Keynote at ELIA Leadership Symposium

This year, on the evening of the 6th of May, it was rainy in New York. Yet a crowd had gathered for a concert. The Scorpions was playing. They have this song „Wind of Change“.

You know:
follow the Moskvà
Down to Gorky Park
Listening to the wind of change
An August summer night
Soldiers passing by….

It is from the album “Crazy World,” 1990.
This year, this time, in this cryingly wet New York weather, it was about Ukraine. They had changed the words.
I thought about it the next morning, eyeing a line of Ukrainian flags on a New York bridge, flapping around in seemingly endless rain – New York really was at its worst that weekend, believe me.
What did it mean? That changed song? I know what it meant to, say, to the Estonian Ambassador at that concert. Or the Ukrainian Ambassador. Or me. Or president Zelenskyy, when he to heard about it – I am sure he did.

But to the rest of the world? All the New Yorkers who were there? I parked this thought then and there with a mental note that at least it happened and that it mattered.
I was sure it moved the public opinion much more than any speech in the United Nations General Assembly could do. Or even the evening news from Butcha showing raped, maimed, killed bodies, male and female, all ages. The first one is too boring. The second one too terrifying to let it sink in.
Well, I wanted to tell you this story. And of course I went and found the Wind of Change on Youtube. And guess what – even people who had NOT yet heard the new version dedicated to Ukraine, had sought it out and relistened in the weeks of war.
People who remember 1990, had revisited this song. Because they probably felt they wanted to revisit that time in history. Back then, when it felt things might really actually change and change for the better.
I guess the Scorpions in 1990 believed in the peaceful transformation of Soviet Union from an adversary to a partner, as most in the west did. Believed in the end of cold war, in the further democratization of the Soviet Union and the end of repressions for the nations captured into it. Something like that. Not in its eventual disintegration.
But it did disintegrate. This disintegration period I am sure happened mostly peacefully only because people then at the helm of the Soviet Union were bound by some respect for human life, and they did not unleash genocide against, for example, the Baltic States who had stared their independence movement at the first whiff of free winds in the stagnated Union.
They did not, even if they could very easily have done so. There were incidents, notably in Lithuania, but the general restraint against bloodshed was very strongly felt.
Why, you may ask? It was, in my opinion, deeply related to the culture. The Soviet Union, while demanding its cultural elite be bound by limitations on free speech and censorship, did recognize the value of treating consenting artists, journalists, writers, painters, actors, filmmakers, well. Because if those talented and skilled, who are capable of influencing peoples` minds, are with you or at least seem to be with you, are not openly rebellious, you can create a certain stable environment even within a state turned prison as Soviet Union was.
Those openly dissenting were thrown into the Gulag or went missing. Or were allowed to emigrate, which helped at that time, as communicating from behind the Iron Curtain was hard and inefficient.
But those half- or full-heartedly consenting seemed like an useful tool of building consensus – that the Soviet reality was, if not perfect, then cozy, funny, perhaps nice as a lifestyle, low-stress: as partially indeed it was, because in the Soviet Union nobody belonging to the consenting cultural elite had to worry where their next paycheck came from.
But there was a catch for the regime. In the occupied territories of the Soviet Union and among the Soviet cultural elite, gradually the ability to game the system grew. Being trusted citizens and ambassadors for their state, they were able to peek outside, learn different modus operandi, became informed of both societal and cultural trends of the free world.
Jazz or the Beatles or heavy metal may have been not openly available, but they were available. Finnish TV was watchable. Radio Free Europe or American Voice were listened to. Radio Luxembourg was listened to. It was more complicated with literature and free media, because their circulation was easier to control, but samizdat – Soviet people copying forbidden literature on typewriters– existed.
Culture kept the regime similarly in check as the regime kept culture in check – they influenced each other. The thinking of the Soviet Union leadership was influenced by the developments in the free world, as they had no access limitations as normal citizens did. And their belief that what was going on in free west was superior was reinforced by both because they saw economic development which free citizens of the free world were able to produce.
Everyone knew that this Soviet system was suboptimal for development. The cultural elite made it very clear to the political elite that their support for this regime was conditional. The condition was not only the well-being and guaranteed state-subsidized lifestyle for writers, sculptors, painters, actors and so on. This well-kept and influential, also publicly respected cultural elite would not have supported mass scale brutality and atrocities by Soviet Regime.
As Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika were announced, the cultural elite both supported and lead it – they tried to use the new, more open program of Communist Party leaders to enforce more freedoms – freedom of expression, a lack of censorship. But also economic freedoms, because they saw the limitations of the Soviet economic model – and that only truly free people are creative and entrepreneurial. So they forced the trickle through the dam to become a river until the dam crumbled. It was all quite subtle and gradual, so that the Regime kept believing it was able to reinvent and persist. But it was not.
Why is it worth talking about today?
Because the empire struck back. In fact, if you look at Russian history, it is an empire which has never ended, which exists in continuum and which did not really break up in 1991.
The Soviet Union finally failed because, as the cultural and educational development of the Soviet Union actually was superior to its economic development, it kept the brutal power in check when this power should have exercised control.
In addition, the west was praising Gorbachev for his reforms as the cited Scorpions song from 1990 clearly demonstrates. The Western cultural elite was very enthusiastic about ending the cold war, about bringing more freedom to Soviet people, gradually pulling down the iron curtain. And as culture was in the Soviet Union part of the State`s tools to run the country, the influence of artists and songwriters and filmmakers of the SU and even of the free west was huge. The empire did not dare to strike, even when it sensed the need.
It tried in August 1991. The Putch. By men like those who now call the disintegration of the SU as the worlds` biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.
But they failed. Because, culturally, the SU and its party leadership in majority believed that intimidation works better than actual violence. They thought they had harnessed public thinking. They thought people sincerely believed that the SU as a system was superior, because we sang on our song festivals odes to this system, played in theatres the pieces which were soviet patriotic, could see in the cinemas nothing but soviet propaganda.
Yet in the end, culture always stands for freedom. It deals with human beings and knows what human beings really need for true happiness – the ability to act out of free will in all spheres of life.
So, if the system asked their support to reform, they enthusiastically and maybe without foreseeing what it would lead do, somehow changed the tissue of the Soviet society itself. Soviet citizens in Soviet Union republics` capitals started sensing that it is safe to go forward and demand more and more freedom – freedom to decide, democratic elections, the end of censorship, and finally, for occupied nations, regaining freedom.
Siloviks were helplessly watching how cultural and media elites took freedoms the party had not bestowed on them, using also their powerful link to the people. The people truly respected the cultural elite. They respected the economic elite less, because the economy was in horrible condition, so the elite was obviously not delivering. And they simply despised the political elite.
The cultural elite relied on the people. It took various forms: the singing revolution, the Baltic chain, the Congress of Estonian Cultural Unions, to name just those who operated in Estonia. There were stronger societal disruptors who risked putting their neck out like the Estonian Congress, which earlier than most demanded total liberation of our country. They had a big role in testing what can be done without ending up in prison. The cultural elite was careful not to overstep, but nevertheless too strong to be collectively sent into Siberia or something like that. Their strength stemmed from love and respect of the people. And the siloviks did not dare until it was too late. Then they failed.
So, culture has a huge role and huge responsibility on where states go, be they more or less democratic. I believe that if we worry about the future of democracy, we really have to worry about the future of culture, because we have turned much more into consumers than nations glued together by culture. We communicate with each other mostly through trade rather than mostly through culture.
Also, the culture of Russia today has not been able to hold the siloviks in check, because they have not cosseted the cultural elite like soviets did. Hence culture has no power as it has no resources and the only culture which has resources is the same as in west – the part of it which is easy to sell. But quick and easy sales can not form the only tissue of culture. There must be the slow-moving, more philosophical kind, if you wish.
The kind that understands society, describes it, warns us about the risks ahead, keeps us alive by making sure even the powers are reluctant to overstep the mark of using death threats to keep their power over society.
This kind of culture of course exists, but if it is starved, that means it does not reach enough people to influence us as a society. Big composers reached everyone because rulers supported their work and organized resources to air them. Big writers or painters often starved, but since society was not so consumeristic, giving up on thinking was not as FOMO as it is today.
How many Zelenskyys nowadays still earn their living by making sketches where they seem to play piano with their unusual body parts, that is my question? How many Remarques write advertisements? And how much resources must a society dedicate to keeping elite culture in the place it deserves – in the hearts of enough people to influence the society and to prevent it from degrading into the mass which roamed the congress of the United States in the aftermath of the last elections? How do we make sure culture is in the positions it needs to be to prevent people ever believing in the justifications of genocide? How do we make sure that culture is able to grow our kids into empathetic beings who never grab a firearm and shoot their classmates?
It seems I asked many questions in one breath. Yet I did not. I reworded the same question in 5 versions and could continue with 50 other versions, but it is still the same question – how to put culture back in its position of keeping powers enlightened?
Today, in our Crazy times, how to be carried through on the wings of culture that are always providing hope for the good and restraint for the bad?
I have no answer, because we need many people in our societies to ask this question first. If there are enough of those who ask, the answer becomes self-evident, because then obviously culture would be regaining its place as the glue of our society. As it served during the enlightened moments of times that were in hindsight less crazy than today.
But culture has been able to act its miracle in relatively short periods of history in relatively few places on the planet. We can therefore never take it for granted that it keeps us safe. We must work on the problem tirelessly. Crazy times show that we have yet again failed.
The guidance? Comes again from the Scorpions:
Take me to the magic of the moment
On a glory night
Where the children of tomorrow dream away
In the wind of change

If that is still possible, we have hope. Gentle lyrics. Gentle exhibitions trying to involve us, but not to scare us. Like the one in Davos Russian War crimes House. Gentle, sensitive, but a powerful guidance. Humankind badly needs to dream and see the magic…