Integration through Education?
The Russian-Speaking Minority and Estonian Society

Kara Brown
Indiana University


This August marked the tenth anniversary of the Hirvepark meeting, one of the first steps towards Estonian independence. It was there that Estonians first demanded publication of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact's secret protocols. Three years later, Estonia achieved independence, and since that time Estonian society has undergone dramatic changes: a national currency was introduced, a new, democratic constitution was approved, Estonians elected a president and a parliament, the Russian army withdrew, and the government submitted Estonia's bid to become a member of the European Union. (1) These events not only are milestones in Estonia's transformation from communism and a planned economy to democracy and a free-market system, but also give stability, which helps to increase the population's sense of economic and political consistency amidst the many uncertainties of living in a newly independent state.

While the Hirvepark anniversary marks the many achievements of the Estonian government and people, it also reminds the Estonians of everything which has not changed in their country since they achieved independence. Among the legacies of the Soviet period which continue to jeopardize the population's physical and psychological well-being are environmental pollution and high rates of alcoholism and unemployment, especially in industrial areas. The Estonian government, in an attempt to insure the safety of its citizens and to institute greater control in areas which were previously ignored or unregulated, is aggressively attempting, with the help of international aid and ingenious planning, to solve these problems.

A more complex remnant from the Soviet period is the presence of more than 500,000 non-Estonians. As a result of the heavy migration of Russian-speakers from 1945 through 1989, this nation, which was 92 percent Estonian in 1939 (2) now has minorities constituting 36.1 percent of the total population. (3) Estonia was transformed from a mono-ethnic country before World War II to a multi-ethnic state by the end of the 1950s. Since independence, the Estonian government has referred to the legislation from the country's first period of independence as a "resource." In the face of such dramatic demographic changes, however, the government has had to forge its own legislation towards minorities. The legal problems associated with this realization of Estonia as a multi-ethnic state heightens the sense of vulnerability and confusion among non-Estonians and Estonians.

The achievement of Estonian independence in 1991 significantly altered not only the political, but also the personal lives of this country's Russian-speaking population. (4) These non-Estonians, who once occupied a privileged position in Soviet times, have had to reconsider their identity in post-Soviet, independent Estonia. (5) For many Russian-speakers, the insecurity and trepidation of living outside of Russia, in an environment which they perceived as hostile to non-Estonians, caused them to return quickly to their various homelands. From 1991 to 1994, over 70,000 (about 14 percent of Estonia's minority population) Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarussians emigrated from Estonia. (6)

Some Russian-speakers in Estonia, however, have come to identify more with their surrogate homeland in the Baltics than with the homeland of their parents. When given the opportunity to return to Russia, one young man claimed,

I am a Russian, but when I arrive in Russia I do not find that I belong there. I do not understand them. I do not accept their way of life, their views, even their relationships. It seems to me that everything is different here. I'm not judging anybody-whether it is good or bad-where it is better and where it is not. I am just speaking my feelings. I cannot say that I am returning to my homeland, Russia. I cannot say that. (7)

Decades of living in the Baltics have transformed these Russian-speakers into "Estonian-Russians". No longer are they similar to their ethnic counterparts across the border in Russia, Ukraine or Belarus, they have adopted new customs, different patterns of speech, and shifted their political alliances. Thus, these Russian-speakers have decided to stay and live in an independent Estonia.

For other Russian-speakers, economic factors influenced their decision to remain. With its low inflation rates, stable currency, and strong economic ties with Scandinavia, Estonia provides a safer environment in which to live, work, and raise a family than the uncertain conditions of Russia. In a recent poll conducted by Estonian sociologists, 82 percent of the Russian-speaking population agreed that Estonia offered a better opportunity to improve their living standard than Russia and 62 percent believed that the conditions "for people like me" were worse in Russia. (8) Despite the different reasons Russian-speakers have to remain in Estonia (e.g. social identity, economic conditions among others) they share a common desire to live in a stable political and social environment, where their rights as a minority group are observed.

Unfortunately for this Russian-speaking population, the current international and domestic political climate is complicating their adjustment to this newly independent Estonian homeland. The Russian government, disregarding the fact that Estonia's Russian speakers willingly have chosen to stay, has used the excuse of alleged minority-right infringements as justification for a possible armed invasion. Once in Estonia, these Russian troops would "secure" the rights of these Russian-speakers who live outside of their homeland. (9) This vow of "support", however, only aggravates attempts being made by the Russian speakers to solve their political problems independently and jeopardizes the development of healthy foreign relations between Estonia and Russia.

Estonia's vulnerable position as a "near-abroad" country undoubtedly influences domestic politics. Many Estonians continue to believe that Russia will invade Estonia again in the near future. This fear is heightened since the Russian government still considers Estonia to be within its jurisdiction, due to the presence of the country's large Russian minority. The loyalty of the Russian-speaking minority, if such an invasion were to occur, is questioned by Estonians. Klara Hallik, a member of the Estonian Academy of Sciences, noted in a recent article, " long as the status of Russia in the international security system remains uncertain, the role of the Russian ‘diaspora' will be difficult because it must choose to either be with us or them." (10)

The profile of the current Russian-speaking population, as opposed to the one five years ago, indicates that they have chosen to be with this Baltic country. A primary difference between the two is that the number of Russian-speakers has decreased due to emigration and lower birth-rates. Yet a reduced population does not lower any potential threat against Estonian independence unless those who remain favor a free and democratic Estonia. A 1994 poll of Russian-speakers in Estonia, conducted by "The Center of Sociological Research for Studying the Situation of Compatriots," a Moscow-based group, revealed that the priorities and attitudes of this population attest to their commitment to Estonia. The surveys showed that 93 percent of the Russian-speaking residents in Estonia will remain in Estonia, 58 percent are willing to completely adapt to local traditions and ways of life, and 72 percent identify themselves with Estonia rather than Russia. Additionally, 35 percent of those questioned had already attained Estonian citizenship, and 18 percent had begun the application process. (11)

The Estonian government is gradually recognizing this "new face" of the Russian-speaking minority population. The once restrictive citizenship and education legislation, which was passed during the heady political, social, and economic climate of 1992 and 1993, has been modified. The government's residual resentment and distrust of a population once perceived as "colonizers" is gradually dissipating. But, institutional instabilities continue to aggravate the process of incorporating the Russian-speakers into the body politic. Rapid political changes make it difficult for the Russian-speaking population to build alliances with politicians and to formulate realistic long-term plans. For example, in October 1995, a bugging scandal caused the resignation of the Estonian government and the formation of a new governmental coalition. As a result of this transfer of power, Russian-speaking politicians had to search for new governmental allies and to reintroduce their campaign for increased minority rights.

Some Important Events and Legislation Concerning Estonian Education 1987-1997
1987 Meeting of the first Congress of Estonian Teachers -
begins the restructuring of school curricula
1992 The Law on Education -
states the main goals of education
1993 The Law on Basic and Upper-Secondary Schools -
establishes upper secondary schools as the main structural units of upper secondary education
1993 Law on Cultural Autonomy for National Minorities -
gives minority groups the right to form and support educational institutions
1995 Law on Language -
establishes that the state language of Estonia is Estonian
1996 Estonian Basic and Middle School State Curricula -
unifies the curricula of Russian and Estonian schools
1997 Extension of the transition from Russian to Estonian instruction
in upper-secondary schools until 2007

Minority Education Policy

The current struggle between Russian-speaking minority groups and the Estonian government over the country's minority education policy has been played out on this stage of political uncertainty. In the past seven years, there have been nine ministers of education and culture, each with a different attitude towards the education of Estonia's minority groups. The most disputed policy is the 1993 Law on Basic & Upper Secondary Schools, which required that the language of instruction in all the state and municipal schools (10-12 grade) switch to Estonian by the year 2000. (12) Basic school education (1-9 grade), however, could continue to be conducted in either Russian or Estonian. This law was amended by the Estonian parliament on September 10, 1997, and the period of transition from Russian to Estonian instruction was extended to 2007. Minority communities have the right to establish upper secondary schools with instruction in a language other than Estonian (which is the only official state language) according to the Law on Cultural Autonomy for National Minorities (passed in September 1993).

Much debate surrounded this legislation until its amendment two months ago. Peeter Kreitzberg, a Tartu University professor of education and the 1995 Minister of Education, concluded that the Law on Basic & Upper Secondary Schools needed to be amended to provide enough time for an effective transition from Russian to Estonian education. In an interview, Dr. Kreitzberg announced that he would support government funding of Russian education past the year 2000, since Russian-speakers constitute such a large segment of Estonia's population. (13) Although Kreitzberg's stand on the education issue won him the support of many Russian-speakers in Estonia, there remained many Estonians who strongly disagreed with his position. For example, the former Minister of Education, Jaak Aavikso advocated the implementation of the law by the year 2000.

Since there was no consistent policy within the Ministry of Education and Culture towards minority education, the public was uncertain of how the law would be implemented. Most of the Tartu Russian school advisors had been certain that the transition from Russian to Estonian instruction would occur by the year 2000. They believed that schools were given enough time to prepare for the transition and that the process of integrating the Russian-speakers into Estonian society must begin immediately. But, Tiia Pedastaar and Larissa Vassiltshenko, co-authors of Estonian textbooks for Russian schools, did not believe that this transition would occur in the next four years as planned: this sentiment was also echoed by members of the Estonian Academy of Sciences in Tallinn and previous Ministers of Education and Culture. They were convinced that the government was not prepared monetarily or politically to enforce such a law. (14)

Although it is still too early to know what many of these people think about the recent amendment, there has been some reaction in the Estonian press. The former Minister of Education and Culture and cultural commission member, Paul-Erik Rummo, who thought that the transition to ‘Estonian-only' instruction by 2000 was not realistic, believes that by 2007 basic school students should have the linguistic skills to continue their education in Estonian. The leader of the Estonian Russian Party, Nikolai Maspanov, however, believes that by the year 2007 Estonia will have two state languages (Estonian and Russian), so this transition to Estonian-only education will not go into effect. (15)

Despite the uncertainties surrounding the future of the amended Law on Basic and Upper Secondary Schools, it has already had one definitive result: it has acted as a stimulus for the Russian-speaking population to organize and formulate their demands as a minority community. Education has become the critical rallying point for these Russian-speakers, with organization occurring on two different levels. The first-level consists of groups which have political aims and claim to represent the general interests of all Russian-speakers in Estonia, such as the Representative Assembly of the Russian Population based in Tallinn. These groups concentrate primarily on proposing government legislation and challenging laws which have already been passed. For example, it is the leader of the parliament's Russian fraction, Sergei Issakov, who has been working for the abrogation of the education law. For these first-level organizations, opposition to the education law falls within their much broader program of protest against what they believe to be the Estonian government's infringement of the rights of the Russian-speaking minority.

In addition to the centralized concerted efforts of Russian political groups, there is also a great variety of local action. This second-level of organization consists of informal groups of parents and teachers. The goal of these local participants is to create more opportunities for their sons and daughters in the education field, since most of the university classes are taught in Estonian, and to increase their children's chances for future employment. (16) While the energies of the first level groups are directed towards politicians, these people target the directors and teachers of the Russian schools. The latter's strategy is more intimate and has had more short-term, visible results.

The demands of these second level groups are characterized by their "win-win" nature. If the Estonian government decides to follow through with its decision to switch the language of education from Russian to Estonian in Russian-language schools by the year 2007, then these children, who are receiving this Estonian language training, will be more skilled than if they began learning Estonian at a later age. If the Estonian government decides that it will not enforce the Law on Basic and Upper Secondary Schools in 2007, then these students will be more prepared to enter the university and will be more competitive in the job market, where most workers need to have a relatively high command of the Estonian language. In either case, the introduction of an Estonian language program does not require the sacrifice of the school's Russian cultural environment - Russian holidays are still celebrated and Russian language courses will remain an integral part of the school program.

Thus, participants in this second level, while lacking the organization (i.e. there is no Tartu Parent-Teacher Association) that is typical of the more formal, representative groups from the first level, have had much success in implementing change in the Russian schools. By avoiding government gridlock and not waiting for the results of the efforts of the first sphere groups to filter down, these parents have become more self-reliant and goal-oriented. For example, the parents at two of the five Russian schools in Tartu have changed the curriculum by demanding that Estonian be taught from the first grade, instead of the third. (17) Other Russian speaking parents have opted to enroll their young children directly into Estonian or bilingual schools.

In addition to Russian-speaking parents, school teachers are integral members of this second level. Despite fifty years of subservience to the Central Ministry of Education in Moscow and working within a system that did not encourage alternative or innovative ideas, Russian and Estonian educators have discovered a variety of new ways to strengthen Estonian language and culture programs in Russian schools. Through these independently created language programs, some Russian schools are beginning to prepare their students for both future educational and professional opportunities, and for the transition to Estonian instruction.

Developing an effective Estonian language and culture program for Russian-speaking students is a challenging and complicated process. Since a students' language ability varies regionally, curriculum must vary accordingly. Estonia's Russian-speaking population can be divided into three regional categories: rural and island populations, where they constitute a minority, urban populations ( as Tallinn, Tartu or Pärnu) where they represent 15-50 percent of the city's inhabitants, and urban populations in mostly ‘Russian' cities (like in Kohtla-Järve, Sillamäe, and Narva) where Russian speakers are 60 percent or more of the total city population. (18)

Carefully tailored language-reform programs have been developed that take into consideration these three regions' possibilities and limitations. The ‘immersion' model, which places Russian-speaking students side-by-side with Estonians, is being used out of necessity in rural areas, where there are not many Russian-speakers, and by choice in larger cities. The ‘immersion' model is currently being tested in Tallinn's 13th Middle School where a whole 10th grade class of Russian students is studying with Estonian pupils. The concept for this ‘immersion' program stemmed from the Pedagogical Collective, a group of Estonian and Russian teachers who noticed that the Russian-speaking students attending their after-school Estonian language courses showed a genuine interest in the language. In response, the Collective decided to help the Russian students from the higher classes, who were serious about being integrated into Estonian society, by allotting another 10th grade class for them in the Estonian school. Last year the applications were competitive and over one hundred students from all over Northern Estonia vied for thirty-five spots. (19)

The ‘immersion' model cannot be applied in all regions of Estonia. But it is feasible for this area in Tallinn because students have a strong base in Estonian and there is a nearby school willing to cooperate with the integration idea. The success or failure of this particular model deserves special attention since it anticipates what the Estonian Ministry of Education and Culture wants to accomplish by 2007 -- namely that all instruction be in Estonian. It is important to remember, however, that the participants in this ‘immersion' experiment are different from the general Russian-speaking student body since they have chosen to be in this school, are all quite intelligent, and are motivated to learn Estonian.

The ‘intensive mixed' program consists of rigorous Estonian classes in a Russian school. This model utilizes intensive literature, history, culture, and language classes to educate Russian-speaking students about Estonia and to prepare them for higher education in Estonian. (20) This course begins in the first or second grade with basic courses in language and culture. As the student progresses to higher grades, the number of courses taught in Estonian increases and the student can decide which subjects he/she would like to take in Estonian. By graduation time, students should be able to pass the state language exam. (21) This model is currently being used in both Tartu and Tallinn.

The benefits of this model are that Russian-speaking students receive a basic and upper secondary education in both Estonian and Russian. In turn, this allows them to continue their studies at the university level, without sacrificing their Russian cultural education. The drawback of this program, however, is that it depends on close ties with nearby universities for professional Estonian teachers. Therefore, the program is limited to university cities and cannot be easily implemented in many areas of the country.

The ‘soft mixed' program introduces Estonian language and culture at a more gradual pace. This approach is especially useful in the northeastern areas of Estonia, as in Narva, Sillamäe, and Kohtla-Järve, where Russian speakers represent 60 to 96 percent of the population. The possibilities for a more intensive immersion programs in these cities is limited by the lack an Estonian language environment and the deficit of Estonian teachers. The emphasis of the ‘soft mixed' is on slowly building the student's Estonian vocabulary, developing a strong Estonian grammar base, and familiarizing students with Estonian culture. Estonian textbooks introduce geography, history, and other subjects specifically related to Estonia. As with the ‘intensive mixed' model, all the textbooks dealing with Russian language, literature and culture remain in Russian, and the Russian national culture is preserved and protected. (22)

There are few other areas in Estonia, besides the northeast region, in which this model needs to be applied, especially since the Estonian language and culture program, in comparison to other models, is much less intensive. Yet given the region's economic restrictions and lack of human resources, this model is the most suitable. Considering the region's social and linguistic division from the rest of Estonia, the success of this language program is critical and should be vigilantly monitored.

The announcement of the 1993 Law on Basic and Upper Secondary Schools acted as a stimulus not only for curriculum reform organized by Russian-speaking parents and teachers, but also for the creation of new Estonian teaching materials. Soviet textbooks for learning Estonian as a foreign language already existed, but by 1992, this material replete with references to payment in rubles and odes to Lenin seemed outdated. The experimental Kodulugu, prepared by two Tartu University professors of pedagogy, Tiia Pedastaar and Larissa Vassiltšenko, is among the most successful new Estonian language textbooks of the past few years. The approach and style of Kodulugu differs greatly from Soviet materials. The authors created a more conversation-oriented book which uses Estonian traditions and customs as topic of discussion and as a basis of target vocabulary lists. Use of this textbook creates the possibility of teaching some of the youngest members of Estonia's Russian speaking population more about Estonian traditions, holidays and practices.

While parents and educators have displayed commitment and creativity, the Estonian government has done little to make the transition from Russian to Estonian education more practicable. For example, the government has yet to allocate any significant funds for the creation of new Estonian texts or to teacher-training programs. It is unclear whether the government's inaction reflects a lack of interest in Estonian language education or belied hostility towards this law. But this fiscal stalemate is inimical to a transition of the Russian schools to Estonian education, whether the transition stems from law or the choice of the Russian-speaking community.

The lack of funding, both for the creation of new Estonian texts to be used in the Russian schools and for their distribution and use in the schools, will cripple the current creative efforts of authors attempting to draft new Estonian texts for the Russian schools. When I interviewed the two authors of Kodulugu in October 1995, they were still uncertain about monetary support for their next textbook - the fourth in a planned series of ten books to span the first through ninth grades. Their first three books have all been funded by foreign sources: the Swedish government, the Soros foundation, and the United States Information Agency (U.S.I.A.). (23)

The devastatingly low teacher salaries and the lack of funding for teacher training programs are also quite serious. Currently there exist only three teacher training colleges in Estonia (in Tartu, Tallinn, and Narva) and these institutions repeatedly fail to attract or graduate enough Estonian teachers for Russian schools. With the grammar school teacher's average monthly wage at only 2330 kroons (about $175), many people are simply not attracted to the teaching profession. (24) Consequently, only 5% of the staff teaching Estonian in the Russian schools has had higher professional pedagogical education in Estonian as a Foreign Language (EFL). (25) If an effective transition from Russian to Estonian education is to occur within ten years, Estonian-speaking Russians or native Estonian speakers will have to replace these inadequately trained language teachers. As of now, this process has yet to begin.

The Estonian government must defray the cost of these transitions if it is seriously committed to an effective program of Estonian-only education in the Russian upper secondary schools, and to the long term integration of this Russian-speaking population into Estonian society. Currently, the parents of school children who are learning Estonian before the third grade are paying for this instruction themselves. Most parents, however, cannot afford to continue these payments. The consequences of the Estonian government's continued lack of funding could be quite severe, especially if it stunts the development of a Russian-speaking community which is dedicated to their children's early education in Estonian language and culture.

By investing in experimental Estonian textbooks and teacher programs, the Estonian government will gain many benefits: more Russian speakers will learn Estonian and communication between the Estonians and the Russians will increase. If the Estonian government wants their country to become a member of the European Union and to have a loyal Russian-speaking population there is no room for exclusion.


1. Estonia's currency, the kroon, was introduced on June 20, 1992, the Estonian constitution was approved on June 28, 1992, the first parliamentary and presidential elections occurred on September 20, 1992, the last of the Russian troops withdrew on August 31, 1994, and the Estonian government submitted its bid to become a member of the European Union in December, 1995.

2. Rein Taagepera, Estonia: Return to Independence, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993), 233. 3.

3. Eesti Statsistika, no. 8(1997), 20.

4. The term ‘Russian-speaking' refers not only to ethnic Russians, but also other minority groups, for example Ukrainians and Belarussians, who use Russian as their language of communication, but are not ethnically Russian.

5. These Russian-speaking immigrants were given priority for state-owned housing and were never required to learn Estonian since they already spoke the state language.

6. The Estonian Institute, "Ethnic Issues in Estonia," (Estonia: The Estonian Institute, Oct. 1995), 1.

7. Dreams of a Homeland (Eesti Film, 1994).

8. Richard Rose and William Maely, Nationalities in the Baltic States: A Survey Guide, Studies in Public Policy, 22( Glasgow: University of Strathclyde, 1994), 28.

9. "Russian Plan for Invasion of the Baltic States," The Baltic Independent 27 Oct.- 2 Nov., 1995, 2.

10. Klara Hallik, "Ethnic Relations in Estonia and What They Mean for the World," Demokratizatsiya (1995), 640.

11. Kalle Altau, "Estonia's Russians Willing to Integrate, Says Moscow Report," The Baltic Independent 21-27 July 1995, 6.

12. Legal Acts of Estonia (Unofficial Translations from ‘Riigi Teataja') 9, 7 Nov. 1995, 287.

13. Galina Panchenko, "Ministr - Za Integratsiyu (Minister for Integration)," Estoniia 29 May 1995, 8.

14. Aksel and Maarika Kirch and Taimo Tamm, members of the Estonian Academy of Sciences, personal interview, October 22, 1995. Dr. Väino Rajangu, former Estonian Minister of Education and Culture, now a professor at Tallinn Technical University, personal interview, November 17, 1995.

15. Villu Päärt, "Uleminek eestikeelsele keskharidusele lükkus edasi," Postimees, 12 Sept. 1997, 3.

16. My city of reference for these observations is Tartu, where I lived and researched the Russian-speaking population in 1995-1996. This type of effective parent-directed demand may be occurring in other cities as well, such as Tallinn. I, however, am only familiar with the decisions made by the Tartu parents.

17. The introduction of an Estonian language program in Russian schools by third grade is required by the 1993 Estonian Educational Law.

18. Regions based on categories proposed by Kaupo Suviste in "Venekeelse hariduse tume tulevik," Postimees, 18 June 1997, 9.

19. One of the requirements for application was that students have only fours equivalent to a ‘B' grade in America) on their report cards. Liudmila Poliakova, "Russkii Klass v Estonskoi Shkole," Estoniia, 30 April 1996, 5.

20. "Vene kool otsib lahendusi," Õpetajate Leht (Web edition) 8 March 1996.

21. Liudmila Poliakova, "Pered Vyborom," Estoniia, 26 May 1994, 3.

22. Larissa Vassiltšenko, "S Chem Vyidem Ha ‘Bol'shoi Pedagogicheskii Sovet'?" Estoniia, 19 May 1995, 4.

23. Drs. Tiia Pedastaar and Larissa Vassiltšenko, personal interview, October 17, 1995.

24. "Peaminister ja haridusminister austasid Eesti parimaid õpetajaid," Sõnumileht, 6 Oct. 1997, 3.

25. Larissa Vassiltšenko, "Vene õppekeelega kool Eestimaal," (Tartu, 1995, photocopied), 2.