NARVA When a person from Tallinn Marina Leshchenko moved to study in Narva, located on the Russian border, two years ago, disappointment hit.
– I thought that Narva has a lot of cafes and an exciting student life. Instead, I saw a lot of gray houses and the city seemed somehow dark, says Lešchenko.
The mother tongue of 21-year-old Leshchenko, who is studying to become a teacher, is Russian. After the initial shock, it has made it easier to adapt to the new hometown.
– Russian is the official language in Narva. Here, everyone automatically speaks Russian to each other, e.g. shop cashiers to customers, says Leshchenko.
53,600 people live in Narva, of which only four percent are Estonian speakers. The Red Army destroyed the city almost to the ground in World War II. After the war, Russians settled there.
About half of the current residents of Narva were born elsewhere than in Estonia, says the city manager Katri Raik.
During the Soviet era, Narva and Ivangorod, located on the other side of the river, were practically a twin city. After Estonia regained its independence in 1991, the situation changed.
– The people of Narva always say that Narva is an Estonian city. But they make a clear distinction between the country and the state, says Raik.
The people of Narva love Estonia, but according to Raik, the rift between them and the Estonian government has deepened over the past year.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine was followed by travel restrictions for Russian citizens and a slowdown in border traffic. In the late summer of 2022, the government removed the Soviet-era war memorials important to many Narva residents, the most visible of which was the tank that had collided with the Narvajoki.
– In the parliamentary elections at the beginning of March, the people of Narva showed their opinion. The most votes were received by two independent candidates, whose political positions are quite pro-Russian, says Raik.
Two different conceptions of history
Local activist Oleg Kultaev has organized the familiar Immortal Regiment marches from Russia in Narva. In them, on the Russian Victory Day on May 9, people carry photos of their relatives who died in the Second World War and often dress in wartime uniforms.
In Estonia, marches have been banned as demonstrations supporting Russia’s war of aggression for the second year in a row.
– Prohibitions do not solve much of anything. Prohibition is the last resort to resolve matters. It always means the use of force, Kultayev protested.
– It is wrong for the state to treat half of its population harshly.
Kultayev is either mistaken or deliberately exaggerating. Almost a third of Estonia’s population is Russian-speaking. However, the amount is large.
– The fact that we celebrate Victory Day does not mean that we support aggression. We all want peace, both Russians and Estonians. Estonia is our common home, Kultajev adds.
On the other hand, he also claims that Estonia is not an independent state, but acts as “big brother’s agent” in relation to Russian speakers. He does not specify which state is the big brother.
For Estonians, World War II meant occupation and destruction from both the Soviet Union and Germany. However, according to the Russian understanding of history, the Soviet Union was unequivocally the liberator.
Kultayev believes that the two conceptions of history will live side by side in Estonia and especially in Narva for a long time to come.
Student: Narva is really hospitable
The mornings of the Narva department of the University of Tartu start with a flag raising ceremony at Narva Castle. Russia is literally a stone’s throw away, on the opposite bank of the hundred meter wide border river.
Third year student in Narva Karin Trei remembers well the morning after the Russian invasion.
– It was a bit scary then. I even thought that I would dare to go to the ticket office at all.
However, Trei, who comes from Kuusalu in northern Estonia, is not afraid of Narva or the people of Narva, despite their Russian background.
– Sometimes communication is difficult because there is no common language. However, the people here are very friendly, even if they are perhaps more introverted, Trei estimates.
Narva is by far the most hospitable of the Estonian towns he knows.
When living together with Russia is no longer possible as it used to be, some people from Narva are looking for their place in the new reality. Some have re-evaluated their own identity, says Trei.
– There was even a small-scale trend of changing names to Estonian. Some people wanted to feel more Estonian.
Karin Trei and Marina Lešchenko disagree a little about whether the people of Narva are more pro-Russian than the rest of the country.
– I would say that pro-Russia sentiment is more common here, but not common. Maybe in Narva we will dare to disagree more openly with the rest of the country, says Lešchenko.
– I don’t think it’s more pro-Russian here than elsewhere in Estonia where there are Russian-speaking communities. In Tallinn’s Lasnamäki, there is even more pro-Russian sentiment, Trei, on the other hand, estimates.
According to city manager Katri Raik, the loyalty of the people of Narva towards Estonia and the possible pro-Russian sentiment speak much more in the rest of the country than on the spot.
– At this time, people here are mainly thinking about their datsas.
Dats are small summer cottages with a vegetable reputation. There are a lot of them between Narva and the nearby spa town Narva-Jõesuu.
The mayor of Narva says that the main things in the minds of the people of Narva are livelihood and the preservation of jobs. Narva still remembers the bankruptcy of the Kreenholm textile factory in 2010. Around 4,000 people lost their jobs in Rytäkä, i.e. more than a tenth of the city’s workforce.
The much-talked-about green transition in Narva is viewed with mixed feelings. There is a lot of energy production based on oil shale, i.e. combustible rock, in the area.
– Limiting the use of flint is being discussed in Estonia. It is very important that there are replacement jobs, says Katri Raik.
According to him, Narva’s problems are managed in the same way as in other regions in Europe, where many immigrants have arrived since the Second World War.
– The state must help these people. We need to invest here, above all money, says the mayor.