The impact of the Soviet occupation

After establishing the Soviet power, the new authorities started forcefully to merge both the local Russian and Estonian culture into one homogeneous culture of ‘Soviet people’. The entire mighty Soviet propaganda machinery was employed to fulfil this aim. The Russian language became not just the language of one culture, but a means of Russification.

The fate of those intellectuals who resided in Estonia and dedicated their talent and energy to preserving Russian culture was not enviable either. Most of them were arrested and sent out of the country. Practically all intellectuals who made up the thin layer of Russian culture in Estonia perished, and thus the continuity of Russian high culture in Estonia was disrupted.

Various significant shifts in the social sphere occurred during the occupation period that had an impact on culture as well. With regard to the Russian emigrants in the Republic of Estonia between 1918 and 1940, the intellectual level of most of them was quite high. Their status enabled them to gain access to education, foreign languages, moving in excellent everyday cultural spheres. Totally different were the immigrants who arrived after the Second World War and especially in the 1970s from largely pillaged areas. In the course of collectivisation, the Soviet power eliminated all the resisting farm owners in their homesteads. Old rural traditions vanished with them. With the aim of presenting a pretty façade, various complexes in the countryside were established, but the day-to-day village culture of the rural population had been destroyed.

Those settling in Estonia during the Soviet period began adopting the local everyday mode of life. It should be mentioned here again that for the Russians, Estonia was not just the ‘weakest link in the socialist chain’, but the imitation of the forbidden Western mode of life in the vast Soviet landscape. It was by no means accidental, for example, that one of the first Estonian words appearing in the vocabulary of local Russians and that remained there for quite some time, was ‘kohvik’ (cafe). In the second half of the 1950s and in the 1960s, Russian literature developed a fascination for the narrow streets and cosy cafes of Tallinn. Gradually, the attention the Estonians habitually pay to clothes and home decoration also caught on. By the early 1990s the Russian everyday culture had reached more or less the same level as that of the Estonians.

After the country regained independence in 1991, the Russian culture again became one of the minority cultures in Estonia. Unlike the Republic of Estonia period (1918–1940) when a rigid line was drawn between local Russian culture and Soviet Russia, the present Russian culture is not developing in isolation but is connected with contemporary Russian culture.

On the other hand, Russian culture in Estonia has often been intentionally separated from Estonian national culture. (An example here could be the debate about the necessity of a Russian TV channel in Estonia, despite the fact that a survey conducted among the Russian population showed that there was no need for it. The majority of Russians watches programmes on various TV channels from Russia, and any information about Estonia is easily available on Estonian-language TV). Compared with Estonian or English-language culture, Russian culture can be characterised by heightened degree of ideology, which caused — and still causes — difficulties in the communication and co-existence between different cultures.

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