Estonian Swedes Embrace Autonomy Rights

The illustrations of Ilon Wikland’s 1995 book for children, Den lnga, lnga resan or “The long, long journey,” show a young blonde girl growing up in a dreamy village and spending her days picking wild berries until an awful war turns her childhood upside down and sends her family on a perilous voyage to the safety of the Swedish Archipelago. For many Estonian Swedes, like Wikland, who was born in Tartu and lived in Haapsalu until her family fled the Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1944, this is their story. A story of a cherished life in a corner of northern Europe that they were forced to abandon, along with their cultural institutions and ancient dialects, to become ‘regular’ Swedes again after perhaps a millennium apart from their home country.
Yet an interesting thing happened this year. Estonian Swedes became the second minority since the restoration of independence to establish cultural autonomy in Estonia according to the Law on Cultural Autonomy of National Minorities. That law, first adopted in 1925 and re-adopted in 1993, gave the right to form and oversee cultural institutions to the Russian, German, Swedish, and Jewish national minorities, as well as minorities numbering more than 3,000 with longstanding ties to Estonia. The Ingrian Finnish minority achieved autonomy in 2005.

Still, with a more than sixty year interlude between the mass exit of Estonian Swedes to Sweden and the establishment of cultural autonomy in Estonia, the question arises of how such a small group could preserve its culture. The answer seems to be that today’s Estonian Swedes are a different lot than the ones who left the beaches of western Estonia in the 1940s. Some were born in Estonia to Swedish families and have rediscovered their roots over the past 15 years. Others though were born to exile families in Stockholm and returned out of curiosity in the 1990s. A third group in this new mix of Estonian Swedes is ethnic Estonian exiles that grew up in Sweden, speak Swedish, and have close connections to other Swedes in Estonia. Uile K?rk-Remes, the head of the new Estonian Swedish Cultural Council, is representative of this newer Estonian Swedish identity. Born in Sweden to Estonian Swedish exiles, she returned at the beginning of the 1990s, and now finds her self at the center of a wheel of activities meant to breathe new life into Estonian Swedish culture. “After Estonia got independence again, when it was again possible for minorities to carry out these kinds of activities, then Estonian Swedes started again to do it,” Kirk-Remes told City Paper.

According to Kirk-Remes, the cultural council already has a loaded agenda, essentially because it has to rebuild institutions that have not functioned for decades. “There are very many practical things that need to be taken care of, because there was such a long gap — 50 to 60 years — during the Soviet era when we couldn’t work together at all,” she said. “And lots of cultural institutions which earlier included schools, activities, all the population, churches, houses — all of this disappeared.” Now the Estonian Swedish Cultural Council is looking to ensure that young people have the possibility to, among other things, study Swedish. Swedish immersion has already been offered since the mid-1990s at Noarootsi Gimnaasium near Haapsalu, where Estonian Swedes historically made up a significant part of the population. There is also a Swedish Folk High School in Haapsalu. The cultural council has also supported language lessons at the Swedish St. Michael’s Church in Tallinn, which has become a hub of Estonian Swedish activities in Estonia. Recently Kirk-Remes participated in a conference in Tallinn where both the Estonian state and the Swedish Embassy in Estonia discussed the challenges of rebuilding Estonian Swedish minority institutions. Between the autonomy laws sponsored by the state and the help from the exile community and Swedish embassy, Kirk-Remes said that the cultural council has received positive support for the council’s agenda.

Another Estonian Swede drawn into the rebirth of cultural activity has been Sofia Joons, who, like Kirk-Remes, was born in Sweden to an Estonian Swedish family, but one that also had ethnic Estonian roots. Joons, who lives in Viljandi in southern Estonia, is now married to an ethnic Estonian and uses the cultural events that are being organized through the cultural council to maintain Swedish-language use and cultural orientation in her family. Long before the establishment of cultural autonomy, Joons began using her Swedish, Estonian Swedish, and Estonian backgrounds to revitalize the Estonian Swedish folk music that was lost after the war. “I had just finished my music studies in Sweden, so I decided to move to Estonia in 1994 on a temporary basis. I ended up here in Viljandi studying Estonian traditional music. It was quite hard in the beginning. I just had learned Estonian and it wasn’t even the standard Estonian, we were singing in dialects,” she said. “I started to play a bow harp and I thought that maybe I could find my way to Estonian music through Estonian Swedish music.” Joons and fellow musicians formed a folk group called “Strand … Rand” — the words for “coast” in Swedish and Estonian, respectively — and recorded an album of traditional music.

According to Joons, she has recently compiled a book of Estonian Swedish Traditional Chorales that will appear early next year. “It will be in both Swedish and Estonian. So it is an integration project,” she said. “I will use it in the Swedish church in Tallinn and I think this is a book that will last for a long time. It is a book that could last for maybe 20 years,” she said. Joons is also on the cultural council and said that she often participates in the events in Tallinn. “I have a son that is two years old and we are attending open-meetings for Swedish-speaking children and their parents. We try to go there as often as we can,” she said. Historical Differences Next to the Estonian Swedes that have returned to restart cultural life in Estonia have been those who remained in Estonia during the Soviet occupation. According to Elna Siimberg, also on the cultural council, the Estonian Swedish community that existed in Estonia before the war went two separate ways during the Soviet era. “Estonian Swedes who live in Estonia are… different from the Estonian Swedes who fled and who have now lived in Sweden for 60 years,” she told City Paper in an e-mail. “Their children are Swedes, though some of them have an interest to visit Estonia,” she wrote. “Those that fled as children 60 years ago are still speaking the dialect that they spoke at that time. Their childhood books were not the same as ours in Estonia.”

According to Siimberg, it is normal that some Estonian Swedes who live in Sweden come to visit a few times a year. Others own summer houses and frequently vacation in western Estonia while still others have chosen to stay. Jan Persson is part of the Estonian Swedish community in Stockholm that has chosen the second option. Persson’s mother fled Estonia in 1944, and like so many others, he was lured back in the early 1990s to do some academic work related to the Estonian Swedish community. He was also able to reclaim property in Noarootsi that was nationalized during the occupation. “I am the owner now of the land that used to belong to my grandparents, 25 hectares of forest,” he told City Paper. “I would estimate that there are about 30-40 summer houses for Estonian Swedes in Noarootsi Parish [in Lanemaa county],” he said. Persson himself has dual citizenship and his job at Swedbank often takes him to Estonia. “I often spend time there, about four or five times a year connected to my job. I am quite often in Estonia. My family spends at least one or two weeks every summer there on vacation,” he said. According to Persson, regular Swedes today are unaware of their relatives across the Baltic, even among the descendants of those who fled in 1944. “Very few people are aware of this. This is a forgotten part of Swedish history,” he said. “When Estonia regained independence there were a number of articles and TV programs. But if you ask the major part of the population I would say that they would not be aware that there were Swedes in Estonia,” said Persson.

Still, for native Swedes who venture into Estonian Swedish areas, the trip is often seen as coming into contact with an older Swedish culture that the homeland has itself lost. G?ran Broden, a Swedish businessman who lives in Tallinn, visited Noarootsi several years ago and met with some of the Swedish-speaking residents. “It was an old couple and I was totally stunned when they started to speak Swedish to me,” he told City Paper. “Equally surprising was the way they spoke Swedish — kind of the same way I can hear people speak on old, black-and-white Swedish movies from the 1930s,” he said. “Entering their house, the living room walls were totally covered with pictures of the Swedish king and queen and their kids. If they knew we were coming they would probably have put up the Swedish flag outside as well,” said Broden. Karolina Ullman, a partner at MAQS Law Firm in Tallinn, grew up attending an Estonian school in Stockholm. Like many others, Ullman moved to Estonia because of her family background. But because she grew up in Sweden and speaks Swedish, she now finds herself in the category of “Estonian Swede.” It is due to this confusion over what exactly makes an Estonian Swede an Estonian Swede that the community is fuzzy on how large its numbers are. Kirk-Remes estimates that there may be around 1,500 Estonian Swedes in Estonia.

Ullman said that it is difficult to determine where exactly the community begins and ends. “It depends on how you count them, because a lot of people living here can be both Estonian and Swedish,” said Ullman. She said that the reason Estonia has managed to attract so many of the descendents of its former citizens back from across the Baltic is that “it is very easy for a Swede to settle down here.” “The culture that we have is very common, we have some common history, religion is not that apparent, but it is something we share. Estonia would like to become a Nordic country and I think that over the past 15 years they perhaps have,” she said.

By Justin Petrone