Are We Worth Saving?

Martin Noorkõiv, a fresh bachelor of economics, is the head of the University of Tartu Student Council. This is the English version of Martin’s speech at the opening ceremony of the new 2014/2015 academic year  at the University of Tartu.

Martin Noorkõiv

Martin Noorkõiv: “It’s up to us whether Estonia is worth protecting. It’s our business to build such a country where there is world-class activity going on in all kinds of fields”. Image credit: Andres Tennus

Dear Rector, Mayor, Governor! Dear students and the entire academic family!

Please raise your hands if you have read a Harry Potter book or watched a Harry Potter movie (most hands raised). Nice, I have too. I have read all the books – the first one seven times, the second six times, the third five times, etc. When a new book came out, I always had to return to the previous ones first…

My favorite character was Dumbledore. Some of my favorite parts of the books were the speeches by Dumbledore, especially the ones given at the beginning of a new school year. I always wished that the real-life beginnings of school years would be as exciting as the ones in the books: the principal would stand up and warn everyone against entering the third floor, as one could get killed there… or a really dangerous criminal had just escaped prison and now dementors were guarding the schoolhouse. It would have been much more thrilling.

Today I have prepared a speech just like that, the kind of speech that I would have wanted to hear all these years. But today, knowing the content, I don’t want it anymore.

Instead, I wish I could talk about how to take maximum advantage of the time spent at university: how to study the night before a test, meet the most awesome people in the world, find a boyfriend or a girlfriend, join some student societies… Today I’d much rather talk about how the university days just might the best days of our lives.

But alas, I cannot. Unfortunately, we live in a different world. This is a world where Putin’s Russia has started invading Ukraine and a similar danger is threatening all the other former Soviet countries, including us. By now, over 100,000 people have had to leave their homes in Eastern Ukraine. This number is comparable to the population of Tartu. 2,600 persons have been killed in their own homes in Ukrainian territory in a war that has not even been declared, with weapons that aren’t even supposed to exist, by thousands of Russian soldiers that just accidentally happened to spend their “vacations” in the area. And if they never return from the vacation, they never existed, too, in spite of their mothers’, wives’, and small children’s grief.

And all of this is not happening in some faraway village in Africa – it’s going on just nearby. It takes just a couple of hours to fly there.

As humans, we have a natural tendency to avoid unpleasant topics, let alone those of which we’re not quite sure. However, as a country and as a nation, we simply cannot go on denying the topic. We simply cannot go on with our everyday life as if nothing had happened. We cannot just arrive at the new school year opening ceremony, wear our best clothes, sing nice songs, and happily begin with the new school year.

Many of you would probably like me to stop addressing this topic right now. I can understand. Nobody should think that it’s easy to talk about it, not even for a second. But we must not stop talking about it, no matter how unpleasant it is. Bringing panic is not the goal. We don’t need fear. We need strength and willingness to do something about it. To accomplish something. As long as we are able to.

Since the election of the new Prime Minister, many have started looking for a new narrative for Estonia. In my opinion, it’s actually really simple. In fact, we have a single question: how to achieve that Estonia which would be worth protecting − not that we are just ready to accept NATO troops, not just protected according to an agreement, but substantially and unquestionably worth it. And not just for us but for the whole world. For the people who might have to choose between our freedom and their well-being. For the average American citizen. Because the US cannot fight ten wars at the same time. It’s getting clearer and clearer that the number of war hotbeds in the world is growing, not decreasing. It’s only a matter of time until the US has to enter Iraq again. At the same time, there are new conflicts springing up all around the world, distant and seemingly irrelevant to us, but with key importance to the global situation.

The moment when we are in real need of NATO’s help is very likely to coincide with the moment when there are a million reasons why NATO cannot help us. And at just this moment the question is not exclusively about troops and agreements, but just if we are worth saving. Are we worth saving… The only thing that matters at this moment is the realisation the Western world has to arrive at – the answer to the question as to where the last borderline resides from which Western civilisation is endangered enough that money and well-being are no longer crucial, because it is about the survival of the entire civilisation. Is Estonia a genuine part of this civilisation? Is the loss of our country unacceptable to the Western population?

I have to be honest: I don’t believe that it is that way right now. But I’m 100% sure that it’s accomplishable and that it’s something toward which you, the students, researchers and lecturers of the University of Tartu, should put the greatest contribution.

Most of you have probably heard someone say or write that there has never been a war between two countries when both have McDonald’s. Although it is just a myth, I still believe that there is quite an important grain of truth there. People care about things they care about. Let’s not expect from others such idealism that we would not be able to find in ourselves. The people who’ll finally determine our destiny are the same kind of people as you or me – with their quirks, fears, and darlings. Let me tell you about darlings. It’s one thing to protect a nice country, but it’s a whole other thing to protect a nice country which is the home country of my favorite singer or writer or which happen to be the place where I spent my wedding anniversary. What I’m trying to say is that if, for example, Bill Gates lived and worked in Tartu or Lady Gaga was of Estonian heritage, there would be a much greater likelihood that the American public would support US military protection of the Baltic countries.

But on whom does it depend that globally important people would come from Estonia or live here? Who is responsible for world-class music, films, architecture, business or science being made here? Who is responsible for more Arvo Pärts, Skypes, or Kerli Kõivs?

We all know the answer: it is we. It depends on us.

It’s up to us whether Estonia is worth protecting. It’s our business to build such a country where there is world-class activity going on in all kinds of fields.

That’s why we created the BE MORE list of principles with the Student Council last year. The ideology in this concept is that the true student is not the one who tries somehow to get by, all the while contributing as little as possible and just slurping down beer on Rüütli Street, but the one who is giving all to become the best possible version of himself or herself.

By today, the call has picked up a whole new meaning. Now, it’s not only a personally important thing. It might be the best guarantee of our freedom.

This is my message for us. It is something each of us can do, facing these dangers – to be more! To put all of our time, every last breath into it. Not to rest on our laurels, not as a state, as a society, or as a single student at the University of Tartu. To find ways to evolve, to become a little better with each day, thus making Estonia a little better, more beautiful, smarter, and more valuable to the world as well.

We live in scary times. We live in a scary world. But we are brave. We have built up our country. We have joined NATO and the European Union. And today we are here, between these pillars that are drenched with history, ready to face these dangers, to fight for this country and this freedom that we have achieved with such hardship. We are ready for it. Thank you.

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