Cosmopolitan Estonian of the Week

Mihkel Raud.

Mihkel Raud: Estonians should see more how other people live

Mihkel Raud is an Estonian writer, playwright, radio and TV-host, singer and musician, and he has done a stint in politics – a man of many talents. On a sunny and hot Friday afternoon in Chicago, Estonian World sat down with him and talked about his colourful life – and life on the planet Earth in general.

It’s not every day I get to interview someone famous. In fact, the last time I did a face-to-face interview must have been some 13 years ago when I still lived in Estonia and worked at the Estonian daily newspaper, Eesti Päevaleht. It was also around that time when I first met Mihkel. He came to work as the head of the culture department at the daily, and while I knew him at that time from the TV screen and had probably seen him perform live with his band, Mr Lawrence, I didn’t know-know him.

One day in the 2000s, he suddenly appeared at my desk with a book in his hand. For the life of me I don’t remember what the title of that book was, but it was something about the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, possibly about his capture. Mihkel wanted me to read the book and review it for his culture section.

I was kind of surprised. I was this young asshole of a journalist, the know-it-all type (you’ve all met those) who had been promoted far too quickly and genuinely believed there was nothing else to learn in life, despite being in my twenties. I had a fixed set of political beliefs and I knew that Mihkel’s views were pretty much the complete opposite from mine.

But I did review the book. And I possibly even liked it. But at the time, I didn’t really understand why he was so adamant about me reviewing it – nor did I really think about it much. Only later, when I had done a good share of growing up and getting over my arrogance, I realised he was trying to teach me something. Maybe humility, maybe the ability to see matters other than black and white, or maybe just to make me think about matters in ways I didn’t want. Whatever it was, it worked.

Enjoying Chicago and America

Yeah, I know, it might sound as if I’m eulogising Mihkel Raud, but I’m not. He’s alive and kicking and for the past year or so, has been doing that kicking in Chicago. In a weird coincidence, we’re practically neighbours in the Lincoln Square-Andersonville neighbourhoods. I moved back here only recently, having lived here four years ago and really loved the area. Mihkel moved here, with his wife Liina, daughter Mirjam and son Joosep, in the autumn of 2017, and he did so by accident.

Mihkel and his family: wife Liina, daughter Mirjam and son Joosep, at the observation deck of one of the highest buildings in Chicago, the John Hancock tower.

As he described in one of his blog posts, he was just visiting Chicago and had heard that the Wicker Park neighbourhood was a cool place, so he asked a Lyft driver to take them there. The driver, however, talked them out of it, telling them that Andersonville was way cooler. And after having been dropped off in the neighbourhood that was first settled by Swedish immigrants in the North Side of Chicago, his and his family’s hearts were set – they had to move there. And they did.

Mihkel says he loves America, and especially the Midwest and Chicago. Chicago even so much that he has the city’s skyline tattooed on his left arm. “First of all, it’s a very cool design. There’re many aspects here, first, it’s like the ECG machine’s output; second, it’s like what you see when you’re mixing music in a studio; and third, it’s the skyline of the city that has accepted me so well. I had it done after we had our first anniversary of living here. I’ve always wanted to have a tattoo.”

Of course, what brought Mihkel to America in the first place wasn’t Chicago, but his love towards America and Americans. “I have always liked America, for tens of different reasons,” he explains. “In my early childhood when I lived in the Soviet Union, if there was anything I knew one thousand per cent, was that I would never get to visit America. From this time until today I love this country and I like Americans – a claim that many people I know raise eyebrows to, asking, what do you mean you like Americans. But I do, very much. Especially here, in the Midwest.”

“Mainly I wanted to live in America. It didn’t matter whether for one year or however long I’m going to live here. I have taken the position that I’m going to see how it goes and what happens, and today I know I am here. My oldest kid is starting school, we’ll see how that goes. But the main reason, why I live here now and maybe another 10 or 20 years – or maybe until the end of my days – is, honestly, I like it here.”

Of course, settling in here isn’t always easy. Every European – and every Estonian – who has ever moved to the United States has had their challenges and things to get used to. “Before moving, I had been here many times, but settling in at the beginning, yes, there were challenges,” Mihkel says. “Starting from standing in line at the Social Security office to understanding how things work, what is a credit score and why you need it. When I was renting my first apartment, the landlord asked what my credit score was and told him, it’s excellent, 800 – without understanding that I didn’t even have a credit score. But since I’m here on a visa, I think circumstances have been a lot easier for me than for people who live here illegally. Although even the illegals are here semi-officially, they go to school and pay their taxes.”

Work is in Estonia

Mihkel Raud posing with an Andersonville street sign.Mihkel’s family – wife and two children – have also adapted to life in America and done so very well. “When we came here, my daughter, Mirjam, didn’t speak English at all. Now she speaks so well that our friends say she doesn’t sound foreign at all. Well, at this age – she’s five – they catch up really fast. And my three-year-old son, too – they’re both bilingual. We speak to them in Estonian at home, but sometimes we use English, just to practice it ourselves and to teach it to the children.”

His professional life, however, is mainly based in Estonia. He has a content marketing business where he provides different content services to his clients, like blogging. “The great thing about the internet is, I don’t have to be in the same country or even in the same continent to do this,” he rejoices. But he also visits Estonia quite often as he works as a TV host for two seasonal programmes – “Kolmeraudne” (Three-Barrelled), which is a talk show he leads, and “Eesti otsib superstaari” (the Estonian equivalent of the American Idol) where he’s one of the three judges. “That’s why I don’t even miss Estonia, as I go there all the time. This is what I like about my current life – I get to spend time in both America and Estonia. And when in one place I sense some sort of a routine creeping up, I go to the other.”

Living in America and often spending time in Estonia gives Mihkel a unique insight into the lives of both countries. What does he think Estonia could learn from the United States – and vice versa?

“Both have a lot to learn, absolutely. It’s a very common thing to say, but the thing that the US could learn from Estonia is that it’s possible to cut red tape radically. America is an insanely bureaucratic country. You need to make phone calls, nobody replies to emails. You have a mailbox full of letters, you need to read them and reply to them. That’s definitely something the US could learn from Estonia – how things work online. It’s an annoying statement, but it’s true. The e-state in Estonia is a very cool thing.”

“Vice versa, well, these countries are totally incomparable. Estonia has three times less people that the city of Chicago! I sometimes sit in the car, in a traffic jam, hundreds of cars around me, and I think, this is just a tiny fragment of America. Zoom the map out and you see traffic jams and moving around from one edge of the country to another,” he describes. “But even though the sizes are different, Estonia has a lot to learn from America. I think, most importantly, humane things. Yes, these are small and annoying, maybe even banal examples, but when you bump into someone at a line to the register in the store, then you don’t necessarily have to bump into them again – you can just apologise, like they do here. Nothing to be done, the people here are, I think, friendlier.”

Mihkel Raud.Every Estonian abroad probably has encountered a situation where they are asked to tell a stranger something about their country. What would Mihkel tell?

“Depends on who I am talking to. If that person is a musician, I talk about music. If they’re interested in nature, I’ll try to speak about the nature, as little as I know about it. I think I mostly tell them how many people live in Estonia, and often people also ask me, what’s our main industry. There I’m always stuck, because I don’t know what’s our main industry. I’ve usually said it’s tourism. We have a beautiful country and people want to visit it.”

“The thing I’m doing at a given moment, that’s closest to my heart”

Mihkel’s life so far – well, he’s only 49 – has been very eventful. He is, indeed, a man of many talents – he’s a musician and a songwriter, a radio and TV-host, a writer and a playwright, and he also did a stint in politics – he was elected to the Estonian parliament in 2015 as a member of the Social Democratic Party. He’s played the guitar in numerous bands. His first book, “Musta pori näkku” (“Dirty Mud in the Face”), an autobiography about his time growing up in the Soviet Union, was, in Estonian terms, extremely successful, having sold over 30,000 copies. He also wrote a fiction novel, “Sinine on sinu taevas” (“Blue is Your Sky”), and two theatrical plays. Hence I have to ask, which of these jobs is the closest to the heart for Mihkel.

“I have defined it for myself in a way that, the very thing that I am doing at a given moment is what I hold closest to my heart,” he notes. “When I’m writing something, it’s writing that’s closest to the heart. If I’m leading a TV show, it’s that. If I’m on the stage with a band or singing, then that is closest to my heart. It’s not like I would want to exchange one of my occupations for another, I like doing them all, it keeps me fresh and I won’t drown in one activity.”

Mihkel Raud.With one exception, though – he doesn’t think he’s a politician. “I was a politician the same amount as I was a fisherman,” he laughs about his year-long MP career that he quit because he was disappointed in party politics in Estonia. “It was a very brief stint and lasted in my life about the same amount of time I was an eager fisherman. So I don’t think a politician is one of my titles.”

Even though Mihkel doesn’t consider himself a politician, we do need to go there. Hence I ask, what is the state of Estonian politics in his eyes. Is there any way to make the political system better?

“I don’t think it’s possible to change anything. Estonian politics has naturally evolved to a place it today is, and that place is that, when in the 1990ies, people started all over again, and in the parliament there always was debate – well, that debate is gone by now. One might get an impression that the MPs are discussing issues, but in reality, not so much. The laws in Estonia are created in a way that the government – or the ministries, or some officials at those ministries – come up with the bills, send them to the parliament, there they’re just approved and become laws, and there is no real discussion.”

In 2005, Mihkel studied journalism in London and got his master’s degree. What does he think of the state of the media in Estonia?

“One thing that some of the Estonian journalists have too much is certitude,” he says. “When I read how some Estonian journalists write about how bad and low-quality and subjective the American media is, then that, to me, is a good example how this certitude is prevalent. I think there’s too much certitude. In fact, they should doubt themselves more. There should be more self-doubt in the Estonian media.”

Speaking of studying in London, that’s another fascinating story. Mihkel was 36 years old when he decided he wanted to gain a degree – he had only finished high school – and was completely ready to go to the university with 19-year-olds. “But in the UK, they have this option that if you have worked in the field you want to study for a certain amount of time, maybe six or seven years – and I had been in journalism for fifteen – you can go straight to the master’s programme, your work experience counts as your bachelor’s degree. So I went to the journalism master’s programme, completed it and got my degree.”

“It was a really great experience. I had the feeling I needed to distance myself from Estonia for a while, and I wanted to experience the cultural diversity London has to offer,” he explains. “That’s also why I am here, in the US – the cultural diversity. Many Estonians think that’s a minus, but I like it. Living in London taught me a lot – about myself, the world and Estonia.”

Writing with genes

Mihkel Raud in Washington, DC, with the Capitol Hill in the background.Mihkel Raud comes from a famous literary family. His father, Eno Raud, was a children’s author, having penned a number of books thousands of children in Estonia grew up with. His mother, Aino Pervik, has also written a ton of children’s books, but also novels and poetry. And that’s not it – Mihkel’s older brother, Rein Raud, is also a writer, having published a number of novels; and his sister, Piret Raud, is one of the most successful contemporary Estonian children’s authors and illustrators.

“I remember when my first book, “Dirty Mud in the Face” was published, some people told me, well, it’s easy for you, you’re writing with genes,” Mihkel recalls. “I was under the impression that I was writing with my own brain and fingers, but turned out it was the genes. But I don’t want to believe in that genetic aspect. I know I have to, because it’s science and scientists say these things are connected. Yes, I think a part of my literary ability and also some of my musical abilities I have inherited from my parents. My father used to play the violin when he was a young man, and he thought he was going to become a musician. But he didn’t – and maybe it’s good, too. Instead, I became one.”

Speaking of writing, next year Mihkel is planning to write something longer than content marketing posts. “It’s in a very early stage yet, so according to my current plans, it should be published at the end of next year. But I can say this much that it’s non-fiction, something that I feel I can write the best. I’ve written one fiction book in my life, but looking back to it, I don’t think it was very good.”

He is contemplating, however, writing a few more plays, saying he has a couple of ideas. “A play as a format or a genre is very close to my heart because I like how they’re economical and have all those rules that a play should have – or, well, what a play in my vision should have. I like that very much. So yeah, I might write another play. I’ve written two so possibly some of my ideas may crystallise.”

Being a successful musician in Estonia is not a recipe for a global triumph

When it comes to music, Mihkel thinks that his father may have influenced his love for it, but the main interest towards music came from his brother, Rein. “I remember clearly, I may have been five years old, I was listening to my brother’s records and I really loved everything I heard. The Rolling Stones, later also Pink Floyd and Emerson Lake & Palmer – I was a fan of progressive rock – but also the Grateful Dead. My brother used to listen all sorts of stuff. So yeah, I think that listening to my brother’s records helped and at the end I was a very convinced fan of music, and by now I think I’m the biggest music fan in my family.”

What about Estonian music today? As Mihkel is one of the judges in the Estonian equivalent of American Idol, he must have exclusive insight into the music scene today.

Mihkel Raud on stage with Henrik Sal-Saller, a popular Estonian musician.

“Well, these bands that I see and hear and who appear on my programmes, they’re all very good and I like them a lot. But can I generalise based on these? I don’t know. I think the Estonian music scene is great. There are a lot of bands and they also perform abroad, so I think the passion for playing music among the Estonian youth is not smaller than when I was their age.”

But what to me is kind of interesting is that Estonia has one world-famous classical composer, Arvo Pärt; however, no Estonian rock or pop group has enjoyed global fame even comparable to Pärt’s. Why is that, and is there a recipe to change that?

“Of course there is. But that would immediately eliminate the term, ‘Estonian pop music’. I sincerely believe that if you want to be successful in the British or German or even the American market, then you need to live in that country, be culturally relevant in that country. Kerli Kõiv (an Estonian singer and songwriter who enjoyed short-lasting success in Los Angeles – editor) is a good example. So that’s how it is. Pärt is successful, of course, because he’s a genius, but another thing is, he lives abroad. Even though he’s not considered to be a German composer, nor an Estonian one. I don’t think Pärt is considered to be a composer of any country, but just a great composer.”

Estonians shouldn’t drink themselves to death

Speaking of Estonia, again, I also have to ask, what should be done differently there. “Many things can be done differently, and whether it’s a good idea or bad only becomes clear after you made the change,” he notes. “I know, it’s very unpopular to say that, and I understand how wrong Estonia has gone with its alcohol policies (the government raised the alcohol taxes and now many import alcohol from Latvia where it’s considerably cheaper – editor), but I think drinking is a bigger problem in Estonia than people realise.”

“I don’t want to sound patronising, but I must honestly say, within this year in Chicago, I have seen two drunk people. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an alcohol abuse problem in America, but Chicago and the US will survive it. But I’m afraid Estonia is such a small country that every life is accounted for. Hence I think this alcohol abuse problem is worrisome. But I also realise this issue is deeply rooted into people and I understand when the government is trying to limit drinking. Although when it’s being done so awkwardly as it has been, people want to defy it and drink even more.”

So, what should be done? “Well, there you go. It’s difficult. When a person has decided to kill themselves, how do you talk them out of it? What I have sometimes done, when people ask me to talk about it, like to children in school (Mihkel is a recovering alcoholic, one of the subjects of his first book, “Dirty Mud in the Face” – editor), then I tell them what booze did to me and why I had to quit, and why I think it’s dangerous. But, of course, people make their own decisions. So yes, one thing that should be done differently – maybe they shouldn’t in corpore drink themselves to death.”

Every moment must be cool

Mihkel Raud with his children, Mirjam and Joosep.

One activity that Estonians should undertake, however, in Mihkel’s opinion, is travel. “Definitely travel,” he asserts. “See how other people live. And farther than to Latvia or Finland. Southern Europe is interesting, and if one can afford to, then Asia, see how people live there. It puts things into perspective. Go to Cambodia, a country that is a thousand times poorer than Estonia, but people have a strong will to live, they’re joyful, even despite the country’s ugly history. I definitely encourage people to travel more.”

For all he has achieved so far, I also want to know, what does Mihkel himself think his greatest achievement is. “That’s a difficult question. Probably my children. I have three, one’s an adult, two are small. I would’ve never thought I would have three kids. I have the most kids in my extended family – my brother has two and my sister has two. But this is a work in progress. One thing is to have kids, another to raise human beings out of them.”

Looking at Mihkel’s career so far, his incredible desire for experiences and the ability to undertake so many tasks and do them all well, I have to ask, what motivates him in life? “I think the fact that I want every moment to be cool. It may sound lame, but I want everything to be fun, exhilarating, anticipating, something needs to happen. People ask me, how can you fly back and forth all the time – back in the spring, I flew cross-Atlantic 12 times – and how can you travel so much. But it’s always fun. There’s always action. And as long as there’s action, I’m motivated. Action motivates. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean I run amok through the city, it’s rather that you’re internally restless, in a good way. That’s what motivates me.”


Cover: Mihkel Raud. All photos courtesy Mihkel Raud.

Estonia’s Siim Sikkut one of the most influential people in digital government – policy platform

According to Apolitical, a global policy platform that works with governments and public servants, Siim Sikkut, the chief information officer of the government of Estonia, is one of the most influential people in the sphere of digital government.

The organisation put Sikkut, who’s been the government CIO since March 2017, in the top 20 of digital government influencers in the world.

Sikkut “previously worked as a digital policy adviser to the government for five years, where he was one of the founders of the flagship e-residency programme and helped to author the Estonian Digital Agenda 2020. Sikkut has also been an adviser on e-government for Jersey (an English Channel island – editor) and a member of the digital government advisory group at the Inter-American Development Bank,” the organisation said.

Another Estonian on the list, under the subsection “politicians”, is Andrus Ansip, the former prime minister and the current European Commissioner for the digital single market. Ansip oversees EU efforts to improve access to online products and services and grow the digital economy, including the abolition of mobile data roaming charges, Apolitical noted.

Under the same subsection, the policy platform also highlights Taavi Kotka, the former CIO of the Estonian government, and Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former president of Estonia.

The first of its kind

Apolitical’s 2018 list of the world’s 100 most influential people in digital government is “the first of its kind to show the international spread of the field, and includes individuals from every continent”, the organisation said.

“We drew on nominations from over 100 expert contributors to make the list, including digital government experts, academics and public servants. While the list includes well-known leaders, whose every blog post finds a global readership, we have also attempted to highlight the unsung heroes who are quietly and tenaciously updating the machinery of government. The first selection was generated by peer and expert nominations and the final selection has been reviewed by independent experts around the world.”

Apolitical is a “global network for government, helping public servants find the ideas, people and partners they need to solve the hardest challenges facing our societies”, it says of itself. Its “mission is to make government great for citizens everywhere”.


Cover: Siim Sikkut.

Estonian descendant Nicole Aunapu Mann selected for American space flights

Astronaut Nicole Aunapu Mann, whose grandfather was Estonian, is due to take her first space flight onboard the Boeing Starliner in 2019.

NASA, the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration, introduced on 4 August the first US astronauts who will fly on an American-made, commercial spacecraft to and from the International Space Station. The endeavour will return astronaut launches to US soil for the first time since the country retired its aging space shuttles in 2011.

The space agency assigned nine astronauts to crew the first test flight and the mission of both Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. Among the three astronauts selected for Boeing’s Starliner test flight is Nicole Aunapu Mann – a California native whose grandfather, Helmuth Aunapu, emigrated to the US from Estonia just before the Second World War. This will be her first trip to space.

A possible mission to Mars

Mann, a lieutenant colonel in the US Marine Corps, graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1999 before earning a degree in mechanical engineering at Stanford University in 2001. She then served two combat tours, flying 47 combat missions in F/A-18s (a US combat jet) as a fighter pilot over Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2013, she was one of the eight candidates selected from more than 6,300 applicants to train as an astronaut for NASA, and the agency later announced Mann could be one of the first astronauts sent on a mission to Mars.

“The men and women we assign to these first flights are at the forefront of this exciting new time for human spaceflight,” Mark Geyer, the director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in a statement. “It will be thrilling to see our astronauts lift off from American soil, and we can’t wait to see them aboard the International Space Station.”

The Starliner to launch at Cape Canaveral

The Boeing Starliner is designed to fit up to seven astronauts, although the configuration could change depending on how much cargo the spacecraft would carry. The Starliner has a diameter of 4.5 metres (15 feet) and a length of five metres (16.5 feet), which includes the service module. The spacecraft will launch aboard an Atlas V rocket from the Space Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

When the Starliner approaches the International Space Station, the docking will be fully autonomous as the spacecraft manoeuvres toward an adapted docking port for commercial spacecraft. Once the spacecraft is attached to the space station, it’s designed to stay there for 210 days. Returning to Earth, the Starliner is designed to land on solid ground, using large air bags. If an emergency takes place, though, the spacecraft can splash down in the ocean.


Cover: Nicole Aunapu Mann (in the middle) with Eric Boe (left) and Christopher Ferguson, the test crew selected by NASA for the first space flight onboard the Boeing Starliner (courtesy of NASA).

Johann Urb.

Johann Urb: becoming an actor just happened to me – but it clearly needed to happen

Johann Urb is one of the most famous Estonian actors in the world – even though not many realise he’s anything but American, thanks to his perfect American accent. He tells Estonian World his story of how the boy from Tallinn ended up a Hollywood star.

Urb was born in Tallinn, Estonia, in 1977, and spent the first ten years of his life living in the Soviet-occupied country, before moving to Finland with his mother. At the age of 17, he decided it was the time to move on – this time across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States, where his father, the famous Estonian musician, Tarmo Urb, lived and still lives. And then and there, he immediately knew – that was the country he belonged to.

“I’ve never really identified with being a certain nationality,” he says. “Even as a little kid, it never felt right to me. I feel like Estonia is my birth place and where I am from – where I spent my childhood and where my family is, Finland is where I grew up and experienced my teen age, and the US is home and where I feel like I belong. There’s a part of every country’s and culture’s DNA in me. I view myself – as I have always felt – a spiritual being having a human experience on planet Earth.”

Perfect English and perfect Estonian

Johann Urb. Photo by Sara Khan.But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love his birth country, and Urb enjoys every time he visits his native land. “Being already amazing, it’s becoming even a more beautiful place every time I visit,” he notes. “I can happily say I’m really excited about the direction the country and culture are moving towards. From my perspective, people are warmer and more open. The food is phenomenal. The people are well-educated and travelled.” And he goes there quite often – twice in the last six months, both times to shoot a film and to visit family.

When I first contacted Urb, I faced a bit of a dilemma – Estonian or English? I knew he was born in Estonia, but then again, every time he appears on the screen, he speaks English. In the end, I decided on Estonian, assuming that Urb still spoke it with friends and family – and I was right. He answered in perfect Estonian, without making a single grammatical mistake. How does one maintain this perfection after 24 years in an all-English environment?

“Estonian is my base programming language,” Urb explains. “It lies at the base of my understanding of this marvel of symbols that we make sense of to communicate. So it’s always with me. And I’m close to my family and friends, so I get to use it too!” In Los Angeles, where Urb today lives, he doesn’t get to speak a lot of Estonian. But he does speak it “mostly when in Estonia or over the phone with my family and friends”.

America is home

On the other hand, when an average American sees Urb on TV or in a movie, they probably don’t wonder where this guy is from – he sounds like a perfect American, much like someone who grew up in the Midwest. How is that possible?

“I worked hard on my American accent,” he says. “It was important for me to be able to sound like an American when I got into acting. The language always made sense for me, so I relished in perfecting the accent.”

Naturally, a perfect American needs a perfect American accent. And a perfect American Urb indeed is – like most immigrants coming to this country, he just knew that this was home. Many of us have always been Americans, we were just born in the wrong country, and that is also the case with Urb.

“The first time I landed in LA, I just knew I was at home. My whole being felt it. There was a knowing, a feeling of belonging. The openness of the people, the warmth of the sun, the air, the water and everything else just felt exactly right to me. I’d never had that feeling before in this lifetime and it blew me away. From that moment forward, I did everything in my power to come home to the US.” And a year after this first visit and the homely sensation, he was living in America.

From modelling to acting

Johann Urb. Photo by Sara Khan.When Urb started to make home in the United States, he didn’t become an actor right away. First, he started a career in modelling. He modelled for Versace, Abercrombie & Fitch, Polo Ralph Lauren and took part in fashion shows in both the US and Europe. And even though this led to acting, Urb says he still models from time to time: “It’s fun!”

Urb notes he has always loved both modelling and acting, the latter just happened to be his true calling. And it, indeed, happened: “I didn’t know I would be an actor. Never wanted to be one. It just happened to me. Clearly, I needed to become an actor, I just didn’t know it. One of life’s magic ways of serving you exactly what you need at exactly at the right time.”

The way it happened was even more magical. A friend of Urb’s got him a scholarship in the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute. This cream of the cream of acting schools in New York City was founded by the legendary acting teacher and actor Lee Strasberg – who movie lovers might know as Hyman Roth in The Godfather, Part II. The Strasberg Institute has been the alma mater for some of the best and well-known actors in the world, such as Al Pacino, Steve Buscemi, Marlo Thomas, Clare Danes, and many, many others.

“The scariest thing”

The friend who got Urb the scholarship in the Strasberg Institute believed he should be an actor and asked him if he had ever considered it. “I said, ‘hell no’,” Urb recalls. “He asked me to just give it a shot and I did.”

“It was the scariest thing I had ever experienced. I knew I had to do it. My plan was just to go to classes and that’s it, but when I was cast in Zoolander and set my foot on set, I knew this was what I wanted to do. I loved being on set and seeing the whole thing come together and how everyone is working together to make it happen. It’s an amazing adventure or co-creation!”

“Acting for me has been the one that challenges my identity deeply, forces me to open, to be vulnerable and feel my feelings deeply. It’s a spiritual experience for me,” he adds.

One of Urb’s most remarkable roles was in the TV show called “Californication”. It was a seven-season dark comedy about an ingenious, but troubled author Hank Moody, a functional alcoholic “drowning in the sea of meaningless pussy,” as the show put it. Urb was cast as a supporting character in three episodes in season six, playing Robbie Mac, an actor who had recently came out as gay and was looking for an agent who’d also be gay – a “gaygent”. He got to work with great actors like David Duchovny and Evan Handler and he says it was one of his favourite parts.

Johann Urb in Californication.

The best compliment

“I had so much fun on that set! Evan Handler was a total pro and was super game to get uncomfortable and silly. It was pure magic,” Urb recalls. “David Duchovny and the rest of the cast were incredible as well.”

“One of the moments I remember the best from that shoot was when we were doing the scene where my character come in to Ali Andrews’ (portrayed by Allison McAtee) office dressed as the character Robbie Mac, doing the whole dance and hump scene with Evan Handler, and after the first take, the whole set just burst out in uncontrollable laughter! The camera crew told me later that they almost peed their pants. They were laughing so hard they were crying and almost unable to do their jobs! One of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten!”

Another famous TV show Urb has taken part in was NCIS – the most watched TV show in the world at the time, portraying the work of the agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Urb appeared in two episodes as the character Burt Moore, a US Park Ranger who dated the forensic scientist Abby Sciuto (portrayed by Pauley Perrette).

“You can’t judge your character”

“NCIS was a fun job too! Both Mark Harmon and Pauley Perrette were super gracious, welcoming and fun to work with. Mark did a fun prank on set with fake dog poop for me to step into. What he didn’t know was that my sense of smell is that of a hungry bear and I can sense fake poop from miles away!”

How does Johann Urb prepare for a role? “One of the most important things for me is to find out if I judge the character in any way. If I do, I tackle that and get into the whys. Unless the character hates himself, you can’t judge your character, even if you’re playing a murderer or someone ‘evil’. You have to find what drives him and inspires him, what lights him up. Find the similarities between you and the character. After that, the differences, and then get comfortable with them. It’s a fun process!”

Many actors also become directors and producers, and Urb says he may consider directing one day, too. “I very much enjoy coaching actors and helping them discover their character. It’s such a rewarding and satisfying process. Could be amazing to do that as a director of a film one day. And I would not want to star and direct, no!”

Becoming a movie star is a marathon, not a sprint

Millions of people flock to Los Angeles each year, hoping to make their dreams come true, only to find out that it’s incredibly difficult to become the next Clint Eastwood or Lauren Bacall. What advice would Urb have to those young aspiring actors?

Johann Urb in NCIS with Mark Harmon.

“Coming to LA with a project could be helpful,” he says. “Maybe it’s a film that you shot somewhere else or a teaser of a pilot that you wrote or starred in. Something to show and offer as a way to stand out. There’s a lot of competition here, but also lots of opportunity! It’s mostly a marathon, not a sprint. Be ready for that and you can remain strong through the challenges!”

Besides acting, what else gets Johann Urb excited and keeps him busy? “Spiritual practice has been and continues to be a big part of my life. That means daily practice of breathwork, prayer and meditation. As well as dance and movement. I love physical exercise which is also a form of meditation for me. Reading or listening to books and expanding my mind and perspective on life. I love travelling and exploring new places, ideas, cultures, foods and people. I love learning how to open deeper and experience the gifts of life.”


Cover: Johann Urb. Photo by Sara Khan. You can also check out Urb’s Instagram account, which has a link to his showreel.

Malta, seen by an Estonian: a conversation with Ingrid Eomois

Ingrid Eomois has lived, worked and studied in Malta for 18 years and has now published a book, “My Malta” that took her five years to write – here she talks about her life in Malta.

The year 2018 is important for both Estonia and Malta. Estonia is celebrating its 100th anniversary and Valletta is in the honoured position of the European capital of culture. Ingrid Eomois, the director of the British Council in Malta, has recently published her very first book, “Minu Malta” (“My Malta”) – in the Estonian language.

Ingrid lives in a 400-year-old house in Valletta; climbing the steps of the spiralling staircase to her roof patio makes me feel as if having been transported to an old fairy tale. Finally, we get to the cosy and modern patio defined by enormous potted plants; above us is the blue sky with sparkly white doves pirouetting in the vastness. No wonder her book has become a bestseller in Estonia. Ingrid has lived, worked and studied in Malta for 18 years, which puts her in a good position to give enlightening answers to a wide range of questions.

Let us start from the very beginning. What led you to Malta? What was the very beginning of your Malta experience?

I knew very little of Malta when I first landed here in 1999 – to work for an Estonian travel agency for the duration of two months. Ironically, in the beginning I did not like Malta at all: it was too dry, too crowded and too loud for my liking. I learned to love Malta slowly and cautiously. Looking back, it has been a bit like a successful arranged marriage – not love at first sight but respect and love that grows over time. I learned that there was more to Malta than first meets the eye: fascinating culture, Mediterranean easy-going lifestyle and linguistic diversity. I moved to Malta permanently in 2000 to do my master’s degree in theatre studies at the University of Malta.

Petrone Print publishers (an Estonian publishing company – editor) are well known for their My … series of books where the authors describe their lives in a specific city, country or region. What prompted you to write the book titled “My Malta”?

One of the publishers of Petrone Print approached me with the proposal to write the book. I probably would not have done it otherwise since finding time to pursue my hobbies and interests was very difficult. I was also quite keen to promote Malta not only as a sun and sea destination but reveal a deeper, more interesting side of this fascinating country. It took me five years. I think it is safe to say that writing a book is more complex and time consuming than I initially imagined.

What have been the so called important stations or life changing events in your Malta journey?

Work and professional development has always been crucial to me, so completing my master’s degree in theatre studies and another one a few years later in marketing communications was very important to me and helped my career along. I am also a licensed guide and it has been a great privilege to show Malta to thousands of Estonian guests over the years.

I have had a few great job opportunities in Malta but being employed by the British Council has definitely been the most significant and rewarding. On a personal front, I have met some fantastic people along the way who believed in me – both professionally and personally. Without them I would not be where I am today. It is true that as a grown-up, it is more difficult to make true friends and often we have to settle for acquaintances. Once again, I have been very fortunate to meet people who I trust and admire, and who have been there for me, no matter what. One of my best friends is actually Estonian, Margit, who is a successful dental technician in Malta.

I have also received a tremendous support from my parents back home and particularly from my sister and her two grown-up daughters. They come to visit almost every year and we talk to each other every day.

Of course, the birth of my son in 2013 was a life-changing experience and has changed the way I look at life and has partly changed my priorities.

One chapter of your book explains (in amazing detail) how to become a citizen of Malta, how to obtain citizenship. Why is it important to be a citizen of the country you have settled in?

I always thought that it was important to have a say in a country where one lives and without having the citizenship it is not possible. To put it simply, I applied for the Maltese citizenship to be able to vote and participate in the democratic process. In Malta, over 90% of the adult population votes in general election – I wanted to be a part of that. As an EU citizen, I did not need the citizenship for other reasons, such as the right to work or live in Malta.

How connected is your daily work with the Mediterranean countries, the United Kingdom, Estonia and the whole world?

My daily work is closely connected to the UK – at the British Council my job is to promote the UK in Malta. Working in collaboration with local partners is a must – mutuality is a strong principle in the British Council. Therefore I feel closely connected to our Maltese partners in education, arts and science. Some of our projects also involve other Mediterranean countries and countries in the Commonwealth.

My daily work is not connected to Estonia but in collaboration with the Estonian Embassy in Rome I am trying to help promote Estonian culture in Malta. We recently organised an Estonian film festival here and have some exciting plans for this year!

What languages are you using while working, while at home, while with your friends? What languages are being used by other members of your family?

At work, English is the main language. At home, with my partner and I speak English and I speak Estonian with my four year old son. My partner’s family (like most people in Malta) is bilingual (English and Maltese), in a domestic setting they speak mostly Maltese. Unfortunately I am not fluent in Maltese – I can understand a lot and hold a simple conversation but with my (Maltese) friends I speak English. My son is trilingual from birth, and I am already learning Maltese with him!

In Estonia, my family speaks Estonian, my sister and her daughters are also fluent in English. We all make an effort to speak Estonian only with my son to develop his language skills.

You live in Valletta. Why Valletta? Why not Sliema, for example?

I just love Valletta, our capital, and would not live anywhere else, at least for now. I like that Valletta’s population is still largely Maltese people; and Valletta’s people, although sometimes described as on the rough side, are mostly honest and loyal. Sliema and St Julians are highly developed areas where most of the expat community lives. Some love it but it really isn’t for me.

Valletta is changing, and the residents – me included – are not always on board with the changes. Our capital is suffering from gentrification, people with money are moving in, more and more boutique hotels and commercial outlets are opening, questionable building permits are issued to the hotel owners. Property prices are extremely steep in Valletta, most Maltese families today simply cannot afford living here. In my opinion, we really do not need more expensive boutique hotels and bars/restaurants, but affordable properties for young families and public spaces to be enjoyed by the community. Valletta’s heritage needs to be treated with respect.

Huge cathedrals and churches dominate the skyline of Maltese towns and villages. What is the role of religion in Malta?

Malta is predominantly Roman Catholic and although the influence of the church is slightly dwindling, religion still plays an important part in the lives of many Maltese people. Compared with Scandinavia and the Baltics, Malta is still a conservative society and, for example, lacks the reproductive rights that are accessible elsewhere in Europe. Just to give you a little example: divorce was only legalised in Malta in 2011. I am not a religious person myself but I do respect people who have chosen a different path.

On the other hand, in some areas, for example LGBTIQ rights, Malta is very progressive. Same-sex marriage became legal in Malta in 2017. Malta also leads with legislation about the rights of transgender people. I am very proud to live in a country that has done so much for previously marginalised communities.

In connection with Malta, it is inevitable to speak about migration. What is your personal experience with the modern world’s burning problem of migration?

In Malta, migration is quite personal for everyone – the island is small, and the number of refugees is relatively high due to Malta’s geographical location. I would be lying if I said Malta did not struggle with the influx of refugees and the financial and cultural implications it brings. My personal opinion is that we have to help people fleeing war zones because, well, we are human and have the responsibility to help – even when it is inconvenient. Many members of my Estonian family were refugees who escaped from the communist regime and settled in the UK and Sweden. In these countries, they were given the necessary assistance when they needed it most. I believe we have to remind ourselves that every human life has value and act accordingly, with empathy, kindness and conscience.

Is Malta a family-friendly country, even if one’s family happens to be not a very traditional family?

Family is a very important institution in Malta, mainly because of its religious background. Today, of course, the number of “non-traditional” families is on the increase: more couples decide to cohabit rather than get married, the number of civil marriages is increasing, same-sex couples also have a right to adopt children, and as elsewhere, many families only have one parent. All this does not change the fact that children in Malta are loved, and often spoilt! Traditionally, mothers in Malta were homemakers while fathers had the responsibility of providing for the family. These old-fashioned beliefs are changing, albeit slowly.

You have a family and a young son, plus a full-time job. Is it complicated to combine one’s family roles with career demands in a changing society?

It would be untruthful to say that it has been easy, the Maltese society still often operates on the premise that one parent (ie the mother) is a housewife. I had to return to work when my son was three months old because the maternity leave in Malta is quite limited. This was possibly one of the most difficult things I had to do as a parent. Difficult, but nevertheless possible. I am lucky to have an understanding employer, the British Council is known for its family friendly policies. I am also very fortunate to have a partner who is very hands-on father and has a very close and loving relationship with our son.

Having a career and family is not easy, it often means working late nights and having less active social life. I don’t see it as a sacrifice, though – having a family was my choice, a choice I treasure each day, even when life gets hectic and difficult. There have been a number of compromises on the way through – my house is often a mess, I don’t entertain as often as I used to, and at times I miss out on school concerts and parents’ days. Then again, I believe that it is important to be a role model for my son, and hopefully he will grow up respecting women and not being blinded by dated gender stereotypes.

Valletta is often described as a vibrant city with many ongoing projects, a city where people from different countries and continents have settled. Would it be easy for a foreigner to settle in Malta?  What might cause problems or even the old fashioned maladie named nostalgia, regarding, for example, Estonians settling or planning to settle in Malta?

Settling in a new country is always complicated. I can speak from my own experience, of course, and I can say that the first two years in Malta were relatively sad and difficult. Only after making some friends and finding an appropriate job, I felt settled. I think the key is to prepare as much as possible for your new life – talk to people, look into job opportunities and find affordable accommodation. Nostalgia will always be part of an expat life. I never stop missing Estonia, my family and friends there. In time it will just get easier.

How many Estonians have settled in Malta?

I would not know exactly how many Estonians live in Malta, but I think the number might be between 200 and 300. Many Estonians work in the gaming industry. I think that although the Estonian community in Malta is small, it is quite settled and successful. There must be some truth in the old belief that Estonians are hardworking and stubborn! Excellent qualities if one wants to live in a foreign country.

Local Estonians have a Facebook group, and at times we meet face to face, too. I must admit that because of my work and family commitments, my social life has somewhat suffered, and I don’t have the opportunity to meet other Estonians often. We always meet in June, however, for Midsummer Eve, on the beach, and this really is a lovely tradition.

What are the top five places in Malta you would advise people to pay a visit, and why?

There is a lot to choose from, but in my opinion the top attractions are: St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta with its magnificent baroque interior and Caravaggio’s paintings; the pre-historic temples in Malta and Gozo, including the Hypogeum; the Museum of Archeology for its prehistoric artefacts; Mdina, our first capital; and the island of Gozo for a small-island charm.

What are the unmissable highlights of the capital of European culture events in Malta?

There are hundreds of events to choose from, and it is difficult to be objective, but my personal highlights would be: Latitude 36, an arts project about the Maltese diaspora experience; The Island That The Sea Surrounds (a visual arts project involving 25 artists, including the well-known British artist, Susan Philipsz); the Playwriting Project, led by Malta’s only professional theatre, Teatru Malta (the renowned British playwright, Brad Birch, is commissioned to write a play about football, among other things, and it will premiere in June 2018 at Malta’s national football stadium); and certainly, Malta Calls – a fantastic outdoor dance performance by Zfin Malta, our national dance company.

What are the projects that are keeping you busy now?

It is going to be a busy year because of the cultural capital projects the British Council is involved in. In addition to my daily work and family commitments, I am also a business coach and I plan to develop it more this year. In our 400-year old house in Valletta, we are also running an Airbnb, renting out the first floor to travellers all around the world, and that keeps us relatively busy. I do guiding in English and Estonian whenever possible. Also, I am thinking of my PhD but that possibly will have to wait a few years. In my New Year’s resolutions, I also promised to spend more quality time with my son and friends and practice mindfulness more intently.

I try to live a healthy life (often fail miserably, though) and my annual appointment is the Malta Half Marathon in February. It gives me the motivation to keep training in order not to be the last person reaching the finish line!

I am very involved with women’s rights in Malta. I am a member of Business Professional Women (BPW) and involved with Women Directors in Malta. I would really like to dedicate more time to this and address important issues such as equal pay and reproductive rights.

Do weekends always mean a good rest for you?

I have learned that with a four-year-old there really isn’t such thing as a relaxing weekend! I often have to work at weekends but apart from that, I try to spend as much time as possible with my son, ideally outdoors.

Malta is a preferred holiday destination for many. What would be your favourite holiday destination?

The reality of an expat is that I spend my holidays in Estonia. Given a choice between an exciting new destination and my home-country, my heart always chooses Estonia.


All images courtesy of Ingrid Eomois (unless otherwise stated). Read also: Why do Estonians choose Malta?

Top 12 most outstanding Estonian women in the world 2018

For International Women’s Day, Estonian World has compiled a list of the most outstanding Estonian women on the global stage.

It is important to emphasise that this is not the ultimate list of the most important Estonian women in the world. There are many others who work hard and stand out. Merely, we have brought out the names of Estonian women who have a larger-than-usual clout and impact outside Estonian borders and help to put the name “Estonia” on the lips of more people around the world.

Anastassia Kovalenko, motorcycle road racer

Anastassia Kovalenko is the first female racer in Estonian road racing history to race on the international level.

Kovalenko has been racing motorcycles since 2012, first riding a Kawasaki Ninja 250R. Next year, she moved on to a more powerful bike – the Kawasaki Ninja 600R. In 2015, Kovalenko started to race in the European Junior Cup. She achieved second place in 2015 and fourth place in 2016 in the Women’s European Cup. Since then, she has also gathered a loyal international fan base – gaining over 100,000 followers on Instagram and over 50,000 on Facebook.

Apart from racing bikes, Kovalenko is a qualified lawyer and in 2017, she was elected a member of the Tallinn city council.

Anett Kontaveit, tennis player

Anett Kontaveit started training when she was six years old and three years later won her first title. In 2009, Kontaveit won the Estonian women’s championship – at 13, she was the youngest ever to win the adult championship in singles. Her international breakthrough came in 2011, when she started to play in the ITF women’s tournaments. At her first grass tournament of 2017, the Ricoh Open, Kontaveit reached her second final of the year. In that final, she clinched her maiden WTA title and ensured a top 40 debut. Her current world ranking is 27.

Sports commentators describe Kontaveit as an aggressive player. In 2017, Geoff MacDonald of the New York Times called Kontaveit “a superb competitor on all surfaces”.

Anu Tali, conductor

Anu Tali is an Estonian conductor, currently working as the music director of the Sarasota Orchestra in the US, and she’s also a co-founder of the Nordic Symphony Orchestra. She has appeared with the Japan and Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestras, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, Mozarteumorchester Salzburg at the Salzburger Festspiele, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, among others. In November 2017, the Washington Post named Tali as one of the “female conductors to watch”.

Chintis Lundgren, animator

The Estonian-born Chintis Lundgren runs her own animation studio in Croatia and works globally. Her latest animation, a tragicomical story of the 33-year-old Manivald who gets into a confusing love triangle with his mother and a hot young wolf, has screened at over 30 film festivals around the world and so far, has already won eight awards. The film was also a nominee in the “Best Background & Character Design in an Animated Short Film” category at the European Animation Awards competition in late 2017.

“I ended up in animation quite accidentally. I studied at an underground performance art-oriented school called Non Grata in Estonia and spent the first seven years of my career painting,” she said in an interview in 2017. “But then I had a creative crisis and started playing around with animation, it was just for fun and I thought I would go back to painting later. I never did because I discovered that animation was so much more fun and also a lot more rewarding.”

Erika Ilves, space entrepreneur

Erika Ilves is an entrepreneur who does not let herself be limited by the size of planet Earth when there is a whole universe out there. She is a cofounder of OffWorld, a company that is developing a new robotic workforce to enable the settlement of the solar system.

Ilves is not actually a “rocket scientist” – she is a qualified lawyer by profession, but she only practiced law for less than a year because it did not quite suit her. After working in Australia, Singapore, Norway and Dubai, she is currently settled in London. Ilves also encourages Estonian companies to benefit from the “space race”. “There are no reasons why Estonian companies could not be part of the commercial space ecosystem, pushing the final frontier. There are plenty of opportunities, but first, you need to be able to imagine things that are not there today, and second, find a way to pay the bills while you are developing a new technology or application,” she said in an interview in 2017.

Kelly Sildaru, freestyle skier

Kelly Sildaru started to ski when she was two years old and at the age of 13, became the youngest gold medallist to date at a Winter X Games event, having won the slopestyle event in 2016. In 2017, she won the slopestyle competition at her first World Cup event in New Zealand. She was the gold medal favourite for the women’s slopestyle event in the 2018 winter Olympics, but she missed competing in the games because of a knee injury.

Kristiina Poska, conductor

In 2011, Kristiina Poska’s career led to engagements at the Komische Oper Berlin for the opera, La Traviata. Poska was enthusiastically received there by both the orchestra and the audience and she was then appointed as First Kapellmeister of the Komische Oper Berlin.

Apart from her remarkable career at the Komische Oper Berlin, the young Estonian is internationally much in demand as a conductor – in 2015, she was the busiest female conductor in the world, based on performances in all genres. She may not be the busiest anymore, but she’s not being idle – this year, she has already conducted the performances with the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra and the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg.

Maarja Nuut, musical artist

“When angels sing, they probably sound like this/that’s what it sounds like when the snow sings.” Both quotes are by Simon Le Bon, the lead singer and lyricist of the band Duran Duran, who shared her love of Maarja Nuut’s singing on Twitter.

Le Bon is just one of many culturally influential fans of Nuut. “It would be churlish to miss out on reporting, or raving about, what a phenomenal artist Maarja Nuut is. /–/ There’s a touristy pub in Tallinn centre called Hell Hunt that boasts a painting above the door showing a naked girl, eyes shut and smiling, riding on the back of a grinning wolf. That’s what her music sounds like,” said the Quietus, a British online music and pop culture magazine, in a review of her sound.

While combining vocal work with violin, Nuut’s music is a blend of Estonian folk traditions with contemporary experimental sounds. Since 2016, Nuut has toured in almost 50 countries, including the UK and the US, while in 2018, she will perform in Australia, Austria, Germany, Ireland and Switzerland.

Maria Minerva aka Maria Juur, experimental musician

The Los Angeles-based Maria Juur (with the artist name Maria Minerva) has persistently kept making a name for herself in global underground music circles. In 2017, the British daily, the Guardian, included her on a list of most important contemporary music artists in Los Angeles, based on the opinion of the local movers and shakers – DJs, musicians and journalists. “She’s another quintessential LA artist, but is actually Estonian,” said Amanda Brown, an artist behind the lo-fi pop band, LA Vampires, in her characterisation of Minerva.

Since 2011, her music has found a home under the roof of the Los Angeles-based record label, Not Not Fun, and its offshoot, 100% SILK.

Marina Kaljurand, chair of the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace

Marina Kaljurand is a diplomat and a former minister of foreign affairs. She has served as the Estonian ambassador to the United States, Russia, Mexico, Canada, Kazakhstan and Israel, and from 2015 to 2016, she represented the country as foreign minister.

Currently, she is the chair of the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace, an international organisation helping promote mutual awareness and understanding among the various cyberspace communities working on issues related to international cybersecurity.

Olesya Bondarenko, research scientist

While nanoproducts are becoming a growing part of our daily lives, scientists are raising concerns about their risk to human health. Olesya Bondarenko, a principal research scientist at the Estonian Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics (under the Tallinn University of Technology), focuses on the understanding of interactions between novel nanomaterials and living cells.

Though only 34, she has already co-authored 25 scientific publications and in 2017, received a special award from L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science, a partnership between the French cosmetics giant and the UNESCO that aims to improve the position of women in science by recognising outstanding women researchers who have contributed to scientific progress.

Roberta Einer, fashion designer

The London-based Einer launched her own label in 2015, after graduating from Westminster University. Her signature style is characterised by maximalist embellishments and illustrative, tonal embroideries. “She is the definition of a maximalist; rich embroidery is at the core of all she does,” said the Daily Telegraph, an influential British daily, while including her in the “12 of the most exciting up-and-coming names”.

Einer has since presented her collections at the London Fashion Week and found stockists among such high-profile names as Saks 5th Avenue in New York and Los Angeles, Cul de Paris in Tokyo, and Super Boutique in Milan. Her clothes have also found fans among global superstars, such as Rihanna and Lady GaGa.


See also Top 12 most outstanding Estonian women in the world 2015 and Top 12 most outstanding Estonian women in the world 2016. Cover: Maarja Nuut (image by Kaupo Kikkas). Please note that Estonian World excluded active female politicians from the list. Please note that the names are in alphabetical order.

BIG INTERVIEW: Kersti Kaljulaid: A small country has only one natural resource – between our ears

In a wide-ranging interview with Estonian World, the Estonian president, Kersti Kaljulaid, said that a small country like Estonia only has one natural resource and it is located between our ears; and therefore, education that is accessible to all children is a good thing that the country must keep.

Kersti Kaljulaid, who was elected by the Estonian parliament on 3 October 2016, serves as the first female president of Estonia. The conversation with Kaljulaid was published on the occasion of Estonia’s centennial celebrations on 24 February 2018.

In the past, you’ve talked a lot about the Estonian identity. What does it mean to be an Estonian today?

For me, anyone who wants to be an Estonian, can be an Estonian. This is important to me. The thing is that one can be Estonian in many ways. You can be an Estonian by thinking the same way we do, by having an interest in our country, by being an e-resident – for me, Edward Lucas (a senior editor at the Economist magazine – editor) is one of the best Estonians.

If you want to be an Estonian citizen, then there are a few other things to consider. You must be able to understand our society and communicate in Estonian within our country, as well as some other activities that are on a slightly higher level. In my opinion, it is extremely important to constantly affirm that while we are open to communicating with people all over the world and in all languages, in our country we have one national language which we use when we interact with each other.

Of course, if there is an official who is Russian or knows Russian very well and he is approached by someone who does not speak Russian, they will discuss things in the language that is easiest for them both. Similarly, if a person comes here, for example, as part of a military detail and goes to meet with a social worker and they are fluent in English or French, then they will use one of those languages. But work in this country and with this country is done in Estonian.

Are there any other prerequisites? You say that an Estonian is someone who wants to be an Estonian, but is there anything else besides the language?

It’s not even the language – as I said before, Lucas does not speak Estonian very well, but to my mind, he is very Estonian. Of course, if you want to live here, you have to learn and speak Estonian. This, in my opinion, is very natural; whether it should be this way, is not questioned even by people in Narva. In Tallinn, we see how in Russian-language kindergartens there are open places available in Russian-speaking groups, but not in Estonian-speaking groups.

Speaking of people coming here, we know the demographic situation is not the best, although the past three years have shown some improvement. Can and should Estonia try harder to attract people from elsewhere?

A good living environment, a sensible tax system and an ever-rising standard of living have turned this trend around. If it continues, then people will come without enticements. If we have good jobs to offer – for example, we can offer at least 3,000 jobs in the IT sector right now – then educated people – who we want – will come here.

If we are now in a situation where we are becoming more attractive to people from elsewhere in Europe and the world, then it is extremely important that we are able to provide an Estonian-language platform to the children. It is possible for everyone, whatever language they speak at home. When I have expressed this point, it has been taken to mean teaching the language in kindergarten. That is not the case. It’s just that if the kindergarten teacher speaks Estonian, then the children will learn Estonian. If the teacher speaks another language with the children, they will learn that language.

Yes, of course, there is the language spoken at home, but we want people to have an elementary platform from which they can begin by reading Sipsik (an Estonian children’s book by Eno Raud – editor), then move on to Eno Raud’s children’s stories and to more up-to-date children’s literature, and from there to Tammsaare (Estonian writer Anton-Hansen Tammsaare – editor).

What about the Estonians who have left – could there be something that would entice them to return, or do you think that the ever-changing nature of society will help attract people to return? Or should we be in some way trying to urge people to return?

I don’t think it is necessary to make a specific effort to entice, but when the annual salary increase is 5-6% and has been for three years, people will come and check things out. They will find desirable work with a reasonable wage and a living environment that is still good – and which in many respects is clearly better for those who have lived elsewhere, because of our moderate bureaucracy. I think in the average European country, each person spends four-five business days per year just dealing with their country’s red tape. In Estonia there’s usually no need to do this because the digital state is a great success.

We have a very good natural environment which is a huge win. While the Estonian standard of living is not completely in line with our GDP per capita, it is, in fact, higher in some aspects. Those who have been away know this and they will come back. Should we do something extra? We wanted the freedom to travel, the freedom to work where we want, and I do not think the attitude that it is somehow bad for people to expand their horizons is justified. If we start to behave like that, then they won’t want to come back. For me, every Estonian has value, let him work where he wants.

Suppose these people return and live wherever they live, could they somehow contribute better or more to Estonian life?

If you propose to establish an enterprise here, it’s a win for you because it is very easy to communicate with our country administratively. Your enterprise is incorporated within the European Union, which effectively means you can put it in your pocket and manage it anywhere in Europe and the world. It’s much easier to manage your enterprise here than in another country. Do it.

Let’s talk a little bit about the economy and the future. The previous head of state, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, introduced Estonia abroad as a digital country, with startup companies and strong cyber-security. How do you introduce Estonia abroad?

My foreign travels have included appeals to neighbouring countries to familiarise themselves with our digital platforms, and particularly to urge Finland to join our digital platform as soon as possible – we are close to being able to exchange real-time data between two sovereign state information systems. This is a unique global advantage, and I will without a doubt speak about it wherever I go. The digital state is Estonia’s outstanding brand.

Nevertheless, it’s been also said that we will get stuck believing in the “e-bubble” and become a sort of “e-Narnia”, while other countries move ahead of us. Is there something we could do differently?

Well, for instance, in Germany now, the plan is that each ID-card will also receive a digital ID, something we did 18 years ago. Some Asian countries are only five to seven years behind us, and no one is significantly closer.

So, yes, we still have a competitive advantage today, but just as our entrepreneurs actually brought the X-Road alive (the X-Road platform was initiated by the Estonian government in the 1990ies to create a secure and standardised environment for governmental interoperability, enabling secure data exchange between the information systems and databases of different organisations – editor) by offering services to the platform, I expect them to do the same for e-residents.

If that does not happen, of course, this success story will not last long, because even though it’s easy to set up an enterprise here and e-residents already have the advantage of easy communication with the state, they want additional services and they do not want them from the state.

Have you thought more broadly about Estonia’s future – what is your vision of Estonia in 10 or 25 years?

An Estonia that has calmly, evenly and consistently developed prosperity. In my opinion, there has been nothing wrong with the development of Estonia over the past 26 years, and as long as such trends continue, for my conservative thinking, this is completely satisfactory progress and success.

However, in order to advance even a little bit, you have to move very fast because competition in the world is unarguably tight. We have found our niche from which we can move forward. This is obviously related to the digital space and society, because what we actually have is not an entirely automated process, and it is also found in other countries. What we do have is a digital thinking that prevails here. It is what sets us apart.

Are there any dangers or challenges that we should watch out for?

There always are, but the world has never been wealthier than it is now – and also, it has never been without dangers. The problems of today undoubtedly surround us, and the apocalyptic vision that things in the world are going badly. But for example, the millennium goals of the IMF and the World Bank have been met and exceeded, and the former trends have improved. It is thought that extreme poverty, as such, may even disappear from the world in perhaps 20-25 years.

What we see today as causing instability in the western world has been perhaps a bit of a misunderstanding of what is important – which is democratic freedom, equal treatment and low levels of corruption and not income levels and the volume of consumption. When we talk about the consumption patterns of the richest countries in the world, the fact is, a number of people are excluded from that consumption.

However, it can be quite clearly said that democratic values ​​are available at any level of income. So in this sense, once this understanding is reached – and hopefully the debate and discussion in the western world will result in this – then it’s possible to better set the course. When there is a clear course, then people can feel calmer.

Let’s talk about education and science, both very important topics for you.

Not for me, but for Estonia. A small country has only one natural resource and it is located between our ears. That is completely clear. Therefore, education that is accessible to all children, regardless of their parents’ living or work choices, is a good thing – we have it today and we must keep it.

It actually makes me sad when it is said that the education at Tallinn’s elite schools is significantly better and the schools are significantly more individualised than our other schools [around the country]. Walk around a bit in some Estonian schools – we have a lot of individualised schools, seemingly quite ordinary because they do not have to sell and popularise themselves since they hold the monopoly in their region. And they receive money from the ministry of education and the local government, so their marketing is weak, which does not mean they themselves are weak.

In primary education, we are also doing very well internationally. Is there anything we could be doing better?

As always – when you’re in good standing, you have the time and space to think calmly about what to change. One thing is that, in my opinion, we must take into account that the lives of young people are different [from the previous generations], they live in the digital world. Instead of deprecating them, we should think about how to apply it and make the best use of it in education – and even in this, in fact, Estonia is comparatively successful.

I think we need to pay more attention to algorithmic thinking in school. It’s already being done, I’ve seen schools where first graders are programming gadgets – such as a robot ladybug, for example – that supports itself with the programme they’ve written. I think this direction must definitely be enhanced. We must also teach people that – in the same way as when you travel on the road you know that there are always dangers – there are always dangers on the internet and in cyberspace. Cyber hygiene is an essential source of cyber security and should be taught to children.

Then should there be some kind of a cyber etiquette, and if so, how would it be implemented?

Actually, the rights of the cyber space are emerging, it started primarily in the world of cyberattacks. There is an attempt to define cyberattacks and cyber counterattacks, and an international definition of justice is emerging.

So far, it’s just important to keep in mind that the same laws that apply outside cyberspace also apply in cyberspace. You cannot distribute misinformation about anyone or persecute anyone; just as you cannot do psychological harm to anyone in real life, you cannot do it on the internet either. The same thing applies to not using hate speech, all the same rules apply to the internet, you just have to stress it.

You’ve said that the people who do not make a distinction between science and pseudoscience will be taken advantage of; you feel it is important to help people distinguish science from entertainment. How can this best be done?

This must be talked about with kids at school. Our world view is based on an understanding of the world according to information from scientific measurements and analysis over the course of time. Many of us have flown around the globe and noticed it is round.

There is a story about a debate that went on in an Estonian online forum for supporters of the “flat earth theory”. I had publicly thanked a young scientist who had contributed a lot to the propagation of the scientific world view in Estonia for his struggle against the flat earth theory. Allegedly someone in the forum asked him why, oh why he needed the earth to be round’.

I see a danger here in that we have not really taught young people things that for us is self-explanatory – for example, that the horoscope is merely entertainment, even if it is on the front page of newspapers and has been selling well for many years. We have forgotten to talk about some things, I think we need to talk more.

We have taught people mathematics and physics and chemistry, but we have not necessarily taught them how to use it in real life. We have also taught people biochemistry, we have taught them the properties of sulfuric acid, but we have never taught them that this substance could also have healing properties. We have also not explained why it basically cannot have the properties that are attributed to it.

Obviously, it is a complicated thing for us and the rest of the world to create a way of transmitting the necessary academic teaching into regular life. The connections between the theory and practice, and the theory and actual properties of substances, and the expectations that we place on these things, all need to be described more thoroughly. Undoubtedly, we can always say there are things we do not perceive – all physicists admit there are probably theories that we do not know that would explain the whole world – but this does not negate what we already do know.

Isn’t some of the ignorance you are talking about also connected to the rise in populism in Europe and the United States?

I think the rise of populism has more to do with the point of view that people do not really appreciate their freedoms. When shopping, they value most the selection, while giving little thought to what it will all cost. It is necessary to keep in mind that our freedom is of the utmost value and, of course, in addition to the freedom, people need to be reminded that in a society, resources are shared fairly.

Indeed, very many Estonians have benefited from the expansion of the European Union, but at the same time, inequality is growing rapidly, and some people rightly ask, why they haven’t got their fair share. The politicians must answer this question. But the rational response is not that just because some people did not get their fair share, then we should withdraw from the European Union or close the world markets. It’s actually a pretty simple exercise for politicians, I think they can handle it.

In Europe, negative feelings toward the European Union have increased in some member states, although we hope there will not be another similar scenario to Brexit. How real do you think it is?

In these times, I fear that Russia’s wish and desire to change the existing world order is much easier to accomplish in many elections by discrediting unacceptable candidates with false information. But I believe that European citizens know there are no countries in Europe that would be better off on their own.

Whatever European problem we address today – whether it is the climate or that we want bigger markets, or that the infrastructure would be better connected or that people want to work anywhere they wish and then freely take their pension and move to Spain – none of these things work better without the European Union.

So you feel positive about the future of the European Union.

I am positive, and when I talk to people about it, no one has said that, yes, I would like to give up all the freedoms the European Union has offered me – the main thing is that the European Union should disintegrate. So far, I have not seen such a person.

In Estonia, for two years, there was a great deal of public controversy over war refugees, which has calmed down a bit now, but from time to time it still comes up. What do you think, could or should Estonia take more refugees?

Estonia demonstrates its commitment to its partners in the European Union, and the method we use has, to date, been recognised among our partners and also among our citizens.

Indeed, I think that in retrospect, Estonians have realised that if several thousand new people arrive anyway every year, a few hundred refugees among them, it is unlikely to significantly alter the visual landscape of our society. They understand that the story that we were forced to take tens of thousands of people was false (the false story was circulated by Estonian far-right groups and the Estonian Conservative People’s Party – editor), which is why this discussion has quietly fallen into the background – where it belongs.

Let’s also talk about the environment. There has been a lot of controversy about Rail Baltica – the proposed railway connecting the Baltic countries with Poland and hopefully, Germany – and there are people who see the economic benefits. But there are a lot of people who say that it is not the primary concern, and that the primary concern is to maintain a unique Estonia where no railroad tracks runs through our forest. How do you feel about it?

This is a pretty interesting topic. In one sense, environmental issues concerning the railway are actually easy to solve. It turns out that in some places bridges cannot be built with an incline slight enough so that elk can cross, because they do not climb over hills. But you can build the railway over the hill and let the elk cross underneath. These are all the issues that can be resolved when we focus on how to get it done instead of denying the project.

Estonia is practically the most sparsely populated European country, so it would be very strange if there would be no way to accommodate a railway line. What I think is very exciting is that we will also build train stations so that people can travel around from the middle of the country. They will be very well connected with other points in Estonia, like Tallinn, Pärnu, and on to Riga [the capital of Latvia].

It offers a lot to many people, but the predicted travel numbers are mocked with the old argument about how it’s ridiculous that every Estonian should travel from Tallinn to Pärnu once a year. Well, imagine if someone had tried 20 years ago to create the ferry schedule from Tallinn and Helsinki, and people would have told that in years to come, eight million people cross the gulf every year. They would have said: are you kidding, that would mean every Finn crosses the gulf and some cross it twice. But that’s actually the case today.

It’s easy to deal with environmental issues by finding technical solutions. But since neither side can prove their calculations are anywhere near 80% accurate, there is much left to be discussed. Both sides are holding to an article of faith instead of engaging in discussion.

However, we do know that the world as a whole believes that transport connections are important. We know that road transport is expensive, that it raises risks for daily commuters, that the Tallinn-Pärnu highway is full of lorries, and we know the Finns are very interested in this project. For them this project is about the Tallinn-Helsinki tunnel, which would be the next phase. We are the ones who have dreamed of establishing and living in the economic space of the Nordic countries.

Do you believe there will be a Tallinn-Helsinki tunnel in the future?

Well, probably, but not before I retire.

Another thing about the environment – do you think Estonia has done as much as possible with regard to renewable energy, or should we increase our efforts toward it?

Estonia has a pretty good handle on the subject. Estonians, especially in rural areas, value cottage industries that offer the possibility of supplementing their incomes. These projects continue to emerge and as they start breaking even, more and more continue to take root. The breakeven point for solar panels generating electricity is about 10 years now, it is reaching the stage where people are interested in getting involved.

I think that renewable energy and small solutions have an important future in energy. This is a bit like the change to electric from kerosene lamps. While electricity began to spread, and became ubiquitous, there was a time when kerosene lamps were still needed. That problem was less challenging than this because everything was mass produced and distributed and electricity was widely provided.

Now, on the other hand, it is likely that at this moment, if we assume that in 100-150 years we will no longer need to transport electricity, investments made in the last 10 or 15 years will have to be forgiven. But we do not know when this will happen. We must take into account that this will happen at some point, but not during the next 20 years. It could take a hundred years. In this sense, technological shifts will inevitably lead to some kind of loss for the investors in the old technology, but that is inevitable.

One of the things in which Estonia appears in a negative light is the pay gap between women and men, which happens to be the largest in the European Union. What do you think about this?

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to properly review the details of the allegation. It is certainly an issue that we must deal with. The pay gap and domestic violence are ongoing issues. Typically, a regular citizen might deny that these things exist or even make a joke about them. The parliament jokes about it and still ask questions like why aren’t there enough Estonian women for Estonian men. Sorry, but education and the work that goes with it, will take us some more time.

Fortunately, more and more, this is not a problem for young people. Also, if we look at how work life has changed, we see that the work day is no longer from always nine to five, Monday to Friday, and this will also reduce the pay gap, because more flexible work hours will allow men and women to better coordinate family life.

As for women, the rule should be that maternity pay is flexible and does not hinge on whether she is at home, which takes women out of the labour market during their peak career advancement. The result is that you lose money and you must choose to end your career. A completely unnecessary choice, because if a woman or a man gets parental pay and at the same time continues to work, then they will pay taxes and won’t be an additional expense for the state, but for some reason there are very strict rules there. The current model of maternity pay actually impedes a woman’s track very significantly. At a critical age, they leave the job market for several years, it’s when their colleagues to become heads of the department.

What would you say to little girls who dream of becoming president or prime minister?

It is not a good dream. You should dream about doing things that are different from the things you think you want to do. And if you want to deal with politics, then deal with politics. But it is a really frustrating field that you shouldn’t set your goals on right away, and only if you have inner peace and the conviction that you have done the right thing.

You lived in Luxembourg for 12 years. If you compare Luxembourg and Estonia, is there anything we could learn from that country?

If only there was some way to convey their experience in managing different languages. Typically, there are kindergartens where children are spoken to in many languages: Spanish, Polish, English, German, French. Each teacher speaks her mother tongue and your child will certainly come out of this kindergarten with bi-lingual capabilities, perhaps even trilingual. I really like this attitude. And in a situation where the country has in 10 years received 200,000 new citizens but have lost a hundred thousand, they have managed to increase the number of people who speak the Luxembourgish language. It will become a more widely spoken language than it was before.

We recently looked for a new Estonian symbol, do you have a short answer to what is or might be the symbol of Estonia?

Clearly, the Estonian symbol is a digital society, so there is no need to look for it. It is what we have. It’s easy to explain this way: when people elsewhere say that this digital thing is dangerous and that one does not work – let’s use paper – then the Estonian says: fix it and protect it. That is the moment you know you are in a digital society, that’s the difference.

Finally, on Estonia’s security. You have met with the vice president of the United States, Mike Pence, a few times. What assurances did he give regarding the United States’ promise of providing security support? And did he recognise that Estonia fulfills the requirement of spending two percent of the GDP on defence?

He assured us that the United States knows the Baltic states are firm allies and have been for a long time. Yes, he knows that Estonia spends its two per cent. And he knows that Latvia and Lithuania are quite close to fulfilling their spending and that they are closer to their deadlines than many of the other European countries.

In my opinion, when discussing strength, it’s about more than just the two per cent. It is just as important to hold the diplomatic line and to strongly maintain unity over the Ukraine situation, because Ukraine is not only Ukraine. Ukraine is Russia’s attempt to change the architecture of international security. They started in 2008, and now that this quicksand has reached Ukraine, they propose to build some sort of new architecture on the quicksand. You cannot build safety or security on quicksand. This must be understood and there is no doubt the United States does understand.

A large number of our readers live in the United States, Canada and Australia, many of Estonian descent, who are deeply concerned about Estonia. What can you tell them about whether the fear of Russia is justified? We constantly see stories in the foreign media which have headlines that are practically announcing that the Third World War is about to begin. Is it simply overkill or totally unnecessary?

This is Russian propaganda. This is Russia’s completely natural propaganda in a situation where they see NATO respond adequately to the changed situation regarding security. Just as NATO was very strong during the Cold War in West Germany, in West Berlin, NATO has evaluated the situation and decided that deterrence should be strengthened. Deterrence for NATO, as Jens Stoltenberg loves to say, is always aimed at securing peace and is proportionate. That is exactly what NATO is doing right now.

It is very much in the interest of Russia to give the impression that NATO is preparing for war and that there is a danger of war, and that the Baltic Sea is a war sea, but it is all just propaganda. It must be refuted, and it seems to me that, to some extent, the message is being delivered that the decisions made by NATO in Warsaw and their peaceful implementation will not increase the threat of war in the area.

So, you’re saying that from the Estonian perspective, rather than hedging, we could simply steer clear of it?

Absolutely. It is our job to remind everyone that NATO’s deterrence has never been made of silk umbrellas, so to speak. But always of people and equipment.

How would you rate the readiness to defend Estonia among the Estonian people? And could Estonian expats have a role to play? How could they help?

Without a doubt, they can help the most by telling anyone who asks the question, “Is your homeland at physical risk?” by “no, it is not”. What NATO is doing here is ensuring the security of all NATO allies. It has been determined that in order to ensure this security, it is necessary to strengthen deterrence here, in the east and the northeastern regions. We do not know where else this might be needed; after all, NATO operations against terrorism have taken place in more southern regions as well. NATO’s mission is to provide 360 degrees of security wherever and whenever it is needed. I think everyone living elsewhere has the opportunity to convey this message and clarify it.

But, of course, I imagine that the Estonian Defence League is always ready for new members. Among the major tasks of the Defence League is to guide the Estonian people on how to be prepared to defend themselves and to participate in creating a ready defence, and by cultivating self-confidence.

Above all, we must have self-confidence so that we can defend ourselves. This is the work of the Defence League, but it is also an important part of the Estonian defence forces. It also plays an important part in deterrence, because if the adversary knows it would not be an easy matter to cross the border into this country and simply take it over, he will not do it. But again, NATO members have never been attacked, and today Russia is attacking us primarily through its propaganda and strategic communication. But this attack is also dangerous and needs to be addressed.

One part of the security issue is the mood of the Estonian Russian-speaking population. Is there anything you can recommend as to how to ease the frictions that arise, and what can we do to help?

First of all, this process has clearly evolved compared with when I left Estonia (Kaljulaid served in the European Court of Auditors from 2004-2016 – editor). I still remember, at the turn of the century, the ongoing debate about whether there really wasn’t some way to avoid having to learn Estonian. Today, when I talk to non-Estonian speaking people living in Estonia, they ask for help in learning how to speak better. That’s the first thing.

Second, language is not basis for what a person thinks. We have heard in very clear Estonian that Crimea belongs to Russia. Third, as Yana Toom (an Estonian-Russian politician – editor) says, no Russian living here wants to wake up in the Russian Federation. The non-Estonian speakers appreciate democratic freedoms very much, they know here they can say out loud that they do not think there is anything wrong with the Crimea situation and that they won’t jailed for it.

In this sense, I think there is no reason to suspect that a Russian-speaking citizen of Estonia does not want to be a free European citizen, he certainly does want to be. They have shown it over the last couple of decades. There is no reason today to talk about the Russian minority as a security risk.

If the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, invited you to visit in Moscow, would you go, or would there be conditions?

There is a condition, yes. At the moment the general understanding in the European Union is that no high-level meetings will be scheduled [with Putin]. Once again, back to the international security architecture. Once we return to this architecture, then I would be delighted [to visit].

One final note about Donald Trump – if there was ever anything that goes against your principles, based on comments of his, would you be willing to confront him directly during a meeting?

During a private meeting, or in the presence of advisers, sure – but never through public media.


Cover: Kersti Kaljulaid enjoying the view in Vilsandi island in summer of 2017. Images courtesy of Kersti Kaljulaid’s office and Renee Altrov.

Estonian World cofounder receives a mission award

Silver Tambur, the cofounder and editor-in-chief of Estonian World, has been awarded by the Network of Estonian Nonprofit Organisations for his work of improving Estonia’s image abroad as well as making it a more open society internally.

Tambur was named the recipient of the “2017 mission award” along with Rainer Sternfeld, a startup entrepreneur and author behind the Estonian-language podcast, “Globaalsed Eestlased” (Global Estonians).

“Both deserve recognition for their activities for making Estonia a more open society, and making the country greater, both internally and externally,” the Network of Estonian Nonprofit Organisations said in a statement.

“Silver Tambur is the founder of the online magazine,, and a leader in the English-language event, Estonishing Evenings. On his initiative, many foreigners have been introduced to Estonia and the emergence of a friendly and open mindset has been encouraged,” the organisation added.

“It’s a pleasure to accept this award – and I accept it on behalf of all the people who have contributed to Estonian World,” Tambur said at the award ceremony in Toompea Castle, in a reference to over 200 people who have contributed to the popular online magazine over the past five years. “I believe that the fact Estonian World was established by Estonian expats in London has shown that our compatriots who live abroad, are not necessarily ‘lost’ for Estonia – instead, they can contribute worldwide,” he added.

“Estonian World is primarily aimed at people living abroad and Estonishing Evenings for people living in Estonia – but both initiatives share the notion that the world does not end with the borders of this country. Estonia is part of the global society – it cannot function without other countries and other countries cannot get by without Estonia,” Tambur said.

Mission doesn’t pay the bills

However, despite appreciating the award, Tambur emphasised that it’s hard to run a professional media outlet based purely on “mission”. “Estonian World is a professionally run online portal, with professional journalistic standards and two professional editors. It costs approximately €80,000 per year to run and we are constantly struggling to make ends meet,” he said, pointing out that contrary to some myths, the Estonian government has not given a penny to the outlet.

“Luckily, more and more people and entrepreneurs have understood the importance of the globally popular English-language publication about Estonia and have started to support financially Estonian World – but it’s nowhere enough yet,” Tambur noted. “That’s why we have recently set up means to support the magazine, via Patreon and PayPal. Companies can also contact us for sponsorship deals,” he added.

The Network of Estonian Non-profit Organisations is the single and largest Estonian organisation uniting public benefit non-profit organisations. Its mission is to give voice to and advocate on behalf of Estonian public benefit organisations and its work is dedicated to the development and promotion of civic action and civil society in Estonia.

Estonian World is a global independent online magazine, founded in London in 2012 and headquartered in Tallinn, Estonia. The magazine has editorial representations in London, New York, Los Angeles and Tallinn, and contributors all over the world, on every continent. With over 40,000 followers in the social media, Estonian World is the most popular media outlet about Estonia and Estonians that is published in English.


Cover: Silver Tambur accepting the award, which was presented by Eiki Nestor, the current Speaker of the Estonian parliament, Riigikogu (courtesy of Riigikogu).

Toomas Hendrik Ilves receives the World Leader in Cybersecurity Award 

The former Estonian president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, is being honoured by the Boston Global Forum for his leadership that resulted in Estonia becoming a vital member of the world community.

Ilves is to receive the World Leader in Cybersecurity Award at Harvard University on 12 December. The award is presented by the Boston Global Forum, a think tank with ties to the Harvard faculty, business leaders and journalists.

The forum said Ilves was awarded for his nation’s achievements in developing cyber-defence strategies for all nations, and for establishing Estonia’s pre-eminence as a world leader in cyberspace technology, defence and safe access.

The former Estonian president is also being honoured for his leadership that resulted in Estonia becoming a vital member of the world community and for his speeches before the United Nations where he fostered understanding of the risk of climate change, the need for safety of the Internet, and the plight of migrants and refugees – especially children.

A leader in cybersecurity

“We believe we are kindred spirits in our pursuit of a world in which we share in the concern for our fellow citizens worldwide,” Michael Dukakis, the chairman of the Boston Global Forum and the former Massachusetts governor, said in a statement. “I also believe the Boston Global Forum and the Michael Dukakis Institute for Leadership and Innovation can play a vital role in helping President Ilves continue to communicate his message and inspire others by participating with leading thinkers and scholars from Harvard and MIT who share his vision for a clean, safe and transparent Internet,” he added.

During Ilves’s tenure as the Estonian president, the country became one of the world leaders in cybersecurity-related knowledge. Estonia ranks highest in Europe and fifth in the world in cybersecurity, according to the 2017 cybersecurity index, compiled by the International Telecommunication Union. The country also hosts the headquarters of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence.


Cover: Toomas Hendrik Ilves (image by Herkki-Erich Merila).

Eerik-Niiles Kross. Photo: Facebook

Estonian politician Kross among Politico’s most influential Europeans

The international political magazine, Politico, has named the Estonian MP, Eerik-Niiles Kross, as one of the 28 “people who are shaping, shaking and stirring Europe”.

The “Estonian James Bond”, as the magazine puts it, is standing ready to fight if Russia should invade the country. “He’s been warning of the Russians’ potential return since they left the last time,” the magazine says.

“By day, Kross is a member of the Estonian parliament. But that’s like saying Bruce Wayne is a billionaire playboy or Bruce Banner is an atomic physicist. Kross, 50, is Estonia’s version of James Bond, with two differences: Kross drives a black two-seater Mercedes, not an Aston Martin; and 007 is a movie character while Kross is real. At times, that can be hard to believe.”

The West has underestimated Putin

According to the magazine, Russia wants Kross arrested and has accused him of masterminding the 2009 hijacking of a cargo ship carrying timber. “The U.S. has barred him from traveling there, except on official diplomatic business, for reasons that have never been explained. Kross and his friends in DC security circles say the ban is mystifying and unjustified.”

Politico says Kross believes the West has underestimated Putin and had no plan to deal with his revanchist aggression, as became clear following the seizure of Crimea in 2014. “There was not even a good set of threats,” Kross says. “There was nothing there. Obama, of course, always said the military option is off the table.”

The magazine notes that, according to Kross, there should’ve been a better, blunter approach. “A strong Western response would have been this: The moment the first little Green Men arrived, the phone call to Putin, ‘Ok, Volodya, you have 24 hours to get the fuck out of there, my Sixth Fleet is on the way. You take your fleet, and you take your Sevastopol base, and you fuck off. That’s it. Otherwise, they’re coming. By the way, we’ll kick your ass.’”

Larger than life

“The silver lining in Putin’s aggression was the wake-up call that the West couldn’t ignore,” the magazine writes. “Now we have German tanks training in the Baltics. If you look at where they were before, that’s a dramatic change. It’s not that visible — they do not talk about it — but it’s really, really important,” Kross told Politico.

The magazine also points out that Estonians generally regard Kross as a patriot, “if a bit too larger than life”.

Kross himself commented his selection by Politico on Facebook, saying, “There are exceptions to the fact that you shouldn’t believe what the media says.”


Cover: Eerik-Niiles Kross. Photo: Facebook

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