A few years ago, you wrote an influential article entitled Post-colonialism and Estonia. In that article, you point out several keywords related to post-colonial- ism and you place them in the context of Estonia, finding several points of contact: hybridity of culture, creolization, mimicry and many other concepts appropriately characterise Estonian culture in your analysis. Our first question is very direct, even banally commonplace: in your opinion, does contemporary Estonia (or, more narrowly, Estonian culture) behave like a typical postcolonial country (culture)?

There is no such thing as a typical post- colonial culture. The cultures of colonies have been too different for a typical culture to emerge. Yet the question assumes that the Soviet regime was a colonial regime. That, however, is ambiguous.

The basis of a colonial relationship is the understanding that the colonised is by nature inferior to the coloniser. And both sides accept this understanding. This kind of relationship has not existed between Russians and Estonians. Yet a country, society or culture that, academically speaking, has not been colonised can interpret itself as having been colonised and liberated from colonisation. And in terms of this point, the answer is quite clear. It does behave like a postcolonial country. Nationalism, a black-and-white world-view in which the former upper class (=Russians) is the enemy that has to be suppressed. The destruction of the symbols of the colonial era and the constant belittling of the former coloniser. The stigmatisation of dissenters in their own society by former collaborators who have labelled themselves as liberals now. Attempts to destroy that part of the memory that is associated with the colonisers and by doing so, the constant prominence of that memory. And so on, and so on.

Carl Timoleon von Neff. Estonian woman with a Child. 1850s. Oil on canvas. 47.9 x 38.7 cm. Art Museum of Estonia Von Neff was a Baltic- German artist and art collector. The picture depicts the typical colonial viewpoint in the middle of the 19th century which saw Estonians as exotic and romantic creatures. Teachers still value the painting highly, pointing out the colourful clothes of the woman.

Carl Timoleon von Neff. Estonian woman with a Child. 1850s. Oil on canvas. 47.9 x 38.7 cm. Art Museum of Estonia Von Neff was a Baltic- German artist and art collector. The picture depicts the typical colonial viewpoint in the middle of the 19th century which saw Estonians as exotic and romantic creatures. Teachers still value the painting highly, pointing out the colourful clothes of the woman.

Two of the most important concepts of Post-colonialism are hybridity and mimicry, and you emphasise that those concepts in particular characterise Estonian culture very well. They also push the dream of many people regarding the “authentic” culture of Estonians back into the 13th century, at best, to the time before overt colonial- ism. Mimicry introduces certain insecurity in accordance with postcolonial theory: the coloniser is not capable of completely controlling the colonised. What in your opinion are the reasons why there were possibilities at all in the first place for the emergence of mimicry in Estonia – right through to the present? Why were these possibilities not cut off?

And if authentic Estonian culture does not exist, then could not that specific hybridity that emerged right here and only in this space and at a certain time also be considered authentic?

I started thinking: is that nevertheless not the question of why copied culture is created in the first place, why the path to that kind of culture is not cut off? Why was the authentic direction not chosen? You see, the question of why the path to mimicry was not cut off seems strange to me. It seems to involve the question of why a people have not allowed itself to be controlled completely. Or what does it mean after all?

A hybrid means forms of culture on the boundary between colonial culture and a people’s own culture. The result of mimicry is a ‘blurred copy’ of the coloniser, which does not mean an unwashed, but rather an unclear, imprecise copy that is similar and at the same time is not similar. Both mean something that is on the boundary and is not pure.

Mimicry occurs in nature for the purpose of concealing oneself, to protect oneself, and at the same time the concealer inwardly remains himself. A human being, however, can easily change so that external mimicry becomes inner mimicry. Mimicry as nature, as essence. There is nothing unusual in a person in an insane asylum who pretends to be insane eventually truly turning insane.

Yet indirectly, the question of authentic Estonian culture is discernible behind that question. What is authenticity? According to one meaning, it is simply originality as opposed to its copy, borrowing, plagiarism. Yet even in this, two varieties can be found. According to the ideology of modernity, the only thing that is important is the originality of the elementary particle of one or another culture, even though nobody knows what that particle is. According to the ideology of post-modernity, there are similar and dissimilar parts in every culture, but their combination could be original. Thus every hybrid and mimicry could be authentic. And conversely, in this respect, all colonial cultures are also hybrids and copies of some other culture. Thus we do not in principle differ from those cultures. At the same time, we clearly feel that we are nevertheless not quite equals among equals…

Yet the uniqueness of a cultural or national experience is also interpreted as authenticity. This can be created consciously or sought after the fact. Estonians have, in my opinion, consistently presented as their unical experience things, which are common to many people. And we have declared adaptation to be the nucleus of our ideology, which is held to have ensured the continuation of our existence. Maybe. But this cannot be proven. Because nations have also survived following different ways of think- ing. In short, we have desired originality and at the same time idealised adaptation. This is the ideology of someone who is always in pursuit but never takes the lead.

Yet authenticity is also the ‘innerself’ of a people or culture, something that is us ourselves. There are roles, masks, attributes that are learned and imposed around this essence. This kind of authenticity cannot be created. It is. And it must be found within oneself. There is an altogether different path for searching for that authenticity other than constant running. This path is intransigence in the face of pressure exerted by external power, ideology or money. At the same time, this kind of authenticity does not have to be unique at all. This kind of authenticity is not novelty; rather, it is something that exists and has to be found. And Modernism did not seek this kind of authenticity. Its idea was ‘to make it new’. But hybridity, the knowledge that every- thing-already-exists-in-this-world, leads to a longing for this kind of authenticity. And here I see our chance.

But this is not easy because culture also borrows from its own past. We can say that every culture is created in a contact zone between its past and future. It mimics the culture of the past, but it is never a simple reproduction of old forms. The history of culture is a process that constantly produces non-identity with itself. Along with this, it also produces inauthentic- ity. It is always the blurred copy of its own past.

Why was the way of thinking of modernisation not confronted in Estonian culture? It has always been confronted. Philologists and essayists August Annist, Oskar Loorits, Uku Masing, Jaan Kaplinski, the creators of the Taara faith, the followers of Buddhism (which have been influential in Estonian culture through the 20th century) etc. Yet the influence of a particular ideologist is qualitatively greater in a small society than in a large society. And the major ideologists and leaders of Estonian society chose the ideology of modernisation, putting the entire apparatus of power and intellectual spirit to work for this purpose. The differences were only between the different models of modernisation and/or colonial models.

On the other hand, was there any other way at all a century ago? I remind you that Estonian nationality and culture were created at the high point of colonialism, when its values were not subject to doubt. And it was created at the high point of modernisation, when progress, the idea of development and Europocentrism were central ideas, as was the consideration of European culture and the European social model as being universal and the most advanced, without any particular criticism. A different kind of developmental path for Estonians at that time would have required some sort of very original thinking. Estonian culture, society and nationality are the products of the era of modernisation. The nucleus of the idea of modernisation is development, originality and universality. This way of thinking has one basis for those who lag behind: we want to catch up and become like others have already become. You cannot catch up by thinking other- wise. It was not possible to remain unaffected by this way of thinking. Even more so, both Germany and Russia were fascinated by the same kind of ideology of catching up in the 19th-20th centuries. The struggle between Russian Western sympathisers and Slavophiles can be analyzed quite simply in post-colonialist and self-colonisation terms. Germany constantly considered itself a country that lagged behind. Stalinism and Nazism were large-scale modern projects for catching up and overtaking their competitors.

But this ideology is not eternal. It was born and it died. Postmodernism came along and its essence was the idea of borrowing, circulation and assembly/ assemblage/ piecing together/ kokkupanemine?????. And along with it, the world came back again as a magical theatre that is guided by time, which eternally moves around in a circle, endless (partial) repetition, metamorphoses, and the use of immemorial social models, beliefs and traditions. This also means precisely the idea of hybridity instead of originality.

Estonian society tried to catch up with Europe at all cost. The paradox is that those who were in the lead arrived at the same place, where we had arrived at through our ideology of catching up as they were in the same place but in a new round. And now we are at the point where our hybridity fuses with the world’s hybridity.

But the central point for me is that people who consider themselves to be colonised start looking up to the colonisers from below. And
they see the uncultivated nature, lowness and non-existence of their own culture compared to the colonising culture. They place themselves in the abyss. Borrowing between equals is not a colonial relationship.

The emergence of “Estonians” and the “Estonian nationality” in the 19th century was surprising for many foreign researchers: they did not see any logical path of development extending back into previous centuries that would have indicated that those concepts could emerge at some moment. Can it be said in the light of Post-colonialism that these concepts did not actually emerge or, more precisely, that these concepts were not filled up by content?

Who is an Estonian? In the case of nationality, a simple truth applies in its deeper core: I feel that I am a member of nationality x, therefore I exist. And if there are many people who feel that way, then that nationality exists. Thus, becoming a nationality is not a question of logic at all. I think that the logic of the emergence of the Estonian nationality was very difficult to see in the light of those ways of thinking that prevailed and prevail in the world and which are defined by scholars from large countries. There are a couple of simple, yet implicit, basic assumptions. Only large people are capable of creating something. Culture is a matter for the upper classes, peasants do not have culture. According to these assumptions, a small people consisting of peasants cannot create culture in the same sense.

The Estonian nationality as a concept definitely emerged. We use it every day. Are these concepts filled with content? They definitely are, in light of Post-colonialism. The question is what we mean by content. At this point, we arrive back at the question of authenticity.

Kaljo Põllu. Where did we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? 1978. Mezzotint, paper. 47.0 x 56.0 cm. Art Museum of Estonia Searching for ‘authenticity’ has characterised Estonian art from the early 20th century (Kristjan Raud and others). The 1970s saw a new wave of this searching. The most prominent representative of the wave was Kaljo Põllu, who had previously been active in pop art, op art, land art etc.

Kaljo Põllu. Where did we come from? Who are we?
Where are we going? 1978. Mezzotint, paper. 47.0 x 56.0 cm. Art Museum of Estonia Searching for ‘authenticity’ has characterised Estonian art from the early 20th century (Kristjan Raud and others). The 1970s saw a new wave of this searching. The most prominent representative of the wave was Kaljo Põllu, who had previously been active in pop art, op art, land art etc.

The concept of colonisation appears to imply something negative by default. Yet, could colonisation – paradoxically – be a positive project instead for Estonians as a small people? Would Estonian culture have been possible in the first place with- out the positive contribution of colonisers (for instance, Baltic German Estophiles) or also negative contributions (different foreign powers under which the evolution of identity was clearer and more intense)?

I do not have a reasonable answer to that question. We cannot play out history again. We can only draw some conclusions on the basis of analogies. For instance, the Finns and Latvians also had the same kind of helpers, and that suggests that it would not have been possible. But that is only an analogy.

In my opinion, what is important is, rather, the fact that the base of our nationality has been strong opposition to Baltic Germans and Russians. I believe that, without that opposition, the national identity would be much less intense. At the same time, however, such an identity is a negative identity that relies, to a very great extent, on others. Psychologists say that our picture of ourselves is strongly based on Russians: we are what Russians are not. And this in my opinion is a picture of ourselves for which the way of thinking of colonised people forms the basis and in which there is too little strength.

Is the occupation of physical space, colonisation, a preceding negative act that is absolutely necessary for a colonialist cultural relationship to emerge? Or is it possible to treat present-day Estonia not as Post- colonialist but rather in terms of continuing colonialism?

A century and a half ago, spiritual or intellectual presence was unthinkable without physical presence. But that changed in the 20th century with the telegraph, aeroplanes and the Internet, which made physical presence secondary. And it also made the question of colonialism an intellectual problem first and foremost. Who is a coloniser in this kind of world? Isn’t almost the entire Internet culture one large act of spiritual colonisation and self-colonisation? As far as I can tell, the heart of the matter lies in the fact that colonial culture is based on something that existed before. Something that is completed. Something that is accepted as one’s own, and declared to be universal and valuable. And then it is taken to the land of ’black people’. Nowadays, processes proceed everywhere in parallel. At least according to this point of view, Estonia’s society is not a colonised country.

Is it possible to view the Russian Diaspora here and the processes there in terms of Post-colonialism? Or to view colonialism in this way?

If we interpret Soviet Estonia as a colonized country and ourselves as people who have been liberated from colonialism, then we inevitably have to view the Soviet Diaspora that remained here as a remnant outpost of colonialism. And then we can also view processes here in terms of Post-colonialism or anticolonialism at the same time not forgetting that we are in the role of Africans then. But as I said, I am not certain that this is so. At the same time, we can see that a large proportion of Russians here interpret themselves as being analogous to white people who remained in Africa after the end of the colonial relationship.

Olaf Mertelsmann has pointed out that the ESSR was not a case of classical colonialism since here the level of the coloniser’s culture was not higher. He prefers the expression “cultural transfer”, since “Post-colonialism” sounds negative. Why, in your opinion, is it more proper to speak of colonialism in particular, which is clearly a more ideological concept than “cultural transfer”?

I also think that it was not classical colonialism. But I definitely do not think that the necessary attribute of colonialism is the higher level of culture of the coloniser. Who measures whose cultural level and what gauges are used? Does India had a lower level of culture than England? I am not at all certain that the cultural level of the typical Englishman who went to live in Africa was particularly high. We automatically speak of the cultural level of the Russians who came here, not about the level of Russian culture or the cultural level of the Russian aristocracy. And we all the time mix up Russian and Soviet.

And what is important is that entire ideology of measuring levels of culture is based on the idea of the universality of culture and society. Yet colonialism interpreted European cultural values as being universal.


Jaan Elken. Seagull. 1982. Oil, canvas. 135.0 x 150.3 cm. Art Museum of Estonia. As is often the case, photorealism (or hyperrealism) was introduced into Estonian art with no original context, so hybridity and mimicry had to be used in a new context for the loaned style. Photorealism was also a tool for non-conformist avant-garde, for doing things ‘differently’, although its political and critical potential in opposing colonising power was limited by its aesthetic resistance and quite modest social irony. The white ship we see in the painting has many meanings, as the symbol of a ‘white ship’ was commonly used in the 1940s to describe the vague hope that the British or some other navy would come to Estonia and free us. The white ship we see in the picture was the ship which made regular trips to Finland, although only a very limited number of Estonians were allowed to go there.

Post-colonialism is a collection of theories that explicitly speaks about ideology and power relationships. The aim of cultural trans- fer, as far as I can tell, is to become free from ideologisation and the power relationships. It is 21st century comparative-historical posi- tivism that wants to hide its head in the sand instead of facing ideology. In my opinion, this is fundamentally dangerous. Ideology that is concealed is something that always leads its users on a leash. And, on the other hand, the relationship between our people and strangers has always been important for Estonian culture, whether we like it or not. Transfer strives to obscure this relationship.

Are colonialism and Post-colonialism merely national-cultural concepts, or can they be applied to socio-economic class differences? Can the working class be viewed as a colonised class that adopts certain customs, habits and lifestyles of the ruling class?

This is a theoretical question of the limits of the concept. Colonialism is in any case a hierarchical relationship, a relationship of strata, a class relationship. Yet should all such relation- ships be referred to as colonial relationships? Do we refer to analogous phenomena domestically and abroad, so to speak, differently or similarly? If it is too broad, the concept begins to dismantle itself.

I have written about colonialism as the atti- tude of empire towards the periphery, the prov- ince, marginality and barbarism. I have said that there is a clear colonial relationship in medieval and early Renaissance Europe between nobles and peasants as “the other”. Wild land extends around castles and that wild land has to be colo- nised, and the castles must be defended against it. As far as I can tell, those two were interpreted as different lands. But this relationship changed over time. And I would not consider present-day relationships in the terminology of colonialism. There is no longer a substantial difference here.

Homi K. Bhabha says in an interview that the history of colonialism, as well as that of, for example, slavery, gender oppression and class differences, does not deal only with classes, people and regions, but also with social differences that shape the everyday life of modernity. These different discourses help us to think about how hierarchies have run their affairs within modernity. Could this also apply to Estonia – can we find out anything about our modernity through Post- colonialism? What can we find out?

Yes. In my opinion, it is precisely the post- colonialist approach that allows us to see our entire modernising process in a new way. I believe that there were some answers to this in the previous answers in my interview.

The coloniser does not feel that he is miss- ing something. On the contrary, he represents the universal. Yet the idea is planted in the minds of colonised people that they are not part of the universal, that they are missing something. By this they are made uncertain so that they will start perceiving themselves as “the other”, as people in front of whom the prefix non- or not- belongs. The most impor- tant impetus is when somebody perceives, to his surprise, that this gap is so large that it leads to cultural trauma; and due to this impe- tus, he begins to colonise himself.

Modernisation has, at the same time, been extrication from colonialism for Estonian society. This has been done, to a great extent, through self-colonialisation, which has also been the liberation of oneself from colonialism. It is an attempt to take one’s fate into one’s own hands. On the other hand, modernisation has also been colonialisation. Baltic Germans and Russians brought railways, the telegraph, and the technology that is the foundation for modernity, into Estonia. The Soviet regime built large factories. These were the attributes of colonialism and, at the same time, they were also the attributes of modernisation. Estonians consider Soviet industry to be an attribute of colonialism, but the railways and industry of tsarist rule are considered attributes of modernisation. By the way, Estonians did not particularly want to go to work in factories. The worker was, in some sense, a Russian for Estonians and, as such, part of the stratum of colonisers. From this point, we approach the relationship of class and the coloniser in an absolutely new way.


Tiit Hennoste (1953), language scientist, literary scholar, critic, media analyst. See also Estonian Art no 2/2010.