What is Room 101 for an Estonian?

"What is in Room 101?"

In Orwell’s “1984,” the main protagonist, Winston Smith, is brutally tortured and mercilessly beaten in the Ministry of Love. In the course of his torment he becomes aware from other prisoners that there is a place inside the ministry where something even worse is going on — Room 101.

Later he is given the opportunity to ask a question on any subject whatsoever, but he doesn’t really want the answers to the questions he had been seeking throughout the story, he only wants to know one thing.

“What is in Room 101?”

In Room 101, it turns out, is the worst thing in the world. It varies from person to person. It could be death by fire, or burial alive. “It is worse than death, it is unendurable.” In Winston’s case, as we all know, it is rats.

Estonia has it’s own Room 101, as any visitor to the country can observe. The notion of national extinction, the fear the nation might die because there simply aren’t enough Estonians left any more.

This is a real fear as it happened to the Livonians.

As a colleague said to me once, “what is important to me is that I can speak in my language to my grandchildren.”

Alcohol abuse could make Room 101 a reality. Figures show that alcoholism is on the rise with the young. According to a report by the Estonian Institute of Economic report, in 2008 Estonia had the second highest alcohol consumption in Europe. The institute found that the average Estonian drank 11.9 liters of alcohol in 2008.

In an interview with Postimees this month, Minister of Social Affairs Hanno Pevkur squarely blamed breweries for making the problem worse for the young by making beer too strong.

The facts are both depressing and well-known. If the nation’s youth are all feckless drunks, to0 busy killing themselves in drink driving accidents, or too drunk to make love even, much less get married, just how are they going to procreate?

When my editor asked to write about this issue, I thought of Stephen Fry. Let me explain?

In Britain the concept of Room 101 is so well-known we even have a TV show called “Room 101” where celebrities put the things they hate or the things that just irritate them symbolically into the room. Stephen Fry, actor, comedian, and IT guru, put Room 101 into Room 101. I will do the same. Instead of writing about what is wrong with Estonia’s young people I’d rather write about what is right with them.

In my experience, Estonian youth are exceptionally bright and talented and if my country had this kind of talent per capita, the rest of the world would trembling. It we had 20 million young people who were as resourceful, we would be ready to take over half the planet. Again.

Everything I say is unscientific, it’s anecdotal but I work with children and deal with them in my travels, as a teacher, a public servant, a trade unionist and as an organizer in a charity that helped homeless youth. I also have eight nephews, aged between nine and 20 so I think I have some authority to make comparisons between the Estonian youngsters and British youngsters.

I’ll start with the obvious. Estonian kids can speak languages. Most can speak two languages and many three or four. In the U.K. You are considered a bright 18-year-old if you speak another language other than English. In Estonia you are considered an idiot if you can only speak Estonian.

Nothing much surprising there, what is surprising is that many Estonian youth can use English better than the English can.

One day back in the U.K. a 13-year English boy asked me to help him with an application for theater “scool”. I was horrified that someone going to “scool” every “scoolday,” couldn’t spell it.

Why was this? It is not something in the water supply or the food he eat. It is just there are huge gulfs in educational standards.

It’s produced a situation where on the one hand my privately-schooled 11 year-old nephew can write a poem so advanced that it reads like something written by an university undergraduate and on the other hand one bright 19-year-old I know left school with no computer skills whatsoever, he even didn’t know how to send e-mails.

Come to think of it may be diet is a factor. Not only do Estonian youth seem mentally smarter, they seem physically stronger. When I arm-wrestled my kid nephews I pushed their arms over so quickly it seemed like they weren’t even trying. When I tried it with an Estonian boy about the same age, it was significantly harder.

To drive home the point he was cocky and confident enough to actually think he could win.

“I want a rematch,” he said.

If it is not one thing it another. At the school that I teach at, children are encouraged to develop extra-curricular activities. There are many gifted musicians, artists, budding filmmakers, actors and scientists.

It takes 10-15 years to get good at skill. Yet the young musicians I have come into contact with are already virtuosos. I found it hard to fathom how they could be so advanced. I seems the classically-trained pianists and guitarists I teach must have been playing since they were embryos.

Britain invented rock music (as opposed to rock’n’roll, which America invented), but in terms of technical ability, young Estonians are better at it now.

There is also the hacker culture that created Skype. The same principle is true in Sweden and Finland. I have heard it argued that it is down to climate. Long cold winter nights mean nobody wants to go out, so kids have nothing better to do than to sit in their bedrooms and mess around on computers and guitars.

Estonians are even doing capitalism better. There is a strong entrepreneurial spirit among Estonian youth which is lacking in Britain. A lot has been said about the Soviet Union and the way it stifled competition ruining whole generations of Estonians, particular men, but consider this — the generation born after 1990 grew up with the kind of jungle capitalism that we in the West associate with the Wild West or Chicago in the 1920s.

When asked about their experiences of early childhood many young people can remember how they parents would make ends meet by wheeler-dealing, finding what they could and selling it on.

In the 90s most Estonians were freelance businessmen and those that weren’t were starving. This has affected Estonian youth’s worldview as much as the Soviet experience.

The young are used to the idea you can’t do well by working for someone else, and if you want to have a prosperous life and a pretty wife/nice husband, you have to work for yourself, preferably employing others.

In Britain young people are still waiting for state handouts.

This can-do attitude can go to bizarre lengths. I once asked a class of students what they thought of the idea of free higher education, as happens in Sweden and Finland.

British students would be jumping up and down in excitement at the prospect of no tuition fees.

Estonians thought it was better to pay.

“Why pay for something if you can get it for free?” I asked.

“Why not? there is no such thing as a free lunch,” came the reply.

As for the alcohol problem, I am not buying it. Either the Estonians who were reported as consuming copious amounts of alcohol were really Finnish day trippers, or things have improved since the figures were compiled in 2008 or there is some other explanation for the figures no one has thought of.

It is clear to even to a casual observer drinking is a much bigger problem with youth in Britain and Ireland. No one who has spent a night out on the town in Newcastle or Dublin could possible think otherwise.

So why do think tanks and politicians keep talking down the youth of the nation?

The press want people to worry about things to keep them reading the paper. Think tanks need to highlight any perceived problem to get funding. And politicians can raise their profile by criticizing the alcohol industry. Of course, the alcohol and tobacco industries are easy targets because at the end day they are peddling a mild narcotic. All drama is based on conflict. It’s the same reason why George Orwell created Room 101 in the first place.

Abdul Turay is a freelance writer living in Tallinn. Read more of his incisive, thought-provoking work here.


Views expressed in the opinion section are never those of the Baltic Reports company or the website’s editorial team as a whole, but merely those of the individual writer.

4 Responses for “What is Room 101 for an Estonian?”

  1. Ann Smith says:

    Abdul said, “One thirteen-year boy asked me to help him with an application for theater “scool”. I was horrified that someone going to “scool” every “scoolday,” couldn’t spell it.” Was the 13-year-old British or Estonian? My young Estonian relatives certainly as a linguistically adept (Estonian, English, Russian, maybe some Finnish or another language) as Abdul claims for the Estonians, but spelling in English is their weak suit. After all, Estonian is so phonetic that English should be too, eks ole? But that’s a whole other debate…

  2. Estonian says:

    Thank you, Abdul, for the positive views on Estonians.

    Mr. Pavkur needs to wake up and realize that there wouldn’t be such an alcohol problem if Estonian youth actually had something useful and productive to look forward to—like good jobs and good prospects in their own country. Why do you think so many of them have left? The government needs to get its butt in gear and work on THAT problem and not look to blame something as ludicrous as the alcoholic content of beer!

  3. Jaan says:

    Thank you for this piece. I’ve observed the same and better in Estonia. So why all the bad press? Main reason is that no newspapers or major media outlets are owned by Estonians. Estonians are the world’s worse PR men. They don’t pay care about or pay any attention to ‘spin’ even it is highly damaging since they know it is coming from Finnish, Swedish, Russian or Latvian journalists who follow the R. Murdoch Yello school of Journalism.

  4. Alex says:

    I’m afraid your story is too positive. Even if you know hundreds of Estonians, it’s not a majority. I’m an Estonian living abroad and for me the picture is much more depressing. Heavy drinking is just so much more common in Estonia than elsewhere. Even in Estonian ex-pat communities, be it in Europe or in the States (have lived in both places). Just go around and listen to what blue collar (or not-so-white-collar) people are talking about when they get together. Alcohol-related chat/jokes are ruling (just got back from a reunion party and it was frankly speaking bad). What about Estonian songs where every third (just making the numbers up) is about drinking, in one way or another? I even recently read a childrens’ book where Vodka was mentioned.
    The other problem is that even if you can write ‘school’, it doesn’t help you much. We are definetly lacking the top-notch education segment and this is what matters if you want to take your country forward. I’m not going here into the details but the fact-teaching education (as opposed to ‘thinking teaching education’) is still a problem. In any case, myself, I’m aiming higher with my children and there is no way I want to bring them back to Estionia — for educational reasons.
    As to Jan, then I have the opposite view: for some reason, we have managed to create an impression of an extremely IT-oriented, well-educated and open society. I don’t by it. It not much different from what it is elsewhere. Even more, we lack tolerance and the willingness to learn more about the life and people elsewhere (we are often critical of others). And again, strong average is not necessarily the key for the overall success. It’s actuyally worse: it may be deceiving.

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