‘I’m always looking over my shoulder’: anxiety among Estonia’s Russians

In Tallinn, the government’s strong support for sanctions against Russia is leading to tension and distrust

Father Grigory Borisov offers a prayer for Ukraine every day in a special liturgy at the Lasnamäe church, a towering, whitewashed place of Russian Orthodox worship in the centre of the most populous suburb of Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, where a majority are Russian speakers.

The Church of the Icon of the Mother of God was built in 2013 with the help of funds from a Moscow-based NGO. While in March the Estonian Orthodox church joined other churches in the Baltic country in condemning the bombing of civilians in Ukraine, the church’s leader back in Moscow, Patriarch Kirill, has been accused of providing theological cover for Vladimir Putin’s war.

Borisov, 32, who went to theological college in St Petersburg, is treading a thin line. He says he is not permitted to talk about politics and the war. But the priest concedes there is widespread anxiety in his congregation in this economically deprived part of the city. “The mental health situation is bad – Covid, war, the economic situation, the gas prices. These things make people sad and worried.”

Borisov says he treats everyone who comes to the church the same, whether Estonian, Ukrainian or Russian. “There is neither Greek [n]or Jew,” he says, quoting a passage in the King James Bible that goes on to argue that “all [are] one in Christ Jesus”.

women look at their wallets to dig out change
People shopping last week in Balti Jaama market in Tallinn. Photograph: Hendrik Osula/The Guardian

Outside Lasnamäe’s imperiously situated church in the east of Tallinn, among high-rise apartment blocks as far as the eye can see, such blandishments contrast sharply with the reality of what is an increasingly anxious Russian community that is caricatured by some as a “fifth column” and among whom there is in turn a high degree of distrust of the state.

Estonia was a Soviet republic from 1944 until 1991, and about 322,000 of its population of 1.3 million people self-identify as ethnic Russians, with 90,000 having Russian citizenship. Many ethnic Russians turn to Russian television for their news, and a high degree of segregation remains.

Meanwhile, Estonia’s government, led by Kaja Kallas, has taken a strong line on the need to turn the screw on Russia by strengthening the economic sanctions imposed by the west on its economy, ban travel visas for the country’s nationals and tear down Soviet Union imagery, such as monuments commemorating the second world war.

Man poses with coffee cup in hand
Taniel Vaaderpass at his cafe in Tallinn’s old town. Photograph: Hendrik Osula/The Guardian

It is a dynamic that risks dangerous misunderstandings taking hold in which opposition to Putin’s Russia could be interpreted as disapproval of Russians at large.

Karsten Brüggemann, a professor of Estonian history at Tallinn University, said the financial assistance being offered to Ukrainian refugees was also being seen as a threat by some in the Russian community.

“Because they see how much money the state is giving to Ukrainian refugees and they haven’t got anything”, he says. “[For] some of the Russians who are in a socioeconomically poor situation this really is quite irritating to say the least.”

Hanging out her washing on the terrace of her ground-floor flat in the shadow of Lasnamäe’s church, one 39-year-old mother of a three-year-old and five-year-old, who declined to give her name, said she was born in Tallinn but identified as Russian. “I better be careful what I say because they will deport me,” she said.

“It was fine before the war. I worked for two Estonian companies and it was good but now we are seen as dangerous. What are they going to do to us next? I am not in favour of the EU sanctions. They are not hurting Russia but hurting us here. I am a personal trainer and I can’t afford to drive to work. I only take the car with the children. I can’t afford to fill it up. The government should be looking after its own people not the Ukrainians who threaten us, who protest with blood over themselves outside the Russian embassy. I am always looking over my shoulder.”

The woman had heard false claims that the Estonian government had stopped free meals for children in Russian-language schools. “I don’t know if it is true, but it could be true,” she insisted.

A flashpoint between the Estonian government and the ethnic Russian community was the move last week to remove a Soviet-era T-34 tank from its pedestal in the eastern city of Narva, where 95.7% of the population of Narva are native Russian speakers and 87.7% are ethnic Russians.

High-rise flats and a few cars
Lasnamäe district in Tallinn. Photograph: Hendrik Osula/The Guardian

The decision was made as part of a wider plan to relocate between 200 and 400 public monuments to museums on the grounds that Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine had “opened wounds in our society that these communist-era monuments remind us of”.

There had been concerns about unrest. The relocation of a statue known as the Bronze Soldier in Tallinn in April 2007 led to two nights of rioting in the capital’s old town, during which a Russian protester was killed.

This time, locals instead gathered peacefully to lay flowers where the tank had sat. Polls have suggested that adherence of ethnic Russians to the Kremlin line is far from sure since the war. A recent survey found that around a third of those who identify as Russians in Estonia agree with the relocation of Soviet monuments from public places to museums. But fears of trouble remain. Russian hacker group Killnet has claimed to be behind what Estonian officials said was a major but futile cyber attack on its institutions in the immediate wake of the tank’s relocation. On Monday, Russian investigators stated that the murder in Bolshie Vyazyomy near Moscow of Darya Dugina, the daughter of an ultranationalist Russian ideologue had been carried out by a Ukrainian woman who they said travelled to Estonia after the killing.

Katri Raik, a former government minister who has been mayor of Narva since 2020, said there was genuine nervousness in the Russian community that they would be caught in the cross fire between Moscow and Tallinn.

“Now it is very important what happens next,” she told Estonia’s largest daily newspaper, Postimees. “Those red monuments are [no longer] there. Is that all now? Or what the Estonian state has in mind in the direction of Narva. We need to restore trust between the country of Estonia and Narva.”

Raik added: “We have to get rid of the fear of the people of Narva, which many people expressed yesterday at various meetings. They are afraid that they will be sent away from Estonia. We will certainly not send away the people of Narva”.

Speaking on Estonian Independence Day on Saturday, the country’s president, Alar Karis, spoke of the ill will stirred up by the removal of the tank. “We must acknowledge that some residents of our country do have a different historical understanding,” he said. “Many of our compatriots are not yet fluent in Estonian, but in addition to the language, or greatly due to not speaking it, they also have not been taught an ideologically unbiased history of Estonia, Europe and the world.”

He called, however, for understanding and sensitivity at a time when nuance was easily lost. “There are 1.3 million of us,” he said. “We possess power and strength. But only if we go forward taking heed of one another, not elbowing our own truth through.”


Daniel Boffey in Tallinn

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Brussels promises to cap price of Russian oil after Putin escalation
European Commission also proposes extra curbs on hi-tech trade as part of sanctions to ‘make Kremlin pay’ over Ukraine war

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

28, Sep, 2022 @4:32 PM

Article image
EU foreign ministers expected to suspend Russian tourist visa facilitation
Move comes as EU official says it is ‘inappropriate for Russian tourists to stroll in our cities’

Jon Henley Europe correspondent

28, Aug, 2022 @4:33 PM

Article image
Russia will not resume gas supplies to Europe until sanctions lifted, says Moscow
Kremlin blames western sanctions for failure to deliver gas through Nord Stream 1 pipeline

Pjotr Sauer

05, Sep, 2022 @1:37 PM

Article image
Kosovo PM says Russia is inflaming Serbia tensions as Ukraine war falters
Albin Kurti warns rising tensions only benefit Putin as ethnic Serbs set up road blocks in north of country

Daniel Boffey Chief reporter

20, Dec, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Ben Wallace and EU defence ministers to press Germany over tanks to Ukraine
UK defence secretary will meet counterparts from Poland and Baltics in drive to get Berlin to agree re-export of Leopard 2 tanks

Dan Sabbagh and Kate Connolly in Berlin

17, Jan, 2023 @6:37 PM

Article image
Nord Stream blasts could herald new phase of hybrid war, say EU politicians
Norway to make military visible at oil and gas installations as bloc rounds on Russia for suspected act of sabotage

Philip Oltermann in Berlin

28, Sep, 2022 @3:27 PM

Article image
‘Putin only understands strength’: Estonian PM on Ukraine tensions
Kaja Kallas criticises Europe’s reliance on Russian energy and says gas pipeline to Germany should be scrapped

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

28, Jan, 2022 @2:28 PM

Article image
Biden promises eastern Europeans support in event of Russian attack on Ukraine
US president makes pledge in phone calls to Ukrainian president and nine other states

Andrew Roth in Moscow

09, Dec, 2021 @10:32 PM

Article image
Putin loyalist Kadyrov criticises Russian army’s performance over Ukraine retreat
Ramzan Kadyrov, Kremlin-appointed Chechnya leader, suggests Putin might not be fully aware of true state of affairs

Shaun Walker

11, Sep, 2022 @2:58 PM

Article image
Macron calls Putin over fears Russia is weaponising captured nuclear plant
Putin agrees to allow inspectors to travel to Zaporizhzhia plant, French president says, amid fears of radioactive accident if it is taken off grid

Emma Graham-Harrison and Isobel Koshiw in Kyiv and Dan Sabbagh in Dnipro

20, Aug, 2022 @1:29 AM