The “Narva Paradox” and a Reality Check

Andrey Makarychev is a guest professor and Stefano Braghiroli a lecturer at the Institute of Government and Politics of the University of Tartu. They both teach in the European Union–Russia Studies master’s programme.

Brigita's love for Estonia

“This is how I love Estonia”, says Brigita Salkute, our master’s student from Lithuania. Image credit: Anette Parksepp

The annexation of Crimea and the military insurgency in Ukraine’s eastern provinces under the “Russian world” slogan triggered political and academic debates centred on the whole set of issues related to post-Soviet borderlands. Territories populated by Russian speakers and those culturally connected to Russia are obviously at the core of this debate. In this flammable context, the Estonian city of Narva has become one of the hottest points in heated discussions over the prospects of a new Cold War between Russia and the West.

According to Russian political analyst Andrey Piontkovsky, Narva turned into a double metaphor signifying both the remnants of Russian military glory and the Western passivity in containing Russia. In later polemics, Piontkovsky formulated “the Narva paradox” as “Putin’s ability by one single move to make the entire West face an unthinkable choice – humiliating capitulation and marginalization, or a nuclear war with someone who lives in a different reality”.

Of course, this is a highly hypothetical scenario, and there are many signs that both the EU and NATO keep a close eye on its probability. In this context it was highly symbolic that the military parade on the occasion of the Estonian Independence Day on 24 February 2015 was held with the participation of UK and US military personnel in Narva, only 300 metres from the Russian border. And it was largely accepted by city residents as an element of Estonian security policy.

Narva and Ivangorod

Narva on the left, Ivangorod on the right – lecturer Hector Pagan holds up the old Estonian 5-kroon banknote with the identical view. Image credit: Anette Parksepp.

Two weeks ago, fifteen of the European College students had the chance to visit Narva as part of the “EU borders: In & Out” methods school organised by the European Union–Russian Studies programme. The idea was to develop methodological skills and to apply them practically to the chameleonic concept of border. For many of us it was a perfect chance for a reality check through direct communication with local experts and community activists.

Of course, the “Narva paradox” is closely interconnected with the long story of Estonian–Russian border-related troubles that includes, among others, endless procrastination with regard to signing and ratifying the Border Treaty between the two countries and, recently, an incident involving an Estonian border guard officer who now faces espionage-related charges in Moscow. Yet the main aim of the research trip was not to talk geopolitics, but rather to get first-hand insights on the everyday life of the border city residents and better comprehend where they stand in the discordant situation between Russia and most of Europe.

The many meetings with journalists, activists, decision-makers, city planners, students, and local administrators highlighted numerous aspects of the changing reality of borders. What perhaps was not a matter of great concern in relatively secure times now becomes an important element of the “Narva paradox” – for example, the fact that over one-third of city dwellers are Russian citizens. It is exactly this kind of situation wherein the concepts of identity, allegiance, and loyalty bear not only cultural connotations, they certainly become political.

Andrey Makarychev and Stefano Braghiroli

Professor Andrey Makarychev (standing in the back) and lecturer Stefano Braghiroli in the field of study. Image credit: Anette Parksepp

In many respects this experience of direct contact with local people has gone far beyond the original objectives of this study trip. Elements of the sociological and anthropological research have triggered – in a sort of snowball effect – much broader implications for the students and the staff involved, as they have broadened our understanding of complexities in this borderland.

The picture we have seen during the field work and data-gathering was one of two diverse and even competing realities. On the one hand, many of our interlocutors defined themselves as Russian-Estonians, which for them didn’t imply any sympathies to the type of discourse the Kremlin tries to impose on them through intense media propaganda. Many of them seemed to be quite immune to the temptation of joining the “Russian world” politics as imagined by Moscow. Yet in the meantime we are aware that many Russian speakers in Narva – as well as all across Estonia and the other Baltic states – intentionally or unintentionally reproduce the arguments of Russian officialdom and thus openly sympathise with the Russian policy regarding Crimea’s annexation and the support for rebels in eastern Ukraine.

We have therefore seen different worlds and different people in one city. And we have seen two boundaries – one between Russia and Estonia (more specifically, between Narva and Ivangorod), and another within Narva itself, between groups that stick to quite dissimilar worldviews. The dark clouds of geopolitics on the horizon, of course, make these cleavages quite troublesome. This is why a reality check is so important for future professionals in policy analysis.


A drawing by a student of Narva Vanalinna State School. Image credit: Anette Parksepp

The spring school was supported by the Centre for EU–Russia Studies (CEURUS) and organised by the European College. You are welcome to check out our European Union–Russia Studies MA programme.

On the same topic: Why Narva is not next by University of Tartu Professor Andres Kasekamp.

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