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"President Ilves: Thoughts about Europe and America", Korjaamo


Iivi Anna Masso 


Barack Obama is already the second president who is a graduate of Columbia University. The first of them was President of the Republic of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves. At the turn of the year, Newsweek selected Ilves as the only European politician to give the future President of the United States of America advice about solving the problems of the world. Some of his thoughts are given below.


Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who are you?

People have many identities. For example, I could identify myself as someone who knows the novels of Thomas Pynchon, I consider myself an expert on modern alternative rock or an overweight person who would like to lose some of that extra burden. The simplified explanation that I am an American is quite limited.

Some people think that being American defines who I am. Since I grew up in the United States and speak English with an American accent, then many people assume that I support the foreign policy of the US. 


It means that there are many prejudices associated with assumed identity?

Yes, it is so incredibly primitive. I have seen this way of thinking even among foreign ministers. I cannot take people seriously if they think that the place where I used to live fully determines who I am. The other side of the same coin is being an exiled Estonian, which reminds me of the naïve approach of the 19th century – if you do not have Blut und Boden, blood and country ties, then you are a stranger.

This attitude also entails the understanding that those Estonians who did not live in the Soviet Union have no right to speak about the Soviet Union. On the basis of the same logic, people who grew up in the Soviet Union should not have the right to speak about democracy and freedom of speech, because they did not live in the West. 


What does growing up in the United States of America mean to you?

It means that there are certain cultural phenomena that I understand. I got an excellent university education – better than I would have got anywhere else. I think that my belief in a state based on the rule of law and freedom of speech also stems from there. 


Is this belief stronger in the US?

I think so. Many Americans know my instinctive reaction to certain things, but it is not so strong in Europe. Freedom of speech is very important for me. 


Is European more politically correct or can we talk about something deeper?

What I mean is the intellectual and moral tradition of speaking the truth. Apart from the United Kingdom, the freedom to speak about unpleasant things, things that are complicated for the state, is traditionally not so widespread in Europe as it is the US. 


In your foreword to the Estonian translation of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, you said that the nature of cultures is understood better in their peripheral areas rather than in their centres.

Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin all came from the peripheries of their cultures: Corsica, Austria and Georgia. 


What does this observation say about the position of ‘new Europe’?

The Finns also understand everything European better than many people from Central Europe who think everything is self-evident. New EU Member States that suffered under communism feel the same about everything European. European is not a geographical term: Kaliningrad is not very European, even though Konigsberg used to be the heart of Europe in its time. 


Does the fact that you spent your childhood outside Europe help you see Europe better?

To me, European meant that I did not understand who and where I was. The country whose language we all spoke at home was not even on the map. This is why Europe interested me – it could not be just the fact that my parents speak English with an accent or that a knife and fork are used in a certain manner. I thought that there must be something else in Europe and I started looking into this. To me, Europe is the carrier of the idea of freedom and democracy.

The university where I studied is one of the most European in the US; it employed many European asylum-seekers, such as Jews who had fled the Nazis. As the other so-called elite universities in the US stuck to the Lutheran and Anglo-Saxon tradition that is so characteristic of the white race, then Columbia University was European, even Eastern European. It accepted Jewish professors and students, Eastern Europeans and black people. 


The current President of the United States of America Barack Obama also studied in Columbia University.

Yes. He is the second graduate of Columbia University who has become a president. 


Do you support Huntington’s idea of a clash of cultures?

I think that culture is more important than people admit. A clash of civilisations can be avoided if culture is not turned into military ideology. The people Marlène Laruelle writes about in her book Russian Eurasianism: an Ideology of Empire are Huntingtonians. They are strongly opposed to the West. Radical Islam also places itself on the opposite side to the West. It is dangerous when culture is used as the basis of ideology due to the lack of other ideas.

Western secular culture that is based on Christianity and the traditions of Roman law also sets itself in opposition to others in a certain sense. 


In your foreword to Huntington’s book, you emphasise the importance of religion in culture even if people are not actually that religious.

The role of religion is extremely important in Estonia. The ability to read came to Estonia through Lutheranism and even the most devoted atheist has to admit that we would not have our present culture without Lutheranism. This is evidenced by comparison with the part of Estonia that remained outside the cultural influence of Germany. According to the census of 1896, literacy in the Province of Estonia was 92.1%, in [Orthodox] Setumaa it was 7%. Therefore, these 700 years of slavery that Carl Robert Jakobson spoke about were beneficial for us in some ways. 


What is the right of self-determination of spiritual geography?

This is Milan Kundera’s expression. In 1984, he created the idea of Central Europe, wondering why Vienna, that is located 250 kilometres east of Prague, is considered an important centre of Western culture but Prague – the city of Jan Hus, Max Brod and Franz Kafka – is seen as a grey Eastern European place. 


What does it mean in the context of Nordic countries? You have used the term ‘Christmas countries’, meaning the region where the pre-Christian prefix 'jul’ is used.

These cultures are united by certain things – whether the responsibility of individuals, sun crosses or Viking ships. Some elements refer to contacts before Christianity. Some have claimed that Estonia cannot belong to the Nordic cultural space, because the Nordic states are social democratic and Estonia is not. I think that Estonia would be a welfare state as strong as those set as an example to us today if the Soviet Union had not occupied Estonia. 


In 1998, you wrote that the world does not acknowledge Estonia as a Nordic country. Can we say now that Estonia is a part of the Nordic countries?

It is the strongest regional identity we can carry.

In his book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson introduced the idea that nationality is an imagined reality. Similarly, being Nordic is a certain construction. Finland being Nordic is also constructed, but it has only strengthened its position. Earlier, it was just Scandinavia. The creation of Northland was a conscious move made largely due to security policy, which started in the 1930s when Sweden decided to focus on one of the Baltic countries – Finland. As late as in the 1920s, people were talking about the four Baltic countries, nobody spoke about Finland as a Nordic country. 


Is national identity genetic or acquired?

It depends on whether we’re speaking about Europe or America. There is no national identity in the US. The state’s philosophy is that everyone who recognises the state’s fundamental values and speaks English is an American. In Europe, blood ties have historically been more important. 


Who are ‘we, the Estonians’?

The Estonian identity is strongly associated with language: if you speak Estonian, you are an Estonian. Language is our religion and ideology; language is what defines an Estonian.

In addition to language, Estonia identifies itself through liberal democracy. It was important in the 1920s that Estonia became a democratic republic and that the independence of Estonia was not based on ethnicity alone. Russians who lived in Estonia fought in the Estonian War of Independence and the Declaration of Independence of Estonia and the first constitution that also stipulated the cultural autonomy of ethnic minorities were strongly rooted in democratic ideology. 


Does it mean you do not have to be born an Estonian, but anyone who learns the Estonian language and respects the fundamental values of the state can be an Estonian?

I cannot see why not. It is rather impossible to say who is Estonian genetically. We have [hero of the War of Independence] Julius Kuperjanov, Aleksei Strekavin founded a unit of the Defence League in Viljandi in 1917. My mother is half-Russian, my son is half-American. We have coastal Swedes and Russians who consider themselves Estonians. On the other hand, we have immigrants like elsewhere in Europe and America, who do not identify themselves with their new homeland. 


What cultural minorities live in Estonia today?

Estonia has a strong Jewish community, Russian cultural associations, the Ukrainians, the Azerbaijani. Young Belarusians study in the University of Tartu, they learn Estonian in a couple of months and are happy that they can live in a free country.

One article asked the questions that as Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, then when would Estonia get a Russian president? The emphasis of this question is completely wrong. Estonia elected its Obama in 1930. Estonians became free of slavery only 40 years before African-Americans. An Estonian president in Estonia was as big a miracle as Obama being elected President of the United States, because Estonians had been living as slaves in their own country for the majority of written history. 


What do you think of the situation of the largest linguistic minority in Estonia?

I think it is similar to how Vladimir Nabokov sees his ideal Russia: it is the place where people can live in a Russian cultural environment, speak Russian and still enjoy liberal democracy; where everyone’s civil rights are guaranteed, complete freedom of speech prevails and the state is based on the rule of law.

It is important for us to consider everyone an individual. We feel solidarity with the late Anna Politkovskaya, because she was a democrat. On the other hand, I have nothing in common with people who shout anti-Semitic slogans in Estonian. 


How is a society based on common values developed in Estonia?

The President of the Republic cannot do much here. Independence Day will be celebrated in Jõhvi this time and the parade will take place in Narva. If we want the whole of Estonia to feel togetherness, then taking the Independence Day reception to North-Eastern Estonia is a good way to support this wish. The government in its turn can improve the opportunities for learning the language. 


What do you think about the European multicultural ideology?

It has become a bit of a slogan and is not working that well in reality. Repeating slogans is easy, especially in countries with just one nationality.

Sociologist Robert Putnam demonstrated in his study that civil society is the weakest in more heterogeneous societies. Finding good solutions is difficult if he is right. The solution cannot be in slogans alone. Multiculturalism is more than running around in a circle and declaring multiculturalism. 


In the issue of Newsweek that was dedicated to Obama, you mentioned the relations between the US and Europe as one of today’s problems. Do you think that they will improve during Obama’s term of office?

Europe is facing some interesting tasks. It is hard to hang on to the primitive and condescending attitude towards Americans as simple-minded cowboys when the opposite side has an intelligent and learned dark-skinned president.

Expecting the black president to be a liberal like us is also an example of simplified thinking. People forget that a black American is no less patriotic or religious than a white one. Americans have elected Obama to design politics that need not always be to the liking of the Europeans. 


Name: Toomas Hendrik Ilves
Year of birth: 1953
Favourite book: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
Favourite place: home (farm in Southern Estonia)
Favourite music: Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly
Source of inspiration: forest