In Tallinn

Samuel Hanafin

The Russian Embassy in Tallinn is an art nouveau building on Pikk Street in the old city. There are Ukrainian flags and placards with anti-Putin slogans opposite the entrance, the layers of posters and graffiti providing a rough chronology of events in Russia and Ukraine since February 2022. More recent additions include votive candles and portraits of Alexei Navalny. Estonia has no tanks or planes to send to Ukraine, but the country has committed the equivalent of 3.6 per cent of its GDP in aid, making it by far the biggest donor per capita. It joined Nato in 2004, along with the other Baltic states, and its intelligence reports on Russia’s hybrid warfare often make headlines in Western media.

There are more than eighty thousand Russian citizens in Estonia: some of them were entitled to cast their votes in Russia’s presidential election at the embassy on Sunday. Pikk street was unusually busy as the process got under way. Estonian police and Internal Security Service officers were posted at the entrances to the street; bilingual officers had been drafted in to calm arguments before they got out of hand. Russian nationals from the Vote Abroad! project had set up shop outside the building, intent – like their colleagues outside embassies across the world – on recording their own exit poll to set alongside official figures. Despite the bitter cold – it was -9°C in the wind – dozens of voters were already there by 8 a.m. The queue stretched around the corner into a side street.

Russian citizens who live in Estonia are not to be confused with the country’s Russian-speaking community of around 350,000 people, or close to 30 per cent of the population. Ethnic Russians have lived in Estonia for centuries, but much of the current Russian population settled after the Second World War. Many of the Russian speakers who have been unwilling or unable to get Estonian citizenship since independence in 1991 are pensioners or blue collar workers. They are more likely to see Russia as their homeland and to consume Russian state media.

Outside the embassy you could generally guess from their age who the early arrivals were going to vote for. When journalists approached them, one group of pensioners turned their backs, muttering ‘provocateurs’ and ‘Navalnistsi’. Others said that it was crucial to support Vladimir Puitn as a matter of principle. One elderly man, asked about Putin’s decision to raise the retirement age to 65 after he’d promised not to, replied: ‘What about the Donbass?’ A reporter from Novaya Gazeta – which relocated from Moscow to Riga in 2022 – was told she was a young pup, barking at her master’s command.

By late morning, the composition of the voting line had begun to shift and the mood was lightening. Protests across the world had been arranged for midday local time. One woman in her early thirties had left Russia after the start of the war and hadn’t planned on voting before Navalny was murdered. She was about to spoil her ballot (there was no real opposition candidate to vote for). Someone else said she was going to write ‘Peace to Ukraine’ on hers. Voters have been sharing their thoughts on social media about ways to invalidate their ballots. References to peace or Navalny had the edge over penis doodles and swear words. Quite a few votes, according to exit polls, were for Pope Francis.

At midday a modest protest began. Activists held up signs – ‘Putin is a killer’ – and the white and blue flag of ‘free Russia’ and made brief speeches. The exit polls counted around 1500 votes cast: 8 per cent for Putin, 11 per cent for other candidates, 11 per cent with spoiled ballots and 70 per cent – many more than at any other embassy or consulate across the world – refused to answer. In Italy, where support for Ukraine is much lower, up to 40 per cent of respondents were happy to report that they’d voted for Putin.

Outside Tallinn, the number of Russians in Estonia who exercised their right to vote is unknowable. About half of Russian passport-holders live further east, in Narva, the country’s third largest city, on the eponymous river that marks the border with Russia. A few hundred of them crossed the bridge to vote in Ivangorod, where life expectancy is ten years lower than it is on the Estonian side.


  • 20 March 2024 at 7:42pm
    shewie says:
    From what I've read;
    the overall mood in Russia seems to be;
    Russians reelected Putin, Pope Francis not withstanding, because they think he is the right guy at the right time for the right job and to finish the troubles with Ukraine.
    It also seems to be clear though that they are not in the mood for stupid adventures "and capture Europe" not least because that's western propaganda. But if NATO did try an invasion then they will fight like they did in the Great Patriotic War.
    And btw life expectancy in Russia is going up.

  • 20 March 2024 at 9:07pm
    Karl Patrick Norberg says:
    Important to mention that nearly 70,000 Russian speaking people in Estonia are still stateless as citizenship after Estonia's independence was given out based on Estonian ethnicity. Estonia made around 500,000 Russian-speaking people stateless in 1991. The reason why Estonia has this many Russian-speaking people with Russian citizenship is because it refused to naturalise these people upon independence, even though most had born in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. The context matters, because the lack of integration and distrust towards the Estonian state that exists among the Russian-speaking population in Estonia has been largely self-inflicted by the state.

    • 20 March 2024 at 11:32pm
      fbkun says: @ Karl Patrick Norberg
      Thank you for pointing that out. It should be emphasized that discriminatory laws that have been adopted in Baltic countries against their Russian-speaking minorities would be rightly denounced as scandalous under international right if they had been adopted in a country like China, but the EU has been willing to turn a blind eye. A few years ago, an excellent Latvian feature film, "Oleg", described the difficult life of a Russian-speaking Latvian young man exploited in by criminals in Belgium and unable to go to the police because he doesn't have the right to be in Belgium --- indeed, he is one the hundreds of thousands non-citizens barred from citizenship in the country he was born. None of the film critics that wrote about the film seemed to understand (or care to find out) why someone coming from a EU country would be illegal in another EU country...

    • 21 March 2024 at 11:02am
      Chad Sudan says: @ Karl Patrick Norberg
      Stateless people in Estonia have all been offered a path toward Estonian citizenship. It involves passing a mid-level language exam and pledging loyalty to Estonia. (Free language lessons are offered as encouragement.) Tens of thousands of previously stateless people have taken these steps and become Estonian citizens. Others have chosen not to for their own reasons and remain stateless. To omit this crucial context is to distort understanding of the issue.