Perhaps better than most, Estonians realize that defying the Kremlin is dangerous business, but they feel they have no other choice, says a Bountiful man born in the Baltic country.
"They find themselves now at an absolute end. They see that if we can't turn the environment around, if we can't stop the immigration, then there's nothing else," Charles Ehin said.Ehin escaped with his father in 1944 from Estonia when the Soviets recaptured it from the Nazis - the Soviets had first taken over the previously independent country in 1940 after making a secret deal with the Germans. Ehin maintains contact with family members still in Estonia and has written a book about its history and culture. He talked with the Deseret News about recent developments there.
For the second time, the Estonian parliament - including several non-Estonian members - voted Wednesday to give itself veto power over laws passed by the Soviet central government, a move rejected by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet in Moscow.
And the two votes were not the first acts of defiance this year by the restive Estonians. In September the Estonian Green Movement - an environmental-political movement the very existence of which represents change - publicly demanded the resignation of the republic's prime minister for his failure to defend Estonian interests. In November Estonia's parliament replaced him.
Also in September, more than 300,000 of Estonia's approximately 1.6 million people rallied in the country's capital in an outpouring of national feeling and voicing of demands. More than 800,000 signed petitions opposing constitutional revisions proposed in October by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Gorbachev, with his glasnost policies, has allowed and even encouraged some of the change in Estonia, including creation of a mass political movement called the Popular Front. But he probably didn't expect the front to become the force it has, Ehin said.
Estonians are taking advantage of the crack the Soviet leader has opened in the system to push for all the change they can get. They can no longer put up with being second-class citizens in their own country, because if it continues much longer they will disappear, Ehin said.
He said the Soviets have done more to destroy Estonian culture in the past 50 years than did any of the country's other conquerors in the previous 700 years.
Not only did they kill or ship to Siberian concentration camps more than 170,000 Estonians between 1940 and 1949, but since then they also have done untold environmental damage with their industrial development and have sent in so many Russian laborers that Estonians are rapidly becoming a minority in their own country, Ehin said. At present, Estonians comprise about 60 percent of the total population but at best only 50 percent in the capital.
And the Soviets have actively repressed Estonian nationalism and culture. Until June, raising the pre-annexation Estonian flag in public could get a person thrown in jail.
Ehin said many outsiders don't understand why the Estonians and Russians don't get along and assume their differences are merely political, that the two peoples are ethnically related and essentially similar. Not so. The English language is closer to Russian than is Estonian, a Finno-Ugric tongue similar to Finnish. Estonian culture goes back at least to 4000 B.C., well before the Slavs, ancestors of the Russians, came to the area.
Ehin said the Estonians have preserved their culture and fought for their independence from numerous conquerors throughout the years since 1227 A.D., when they first were defeated by the Danes.
He said of the latest unrest, "It's fighting for freedom, and freedom in the Estonian sense is not glasnost." Estonians are glad for the window of opportunity that Gorbachev has opened, but they will believe his promises when they see them in action and they strongly oppose his latest constitutional reforms, saying they concentrate too much power in Moscow.
Estonians want more than the right to fly their flag and use Estonian as their official language - they want environmental cleanup, limits on Russian immigration, political sovereignty, economic autonomy, their own currency, Ehin said.