Today’s world of open borders and migration presents a new challenge for the Estonian nation and culture. The definition and dispute of Estonian culture is in no way the exclusive domain of the media or academia, but a politically loaded question of national importance (although not necessarily manifest in political discussions). The Constitution of the Republic of Estonia prescribes the preservation of Estonian culture as one of the primary objectives of the government, alongside the guaranteeing the rights and freedoms of individuals. Diversifying trends in migration to and from Estonia, the advancement of digital technology and the growing cultural influence of the prominence of the English language are increasingly affecting the self-identifications of Estonian culture.

The article’s purpose is to outline how Estonian culture has been conceptualized in Estonian public debates over the last few decades, and how the understanding of this notion has changed over the years. To do so, the use of the definition of Estonian culture in Estonia’s public and state documents (for example) will be clarified and analysed. Secondly, a defining of the constitutional meaning of Estonian culture in the light of contemporary scholarship will be attempted. Thirdly, it will be suggested how the dilemma of the openness and closeness of Estonian culture should be understood, taking into consideration the ever-increasing mobility of people and the way in which Estonian culture is understood.

The phrase “Estonian culture” is used mostly to define the culture of Estonians or Estonia’s national culture. When the first word is capitalised in Estonian, the phrase “Estonian culture” (Eesti kultuur) denotes a culture that is associated with Estonia as a state and, in most cases, in the sense that the culture has been created within Estonia’s historically defined territory; or that its authors have a connection to that territory. In this case, the culture of Estonians, as well as the culture of other ethnic nationalities living in Estonia is included as being part of Estonian culture. This article primarily examines the changing self-understanding of Estonian culture over several semantic fields.

Definitions of culture and mechanisms of action

Although the preservation of Estonian culture is cited as one of the primary functions of the Estonian state, this topic is not reflected in political discussions as often as other constitutional goals, be they the organisation of education, security, the maintenance of law and order, or ensuring the liberties of citizens. The infrequent appearance of the definition of Estonian culture in political discussions could indicate a general consensus about this question being solved; however, an agreed solution or position of this type cannot be detected within our public documents. Estonian culture is defined differently and incongruously in Estonian state documents. The same word is used to describe incompatible phenomena, without realizing this. As a result, the connections between various activities and financial means with the expressly stated goal of preserving Estonian culture as stated in the Constitution are not apparent.

Conceptualised differences and the incompatibility of the definition of culture can be explained in part by the fact that the word “culture” (kultuur), as used in Estonian policy documents and public discussions, has at least five different meanings.

  1. The Estonian word “kultuurne” (“cultured”) may denote the education, upbringing, manners, and the degree of how civilized one individual or another is, or of a group. Using this meaning, it can be asked whether one person or another is cultured or, for example, whether someone behaves in a cultured manner. In connection with behaviour, the cultural consumption of alcohol, Estonian political culture, Estonian traffic culture, etc., have been discussed in the media.
  2. The Estonian word “culture” (kultuur) is a common denominator for fine arts, primarily used to define professional artistic creations within specific, historically established, genres. Dominant among these are literature, art, theatre, and music. Recently, the art of cinema has been added to these ranks.
  3. The connection between artistic work and culture also shows itself in such expressions as folk culture or traditional culture, in the case of which some non-professional folk-art genres associated with historical traditions are also classified under culture. In the second as well as in the third meanings of the word, the word ‘culture’ is used to define the area of administration of the Ministry of Culture.
  4. The word culture is frequently used for discussing pop culture; covering professional and recreational genres of artistic creation that are not associated with local historic traditions, but which are spread internationally by means of market mechanisms, and regarding which includes consumer demand. In Estonia, as well as other countries, the creative activities of this genre fall, for the most part, outside of the administrative area of the Ministry of Culture.
  5. Out of the four previously described meanings, the anthropological definition of “culture” includes collective attitudes, beliefs, values, and the knowledge of a large social group of people, which are expressed in the behaviour and thinking of that group’s members. In this context, the word culture designates the way of life or lifestyle of large human communities, their worldview, and the resulting organisation of life and society, as well as all of their mental achievements. Fine arts, sciences, professional and recreational creations comprise only a small portion of culture in the wider, anthropological meaning of the word. In the sciences of the 20th and 21st century, which study culture and cultural phenomena, this broad anthropological treatment of culture has become predominant. It is in this sense that the word that culture is mentioned in the preamble to the Estonian Constitution.

Let’s take a closer look at this broader meaning of the word culture (see also Viik 2011, 2012, 2013, 2016). In the hands of cultural researchers, culture means a shared world of collective meanings, which comprises the shared world of the “everyday life” of culture bearers – a life-world (Lebenswelt) (Edmund Husserl), “surrounding-world” (Umwelt) (Jakob von Uexküll) or “semiosphere” (Juri Lotman). Commonly shared collective meanings include values, ideals, archetypes, standards, shared conceptions about reality, and the like. These allow for common goals and joint world-views to be created for large groups of people, as well as for the joint coordinated activities. One of the most important means in the development and coordination of collectively shared meanings is language, since it fixes and categorizes the world for the people sharing the same language. Estonian language has played a very important role in the self-identification of Estonian culture during the Soviet period (expressing opposition to Russian influence) as well as today when the role of English in various fields is continuously increasing. Due to this national communities are often defined by language in Estonia. In addition to collectively shared meanings that are based on language (the stories in collective memory, political and popular accounts of the present, visions of the future, etc.) collectively shared meanings are also created by means of visual images and symbols, types, ideals, prototypes, standards, architectural norms, etc.

Culture, in the wider meaning of the word, is everything that provides an opportunity for creating collectively shared meanings and hence, a collective meaningfulness. In that regard, culture is an opportunity to live a meaningful life in the direct sense of the word. Common knowledge, shared beliefs, archetypes, values, ideals, and stories – are all cultural devices which make possible the development of collective memory and social identity. In other words, culture is a tool, which creates a rupture in the immediate progression of life and fills it with commonly valid meanings. The cultural world of meanings is comprised of multiple imaginary spaces and images beyond what can be found in the physical world, which are nevertheless collectively held to be true and real. For example, we consider a space surrounded by walls to be our home and a larger territory to be our homeland; we believe in human rights, Gods, nationalities, etc., and behave accordingly.

The scope of meaningfulness in human life is directly dependent on the richness of the tools for meaning-formation at the disposal of the culture. In other words, the potential of meaningfulness of life is that much greater the more cultural structures there are that allow for the meaning-formation, such as, for example, language and other methods of structuring the world that are based on it: education, science, art, ideology, etc. For example, the schools conducting teaching in Estonian, Russian and English do not just create different social networks (friends, acquaintances), but also, to a degree, different networks of meaning. The structures of meaning-formation and commonly held meanings created by them comprise a culture in the broad, anthropological sense of the word and in the sense it is used in the Estonian Constitution. Estonian culture is such a set of collective meanings and the possibilities for their creation that is founded on the Estonian language and the secondary cultural languages based on it.

Cultural languages and natural languages (Estonian, Russian, English, etc.) comprise a culture’s symbolic matrix or a repertoire, by means of which it is possible for the bearers of the culture to attribute meanings to things. Cultural language is a set of rules used within a specific genre or a field of activity, with the help of which the things given meanings are communicated about, and understood. For example, people within a special field of occupation may develop a means of self-expression, which people removed from that field may not understand. The same can occur to newcomers who may not be aware of all the nuances and accentuations of meanings that are of common use in a society. Collective meanings that have already been created and approved by everyone become rules of meaning-formation and begin to structure the meaning-formation processes in the future.

There are as many cultural languages in one culture as there are areas of activity. Thus, for example, it is possible to talk about Estonia’s political culture and the corresponding cultural language – which includes the principles of behaviour, ideals, vocabulary, values, taboos, and prejudices that are operative within Estonia’s politics and according to which Estonian politicians behave and coin their messages. The cultural language of one political community or another, a political party for example, may differ somewhat from that of another. A certain cultural language characterises Estonian school life, Estonian medical institutions, the Defence Forces, etc. In all instances, cultural languages function at the individual level as principles of thinking, behaviour, belief-building, and decision-making. On the level of a cultural community the same principles function as principles of communication, coherence, community, and coordination. It is important to bear in mind that the elements and rules of cultural language are not only linguistic. It is also important to remember that their common recognition doesn’t always mean that all of that culture’s bearers automatically apply them. As is the case with the elements and rules of natural language, the elements and rules of cultural languages also just offer opportunities for meaning-formation. They are not the inevitable or the only possible forms of meaning-making. Under the conditions of today’s open society, culture bearers always have the opportunity to choose between different cultural languages.

Nationality is one of the most important types of cultural community. Nationality can be defined both culturally, as well as politically. Political nationality is based on common political ideals, a single administrative area (usually that of a state), and legally defined relationships between people and the state (citizenship). Thus, for example, all citizens of the United States of America consider themselves to be American, even though they may have a different ethnic origin, different cultural background and different mother tongue. Cultural nationality, on the other hand, adheres to a common mother tongue and the understanding of most wide-spread cultural languages. In European countries, nationality has been defined both politically (for example, France) as well as culturally and linguistically (for example, Estonia).

Contrary to widespread belief, cultural nationality does not have to adhere to ethnically defined bloodlines; instead, what is needed is the possession of tools (Estonian language and Estonian cultural language) for meaning-formation, which are unique to the culture, and to be familiar with the collective meanings filling the cultural world. As an example, in no way is a situation justified in which a Russian living in Estonia, speaking Estonian and participating in Estonian social life (and therefore knowledgeable on Estonia’s collective meanings and cultural languages) should feel like they are less of an Estonian than the child of parents of an Estonian origin who doesn’t speak Estonian and is not familiar with Estonian social life. The boundary between the individuals belonging to one culture or another consists of knowing the cultural tools for meaning-formation, and using them for structuring and making sense of one’s activities.

It can be said that a national culture is the culture of one ethnically defined human community. There is no consensus among researchers regarding when nationalities first began or how long they will continue to exist under the influence of an open and increasingly globalising world, especially in the context of open boarders, migration , and digital developments. On the one hand, it can be claimed that nationalities are ancient, since people have - since the dawn of culture - spoken to each other in one or another particular language and belonged to one or another particular community, characterised by its own specific way of life. The history of social communities speaking different Estonian dialects reaches back thousands of years and in that regard, Estonian culture can be considered thousands of years old. However, if one were to view ethnic nationality as a community which has a common understanding of its cultural specificity, i.e. national self-awareness or national identity, then such communities first arose during the modern age in Europe. A shared understanding of Estonian national cultural specificity, its unity prescribed for all Estonians, and its possible political objectives were only developed in the first half of the 19th century. Such ideas of the uniqueness of Estonian culture and Estonian nation were developed by Baltic German intellectuals, who, based on the example of romantic German authors, began to value, document and theorize about the local language and cultural heritage. Estonian culture as a collectively shared world of meanings that characterizes a united social and political community began to arise only a few hundred years ago.

Therefore, when discussing culture, in the broad meaning of the word, we must distinguish between 1) collectively shared meanings; 2) tools of collective meaning-formation, above all natural language and cultural languages; and 3) self-descriptions of a cultural community created with the help of those tools. The latter is not unique to all cultures, but only to those that are able to perceive themselves as a collective subject and able to establish themselves as such in the eyes of others.

Consequently, three levels must also be understood under the broad meaning of Estonian culture: 1) commonly known and collectively valid meanings among Estonians (including beliefs, values, ideals, prototypes, aesthetic norms, standards of taste, etc.) and the way of life, where these are used on an everyday basis; 2) tools for the creation of collectively valid meanings in use among Estonians; and 3) self-description and self-identification of Estonian culture.

Under the self-identification of Estonian culture, we are referring to all attempts at understanding, identifying and comprehending Estonians, Estonian nationality, and Estonian culture. Some of the self-descriptions of Estonian culture were initiated by various writers and intellectuals (Lennart Meri, Jaan Undusk, Hasso Krull, Valdur Mikita and many others), some have been politically created (Estonia as a Nordic country, Estonia as an innovative e-country, etc.), and some are simply based on common perceptions among Estonians (for example, the understanding of Estonians as being a hardworking and taciturn people). The issue here is not searching for one correct self-description that is accepted by absolutely everyone (this type of imposition is characteristic to totalitarian regimes), but instead the development of these self-descriptions, in their dialogue and openness. In a changing international situation, globalisation, the advancement of digitalisation, and in connection with the changes in self-determination of other cultures, a transformation of the ways in which Estonian culture is comprehended is inevitable.

A certain combination of collectively valid meanings forms an Estonian way of understanding of things, i.e. Estonian common sense or an Estonian world-view, Estonian historical memory, Estonian taste, etc. The Estonian lifestyle and way of life are based on these. However, it is not to be understood here under the collective validity of meanings that each cultural community member would be aware of all of the collective meanings or be fluent in all cultural languages. Furthermore, people in today’s globalising and open world are always under the influence of multiple cultures and are likewise able to choose between different values and cultural languages. In each specific culture, there are a large number of cultural languages circulating, which have been adopted from surrounding cultures. For example, the employee of an international company residing in Estonia or a researcher working in an Estonian university must, in their professional activity, adhere to values and principles that are not specifically local; and this situation should not be considered as narrowing or discriminating of Estonian culture. The contact of culture bearers with other cultures is a normal, everyday situation, especially in the present era of global migration. Instead, the question is whether contacts such as these lead to translation and cultural transfers that enrich the Estonian culture, or create value conflicts, which could fracture Estonian society or interfere with its functioning.

Estonian culture in the Estonian Constitution and other political documents

The most influential political document, in which Estonian culture is discussed, is without a doubt the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia. In it, Estonian culture is directly associated with nationality and language: The Estonian state must guarantee “the preservation of the Estonian people, the Estonian language and Estonian culture through the ages”. For the most part, the constitutions of democratic countries set the purpose of the state as to protect the benefits and values of individuals. The Estonian Constitution places alongside itself, or in an even higher position, a collective value on the Estonian people, language, and culture. Jurist Lauri Mälksoo (2009) has, in connection with this, identified the Estonian constitution’s Kantian-Republican orientation – which supports the freedom, rights and equality of citizens, and the Herderian Republican orientation – which sets its goal in the continuation of Estonian culture. Assigning a task of this type to a democratic state is unusual. If, in bigger countries, the cultural development of one or another peoples (in the broad meaning of the word, not in terms of fine art) is a self-sustaining process, in which the state does not interfere, then the Estonian state has taken upon itself a constitutional obligation in regards to Estonian culture.

Even though the Constitution and its commented editions are rather taciturn when it comes to defining Estonian culture, it is still quite apparent that the Constitution discusses Estonian culture in the above mentioned fifth, most expansive, meaning. In the 2012 commented edition of the Constitution, it was noted unequivocally that the “Estonian language is an intrinsic component of the Estonian people and culture, without which the preservation of the Estonian people and culture would be impossible” (RKPJKo 4.11.1998, 3-4-1-7-98, p III) (Madise 2012: 485). As one example of holding onto the Estonian language, commentators on the Constitution cite the fact that Estonian was designated as the sole official language, which implies that in politics and public services Estonian is ensured to continue to be the language of public administration. From the point of view of scholarship regarding cultural matters, we should consider the preservation of Estonian culture to be the continued creation of collective meanings, which comprises a shared part of people’s cultural world and is expressed in their behaviour, as well as the continued creation of self-descriptions of Estonian culture, and the regard for the developing of Estonian tools for meaning-formation. The preservation of Estonian culture should not be understood as its conservation, but as care about the fact that Estonian language and culture continues to be the first choice of parents for their children in as many areas of life as possible. This presumes the creation of a more and more attractive cultural space and the creation of newer, modern self-descriptions by the bearers of Estonian culture. This task becomes increasingly important if we want to take into consideration such trends as the ever-increasing number of people living and working abroad, transnational living, and the digital proliferation of culture across state borders.

Therefore, within the context of the Constitution, Estonian culture is a much broader phenomenon than the field in which the Ministry of Culture is active. This position is confirmed in the Ministry of Culture Area of Government Development Plan 2017-2020: “Estonia’s cultural space is a significantly broader notion than the fields of professional art or folk art.” The same document also spells out the goal associated with the constitutional notion of Estonian culture: “In order to ensure the preservation of the people through the ages, the use of cultural mechanisms are necessary, which allow for the preservation of the Estonian people’s identity (cultural togetherness) and ensures the passing on of the culture’s values, traditions, behaviour models and lifestyle elements from generation to generation, as well as their acceptance by other residents of Estonia.” It should be critically noted here that the functioning of a much larger number of cultural mechanisms is necessary for cultural preservation of the traits that aid the formation of national identity or activities that are tied to Estonia’s historic traditions. Therefore, the document deals with culture in a narrower meaning than is declared at its beginning. This conflict becomes especially apparent when we compare the constitutional definition of culture with the specific financing measures described in the Development Plan. The latter are mostly related to the second definition of culture. These include the organisation and support of artistic creation and sporting activity, the upkeep of libraries and museums, heritage conservation, folk culture and the management of national culture structures, public broadcasting operation costs, etc. The document does not spell out in what, exactly, the connections between state supported artistic creation and preservation of Estonian culture through the ages are hidden. Of course, this lack of wording doesn’t mean the lack of any causal relationship; but it is still quite impossible to attempt to assess how fruitful the Ministry of Culture is in fulfilling the objectives set out in the Constitution, and which segment is more important or effective than another in the interests of the preservation of Estonian culture. The only thing that is clear is that the described methods cover a very small portion of the semantic field of the notion of Estonian culture in the constitutional sense of the word, and are certainly insufficient when it comes to preserving Estonian culture.

The document “Basic Foundations of Culture Policy Until 2020” suffers from the same deficiency. Approved in the Riigikogu in 2014, this document uses a capital letter in Estonian to mark its objective of caring for “Eesti kultuur” (culture of Estonia), although in the first section there is a reference to the non-capitalised use of “eesti kultuur” Estonian culture contained in the preamble. “Eesti kultuur” (the culture of Estonia) written in Estonian with capital letters has been defined as follows: “Within this document, Estonian Culture is considered to be what has been created by Estonians as well as the representatives of other nationalities living in Estonia.” As such, culture being discussed here is the culture associated with the territory of Estonia in the second and third meanings of the word. The clause on other ethnic nationalities discusses the culture of Estonia. Each activity named in the chapter is understandably also a part of Estonian culture in the fifth, constitutional, meaning of the word – although these comprise only one tiny part of it. Professional and traditional art are among the causal factors in the existence and persistence of Estonian culture, but not its sufficient or exhaustive condition. The loss of these activities would not make Estonian culture non-existent, but simply poorer by one segment.

Only the chapter on “Cultural media” names a few of the phenomena that are part of the constitutional definition of culture. These include “communication and self-reflection required for cultural development”, the role of media in “the exchange of ideas as a public forum”, and as a “mediator of new developments”. Political broadcasting in Estonian media actually does play a deciding role in the shaping and development of Estonia’s political culture. The political climate in Estonia, the attitude of the public towards politics, and the manner of the communication of politicians with the public depends on its style, attitude, topicality and convincingness, and the cultural languages used. The same can be said about all other fields covered in the media, which are not directly associated with artistic creation. Media, number one among which is television, is one of the most important developers and disseminators of cultural languages in Estonian society. It must be kept in mind here that Estonia, as a result of immigration during the Soviet period, has fractured linguistically and culturally, and people whose mother tongue is Russian primarily consume Russian language media and watch Russian television channels, instead of Estonian ones (see also Vihalemm 2017, this Report).

If media were set aside, then activities are not described or planned in other parts that would be directly associated with the constitutional definition of culture, but would instead come to a stop at the second and third definitions of culture. The incompatibility of the broad and narrow use of this definition of culture characterises other state documents as well. For example, in the “Estonian Research and Development Activity and Innovation Strategy 2014-2020” the importance of the sustainability of Estonian culture to Estonia’s science policy is stated, while only some specific scientific areas are being defined as related to it, such as the investigation of the Estonian language, Estonian culture and history, as well as the creation of data archives. Estonian research and university educations are becoming more and more English language based. In Doctoral studies, this is already prevalent, and Master’s study programmes in English are increasingly being opened. In this way a familiar schism is once again appearing; at the level of the general objective, a connection between areas of activity to the constitutional definition of Estonian culture is declared, but when describing specific measures the narrow definition of culture is followed. The document fails to even theoretically answer the question about how scientific activity in Estonia, which is funded by the Estonian taxpayer, contributes to the development of Estonian culture in the constitutional sense of the word.

The broader definition of culture is more adequately opened up by the state strategy “Sustainable Estonia 21”. This document also marks the difference between the meaning of the term culture in its constitutional sense and in the sense of artistic creativity, and defines culture with the aid of a spatial-metaphor, using such expressions as “Estonian cultural space” and “Estonian living space”. “Sustainable Estonia 21” notes, quite correctly, that the function of Estonian culture and the indicators showing the vitality of the Estonian cultural space lies in the intensity of the use of the Estonian language in different areas of life, including business relationships, the sciences, education, legislation, politics, technology, etc. All of which refers to the use of the fifth definition of culture. The document also notes the need for the enrichment of Estonian cultural memory and the need for continued modernisation arising from new knowledge, allowing more broadly for the development of new meanings, translations and interpretations within the Estonian cultural space. The result of which would be an increase in the diversification of Estonia’s culture and internal dialogue, the development of the ability of self-reflection, and the speeding up of the capacity for renewal. What remains unclear here is how this could be achieved in today’s open world. Estonian science and institutes of higher education are instead moving in the direction of the Anglification of the Estonian cultural space, not vice versa.

Estonian culture as a small open culture

In addition to the conflict between the different meanings of the word culture and an incompatibility in the handling of this term, a rather different understanding of culture relating to the fifth definition of the word is spreading in public media and, to some degree, political documents as well. These differences concern the understanding of the basic mechanisms of culture functions. Depending on the understanding of culture’s basic mechanisms of functioning we draw different conclusions about what should be done to preserve Estonian culture. On the one hand, Estonian culture is understood as being something exclusionary and closed, the preservation of which depends on holding protectionist positions and combating external influences. Thus, for example, in the document, “Sustainable Estonia 21” Estonian culture is designated as the way of life that is based on “Estonian traditions and language”. Contemporary cultural scholarship, in contrast, suggests a view that treats culture as the interconnectedness, or intertwining, of various influences, including those arising from migration and openness. Culture is growingly seen as a phenomenon, the identity of which is based on successfully adapted cultural loans and cultural translations (see also Kotov 2002, Torop 2002).

In simpler terms, it can be said that the difference in these positions depends on viewing culture as an open or closed system. If we are talking, for example, about Estonian literature, theatre, and music, it is evident that they are more attractive if they successfully manage to bring modern genre updates, approaches, and technical solutions, etc., to Estonia’s cultural field. These innovations are, for the most part, all loaned from other cultures. As an example: In 2016, the Estonian National Museum was opened and uses a modern, international exhibition language, which serves the museum well in attracting wide audiences in a modern Estonia. It would be inappropriate to claim that the design of the exhibition at the Estonian National Museum should have come from the “Estonian language or the traditional way of life in Estonia”, or that the use of an exhibition design that is widespread today in the western world would make the Estonian National Museum less a part of Estonian culture. Rather it is the opposite, the more modern and attractive the museum culture it implements is, the more influential and successful the role of the Estonian National Museum is in turn.

The same holds true regarding the other constituents of Estonian culture in the broader sense of the word, such as Estonian traffic culture or Estonian political culture. We know of some examples of closed cultures from history, where the entire world of meaning-formation was created autonomously by the cultural community itself, although such situations have arisen from geographical isolation or the deliberate choice of an authoritarian regime. In their natural state, all cultures are based on loans, translations and adjustments from other cultures. While it is true that the existence of a national culture requires the existence of a language, collective memory, and common beliefs; it is a mistake to believe that they must derive from the local language or traditions. Rather the opposite, the very idea of Estonian culture itself is a cultural loan from German romanticism. A successful acquisition of this idea does not make it any less Estonian. Also, the Estonian way of life would be no less Estonian if the principles of western democracy were not applied, or if we did not use modern, science-based medical practices. The majority of collective meanings, and the structures of meaning-formation, that comprise Estonian culture have been loaned from other cultures, and are originally not Estonian. However, once they have become a part of Estonian culture, then they work for the benefit of Estonian culture. Some cultural loans, for example, the German song festival tradition, are even more successful at producing a national identity in Estonia than in their culture of origin. It may sound paradoxical, but the translation of foreign collective meanings and the adoption of foreign cultural languages are preserving Estonian culture.

In the way that economists regard Estonia as a small open economy, we should regard Estonian culture as a small open culture. In fact there is no alternative to this in today’s democratic world. Historic and anthropological research work shows that in the situation of cross cultural communication and internationalization, the preservation of oneself does not mean holding on to traditional set of meanings. Rather, preservation means the quick and successful adaption of what is foreign and different, and in a continuous transformation and renewal of oneself. Just like organisms remain alive only by actively adapting to their environment and by making the environment’s elements their own (consuming food, for example) while also leaving behind what is unnecessary, so too can cultures only preserve themselves through continuous transformation and renewal. Estonian culture and all Estonian cultural languages currently in use have been in continuous contact with its surrounding cultures. Contacts with other cultures will intensify, and cultural translations will continue to accelerate in the context of today’s open democratic society, open borders, migration, and digital media. Going along with this process successfully requires growth in the capacity of cultural translation.

One fear, which frequently arises in connection with the openness of a culture, is associated with losing communal integrity and collective identity. In the 19th century, researchers believed that each national culture was characterised by its particular national “spirit” or “character”. It was also believed that this “spirit” comprised the nucleus of national self-awareness and if it should crumble, the national culture would collapse. Even in the 20th century, the leaders of totalitarian regimes feared that the loss of their ideological doctrine could bring with it the collapse of the entire society. This concept of a nucleus of national self-identity – a shared myth or ideology, is still circulating in our common-sense understanding of culture, but the majority of researchers have given up on the idea. The self-identifications of a culture form the same heterogeneous field as the other patterns of meaning-formation used in the culture. Their plurality and capability to be in dialogue with the self-identifications of other cultures is what characterises the viability of the processes of the self-understanding of a culture.

From the point of view of the culture bearer, it can be said that culture is attractive to the degree that its meaning-formation facilities are open towards and capable of dealing with anything the world offers. The potential of the meaning-forming facilities in a culture should seem to its bearer sufficient and efficient for expanding their consciousness in any direction, and organizing their life according to the highest standards of the modern world. If, however, the facilities for the meaning-formation in a culture grow poor, it will start producing a limited awareness. No one wishes for their children to have a consciousness that does not reach out for the best that the modern world has to offer. Therefore, it can be said that, from the point of view of the culture bearer, culture remains alive as long as it offers the world-level awareness that is necessary for a good life in the modern world. Here, we once again have to take into consideration that the ability of a culture to respond to such an expectation must grow to the extent that everyday contacts with other cultures and their living environments spread and multiply.

The vitality of Estonian culture is not characterised in today’s open world by a situation in which all of its carriers would only and specifically be bearers of Estonian culture, but instead by one in which Estonian culture stoutly transforms and develops thanks to its members’ participation in several different cultures. The greater mobility of people, globalisation, digital media, etc., opens up Estonian culture to new influences and broadens its facilities of meaning-formation. As a result of such processes the changes in the Estonian way of life over the past 25 years have been quite extensive. If the vocabulary of the Estonian language had not developed in the meantime, and if the other tools for meaning-formation in Estonian culture would have remained limited only to its own traditions, then they could not function as the fundamental principles of organizing life in Estonia today. The degradation of the Estonian language into a language with a limited area of use, and the halting of the development of Estonian cultural languages, would give serious reasons to worry about the decline of Estonian culture.


Discussions on Estonian culture suffer from two types of problems. Firstly, the definition of Estonian culture is used incompatibly, frequently confusing the above-identified fifth meaning of the term ‘culture’ (culture in the broader sense) with the second and third meanings (culture in the narrow sense) . This confusion frequently leads to a situation in which the goal of activities is declared to be the preservation of culture in the constitutional sense of the word, although the specific measures affect only professional or traditional artistic activities. Estonia lacks a plan of action for taking care of the Estonian culture as prescribed in the Constitution. Another type of problem concerns the view of the basic mechanisms of the functioning of Estonian culture in the fifth meaning of the word. Here, Estonian culture tends to be treated as something closed and exclusive, and the task of preserving Estonian culture is often reduced to protectionist measures of preserving local traditions. At the theoretical level this position derives from outdated culture theories. From the point of view of today’s scholarship we should treat Estonian culture as an open phenomenon that is based on cultural loans. This approach would give us more adequate ways to plan activities for the preservation and development of the Estonian language and culture.


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