Mikael Raihhelgauz: My Estonian Dream

18. Feb 2019

University student Mikael Raihhelgauz offers his reflections on the kind of Estonia he would like to live in.

Last summer, I spent the Midsummer’s Eve celebrations with my friends in an Estonian small town. As I walked from the train station, I passed a group of gentlemen sitting on a bench. Although it was still quite early in the evening, they were already tipsy. Something told me that that this was their regular state of being, not only to celebrate this particular national holiday. After I had already passed them by, one of them dropped a comment, “This guy is definitely not from Estonia!“

I thought to myself, I’m not in a hurry – why not kindly steer them out of their confusion. So I turned around and asked them why they had said that. The men were, of course, dumbfound. They had not expected that I would approach them speaking Estonian. One of the men, who seemed to have had less to drink, started to apologise fumblingly; whereas the one, who was more inebriated, asked me to join them. He wanted to offer me a beer as well, but unfortunately they had already run out of their reserves. He asked me where I was from. For some reason, people are never satisfied when I tell them I’m from Tallinn. They insist that I tell them where I’m actually from, and this guy was no exception.

He launched into a cross examination. “OK, let’s take football. Who do you root for?“ – For Estonia, obviously. – “But what if Estonia is not playing?“ – Then it doesn’t really matter. – “Perhaps you root for the Israelis? They are very fast on their feet!“ – Doesn’t make a difference. – “I always root for the Japanese! They play fairly, you know!“ …  and so on, and so on. Finally, I came to the realisation that I’m not going to get away without telling them the whole truth. So I told them that I’m from Ancient Egypt. “Egypt!?“ – Ancient Egypt. “Ancient Egypt! But that’s where the pyramids are… How did you guys manage to get those rocks up there?“ – Come on, do you really expect me to start spilling trade secrets… free of charge?

We had a nice chuckle and parted ways. The men turned out to be very friendly, telling me that they would be glad to help if I should get lost on their home turf. However, they didn’t believe me when I told them that I was born in Estonia and grown up as an Estonian. Regardless, I seemed different to them. Perhaps, in some ways, they may be right. In a sense, we live in different countries. Perhaps I’m drawing brash conclusions but it seemed to me that they are living in Estonian hopelessness / desperation. In the hopelessness / desperation where each new day is bound to bring more destitution than the day before; where even their beloved brand of beer is slipping increasingly out of their reach due to price hikes.

I, on the other hand, was raised by people who had an Estonian dream. My father came to this country in 1993. My mother was born here but her parents were immigrants. Estonia could have easily become just a pit stop on their life’s journey, but my parents had other plans. They stayed here, acquired an education and learned to speak Estonian. My mother went on to become a teacher, my father an entrepreneur. They had good times, and also weathered some difficult ones, but they never settled on simply getting by. My mother and father have always dreamed about leaving a legacy that would outlive them. For my father it’s his business; for my mother it’s her students.

However, they have also made a much more substantial investment. It is called “Jonathan, Rebeka Mia and Mikael“. When I started school, I couldn’t really speak Estonian properly. Each semester we had to read two books from the list of required reading. My mother had the patience to sit with me when I tried to read these books at a snail’s pace. What is more, instead of two books, we read each and every one on those lists, and she has maintained the same indefatigability with my siblings. Starting from the 7th grade, for a couple of weeks each summer, I worked at my father’s company. This enabled me to earn some money of my own, learning about the art of negotiations and listening to my father’s insights about the challenges managers face at work. I doubt that such wisdom is imparted in business schools. Furthermore, my parents showed me that all those things are not as important as the relationships we build along the way. It is important to be consistent in one’s pursuits.

I find it interesting that most scenarios describing the Estonian employment market in 2035 estimate a radical economic division of one kind or another. In 20 years, we are to have a progressive elite class who are highly educated and compensated, living in the poshest hipster districts, walking around with the latest iPhone in one hand and a flat white in the other. And then there’s the precariat whose employment is dependent on the availability of short-term gigs offered via some recruitment app. From the list of above mentioned luxuries, they will only have the iPhone, albeit it is safe to assume that it will have a cracked screen.

Inequality is not a problem in itself, as long as income increases for everyone. The problems start when it leads to the development of parallel societies. We’re in trouble, if only 20% of Estonia is living the dream and the rest of the country in hopelessness / desperation. I dream of an Estonia where, despite the current economic situation, the grandchildren of those inebriated gentlemen I chatted with on that bench on Midsummer’s Eve are not doomed to end up on that very same bench with a beer in their hands. I dream of an Estonia where reasonable effort is enough for all young people to escape the Estonian hopelessness / desperation to the Estonian dream. However, this kind of Estonia does not just materialise out of nowhere.

This autumn, I began tutoring mathematics. Most of my students are in the 9th grade. I was surprised to learn how many of them struggle with simple operations, e.g. addition of simple fractions. When asked how much is ¾ + 2/5 , the typical answer was  5/9. And this is a topic that they covered in school already 3 years ago! Nevertheless, my students seem to be quite competent. They are mostly B students whose parents care about their future, paying for private lessons, making sure they’ve done their homework and get good grades. However, I’m afraid to even venture a guess about what goes on in the heads of young people from less motivated families! You can probably imagine what are the most typical reactions I get when I tell people that I study mathematics „Oh, I was totally hopeless with math at school…“ The average result for the national math exam taken at the end of high school is only 37.4 points… and that’s for the easier narrow version. Can you imagine, only 37.4 points out of a hundred! This indicates that the average student didn’t even understand the half of it! The average result for the extensive version is over 50% but that doesn’t really help.

Perhaps Estonian students fare better in humanities? No! The average score for the Estonian language exam was 60.2 points – that’s a weak C! This indicates that the texts written by average high school graduates are poorly worded and riddled with grammatical errors, suitable only for someone making anonymous Internet comments, whose daily reading consists of the news feed from popular click-bait Internet portals and perfunctory summaries. What will become of those people in our glorified digital future?

We have other problems as well. One of them is the country’s dwindling population. The UN Human Development Report estimates that if current trends continue, there will be only 800,000 people left in Estonia in 2100, and a third of them will be of retirement age. In those circumstances, drawing up a state budget will be a serious challenge. Why couldn’t we start thinking about these things already now?

Or let’s take the Russian minority in Estonia. It is common knowledge that we have plenty of fine and decent Russians and Slavic Estonians who have successfully integrated and contribute to our society. Recently, an article was published about my friend Igor Ahmedov who returned from the UK to take part in snap reservist training exercise without any hesitation. He has my utmost respect. I am extremely proud of him but here’s a thought that I might not be eager to share in more progressive circles – all Slavic people are not as commendable as Igor. They might not speak Estonian, they send their kids to Russian schools, celebrate Christmas according to the Russian calendar and customs and – god forbid – prefer the Russian-sponsored TV channel PBK, targeting the Russian minority in the Baltics, to the Russian-speaking channel of Estonian Public Broadcasting, and think that Putin is a tough guy. Despite all of that, they are still our people. They have made an informed decision to stay here and live in this country. And although they may be critical from time to time, trust me, most of them love Estonia much more than they love Russia. I dream of an Estonia where Slavic people are also seen as truly one of our own.

Of course, I can go on with a laundry list of challenges but that’s not my intention. As Estonians, we tend to be too pessimistic. Sometimes it may seem that the end is near. Soon enough, we will lose our last sages and will be left with nothing to do but toil through life subsisting on stale bread. We are presented with a daunting scenario: Estonia will either lose its idiosyncrasy in the global capitalist dynamic or will be relegated to a peripheral banana/potato republic, its people doomed to extinction.

I don’t believe that any of these scenarios will materialise for Estonia. We are now living in the golden age. Estonians are better off than ever before. We are among the world’s top countries in terms of civil and economic liberties. We have not been affected by the crisis of democracy that has plagued many other Eastern European countries. Of course, we face challenges that must be addressed as soon as possible but I believe we are capable of overcoming whatever comes our way!

Several people have told me that they are ready to die for Estonia. This is highly commendable but my personal metrics for patriotism are somewhat different. Would you be willing to spend a couple of hours a week doing something worthwhile for your country or the community? Would you be willing to give up some money to support a cultural project or an initiative that would improve life in Estonia?

In order to be good citizens, we don’t really need to go live in the woods or wait for our chance to shine/step up. It would be quite enough if people would just do their daily job a bit better than before, talk to their children, spend 15 minutes a day pondering real world problems, read up on possible solutions and be discerning about what the people running for office are actually promising. If people would take sincere interest in education, population matters, the economy and other overarching societal themes, then the people tasked with making those decisions could not ignore those topics any longer.

I have talked at length about the kind of Estonia I dream about. However, the gist of it could be delivered in one sentence: I dream of an Estonia where people turn the tables on hopelessness and do something worthwhile every day to contribute to the larger vision.