‘I’m always looking over my shoulder’: the anxiety of Russians in Estonia | Estonia

Father Grigory Borisov offers a prayer for Ukraine each day in a special liturgy at Lasnamäe Church, a towering, whitewashed Russian Orthodox place of worship in the center of the Estonian capital’s most populous suburb, Tallinn, where the majority are Russian speakers.

The Church of the Icon of the Mother of God was built in 2013 with the help of funds from a Moscow-based NGO. While in March the Estonian Orthodox Church joined other churches in the Baltic country in condemning the bombing of civilians in Ukraine, the head of the church in Moscow, Patriarch Kirill, was accused of having provided theological cover for Vladimir Putin’s war.

Borisov, 32, who went to theological college in St Petersburg, is on a thin line. He says he is not allowed to talk about politics and war. But the priest admits there is widespread anxiety in his congregation in this economically deprived part of town. “The mental health situation is bad – Covid, the war, the economic situation, petrol prices. These things make people sad and worried.

Borisov says he treats everyone who comes to church the same, whether they are Estonian, Ukrainian or Russian. “There is no Greek [n]or Jew,” he says, quoting a passage from the King James Bible that goes on to state that “all [are] one in Jesus Christ”.

People shop last week at the Balti Jaama market in Tallinn. Photography: Hendrik Osula/The Guardian

Outside the church in Lasnamäe, located east of Tallinn, among high-rise buildings as far as the eye can see, such flattery stands in stark contrast to what is an increasingly anxious Russian community, caricatured by some as a “fifth column” and among in turn there is a high degree of distrust of the state.

Estonia was a Soviet republic from 1944 to 1991, and around 322,000 of its population of 1.3 million identify as ethnic Russians, 90,000 of whom have Russian citizenship. Many ethnic Russians turn to Russian television for their news, and a high degree of segregation remains.

Meanwhile, the Estonian government, led by Kaja Kallas, has taken a surprisingly strong stance on the need to turn the screws on Russia by tightening economic sanctions imposed by the West on its economy, banning travel visas for nationals of the country and destroying the Soviet Union. imagery, such as monuments commemorating the Second World War.

The man is posing with a cup of coffee in his hand
Taniel Vaaderpass in his cafe in Tallinn’s Old Town. Photography: Hendrik Osula/The Guardian

It is a dynamic that risks creating dangerous misunderstandings in which opposition to Putin’s Russia could be interpreted as the disapproval of all Russians.

Karsten Brüggemann, a professor of Estonian history at the University of Tallinn, said the financial aid offered to Ukrainian refugees was also seen as a threat by some members of the Russian community.

“Because they see how much money the state gives to Ukrainian refugees and they have nothing,” he says. “[For] some of the Russians who are in a socio-economically poor situation, it’s really quite irritating, to say the least.

Hanging her laundry on the terrace of her ground-floor flat in the shade of Lasnamäe church, a 39-year-old mother of a three- and five-year-old, who declined to be named, stated she was born in Tallinn but identified as Russian. “I better be careful what I say because they’re going to kick me out,” she said.

“Everything was fine before the war. I worked for two Estonian companies and it was good but now we are considered dangerous. What are they going to do to us next? I am not in favor of EU sanctions. They don’t hurt Russia but they hurt us here. I’m a personal trainer and can’t afford to drive to work. I only take the car with the children. I can’t afford to fill it. The government should take care of its own people and not the Ukrainians who threaten us, who are protesting with blood on themselves in front of the Russian Embassy. I always look over my shoulder.

The woman had heard false allegations that the Estonian government had stopped free meals for children in Russian-language schools. “I don’t know if it’s true, but it could be true,” she insisted.

A potential flashpoint between the Estonian government and the ethnic Russian community was the decision last week to remove a Soviet-era T-34 tank from its pedestal in the eastern town of Narva, where 95.7% of Narva’s population is native Russian speaking and 87.7% are ethnic Russians.

High rise apartments and some cars
Lasnamäe district in Tallinn. Photography: Hendrik Osula/The Guardian

The decision was taken as part of a larger plan to move between 200 and 400 public monuments to museums on the grounds that Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine had “opened up wounds in our society that these monuments of the communist era remind us”.

There had been concerns about the Troubles. The removal of a statue known as the Bronze Soldier in Tallinn in April 2007 sparked two nights of rioting in the capital’s Old Town, in which a Russian protester was killed.

This time, locals instead gathered peacefully to lay flowers where the float sat. Polls have suggested that ethnic Russians’ adherence to the Kremlin line has been far from certain since the war. A recent survey found that about a third of those who identify as Russians in Estonia agree with moving Soviet monuments from public places to museums.

Katri Raik, a former government minister who has been mayor of Narva since 2020, said there was genuine fear in the Russian community that the government should be sensitive to government.

“Now what happens next is very important,” she told Estonia’s biggest daily, Postimees. “These red monuments are [no longer] the. Is that all now? Or what the Estonian state has in mind in the direction of Narva. We need to restore trust between the country of Estonia and Narva.

Raik added: “We have to get rid of the fear of the people of Narva, which many people expressed yesterday in various meetings. They are afraid of being expelled from Estonia. We will certainly not send the people of Narva away”.

Speaking on Estonia’s Independence Day on Saturday, the country’s president, Alar Karis, spoke of the ill will aroused by the tank’s withdrawal. “We have to recognize that some people in our country have a different historical understanding,” he said. “Many of our compatriots do not yet speak Estonian fluently, but in addition to the language, or largely because they do not speak it, they have also not learned an ideologically unbiased history of Estonia , Europe and the world.”

He, however, called for understanding and sensitivity at a time when nuance was easily lost. “We are 1.3 million,” he said. “We have power and strength. But only if we move forward paying attention to each other, not forcing our own truth.

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