Janek Mäggi on corona messages: Convincing Russian needed! So they’d tell us what has to be done

Does an Estonian understand what’s being said only if it’s said in Estonian?

It’s wrong to believe that people think and behave as they’re told or that it’s possible to say or do something in such a manner that the entire society immediately gets behind you. A person’s head is full of all kinds of information and every additional piece may cause an oscillation that, however, may not be the kind that the person who gave the information hoped to cause. People also use their own heads, even a little. And the thoughts they have may be gold, or not.

Why has the spread of the virus in Ida-Viru County and in the mainly Russian-speaking regions of Tallinn been fervent than elsewhere in Estonia? Have Estonians understood better, what they have to do to protect themselves against the virus? Or has the state failed to make itself understandable to the Russians, get through to them? Who are the people that Estonian Russians listen to?

Definitely Kõlvart

My Ukrainian half-sister Inga, who has lived in Estonia since 2014 (citizen of the Republic of Estonia by birth, spent her earlier life living in Ukraine), is learning Estonian, but I speak Russian with her and her family. I asked Inga whose opinion matters to her in Estonia. “Definitely Mihhail Kõlvart’s, I watch ETV+, I like Andrei Titov,” said Inga.

As influential people are different among Estonians and Russians, one can assume that communication channels, messages, opinion leaders – the people whose opinions make others think and act – are also different.

I ask a couple of other Russian-speaking friends what they think. The result: there are people who are influential in both languages, such as Arkadi Popov, Anne Veski; there are people whose opinions matter because of their work, such as Boriss Gorski, in addition to Titov; there are people who are authorities in certain age groups, such as actor Eduard Toman or businessman Vladimir Funtikov and Russian theatre certainly has its magnetism – Larissa Savankova, who recently received an order of merit from the president; Aleksandr Ivaškevitš.

A well-known Russian offered this diagnosis of the situation: “We speak about Russian names, as if the correct name badge and photo next to the article alone make people act. But that’s not true. Trust in the system is more important than trust in its individual representative. As the system as a whole has never made an effort to make itself credible and understandable and bring itself close to people who speak other languages, it’s no wonder that even the trustworthy representatives of this system are unable to convince people to behave in a certain manner. The state as a system has avoided the establishment of a relationship of trust with the Russian-speaking population, its high-ranked representatives have even pushed the Russians away in their speeches. Maybe people are not the issue here, but the lack of trust in the system?”

Let’s cross the rivers

During the crisis, the Estonian communication plan must at least try to cross the rivers separating the different information rooms. It’s not only the wording of the message that has to convincing, the verbal presentation and the credibility of the person who presents it must also convince. The biggest separate community in Estonia consists of people who speak languages other than Estonian and they may not have any issues with the content of the topic, but they may not understand it in the same way or get it in an instant.

We shouldn't hope that all Estonians understand what they’re told in Estonian. That they listen. That they’re interested. That they notice. That it matters to them. Public wars of words prove that this is not the case.

Another nuance in the case of the non-Estonian population is that the circle of their opinion leaders is more limited and fragmented, because the majority of the public space is in Estonian. There are opinion leaders of different social groups, whose opinions are the polar opposites, in the Estonian-speaking public as well. However, their multitude makes it easier for ordinary citizens to form their own opinions.

When the majority of the non-Estonian population in Estonia don’t understand what’s expected of them, it shows that the one who expects doesn’t have the language skills. If the majority of the residents of Estonia – irrespective of language and nationality – don’t do what they’re expected to do, it shows that in addition to being ineffective, the one who expects also has the wrong expectations.