The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn serves as a continual reminder of Estonia's Russian occupation, with some locals calling for its demolition. Photo by Beau Swierstra / Unsplash

Lydia and the Vlads

An Estonian’s changing relationship with Russia.

Robin Ashenden
Robin Ashenden
11 min read

When I lived in the Estonian capital of Tallinn in the mid-’90s, I worked at a university called Eesti Humanitaarinstituut (the “Estonian Institute of Humanities”). This was the Estonian version of a Dream Academy, a place run on a shoestring in an old suburban Soviet building, to which all the country’s leading specialists, it seemed, lent a hand. One of the main aims of EHI (as we called it) was to strip out old Soviet methods of teaching: students had the “correct” meanings of texts imposed on them by their teachers, and were expected to reproduce them faithfully to secure a grade 5 (an A) in the exam. EHI’s plan was to return power to the undergraduates themselves, putting the onus on them to develop their own ideas and refine their own arguments. Independence, the new Estonian national narrative, was to be sought on a personal level too.

This was during the heady period in Estonia between the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the country’s accession to the EU in 2004. Estonia had been through a half-century of Russian occupation, absorbed into the USSR in 1940 with a mixture of diplomatic manoeuvring, blackmail, and sheer terrorism after the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact the previous year had placed the Baltic States within Stalin’s “sphere of influence.” In 1941, at least 10,000 Estonians were deported to Siberia and thousands were executed; in 1949, another 20,000 followed. This was, among other things, part of a deliberate Russification process in the Baltic States. Before the war, the Russian population at Estonia had stood at about eight percent. Over the post-war decades, it would nearly quadruple.

Under reforming Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s, Estonians finally rebelled with a “Singing Revolution.” Over numerous concerts, they affirmed their nationhood through the mass-performance of forbidden national songs (300,000 attended in 1988, almost a quarter of the nation). The following year, two million people joined hands across all three Baltics States—Latvia and Lithuania had been through similar Soviet post-war occupations. As the USSR collapsed in 1991, Estonia declared its independence, picking up its history as a self-governing nation, which began in 1918 and ended with the Second World War.

The Estonians were ready to hit the ground running—ground that finally, irrefutably, belonged to them once more. It was the fulfilment of a 50-year dream so many had thought would never come to pass. Yet for the Russian minority, about 300,000 of them, the collapse of the USSR was a calamity. Cut off overnight from the Kremlin, they’d been turned from overlords into an abandoned rump, suddenly at the mercy of a new Estonian government. Many muttered about the “good old days,” arguing that Estonia was too tiny to survive on its own and that it was never meant to be an independent country. It was possible to sympathise with their diminished status—loss is loss—while remaining supportive of Estonia’s newfound independence.

As for the Estonians, there was now an immense energy in the air—a great “yes” to anything new and unfamiliar and an instinctive hostility to the red tape and bureaucracy that had proliferated under communism (and would return, in very different form, under the EU). Banned books and films were suddenly available and banned thoughts could now be expressed—there was a palpable hunger to catch up. This meant opportunities for anyone with an idea. And so, clutching my bachelor’s degree in English, I proposed an EHI course on 20th century literature. They eagerly accepted, and soon I was standing behind a desk teaching young Estonians about Auden, Jean Rhys, and Evelyn Waugh.

One of the outstanding students at EHI was a young woman named Lydia, who was taking a degree in East Asian studies. Lydia wasn’t someone who did anything half-heartedly. At the age of 18, she’d hurled herself into a marriage with Ülo, an older jazz-musician, against the wishes of almost everyone around her, and she approached her degree with the same zeal. Her absorption seemed to be total, whether she was scribbling out Chinese characters in black fountain pen or telling me with hypnotic clarity about Japanese philosophy and culture. Despite her marriage to Ülo, she dreamed of emigrating to East Asia, whatever the cost. She knew she wasn’t happy in Estonia.

For all her erudition, Lydia had never once left her country, and this tiny environment, where everyone seemed to be someone else’s cousin (or to know someone’s cousin) was the only one she knew. She found it, she told me in spidery-handwritten essays, incredibly claustrophobic (she still saw the people who’d bullied her at school all the time, even though she was 23), and she was convinced that a move to a big Eastern metropolis was the answer.

But it wasn’t her fellow Estonians with whom Lydia found it most difficult to live. It was the Russian minority, and from her I got the purest articulation of Estonian resentment about it. The two cultures, she said, were totally incompatible, even antithetical. While Estonians were reticent and peace-loving, tuned into silence and solitude, the group-minded, roistering Russians were “like a pack of dogs, they don’t respect our culture at all.” Lydia told me a story of being screeched at by a Russian woman during the Soviet era for not sitting up straight in the tram. “Do you think, comrade,” the woman barked, “that that’s really a suitable way to sit on Soviet transport?” Lydia was still angry about it. “Can you imagine what it’s like being shouted at like that in your own country? By an outsider?”

On another occasion, Lydia demanded to know why was I so into Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Didn’t I know there was something fundamentally unsavoury, something just wrong, about Russian culture however “great” it supposedly was? Her hatred was bracingly honest, but it was still hatred, and as someone with Russian friends I found it hard to take. She called me naïve—a “blue eyed Westerner”—and I responded that her blanket prejudice was just as unsophisticated. The Soviet Union had ended, and Russia’s economy was in tatters. The country was now run by Boris Yeltsin, a fat, flailing drunk. In 1997, it was almost impossible to imagine that vast nation lumbering to its feet once more. Surely Estonia’s independence was safe?

That was 25 years ago. In the meantime, I left Estonia, Lydia achieved her dream of moving East, and we lost touch for a while. In the intervening years there had been a slow but steady convergence between ethnic Russians and Estonians in the country. State policy meant Russians wanting citizenship were required by law to learn the national language, and this had paid off. There were new friendships, intermarriages, and as the Soviet Union receded and Estonia grew more prosperous, the bad blood between the two communities had started to evaporate.

Who wanted to pick the scab? Only the new Putin-led Kremlin it seemed, which allegedly underwrote the full-scale riots that erupted in Tallinn in 2007 (one dead, dozens injured) after the Estonians moved a Soviet war memorial out of the centre of town. It was a worrying echo of the past—Russian chauvinism resurgent, meddling in Estonian affairs—but not enough to destroy the goodwill slowly building between the two communities. The apartheid of the 1990s largely seemed to be over: nobody wanted it back.

A few years later, Lydia re-entered my life when she moved to Britain and married an English friend. At the reception, a toast was drunk to Mikhail Gorbachev, the reforming Soviet premier who had made their meeting possible. But how did Lydia feel about drinking a toast to a Soviet, Russian politician? Smiling and a little drunk on wedding champagne, she replied that she had “lost the certainties” of her youth. We left it at that.

It’s only now, in 2022, as Estonia frantically tries to protect itself from the possibility of invasion with bomb shelters, evacuation plans, and private citizens’ militias following Russia’s attack on Ukraine, that I really want to find out what she meant. How does she—an erstwhile Russophobe who’s seen her worst fears borne out—feel about them now? The story she tells me is, in its typically candid Estonian way, rather revealing.

The game-changer, she explains, was living abroad in Tokyo. It was there that her certainties had begun to crumble. As she moved through the expat community in Japan, occasionally meeting émigrés from Moscow or St. Petersburg, she realised they were quite different from the Russians she had known back home. These were educated, well-travelled Russians—“cultured, civilised global nomads,” she called them—who couldn’t be more different from the Russians Lydia had lived with before. “Not having to deal with the shouty ones on a daily basis,” Lydia began to feel lucky to have met them here, and to see the positives of Russian culture: “The arts, the ballet, the music and literature.” They shared, she realised, a culture: there were Soviet states of life, Soviet assumptions, and Soviet jokes that connected them, so far away from home, and gave them an instant shorthand with each other.

And she acknowledges today, after 10 or so years of living in the UK and seeing the remnants of a class system in action, that there had been a class element at play too. “The Russians we saw in Estonia were factory workers, miners, labourers—often randomly moved into administrative positions just because of the party alliance. So, not only was it the case that a completely different culture was being forcefully superimposed on a pre-existing one, but for largely middle-class Estonians, the incomers were rough, uncultured, anti-social. The alcoholic shouting in front of the corner shop hassling everyone trying to enter, the thug kicking the passing cat over a fence and proceeding to urinate in the middle of the street…”

Actually, I had known plenty of Russians in Estonia—academics, theatre administrators, businessmen—who didn’t fit this description at all, but I knew what she meant. Yet even the educated Russians she met abroad knew little if anything of Estonia’s experience of Soviet rule: nothing about the waves of deportations and killings or the arrest and disappearance of their president, Konstantin Päts (he died in 1956 in a Soviet psychiatric hospital). One young Russian girl, talking to Lydia in Tokyo, had expressed “real sadness and confusion” that Estonia had wanted to leave the USSR. Why would you wish to leave it? Hadn’t the Union been “like one big family?”

“She absolutely couldn’t comprehend,” says Lydia, “that it was an illusion created by fear or that the ‘family’ was imposed on the nations forced into it.” People like this sincerely believed that the Kremlin had “liberated” Estonia from the Nazi occupation (1941–44) and they used the word quite unironically. It didn’t occur to them that you could “liberate” people into something much worse, nor that “liberate” was Stalinist doublespeak for “annex.”

Lydia had such conversations more than once in Tokyo and Britain. The Russians she met were either completely unaware of Soviet crimes in Estonia, or if they did know, thought they must have been justified. It had, after all, been drummed into Russians by the authorities that Estonians—many of whom were conscripted into the German army in the war—were “fascists.” “Wasn’t a purging of Estonian ‘Nazis’ from the pure Soviet society a necessity then?”

The parallels with Kremlin propaganda against Ukraine today are obvious. Whether there or in the Baltic States or in Hungary (during that country’s doomed 1956 rebellion), “fascist” was a smear that could (and still can) unite almost the entire Russian people behind any atrocities the Kremlin felt minded to carry out. It was a word that magically cleansed the conscience. Whatever the Russians did, they remained the good guys on a moral crusade. This was the self-justifying echo chamber in which the Russians whom Lydia met lived. But instead of blaming them for this as she might previously have done, she found herself softening towards them. Now they seemed like Kremlin-victims too.

“After all, it’s the past,” she decided one day. “So what’s the point of carrying all this resentment around with me? It’s not like they're all evil, in fact it appears most of them haven't got a clue and are traumatised by the collapse of the USSR. Now they’re having hard time making sense of the new world. Poor them and good luck adapting.” Even after February 24th, 2022, Lydia continued to draw a distinction between the kind of Russian she’d met in Tokyo and those who blindly supported Putin’s invasion. The latter cohort—Putin’s Russians—she calls the “Vlads.” Vlads, she says, are still “as arrogant and aggressive and pushy and self-centred and obnoxious as they’ve ever been.” And the prototype Vlad was Putin himself, “a Vlad in his very own echo-chamber.”

Everyone, she explains, had ignored the Vlad element in Russian culture as the troops built up on the Ukrainian border, and the world—even Estonia—had convinced themselves they’d never invade. The outside world didn’t realise that Putin and his Vlads saw Ukraine not as a separate, sovereign country but as a natural part of Russia. “Even in 2022,” Lydia explains, “it was a ‘domestic’ or ‘internal’ problem, not a foreign one at all. And it had got worse in recent decades.” A Vlad, she elaborates, “is not kept in the dark. A Vlad is confident that the darkness is the truth. And a Vlad aggressively goes on to assert his ‘truth’: ‘Ukrainians are our brothers, they love us! They ARE us! We’re one big family. There must be someone deceiving them, either Americans or Nazis! So: Remove the Nazis! De-nazify Ukraine! And they’ll be good brothers again…’”

“But we have other factors too,” Lydia goes on. “I imagine the top Vlad must have looked at the world around him, just after COVID with all its lockdowns and unease, and assumed that the West itself had its own problems to deal with. So why would the West care if Russia tackled its ‘internal’ problems too? Why would any major EU member suddenly send their army in support of a ‘province of Russia’ called Ukraine? After all, ‘solving the Crimea problem’ had gone smoothly enough.”

I tell Lydia about the Russians I spoke to in the aftermath of February 24th, in the Southern Russian town where I lived. They were split roughly into three groups: Putin supporters; those who openly disapproved of the “special military operation” (they soon kept quiet after the government introduced sentences of up to 15 years for opposing it); and finally, those who just wanted to keep their heads down and pretend none of this was happening so they’d be left alone.

Lydia is unsurprised by the second group. It reminds her of some acquaintances living in Nottingham—a Russian-Ukrainian family who switched freely between Russian and Ukrainian at home, knowing both languages equally well. This had been the way at least until Putin’s February invasion. “Now they’re a Ukrainian family. Since February, the husband has renounced his Russian heritage. He’s so appalled by Russia, so abhorrent of it, he won’t even use Russian at home. If anyone asks his ethnicity now he simply says ‘Ukrainian,’ explaining, ‘My parents may have originally been Russians. But I was born in Ukraine. Raised in Ukraine. I’m fluent in Ukrainian and I have a Ukrainian wife and daughter. I do not want to have anything to do with Russia or Russians ever.’”

This family, Lydia adds, told her that the same thing was happening all through the Donbass and the Black Sea coast. Even Odessa is apparently now full of residents saying they are Ukrainian. “Because if Russians are bombing their homes, what else are they?” Given that one of the aims of the Russian invasion was to stop Ukraine nation-building, Lydia points out, the Russians had “scored a massive own goal on that front too.”

And this “deliberate and complete discarding of Russian identity” was happening in Estonia as well. People were declaring themselves “‘Russian-speaking Estonians’—born here, raised here, living here, and holding an Estonian passport—just happening to still speak Russian at home.” “Thirty years ago, that would have been unthinkable,” Lydia reflects. “They were all Vlads back then. Pro-Mother-Russia. Russia-centric. Brash and pushy. Arrogant. Now Russian identity seems everywhere to be crashing.”

If Russians have, since the 1990s, moved on in their widely different directions, so, it seems, has Lydia. Does she still hate the Russians en masse as she did when I knew her decades ago, as a 23-year-old young woman? “I can’t say I detest the new, self-professed ‘non-Russians!’” she tells me cheerfully. “Just the Vlads…” Even as old resentments resurfaced after February 24th, towards the Russians suddenly embracing an Estonian identity “there were new feelings of … well, maybe not exactly kinship but certainly some acceptance.” It wasn’t their fault many Russians had eagerly supported Putin’s invasion. Lydia knew plenty who hadn’t. “So there are Russians and Russians,” she says.

I recall Estonian PM Kaja Kallas’s words: “Everything is black and white in war,” and I quote a Ukrainian friend to Lydia: “Right now we need the binary. We need our anger and our hatred to survive.” Doesn’t Estonia—a country we’re frequently told is on Putin’s to-invade list—need it too? In case of an actual conflict, she agrees. “If you don’t draw a clear line, how do you fight? How do you avoid spies? Or keep secrets? It’s the hatred, the common enemy that best unifies a group of people.” This didn’t mean your previous understanding of the complexities would disappear. “You’d just have to deliberately put them aside. … The nuances are for peace time. When you have the luxury to observe a culture holistically rather than dig a trench to survive.”

“Are you with or against us?” Lydia concludes. “That’s the only real question in a war.”

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Robin Ashenden

Robin Ashenden is former editor and founder of the Central and East European London Review.