Development in the Estonian public field during the past half-century

At the beginning of the 1990s, the principal value sought by the Estonian public was spiritual freedom and independence. The total silence of the Soviet state had already been breached by the end of the 1980s when debate on the general problems of society and its individual members re-emerged. This constituted the manifestation, expansion and institutionalisation of the public field in Estonia.

Proceeding from a political and ideological basis, it is possible to distinguish three different stages in the formation of the Estonian public field over the last fifty years.

1. First, there was the closed society from 1940 to the 1980s, in which the public field was divided into strongly antagonistic, official and unofficial poles, (see Fig. 2). The official and unofficial texts were differentiated on the basis of critical, social criteria. Official texts had to adhere to ideologically prescriptive formulations and appeared in party and government publications, including the press. The authors had to satisfy appropriate scrutiny and the structure of the texts was canonised. In this way, the official, public field operated as a control system vis-à-vis the texts.

Soviet public field in the 1980s: official and semi-official, unofficial text
Official public text Semi- and unofficial public text
Publishing channels Party channels (press, television, radio) Clubs, meetings of small groups, art; 'side-line' of radio and television, newspapers of small circulation, etc.
Authors Persons representing social and political structures, part of journalists, specialists, artists, writers, intellectuals, etc. Part of journalists, specialists, intellectuals, artists, writers, etc.
Texts Institutionalised texts representing social myths (from party documents and their interpretation to humour and satire) Diverse ambiguous text in various genres, with its contents selectively canonised (art, music, poetry, etc.)
Control AField of public texts acts as control; additional party control, pre- and post-censorship Partial pre- and post-censorship

The hierarchical structure of the public field which then prevailed, encompassed party documents which directed the public processes as well as interpretations of the documents by representatives of the political structure. Journalistic texts included many genres extending from literature and art to humour and satire. (At the journalistic ‘periphery’ were cultural and literary journals which also included the so-called ‘semi-official’ or ‘unofficial’ texts).

The closed system of the 1970s and 1980s was characterised by a particularly high level of control, in which the ‘living word’ passed through as many as five levels of censorship, yet had to retain apparent spontaneity and be linguistically perfect.

2. This was followed by the transitional years, from 1987 to 1993, when the open and generally resonant public field was characterised by wide participation in public events, and when reflexive and conceptual public texts appeared which carried an organising function. Texts representing ‘forbidden’ topics and perspectives began to be published and the dominant political basis of concepts and interpretations was re-shaped. The opened and liberated media of the so-called ‘transition time’ were the central channel for the structural, political changes of the 1980s and early 1990s.

After the collapse of the Soviet system, the public field, and the press which effectively organised it, became particularly powerful, remaining independent both from political and from market forces. In the independent conditions of that era, the media were a force that participated actively in the public field.

3. From the mid-1990s to the present time, the public field has become increasingly fragmented and segmented. Though it is saturated with discussions of matters of secondary importance, few resonant events and problems have entered the public field.

In the political and economic structures of the 1990s, the media have become part of the new system and a branch of the economy. In principle, the freedom of the public word has been retained, but the free word has lost its hard edge. Few of the topics discussed are as important as those which were the subject of fevered deliberation a decade ago.

The contemporary, Estonian public field is expressed and mediated to the public at large through the Estonian printed media and through radio and television, (see Fig.3). In recent years, public confidence in the media has fluctuated between 41 and 48%, (BMF 2002, SaarPoll), on a par with the level of confidence in the judicial system and the police, exceeding the level of confidence in parliament, yet falling behind the level of public trust in the President, the government and the defence forces.

Compared with the early 1990s, television viewing has grown and radio listening has fallen, (see Fig.3). On average, seven hours per day are now spent watching television or listening to the radio, similar to the length of time spent on work, study or sleeping. Significantly, an increasing proportion of time is spent on the internet.

Time spent on TV and radio

1980s 1990s Early 2000s
Radio 3 hrs. 41 min. 4 hrs. 23 min. 3 hrs. 32 min.
Television 1 hr. 52 min. 3 hrs. 17 min. 4 hrs. 10 min.

Details about this article