Justin Petrone

Justin Petrone is an Estonia-based American expat. He has been blogging and writing about Estonia for years, including the books called My Estonia and Mission Estonia.

So bloody heavy: the exploits of an Estonian accordionist

Justin Petrone sat down with the Estonian folk musician, Tuulikki Bartosik, in Viljandi to talk about her albums, her life as a musician and how, despite practical difficulties as an accordionist, playing the instrument is liberating and like an extra pair of lungs for her. Tuulikki Bartosik is one of the …

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Justin Petrone: Rõivas and Ratas – mere lieutenants

Estonia’s “pro-NATO” government was not toppled in favour of a “pro-Russian” one. The forces guiding former prime minister Taavi Rõivas and his successor, Jüri Ratas, are very local and are rooted in differing concepts about what Estonian independence is actually supposed to mean, Justin Petrone writes.

The previous Estonian coalition government of the Reform Party, the Social Democrats and Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL) split in early November, after the Social Democrats and IRL announced that they had asked prime minister Taavi Rõivas to resign. Rõivas lost the following vote of confidence on 9 November and the new coalition talks started. On 19 November, the Centre Party, the Social Democrats and IRL agreed on the conditions of the new coalition under Jüri Ratas, whose cabinet was sworn in on 23 November.

I couldn’t look at the images of the outgoing prime minister, Taavi Rõivas, and the incoming one, Jüri Ratas, without a certain chill. Both men are within a year of me in age, and no, I do not look at them with any kind of jealousy or contempt over what I have failed to achieve in life – “How come I’m not the prime minister?” – but rather sincere compassion, empathy for seeing both men for who they are – mere lieutenants entrusted with carrying out the visions of their superior officers.

IME was first proposed by activists Edgar Savisaar (first left), Siim Kallas (first right) and journalist Tiit Made (far right) and scientist Mikk Titma (far left)To understand the predicament of Rõivas, age 37, or Ratas, age 38, is to go back to the very concept of post-war Estonian independence. Here I am haunted by the image from 1987’s IME project, a series of economic proposals drafted concerning an imagined self-governing Estonia. The two men seated in front of that iconic IME photo are, to the left, the Centre Party patriarch, Edgar Savisaar, and to the right, the Reform Party soul instigator, Siim Kallas. Both men, no doubt, sought to do in 1987 what their grandfathers and great grandfathers had sought to do in 1918, to separate Estonia from the “rotten foundations” of the Russian Empire.

Estonia was better off alone, pursuing its own destiny. That has always been the great ideal.

Two pathways

At that time, there were two competing but not exclusive visions of the path this restored state could take. Some envisioned Estonia as a sort of Baltic Singapore, a multicultural free market-floating materialistic island paradise guided by the all-knowing and all-seeing invisible hand of unfettered commerce. Estonia in 1987 was quite poor and lagging its wealthy Nordic neighbours. It needed to catch up as quickly as possible. This vision, I think, is at the root of so much of what we associate with the Estonia of 2016 – the e-state, flat taxation, the talk of a Nordic Silicon Valley – with the Reform Party serving the same permanent role as Singapore’s People’s Action Party, which has remained the main force in that island country since its independence in 1959.

It was this role that Taavi Rõivas, the not-necessarily-lucky, designated heir of Andrus Ansip and Siim Kallas, was entrusted in carrying out, a historical weight that was thrust upon his shoulders.

The other perspective of a self-governing Estonia that emerged in 1987, was one roughly analogous to its neighbour Finland, a country that in return for agreeing to a sort of geopolitical invisibility – how many alarmist articles have been raised in recent months about an inevitable invasion of Helsinki? – was able to separate itself from rule by Moscow and achieve its own kind of domestic superiority at all levels. Considering the demographic situation in Estonia, which hosted hundreds of thousands of Soviet-era migrants, the “Finnish Way” seemed like an alternative that could help achieve the twin goals of domestic prosperity and independence, with Savisaar imagining himself as a sort of deal-making Urho Kekkonen, who could keep the Russians happy but away at arm’s length.

Focus on progressive taxation and social integration

The Centre Party and Social Democrats have come to embody this vision of Estonia, with their focus on progressive taxation and social integration. There is nothing necessarily “pro-Russian” about such a vision. It has at its core an idea of what an independent state could be that was hatched when Ratas and Rõivas were in grade school.

This is the vision that our untried new prime minister has inherited from his predecessors. It is now he who must work with his colleagues to bring more of this vision to life.

With this in mind, I can only feel confusion and disappointment about the media coverage of the recent change in government. Estonia’s “pro-NATO” government was not toppled in favour of a “pro-Russian” one. This is not some kind of Kremlin-backed putsch. Taavi Rõivas is not Washington’s point man on the front lines of the New Cold War, and Jüri Ratas is not some Kremlin stooge manipulated into place to carry out Moscow’s bidding.

The newly sworn-in government is not the equivalent to the cadre of depressed poets, historians and marginal left-wing politicians that were handpicked at the Soviet embassy to make the 1940 occupation and annexation of the country look legitimate. The forces guiding both men are very local and are rooted in differing concepts about what Estonian independence is actually supposed to mean.


The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: Taavi Rõivas handing over his job to Jüri Ratas (photo by Siim Lõvi/courtesy of ERR)

Justin Petrone: Toomas Hendrik Ilves – a new national folk character

By becoming president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves was able to reconcile Estonia’s twin past – of those who stayed and those who fled when the Soviet Union occupied the country; his presidency meant that the Estonian nation had to redefine itself as a whole, to accept that there were people who left, but who wanted to stay, writes Justin Petrone.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves is haunting me these days, his presidency but a few days from becoming the past. Some people adore him and his brainy quips and bowtie, his social media courage, and some people loathe him for the exact same reasons, seeing THI as some higher-than-thou, haughty philosopher, a man who only feels in his element when shaking the hands of sovereigns, no matter how much brush he clears on his farm in Viljandimaa, no matter how black his kuub (robe).

I always liked him though, mostly because he was such a compelling character. The purpose of a president, I think, is to tell a story that the nation can follow, can invest in, emulate and denigrate. Lennart Meri had his story, severed from the comfortable childhood of interbellum Europe, an adolescence drenched in Stalinist barbarity, his middle-aged mission to express the national mindset subtly and through art, his later-life embrace of politics, and his relentless willingness to go back to the embryonic murmurings of the republic. It all served as a pathway for the battered, bruised and at times amnesiac Estonian soul to follow.

Arnold Rüütel, too, served a similar purpose, to allow that generation the opportunity to fully marinate in and re-acclimate to full independence. Rüütel’s life story was also the story of the Estonian Republic. The fact that he still attends public events lends a sense of continuity to the country’s schizophrenic century, in which every change in political power forced not only a revision of public history but a rewrite of personal history, where some things were suddenly recalled with great fondness, and others were stacked away to gather dust and rot away in the attic of memory.

“Foreign Estonian”

Enter Ilves, the so-called väliseestlane, or “foreign Estonian”. By simply becoming president he was able to reconcile Estonia’s twin pasts, of those who stayed and those who fled. This has not happened and may never happen in Russia. Could one imagine the grandson of Alexander Kerensky or some distant relative of the vanquished tsars returning to Moscow to fully repudiate Lenin and his October Revolution? But this is exactly what the Ilves presidency meant and why it was vital for Estonia.

“Could one imagine the grandson of Alexander Kerensky or some distant relative of the vanquished tsars returning to Moscow to fully repudiate Lenin and his October Revolution?”

It was necessary for Estonia to live that story through his presidency. It meant that all the talk about the Soviet period could no longer be expressed in abstract arguments about population transfer, or war losses, or Russification. It meant that the Estonian nation had to redefine itself as a whole, to accept that there were people who left, but who wanted to stay.

With the Ilves presidency, the Soviet period no longer became an integral part of what it meant to be an Estonian. His Swedish birth alluded to imperial connections to Scandinavia; his American and Canadian academic experiences reinvigorated the country’s deep connections with the Anglo world; his Radio Free Europe Munich days cemented the country’s age-old Germanic orientation.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves - Photo by Jelena Rudi

Estonia now had a leader who spoke fluent German, but not Russian, taking the country fully off of the ex-Soviet grid. This was no doubt alienating in part for part of the population, but arguably necessary to at last move beyond the trauma of the takeover, when during the summer of 1940 Russian suddenly became an official language and the clocks were changed to Moscow time.

“Estonia now had a leader who spoke fluent German, but not Russian, taking the country fully off of the ex-Soviet grid.”

In many ways, this helped the younger generation that had no recollection of the Soviet era, allowing them to mature into a full-bodied nationality without any of the old strings attached. They had no idea what the older people were talking about, and Ilves didn’t either. He was both the past and future rolled into one, more like them than their own parents, a new political mythology no better symbolised than by the promotional images of a man in a folk costume sitting in the forests and waging social media wars to defend the reputation of his beloved motherland.

A national folk character

This is how the Estonians now saw themselves. A return to roots, with some new entrepreneurial, self-promoting, e-commerce-seeking edge. The old resignation was gone. Here was a country led by a president that lost too much sleep over promoting Estonia’s virtues to anyone who would listen in any context. This was the new, unwritten role of the Estonian presidency, a nonstop action hero salesman for the republic, singing for the people while scolding them to do better.

“Here was a country led by a president that lost too much sleep over promoting Estonia’s virtues to anyone who would listen in any context.”

It was the next, necessary story for the Estonians. With the Ilves era ending, this part of the Estonian story comes to its end, and it is up to Kersti Kaljulaid to live and articulate another story for the nation to absorb itself with and follow. I don’t think the Estonians will forget about Toomas Hendrik Ilves though. He is no longer a man. He has now become a national folk character.


The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: Toomas Hendrik Ilves (photo by Jarek Jõepera).

Justin Petrone: When Estonia wasn’t free

Young generation of Estonians cannot conceive of an Estonia that was not free, writes Justin Petrone, an Estonia-based columnist and writer.

On a cold winter’s night, not too many weeks ago, I was enjoying a sauna with my eight-year-old daughter Anna when she turned to me and asked me a question.

“Daddy, who was president when I was born?”

“Toomas Hendrik Ilves,” I answered. “And he’s still the president of Estonia, believe it or not.”

The inquisitive child thought for a while and then asked me another. “But who was president when you were born?”

“Jimmy Carter,” I said.

“But who was the president of Estonia when mommy was born?”

Now we had entered more complicated territory. “Estonia had no president when your mother was born,” I answered. “It was part of the Soviet Union, and the leader at that time was named Leonid Brezhnev.”

“What?!” She cocked a very bewildered eyebrow at me. “Leonid Blahblah?! But that sounds like, that sounds like, well, like … like some kind of Russian name!”

“He was Russian, I think.”

“How the heck could Leonid Blahblah be president of Estonia? That doesn’t make any sense!”

It’s a very curious trend I have noticed about my daughter’s generation of Estonians. They cannot conceive of an Estonia that was not free. And not only that, they cannot conceive of an Estonia that was led by anyone with a vaguely Russian-sounding name. Just the fact that the Soviet premier’s name in the 1970s was Leonid Brezhnev, or “Blahblah” as she called him, troubled her because it sounded so foreign and suspicious. Of course, her name is Petrone, but with all these books going around with the name Petrone on it, this southern Italian patronym has since been co-opted into the Estonian mainstream, like Keränen or Šmigun.

The foreign policy of the current Russian Federation has not helped matters for little girls like Anna. I do not preach at home, in fact, current affairs are rarely discussed, but that hasn’t stopped her fellow little people from gathering outside the doors of the school to whisper among each other about their nation’s enemies. Russia is treated at best with a cautious disdain. Once, after I went to Moscow, an Estonian boy told me that I had been crazy. “Don’t you know — they kill Estonians there!” Estonian Russian classmates are treated with a mixture of camaraderie and pity. “Sure, he’s a Russian …. but he’s super, super friendly!”

All of this comes to a head on Independence Day, when even girls her age must make acquaintance with their country’s history of foreign subjugation to Russia. Because it was Russia that Estonia gained its independence from in 1918. It was the crumbling Russian Empire and its rising bolshevik successor against which the new Estonian republic was idealised. And in spite of the fact that it was Lenin who first recognised Estonian statehood, or that these empires had multicultural leaderships that included Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Georgians and, yes, even Estonians, these birth pains of separation from Russia continue to haunt Estonians to this day.

Even those were born when Toomas Hendrik Ilves was president.

“But who was the real leader of Estonia when mommy was born?” my daughter asked me again.

“Well, a powerful man in Estonia at that time was the head of the Estonian Communist Party,” I said. “And his name was Johannes Käbin.”

“Ah, Johannes.” She paused to let the name sink in. “Johannes Käbi* was the leader of Estonia. Normaalne (normal).”

* Käbi is the Estonian word for pine cone.


The article was first published on Justin Petrone’s blog, North! The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev having a cigarette break.

Justin Petrone: The Ansip Years

I learned a lot about my wife’s people – Estonians – from Prime Minister Andrus Ansip. When I look back to how much I thought I knew about them in 2005 when he was named prime minister after two years of chaotic ministerial sackings and resignations under his predecessor, Juhan Parts, I am astonished by my then-ignorance of the supporting cast of our lives.

Estonians, a small nationality of 1.3 million, resident on a piece of land about the size of Vermont, New Hampshire and some of Maine put together. If you look at it via satellite, you will see that Estonia is a peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides. And if you count those marshes in the south of the country that separate it from Latvia, it becomes a true island, for these are people with an island mentality. For Estonians, there is but Estonia. They travel with gusto to exotic locales, but with the main objective of reporting back to the other Estonians about what it’s like out there or to compare notes with other Esto adventurers.

One other thing you should know about Estonians is that they are inconvenient. Nobody ever wanted them to exist. Germans tried to make them Lutherans and gave them German-sounding names, Russians tried to convert them to Orthodoxy and gave them Russian-sounding names, the Nazis wanted to salvage the most racially similar parts of the population for breeding and murder or enslave the rest, and the Soviets tried to erase large parts of the local population via deportation and replenish the stock with reliable Russophone workers. And yet Estonians clung to their roots, like obstinate head lice, and one of the reasons they still exist is because they are a  stubborn, insubordinate lot that have convinced themselves that they are right, even when they are wrong, and will continue into strong headwinds and against snowy storms if they believe it to be the correct direction.

In short, they are a lot like Andrus Ansip, for Ansip, born in Tartu in 1956, perhaps best reflects the ideal Estonian leader. To begin with, he’s a man, and in Estonia, men are still believed to possess awesome powers of logic and reason that make them preferable to women, with their rash, emotional decisions and unsettling vanity. Ansip had that determined patrician’s squint, in some ways similar to George W. Bush’s resolute pucker, except that Ansip wasn’t faking it when he answered a question about taxation policies while strapping on his cross-country skiing gear. He would stare off somewhere behind the interviewer and speak in slow, declarative cadences, and we would all know that Ansip was the kind of man who would, say, amputate his own arm should it get stuck under a boulder, and not shed a tear about it, “because it made sense and it was the right thing to do”. Estonians have a word, kindel, which can mean “certain” and “secure”. Ansip seemed to embody both meanings.

“He would stare off somewhere behind the interviewer and speak in slow, declarative cadences, and we would all know that Ansip was the kind of man who would, say, amputate his own arm should it get stuck under a boulder, and not shed a tear about it, “because it made sense and it was the right thing to do”. Estonians have a word, kindel, which can mean “certain” and “secure”. Ansip seemed to embody both meanings.”

This certainty certainly got him into trouble at times. About two years into his tenure as prime minister, he encountered a colossal shit storm known as the Bronze Soldier. This was a calamity of diarrheic intensity. In Ansip’s certain mind, there was a problem – a Soviet war memorial in the centre of Tallinn – and a solution – moving it to a nearby war cemetery. And that should have been the end of it. It wasn’t exactly, and many blamed the chaos and violence that circled and followed its removal on Ansip’s own Estonian myopia, but in the end, it was removed, and he even laid flowers at its feet, with the more sensitive and emotive (and pretty) Population Minister Urve Palo clutching his arm.

When that was over, the economy tanked and euro adoption was delayed, and many called on Ansip to step down. But he didn’t budge. At a time when Swedish financiers were urging devaluation of the currency, Estonia underwent something called an “internal devaluation”. The real estate holdings, which had fuelled the long boom, lost much of their worth, and many people found themselves paying off mortgages that were three or four times the amount of what their apartments and houses would now sell for, but euro adoption was achieved and Estonia became “more European”, which was good. Andrus Ansip – the man who removed the controversial Stalin-era war monument – undertook an internal devaluation and led his country into the common currency at the time it degenerated into crisis. And yet he did not blink, because he knew he was leading his country in the correct direction.

“As his time in office wore on, people began to suspect that Ansip was a new Konstantin Päts, in reference to the Estonian president who led the country from 1934 to 1940.”

As his time in office wore on, people began to suspect that Ansip was a new Konstantin Päts, in reference to the Estonian president who led the country from 1934 to 1940 (a long stretch for a state so accustomed to turnover in politics, but three years short of Ansip’s reign). They even poked fun at his name, rendering it as the perverse homophone, “Undress Unzip”. And yet as much as they grumbled about a new Päts or Unzip’s “father knows best” approach to politics, the same people savoured it, because they preferred that kindel certainty to the revolving cast of characters they had known in the years prior. While Latvia burned through prime ministers Aigars Kalvītis, Ivars Godmanis, Valdis Dombrovskis and Laimdota Straujuma, Estonia had only one: Ansip. And as long as Estonians could feel they were outdoing Latvians, they could feel content about their place in the world.


Ansip even stayed in office for so long that the Russians forgot a bit about that Bronze Soldier thing and started doing business with him again. A border treaty, which disappeared into a puff of smoke in Putin’s chimney after some disagreements in 2005, was revived and signed anew just a few weeks ago in Moscow by Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and his Russian Federation counterpart Sergei Lavrov (who was also holding the same exact position in 2005). And then it became known that Siim Kallas, the founder of Ansip and Paet’s Reform Party, had tired of his life as a commissioner in Brussels and wanted to come back to Estonia, to lead his party in the 2015 elections. And Kallas’s desire at last prompted Ansip to do what no monument scandal, economic crisis or any other very big problem he had encountered during those long nine years could force him to do.

He resigned.


This article was first published on Justin Petrone’s website. Petrone’s latest book, “Mission Estonia”, is out now.

The opinions in this article are those of the author.

Une Estonienne à Paris (video)

This article is in relation to the recent Estonian-French movie “An Estonian Lady in Paris”, directed by Ilmar Raag. The film tells the story of Anne (Laine Magi), a divorced 50 year-old woman who leaves a small Estonian town to care for an elderly woman in Paris, a free-spirited fellow Estonian who emigrated to France long ago, in the 1930’s. Anne soon realises that she is not wanted. All Frida wants from life is the attention of Stephane, her younger lover from years ago. Stephane, however, is desperate for Anne to stay and look after Frida, even against the old lady’s will. In this conflict of strangers, Anne finds her own way…


I recently had the chance to watch a film on the Finnair flight. Three films, in fact. The other two are not worthy of discussion, not only because they had nothing to do with Estonia, but because they were so outrageously stupid (The Campaign and The Hangover), although this reverence for stupidity is among the sturdiest pillars of Americanness.

An Estonian lady in Paris (Eestlanna Pariisis) is not a stupid American film. It is a quiet, brooding European film and it made me cry. Maybe that happened because I was so exhausted. But there was something about the way that the main character Anne’s (Laine Mägi) life in Estonia was portrayed — the jobu (jerk) drunk ex-husband, the spacey grandmother with dementia, the silent funeral with vodka shots, the unrenovated apartment with Soviet furnishings, the primped, self-absorbed kids who couldn’t stick around for a funeral because they had to go to work, not to mention all the darkness and snow —  that brought me to tears, probably because it was so accurate.

My sister-in-law’s mother-in-law really does have a dementia and lives at home. We do have close relatives whose lives have been destroyed by alcohol. Most of the 80’s and 90’s-born youth in our Estonian family (“Republicans” as the Estonian writer Andrei Hvostov describes the rising generation of Estonian youth that has no memory of the Soviet era) have adopted global personas and fantasise of a new, hipper existence at the center of it all in New York or London. Goodbye Põltsamaa, hello Paris!

But as Anne finds out, Paris isn’t much better than Tallinn. She trades one jobu (jerk) at home for another abroad, in this case nasty old coot and Estonian exile named Frida (Jeanne Moreau). I hate to say it, but I think Estonians were proud that the aging film legend Moreau appeared in an Ilmar Raag film with the word Estonienne in the title, that Frenchness itself could coexist with Estonianness in such a mopey and intense European manner. Moreau didn’t speak Estonian in the film, except maybe an attempt at “Tere,” but a lot of exiles have left their linguistic identities behind, as I have seen time and again.

It’s the, “Wait, this isn’t a dream?” phenomenon. Estonia feels like an island, you see. Water and swamps all around. When you leave, you start to wonder if it really exists. It made my heart stir a bit to hear Estonian and French spoken in the same scene, not only because it proved that Estonia is real, but because Mägi has superb diction and I could understand every word, so unlike Seenelkäik (Mushrooming), another film from the past year, where actors Raivo Tamm and Juhan Ulfsak’s muddy and impenetrable baritones made my wife our official translator.

Mägi also played her body well. There were messages in the simple ways she removed trays of food or cleaned up an intentionally spilled cup of tea. Mägi has a thin, elegant frame and as she doesn’t say much (many Estonians aren’t big talkers), so she has to use her movements to fill scenes with the emotions required (humiliation, determination, loneliness, apprehension). I did find some of the Frenchness in the film overplayed (the fresh croissants, the fashion), but I can’t criticise that, considering I did some of the same things in my novel Montreal Demons (“behold, the boulangerie, the thigh high boots!”). Plus, this is a film geared to ladies who go to the cinema with other ladies, not to the audience of The Hangover or The Campaign, or even Seenelkäik, i.e. guys like me.

So, is it a great film? I am not a film critic. Maybe it was terrible. But I liked it and it had an effect on me sitting up there above the cold clouds and strong gusts of Greenlandic wind. Yes, I liked it.


This article was first published by Justin Petrone blog.

Justin Petrone’s book My Estonia is out now.

Pictures: Wikimedia Commons.

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