Discussions on migration tend to emphasise movement, challenges to identity, and also loss or gain to the state and the nation. From the angle of human development, however, the link between migration and social cohesion should emerge as vitally important. In what follows, social cohesion refers to the readiness of people and groups to cooperate and to offer, as well as accept, mutual help. It is this link that also intensifies and becomes more complex in a globalised world. In this context, changing regimes of meaning (i.e. meanings derived from a certain set of knowledge and/or ideology, and the links formed between the meanings within this set as well as with other meanings) become central: how does the meaning of “home” or “Estonia” shift, where does Estonia fit into the worldwide hierarchies of development, and what meanings do migration in general, as well as immigration and emigration more specifically, have in different sending and receiving countries? In the following chapter, the starting points of migration are rural areas outside urban regions and the end points are Estonian towns and other countries.


Social capital refers to relations between people that offer mutual respect in a stable functioning network. Examples of social capital could be a circle of acquaintances one could rely on in difficulties, or schoolmates/university peers who feel obliged to help each other in finding a job.

Symbolic capital refers to honour, prestige, recognition that could be experienced by individuals or organisations, regions or even states. As with social capital, symbolic capital can be converted into other forms of capital, for example a war hero can use this prestige to acquire political office; equally, countries with high prestige globally may have a better position at economic negotiations.

Ethnic capital refers to trust or advantage that belonging to a particular ethnic group provides.

Diasporic capital includes the economic, social, cultural capital and/or emotional bond that connects people with their homeland and the people left behind and that persuades them to use their social, symbolic, financial or other capital related to their life abroad there, or to see this as their mission.

The aim of this chapter is to analyse the links between social cohesion and migration in rural Estonia, the setting most affected by such loss of population. I will consider how social relations in the countryside and the value of the countryside as home have disintegrated. Peripheralisation and poverty experienced in the context of the global scale of comparison directly trigger the potential for emigration: people are moving towards the environments where the level of welfare is seen to be somehow higher. Secondly, I will explore the kinds of opportunities migration creates for enhancing social relations and overcoming inequalities. Here, too, both the global comparisons and opportunities have an important role. Thirdly, I will analyse why the move from a rural to an urban area or abroad might fail to better one’s circumstances. Again, openness, and its perceived risks and inequalities, may have a part to play in this. All those processes – the diminishing value of rural life and its fragmentation, the emergence and use of solutions – are influenced by the broader context, including the changing meanings of the place of living, of migration, openness and Estonianness and its different forms, both in Estonia and elsewhere. To better explain these processes of cohesion and the changes in meanings I will apply and advance Pierre Bourdieu’s (1986) concepts of social and symbolic capital, along with such concepts as ethnic and diasporic capital that have been proposed and used by different migration researchers.

The first half of the following chapter is based on my long term anthropological fieldwork in south-eastern centralised villages and surrounding areas since 2002. The second half of the chapter derives its data from the research carried out since 2012 amongst rural dwellers in south-eastern Estonia and transnational Estonians in the UK, as well as from samples of public discourse in different social media platforms such as Facebook and in the comment sections of online media.

Dispossession in rural Estonia

Due to the market-centred economic policies in Estonia since 1992, the inequality indices in this country have remained high. The level of relative poverty is still growing. Regional inequality is an important indicator here as it started to increase rapidly since the collapse of the socialist agricultural system. The employment rate in the agricultural sector fell from 175,000 in 1989 to 24,000 in 2014. This change has been sudden in the light of changes in other sectors (Table 1) as well as in comparison with other ex-socialist states. Shortages in the Soviet era led to the disproportionate increases in the incomes of rural populations (Kliimask, 1997). However, this advantage vanished rapidly after 1992.

Table 5.5.1. Changes in employment rate, 5 year intervals (ESA, 2016: TT0200)

  1989 1994 1999 2004 2009 2014
Total fields of activity, in thousands 837,9 675,4 579,3 601,9 593,9 624,8
Agriculture, in thousands 174,5 92,5 46,8 35,3 24,0 24,1
Percentage of agriculture 20,8% 13,7% 8,1% 5,9% 4,0% 3,9%

Source: Allikas: (ESA, 2016: TT0200).

The post-socialist restructuring of the economy – the disappearance of Soviet-era large-scale farms, replacing a planned economy with a market economy and opening Estonia to Western producers (including food producers) – affected rural Estonia disproportionately. Whilst in towns the loss of industrial work was alleviated by new vacancies in the service sector, in rural areas the loss of agricultural work by far exceeded the creation of any new jobs. These processes in Estonia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe have followed the Western European model of automatisation and withering – but have progressed at a much faster speed. Instead of learning from these experiences, political attention to regional policies has been low in a country that strove for rapid economic reforms, and concentrated on market freedom rather than mitigating its human and social effects. Agriculture was left to be rearranged by market forces.

As a result, the level of poverty has remained higher in the rural regions, especially in the more peripheral areas – although the differences have been diminishing. Emigration remains high, but unemployment has fallen due to earlier emigration and hence salaries have also grown. The traditional “native” rural population, whose home and subsistence in the countryside was preordained at birth, has been replaced with a “selective” rural population able to choose a rural environment because they can and want to live there. This transformation is still ongoing, however, and has remained painful to those who have little choice. This chapter mostly tracks the lives of these people, who are struggling with a variety of somewhat-forced choices.

Whilst the main economic and social changes took place in the 1990s, emigration increased in the 2000s. Peripheral rural areas lost 25% of their population between 2000 and 2011 (Iir, 2016: 43). Differences in opportunities between such regions and towns are still palpable and the decreasing infrastructure outside urban areas predicts continuing loss of population in the periphery, at least for the near future. Although distances between home and work have increased in all regions, it is the peripheral rural regions where the percentage of workers travelling outside their municipality for work has steadily increased: in 1997, 65% of workers stayed within their municipality, today, it is just 36% (ESA, 2016: TT234). The lack of jobs, the distance from home or reachable connections has considerably increased not only pendulum migration or the move to towns, but also working or moving abroad (see REL, 2011). Comparisons between emigration from urban and rural settlements indicate that moving abroad is twice as likely from rural areas (ESA, 2016: TT234).

Although an important source of information, statistics on the loss of population and disappearing services (schools, pharmacies and post offices) do not, however, reflect changes in the status of rural regions. Yet, its importance to regional inequality is considerable. Reputation – position on the scale of societal hierarchies of values – can be described as a form of capital a person, group, region or state can possess. This symbolic capital has diminished fast after independence in 1991 in the rural regions. The meaning of country life as the symbol of the first period of independence (1918-1940) and as the guardian of Estonianness faded to the background as the hopes for productive private farms at the end of the 1980s were replaced by chaos after the collapse of the Soviet-era large-scale farms in the beginning of the 1990s.

For example, the political choice of not supporting the (re)creation of cooperatives led to much more difficult circumstances for productive and even subsistence farming, as well as decisions not to even establish such farms having no access to necessary tools and machinery. This, however, was further interpreted in the public sphere as a sign of rural inhabitants’ lack of skills and their kolkhoznik mentality. As rural life stopped being associated with the idealised 140,000 blossoming farms of the first independence era hailed in the beginning of the changes, this picture was replaced with a negative image of “learned helplessness” and lack of entrepreneurial spirit in the rural regions. These approaches to peripheral regions and the people living there are still apparent in the media and public realm (Plüschke-Altrof, 2016).

Yet, the crushing changes in the rural regions – both historically as well as in comparison with other Eastern European countries – have not been under the control of the rural inhabitants. Blaming them for being unable to “adapt” to changes that left them no means to adapt is an example of the specific kind of loss that they have experienced. We are indeed not just talking about the economic decline of these regions but also about a loss of symbolic capital – symbolic dispossession. The position of agriculture and rural life in Estonian regimes of meaning has not recovered from the radical changes unleashed in the 1990s.

The changing regimes of meaning have been amplified by continuing societal and economic changes. Changed attitudes towards rural life also influenced another form of loss of capital – or dispossession – the foundations of which come from socioeconomic changes. As agricultural work vanished, the remaining jobs in municipal government and a handful of vital services were not enough to create a functioning social mesh. An additional consequence was that the daily links and networks of communication between people in the villages diminished or disappeared. The ability and willingness to communicate were further undermined by symbolic dispossession as well as the simultaneous rapid stratification. By the first decade of the 21st century, such processes led to social fragmentation, fragility of mutual relations, and to detachment from others – people started avoiding mutual exchanges, contacts and cooperation (Annist, 2011).

New inequalities brought along a reality where people did not want to or could not support each other in difficulties nor accept support. The mutuality diminished as many felt they could not take part in different social exchanges as equal partners (for instance in offering services, gifts or daily support). At the same time, these breaking relations had a disproportionate effect on some groups of rural inhabitants. The newly unemployed and other “newly poor” experienced increased pressure, as in moments of stress there were fewer people they could rely on, turn to or borrow from without fear of shame. Stratification and disappearance of the social networks has led people away from daily mutual contacts to withdrawal and shame or contempt and indifference. Indeed, symbolic dispossession in the countryside tends to be associated with social dispossession as people’s social capital diminishes (cf Annist, 2011: Ch. 6).

The newly successful – the nouveau riches, the new entrepreneurs, owners of the ex-Soviet assets, large-scale farmers and others - could afford pulling away from the rest of the villagers, something that the Soviet “elite” could not. This has further dissolved rural relations and opportunities. The entrepreneurs interviewed in the 2000s emphasised that they felt they were at a suitable distance from the rest of the villagers: “I have nothing to do with the village! I shop in town, and don’t communicate with my neighbours.” (Entrepreneur Kadri, 38, lives in a farm on the outskirts of a centralised village). The more successful villagers found that forced changes were justifiable even if these made other villagers lives more difficult or undermined the unwritten rules. For instance, the new owners of the property of a discontinued Soviet farm turned off the electricity in one of the barns still in common use. People had continued raising piglets and calves there and although the new owners had no use for the barn as yet, they felt justified in making a forced move without any negotiations: “They weren’t paying for the electricity, were they!” (Entrepreneur Mihkel, 45, who owns a farmstead at the outskirts of the centralised village).

Further, the ex-staff of the new enterprise, which was founded with the assets of the former kolkhoz, felt that it was something they had helped create. Yet, the transport or technology usage rights were gradually diminished or cut: “Why on earth should I do some sort of charitable work for them as a private entrepreneur!?” lamented large-scale entrepreneur Mati (47, who owns a house in the outskirts of the centralised village). Only the most persistent villagers succeeded in obtaining the right to use the assets that used to belong to everyone just a couple of years earlier. One ex-kolkhoz worker described how she got into the new boss’ car, and demanded the right to bring her grains to the mill that used to be for common use: “…I sat in his car … and said, I won’t leave this car before - I will ride with you the whole day unless you … allow me to mill!” (Annist, 2013). For those without resources – in other words, no social and symbolic capital - it is hard to establish social relations with the capital-rich in the new circumstances. The interest and need of the dispossessed for relations is not enough to make these mutual.

Even the new inhabitants, often engaging in long-distance work and feeling very enthusiastic about rural life, have not considerably changed the situation. As many of them admit, they live their country life as if in a different realm: physically in the village, but socially, symbolically and even mentally, on the internet where their daily work and social life often resides. They participate in exchanges and mutualities with the rest of Estonia and with the world rather than with those in their immediate location. The physical village is often secondary to their lives, even if the thought of it not being there at all would seem odd (cf Leisi…., 2016).

If equipped with economic and social capital, one can participate in an open world independently of the home region. But what if such capital is not equally distributed? Those who have been caught up in and hurt by the economic changes in peripheral rural areas depend on the local, not global support networks – the same ones that have become weak or problematic. In addition, if networks’ participants are primarily other equally-dispossessed inhabitants, their value and effectiveness and people’s willingness to participate will be diminished by this very fact.

In such circumstances, for a considerable number of rural people, the main function that the open world provides them with is the opportunity to leave the countryside. Such trends reflect further on the low-symbolic capital of rural life and its negative meanings, as well as the dissolution of local social capital. People aim to distance themselves from both by emigration.

Dispossessions on the transnational scale

Although people may leave the countryside in the first place for study (children and youth) or work (adults), social and symbolic dispossession play their part as important pushing forces: when there is no supportive network in the home region and when the pride in being related to it has turned into shame, the decision to leave comes even more easily. In reality, only those who can afford to move permanently can leave. Thus, poverty – and one can well be poor whilst owning a large apartment that has no value on the real estate market – mostly means immobility (see also Iir, 2016: 38). In this case, work-related pendulum migration or living in the countryside whilst working in town, is the only possibility, which tends to further diminish the social cohesion in and links with the home village.

Many south-eastern Estonians work in the nearby counties, but from Võru County 43% of the inhabitants work abroad (see Table 2). Tallinn – and in the case of Võru County even Tartu, a much closer catchment town – is not necessarily an attractive place to seek work (REL, 2011). As Iir (2016: 39) suggests, the likelihood of moving abroad is higher for those in lower-level jobs. This pendulum migration still actually qualifies as work migration, sometimes also job-seeking migration, and people who engage in this often leave behind an apartment or a homestead, sometimes also a family. Those working abroad and away from their families often become long-distance pendulum migrants leading very unstable lives, coming home in-between their odd jobs (e.g. construction workers, live-in carers, etc.), often spending many of their Friday nights at airports, waiting for the cheap return flights.

Table 5.5.2. Destinations of south-eastern Estonian work-related pendulum migrants, REL, 2011

  To Tallinn and Harju County To elsewhere in Estonia To another country
Põlva County 10% 66% 24%
Valga County 16% 54% 30%
Võru County 16% 41% 43%

Quantitative studies suggest that the reason for migration is the opportunity to find a job or to earn a higher salary. However, the deeper reasons remain hidden. Qualitative data offers a more profound insight into the reasons for and meanings of migration. For my post-doctoral research project “Mapping the migratory careers of transnational Estonians” (MJD450), I carried out in-depth interviews and engaged in daily conversations with Estonians who had left the country. These reveal the changes that had led to the decision to leave for work or for other reasons, and demonstrate the arguments people use to explain their decisions to themselves or their peers. Many of those who left expressed a feeling of being unable to shape the environments that mattered to them and/or influenced their lives – both on the state level as well as in the form of the more general mentality. They also noted that they felt hindered by their circumstances in Estonia. This hindrance is not necessarily just a question of lack of jobs - it is also about the low salaries not justifying the working hours, the inability to get a loan from the bank, and/or the burden of repayments; it is the insufficient holidays, poor relations with the boss, colleagues, or other villagers, and the lack of an empowering social environment. The circumstances they left behind were presented in terms of obstructions, inabilities, and restrictions.

They felt disappointed in the general attitudes – “Mean people, dirty streets…” (Katrin, 55, from a centralised settlement). For some, the home village was mentioned as the environment where they could not find pleasant or sufficient connections, and many people’s stories of leaving included unpleasant relations with other villagers as one of the reasons for deciding to migrate.

The parents left behind in the rural periphery recalled the strength of spirit with which they urged their children to leave: “There is nothing for you here! Why should you stay!?” Piret (42, whose home is an apartment in the centralised village, and also a farmstead in a dispersed village nearby). Younger migrants described the friends they left behind as inert and their lives as far too framed, indicating that some experienced leaving as gaining freedom, escaping the pond. Unable to word her grievances against Estonia, Celia (20, raised in a farmstead in a dispersed village) exclaimed: “[Life in the countryside] is just so – yuck!!”. Such assessments reflect the reality that for some rural people, Estonia as a whole has lost its symbolic capital in the global light.

In addition, it has been both the state with its emphases and socio-political preferences, as well as the employers who affect people’s lives more directly, that have disappointed people. The careless or even vicious actions of some of the employers were seen as part of the wider state ideology: “If the state does not love its people or if your boss treats you as a slave – for how long do you love them back?” said a man in his 30s from a peripheral village when explaining his reasons for migrating. “For how long should I slave?” asked a mother whose children were all working abroad. The metaphor of slavery and slaving is common in many web comments from Estonians abroad, posted in response to articles on migration.

Descriptions of decisions for leaving suggested a combination of low expectations from the Estonian work market and a certain feeling of desperation and hopelessness, which indicates that people did not see a way to fix things, and a loathing of certain characteristics of the country or its people. The informants did not describe a pleasant rural environment, which they were forced to abandon, but rather an uncaring state and a sullen society with an irremediable atmosphere. Experiencing such conditions can lead to decisions very quickly. Kärt (34, living in her parent’s farmstead in a dispersed village) left with her whole large family. She described how the efforts of the young family to keep their enterprise afloat failed as they had barely any starting capital and had no support from anywhere. They worked and struggled until it felt they don’t see their children awake at all anymore: “It wasn’t really the smartest move to even start an enterprise…felt like you don’t get anywhere, [you’re] stuck [like] behind a tree trunk…quality of life is that when you have children then…in whose name are you doing all of this…the living environment was better in the countryside…but…to live with your parents to save up…My partner had been trying to convince me to move to London for some time. And then one moment, suddenly, in the middle of the summer, really, a cup of coffee in my hand, I suddenly decided – yes, let’s go…”.

Leaving, capital and the dispossessed

Changes in demographic developments as well as effects on the life cycles of individuals are amongst some of the longer-lasting consequences of migration. Even if migration to Western Europe mostly means dropping down the career ladder – for 38% (Mõtsmees, 2012) – rather than climbing it, there are several other advantages that compensate for this negative change. In addition to higher salary and greater opportunities, even when starting from a smaller salary, the emigre will benefit from the symbolic capital that they could not access or did not have back home. This capital can, for example, be converted to social capital amongst compatriots left behind. On the one hand, people experienced their elevated importance taking acquaintances sightseeing in their new homeland. Discussing their life in relation to global symbols and exciting places on the social media – a type of self-promotion channel – or face to face also contributes to the creation of social capital via associations with valuable symbols. Over the internet, there is also the opportunity to redirect others’ attention away from one’s actual life and successes or failures and towards valuable symbols. Such redirection is seldom experienced in village life.

On the other hand, abroad, away from the gaze of the neighbours, one can concentrate on making money which can then be put to use at home. At home, a considerable part of spending goes to creating and maintaining one’s reputation. This is not that important during the stays abroad for a transnational or long-distance pendulum worker and this allows considerable savings. Greater income can then be converted into social capital upon return – and the context of earning (for example, living in an overcrowded, shabby communal apartment, long working days and unpleasant work conditions) might not be revealed.

Working abroad has an effect also on slowly-emerging class relations back home. It is likely that Boris Nieswand’s (2014) status paradox applies also to Estonians: people working in Western Europe as unskilled workers feel like members of the middle class back home with the money they are able to bring back. These processes are still unfolding and become more visible over a longer period of time. It is clear already, however, that these changes are colliding with the existing regimes of meaning: on the one hand, the advantages of the money earned abroad will further fuel the desire to migrate. On the other hand, certain opposite processes are also at play back home: those left behind no longer consider the money earned in the course of migratory experiences only as a positive sign of one’s progressive mindset. In contrast to the reality of about ten years ago, migration itself and the financial capital related to it, is harder to convert into symbolic and social capital.

Partly, this is related to the changing profile of those who have left. The majority of today’s migrants is comprised of blue-collar workers traveling to-and-fro between Tallinn and Helsinki: construction workers, craftsmen, machinery operators, hotel and restaurant staff (Krusell, 2013). They are frequently described in negative terms in public commentaries, no matter whether they return or leave: when they leave, they are seen as “slack refugees”, when they return, they come back with “tails between their legs”. Of course, such attitudes make it harder to use the experiences abroad for restoring symbolic and/or social capital. They also offer an interesting example of societal control over who has access to different forms of capital or its conversions. From the angle of human development such control means that the experiences and capital from the open world are not as useful for the returnees (and indirectly for the state) as might be expected.

Such processes have an impact on the development of a new kind of migration – the unfinished migration. Unfinished migration means leaving the door open for opportunities, travelling home often and for long periods without formalising these moves or making decisions on what these moves signify; it also means frequent, apparently more decisive returns and re-returns, moving back and forth without actually settling here or there. Maintaining social or even work relations at home does sustain social capital, but considering the shifting meanings of being a migrant, the value one can gain from the continuous migratory status is not necessarily great.

The changes in the status of migrants over the years do not only characterise the loss of symbolic and thus social value of migration at home. People who lead transnational lives also need propitious networks in their new home country, and other members of the diaspora abroad could be expected to provide this. The development of social networks based on ethnic identity is, however, related to the changes in the status of migration both in the new as well as old home country - to the perceived value of and potential profit compatriots could be expected to create. In the UK, the Brexit campaign of 2016 had a major impact on the status and self-perception of Eastern European immigrants and the campaign as well as the final decision was a strong blow to the confidence and pride of many emigres. Negative attention to immigration was generally amplified – but its impact on the networks and the social capital of the diaspora groups is still emerging.

In fact, Estonians had attempted to distance themselves from Eastern Europeans already before the Brexit campaign. Anne (36) described in 2012 how deeply offensive she considered the frequent assumptions that she is Polish: “When I worked at the bar, some black man came, right, and asked me: ‘Are you Polish?’ Something like that. I said ‘I don’t call you a Negro, why are you calling me a Pole?!?’.” Leino’s (44) description of how she refers to Estonians as somehow special has characterised her whole career as a migrant: “I always say that I am from Estonia and then add in one breath that [speaks very fast], it’s right next to Finland and the language is very similar to Finnish and… - so it’s like […] don’t want to be linked to other East Europeans…”. Pride in being an Estonian can, therefore, only be experienced in certain circumstances or within the regimes of meaning that are carefully framed with cultural or other explanations.

When analysing dispossession, how reputation surfaces in the communication between Estonians themselves is even more important. It is obvious that not all nationals are equally “our own” in circumstances where the symbolic and social capital of some is lower than that of others. Low symbolic capital and assumptions about the social status of one’s countrymen – for example experiencing them as valueless symbolically or socially because of their low level of education or lowly work – have wider effects in the migratory context. They diminish the importance of ethnic networks and more generally, of ethnic capital (Esser, 2004). Ethnic capital means relations with other members of the same ethnic group and expectations of favouritism, including help when looking for work or dealing with various formalities as a migrant. It is a valuable resource for people abroad.

In addition to ethnic capital, diasporic capital has an important role to play as well, yet this too has changed considerably. Diasporic capital includes remittances in the form of money, but also more indirect remittances of benefit that the migrants could offer their home country and the state, for example in the form of new investments and introducing the country as a great tourism destination. But what kind of diasporic capital would the Estonian state and society like to own? The valuable diasporic capital is proudly presented as the elite feeding the pride of the nation state: those who promote Estonianness abroad - students at prestigious universities, successful entrepreneurs – hoped to make their new skills and connections available to their homeland upon return, or remotely, from the destination countries. Many report that their ethnic identity, which was dormant at home, suddenly surfaces when they leave the country. If they enact this now blossoming sense of identity, these people can be seen as valuable diasporic capital, performing a kind of mild form of cultural conquest of a small corner of the world outside the home country.

The rest of the migrants, however, do not necessarily fit such criteria. They are not seen as valuable social capital abroad. As a clear example, the non-Estonian migrants from Estonia are not seen as contributing to the diasporic capital of the country, but equally, the unskilled and those who do not enact or parade their ethnic identity form the expendable mass that has left. It is as if such migrants vanish from the radar of Estonianness. They are noticed only in an emergency by the state structures, or as a problem raised in the media showing concern for the mass exodus of Estonians.

Such migrants often do not participate in the diasporic activities. There are closet-Estonians in every class and social group, and their reasons for not participating are extremely varied. Often, this has to do with lack of time or opportunity. Mare (54, live-in carer) replied passionately to my question about whether she goes to any Estonian events in London or elsewhere in the UK: “Forget about all those events, even if I were interested! My contract allows me [only] 2 [free] hours every day. So if I need to, I go to the shop and sometimes very rarely I go to town by train. That’s all my entertainment.” However, one of the common features that many of those who avoid Estonian events seem to also share is their low opinion of their own social status, or experiences where compatriots have been unkind to them, as well as a feeling of being bogged down or having a lower level of success than expected in the new country. Just like the inhabitants of centralised villages who feel the need to distance themselves from others to hide their difficult circumstances, and who seldom can rely on support, expecting schadenfreude instead, the migrants who consider themselves to have a relatively low status prefer to keep away from the diasporic life and don’t rely on the support of their countrymen.

As a result, they cannot access ethnic capital abroad – just as their symbolic capital upon return has often become too hollow to use as the basis for building up their social capital. Kristi Anniste and Tiit Tammaru (2014) point out some features that could be part of a similar trend in Finland: Estonians who do not work have little to do with other Estonians, although they have retained strong relations back home. Different features also trigger fears and hinder participation in diasporic life in the UK: these range from the status of Estonianness (own or children’s poor Estonian, mixed marriages, low level of knowledge of Estonian matters) to low professional status in the receiving country. Such features are seen as an obstruction which reduces their willingness to participate in diasporic life. This, in turn, shrinks the source of relations with Estonians abroad, which in turn further diminishes the uniting features, or the perception of such features, creating a vicious circle that reduces relations based on ethnic identity or citizenship.

We can thus say that some of the people who have left Estonia are experiencing ethnic dispossession: they cannot gain from one of the important resources when abroad – the support of their compatriots. As the proportion of such migrants may be considerable, return migration might remain smaller than it could be. Statistics demonstrate a disproportionately high percentage of the highly-educated amongst the Estonian returnees (Eesti statistika, 2013), and some studies suggest that the intention to return is the lowest amongst the unemployed and the inactive (Anniste and Tammaru, 2014). This might indicate that the returnees are primarily those who believe that they can convert their migratory experience into something valuable. A considerable portion of the migrants choose to stay abroad, however, losing their meaningful economic, social and symbolic relations with their sending country. This is particularly clear amongst the compatriots of Russian origin who are not seen to be part of the diasporic life of Estonians. Similarly, the stratification amongst the migrants means that only a small elite of the Estonians abroad sense that they gain from their experiences in ways that are valued amongst their countrymen, both back home and in their new homeland.


Changes rarely happen in isolation. Changes in the regimes of meaning must be placed within the constantly shifting field of wider changes and meanings, in an endless interaction with other changing, shifting meanings. This field is gradually more affected by external factors, which may be hugely diverse in the real as well as in the virtual open world. Meanings never change in isolation in the sense also that such changes do not remain simply abstract but are put into practice in real life and in turn change life’s daily realities.

This chapter analysed changes in three different contexts. First, I discussed how the meaning of rural life has changed. The symbolic capital of rural life as the epitome of independence and success started changing rapidly from the 1990s onwards. Whilst agriculture was a priority sector due to low productivity and the food crisis, in a market-based economy oriented to financial services and “complex jobs”, agriculture and, along with it, rural life underwent changes in meanings, acquiring new links to peripherialisation. The loss of agricultural jobs in particular had a direct effect on the mutualities and relations between people and reduced ways of coping in rural regions. Living in rural regions became a sign of helplessness. Stratification further impacted the willingness to help and support and to create or maintain relations in new circumstances. Disappointment, frustration and contempt towards not only one’s own living environment but also towards others sharing that environment has, along with the socioeconomic changes, meant that it is painfully easy to leave the countryside.

The status of rural life has recently started to shift, partly due to developments in tourism and heritage culture as well as the increasing number of second-home owners, but jobs have moved to towns in the course of various structural changes. In Estonia, transformations have been in many ways more distressing than elsewhere because the supporting and balancing role of the state in easing the problems caused by rapid change has been very reserved.

The openness of the rural environment is the first important element that this analysis proposes: some of the rural population is able to tap into the symbolic and social capital outside villages and rural realities. This has not endangered their reputation as they have been able to link themselves with the new positive meanings in country life: clean, unpolluted environment, freedom to live as one pleases, away from the neighbours and limitations and inevitabilities of urban life. As a result, rural regions are becoming more popular as places to live, although rarely to work. At the same time, symbolically- and socially-dispossessed groups take on the negative meanings implied in rural life and this further deepens the negatives, painting a new picture of repulsive, self-inflicted rural poverty. The open world can only offer one opportunity for these people: that of migration.

The second studied context evolves outside of Estonia. In the global hierarchy of development, Western Europe still signifies welfare and economic success, as well as educational and experiential gains. Emigration to such an environment means connections to positive symbols on top of higher salaries. Both can be used to increase or restore social capital in the abandoned homeland. The open world allows choosing a living environment where one can overcome symbolic and social dispossession through connections with new positive regions.

And yet, it turns out that even this positive environment is not protected from shifting meanings. Emigres are at the centre of those changes. Increased nationalism as well as changes in attitudes towards the openness of the world itself have fuelled negative meanings to migration and migrants. The migrants who have left for “noble” reasons – to attend the world’s top universities, to gain cultural experiences, to work in highly-paid or valued positions – are utilised for the nation state’s needs, whilst the rest feel the icy wind of changed attitudes towards migration and migrants both at home and abroad. It is this change that does not allow these people to gain the expected laurels from the open world, and to restore the symbolic and social capital needed to overcome the problems that forced them to leave in the first place. At the same time, this change also affects relations in the new country of residence and weakens the possibility of creating and using new ethnic capital and surrounding oneself with positive meanings abroad. The impact of socioeconomic changes on the changing regimes of meaning has created new inequalities which stimulate emigration but also create or sustain inequalities between migrants.


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