Russian children are ostracized in Estonia, says activist mother

Teachers in Estonia don't know how to integrate Russian children, writes a Russian dissident in a public letter that has now snowballed into a country-wide political debate.

Marian Männi
Marian Männi Eesti Ekspress, Estonia
Source: Eesti Ekspress
Russian children are ostracized in Estonia, says activist mother - NewsMavens
Yevgenia Chirikova 2011, Wikimedia Commons

Why this story matters:

About every third person living in Estonia speaks Russian at home.

But Estonian and Russian speakers are still very much segregated in Estonia. They live in parallel realities, and even in different suburbs. They don't speak each others' languages, and they don't watch the same news.

The Estonian and Russian languages are as different from each other as Chinese and English, so if the two communities cannot understand each other, how can they integrate? Many believe integration should start in schools.

There are still public schools in Estonia exclusively meant for Russian speakers that may offer only a few Estonian language lessons. They are usually located in the suburbs where Russian speakers tend to live.

Unfortunately, the issue is also deeply political. 

Supporting Russian language schools guarantees politicians Russian votes. Supporting only Estonian language schools and banning Russian gets you Estonian votes. And elections are coming. So it is no wonder that this woman's public letter, addressed to the President, has gotten people talking.

Yevgenia Chirikova is a mother of two and a well-known Russian environmental activist, who fled her homeland for safety in Estonia. In her letter, she pleads with Estonian politicians and officials to help families like hers to integrate better into Estonian society. She says that the problem is not that Russian speakers don't want to learn, it's because teachers don't really know how to help pupils who feel isolated.

Yevgenia says she spends a big part of her salary on private Estonian language classes and wonders why the Estonian government is doing so little to help.

In the light of what is happening in Ukraine, Yevgenia warns that Estonia should show more interest in integration.

She argues that if the Estonian government won't integrate its Russian speakers, then Russia surely will.

Details from the story:

  • Yevgenia Chirikova is an environmentalist who opposed a road through the ancient forest in Russia, and previously won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. She was threatened because of her activities and decided to leave Russia.
  • She now lives in Estonia with her two children and, seeing how they are completely isolated from Estonian speakers, worries about their future there.
  • Russian speakers simply don't want to learn the Estonian language, Estonian politicians often say. But Yevgenia says it's not true. The government is just not doing enough, expecting the parents to solve the major integration issue in this country.
  • "To me, as a mother, my children's integration is of the utmost importance," she says.

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