Two Tribes
By Abdul Turay
Published Postimees 13 August 2012

A couple of years ago, I went along with my wife to a manor house in the heart of England which every August, for the last 30 years, has been a jamboree (Rahvapidu) for the Estonian community in Britain. I expected a celebration of Estonian culture in Britain. Singing, dancing, selling handicrafts and Estonian foods; that sort of thing. I discovered, two tribes gone to war.

The foreign Estonians (Väliseestlased) believe they have worked to preserve and promote Estonian culture for over 60 years, not only in the UK but in the other four Väliseestlased communities, Sweden, the USA, Canada and Australia.

Here was their view of new Estonian immigrants to Britain.

“We don't mix with them at all, we don't socialise, we don't even understand them. It's like apartheid,” said one of them, who understandably didn't want to be name.

The story of Estonians in Britain is an interesting narrative not only on how communities develop but a reflection on Estonia itself. Its shows us that some of the assumptions that we make about modern Estonia are wrong.

Estonians first came to Britain just after the Second World War as refugees. These people and their descendants have gathered each year at different locations and hold an annual children's camp and the jamboree (Rahvapidu).

British Estonians have always been the poor relations. There were never as many of them as in the other four countries and for the most part didn't plan on being in Britain.

“Back in the 40s everybody wanted to go to Canada and the United States. The ones that stayed in Britain only stayed because they were basically stuck here,” the Väliseestlane told me.
British Estonians believe they have suffered greater hardships than their counterparts in the other four countries.

Britain in the 40s was like Estonia in the early nineties, but more so. Britain's cities had been bombed, hundreds of thousands of people lived in shacks without running water, electricity or even windows, rationing went on until 1951.

And right at the bottom were Estonian refugees. These foreign types who came from a country that no-one had ever heard of, who could be Germans or Russians.

“I grew up in a refugee camp in Wales. It was a tough life. I have face discrimination myself as a child so in my professional career I have always campaigned for justice and human rights,” John Twitchin a Väliseestlane who went on to Oxford and later became a BBC producer once told me.

As the second generation the children of the original settlers became to old to go to children's camps they formed an organisation Tulevik that holds summer camps for the third and fourth generations.

This community in 50 years of isolation had developed it's own traditions that have evolved independently. They sell memorabilia of camps held in the 50s and 60s. They have even publish a monthly newspaper Eesti Hääl since 1947.

The newcomers began to settle in Britain after 2004 when Estonia joined the European Union. Unlike the first wave of settlers, they see Britain as a land of opportunity. They have immediately started putting down roots, buying houses, having children.

Both group feel a strong attachment to Estonia. One Väliseestlane told me in a broad North of England accent how he felt when he visited Estonia for the first time in his forties.
“You grow up speaking this language that is absolutely useless, and suddenly you are in this place where you can use it, it was wonderful,” he said.

Meanwhile the newcomers are making sure their children do not lose their ties to Old Country. The Estonian School has a team of teachers teaching Estonian language, music and art.

So why the conflict? Why the apartheid?
Apart from the fact the cultures are now different, as we have described above, there is feeling in both tribes that the other lot haven't suffered enough to call themselves Estonian.

The Väliseestlased feel they had to preserve their culture, real Estonian culture against discrimination and poverty, that they have built up their new country, they resent these new people who are grabbing what they can get from a Britain they helped to build.

The newcomers feel that they suffered under 50 years of Soviet occupations, whilst the Väliseestlased were living the good life abroad.
Will the real Estonian stand up please?

The focal point for the conflict is control of existing establishments. The younger, larger and more dynamic recent immigrants are clearing winning, systematically taking over all the focal points of the Estonian communities. Key among them is Estonia House in Notting Hill, a fashionable area of London

“It fell to the invaders some time ago,” a Väliseestlane said to me with a wry smile.

I can confirm that this is so, just five years ago “Estonian classes at Eesti Maja” meant teaching Estonian language to the locals, to the British.

Now it means lessons for Estonian children in the Estonian language. The website for a school based in England, hasn't even got an English-language version.

Then there is Cathorpe Manor where the annual Rahvapidu and summer camp takes place.

Since my connections are with Estonia, it pained me when I found out that this beautiful estate is only hired by the Väliseestlased, it is actually owned by the Latvian community.

The Latvian community in Britain clubbed together and bought the house as a retirement home for their old folk. They have also turned it into a lucrative venue for weddings. The Väliseestlased have just not been as successful or organised.


Now the newcomers are congregating there to. Sending their children to the summer camp. Some may see it rapprochement, other see it as just a take over.

So what are the wrong assumption we talked about at the beginning of the article?

It helps us put the conflict between ethnic Estonians and Russian speakers in Estonia in perspective. Conflict with Russian speakers isn't inevitable, it's been brought about by circumstances. Given enough time and distance it is possibly for even the same people to be in conflict with each other.

Estonians are by no means unique, you find the similar patterns of conflict and resentment between the descendants of the first settlers and the johnny-come-latelys, repeated in virtually every ethnic group in the UK, including my own.

Second Cathorpe Manor is proof, if any were needed, there is nothing innately superior in the Estonian character that has given it an edge over it's southern neighbours in the past 20 years.

If Estonia has been more economically successful than Latvia and Lithuania we must look to external factors.

But I'll make a positive prediction, in 10 years two communities will have merged: After all Väliseestlased kids are going to camps with newcomers or even going to camps in Estonia.

The next Rahvapidu takes take August 18th at Cathorpe Manor.