Authoritarianism was evident in Estonia when I was working in this country during the early 1990s (Bergquist and Weiss, 1994). It was manifest in the concern for reestablishing traditional and hierarchical models of authority—in the passivity of Estonian men and women as learners and as architects of their own personal and collective futures. Like many Eastern European countries (and many other countries for that matter) Estonia has traditionally been ruled by authoritarian hierarchies imposed from outside.
Some of the structural elements of communist ideological thinking are not far from traditional habits of mind in Estonia: authority (manifested in hierarchy), a strong positive valence placed on rational thought (scientism) and a tension between the rational/higher elements (associated with the West and Europe) and the dark, mysterious East’s impulses. I now turn briefly to the tensions inherent in these structural elements.
Authority and Freedom of Thought
Some of the Estonians I interviewed commented on feeling a new sense of freedom of thought after the liberation of their country. The thought police no longer controlled the public dialogue. The reality, however, is that the way in which people think and what people think about are influenced by forces more numerous and subtle than just the presence or absence of thought police. The cumulative history of habits of thinking precede the Communist era by at least four hundred years in Estonia. The historical narratives of this country are shaped by repeated invasions and occupations from both East and West.
These narratives, in turn, have a profound impact on the way in which political and societal discourse takes place and the content of this discourse. I asked the following question: Has your life changed since the political changes? The response was often: How much do you know about our history? And then our interviewees would often provide a brief summary of their history. The historical roots go so deep that they take on mystical and mythic overtones. Estonian thought is saturated with Estonian history–. as is the case in many (if not all) societies. While history and thought are often intertwined, I would suggest that there is some irony embedded in the Estonian narratives. They contain the seemingly contradictory themes of both individualism and collectivism.