In 1940, when Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union, the attempted obliteration of its literature began. By 1949, thirty million books and magazines had been destroyed. All the achievements and the memory bank of the early years of Estonia’s independence seemed to have been eradicated.
Spirit proved greater than power, however. Following Stalin’s death in 1953, it was through literature and culture that the Estonian people gradually began to heal. Having returned from the Gulag, Jaan Kross (1920–2007), a lawyer who had begun his literary experiments before the war, began to forge his great European novel. In it he pieced together the story of Estonia’s place in Europe, going back to the Middle Ages in order to highlight the values that keep collective historical memory vivid and Estonians’ perception of themselves as Europeans strong. This work, Between Three Plagues (reviewed in this magazine), finally made it into the hands of English-language readers in 2017.
Today’s Estonian literature, though, inevitably returns to that period when our shadowy history could not be fully expressed. Mihkel Mutt – a guest editor of The Riveter magazine – in his novels examines the Estonian man on his path from the Soviet regime to post-Soviet society, describing this existential journey in personal terms that are full of irony and scepticism.
Ilmar Taska’s thrilling novel Pobeda 1946 – A Car Called Victory (also reviewed in The Riveter), discusses the archetypes dictatorship created – collaborators, conformists, resistance fighters, victims – something not previously addressed in Estonian literature. Taska and his novel have become popular with Estonia’s Finnish neighbours, perhaps because, like Sofi Oksanen, a Finnish writer with Estonian roots, Taska deals with the psychology of a KGB operative, through whose actions peoples’ lives are lost, others lose trust, and nobody knows who is who.
A completely new approach has been taken by writers Eeva Park, Maarja Kangro, Kristiina Ehin, who have highlighted issues around women’s bodies, identity and self-realisation. Park’s poetry collection The Rules of Bird Hunting, soon to be published in English, studies memory and values, while Kaldmaa – who heads Estonian PEN – weaves together love and human rights in her poetry collection One is None (already published in English). Ehin reconstructs memory and beauty in her works, while advocating environmental issues and gender equality in her public-speaking engagements.
There is also a younger generation of writers within Estonia’s Russian-language community. Led by poets Igor Kotjuh, Pi Filimonoff and Andrei Ivanov, this group have used Estonia’s ‘re-independence’ as an opportunity to re-establish themselves and their literature.
Thus modern Estonia writes its story – one that is still a work in progress, and simultaneously reconstructs the past while creating new values for both today and tomorrow, all the while asking what it means to be human.
By Imbi Paju
Imbi Paju is an internationally acclaimed filmmaker and writer. She has achieved global recognition with her documentary Memories Denied, which was also published as a book of essays and translated into numerous languages.