To Be Estonian – It Sucks! Or not?

Even if you  live in Estonia, follow local news, or know some Estonians personally, it might still come to you as a surprise. The misery of being an Estonian is a well-kept secret, or an insider joke strictly reserved for those affected. Well, no longer, as a parody video featuring Estonian actors Märt Avandi and Ott Sepp, produced by a creative team of four of our graduates in political science – Tõnis Leht, Kaaren Kaer, Andres Korberg and Erik Moora – has been equipped with English subtitles (click on ‘CC’ below the video to enable captions):

This parody of Estonian moaning and self-pity, serving as a handy introduction to Estonian history, was shown on national television on New Year’s Eve as one in a series of  seven sketches. The Estonian daily Postimees evaluated the fun-making highly by giving the creative team of the series, Tujurikkujad (‘Mood Spoilers’), the Cultural Engine of the Year award.

While the actors in the team are mostly in it for fun, the rest of the ‘Mood Spoilers’ see value in tackling social and political problems as an essential part of the endeavour. Vello Pettai, UT Professor of Comparative Politics, spotted this critical spirit of the ‘true student souls’ and their work immediately: “In my view, the novelty of these guys lies in creating a crossfire of our history, politics, and national character”.

According to Erik Moora, the parody was born out of extensive coverage of suffering and bad times in Estonian society. The initial idea was to create a park of suffering, showcasing every sorrow that hit Estonia throughout history. Only later was a song preferred as the format. Märt Avandi revealed that they were hoping for the best Estonian music video nomination, too.

And, after all, isn’t it fully justified to complain during the Estonian winter?

We have no sun and anyway it wouldn’t shine!
Our misery is greater than the whole world combined!!!

Read what a sociologist, cultural psychologist, semiotician and international exchange student at the University of Tartu think about the “Endure It All!” video (Please add your point of view in the comments!):

Mare Ainsaar, sociologist, Senior Researcher at the Institute of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Tartu:

My first idea in writing this short comment was that this clip is not perhaps for foreigners! Estonians are not the only nation who likes heavily to criticise everything, including itself; however, the privilege of criticism is reserved only for local people. Moreover, they enjoy this even on New Year’s Eve. “Endure It All!” was prepared as an Estonian New Year’s Eve highlight and as the most loved and longed for broadcast on national TV channel. This fact hints at the second important point related to the clip: Do not take the words “To be Estonian – it sucks!” too seriously, unless you are currently surrounded by very depressive Estonians. This is the Estonian way of saying “Happy New Year!”

And finally, the self-ironic media clip on how Estonian self-consciousness is related to a miserable past − which becomes even more miserable the more we dig into our ‘dark destiny’ − might provide good hints to many current and historical events in little Estonia. Find out more about numerous keywords mentioned in the song and you will know more!

After learning more, you might realise that in that small country you can find surprisingly different interpretations.

And, as a matter of fact, in 2012 people in Estonia were 3% happier than ten years ago.

Anu Realo, psychologist, Academy Research Professor at the Department of Psychology, University of Tartu:

It is somewhat sad that 25 years later, when all Estonians were singing in unison that “Eestlane olla on uhke ja hää” (It is proud and good to be an Estonian), the nation is united again by another song in which the underlying message emphasises completely the opposite − namely, how bad it is to be an Estonian.

The sketch is meant to be a joke, and parts of it made me laugh out loud, but isn’t there a kernel of truth behind every joke? I think the sketch captures very well the myth of eternal suffering and self-deprecation which both seem to have become essential parts of the nation’s self-image.

One might hope that the sketch would open Estonians’ eyes to see how unfounded (if not ridiculous) it is to whine about life and people in Estonia all the time, the latter sentiment often being expressed not only by lay people but by the Estonian mass media as well. However, when reading the comments posted on YouTube, the sketch seems to have simply established the negative self-stereotype of Estonians even on much more solid grounds. As stated in one of the comments on YouTube, “Sometimes I seem to forget how bad it is to be an Estonian, so I come and listen to this song and I realise again how bad indeed it is to be an Estonian”. And, as far as I see it, this is not meant to be a joke at all.

Natalia Hoffman, an independent researcher into the visual communication of Estonia and an exchange MA student in Tartu from Aarhus University, Denmark, during autumn semester 2012:

Hilarious – haha! – but true. It is true in that contemporary Estonian art favours a tendency to be self-deprecating. Take, for example, last year’s exhibition at the Art Museum in Tartu entitled “HUH! PFUI! YUCK! AHA! WOW! The Classics of Estonian Contemporary Art”. It featured works from the 1990s accommodated in three exhibition rooms. The first room was dedicated to shit trapped in jars collected over a period of one month. In the second room videos featuring the Estonian nation were screened with a voice-over lamenting that Estonia is a sad country, a source of immigrants and cheap labourers, who speak English with a heavy accent. I can’t recall the content of the third room, as what I saw in the first two distracted me significantly.

Yes, I get that below the superficial layer of deprecating self-consciousness in those works lies the more serious one, which is really a commentary on the wider social context  of the confusing 1990s, as well as a reproof of the ignorance and insensitivity of other nations towards Estonians.

The parody song “To Be Estonian – It Sucks!” repeats the message. But at the same time it brings the feelings (as represented in the art exhibition) of the past 20 years to the present-day context and overturns them, mocking the self-pity and self-deprecation which were relevant twenty years ago, but are just too much now. And so on one hand this parody establishes a dialogue between this and the past generations in Estonian art, and on the other it takes it a step further and sings louder in its own singing revolution of 2012.

Andrew Smith, an international exchange student at UT from the Arkansas State University, USA, majoring in Biology:

This song appears to be a simple parody at first, but as the song continues, its depth is revealed. It starts out slow but as it picks up steam the song takes us through the bloody Estonian history with impressive lyrics and visuals. I actually had to watch the video several times just so I could devote enough time to really appreciate the lyrics and visuals separately.

The phrase “it sucks to be Estonian” (translated, of course) seems to be a phrase that many Estonians identify with. Their lives are still burdened by centuries of bloodshed and oppression, which fuels a sense of pride in the strength of their country and its culture. These serious messages are lightened by the perfectly timed gesture or lyrical humor, perhaps as a way of coping or perhaps to show to the rest of us that these problems are not weighing them down too much. The songs popularity shows that these themes are not simply jokes, but are outlets for the Estonian people to identify with and take solace in.

As an American, an outsider, and a lover of Estonia, this song has left an impression of a very deep people, reserving their true expression for those interested enough to listen. I was interested in Estonian culture before this song, but now I see it as a necessity to fully understand its past before I can truly know its present.

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