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Return to the Western World: Estonia and the Post-Communist Transition Review

Sadly the excellent cover art is never explored

Sadly the excellent cover art is never explored

Return to the Western World is both a sociological study, and a revelation of Estonia's views on its own history and place in the world. by now, times have moved on: it comes from the dreamlike world of the 1990s, when the "west" was high upon the inevitability and triumph of its own system, in the unique historical time of the fall of communism and Fukuyama's The End of History. It's an interesting book, although often the sociological structures render it a rather dry and pettifogging work.

The book is divided into themes of history, politics, economics, and regional space. Although the name is principally focused on Estonia, it also looks at surrounding countries, most noticeably Sweden and Finland. This is also a reflection of the Estonian mentality: the Estonians, as the book clearly shows, both in its style and the formal declarations, desperately wished for themselves to be perceived as parts of the West. This comes out as early as, and very noticeably in, the chapter on Estonian history and Estonian-Swedish relations. there is a noticeable discord between what the book constantly claims and wants to believe and what it actually shows. It constantly stresses for example, how close Sweden and Estonia's relations were and ar for example. But at the same time the story is a constant refrain of how Sweden abandoned Estonia to the Russians, or were mostly indifferent to the Estonians. It brings up the subject of Tarku university, but mentions that there were no confirmed Estonian students during Swedish rule - at most there was a single Latvian student. The Estonians liberated themselves from the USSR, with some Finnish help, with Swedish aid being extremely marginal, and Sweden being noticeable reticent to recognize or support Estonia during the interwar. Then the Soviets occupied Estonia and the Swedes recognize this, unlike many Western democracies, and offered no aid or encouragement to the Estonians until the final days of the USSR. So where does this friendly and close historical Swedish-Estonian friendship come from? From what the Estonians want to see in Sweden. The Estonians were desperate to see themselves as Western and holding a greater position in the Western mindset than they really commanded.

But the bulk of the book is a sociological exploration, mostly looking at opinions, perspectives, and values of Estonians, as well as Russian-Estonians. This has some glimmers of fascination - for example, Russian identity under the Soviet Union in Estonia, where overwhelmingly these Russians considered themselves "Soviet people." But as with many sociological works, these intriguing details get caught up in a flood of charts and opinion polls that are less enlightening.

Thus I have my doubts about trying to quantify much of the book's finer concepts: ideas such as "Baltic Identity," are hard to really define. Return to the West is able to show that unsurprisingly it is not dominant, and yet also that it does exist to some extent: the panoply of charts is mostly unnecessary.

The historical segment, analyzing in institutional changes and facets of the Soviet-Estonian transition, is the best part of the book, looking at stages of the Estonian route to liberty and post-communist market economy. Its stages of the "mythic" or breakthrough period, change taking hold, and emergence of stable democratic systems, are very enlightening, although imbued with too much 1990s optimism, and here the charts comparing economic reforms and economic growth are quite illuminating. Although not necessarily in the strict sense the book writes: it admires Estonian shock economic therapy, but there are other books that critique shock therapy just as much. The Central European experience shows a much less radical version of shock therapy and yet their capitalist transition has been quite effective as well. The whole question of shock therapy seems less important than the suitability of the society itself for the reforms. As with many economic lessons, the context is far more important than the universal import.

The rigid division which it writes between "Western" and "Eastern" civilization is one that seems deeply questionable. Consider its line between the two, which runs on the eastern edge of the Baltic states, the western edge of Belarus, through Ukraine, and then through Romania and through the Balkans. Would you find such a big difference in the people of say, central and western Ukraine, despite the former belonging to what the book lays out as the Byzantine cultural sphere, and the western Ukrainians to the "West?" Its rigid dichotomy of one being individualistic, liberal, capitalistic, etc. while the eastern one is collective, authoritarian, and traditional strikes me much more as an example of what the Estonians want to portray: socially, countries like Poland are probably far more similar to the "East" of Russia than to a western country like America, despite being written as belonging to the same civilizational sphere.

From a specific time in history, much of the book has been superseded by the passage of time. And so too, the sociological research side is often ill suited. But it does have some segments that are great looks at Estonian history, and above all else the Estonian self-perception.

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