Well we’re finishing up the program in a few days and since I chose the latest blog spots I could, I suppose its my time to blog. In general, this program has both been incredibly interesting and rewarding. This is hardly a unique statement and is probably one already made in the countless blog posts before mine. There are a few reasons, however, that my particular experience is fairly unique. The main purpose in me coming to Narva was not actually to just study Russian (although that is still a major goal of mine), the main reason I am in this post-Soviet border town is to perform research for my thesis.
My primary academic interest is currently the Russian diaspora around the post-Soviet world. Following Ukraine and Crimea, I have been attempting to study the experiences of ethnic Russian populations living outside the Federation. Narva, therefore, is a perfect location for my research. Estonia may be both EU and NATO, but around 20% of its population is ethnically Russian. The only area, however, that Russians make up the majority population is the Ida-Viru county, in which Narva is the largest city. The unique relationship between the Russian ethnic minority and the Estonian government made my research even more exciting. From what I understand being here, Narva is practically an independent social and political entity in Estonia. The joke when leaving for Tallinn from Narva is “Oh, you’re going to Estonia”. This is a great description of the relationship between these parts of the country.
There are remarkable barriers in place, by the Estonia government, which isolate the Russian population. Although Russians make up 1/5th of the population, the legislative branch of Estonia has less than 5% ethnic Russian representatives. Beyond that, all higher education in Estonia is only taught in Estonian, which disenfranchises ethnic Russians, for who learning Estonian is both difficult and often not useful. Finally, around 9% of the Ethnic Russian population still does not have citizenry of any kind, because of the citizenship laws in Estonia. Unless you’re parents were in Estonia before the USSR, you do not have Estonian citizenship. This disregarded many whose parents were moved to Estonia during the USSR’s Russification of the Baltic States. Until a year ago, there was no Estonian news in Russian, which forced the Russian population to rely on Russian news from the Federation. Ironically, following Crimea and Ukraine, the Estonian government created an Estonian news channel that was in the Russian language, although it is still fairly unpopular. It is also remarkable to not the physical differences between the Russian dominated city of Narva and the Estonian cities of Tallinn and Tartu. Whereas Tallinn and Tartu are beautiful, vibrant, and incredibly clean, Narva is none of those things. As interesting as it is, it is fairly undeniable that there are significant issues in Narva with drug abuse, pollution, poverty, and alcoholism. I still find it surprising to see the EU license plates on cars here because of the stark differences between Estonia and Narva.
So it was into this context that I began my research with Russian speakers and Narvan citizens. While I am still analyzing my interviews, of which I have gathered around 15, I can still report some basic results. Much like previous work before mine, the Narvan populace is generally unworried with regards to Crimea or Ukraine. They have an intrinsic connection to Russia, but generally identify with the Ida-Viru county or Narva over a particular country. They, in general, are absolutely fine with the Estonian majority, and are practically indifferent to the Estonian government. More analysis of my research requires more time than I have currently, considering my upcoming finals in the program. If I were to treat my interviews like a survey, however, this is how I would report the results.
Broadly speaking, my results seem fairly paradoxical considering the context of Narvan life in Estonia, however, my research and results are simply echoing the results of researchers preforming similar work before me. I am exciting to utilize my continually improving Russian to properly go through my findings in the coming years. Before that, however, I have to continue my Russian training and research in my next study abroad program. I will be in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, for the following year doing exactly what I have done in Narva so far. I’m looking forward to finishing the program with everyone, traveling in Europe for two weeks, before diving back into the post-Soviet world. Narva has been a great experience for me in regards to my education and academic interests. Since I have another blog post coming up, I can talk about my non-academic experiences there.