As an “impatient” American, I was surprised to discover how willing Estonians were to listen to speeches that droned on and on for several hours, whether in person or on television. The “talking head” was apparently widely found and tolerated in most of the Eastern European countries before and after collapse of the Soviet Union. This willingness to listen, be persuaded by and follow the directions of a single leader (whether from the old regime or the new one) seemed to be a lingering ghost of Soviet rule and the rule of many other repressive and occupying regimes prior to the Soviet invasion.
There was a search for and designation of wise leader in Estonia, based on the assumption that somehow a great person will lead citizens of this embattled country out of their troubles. In a previous essay on authoritarianism (Bergquist, 2020b), I wrote about the pull toward the wise leader (as well as courageous leader and visionary leader) as identified by Wilfred Bion (1961). There seemed to be a hunger in Estonia for new heroes: visionaries, wise leaders, warriors. The new leaders, in reality, may have been merely the old leaders, or their descendants, in new clothing (much as we find today in the Putin-led Russian government).
Turning to the old leaders probably appealed to an authoritarian need for structure and continuity-that was dominant in Estonia (and other Eastern European countries) during the early 1990a. While the Estonians were provided with a new image upon which can be projected new societal needs, these needs are often only met with a return to old structures. As Bion and other object relations theorist have noted, when there are high levels of anxiety in an individual or group, there must be structures and procedures (“containers”) that can hold and this anxiety—so that it can be “metabolized” (converted from anxiety into acceptance and, hopefully, action) (Bergquist, 2020a).
I appreciated the willingness of Estonians to listen to other people, for this is certainly a failing of many Americans, who seem to tolerate nothing more than a ten-second sound bite and are more impatient to express their own opinion than truly to listen to someone else. Yet I was concerned that there was little evidence of much interaction between the speaker and listener. There was little in the way of any collaborative discovery among the citizens–which is a critical way of knowing in any learning-oriented society (Belenky and others, 1986). It was never quite clear whether these passive listeners were really taking in what was being said by the speakers or just showing deference to authoritarian leaders and structures. Does true freedom require interaction among peers, or is this just an American bias? Is dialogue required for any community to discover something that rings of truth and credibility (Gergen and Gergen, 2004) or is this just a naïve vestige of old fashion American town hall meetings (for we have our own historical ghosts)?