"How should the residents of Narva behave in the event of a crisis? Flee the city or stay put and hide? Is there a plan to assist the population?"

On January 27, the Studio Narva program, broadcast on ETV+, the Russian-speaking channel of Estonian public broadcasting, begins with unexpected questions for a Saturday evening, and revealing the spirit of the times.

Viewers are invited to vote by SMS: “In the event of an extreme situation, including war, who will you rely on: the state or yourself?”

Before the debate, a report on first aid training and the conversion of basements into secure shelters is broadcast.

“In the event of a crisis”: the formula, repeated, is clear, even if Russia is not mentioned once.

In Narva, Estonia and Russia are about 150 meters apart, separated by the river of the same name and a time zone.

In the city, the atmosphere at the end of January is very calm.

In front of the station, Alexandre plays the violin to relieve his boredom.

His handmade souvenir shop is empty.

“Before, European travelers stopped here before going sightseeing in Russia. And the Russians no longer come,” he sighs.

The Russian fortress of Ivangorod, photographed from the Estonian shore, January 27, 2024. © Étienne Bouche, France 24

Coaches from Tallinn, the Estonian capital, stop before heading towards the border post.

For a few more days, trips to Saint Petersburg continue to be provided.

"We are transporting people who need it and who do not necessarily support the war in Ukraine. In the absence of air connections, it is important to ensure a minimum service for those who have family on both sides of the border", argued Ingmar Roos, general director of the company Lux Express.

The persistence of these cross-border connections was then in doubt.

But since February 1, vehicles can no longer cross the border.

Automobile traffic on the bridge connecting Narva and the Russian city of Ivangorod has been suspended by the Russian side, which justifies this closure by works.

The bridge connecting Narva and Ivangorod, January 28, 2024. Since February 1, only pedestrians have been allowed to cross it.

© Étienne Bouche, France 24

"Be ready !"  

In a humid fog, Narva Castle waves the flags of Estonia, the European Union and NATO facing the medieval fortress of Ivangorod, located on the Russian side.

Comings and goings between the two banks remained frequent, to visit family or do cheap shopping.

The figures crossing the bridge on foot are not very talkative when they arrive in Estonia – they talk about politics like they walk on the icy sidewalks of the city: with caution.  

Narva Castle (left) faces Ivangorod Fortress, Russia, January 28, 2024. © Étienne Bouche, France 24

Since the beginning of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, international media have come here to survey the local population who, more than thirty years after the disintegration of the USSR, have remained Russian-speaking.

And in Narva, the assessment of the war proved ambiguous, contrasting with the unconditional support for Ukraine in the rest of the country.

But over time, "the pro-Putin judgments, if they have not disappeared, are no longer displayed openly", remarks Gleb, a thirty-year-old from Russia.

An advertising billboard encouraging people to download “Ole Valmis!”

(“Be prepared”), manual of practices to adopt “in a crisis situation”, January 27, 2024 in Narva (Estonia).

© Étienne Bouche, France 24

Estonia was all the more shaken by the war as it celebrated Independence Day on February 24 – its first independence, which dates back to 1918. History has taught this country of 1.3 million of inhabitants, annexed by the USSR in 1940, a visceral distrust of Moscow.

And even if Estonia has been a member of NATO for twenty years, the repetition of a Ukrainian scenario – a Russian offensive justified by the defense of the Russian-speaking population – is a hypothesis which makes it particularly feverish.

At a crossroads, a billboard attracts the attention of passers-by.

“Don’t stress, download the Ole Valmis application [“Be prepared”, in French, Editor’s note]”.

Having as its symbol the blue triangle on an orange background, emblem of civil protection, Ole Valmis, created in 2018, presents itself as a pocket manual providing advice on the behavior to adopt in critical situations as diverse as a power outage or assistance to a person in danger.

“These tips are of public utility, and as we cannot train everyone, we are trying to reach as many people as possible,” says Elisa Jakson, member of Naiskodukaitse, the women's branch of the Defense League. Estonian, at the origin of this application.

The organization now has nearly 3,900 volunteers.

“Many thought about joining our side but put it off until later. The war in Ukraine, which began in 2014, had the effect of a wake-up call,” she says.

In this context of increased tension, the Estonian emergency services are calling for the same vigilance.

“The security situation has changed so drastically in Europe that we must be ready to face anything,” they underline in a detailed document which notably draws up an inventory of products to store at home or to take away in the event of evacuation.

A Baltic line of defense 

Since the country regained its independence in 1991, the Estonian Defense League, dissolved during the Soviet occupation, has been reconstituted.

If in the Baltic countries, the fear inspired by Moscow has never dissipated, the war in Ukraine has reestablished a clear line of demarcation between Russia and Europe.

Tallinn is on alert.

A few days after an official visit by Volodymyr Zelensky to Estonia last January, Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur announced the signing of an agreement with his Latvian and Lithuanian counterparts relating to the construction of "defensive anti-mobility installations" along the borders with Russia and Belarus.

In Estonia, this "line of defense" will notably result in the installation of 600 bunkers, mainly in the county of Viru-East, the Narva region.

At the same time, the country has initiated the renovation of an air base inherited from the Soviet era.

In the meantime, the authorities are tracking down the relays of influence.

Last month, domestic intelligence announced the arrest of a professor at the prestigious University of Tartu, Viacheslav Morozov, a Russian citizen accused of spying for the Russian secret services.

Another case, same period: the primate of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, also Russian, was refused the extension of his residence permit on the grounds that he represented a risk to national security.

In Russia, cases of this nature are considered provocations and opportunely highlighted in the media. 

A bus prepares to cross the Narva border crossing towards Saint Petersburg (Russia), January 28, 2024. © Étienne Bouche, France 24

"Parallel universe"

In Narva, residents of Russian origin constitute an overwhelming majority.

Largely destroyed in 1944, the city was rebuilt and repopulated by populations from elsewhere, mainly from Russia.

The latter, who had neither Estonian roots nor knowledge of the language, found themselves marginalized upon independence.

"For years, the state seemed to be telling them, 'Live your life, but don't bother us,' which made the creation of a parallel universe possible," says Gleb, who is passionate about the history of his adopted city.

A mental universe shaped by Russian media which has been able to fill a certain identity void.

It was only in 2015, after the shock caused by the annexation of Crimea, that Estonian public broadcasting launched a news channel in Russian.

A late reaction which, according to Gleb, “left a lost generation passively integrating the Russian narrative”. 

Pushkin Street, a monument pays tribute to the famous Russian poet.

In Narva, January 27, 2024. © Étienne Bouche, France 24

The 2023 legislative elections provided further proof of this: in the Narva region, a pro-Kremlin candidate created a surprise, without however managing to be elected to Parliament.

Leader of the Koos ("Together") movement, Aivo Peterson, now accused of treason, caused consternation by going to Donbass, on the Russian side of the front.

The Minister of Education, Kristina Kallas, herself explained the result of the vote by "thirty years spent ignoring the question of the integration of the region and the Russian-speaking population".

Memorial gap

Ivan Sergeyev works there within the Ministry of Finance.

Its mission is to lead the transition of this stricken industrial region, where the population has continued to decline since independence, due to a lack of economic prospects – unemployment is twice as high there as elsewhere.

Originally from Narva, he adopted the Estonian language.

“Change must come through education,” he believes, “because lack of knowledge of the language condemns the local population to marginality: it limits professional integration and prevents access to positions of responsibility.”

Narva town hall, January 27, 2024. © Étienne Bouche, France 24

In August 2022, the Estonian state provoked outraged reactions in Narva by dismantling a Soviet tank, celebrating the victory of the USSR over Nazi Germany.

The gesture was symbolic, in the midst of the war in Ukraine.

“Some had the impression that part of their identity was being taken away from them,” analyzes Ivan Sergeyev.

The Soviet past still fuels marked opposition, and remains the heart of an insurmountable conflict between Russia and its neighbors.

The connection of Russian speakers to the rest of Estonia also depends on the ability to rally this population to a common imagination.

In any case, the information had crossed the river well: the following year, on the occasion of the May 9 commemorations, which honor the Soviet victory during the Second World War, a giant screen was installed on the Russian bank.

So that the residents of Narva don't miss a bit of the show.

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