Happy Birthday, Estonia!

I missed a very important anniversary recently. On February 2, 2020, Estonia turned 100 years old. But their independence was declared (but didn’t actually “take”) on February 24th, 1918, so by that count, I guess you could say that today they are 102 years old in spirit.

Yeah, I know. You probably go months or years without thinking about Estonia. But to its 1,328,360 people, I’m sure this anniversary was a big deal. It’s no mean feat, being the 153rd largest country in the world, especially when you border Russia.

Estonia is not even 3/4ths of the size of the State of West Virginia, but hey, at least they’ve got universal health care and free education for all, so they’re a heck of a lot more civilized than we Americans are. Something I didn’t know is that its territory includes 2,222 islands as well. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

Don’t get me wrong. It hasn’t been easy being an Estonian throughout history. Since the place thawed out and human settlement reached the area 13,000 years ago, it has been occupied, fought over, or at least invaded by Scandanavian and Germanic tribes, the Danes, the Germans, the Russians, the Swedes, and the Polish-Lithuanians, with all the devastation and famine such wars and occupations can cause. Then Russia stood on their neck, basically, until around 1850, when people started looking around and saying, “Hey, we have a national culture and identity, here.”

After decades of struggles, crackdowns and revolutions, World War I, and invasions back and forth between Russia and Germany and Russia again, And that unsuccessful independence declaration in 1918, Estonia and Soviet Russia signed the Tartu Peace Treaty on February 2, 1920, and Soviet Russia “permanently gave up all sovereign claims to Estonia.” Happy birthday!

But you knew it wouldn’t be that clean cut, didn’t you? Of course not. Constitution after constitution, the Great Depression, and then, blam, World War II, which placed Estonia back into the Soviet sphere of influence, causing it to be officially occupied by them. Again. Whew. I’m tired, just reading this, aren’t you?

Then came a period of oppression, deportations to Siberia, and war, where part of Estonia was captured by Germany. Then the Soviets invaded. Again. And the Estonians didn’t want to be on either side of this conflict, and therefore got caught in the middle. The Estonians resisted the Soviets after the war, so the soviets responded with a campaign of Russification, which encouraged Russians to settle the area. By 1989, Estonians only comprised 62 percent of the population.

So why do we consider 1920 to be the establishment of this poor battered country? Because many Western countries considered the annexation of Estonia by the Soviets to be illegal, and so a government-in-exile was established. Their independence was restored on August 20, 1991, and that’s a national holiday to this day. But they also celebrate February 24th as their independence day since that was the date they first declared independence in 1918. The last of the Russian army left Estonia in 1994. If I were them, though, I wouldn’t rest very easy, because, well, Putin, and clearly they can’t count on help from Trump.

Through it all, though, Estonia has trundled on, and has even managed to develop a very strong IT sector. Estonia is where Skype was born. And it was the first post-Soviet republic to legalize civil unions, too. Good for them!

So I’m thinking, if any country needs birthday wishes and a slice of cake, even if it is belated (or not, depending on how you look at it), it’s Estonia. Happy birthday! You sure have earned it, a thousand times over.

Estonia

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Kolyma

Kolyma was a word that I had never heard until a few months ago. I suspect only 1 out of every 100 Americans has ever heard it. On the other hand, it likely causes the average Russian to shudder.

It is a region in the far eastern part of Russia, and is part of Siberia. It’s a harsh climate, bitterly cold all year round, and covered in permafrost. It’s isolated, and inaccessible for the better part of the year. You can only reach the place by boat for the very brief period when the ice breaks up on the Sea of Okhotsk.

Humans are not meant to live in such harsh conditions, and no one in their right mind would do so. Not voluntarily. Kolyma is a place to be avoided.

From 1930 to about 1954, it was home to the most brutal labor camp in Soviet history. It is estimated that 250,000 to more than a million people died there, after working in this Gulag under starvation conditions, mostly to extract gold.

It was a place where violent criminals were considered the cream of the crop. They got the most privileges. The inmates that were treated the worst were the political prisoners, which mostly consisted of academics or intellectuals.

You could find yourself sent to Kolyma for a variety of trivial reasons. One man, it is said, was sent there for refusing to write a song about Stalin. You could also wind up there for decades, if you survived, simply for speaking out against the state or refusing to incriminate friends or colleagues. After World War II, many Soviet POWs who were released by the allies were then sent to Kolyma for 10-25 years for “collaborating with the enemy”.

Many authors have written about Kolyma. The one who has touched me the most during my research on this post was former prisoner Varlam Shalamov. You can read one of his moving stories, Condensed Milk, on-line. It really shows how much your humanity can be taken away from you, and how your whole focus, your whole survival, can be reduced to one can of condensed milk. You can also read some chilling quotes from his book, Kolyma Tales, here.

It is said that this Gulag shut down in 1953, but many people, oddly enough, remained there voluntarily. And in truth, there were still some prisoners there. The last prisoner was supposedly released in 1990. Most structures in Kolyma are disintegrating now, and most people are gone. But no one knows for sure how many bodies lie beneath the permafrost.

What I find most disturbing about Kolyma is that it occupied such a horrible place in human history, and yet so few people know about it. It makes you wonder what else we are missing.

vTangaJg98s-knr-U11003192860116ZuC-1024x576@LaStampa.it

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Sápmi

I saw that word for the first time in my life at the Nordic Museum here in Seattle. And there was a beautiful flag underneath. It was in a display, right next to similar displays for Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland. Was this a country I never heard of? How is that even possible?

Upon further investigation, I learned that Sápmi is the land of the Sami people, and it stretches over vast swaths of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. There may be as many as 135,000 Sami people roaming around out there. And they have been around since prehistoric times, inhabiting the area for at least 5,000 years. Again, how had I never heard of them?

Turns out I have. But in elementary school I was taught that they are called Laplanders, or Lapps. Apparently these are actually derogatory terms.

I was taught that they herded reindeer. That fascinated me. But currently only 10 percent of them are doing this, even though, in some regions, they are the only people allowed to do so. They also herd sheep, and are known for fishing and fur trapping as well.

Over the years, they have suffered the same indignities as other indigenous people. Land encroachment. Suppression of their language and culture. Forced relocation and assimilation. Sterilization (which went on until 1975). Children taken far away to missionary schools. The fact that they have their own parliaments, university, anthem and flag tells you much about their ability to resist such outrages.

The Sami people have contributed much to science, exploration, literature, art, music, politics and sports. Theirs is a vibrant culture. Sadly, due to the suppression of their many languages, all their languages are considered in danger of dying out, and that usually is a death knell for a culture. But I genuinely believe that the more of us that learn about and celebrate these fascinating people, the more likely that their culture will continue to survive for future generations.

Don’t you just love learning something new?

Sápmi
The Flag of Sápmi

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Civil Trade War

So now Trump thinks Canada is a security risk? Oh, come on. Those people won’t even jaywalk at an intersection. Seriously. There could be no cars for miles, and they’d still patiently wait for the crossing signal.

Trump imposing tariffs on Mexico, Canada, and the European Union is like walking up to your three best friends in the school yard and punching them each in the throat. Just ‘cuz.

As if we weren’t already convinced that this man is an idiot, he now decides to do something that has absolutely no upside, even for him. But oh, yeah, it certainly has taken our focus off of Russia, hasn’t it? He does like to stir shit up.

Smoke and mirrors. It’s all smoke and mirrors. The next election can’t come fast enough.

For some reason, though, a lot of people don’t quite get (yet) what a global pissing match Trump has just set off. So let’s scale it down a bit for easier comprehension.

Let’s say the Governor of Maine doesn’t like the Governor of Georgia. So Maine decides to impose a tariff on all peaches. This means that it gets a lot more expensive for Georgia to get their peaches to consumers in Maine. This causes the Governor of Georgia’s head to explode, and he says, “Fine! We are now putting a tariff on Lobsters! Take that!”

Well, messing with Lobsters in Maine is like touching the third rail. This cannot be borne! So Maine says, okay, now we’re going to put a tariff on airplanes. (You may not know this, but Georgia’s top export is airplanes.)

But hold on. Airplanes are also the top export in California, Arizona, Washington, Kansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina, Florida, and Connecticut. So they all sit up tensely and blink, too. What’s going to happen next? They all start looking around to see how they can hurt other states who might hurt them. Everyone is poised for battle.

That’s really how the civil war started. Only back then, the commodity was slaves. Not only won’t we buy your slaves, but you can’t have them either. And before we knew it, hundreds of thousands of Americans were dead.

This trade war? Worst idea ever. Thanks, Trump. Way to go.

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Feeling Helpless About Syria

Unless you live in a cave somewhere, you know what’s going on in Aleppo, Syria right now. And if you’re like me, you’re feeling pretty darned helpless about it. People are being slaughtered and I’m looking at my empty guest room. I’d take them all in if I could. I’d stack ‘em up like cordwood. At least they’d be warm and not have to worry about the world exploding around them.

But it’s not that simple. I wish it were. Contrary to what the Republicans would have you believe, it is extremely difficult to sponsor a refugee. I’ve looked into it.

This is the same level of helplessness I felt during the slaughter in Rwanda. And it’s the same frustration I continue to feel about the Chinese occupation of Tibet. No government seems to be willing to step up and do something about this atrocity. Everyone is looking the other way. People are starving. Children are dying. Women are committing suicide rather than be raped. Men are being blown to bits. And even the UN, despite various resolutions, seems loathe to intervene.

I did find a little comfort in this fundraiser for The White Helmets. This group of heroes has been saving lives in Syria, on a purely volunteer basis, since 2013. They’ve put themselves in the path of the bombs to pull people out of the rubble, and according to their website, have saved 73,530 lives to date. The stories on this website will break your heart.

They risk their lives every single day, while I stare at my empty guest room. I feel sick. And while raising money for this amazing group of people doesn’t seem like nearly enough to do, it’s all I can think of to do at this time. Won’t you help? Even as little as $5.00 will buy them a pair of safety goggles to protect their eyes. That’s better than sitting here watching the tears flow from mine.

I just donated enough for 5 goggles. I wish I could afford to contribute enough money for a gas mask or a defibrillator. I wish I could do more. But together, we can do a lot more than just sit and wring our hands. That counts for something, right?

aleppo

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Bone Records

I heard an amazing story on NPR’s All Things Considered the other day. Apparently in the 1950’s in Russia, censorship was so fully in effect that you couldn’t get Western rock n’ roll music. Even being in possession of such music could send you to prison.

Censorship in all its forms tends to backfire. When you tell people they cannot have something, it makes them want that thing very, very badly. (Just ask anyone who ever bought a Cuban cigar in the US.)

The Russians were very innovative in coming up with a way around this censorship. They learned how to etch music onto used x-ray film. These bootleg records were therefore called “Bone Records” and were sold in back alleys in the dead of night. They can still occasionally be found in flea markets and garage sales.

The quality of the music on these x-rays was not high. It kind of sounds scratchy, and like it’s coming from the inside of a tin can. But such was their thirst for music that they were willing to put up with this and even risk their freedom for it. That really impresses me. That tells you all you need to know about the human craving for art in all its forms.

A guy named Stephen Coates has written a book on the subject called X-Ray Audio: The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone. This is definitely on my “to read” list. The NPR story was an interview with Mr. Coates. Listen to the story, read the book, and tell me what you think.

At the very least, take a minute to appreciate your ready access to music as the luxury that it is.

bone records
[Image credit: boston.com]

The Doukhobors

It’s amazing what you can learn by randomly surfing through Youtube. Today I was once again presented with the uncomfortable truth that there is a heck of a lot that I don’t know. It’s also an exciting truth, because I love it when my horizons are broadened, and there’s a world of potential out there.

I think it’s fairly safe to say that most Americans don’t give much thought to Canadians, our neighbors to the north. If you did a random survey, I bet most of us couldn’t name a single Canadian politician, or list more than two Canadian provinces. That’s pretty pathetic.

Our lack of knowledge becomes even more laughable when we tentatively dip our toes into Canadian history. Yup. They have a history, too.

Which brings me to the Doukhobors, a group of people that I didn’t even know existed until today. The average Canadian would probably be shocked by this gap in my knowledge given the fact that they have had a fairly significant impact on the Canadian cultural landscape, but there you have it. Some consider some of the Doukhobors to be Canada’s first terrorists.

My introduction to the Doukhobors was a very interesting documentary called Lost Childhood: Russian Doukhobors or Sons of Freedom. From there I was hooked and wanted to know more. I then watched a documentary entitled My Doukhobor Cousins.

A gross oversimplification is that the Doukhobors are a Christian sect that believes in pacifism, communal living, and very little government. They refuse to take oaths of allegiance, resist registering births, and eschew public education.

While in Russia, the Doukhobors burned their guns and refused military service. This did not sit well with the Csar, and they were displaced. This would not be the last time the Doukhobors were driven from their land.

In 1899, six thousand of them emigrated to Canada. Leo Tolstoy, a long-time supporter of this movement, used the royalties from one of his books and paid about half of their relocation expenses.

But Canadians were always suspicious of the communal living and refusal of public education, so this group did not assimilate well. In 1907 Canada took more than 1/3 of their land back because they refused to register it in the name of individuals rather than groups.

This caused the Doukhobors to split into three groups: those who wanted to give up communal ownership of land, those who wanted to remain true to their beliefs, and the radical Sons of Freedom.

The Sons of Freedom would stage passive protest marches. Unfortunately they chose to do so in the nude. Their message was, “You’ve taken everything else from us, so why not take our clothes, too?”

Because of this shocking turn of events, Canada criminalized nudity in 1932, bringing with it a three year prison sentence. Over the years more than 300 Sons of Freedom Doukhobors served time.

This further radicalized the Sons of Freedom, and they began resorting to arson, even against their fellow Doukhobors, and bombings. This flew in the face of their pacifist origins.

In an effort to make them “good Canadians”, in 1953, 174 children of the Sons of Freedom were snatched and forced to live in a school surrounded by a fence that was basically a prison compound. For 6 years, these children only got to see their parents once every two weeks, and only then through the prison fence. They were beaten if they spoke Russian, so much of their cultural identity was lost.

This further radicalized their parents (and the students themselves when they became adults) and accelerated the arson and bombings. But these violent protests seem to have petered out in the 1970’s, and as the Doukhobor community ages, it is also shrinking.

While I do have a problem with the concept of no education, the rest of the original Doukhobor lifestyle seems relatively harmless to me. It could be argued that their radicalization was a result of government meddling. The Canadian Doukhobor history could be studied as a lesson in how to avoid creating domestic terrorism.

I love learning new things! It’s just sad when those new things are so tragic.

Doukhobors