One area, several cultural spaces: comparative analysis of stories as the bases of local identity.

Author:Jaago, Tiiu
Position:Kohtla-Jarve, Estonia

It is 14 June 2010. I have just arrived in Kohtla-Jarve from Tartu, and I want to get from the town centre to nearby Vanakula in order to take part in the meeting organised by local amateur historians. I have never taken this road before and I ask the bus driver to tell me when the bus gets there. I am speaking Estonian; the bus driver is Russian and does not understand me completely. We are also using different words to describe where Vanakula is located. As a researcher who specialises in cultural studies, I try to remain alert and pay attention to what language we are speaking, but at some point I notice that I have unconsciously started using Russian. The bus driver has also begun to understand me: "Aaaa, staraya derevnya" ("old village," the literal translation of "Vanakula" in Russian). There is no cultural conflict in our conversation. We both want to understand each other and make ourselves understood. It is a situation that is strange to me but common in Kohtla-Jarve--a meeting on the border of two local cultures.

The focus of this article is on the degree to which different cultural spaces are experienced in the multicultural town. I also examine the places that are perceived as common areas by the different communities (ethnic groups) and where they prefer to function separately. I have been intermittently monitoring the interaction of cultures in Kohtla-Jarve since 1991. My research is based on surveys and interviews conducted during fieldwork, the written memoirs and autobiographies of local residents, and research done by amateur historians. As a researcher, the primary aim I pursue is to observe and interpret: although I proceed from texts pertaining to local life, which have been created for a variety of purposes, I analyse them according to my own research objectives.

In the next section, I will provide an overview of the area in question--Kohtla-Jarve. I will thereafter introduce the points of departure for the article, namely, its source material and theoretical framework. In the main part of the article, I will present a comparative analysis of the texts by people of Kohtla-Jarve based on the aspect of cultural diversity. Cultural diversity can be analysed both at the level of the community (e.g., the Estonian-speaking and Russian-speaking communities in Estonia) and the level of the individual (e.g., the cultural identity of a member of a mixed family). In this article, I look at the manifestation of cultural diversity at the level of small groups: local hobby groups, the staff and students of a school, and miners working in the area. Hobby group activities, school life and the workplace provide representatives of different cultural groups with the opportunity for more in-depth, long-term and varied contact than, for example, random or superficial encounters in such meeting places as the street, public transport or apartment buildings. However, it is probable that the ethnic and cultural boundaries are expressed with different intensity in the aforementioned spheres of activity. For instance, a hobby group focusing on specific cultural features is more likely to create boundaries, while ethnic and cultural boundaries may never become an issue if one works in a mine.

Kohtla-Jarve as a culturally diverse town

Kohtla-Jarve is a mining and industrial town with a population of 44,000 and is situated on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland. It takes about one hour by bus to travel from Kohtla-Jarve to Russia's western border. Kohtla-Jarve became a multicultural environment after World War II when Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union. Although there were people of 30 ethnicities living in the town according to the 1989 census, the two largest ethnic groups are Estonians (23.1%) and Russians (63%) (Valge 2006, 59-60).

The Soviet-era migration brought about a significant change in the ethnic balance compared to the pre-war situation (the status quo during Estonia's period of national independence). (2) Before World War II, ethnic minorities constituted 10% of Estonia's population; this number had increased to 25.4% by 1959 and to 38.55% by 1999 (Veidemann 1999, 143). The collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of Estonia's independence in 1991 caused another shift in the balance of mutual relations between the ethnic groups. The political preferences of the Soviet era were dominated by the ideology of a state of workers and peasants, which classified the population primarily on the basis of social categories. After Estonia's independence was restored, however, there occurred a re-emergence of values related to heritage, language, and culture, which were based on the ideology of the pre-war nation state. The contradictions between the two political orientations, namely, the efforts related to the restoration of Estonia's independence as opposed to emphasising the importance of the unity of the Soviet Union, became topical for journalists in (Soviet) Estonia at the end of the 1980s (see, e.g., Brady and Kaplan 2009, 52) and have retained their importance in contemporary politics (ELK 2008, 4-5; Vetik 2008, 4). In principle, the conflict described above (Estonian versus Soviet identity) also exists in present-day Estonian society and is expressed in private reflections on the Soviet era as well as in the data gathered through sociological surveys (Vihalemm and Masso 2007). (3) In general, it appears that at the level of group identity Estonia's ethnic groups are divided into two relatively independent communities that have comparatively little contact with each other (cf. Brady and Kaplan 2009, 65). The primary marker for differentiating between the communities is language use: one consists of Estonian-speakers and the other of Russian-speakers. However, in addition to people's native language, we also have to take into consideration the importance of their medium of education (whether they attended a school where the language of instruction was Estonian or Russian). A more in-depth observation reveals the importance of different identity-shaping experiences (we have to note that the boundaries of language use and experiences might not overlap). We can generally distinguish between two communities: the representatives of the local way of life, and minority groups characterised by their migration experience. This experience determines a community's place identity which, in turn, influences how that community interprets the past and present events occurring in society (cf. Brady and Kaplan 2009, 33).

Kohtla-Jarve is an interesting environment since the previously discussed problems characteristic of Estonia in general emerge here in a concentrated manner. Despite the prevalence of the Russian-speaking community, the town has cultural strata that date back to the time before the Soviet era, as well as those that developed within the Soviet system. This is to say that Kohtla-Jarve embodies a combination of two contradictory ideologies. On the one hand, the town was established in 1946 by the Soviet regime as a socialist city (cf. Valge 2006, 3-7; Low, Steets and Stoetzer 2008, 102). At first glance, the centre of Kohtla-Jarve does indeed appear to be a Soviet town rather than an Estonian one: instead of consisting of small buildings surrounding a central market square and family dwellings with small gardens, Kohtla-Jarve has streets that are straight as an arrow, lined with Stalin-era buildings planned by architects from Leningrad (Valge 2006, 42). This difference in the milieu is also felt by the people who live in Estonia. I will provide an example taken from a life story stored in the Estonian Literary Museum (EKLA 350v, 16). In the story a Russian woman who came to Estonia from Leningrad after World War II compares her first impressions of Kohtla-Jarve and the neighbouring town of Rakvere. When she came to Rakvere looking for a job and a place to live she found it to be a small, beautiful and clean Estonian town which was, however, completely alien to her. On her way back to Russia she came to Kohtla-Jarve, which reminded her of home and turned out to be the town that accepted her. On the other hand, the Soviet town of Kohtla-Jarve was built on the sites of former villages and mining settlements and, as a result, each part of the town has its own history dating back to the time before the establishment of Kohtla-Jarve. The town is comprised of districts that are located at a distance from each other and commonly use place-names pre-dating the establishment of Kohtla-Jarve (this practice was also common during the Soviet era). The local identity of the Estonians living in Kohtla-Jarve is based on their appreciation of the history of the place they call home. They use historical information to emphasise the centuries-long continuity of the place. (4) Interruptions in the continuity, namely, drastic changes in the local environment (its transformation from an agricultural environment into an industrial centre and the loss of national independence during the Soviet era), are tied together with a method where the fixed points that represent different time periods are juxtaposed at the time of speaking. This results in a narrative where the place is permanent (everything has been and still is here) while times change (there was that and then there was this ...):

Open oil shale mines or quarries were built on these lands. In 1927, they went underground again in the open quarry on our and Suuban's fields. Now [1991], the bus stop next to the old town department store stands in the same spot and the pieces of the Kohtla-Jarve War of Independence memorial destroyed in 1945 are also buried there (5) (Magin 1991).

The fact that the sense of continuity of the "us-group" is based, among other things, on the preservation of names (as is in the case of Kohtla-Jarve) is confirmed by research in social psychology regarding the combined effect of variable and invariable factors on the...

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