30. August 2021The infectious culture of the Russian worker? COVID-19 and the Estonian oil shale mining region of Ida-Virumaa

COVID-19 rates have consistently been higher in the Russian-speaking Estonian oil shale mining region Ida-Virumaa than in the rest of Estonia. Parts of the Estonian-speaking population were quick to argue that this was due to cultural traits or even disloyalty to the Estonian state. A closer look reveals that the spread of COVID-19 can instead be explained by socioeconomic factors and the nature of the work of Ida-Virumaa’s inhabitants.

Miners waiting for their shift in the “Estonia” mine in Ida-Virumaa Photo by: Eeva Kesküla, 2010

The summer of 2020 felt as if COVID had never happened as Estonians were enjoying their holiday after the first wave, with hardly any new cases registered. But by August 2020, the second wave of COVID-19 started in the oil shale mining region of Estonia, Ida-Virumaa, and was spreading rapidly. Throughout the second wave of the pandemic, the number of people infected remained significantly higher there and in the capital Tallinn than in the rest of the country. Estonians associate Ida-Virumaa with heavy industry, including oil shale mining, and with the Russian-speaking part of the population. Oil shale, a sedimentary rock, is used for combined heat and electricity generation and for the production of oil shale oil products (mostly used as shipping fuel) and chemical products. 24% of the Estonian population identify as Russians, most of whom moved to Estonia during the Soviet period. In Ida-Virumaa, the Russian-speaking population who have historically worked in manufacturing and mining form a majority.

When the number of  COVID cases skyrocketed in Ida-Virumaa, it was easy for the Estonian-speaking opinion leaders to argue that this population was somehow culturally different, that it was their alien and exotic behaviour that contributed to the spread of the virus. It was speculated that the more outgoing nature and closer family ties of Russian speakers, as well as Russian men’s need to shake hands when meeting each other, helped spread the virus. Moreover, in a society where the two linguistic communities live relatively separately, the main suspicion was that Russian-speakers were brainwashed to not take COVID-19 seriously by the Russian media and president Putin. The implication was (and has been throughout 30 years of Estonian independence from the Soviet Union) a belief that this part of the population was disloyal to the Estonian state. “As soon as you step into a Russian-speaking area of the country, you see no masks worn in the supermarkets,” was common folklore circulating among Estonian-speakers.

A closer look at this, however, offers a different explanation. While the Russian-speaking population in the Baltics does watch Russian TV channels, this is mostly for entertainment purposes while receiving information from those sources is secondary. In fact, the COVID-19 monitoring survey carried out throughout the pandemic showed that the Russian-speakers also used Estonian channels for information related to COVID-19 and health. Instead, the spread of COVID-19 could be explained by socioeconomic factors and the nature of the work of Ida-Virumaa’s inhabitants.

Due to the history of heavy industry and migration of workers from other parts of the Soviet Union, Ida-Virumaa has a significantly higher number of blue-collar workers (64%) compared to Tallinn or the Estonian average (48%). These workers share company buses to travel to work, use shared changing rooms and have to work physically close to each other. Even more importantly, they could not work from home. An oil shale miner cannot work from a home office. According to the survey carried out by Statistics Estonia during the first lockdown in March 2020, 40% of the population of larger cities in Estonia worked from home, compared to only 12% in Ida-Virumaa.

Furthermore, people with more precarious socioeconomic status were more likely to face difficult dilemmas concerning work and health. According to the Estonian legislation, the first three days of sick leave are unpaid, the employer covers 70% of the daily wages on days 4-8, and day 9 onwards is covered by the national Health Insurance Fund. This meant that those on lower salaries thought twice before taking sick leave or staying in self-isolation after contact with COVID carriers as it had a significant impact on their income. The oil shale mining region is economically worse off than others: the average income in Ida-Virumaa is 1147€ which is lower than the Estonian average of 1407€ (gross in 2019). The pandemic further damaged economic stability in the region: 50% of the inhabitants of Ida-Virumaa claimed in the national COVID survey that their income shrank and 35% said that they experienced economic difficulties due to the pandemic. These numbers are again higher than the Estonian average (the conditions were changed in the autumn of 2020 to cover sick leave by health insurance from the first day but by that time the number of COVID cases was already relatively high).

The high COVID infection rate could also be linked to people being afraid to lose their jobs in a  region where the average unemployment was 8.8% compared to the Estonian average of 4.8% in 2020. In general, surveys have shown that Russian-speakers are less confident than Estonian-speakers about finding a new job should they lose their current one. People in the Ida-Viru region often believe that they do not have a good command of the Estonian language which further decreases their confidence when finding another job. Moreover, there are only a few large employers in the region. Losing a job is especially risky for the women of Ida-Virumaa: the employment rate of Ida-Viru women is lower than in other regions of Estonia (52.1%), 11% lower than that of Ida-Viru men. In a region that has undergone significant deindustrialisation, it is common that households or extended kin groups have to survive on the income of one breadwinner. In the face of reduced income or job loss from being absent from work the decision to stay home is harder.

Rather than blaming the cultural traits of Russian-speakers for the faster spread of the virus in Ida-Virumaa, it is important to highlight that Russian-speakers in Estonia, on average, have lower income, live in cities, work in manufacturing and mining, and have more inhabitants per square meter of living space than Estonian-speakers. In the Estonian context, social class and ethnicity often overlap and Russian-speakers are more likely to belong to the working class. As in other countries, it is often the poor or ethnic minorities who are accused of disrespect for the restrictions and stigmatised as carriers of COVID-19. Instead of such cultural othering and finger-pointing, it is important to understand that being socioeconomically constrained means tougher decisions between livelihood and (public) health and such stereotypes further aggravate conflicts in an already polarised society.



Dr Eeva Kesküla
Researcher | CINTRAN project

Dr. Annela Anger-Kraavi
Project Lead | CINTRAN project


Klaara Kraavi
University of Bristol
Department of English
Wolfgang Obergassel
Co-Head of Research Unit Global Climate Governance
Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy
Energy, Transport, and Climate Policy Division