Point of View: Learning to ride the cultural fence

By Lela Atwood

Upon having tea with a good friend of mine one evening this semester, something hit me. Having friends from other countries can affect one’s view on international conflicts.

Here’s what happened.

During our course of our cookie nibbling, I started telling her about the wonderful times I had with my Estonian friends. I had met them while studying abroad in Voronezh, Russia, last fall and found their company lively and invigorating.

We had explored secondhand shops together, looking at funky earring collections.

We had gone to cafes, sung songs and visited classes at the main university, forcing ourselves to mesh with the Russian students around us. I even learned “tere,” the Estonian word for “hello.”

On the evening I was to depart from Voronezh, three of the Estonians met me at the station to bid me goodbye and to present me with a gift: a little key-shaped folk instrument called a “Jew’s harp” that they had often used to accompany their guitar playing.

I was delighted, for I had found their instrument quite exotic and interesting. So one can imagine the dismay I felt when I heard my tea-sipping friend’s reply.

“I don’t really like Estonians,” she said.

In some ways I understand why my friend looks at the Estonian nation with a suspicious eye.

Once a republic of the USSR, some Estonians have gone out of their way to remove any reminder of their Soviet past and to discourage any Soviet demonstrations by Russian residents, an act that is considered contrary to the interests of the republic.

In 2007, these sentiments lead to the relocation of a bronze monument memorializing Soviet soldiers. Originally standing in the city center of Talliin, thecapital of Estonia, it was relocated to a military cemetery.

The original site of the monument was made into a flower garden, triggering protests and riots from some of the Russians who live in Estonia.

Even in fall of 2010, my Russian host mother still harbored resentful feelings about this incident and looked upon my Estonian friends with a distrusting eye.

She was the one who empathetically introduced me to the monument story, a sad symbol of cultural misunderstanding.

Some Russians saw the move as a sick act of marginalization against the very soldiers who died protecting Estonian soil.

After all, during World War II Estonia, a small independent country became entrapped within a deadly game of tug-of-war between Nazi and Soviet forces.

In 1944, Soviet forces prevailed and swiftly began relocating people and implementing collective forms across the country. I believe that in my host mother’s eyes, the Soviets heroically defended Estonia against the Nazis.

Upon inquiring about the situation with one of my Estonian friends, however, I heard a slightly different perspective.

To her, the monument symbolized a painful past, a time of repression. She told me that most Estonians taken pride in their independence, their unique language, cultural songs and traditions.

In her eyes, the Soviets barged into Estonia promising to defend them from the Nazis but refused to leave after the Nazis fled.

To make matters worse, the Soviets relocated many Estonians and barred those that remained from practicing any aspect of their native culture.

As much as I love Russian culture (just ask my friends whom I teach random Russian words to), I naturally sympathize with the Estonians, the underdog country that was forced into many years of occupation until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

My tea friend loves Russia like I do, yet she has never had an Estonian friend.

She has most likely only heard the Russian side of the story. But when it all comes down to it, none of us has the adequate knowledge to choose sides.

We are not only geographically far from both these countries. We have little knowledge of the deep cultural nuances at work.

I feel like all we can do, as third-party bystanders, is to respectfully listen to both sides and humbly be open to what they have to say.

Lela Atwood is a senior journalism major from Garland and a contributor for the Lariat.