ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2006 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 52, No 3 - Fall 2006
Editor of this issue: Mykolas Drunga

Book Review

Subrenat, Jean-Jacques, ed. Estonia: Identity and Independence, translated into English by David Cousins, Eric Dickens, Alexander Harding and Richard Waterhouse, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2004, 310 pages, IBSN 90-420-0890-3.

Is identity found in the human genome, or perhaps defined by a spoken language or shared notion of history? Is it rooted in myths and legacies passed down through generations, or is it something that each person must find in themselves? Estonia: Identity and Independence, edited by Jean-Jacques Subrenat, combines essays and discussions by well-known Estonian authors, scholars and politicians who try to understand the progression of Estonian identity from its roots to its existence in an independent nation on the very edge of EU and NATO 86 membership. Through this collection of essays, Subrenat attempts to develop a picture of what Estonians consider central to their identity and what challenges these notions have faced throughout history. While the material was gathered before Estonia became a member of both EU and NATO, the topics will remain of great importance as Estonia continues to define its position within the international community.

The success of this book comes from the wide range of topics covered as well as the selection of authors. The result is a survey of Estonian identity that starts with a scientific approach to identity before progressing through Estonian history to the current challenges of a multicultural state and membership in international organizations. From these essays, written from a wide range of viewpoints, the reader is able to understand what it means to be “Estonian” as described by well-known members of the Estonian community. The group of authors is not limited to those who developed their identity in Estonia, but adds the voices of those that lived in Estonian communities abroad. Subrenat’s inclusion of the émigré community helps to separate the place of Estonia from the identity, and further demonstrates the core essence of being Estonian.

The chronological and topical structure of the book helps to connect historical events to notions of identity. By highlighting the differences between linguistic and ethnoanthropological associations, historical myth and natural identity, and the struggle of Estonians to identify with perspectives of the East or West, the essayists provide the foundations for understanding how association with a unique “Estonian” identity was central to Estonian independence movements and the current and future challenges to these associations. Central themes of historical recollection, both myth and reality, and language are present throughout the book and frequently serve as the foundations for associations with identity.

Subrenat, who is currently the French ambassador to Finland and served as the ambassador to Estonia from 1998 to 2002, states why the book requires a multifaceted approach, and how Estonia adds to debates concerning several concepts: “taking as a case study Estonia, a country still insufficiently known throughout the world and even in Europe: the links between language, culture and identity; the experience of foreign occupation and the desire for independence” (p. 2). His unique approach results in one of the strengths of the book, the use of a variety of styles of writing. While the bulk of the collection is essay contributions, there are several sections that feature dialogs and contributors’ responses to direct questions. The dialogues concerning Soviet occupation, Estonia as a multicultural state, and the impact of globalization and international organizations on Estonian identity, provide the reader with a wider range of opinions concerning Estonian identity, while still revealing the central themes of language and history that appear in all points of view. Similarly, the question and answer format of the émigré identity section provides a rich account of how answers to the question “What does it mean to be Estonian?” developed and changed outside of Estonia.

Subrenat supplies a chronology of Estonian history and brief biographies of the contributors at the end of the book. The biographies, including those of Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Jaan Kaplinski, Jaan Kross, Mart Laar and Lennart Meri, demonstrate just how strong a collection of authors contributed to this work, and the diverse range of fields from which they come, while helping the audience understand the professional background from which the author is writing. The historical chronology gives readers unfamiliar with Estonian history a broader context of the topics covered in the essays. These inclusions allow this book to further intrigue an audience beyond those interested in Estonia. The multidisciplinary approach demonstrates how it is necessary for those who study society, politics and history to have an understanding of all three fields due to their interconnected nature.

Joshua G. Dean