Four thousand ethnic Russians in Estonia now consider Estonian their native language

Four thousand ethnic Russians and more than 2,000 ethnic Finns who live in Estonia tell officials they consider Estonian to be their native language, while 24,000 ethnic Estonians say they don’t speak Estonian – and the state statistics department says that most of those speak Russian.

In addition, the officials in Tallinn say more than 220,000 ethnic Russians say they now speak Estonian, and more than 8,000 people from all nationalities, who are not citizens, say they consider Estonian their native language.

For Estonia as a whole, the figures released in advance of the Native Language Day show 68 per cent of the total population identify Estonian as their native language, roughly the same share as of those who identify as Estonian by nationality, and a significant fraction of the remainder speak Estonian as a second language.

Non-Russian speaking Russians

On the one hand, these figures reflect the success of Estonia in integrating non-Estonians, including ethnic Russians, few of whom spoke Estonian at the end of Soviet times, and the willingness of these people to identify not only with the country as a political entity but with the Estonian language community.

But on the other hand, they highlight something else that Moscow with its obsessive insistence on the tight relationship between language and ethnic identity among Russians is not willing to acknowledge: the increasing propensity of those who identify as Russians to view a language other than Russian as their native language.

Not only does that suggest that the relationship between language and ethnic identity among Russians is less close than many in the Kremlin believe, but it suggests that over time, those who analyse developments in the post-Soviet states are going to have to cope with new category of people who might best be called “non-Russian speaking Russians”.

Such a category would consist primarily of those who speak a non-Russian language as a second language, but continue to use Russian as well. But as the new Estonian data suggest, over time and under the right conditions, it may also include those who change their own definition of what constitutes their native language from Russian to a non-Russian language.

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The article was originally published by Paul Goble on his Window on Eurasia blog. Cover: A student at the University of Tartu’s Narva College on Estonian Language Day, 14 March 2017.

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About the author: Paul Goble

Paul Goble is an American analyst, writer and columnist with expertise on Russia, Eurasia, public diplomacy and international broadcasting. Trained at Miami University and the University of Chicago, he is the editor of four volumes on ethnic issues in the former Soviet Union and has published hundreds of articles on ethnic and nationality questions. Goble served as special adviser on Soviet nationality issues and Baltic affairs to Secretary of State James Baker. Goble also served as a visiting scholar at the University of Tartu, Estonia. In 1995, Goble received Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana from President Lennart Meri, for his role in supporting Estonia’s re-independence.