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Narva, Russia's new alibi to invade a sovereign state in Europe?

Photo: Patrice Senécal Le Devoir À droite, la ville estonienne de Narva. À gauche, la ville russe d’Ivangorod et sa forteresse médiévale.

The road stops abruptly, with lots of barbed wire and dragon teeth, marking the border between two worlds. This is a martial setting to say the least, for a structure called the “Friendship Bridge”, spanning the turbulent waves of the Narva, a river on the borders of Europe. On one side, Estonia, a NATO flag standing at the foot of its border post. As if to recall the country's membership in the Atlantic alliance, for twenty years already, and to discourage any imperialist inclinations from its neighbor on the opposite bank, visible from a hundred meters away. The white-blue-red standard rises from the medieval fortress of the city of Ivangorod, recalling the colors of Vladimir Putin's country, while anonymous shacks line its bank.

“At night, on the Russian side, Ivangorod is plunged into darkness,” says Artur Karu, border guard in the Estonian town of Narva, in the far east of the country. On duty on this gloomy March morning, bulletproof vest on his shoulders and combed hair, the 36-year-old civil servant takes Le Devoir to the territorial limit of two countries, right in the middle of the footbridge blocked by anti-tank fortifications. “There, on the other side, is Russia, I don’t recommend you cross,” he said smiling, pointing to a line on the roadway. Around him, the sound of rolling suitcases mixes with the comings and goings of pedestrians; the land border has been closed to vehicles since February 1, with Moscow claiming road works. In a hut, silhouettes appear in the distance, dark uniforms on their backs.

Narva, Russia's new alibi to invade a sovereign state in Europe?

Photo: Patrice Senécal Le Devoir Artur Karu, border guard in the Estonian town of Narva

At the forefront of a Russia which is sinking ever deeper into its warlike rhetoric, Artur is aware of this: in the event of Russian aggression against the Baltic countries, he will be on the front line .

However, beyond its geographical proximity to Russia, it is also the ethnolinguistic specificity of Narva which makes it vulnerable. In the city “where Europe begins”, as the regional adage goes, 95% of its approximately 53,000 inhabitants speak the language of Pushkin.

To go there is to delve into the ambiguities that run through it, like Estonia's Russian-speaking minority, which constitutes a third of its 1.3 million inhabitants. A parallel universe, far from Tallinn, its trendy capital, leaving an impression of frozen time, where blocks of faded Soviet architecture bristle as far as the eye can see.

Will Narva, and by extension all Russian-speaking Estonians, become the Kremlin's new alibi to launch a new invasion against a sovereign state, which is also a member of NATO ? The question haunts many minds, since the aggression in Donbass in 2014 and the large-scale invasion of February 2022, sometimes erected by Moscow in “defense” of their compatriots, sometimes in the name of an imaginary “denazification”. Russian propaganda readily describes the authorities of Tallinn, as well as its two Baltic neighbors, Lithuania and Latvia, as “fascists”, both of which have more or less significant Russian-speaking minorities, and are accused of “martyrizing” Russian-speaking citizens.

Vladimir Putin himself spoke of this threat of Great Russian irredentism in June 2022, speaking of the need to “recover what belongs to Russia. » Including Estonia. Following in the footsteps of the tsars who preceded him, the Russian president was keen to recall that “Peter the Great went west, to Narva”.

Simple provocation, or real ambition ? The fact remains that the Estonian government, unwavering support of kyiv, takes seriously the threat posed by its Russian neighbor, which has invaded it many times over the past centuries. Its propagandist television channels have been banned there by Tallinn since the invasion, and its nationals have been banned from granting visas. The same goes for Russian license plates, banned, like Russian nationalist symbols, such as the “Z”, a sign of rallying to the Moscow army. “We have already stopped people at the border for wearing St. George's Day ribbons [a symbol of Russian patriotism],” says border guard Karu.

Because, in Narva, some choose, covertly or not, the Kremlin camp. In her apartment exuding the smell of tobacco, Galina, 62, praises her “homeland of heart”, Russia, even though she has never lived there. The War in Ukraine ? “A military operation to prevent Russians in Ukraine from being killed by the Kiev regime. » And what about the Russian speakers in Narva ? “The Estonian government is repressing us, forcing us to learn their language. If this continues, then we can call for help from Russia to come and free us,” growls the retiree in a bathrobe.

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Beside him, his grandson, Milan Skubi, 16, laughs. In Narva, he sometimes feels a little alone. “Among the forty students in my class, I am the only one interested in politics,” says the young man, with long, blond hair tied up, who aspires to “change mentalities.” At the foot of the monument to the memory of the victims of Stalinist repression, a stone's throw from the station, he is at the origin of a memorial to commemorate the death of the Russian opponent Navalny, where candles and flowers are piled up. “In Narva there are quite a few people who think Putin is great. Easy to say when you receive a European salary and access its health services. »

It is above all the imperial heritage of the USSR, tinged by rampant Russification, which explains the significant presence of Russian speakers, in Narva as elsewhere in Estonia. The influx of Soviet citizens had been encouraged by Moscow to populate the Baltic countries, forcibly annexed after 1945, and work in industrial complexes there. The fate of the “ethnic” Estonians, for its part, was more tragic, the victims of deportation roundups destined for the gulags of Siberia numbering in the thousands.

Today, Narva is a shadow of the prosperous industrial city it once was, before the Soviet dissolution in 1991 caused its factories to collapse.

A feeling of downgrading inhabits many Narvéans, fueled by the economic slump, fertile ground for Russian propaganda. Upon independence, those who arrived in Estonia after the end of the Second World War had to resolve to learn the Estonian language, a sine qua non condition for obtaining an Estonian passport. Others who did not make this choice, like Galina, opted for the “gray passport” of a stateless person, or even the Russian passport.

Cradle of Putinists ?

It would be easy to caricature Narva as a cradle of Putinists. Evil tongues see it as a sort of “fifth column”. Others are irritated that many of their Russian-speaking compatriots do not speak a word of the national language, even after spending their entire lives in it. But more than an assumed Russophilia, it is passivity that dominates Narva. The electoral participation rate remains the lowest in the entire country, and civil society is absent. The theme of war, often neglected, is a source of unease and quarrels, reflecting a certain generational divide, clashing European values ​​and nostalgia for a bygone period.

Tamara, 72, who sells sweets in Narva's only shopping center, mainly complains about the absence of “tourists”. “For two years, it’s been a lot harder. » “Most people,” she thinks, “want to live here, not in Russia.” The unbolting of a Red Army tank which served as a monument, until the summer of 2022, was nevertheless experienced as a betrayal, among many Narveans of his generation.

“For some Russian speakers in Narva, the war was a shock in that they could not imagine the Russians as antiheroes, because they had this image of the USSR which had crushed fascism during the Second World War, believes Denis Larchenko, a 30-year-old municipal official, met in a café. And it took time for the emotions to calm down here, a bit like mourning. »

“Estonize” with forced march

In Tallinn too, the invasion of February 24 was an electric shock, reinforcing the imperative to link its Russian-speaking population to the rest of society. Tacitly, their uneven integration of Russian speakers is a matter of national security. Unite together to counter the Kremlin’s destabilizing maneuvers.

The Narva Gümnaasium, a brand new secondary school in the middle of dilapidated buildings, embodies the radical shift underway in Narva. Subjects are taught bilingually, 60% in Russian, 40% in Estonian. By 2030, everything must be in Estonian, including kindergarten classes. A transition which already promises to be difficult, weighed down by the shortage of Russian-speaking teachers fluent in Estonian, and which some consider late, three decades after independence. Taivi Gabriel, director of the public establishment, nonetheless disagrees with the need for such a reform. “How students identify themselves is their personal business. But our goal is for them to feel part of Estonia. » His colleague, Mariliis Randmer, adds: “since the invasion, it has become even clearer that education constitutes one of the keys to shaping everyone's vision of the world, and forging a democratic conscience.”< /p>

This forced “Estonization” also occurs through the media waves. In the Narvean studio of Raadio 4, the Estonian public broadcaster aimed at the Russian-speaking minority, Mihhail Komaško has no illusions. “We do not have sufficient resources to counter Russian propaganda,” emphasizes the presenter with the neat mustache, behind his microphone.

Svetlana, 67 years old and purple hair, with a lively laugh, is one of those who does not want to see the Kremlin troops arrive. “This is the city that saw me born. My father was a worker, he helped rebuild Narva after the war. » Russian-speaking, his identity is beyond doubt. “Russia is our neighbor, and I like going to the theater in St. Petersburg. But my home is Estonia. »

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116