Four thousand ethnic Russians and more than 2,000 ethnic Finns who live in Estonia tell officials that they consider Estonian to be their native language while 24,000 ethnic Estonians say they don’t speak Estonian – and the state statistics department says that most of those speak Russian.
In addition, Tallinn officials say more than 220,000 ethnic Russians say they now speak Estonian, and more than 8,000 people from all nationalities who are not citizens say that they consider Estonian their native language.
For Estonia as a whole, the figures released in advance of the Day of Native Language show, 68 percent of the total population identify Estonian as their native language, roughly the same share as of those who identify as Estonian by nationality, and a significant fraction of the remainder speak Estonian as a second language.
On the one hand, these figures reflect the success of Estonia in integrating non-Estonians, including ethnic Russians, few of whom spoke Estonian at the end of Soviet times, and the willingness of these people to identify not only with the country as a political entity but with the Estonian language community.
But on the other hand, they highlight something else that Moscow with its obsessive insistence on the tight relationship between language and ethnic identity among Russians is not willing to acknowledge: the increasing propensity of those who identify as Russians to view a language other than Russian as their native language.
Not only does that suggest that the relationship between language and ethnic identity among Russians is less close than many in the Kremlin believe but it suggests that over time, those who analyze developments in the post-Soviet states are going to have to cope with new category of people who might best be called “non-Russian speaking Russians.”
Such a category would consist primarily of those who speak the non-Russian language as a second language but continue to use Russian as well. But as the new Estonian data suggest, over time and under the right conditions, it may also include those who change their own definition of what constitutes their native language from Russian to a non-Russian language.
From Paul Goble’s Window on Eurasia