In Search of an Estonian Narrative

Mari-Liisa Parder is a project manager at the Centre for Ethics at the University of Tartu.

In the shadowy summer evening of 15 August one hundred Estonians gathered together to discuss what the story or greater narrative of the future Estonia would be. We were all brought together by one question: “Towards which Estonia are we working?” This discussion concluded the first night of the two-day Festival of Opinion Culture (in Estonian: Arvamusfestival).

Why are Estonians looking for such a story? This topic has been at the centre of media attention since the spring of 2014, after the prime minister of Estonia declared that Estonia does not need a greater narrative. This statement triggered discussion on where Estonia is going and what is the greater aim for us as a free country.

The main organisers of the “In Search of an Estonian Narrative” discussion, volunteers Ruti Einpalu and myself, outlined that this discussion had two sides – strong proponents and critical opponents. Furthermore, in listening to both sides it emerges that they all tend to agree with the statement: “If we do not have our own story, we might discover that we are part of someone else’s story!”

So the aim of this discussion was to think as a group on how we are building our unity as a nation, and what are the combined values and the joint story that brings together Estonians all over the world. We were not looking for one story for all, but rather the unifying elements.

Festival of Opinion Culture in Estonia

Searching for an Estonian narrative in circles around bonfires. Image credit: Festival of Opinion Culture

One hundred people divided into eleven groups were sitting together around the bonfires, thinking and sharing their stories, thoughts, and values. Questions like: “What has made you happy recently?” and “What are the elements and values you would like to see in your Estonian narrative?” guided people both to their personal visions and group ideas. Here are some little glimpses of the stories that came into being:

Together we are bravely walking our own way, our heart’s way.

Songs of joy instead of songs of weeping. Estonia has walked out of the dark and scary woods of occupation and is now excited to see other people in Estonia.

Everyone should be taken with us to the future; no one can be left behind.

We wish to be free to live in our own way in the future. We think listening to each other is very important, because it widens our world and the feeling that we are not alone with our thoughts. We have already experienced this tonight.

When I meet you, my fellow Estonian, then I know you and you know me not as a representative of one nation, not as man nor woman, not as townsman nor countryman, but as a person.

I have longed for cooperation with you and you with me. Now I am no longer waiting for someone to do it for me. I am taking responsibility for myself and with you for our community.

[The future Estonia] is an Estonia where small things turn into big ones. We are noticing and prioritising little initiatives which, with our common sense, cleverness, and empathy, will turn into innovative actions shaping our environment and society in a sustainable and harmonised way.

The future Estonia is our state. Being Estonian is a feeling in your heart that you will recognise when you are together with your fellow people, such as it is during the Estonian Song Celebration.

Every person is a value.

We are responsible for writing our story of being Estonian. This is a story of how to keep our identity without being frozen in time but open to the world.

Being Estonian is a verb. Being Estonian is like being in a fan club.

Festival of Opinion Culture in Estonia

Over 4000 people held more than 150 discussions during the two festival days. Image credit: Festival of Opinion Culture

These glimpses of stories are not final ones, but they unite different kinds of personal stories that are thought and lived and shared. During that evening, all these little stories were brought together and all the participants have heard thoughts both similar and different from their own. Several participants said that they felt this same togetherness during this story session as they have felt during the Song Celebration (singing as one nation).

The discussion over an Estonian narrative or story will not end here, but will hopefully carry on in smaller groups, families, and communities. However, it is certain that the Festival of Opinion Culture will take place for the third time in the heart of Estonia and discussions over different aspects of our nation’s future will continue.

This year, the Festival of Opinion Culture was held for the second time. The aim of the festival is to provide an open platform for the discussion of society and culture, free of any political ambition. It is a cross-community, self-developing festival open to everyone. Alert and active people are welcomed to discuss issues important to them and to Estonia.

During the two days there were more than 150 discussions held, and more than 4000 people visited the festival. The programme was put together with the support of 80 different organisations and more than 100 volunteers. It was more than symbolical that the festival took place in Paide – the city that is considered to be the heart of Estonia because of its location in the centre of the country.

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