The Estonian war games
On a cold and wet May morning, Ivar, the head of the Estonian Defense League (Kaitseliit) in Lüganuse, heads down at dawn to setup the training camp where all the members of his group will reunite. Ivar does not receive any compensation or preferential treatment for his work. What drives him and all the other participants is the strong sense of patriotism, the desire to be useful for the community and to establish the sovereignty of the Estonian Nation together with other compatriots.
After a coffee, jam toast and a hot low-calorie porridge, the members of the Kaitseliit begin the training day relaxed and smiling. The training, which is aimed at civilians and not soldiers, is organized on weekends, so that everybody can take part in the activities.
It is very interesting to enter the private lives of these people, and to understand why common citizens choose to support a cause much bigger than them as individuals. Stephan, one of the oldest members of the group, proudly shows us his car, a shiny yellow, Russian era Lambda. He tells us with nostalgia how he has contributed to the Estonian cause and to this organization over the past years. These days, since he is too old to actively take part in training, he takes care of the safety of the training activities. His wife, just like many other women of her age, manages the provisions, cooking and taking care of the meals and beverages. Everyone has a task and the contribution of everyone is crucial for the continued functionality of this dynamic organization.
Even with this high level of effort and heightened sense of responsibility, the mood during Kaitseliit training is relatively relaxed and calm. These days are comprised half on military training and half of athletic competition.
Participants, divided into groups based on age and gender, are organized into teams of tree, facing a number of challenges to test their abilities and the skills that they have acquired during their weekly meetings hosted by the respective affiliated groups, spread out over an arduous 12-kilometer course.
A considerable amount of training is needed in order to face all of the hidden dangers along the course: quicksand, hills, woods and rivers. The participants have to pass through 13 trials in total. The winners do not do this for some award or military gold start, but for the respect and esteem of their fellow volunteers and to serve as teachers, during future sessions, for the new and younger members of the group. Furthermore, they will have the honor of taking part in annual spring military training, called Kevadtorm, which is organized every year in May with the official Estonian army, which additionally involves the involvement of NATO military forces.
When the training day is over, each member returns home to their daily lives and occupations. Johanna goes back to being a housewife, Geril goes back to his university textbooks, Ingrid returns to treating the teeth of her patients and Veronica goes on with her art.
The most important task of the Kaitseliit is not in facto handing down military capabilities to future generations. It is to divulge the ideals of homeland, independence and collective identity to a young nation that has experienced several occupations during its recent history.
For this reason, numerous promotional days are organized by the Kaitseliit. They take place in areas of high density, such as shopping centers, stations and public squares during holy days, in order to spread the message, engage new people and collect subscriptions from future members. During these events it is possible to see senior members performing military activities, and to experience in real life the sensation of getting into a tank, to listen to the experiences of their members or to get information from the specialty stands regarding the activities the Kaitseliit organises. Even children can participate in these initiatives with great curiosity and fun, attracted by the uniforms or by the machinery on display, and can get involved with the adults through activities and games suitable for their age. Obviously no one, young or old alike, are incited by violence or looking to disperse other nations or populations. It is important to make clear that the Kaitseliit is not an extremist group to serve as a military offense against foreigners. On the contrary, it serves as an organization founded in order to strengthen national pride inside of its borders.