Sunday, May 11, 2008


Winston Churchill once said that America and England are one people, separated by a common language. The “one people” is true not only because of the language, but perhaps more importantly, because of shared values.

There is also a very special relationship between Estonia and Finland. We are one people, but in this case we are separated by the Gulf of Finland and an almost common language. When the Finno-Ugry tribes (the Ugry refers to the Magyars, or Hungarians) moved north they settled in diverse locations, and today, in addition to Finnish and Estonian, there are at least a dozen other distinct Finno-Ugry languages in the region to the east of Finland. Some of these languages are tiny enclaves, with a distinct language spoken by a single village. These languages, along with Finnish and Estonian, are so strange that they are not even in the Indo-European language group. Other than some modern words, there is no similarity whatever between the Finno-Ugry languages and all the other European languages.

Historically, Finland has also been a battleground for the wars between Sweden and Russia, and has also struggled for survival as a culture and as a nation. The years when Sweden controlled Finland were, as they were in Estonia, the “good times”, and those years under Russian control were the years of deprivation and repression. Finland finally achieved independence in 1917 when a weakened Russia was happy to not have Finland to worry about.

In 1939 the infamous Ribbentrop-Molotov treaty placed both Finland and Estonia in the Russian “sphere of influence”, and the Russians decided to occupy both countries. Unlike the Estonians, the Finns decided to fight. It was a brave effort. At first, during what became known as the Winter War, they threw back the mighty Red Army. Over 3000 Estonian young men went to Finland and volunteered to fight alongside the Finns (just as thousands of Finns had come to Estonia to fight alongside the Estonians during the War of Independence in 1918.) But the effort by the Finns was doomed, and they finally had to sign a peace treaty that gave Russia the province of Karelia, fully 1/10 of the country. The Finns have never forgotten that, and many still look toward the day when Karelia can again be Finnish.

When Estonia regained its independence in 1991, the support from Finland was crucial in the early years. This support was both official, through the government, and unofficial, from people to people. Most importantly, the Finns discovered that alcohol in newly independent Estonia was taxed at a very low rate and thus was incredibly cheap compared to the prices they had to pay in Finland, and they started to come over in droves. The ferries were full, and more were built to accommodate the weekend traffic. It was typical to see a Finn, stone drunk, stagger off the ferry in Helsinki, pushing a dolly with three cases of Saku (a very fine Estonian beer). The Finns came, and they spent, and their coming over provided the much-needed hard currency to bolster the free economy. In fact, during the early 1990s, the money Finns spent in Estonia represented fully 5% of the total Gross National Product of Estonia.

Since those days, the price of alcohol has increased, and the prices of other goods like hotels and restaurants has leveled out to European standards, so there is less reason for Finns to come. And yet they come, thousands at a time traipsing off the ferries, spending a day or two walking around Old Town, basking in the sun at cafes, and spending their money.

The other day I was sitting at an outside café when three Finnish ladies came in and sat down. The young waitress went over and one of the women told her what she wanted, in Finnish. The waitress had no trouble understanding her, first because what she said was close enough to Estonian to be understood (even I could make it out) but also because the waitress, as with most workers in the restaurants and Old Town shops, spoke enough Finnish to get along. It occurred to me that one of the reasons the Finns enjoy coming to Tallinn is that this may be the only city in the world where they can go and still get along in their native tongue.

The ubiquitous presence of the Finns in Estonia has, as you would suspect, provided fodder for ethnic jokes. Estonians joke about the Russians, but often this humor has a hard edge, and they joke about the Latvians, but nobody knows who they are so something is lost in the telling, but it is wonderful to be able to poke fun at our big brother to the north. For example:

The Finns are fortunate. They get to enjoy a joke three times. First when they hear the joke, second when the repeat the joke to someone else, and third when someone explains it to them.

An Estonian lady once told me that during the Soviet time there was a clear distinction made between the Estonians, who craved to maintain their national identity, and those who believed they were Russians (or at the very least, certainly not Estonians.) The Estonians, she said, were “meie inimesed”, or literally, “our people.” Most Estonians believe that the Finns, with all their foibles, are also “our people.” They have just had the misfortune to have been born in Finland.


1 comment:

Indrek said...

The crow shouldl have been left in the road in new Estonia, as many Russians have had to "eat crow" (an American idiom)perhaps to make "Humble pie", an other idiom.