For Estonians, Culture Could Be The Only Thing Keeping Them From Being Swallowed By Russia Again. They Should Protect It.

The total population of Estonia is just 1.3 million, but the diversity of its cultural scene belies the country’s small size. Estonian classical music alone boasts the renowned Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, several opera ensembles, an active choral scene, and groups specialized in early and contemporary music. Composers have often taken on roles as public intellectuals in Estonian society. In 1988, Lepo Sumera, whose music is still regularly performed, became newly independent Estonia‘s first Minister of Culture following the collapse of the Soviet Union; since the 1990s, Arvo Pärt has served as something like an international ambassador and moral arbiter for the country. 

Sumera’s former composition student Jüri Reinvere is one of Estonia’s most internationally successful composers, with performances by ensembles like the Berlin Philharmonic. But following in his predecessor’s footsteps, Reinvere, who now lives in Frankfurt, Germany, also works as a political journalist and commentator, writing regularly for Estonia’s largest daily, Postimees. (In 2022, Reinvere was named “Opinion Leader of the Year.”) Since the legendary Singing Revolution of the 1980s, music and politics appear closely linked in Estonia. 

VAN: Do Estonians look at the war in Ukraine differently than people in Germany and Western Europe? 

Jüri Reinvere: There’s a fundamental difference. For Germany, the war in Ukraine feels somewhat nearby. But for the Baltic states—including Finland, because it’s in NATO now—the war is right at our doorstep. For us, the fear of the war coming to our own country isn’t nearly as abstract as it is in Germany.

I always give this example: Five or six years ago, a distant relative of my mother’s died. The last thing he said to her was, “I’m glad I’m dying before the Russians come back.” This was before the invasion of Ukraine. The idea that the Kremlin will return, and the West will abandon us when the time comes, is very present for Estonians.

The first thing that comes to mind is the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra (ERSO) in Tallinn. It’s a really popular group, across every generation. And for several years they’ve had the tradition of opening each concert with the Ukrainian national anthem: Everyone stands up, listens to the anthem, and then the performance starts.

We really like these kinds of earnest gestures of support in Estonia. Artists too—organists, violinists, whatever—like to play Ukrainian music on their programs. And we do a lot for Ukraine through personal connections. If someone has musician friends in Ukraine, they’ll support them wholeheartedly. I’d say that’s almost the main thing. In the former Soviet republics, of which Estonia is one, we think of the political system as an apparatus beyond our control. What you can control are your relationships. People prefer to use those. We don’t like to rely on symbols at the level of the state and government, and that’s true in the case of the Ukraine war as well. There’s a certain skepticism about what high-level politicians are really capable of. So in music, too, what matters is what the individual does. Maybe it’s just a piece in a choral concert, or an organ solo somewhere. That’s what they’ll do, but they’ll do very much of it. And this “very much” is really valuable. 

Has anything changed in the Estonian approach to concert programming? 

Like I said, Estonia is very close to Russia. That means that the older generation especially has a lot of connections with Russia. A lot of people studied there or have family there. A third of Estonians were either born, raised, or went to school in Siberia, as the children of people who were deported. So there’s a really strong cultural connection between Estonia and Russia, even if people sometimes act like it’s not that big of a deal. That’s why I don’t observe any meaningful Russophobia. Of course, less Russian music ends up being played. That mostly affects pieces that are clearly “Greater Russian,” let’s say. They aren’t played as much. 

Can you give an example? 

For example, I have a hard time imagining someone in the Baltic states voluntarily playing Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky.” When the Finns actually did that a year or two ago, I got angry. I thought: What if some ensemble played a Russian hymn of praise to the Winter War—of which the Finns have really painful memories? The fact is, there’s a certain reservation toward Russian music. But the kind of almost fanatical Russophobia that you see at the moment in Poland, at least in radical circles, isn’t as present in the Baltic.

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In many countries, both in Eastern and Western Europe, culture is becoming highly globalized. In Estonia, national cultural heritage and history have been extremely decisive politically, in the past. Is that national cultural heritage still valued in Estonia?

There is an inner conflict in Estonia and the other countries in the region. The new political elites in Estonia and Finland have a different kind of relationship to culture, I’ve noticed: They bring completely different expectations to high culture than before, paired with a mistrust and an ambition to use culture for their own ends. I could talk about that for hours. Those of us who work in high culture are watching it with bitterness. 

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Here’s a good example, even if it happened in Finland. When prime minister Sanna Marin, who was really popular in the West, was in office, she held an event for cultural influencers in her country. And you know how extremely proud Finland is of Sibelius, even today. (For many people the whole identity of the country is based on sauna, Sibelius, and design.) Do you think Marin invited a classical musician? Nope. There were YouTube influencers, pop musicians, maybe a few folk musicians. [Marin] wanted to showcase a cool new way of thinking. Right now there are several Finnish conductors who are really successful internationally. None of them were invited. It’s a mentality that’s spreading to the Baltic like an epidemic. The young political elite wants—almost explicitly—nothing to do with the things that the old elite cared about: the [long-serving German member of parliament] Wolfgang Schäuble types who were driven to the concert after work. Younger politicians support a form of culture in which what happens is best forgotten the next day; classical high culture always tries really hard to work with memory, so that new generations continue to confront the same works of art, discover new things within it, and go away with new knowledge of themselves. But here it’s about celebrating the one-time event on a given evening. And tomorrow is something new, with new pictures on Instagram. 

Isn’t that a little “kids these days”? 

I can’t emphasize enough how decisive and how politically dangerous this change is. In Estonia, the example of Tartu, which is European Capital of Culture this year, is demonstrative. Tartu has one of the richest histories in Europe. Between Germany, Estonia, Finland, the Teutonic Order, Russian, the Tsar. [Philosopher Hermann von] Keyserling studied there, to name just one name. None of that is present. Instead, the highlights of the Capital of Culture are Conchita Wurst and Bryan Adams. If you look at it from a Londoner’s perspective, it’s E- or F-list celebrities who can’t pay their rent any other way. It really shows how the Estonian cultural scene’s self-confidence and healthy self-interest has disappeared, and how desperately it’s trying to ape what’s happening in London. 

It’s incredibly sad. And as I’ve often written for the Estonian media, it’s a major security risk, too. Because as soon as Estonia doesn’t have its own culture, the country will become fair game for Russian propaganda and Russian aggression. The Baltic states and Scandinavia to a certain extent are self-sufficient because of their culture. Their economies are too weak, they can’t compete with the economic output of France, Britain, and Germany. All they have is their culture. And if culture keeps being treated so badly, then we could find ourselves in a really tough situation in 10 years—if Russia keeps behaving more and more aggressively, and the U.S. gets weaker and weaker. The combination that’s playing out right now doesn’t look good, unfortunately. 


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Estonia’s musical inheritance was extremely important for the Singing Revolution. Tallinn’s choruses, with their thousands of members, started singing Estonian folk songs that were banned in the Soviet Union, and the only reason the singers couldn’t be punished was because there were just too many to arrest all of them at the same time. If things are really as bad as you describe, does that mean that a similar kind of musical civil disobedience against, say, a new attempt at Russian dominance over Estonia, would become impossible? 

It’s not possible now, but who knows how things would develop. The Singing Revolution wasn’t a centrally planned state action. It was a grassroots movement that arose spontaneously. I can imagine something like it happening again if things get really serious. It’s also the only kind of weapon that people have in countries like Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states. Deep down, very few people really believe that the West will provide reliable support. That’s a more German or French mantra—that you can always rely on the U.S. The people in the Baltic countries don’t have that certainty. ¶

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