Estonian Proverb

Background: The informant is a 51 year-old Estonian immigrant who lives in Los Angeles. She continues to participate in Estonian traditions and is a part of the “Estonian House” which is an Estonian community that resides in LA.

Context: While I was having a discussion with the informant on a car ride, she told me about an Estonian proverb that related to the conversation.

Main Piece:

  • “Väiksed vargad ripuvad võllas, suured sõidavad tõllas.”
    • Transliterated Proverb:
      • Väiksed: Small
      • Vargad: Thieves
      • Ripuvad: Hanging
      • Võllas: Gallows
      • Suured: Large
      • Sõidavad: Driving
      • Tõllas: In the carriage
    • Translated Proverb: “Small thieves hang on a shaft, large ones fly on a chariot.”
  • Explanation: Essentially this proverb reflects on a corrupt justice system in which smaller criminals are punished and hanged for everyday crimes, such as stealing, whereas the large criminals who are committing the really heinous crimes are riding in their chariots. It insinuates that those who are in high places in society had to pull some strings or cut off some loose ends to get to where they are at in the social hierarchy. It also implies that the everyday thief, who is likely just a poor person trying to survive, is severely punished for minor crimes.

Interpretation: A common theme in Estonian history is the subjugation of the peasantry and the lower-class members of society. This proverb reflects how Estonians have viewed their justice system in the past to be corrupt and favor the large criminals (likely members of the upper class) and punish the lower criminals for simply stealing or committing minor crimes to survive. This proverb becomes especially significant when realizing that Estonia was a part of the Soviet Union which instilled communism. Perhaps proverbs like this reflect a deeply embedded attitude that Estonians have to upper class members or “large criminals” and how that was affected by years of communism under the Soviets.