Maksim Vassin

Global Political Economy and International Governance Analyst

Narva, a city emerging from its identity crisis?

Perhaps nowhere in the world, it is possible to find two opposing fortresses merely a stone-throw away from each other, other than in Narva, Estonia and Ivangorod, Russia. Separated geographically by the river, they share common history and culture — Ivangorod used to be a suburb of much richer and larger Narva; Narva itself is ethnically almost fully Russian, despite being an Estonian city.

The history of Narva — my hometown — has always been connected to the situation across the border and the relationship between Estonia and its giant neighbour to the East — and these relations have rarely been particularly easy. However, the situation rapidly deteriorated in early 2013-late 2014, with the development of the Ukrainian crisis and Russian occupation of Crimea. Many foreign policy journalists and experts started looking for another potential conflict hotspot. “Is Narva next?” was the question for many.

And it is not hard to see why. Narva is essentially a Russian enclave in Estonia — only 1,8% of the population are native Estonian speakers; less than a half of the population (48,5%) are Estonian citizens, compared to 36% of Russian citizens and 13,6% stateless persons (Source: Narva City Council). It has not always been this way, after all, before the Second World War, Narva was a majority Estonian town. However, the new Soviet occupation authority banned previous residents from returning to the city, razed it to the ground, and re-populated it with the migrant workforce from other parts of the Union to transform Narva from once one of the most beautiful cities of Northern Europe to the ultimate Soviet industrial powerhouse.

Fast-forward fifty years, many of the relocated workforce found themselves in a newly independent country, without any sense of attachment to it, knowledge of the language nor culture. Drug and crime problems plagued the city, and ethnic divisions were acutely felt. With the deterioration of relations in 2013–2014, many locals feared a conflict might ensue. This triggered an identity crisis for those living in Narva, including myself — since we speak Russian, are we a part of the Russian cultural space? Or are we politically and economically Estonian? This identity crisis manifests itself even now, with the recent political turmoil in Russia and the division between Putin and Navalny supporters. Many fear that sanctions imposed by the EU would harm the relations between Estonia and Russia even more, creating numerous problems for the city, in turn. While the initial forecast was that the quickly deteriorating relationship between Estonia and Russia in 2014 will harm Narva’s growth (decline in exports and transit through the border), it provided an opposite result and initiated a period of growth for the city.

Before 2014, the government presence in the city was not felt, which proved a breeding ground for such an identity crisis. The city was encapsulated, culturally and linguistically detached from the rest of the country. Narva was seen as a city of decay and crisis, however, owing to the events in Crimea, the narrative towards Narva started to change.

With the support of the government, Narva became a cultural hotspot of the country and a major tourist destination. Overnight, abandoned factories became trendy festival venues, attracting tens of thousands of visitors a year. Besides the immediate economic impact of revitalised tourist streams, citizens of Narva finally had a chance to feel truly connected to Estonian culture and media space — Estonian language could be heard on the streets, the media stopped depicting the city as a crime capital, and the government turned its attention to the city. Even the President of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid, relocated her offices to Narva for a total period of two months in August-November 2018.

At a reception in Narva City Hall, Kersti Kaljulaid announced that the city will compete for the European Capital of Culture in 2024.

However, her most important visit happened at the beginning of 2018 when she travelled to Narva to make the announcement that almost all Narva citizens met with disbelief, surprise and some, even, shock. This was an incredibly bold move. While the city had already started attracting a considerable degree of national attention by the time of the announcement, no one considered it to be a capital of culture, more so, a European Capital of Culture.

The whole candidacy of Narva revolved around its strategic location on the border between the East and the West. When the jury members came to tour Narva, they saw a unique performance. Two choirs stood opposite each other — one in Narva, the other in Ivangorod. Their song could be heard across the river, across the civilisational, geographical, political border. The motto of the candidacy was “Narva is next”, utilising the question raised by journalists in 2014, yet this time giving it a more positive connotation.Tense relations between two countries do not always have to negatively affect the people living on the border between those two countries. For Narva, this proved to be a major success and a turning point in history. While many believed that the downturn in relations between Estonia and Russia would constitute the economic downfall of the city, Narva managed to correctly use its strategic position and international narrative to attract attention, tourists, culture, and boost its economy.