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Why the Estonian town of Narva is a target of Russian propaganda


Russian President Vladimir Putin has partly justified his invasion of Ukraine by saying he wants to defend Russian-speaking populations across the former Soviet Union. NPR's Jenna McLaughlin reports from Estonia, where disinformation has resonated with some Russian speakers and is being actively combated by others.


JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: At a heated political town hall in Narva, an Estonian city right on the border with Russia, community members came out to hear Yana Toom. She's a local politician serving in the European Parliament here to talk about the war in Ukraine.

YANA TOOM: (Non-English language spoken).

MCLAUGHLIN: For years, Toom has mostly been pro-Russia. That's popular with this crowd in Narva, which is 95% Russian-speaking. You can literally see Russia from the riverside boardwalk. But on February 24, when Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, that crossed a red line for her. Now she supports sanctions.

TOOM: I believe it was a kind of political suicide for me.

MCLAUGHLIN: She had supporters in the crowd, but there were a few vocal dissenters.

VALENTINA: (Through interpreter) Better not insult Russia. We are all Russians, even though I live here 58 years.

MCLAUGHLIN: The most outspoken was Valentina, a woman in her late 60s, dressed in a yellow sweater and big chunky sunglasses. She repeatedly butted heads with the panel. After the event, Valentina speaks to us in Russian through our interpreter. She says she wants peace, but it's the West prolonging the war by sending weapons.

VALENTINE: (Through interpreter) This is true, right? Why? Why destroy and then rebuild? My opinion is like that. I want peace. They want that Ukrainians are not being killed, but Russians are also being killed. Russian mothers also bury their sons.

MCLAUGHLIN: This is a popular talking point on Russian state TV, which neglects to mention Russia invaded Ukraine unprovoked.

TOOM: If propaganda works in this society, this is another sign that this society is not that united and that there are things that can be improved.

MCLAUGHLIN: Toom is referring to the fact that some Russian speakers, like Valentina, feel that they are part of an oppressed ethnic minority here. Many Russians moved here in Soviet times. In 1991, Estonia regained independence, and some of those same people became stateless. Gray-colored passports mark them as non-citizens, preventing them from voting in national elections, though they can vote locally, travel and they get a pension. The Estonian government has tried to make it easier over the years to apply for citizenship, and the number of stateless Estonians has gone down.

Even so, says Toom, the Kremlin seizes upon any bad feelings, despite reality. Moscow did the same in eastern Ukraine to justify a military invasion that started way back in 2014.

TOOM: In fact, Russia never wanted to solve the problem, of course. You know, Russia is using these Russian-speaking minorities all over the world. And this is exactly what is happening now in Donetsk and Luhansk. And this is what can happen maybe one day in Estonia.

MARK VOROBJOV: When your childhood is in one country and then suddenly you end up in a different country, even if you didn't move, yeah, you have, like, identity crisis.

MCLAUGHLIN: Mark Vorobjov is 28. His grandmother is one of those who arrived during Soviet times, and Mark grew up speaking Russian. Mark, like many young Estonians, works in the thriving tech industry doing video game design. He says he's lived with Russian propaganda his whole life. But he says Russia's just sowing divisions, not helping Russian speakers.

VOROBJOV: If Russia was, like, a normal, peaceful, democratic country, they could just offer some cultural help. Like, the - Germany has a Goethe-Institut that promotes German language. Russia could do the same, but they don't do that.

MCLAUGHLIN: Mark says it's Estonians who have created a space for Russian culture - with Russian dance halls, bilingual schools, even a TV channel that broadcasts exclusively in Russian. The hope is that this makes the younger generation of Russian-speaking Estonians feel more a part of Estonia. But there's also an active counterpropaganda effort here, too.

ADAM RANG: So, yeah, it was - when was the date? Let me have a look.

MCLAUGHLIN: This is Adam Rang. He's been fact-checking a lot of misleading tweets, like this one.

RANG: Did you know that in many areas, 40% of Estonians are Russian? Did you know they are forbidden to speak their language?

MCLAUGHLIN: Adam is the son of Estonian refugees who fled to the U.K. to escape the Soviet takeover after World War II. He visited a lot as a kid, and he recently moved here. We met Rang in the most Estonian of places.

RANG: Yeah, come on in. So this is a wood-fired sauna built inside the ZIL-131 Soviet army truck.


MCLAUGHLIN: In the driveway of his Tallinn home, Rang sweats it out inside an old piece of Soviet war equipment - a huge army green truck with a chimney added on. When the Soviets left Estonia in 1991, they left their junk behind.

RANG: Yeah. Kind of reference the Soviet history but then kind of subvert it and kind of use it to celebrate Estonian sauna culture instead.

MCLAUGHLIN: Rang and his partner drive this Soviet sauna around to private parties and pop-up events as part of their sauna export business. But when Russia invaded Ukraine, he wanted to do more.

RANG: You know, what can I do? I'm a - I'm 35 years old. I'm not the fittest person. I'm - it's quite - it's very odd for someone like me to think about becoming a soldier.

MCLAUGHLIN: But the volunteer defense force was interested in his online skills.

RANG: My one advantage is that I can be very annoying online to trolls.

MCLAUGHLIN: So these days, he patrols Twitter as part of the cyber defense unit. Rang says a lot of the misinformation circulating lately is designed to push on existing tensions in society.

RANG: Russians in Estonia - they talk about them as a single group, and they kind of assume, oh, they all - they're all going to be loyal to Putin. And it's nonsense.

MCLAUGHLIN: Rang now sees the same kinds of old Soviet trucks he uses for a sauna invading Ukrainian cities - the same trucks some young Russian soldiers are dying inside. When asked if he's thought about that, he pauses.

RANG: Yeah. I guess I - we all find it very difficult to express any sympathy when you have - when you see what's happening to Ukrainians. But, you know, Russian troops are the victims of misinformation as well.

MCLAUGHLIN: They can't see what they're walking into, says Rang.

RANG: But they will fail. And I hope the Ukrainians find good and creative uses for their leftover Russian equipment, just as we have here in Estonia.


MCLAUGHLIN: Jenna McLaughlin, NPR News, Estonia.

(SOUNDBITE OF AK'S "23.01.2018") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jenna McLaughlin
Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.