Thursday, October 23, 2008

Missed Opportunity

The Russian child recently abandoned in Estonia is by far the greatest missed opportunity for Estonian propaganda writers.

But I’m willing to help.

The abandoned Russian girl’s name is Svetlana. Little Svetlana. Poor, little Svetlana, symbolic of all the greater problems Russia is suffering. As their stock market collapses and the formerly nascent middle class withers, their lower class grows, and young mothers line up at the Ivangorod-Narva border with babies in their arms begging for an Estonian family to take them, feed them, give them a life they can’t have in Russia, where the average male will not live longer than 59 years and the average female will do little more than watch him drink himself to death.

Some of the Russian mothers, the truly desperate cases, many of whose dacha gardens were ruined by the wet summer weather, prostitute themselves to truck drivers, who then strap the infants to greasy truck axles and carry them as far as Estonia’s first Statoil, where they remove the child under the cover of night and prop her against diesel pumps to await the arrival of a cheerful morning worker. The smiling, uniformed employee arrives, changes the infant’s diapers and feeds the baby, all with goods from the store’s own inventory which she pays for out of her own abundant salary. On a recent Tuesday, Statoil turned over two dozen infants to Estonian social services. (No babies have yet been left in front of Lukoil.)

Ethnic Estonians, unselfish and kind-hearted, form a line at social services (twice as long as the Ivangorod line of mothers, by the way) in hopes of adopting one of the children. “I’ll raise her bilingually,” pledges 28-year-old Liina (not my wife, by the way), who also promises to teach the child a fair and balanced view of history, including the Russian textbook version of The Great Patriotic War.

Secretly, the Estonian government contacts Russia, but the Kremlin remains silent. While there is money to buy Putin’s dog a satellite-tracking collar, there is not enough to feed little Svetlana and the thousands like her. Better for Russia, better for the children, that they make their way to Estonia.

“We will do what is right,” says President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, “regardless of the cost.” Ilves appeals for calm on the rainy Russian side of the border. A bullhorn in hand, he stands atop a Red Cross truck on the Narva River bridge and tells Russian mothers that Estonia will feed their children. Canned goods are dispensed to Russian soldiers who promise it will be delivered to the queue of mothers. “You may keep one of those for yourself,” President Ilves tells a hollow-eyed soldier. But the recruit does not speak German, and so Ilves can only pray the lima beans find the right hands. “Sigareta?” the soldier begs Mr. Ilves. But the president doesn't even carry speechki.

President Ilves speaks to his European colleagues and tells them how these fortunate infants will successfully integrate into a New Europe yet retain their own culture and identity. They will love French wine and Italian cars, use Finnish tech, (and perhaps carve Kalevipoeg figurines from juniper branches), but they’ll be the best balalaika players in their schools. They will grow up to be software engineers and professors of philosophy and have little need to emigrate to Brooklyn and Brighton Beach. They’ll make their home in Estonia. And they’ll be grateful for it.