Following U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s 31 July visit to Tallinn, Estonia’s Kremlin-linked media have peddled
five distinct narratives. Among the most worrisome of these is the argument that only countries suffering from “psychological disorders” would view Russia as a threat. Pence’s visit, therefore, was nothing more than “collective psychotherapy.” Such attempts to convince adversaries that the facts are only a figment of their imagination constitute a form of manipulation known as gaslighting.
Claiming the Russian threat is only a psychosis of Estonia (and other Baltic states) is a contradiction between the facts and Moscow’s denials. Russia launched cyber attacks in Estonia in 2007, broke
international law with its 2014 invasion of Ukraine 2014, and has meddled into elections in the United States
and elsewhere— and will likely do so again in this month’s German
federal elections. Given this past behavior, claiming that whoever views Russia as a threat suffers from psychosis implies that Russia never annexed Crimea, never committed cyber attacks against Estonia, and never meddled in U.S., French or other foreign elections.
This form of manipulation—gaslighting
—is named after Patrick Hamilton’s play
“Gaslight.” It describes efforts to make others question their own memory, perception or sanity. In Hamilton’s play, a husband after the family’s hidden jewels tries to convince his wife she is going insane by telling her she is only imagining that the gaslight in their house is dimming.
After the play achieved fame on both sides of the Atlantic, social scientists began using the term “gaslighting” to describe any attempt
to influence the mental state of individuals or groups by causing them to doubt the validity of their judgments, perceptions or reality to get victims to more readily submit their will to the victimizer.
As always, the question is how to counter this. Estonia has experienced the Kremlin’s gaslighting for many years. Beginning with the restoration of Estonian independence in 1991—and especially after joining the EU and NATO—Moscow has pushed three main narratives: that Estonia was never occupied
by the Soviet Union but joined it voluntarily; that Estonia does not contribute
the required 2 percent of its GDP to NATO; and that Estonia is a fascist country
All these narratives are false. Estonia did not join the Soviet Union voluntarily. It is an internationally accepted fact that Soviet occupation resulted from the 1939 Nazi-communist Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. The USSR reoccupied Estonia in 1944 as the Wehrmacht retreated. The Welles Declaration
stated that Estonia was occupied—a finding backed
by the European Court of Human Rights Cases on Occupation of Baltic States.
Regarding defense spending, Estonia contributes
2.2 percent of its GDP to defense—more than the required 2 percent. And according to a recent Freedom House report
, Estonia is ranked as “free” with overall score of 94—hardly characteristic of a “fascist” country.
Yet even though all these narratives are false, if repeated often enough, they could eventually begin to make Estonians question their own memory and sanity.
Here’s a recent example of this. After Greek Justice Minister Stavros Kontonis turned down
an invitation to participate in an August conference on communism’s crimes, a member of Estonia’s Center Party—which has formal ties
with Russia’s ruling United Russia party—provoked
a discussion in Estonian media on whether communism was really bad or if Estonians simply misunderstood it. This “simply misunderstood” is a good example of gaslighting: even though the facts say that hundreds of thousands of Estonians died because of the crimes of communism, claiming that Estonians wrongly perceived communism makes people doubt their own experience or memory.
Two things are helpful here: the assurance that reality still exists, and that it is grounded by facts.
At the end of “Gaslight,” a detective finally confirms the wife’s perception. She was not imagining; he saw it, too. This simple line—“you saw that, too”—is the breakthrough: she is not insane. The second step is to go through the facts and admit that it was all real: the gas dimmer have a logical explanation in that her husband was trying to hide from her.
Since the purpose of gaslighting is to make the victim doubt reality, sticking to facts and rational thinking is one way to counter it. Estonia and its neighbors do not need collective psychotherapy; they didn’t have a psychological disorder in the first place.