Letter of 40 Intellectuals


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Updated 06/17/2008


(Translated from Estonian by Jüri Estam and Jaan Pennar )


Translators’ Introduction

On September 22 of 1980, more than 1,000 young people demonstrated in a soccer stadium in Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia. The protest was instigated by the authorities' last minute banning of a performance by a pop group called Propeller, because “nationalistic elements” were detected in the groups' lyrics. A clash between the young demonstrators and the police followed, after which several senior pupils were expelled from school.


This event in September lead to unprecedented demonstrations on October 1 and 3 in several parts of Tallinn, during which an estimated 5,000 youngsters, mostly high school students, waved the banned national Estonian flag -- blue, black and white -- and shouted slogans calling for, among other things, independence for Estonia and the removal of Soviet troops. (Estonia lost its independence during World War II and with a population of nearly 1.5 million, it is the smallest republic in the USSR. About a quarter of that population is Russian.)


The students also demanded better heating and food in their schools. When they moved toward party and government buildings, large numbers of police moved in, beat up some of the protesters, and arrested 150. After making identity checks, all but ten were released.


New demonstrations were reported in Tallinn on October 7 and 8, and on October 10 they spread to a naval school in Pärnu and the university city of Tartu. On the following day, parents all over Estonia were summoned by the authorities to attend meetings at schools during which they were warned about any further disturbances and were lectured on how to discipline their children. The parents were also shown films of the demonstrations made by the KGB and were asked to identify their children.


On October 14, the announcement was made that the government prosecutor would institute criminal proceedings against the initiators of the demonstrations and "criminal hooligans." As of now, all of the young people who were arrested are still awaiting trial.


These are the events which prompted members of the Soviet Estonian elite to write the open letter which is cited here. Addressed to Pravda and the Estonian party newspaper Sovetskaya Estonia and Rahva Hääl, the letter has not been published in the Soviet Union. The signers include prominent writers, poets, scientists, artists, and actors, most of whom are in their thirties and forties. None of them are dissidents, and two of the signatories, Jaan Kaplinski and Paul-Eerik Rummo, had their work published in the leading official Soviet Estonian literary monthly, Looming [Creativity] shortly before they had signed the letter.


Twenty-eight of the forty signers were identified for Freedom Appeals by the Estonian Correspondent of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in New York, Andres Jüriado, to whom we express our gratitude. The background information on the student demonstrations was provided primarily by Dr. Jaan Pennar and Mr. Jüri Estam of Radio Liberty Research, to whom We likewise convey our thanks. Dr. Lubarsky`s USSR News Brief No. 20 was also most helpful in preparing this material.



Original Letter

On October 14, 1980, an ETA (Eesti Telegraafiagentuur) announcement headed "In the Public Prosecutor's Office" appeared in the Soviet Estonian press: "The Public Prosecutor's Office has instituted criminal proceedings against the authors and instigators of the serious disturbances of the peace that have taken place in Tallinn in recent days. These disturbances, which involved groups of youngsters, have invoked the justifiable indignation and dissatisfaction of the workers. Legal action will also be brought against criminal hooligans involved. The circumstances will be subjected to close scrutiny in their entirety, after which the culprits will be brought to justice as the law prescribes."


This forty-eight-word (in Estonian) text is the only item that has appeared in the Soviet press to date concerning the political actions taken by young people in Tallinn and elsewhere in Estonia. In addition to the ETA dispatch, the occurrences have been discussed in schools and other institutions. As the events were witnessed by a fair number of visitors from our fellow republics, various rumors spread throughout the entire Soviet Union. All that has taken place of late compels us to write this letter.


The violence associated with the events in Tallinn is cause for concern. There have been subsequent calls for more of the same. The use of force is an indication that perilous splits have formed in our society, splits indicative of antagonism between the teachers and those they teach, of conflict between the leaders and the led. The stresses are aggravated by an unwillingness to tolerate life as it actually is.


We find that such a situation is dangerous and cannot prevail without bringing dire consequences to Estonia and all who live here. Aggravation of the circumstances cannot be pardoned, but by the same token it would also be unforgivable to ignore the deeply rooted causes that have given rise to the present state of affairs. Consequently, we feel compelled to direct your attention to the following matters.


It is not likely that demonstrations involving thousands of young people took place as a result of prompting by individuals. It seems to us that these manifestations were in fact an unexaggerated reflection of the dissatisfaction of numerous older Estonians. We are dealing with a social problem of significant size, the resolution of which will prove. impossible without the participation of everyone in our society. The first step in that direction calls for informing g society of the problems involved.


Dissatisfaction has deepened in recent years, but the factors responsible for fomenting this discontent have been taking shape for a much longer span of time. This dissatisfaction has come into existence as a result of numerous socio­economic problems hitherto unresolved. Hardships in our way of life (waiting lines in stores, shortages of food and consumer goods, and inconsistent distribution of these goods) form the backdrop for conflicts that foster alcoholism, criminality, instability in family life, and a host of other damaging phenomena. The disarray that characterizes the state of people's rights in Estonia serves to compound the aforementioned conflicts.


Other problems have been given public exposure to a greater or lesser degree, but it seems to us that problems occurring in the sphere of nationality questions have only been pigeonholed under the label of hooliganism up to the present. Therefore, we are focusing in this letter, above all else, on the national aspect of social conflicts. Conflicts develop in g out of nationality questions are particularly grave in nature, owing to the fact that their causes have not been discussed publicly with adequate candor -- something illustrated

by the ETA communiqué cited earlier in < this letter. In our opinion, the insecurity and, in some cases, even the fear about national identity that exists in the two largest nationality groups in Estonia, the Estonians and the Russians, is the source of the conflicts and stresses between nationalities in Estonia. Fear motivates irrational, frequently overt and aggressive behavior.


Insecurity and fear exist because of a number of factors, both objective and subjective in nature. These factors cannot be divorced from one another when they are being considered. They must be weighed together: events of an objective nature in the realms of economics, demographics, and culture are inevitably seen and interpreted through the prism of nationalism. The uncertainty Estonians feel about their future is caused by the following conditions:


           --the rapid proportional decline of the Estonian segment of the population, particularly in Tallinn, where Estonians are becoming a minority nationality group;

           --the circumscription of the use of the Estonian language in business, everyday matters, science, and elsewhere, a trend that has been characterized by the compulsory presentation of theses about Estonian language and literature in Russian, and by the exclusive use of Russian at the festive gathering marking the fortieth anniversary of the Estonian SSR;

           --the growing scarcity of Estonian -language journals and books, especially insofar as materials pertaining to the indigenous culture are concerned, and the inhibition of research in the field of native culture;

           --the hyperbolic and inept propaganda campaign pushing the teaching of Russian in schools and kindergartens, partiality shown in history lessons, at the expense of other peoples, to the contributions made by Russians;

           --Immoderate and overtaxed development of industry by the All- Union Council of Ministers, with a blind eye towards the     accompanying damage to the ecological balance;

--unilateral propagation of bilingualism among Estonians, without a similar effort being made among aliens, a circumstance that deepens a feeling in the Estonian community that its mother tongue is regarded as a second-rate {( language, and the nonexistence of a periodical analogous to Russky yazyk v estonskoi shkole [The Russian Language in the Estonian school) for the purpose of teaching Estonian in local schools;

          --the appointment of persons with inadequate knowledge of Estonian culture and a lack of interest in it to responsible posts and to positions concerned with national and socio-cultural problems.


Decisions that distress Estonian national feelings are usually rationalize as being economically necessary. Nevertheless, it seems to us that the bitterness evident in Estonians cannot but exert a detrimental effect upon the efficiency of the economy and the quality of work. It may be surmised that Russians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians, along with other non - Estonian ethnic groups residing in Estonia, experience difficulty in establishing an ethnic identity. They are of diverse national, geographic, and social backgrounds. The psycho­logical differences between Estonians and other nationalities have remained completely unexamined up to this point.


The extent of equality that has thus far been achieved is frequently overrated. Conflicts between nationalities often develop because people do not understand the behavior of others and as a result fall prey to false interpretations. It is of utmost importance to find out more about the social, ethnic, and cultural problems of immigrants in Estonia and to establish how these problems interrelate with similar difficulties faced by Estonians.


Likewise, we should without fail probe, discuss, and write about the types of attitudes and behavior of Estonians that disturb others. Distrust is evident between the two primary nationality groups, serving as fertile ground for pre­conceptions, stereotyped false images, and rumors, leading us back once again to the need to establish and disseminate objective information about the situation. When truth falls in short supply, we find ourselves faced with the type of scarcity most fraught with danger.


Certain facets of Estonian national consciousness are easily offended, and failure to recognize this can have grave consequences. The hypersensitivity of Estonians, particularly on the subject of their language, can be explained in light of the fact that the Germans who were overlords here for centuries attempted to convince the Estonians of the impotence, uselessness, and even the detrimental nature of a culture relying on the Estonian language as a keystone. The tsarist government that followed took the same tack. Estonians formed a culture based on their own language in spite of the pressure and gibes of the German land­owners and the tsarist government, thereby giving the Estonian language a symbolic meaning for Estonians that serves to remind them of a hard-fought battle for human dignity. Only a person who speaks Estonian, or at least displays a discernible respect for it stands a chance of establishing close relations with Estonians. A person who lives for years in Estonia and shows no deference to the Estonian language and culture, whether wittingly or not, insults the Estonian sense of dignity. Attitude towards the Estonian language is a key question in the development of relations between Estonians and other nationality groups in Estonia.

The above does not pretend to be an exhaustive analysis of the circum­stances that have strained basic relations between nationality groups in the Estonian SSR. We only wish to point to some of the basic problems--above all, to the need to really resolve nationality questions. They have to be honestly and thoroughly examined, and discussed at all levels, beginning with strictly academic discussions and extending to comprehensive discussions in the press, radio, television and in schools and businesses.


          To preclude the repetition of the events that took place in Tallinn and to relieve existing tensions between the nationalities, something should be done to alleviate the doubts to Estonians about the security of their present and future and to guarantee that the native inhabitants of Estonia will always have the final word on the destiny of their land and people. The question of Estonia's future should not be decided solely by All- Union Councils of Ministers or by central boards or other offices. All significant socio-economic undertakings, such as the establishment or expansion of large industries, should be preceded by analysis of possible social, psychological, and ecological consequences and also by public discussion.


Since the revolution, the Estonian language has been backed by constitutional guarantees, and it has been used throughout Estonia as the official language in all aspects of civic life. Every Estonian within the boundaries of the Estonian SSR possesses the self-evident right to an Estonian-language secondary and higher education and to use Estonian in spoken or written form in the conduct of business. We think that a legislative confirmation of this principle by the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian SSR would go a long way towards normalizing the present unhealthy situation.


Nationality conflicts can easily lead to distrust and escalation of hate and make the peaceful evolution of' society impossible. Such evolution is only viable as the result of cooperation among every nationality group here. We wish for Estonia to become and remain a "land where not a single person will suffer insults and handicaps because of his or her mother tongue or ethnic origin, where understanding prevails in the absence of hate among nationality groups, where cultural unity reigns amidst diversity, and where no one feels any injury to his national pride or endangerment to his national culture.


Tallinn-Tartu, October 28. 1980.


The signatures of the following persons were appended to the document:


Priit Aimla – humorist and journalist

Kaur Alttoa - art historian; son of a prominent literary scholar

Madia Aruja - inspector in the wildlife preservation service

Lehte Hainsalu - woman writer

Mati Hint – linguist, son of the well-known and widely translated party-line novelist, Aadu Hint

Fred Jüssi – biologist, nature photographer and writer

Andres Langemets –poet and critic

Marju Lauristin – woman sociologist; daughter of a former prime minister of Soviet Estonia; her mother was also a veteran Communist Party member

Peeter Lorents – scientist, mathematician

Vello Lõugas – a well-known archeologist

Aira Kaal – older poetess; Communist Party member, favored by the authorities

Maie Kalda – prominent woman literary critic

Tõnu Kaljuste – musician, choirmaster, conductor

Toomas Kall – artist, cartoonist and humorist

Jaan Kaplinski – poet, playwright and essayist; highly regarded in Estonia and among exiles

Peet Kask – scientist, physicist

Heino Kiik – novelist

Jaan Klõšeiko – photographer and artist; half-Ukrainian by nationality

Kersti Kreismann-prize-winning stage actress; wife of Mati Unt, who also signed this letter

Alar Laats – student of theology

Aare Laht – scientist

Endel Nirk – a prominent literary scholar and a leading contributor to the Language and Literature Institute of the Estonian SSR Academy of Science

Lembit Peterson – theater director

Arno Pukk – biologist

Rein Põllumaa – medical doctor

Paul-Eerik Rummo – most eminent poet of his generation (born in 1942); his play, “The Cinderella Game”, was produced in New York

in 1971 by the LaMama Theater

Rein Ruutsoo- scientist, historian and sociologist

Tõnis Rätsep – actor

Ita Saks – translator of Latvian literature into Estonian

Aavo Sirk – scientist

Mati Sirkel – translator of German literature into Estonian

Jaan Tamm – historian and archeologist

Rein Tamsalu – scientist

Andres Tarand – biologist

Lehte Tavel – literary critic

Peeter Tulviste – psychologist

Mati Unt – one of the most prominent of the younger generation prose writers (born in 1944); translated into several languages

Arvo Valton – short story writer and novelist; writes in an absurdist, avant-garde vein, widely translated

Juhan Viiding – very prominent young actor (born in 1948) and famous poet who used pen name of Jüri Üdi

Aarne Üksküla – stage and film actor