Saturday, August 28, 2010

Watching Clifford Levy

Whose day was it to watch Clifford Levy?

It was June, 2010, and the New York Times’ Moscow bureau chief was visiting Tallinn’s Pae Gymnasium.

Levy reported that Estonia, “...a small former Soviet republic on the Baltic Sea, has been mounting a determined campaign to elevate the status of its native language and to marginalize Russian, the tongue of its former colonizer.”

Fair enough, I thought, until I read this gem of a sentence, “In Estonia, 30 percent of the 1.3 million people speak Russian as a first language, and the government seems bent on employing the schools to lower that figure.”

I wondered if that might have been a lazy sentence. “First language,” after all, is defined as the language someone learns from birth, and a first language serves as the basis for sociolinguistic identity. Perhaps Levy meant the state was out to lower the number who speak Russian as “first language in the workplace”? But papers like the Times have copy editors to weed out lazy sentences.

I wondered if Levy truly thought the Estonian government was plotting to use the schools to reduce the number of people who speak Russian as a first language. Does he believe (and do Russians in Russia and Russian-speakers in Estonia believe) that speaking Estonian in the workplace (and marketplace and post office) endangers the Russian language?

I’ve read some about the Soviets’ efforts to relegate the Estonian language to kitchen status. I’ve been told that once a language becomes a kitchen language, then soon all it’s good for is “Pass the butter.” But while that might have been a worry for Estonians, it doesn’t really stand to reason that it could be a worry for Russians. After all, what about the 142 million Russians right next door, the 285 million Russian-speakers worldwide, and the enormous cultural machine which feeds them all? But what I believe matters far less than what Russians believe. And it also matters less than what the New York Times believes.

What I can agree with in Mr. Levy’s article is that yes, for a variety of reasons on a variety of levels, Estonians don’t always make it easy for foreigners to learn or speak Estonian. The Times could have confined its article to that issue, but they chose, for whatever reason, to add a hint of intrigue and conspiracy. Certainly no malice was involved. Mr. Levy may simply be victim to the inherent disadvantages of reporting on Estonia from Moscow. Still, it was a lazy sentence.

Generally, with great newspapers like the Times, what slips past the copy editors and fact checkers doesn’t make it past the readers. My guess is that Levy’s errant sentence would have earned Estonia some op-ed space in the Times, though perhaps I was the only one to make much of the sentence. The country, as far as I could tell, chose to let Levy’s remark pass.

Perhaps an unfair analogy, but I wondered whether Estonia’s football fans would be so passive if their national team let an attacker run all over the field unmatched by any defender. The national team may not be a serious contender for the World Cup, but at least they show up for the games. At least they try to cover their man. So who’s covering Levy? Which PR flack or government official is supposed to be helping him understand the Estonian position?

Expressing my dismay to an Estonian political scientist, she postulated that Estonians somehow believe that “in the end the truth will come out.” An interesting theory, certainly, if only for the reason that it casts Estonians as optimists in the face of a history ripe with instances where the truth did not come out, came out too late, or the historical narrative was simply authored by another party. Or the worst: instances when the truth came out, but nobody in the world really gave a damn.

The Times visited Tallinn again in August, this time covering gray passport holders. Levy quoted a heartsick Russian film producer who had “…done a whole lot for my country” (Estonia) but whose country “has not done a whole lot for me.” I’m sure Mr. Levy presented the story as he saw it, but my overactive imagination couldn’t help but wonder if a western reader would see the film producer as a proxy for the ethnic Russian community in Estonian, a community, as the narrative would go, which makes a substantial and visible contribution yet is still rebuked? I wanted to know what had the film producer done for his country? Had he served in the army? Joined the ranks of TeachFirst? Had he taken part in Let’sDoIt Estonia’s nationwide trash cleanup? Was he actively involved in civic organizations or government? Or did he only go to work and pay taxes, like most of the rest of us?

Then the article drew comparisons to Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova. Another opportunity, I thought, to make the case for op-ed space for Estonia. But, alas, no. As far as I could determine, Estonians chose to remain silent yet again.

From what I can find in the Times archive, Mr. Levy has written only two stories on Estonia, but they both come from the same mold. The simple protagonists are oppressed by an indifferent state. They are sentimental, kind-hearted souls who want to make better lives for themselves and those around them. They want only to be understood. Were Hollywood to get hold of them, there would be many teary departure scenes with locomotives in steamy stations, and full orchestras would be employed for sound tracks.

It worries me that Mr. Levy doesn’t seem to know anyone in Estonia. In his August 15th story, he quoted President Ilves, though it was a recycled quote from an interview Ilves gave to a Russian newspaper. I don’t know how it is with President Ilves but, in general, Estonia has prided itself on having accessible politicians, and the president of the republic has been no exception. I wondered whether Messrs. Ilves and Levy had dined together.

The real problem, however, is not that Mr. Levy doesn’t know Estonia. The problem is that Estonia doesn’t know Mr. Levy. If Estonia wants empathy, or even more fair and balanced stories, the first step is getting acquainted: Our Mr. Levy must become our Cliff. And though the nation might flatter itself by thinking Mr. Levy might make the effort himself, as a small nation, it is incumbent upon Estonia to take the first step and extend an invitation.

But if no one else wants to dine with Clifford J. Levy, then I’m happy to do so. I have already checked his Facebook page and can see that with a degree or two of separation we have common acquaintances. In the digital age, we are practically brothers.

Personally, were I King of Estonia I’d settle things with Mr. Levy and the Kremlin the easy way. (Now that was a lazy sentence.) I’d give all the gray passport holders citizenship. It’s only seven percent. Astute readers will point out that that’s not my right, yours is not my history, and as a foreigner I should just shut the hell up. And the reader would be partly right. The problem is there are plenty of foreigners who won’t shut the hell up, and Mr. Clifford J. Levy is among them. He’s just doing his job, of course. But it wouldn’t be a bad thing if Estonia tried to help him out by making an effort to set the record straight.