture and language, on the irrelevance and unpopularity of separatist ideas among the common people.

The conception of development and integration will be successful if it is elaborated and directed by the state. Of course, promotion of the concrete plan is possible if all society could understand the necessity of special efforts to accelerate the integration. In autumn /winter 1997/1998 the Estonian government started developing a strategy for tackling the issue of integration. On 10 February 1998 the Estonian government adopted the policy paper " The integration of Non-Estonians into Estonian Society. The bases of Estonia's national policy”.

The main question is - what should be the recourses of this joint effort? In contemporary Estonian society, which is often characterized by some analysts through the process of maximum atomization of society - i.e. highest level of individualization and weak civic structures, it is now difficult to find inner recourses for cooperation and integration on a new level. One attempt to carry out some promoting activities on this field have made by research projects initiated by the Ministry of Education and Population Minister Katrin Saks. These projects purpose the integration of the Russian- speaking youth into Estonian society, the problems of multicultural education of non-Estonians and the promoting of the cultural adaptation programs. This work includes also descriptions of future scenarios of Estonians-Russians cultural relations: continuation of the present situation, or evolution and progress in this sphere by different paths of development.

The key problem has been citizenship question of Soviet-era immigrants. When Estonian Republic in 1991 was restored, the principle of restitution of citizenry was applied. Citizenship is a question about the juridical-political relationship between person and a state, and different treatment of the problem is possible here. The most popular point of discussions has been around the problems of legal continuity of Estonian state and citizenry, and following from this the problems of non-citizens living in Estonia.

The legal and citizenship practice results from the restitution principle. Thus, despite of the presumed resemblance concerning the minority problems (integration of new minorities is a problem in many countries) the real circumstances are quite different. The main difference consists in subjection of jus solis principle to jus sanguinis principle. 1

Cultural differences

One of the possible approaches to the problems of cultural differences can be found in Samuel Huntington’s theory about developments of different civilizations. According to Huntington, a civilization is the biggest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of identity people possess, short of that which distinguishes the humane from other species. It is defined both by common objective elements, such as language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and by the subjective self-identification of people.2 Huntington proceeds from the boundaries between civilizations in Europe inherited from the 16th century. According to these boundaries Estonia belongs to European civilization together with Latvia, Lithuania and Western Ukraine. He makes some presumptions about the borders of these countries.

Most social studies of Ea Jansen, Toomas Karjahärm, Toivo U. Raun, Raimo Pullat and Rein Ruutsoo concerning the problems of Estonians and Russians living in Estonia, do not examine the probability of pure cultural conflict. It is important to emphasize in formation of Estonia’s own cultural model connections Estonia has had with Russia's cultural dimensions and also Slavonic Orthodox civilization in a whole. These have been historically important factors of cultural influence (since Peter I conquered Estonia in 18thcentury, in fact). In the 19thcentury when the configuration of Europe's nations took shape, Estonia and Livland (the north of Latvia, where Estonians also lived) were in the domain of Russian empire. Miroslaw Hroch´s comparative study3 of Checks, Lithuanians, Estonians, Finns, Flams, Slovaks and Norwegians showed that development of Estonian society, one of the most western provinces of Russia, kept pace also with other European societies, in part due to its close connections with Germany.

Ea Jansen, a respected Estonian historian and a researcher of this period, has written about nation building process: “... in this period Estonians as well as other European nations consolidated and formed up into a nation with their own concept of the fatherland, language-use, the communication systems and political ambitions. Despite the fact that Estonians represented a lower, suppressed social group in society, nevertheless the political culture formed. A wide-spread net of grass-roots organizations and newspapers mobilized nation according to “European model” to certain extent, thus when the revolution bursted out the national autonomy and later formation of nation-state came into existence.”4

Estonian state structures and legal system had developed after the World War I, according to the level of development of democracy in Europe and had reached to the level of other European states before the World War II. Relatively tight cultural ties and formed structures with Western and Nordic European countries determined the essence of the Estonian collective identity and belongingness to European cultural context. The cultural type of the Estonians is understood here in a general cultural context, characterized by broader, civilization factors, and specific local, ethnic composition of Estonia with ethnic minorities cultures (the Russians, Swedes, Jews, Finns and so on) creating a unique cultural context.

Language differences

It is important to underline that historically the main factors, in the development of ethnic composition of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, have been quite different. Russia’s intention to broaden its influence and control in the Baltic States spawned a new influx of immigrant citizens, first of all into Latvia, specifically into Riga immediately after the World War II. Immigration flows from Russia (also from Byelorussia and Ukraine, and other parts) into Estonia and Lithuania during the postwar period were relatively recent. In Latvia has had a large community of Russian immigrants since Czarist times.

Richard Rose in the sociological project carried out in three Baltic States in 1993 showed that the local language competence of Lithuanian Russians’ is much higher compared to Estonia and Latvia: of the local Russians in Estonia thirty-eight percent can communicate in local language compared to 63 percent in Latvia and seventy percent in Lithuania.5

As a part of ethnosociological research in March 1996 an Estonian language competence of the respondents was studied.6 Data from the Table 1 show that the level of Estonian language competence depends from the age and gender of Russian respondents. It is remarkable that Russian men’s knowledge of Estonian is much poorer than women’s.

Table 1

Knowledge of Estonian Language of Russians by Gender and Age Groups in March 1996 (%)


Levels of language    Total  Men  Women           Age groups

knowledge                                18-24   25-34   35-44   45-54   55 and more


Very high                9     8    10      7       9      11       5     10

Relatively high         17    11    20     24      15      19      14     14

Low                     49    47    51     52      59      54      53     35

Don't know Estonian     25    34    19     17      17      15      28     41


Source: A. Kirch (ed.) The Integration of Non-Estonians into Estonian Society: History, Problems and Trends. Estonian Academy Publishers, Tallinn, 1997, p. 50.

Estonian language competence is closely related to professional career potentiality. Profession in sphere of medicine (doctors etc.), local authorities, most people of the cultural and educational sphere, police, court, etc. are spheres working in which demands high level of Estonian language knowledge. Some professions are now not attainable for local monolingual Russians, thus language competence serves as a competence factor and determines the career of young Russian generation. The following table 2 shows the change of Estonian language competence during last few years as a function of citizenship.

Table 2

Knowledge of Estonian and Citizenship Status of Russians in January 1999 (%)


Levels of  language    Total   Estonian         Russian         No citizenship

knowledge                      citizen          citizen        (Alien's passport)


Fluent                    7       25               2                2

Good                     10       29               5               11

Satisfactory             37       34              35               43

Donít know               46       12              58               44


Source: The sociological study of Open Estonia Institute in January 1999

The study of Open Estonia Institute by Iris Pettai and Ingrid Proos about knowledge of Estonia of Russians showed difference in Estonian language competence between group of Estonian citizens and the people without citizenship or Russian Federation citizens. Data in the Table 1 and Table 2 allow us to present a thesis about the process of transition from segmented communities to the open society being significant for Russian population. Becoming Estonian citizen through the naturalisation is one of the promoting factors of this transition process. During the years 1992-2000 Estonian citizenship is given through naturalisation to about 125 thousand people and about one half (65 thousand) of them are Russians.

According to the renewed Language Law (February 1999) students graduated from Russian schools in Estonia can (due to results of this language test) apply for Estonian citizenship and choose the automatic naturalisation process. It is clear that this can work as an additional channel of social mobility for Russian-speaking youth.

For Russian-speaking students in centre and south regions of Estonia the language environment is more open while in Narva and in other cities of North-East-Estonia (Ida-Viru county) the language environment is more restricted. In Narva and Sillamäe Estonians are ethnic minority making 5-10% from the whole population, but today Russian and Estonian both are the dominant language for all major activity in Narva and Sillamäe as in other industrial cities in Ida-Viru county - Jõhvi and Kohtla-Järve .

However, even the fast growth in the use of Estonian by Russian youth will not compensate for the negligible cultural adaptation of this group. Of course, improving language competence is one of the main preconditions for cultural adaptation, but different customs, cultural preferences, behavior habits will remain. Teaching the Russians the way of the indigenous culture will still find in the absence of a positive common history and superficial cultural contacts. Estonians and Russians celebrate different events, anniversaries, memorable days, attend different cultural events. Once the calendar of Christian celebrations is different (Russians celebrate these dates by old non-reformed calendar i.e. two weeks later) there is only one common for Estonians and Russians important day in a year - a New Year’s Eve.

Civil Society as a Factor and a Resource of the Integration

Analyzing the social recourses of the general integration process in Estonia, some years ago, one could think that the integration of non-Estonians into the civic structures is less problematic compared with cultural and lingual cooperation and integration. In the new context of civic structures the question of non-Estonian people and their possible collective identities spring up as problematic in new aspect. What is the converging point, the focus of the concentration of new identity of the non-Estonian groups building up the civic structures? If this will be further segregation on the basis of the speaking language, then there will spring up two parallel civic networks in the society - one for Estonian-speaking people and second for Russian-speakers - and we can't speak about any integration effects.

To achieve a better understanding of this problem we have to analyze a historical heritage of the problem as well as a contemporary state of affairs.7 Experience of the civil society and knowledge about the civic structures for Estonian people is episodical - in 1940-1941 all communities, unions etc. voluntary associations were demolished by the Soviet authorities. Although, there is two aspects why civic structures can be restored quite quickly. These are: First - family ties with the pre-war Republic of Estonia. For older generation it is personal experience, for younger generation it means mediated by their parents and grandparents knowledge about life in Estonian Republic in 30-ies. Second - some elements inherited from the civil society existed through the Soviet period, some grass-roots organizations hold alive the horizontal connections between people, mainly between Estonians. Although, the Soviet power set bounds to these associations (only definitely non-political were allowed), during the occupation period hundreds of choirs, folk-dance groups, groups of people whose interest was nature protection and house-design and handicraft, hunters and fishermen societies etc. All these communities worked successfully.

On the basis of the analyze R.Ruutsoo concluded that this time the "organizational capital" was unequally disposed in Estonian society. Civic structures in Estonian community are still quite mosaic (if compared, for example, to Finland), but despite that this is more balanced than civic structures in non-Estonian community and coalition with Estonians’ structures is thus under the suspect. The civic structures of the non-Estonians have been more related to the traditional Soviet structures. Even in those new sectors like emergence of new political parties and protection of the peoples’ own economic interests - both fields have become very important for last ten years - the organization-building activity for Russians in 1993 was relatively lower. Along with historical-political factors the political-juridical ones are now determining the situation of springing civic structures and those depend in certain extent from the citizenship status of people.8

Changes in Identity of Russians in Estonia

Estonians and Russians experienced the disintegration of Soviet Union differently: Estonians as a subject-nation aspiring towards political self-determination and a nation-state, Russians as the dominant nation longing for the return of their previously balanced state with unified and highly centralised society. This is this reason why the question of loyalty among the Russian minority has been an essential problem for Estonia since regaining independence.

Several studies about the attitudes and values of Russian population in Estonia have pointed to the slow creation of a post-Soviet Russian identity. Our research supports these findings. According to our four studies from 1990-1993, for Russian, the new situation (in 1988-1993) in Estonia became an identity vacuum which entailed the need to redefine their personal and collective identities. Thus, there was a situation, where Russians' previous sense allegiance had disappeared, but a new one had yet to arise. According to the survey, there have been in 1993-1995 deep changes in the attitudes of Estonians Russians and Estonian citizenship has become a new inevitability and necessity for Russians in Republic of Estonia. One important issue that still faces the Russian-speaking population in Estonia is the formation of a viable and effective elite. 9

Today the process of integration is multidimensional. It depends on the Russian’s readiness to integrate into the new circumstances, as well as on the Estonian’s willingness to co-operate with the non-Estonian population.

The unchanged ethnic and cultural identity of an ethnic minority living among another nation suggests that the population has undergone no integration. The change in identity is the yardstick that tells us that there has been integration (a partial change in identity) and that e.g. there is no ongoing assimilation (a total shift of identity). A partial change in identity is a process in the course of which the Russians living in Estonia become more or less bicultural and bilingual e.g. Estonian-Russian. The result of this process the significant barriers disappear that today prevent Russians from participating in the life of Estonia.

Over the last decades, carriers of two new identities can be seen among the Russians living in Estonia – the groups known as Estonian Russians and diaspora-Russians have been formed. Significant developments of the 90ies in the economic and political status of the Republic of Estonia have brought about pronounced trends in the identity of up to 120 thousand Russians. They are becoming an Estonia-focused national group. Estonian Russians clearly set their attitudes and opinions against those of Russian Russians and at the same time try to be close to the opinion of Estonians. By distinguishing themselves as an ethnic group, Estonian Russians draw a certain line between the two groups – Russian Russians and Estonian Russians. Therefore, in general, the latter do not identify themselves with the Russians, whence they come, but have formed a distinct group in today’s Estonia with a pronounced “self”.

Already in 1993 and 1995 psychological surveys confirmed that Estonian Russians differ from the Russians of Russia. Significant changes in the identity of Russians have occurred in these years – Russians have grown way more focused on Estonia. Estonian Russians clearly set their attitudes and opinions against those of Russian Russians, and at the same time try to be close to the opinion of Estonians. By distinguishing themselves as an ethnic group Estonian Russians draw a line between the two groups – Russian Russians and Estonian Russians.

The survey in Ida-Virumaa by the Institute for Russia and CIS on the prospects of the eastern market indicates that Estonian Russian entrepreneurs are rather sceptical about the potential of so-called eastern business. And nothing but cultural and civilisation-based differences between Russian businessmen in Estonia and in Russia are given as reasons: “We are spoilt because we have got used to work in a civilised atmosphere, being trusted, being given credits – commodities, money; we have got used to believe the word of a partner… There, in Russia, it is totally different… no chance that the money you put in returns to you. This unpredictability of the Russian market starting with the unpredictability of politics, laws, taxes – all this dramatically affects how things go. Deep corruptness is a characteristic feature of Russian business. Here in a civilised atmosphere we have also got rid of that. We have rather strict laws in Estonia, but they can be understood, and it is enough if you simply abide by them. But in Russia…”. This is an extract from an interview of a Narva construction entrepreneur with interviewers.10

The barriers that have been set up either on the basis of historic memory, Great Russian culture or civilisation in a broader sense, and which date back to the former empire, are still a significant obstacle to integration. As a rule, these people do not consider Estonia their one and only homeland. To distinguish these people form the Estonian Russians, they could be called diaspora-Russians (less often compatriots living abroad). Outwardly, diaspora-Russians seek to become like Estonians in terms of attitudes and assessments, yet “thanks” to the language barrier and lack of adequate information what attitudes and opinions Estonians really have. Similar to neo-imperialist sentiments in Russia, we also may say that a part of the diaspora-Russians in Estonia carry chauvinist and vengeful sentiments. However, it should be noted that the nostalgia for the Soviet time has considerably decreased among the Russians. The interviews conducted with Russians in Ida-Virumaa show that the carriers of this ideology are not many – a couple per hundred Russians living in Estonia.

In addition to the named groups, there is a relatively large group (many of the holders of the Alien’s passport - a total of 250 thousand people) with a rather clouded identity ethnically, culturally and with regard to the state. They recognise themselves often as Baltic Russians.

In case a person does not clearly associate himself or herself with Estonia, the decision to apply for Estonian citizenship comes hard to many Russians. On the one hand, close family relations with Russia remain and feed their ethnic and cultural identity. On the other hand, although there is a growing drive to adapt to and integrate into the domicile, it is not an easy task to perform within a couple of decades due to the complexity of acculturation. This slow-moving process rather indicates the reconciliation of many Russians to cope with the obscure situation. In general this group do not identify themselves with the Russians, but have formed a distinct group in today’s Estonia (or in Latvia, Lithuania) with its defined local identity. “Russian-speaking population” is as subidentity for Russians, not a new category of identity in the post-Soviet Estonia as say David Laitin.11

Adaptation to the Estonian way of life with no command of Estonian is possible, yet the 400 thousand-strong Russian population still maintains its isolation in Estonia.12

At the level of the Government great efforts are being made to integrate Russians into the Estonian society. Here mention should be made of the adopted Governmental Programme, accelerated research, as well as extended teaching of Estonian to Russians. Resources for the growth of the civic structures are good, but the process of civic development can effect to the integration only when language separation is diminishing and collective identities of people spring up despite of their mother tongue.

To Estonians, the Republic of Estonia is primary the nation-state (political and lingual community), while for Russians residing in Estonia it is a but a country of their current domicile without clear political identity. All the three resources mentioned above could be effectively used for the strategy of implementation of the Russians’ integration into Estonian society. However, adaptation by Russians and their subsequent integration into Estonian life will be a long-term process of adapting to the culture and language of Estonia, while the integration into civic society is going to happen much quicker. Openness of the Estonian society, good communication and broader co-operation may contribute to mutual trust. It is obvious that the more one is integrated into the society socially and culturally, the more likely a person is to generate real loyalty to Estonia as “its own” society.

As already mentioned, the process of political and economic transition of Eastern European countries causes complex patterns of change of cultural and national identity. Ethnic aspects of traditional national identity are also in a profound change in European Union enlargement process. But also stronger support to European identity by former carriers and admirers of Soviet identity. According to Eurobarometers of Central and Eastern Europe (1995-1997), in Estonia there exists statistically verifiable larger support to EU enlargement by Estonian Russians. According to the last Saar-Poll Euro-gallup in Estonia (April 2000) difference in support was 10% (Estonians 40%, Russians 50%).

The Baltic states bordering a politically and economically unstable Russia are particularly interested in close foreign and security policy ties with the rest of Europe, since quite a number of Moscow politicians have not yet accepted that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have left their sphere of influence. Accession to the EU will, however, primarily increase Estonia’s soft security. 13 The stability ensuing from cooperation within the EU reduces the chance of a political or economic crisis in Russia being transferred to Estonia.


1 M. Geistlinger, General Description of the Relations between Estonians and Russians in Estonia. In: M.Geistlinger, A.Kirch. (Eds.) Estonia - A new framework for the Estonian majority and the Russian minority. Vienna. Braumüller 1995, 105.

2 S. Huntington. The Clash of Civilizations. Foreign Affairs, 72 , 3, Summer 1993, 30

3 M. Hroch. Die Vorkämpfer der Nationalen Bewegung bei den kleinen Völkern Europas. Praha University, 1967.

4 E. Jansen. Romantic Nationalism in Estonia. - History of European Ideas. Vol. 16, 1993, 1-3, 337-341; E.Jansen. Rahvuseks kujunemise raske tee/The difficult path of nation-building. – Akadeemia, Vol. 6, 2000,pp.1155-1189.

5 R .Rose, W.Maley. Nationalities in the Baltic States. A Survey Study. Studies in Public Policy. Nr. 222. Strathclyde University Press, Glasgow, 1994, 52.

6 The Integration of Non-Estonians into Estonian Society: History, Problems and Trends. Ed by Aksel Kirch. Estonian Academy Publishers, Tallinn, 1997, 31.

7 M.Kirch. Identificational Diversity in Estonia: Grounds for Integration or Grounds for Desintegration? - In: M. Kirch, D. D. Laitin (eds.) Changing Identities in Estonia. Sociological Facts and Commentaries, Tallinn, 1994, 11-24.

8 R.Ruutsoo. Ethnic Factor and Restoration of the Civic Society in Estonia in 1988-1995. - In: Vene noored Eestis: sotsioloogiline mosaiik. Materjalide kogumik.Tartu Ülikool, Tartu, 1997, 23-24.

9 I. Rimm, T. Tuisk .Identity Structure Analysis and Integration Processes. In: A. Kirch (ed.) The Integration of Non-Estonians into Estonian Society: History, Problems and Trends. Estonian Academy Publishers, Tallinn, 1997, 37-42.

10 10. J. Sillaste, A. Kirch, M. Kirch. People of foreign origin in Tallinn and East-Virumaa: change in identity and prospects for development. - Estonian Business School Review, Winter 1999, 10, 17-21.

11 David. D. Laitin. Identity in Formation. The Russian-Speaking Populations in the Near Abroad. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1998.

12 Statistical Yearbook 2000. Statistical Office of Estonia. Tallinn, 2000, 36.

13 Joan Löfgren, Graeme P. Herd. Estonia and the EU. Integration and Societal Security in the Baltic Context. University of Tampere, Tampere Peace Research Institute Research Report, No. 91, 2000.