In Estonia I am perceived as Russian, in Russia I am Estonian
Mikhail was born in Leningrad in the late 1980s, but spent most of his life living in Sillamae, a small industrial town near Narva. His grandfather moved to Sillamae right after the Second World War and was one of those who practically built the town. Both of his parents have lived in Estonia since they were children, but remain Russian citizens.
Currently I work with electronic production at the Erinc Eesti AS facility in Tartu. Most of my colleagues are Estonian; however there are some Latvians and Russians. During the first months it was quite difficult to communicate since my knowledge of Estonian was not sufficient. The other workers tried to speak Russian with me, but I insisted on communicating in Estonian only because I desperately needed the language practice. Although I have started to learn Estonian at an early age, I still only speak it a little. The year I spent in the army was quite useful: I had a chance to speak Estonian every day with my commanders and the other soldiers. However, during the following five years, while I was working at Eesti Energia in Sillamae alongside Russian speakers, all my knowledge of Estonian has been lost. Without any particular need to speak Estonian in my everyday life I stopped learning it.
There are significant differences between living in Russia and Estonia. There are more problems and difficulties that people in Russia have to deal with that keeps them busy. I was impressed that generally people live in quite good living conditions, considering that they are making less than Estonia's average salary. Some have two or even three jobs, or drive a taxi on the weekends, just to make ends meet. Residents of Estonia don't have this desire to earn more. On average, they make €600 per month, in the best case scenario they earn €800-900 and do not look for more.
Living in Estonia is much more comfortable than in Russia. Here we have better infrastructure and easier connections with state institutions.
I don't have to spend hours queuing in order to sign something; I just go to the website of the ministry and fulfill all the documents I need online. Once, I spent an entire day registering with the city while I was visiting my extended family in Saratov. I remember having problems with traffic police in Russia who were asking for a bribe. Here in Estonia we sometimes have cases of police brutality but, nevertheless, I always know they are protecting us not trying to make a profit out of bribes(to cash in).
My parents are Russian citizens, while I have Estonian citizenship. In order to obtain one I had to pass a language proficiency test and Estonian constitution test, which was quite difficult for me at the time. My parents chose to keep their Russian passports, because they can travel to Russia without a visa. They also have permanent residency in Estonia, which allows them to work here and travel everywhere in the European Union.
I know a couple of cases when people refused to change their grey passport out of principle and demonstrate their position to the state. They feel offended, because they were entitled as third generation of occupants. On one hand, there is an older generation of people who don't want to take any tests and are content with grey passports. On the other hand, I don't think it is an example of proper and balanced state policy when the only people who are eligible to automatically obtain Estonian citizenship are those who were born before 1939 and after 1991. We are still debating this issue here.
Even in our biggest city, Tallinn, ethnic Estonians and Russians live quite separately and practically don't know much about each other.
To some extent, it is due to the language barrier and integration process. We lack communication among each other, and projects that put people from different communities closer to each other are missing. When I studied at school, a lot of my classmates traveled to Estonian farms during summertime. It was a good way to get closer to Estonian culture and learn the language. We need to come up with more creative solutions for integration.
Ida-Virumaa, as many other industrial regions of the Post-Soviet space, lives in its own unique reality. It is a big and unique part of the country. Its residents are predominantly Russian speakers who watch Russian TV and have more interest about what is going on in Russia rather than events in Estonia. Of course it is quite abnormal, when a whole region of the country turns towards Moscow and feels more in common with the country across the border. When traveling to Narva, one might have the impression that it is a middle sized Post-Soviet industrial town somewhere in Russia, just a bit prettier and cleaner.
I think that Estonian society does not trust or like this region too much. A couple of years ago there was broad discussion around the idea to move some state institutions to the periphery of the country. Today nearly half the population of the country is concentrated in Tallinn and its suburbs, where most of the powerful institutions are located. There was a proposal to move the Academy of Internal Affairs of Estonia from Tallinn to Narva, however nearly all the staff rejected the idea to change the place.
I don't think that there is a threat that the residents of Ida-Virumaa might one day decide to become a part of Russia. Even though, due to various reasons, they resent or dislike the state authority, no one wants to live in Russia. Estonia provides better living standards for them. For instance, I consider myself being pro-Russian, but it does not automatically mean that I dislike Estonia. Quite often you might hear fearful discussions about Russia enhancing its military potential. But, I doubt that it is a threat for Estonia. Russia is a big country that for long periods of history has existed with a superpower complex. Moreover, I fail to see why it is a bad thing if a country is trying make itself stronger militarily, let them follow their own path.
I don't consider myself 100 percent Russian. Even when I interact with my peers from Russia, I feel that we are different. One of our local TV channels likes to use the phrase "эстоноземелец" which means 'man who lives in the land of Estonia' while addressing residents of Estonia, regardless of their nationality and I like that approach. Neither Estonia nor Russia is where I feel at home. This is a funny paradox: in Estonia I am perceived as Russian, in Russia I am Estonian. I wish I could turn it around and feel welcome in both countries.