Three histories

Estonia was ruled for centuries by the Germans, Swedes and Russians, who took turns to settle their accounts on the territory or arbitrarily lumped it together or split it with neighbouring areas. The narratives of the Estonian peasantry, the Baltic German gentry, the Swedish nobility or the Soviet functionaries, although running parallel, do not have a common addressee. The narrative told by Estonians in exile, in the second half of the twentieth century, is also not easily reconcilable with the story of their compatriots back home. The solution is a synoptic approach, says Tonu Onnepalu. Instead of striving towards a single, continuous and comprehensive historical narrative, at least three different histories in three different idioms must be read in parallel.

Recent reading has again tended toward history, offering plenty of food for thought. There is a strong desire to pull these ideas together and disseminate them. Three books have inspired what follows – two memoirs and a diary: Camilla von Stackelberg’s Verwiehte Blätter: Erinnerungen aus dem alten Baltikum (Leaves in the winds: Memories of the old Baltic lands, Berlin: Siedler, 1992), Berndt von Staden’s Erinnerungen aus der Vorzeit: eine Jugend im Baltikum 1919-1939 (Memories of the past: A youth in the Baltic lands 1919-1939, Berlin: Siedler 1999) and Voldemar Kures’ Seitsme lukuga suletud raamat (The book closed with seven stories, vol. 4, Tartu 2008). The first are by Baltic Germans,1 a mother and son (Stackelberg was Camilla von Staden, née von Voigt, by her second marriage). They have much else in common: Camilla von Stackelberg and Voldemar Kures are fairly exact contemporaries (born 1895 and 1893); all three writings were composed in exile after the Second World War; and all three write much about the Estonian inter-war republic.

True, Camilla’s finest memories hail from the last golden age of the Baltic Germans, that beautiful time before their lands and power were swept away. Moreover, the first half of her book does not discuss Estonia, but about Latvia in its present form, since she grew up in Cesis (Wenden in German) and Riga. But as far as she is concerned, this is Livonia, as indeed is Tartu.2 And living between the wars in Tallinn,3 Estonia, what she compares or opposes are not so much the Estonian and Latvian, but rather the Estonian and Livonian mentalities. And how different they were in her eyes! Estonians (including, of course, the Estonians of German families, not “the lower orders”) were in her view less haughty and proud of their rank than the great aristocrats of Livonia and Courland, but still more cosmopolitan and at any rate more “Russified”. For the Estonians, St. Petersburg was much more their own town, and everything Russian was far better established in Tallinn than in Riga.

What is interesting about both her memoirs and those of her son, who grew up in Tallinn, is how differently from the Estonians and Letts these Balts lived (for surely the Baltic Germans have an historic right to this title) right to the very end, even when some of them became more or less reconciled to the new republics and tried to co-operate with them. Baroness von Stackelberg has not a single bad word to say about the Republic of Estonia (for, by the time the memoirs were written, it had become her lost homeland), but evidently she does not even realise how arrogantly she relates to this “plebeian state”. By her own admission, if in the early years of the republic the fine little Estonian Fräulein travelling on the Kadriorg4 tram would nibble surreptitiously on smoked herring from a paper cornet, and the gentlemen thought it very chic to put on galoshes as leg-protectors, putting them over their shoes even in dry weather (cf. the hamburgers and tracksuits of the early period of the present republic), then they seem to have learned to wear quite elegant clothes and behave decently. As they do today.

Her son Berndt von Staden, however, brings up an anecdote about some old baroness in Tallinn who, in a lunch-table conversation in the final years of the republic, when the younger ones are discussing Päts,5 asks who this Päts is. And when the reply comes that Konstantin Päts is our president, the baroness replies indifferently: “Don’t know him.”

And that is roughly how the two upper echelons – the old hereditary German nobility and the new parvenu Estonians – were restricted in their dealings, so that finally, at the end of the thirties, a couple of members of the Estonian government were invited to lunch at the all-German Aktienklub, but the talks there were just formalities, and no rapprochement actually happened. In a sense, this story reminds one of the present-day mutual alienation between Russians and Estonians, although the historical background is quite different. All the same, there are deep parallels. Berndt von Staden complains that although they had six hours of Estonian language teaching a week at the Cathedral School, and they always had Estonian servants, he never properly learned the language. It emerges, too, that at the Cathedral School they had not much desire to learn Estonian.

In the memoirs of both mother and son there are interesting descriptions of country-house life in the first republic. Although their baronial lands had generally been confiscated, many of them nevertheless, especially in Virumaa,6 tried somehow to continue their previous life on the property remaining in their hands, for which they rented the adjoining land – with their attendant servants, drivers, guests and everything. However in general it seems that by the end of the first republic there was not much left of their beautiful life to go on with. The impoverishment of the Balts was of course relative, inasmuch as that they still retained control of banks and industries, large-scale trade (as Kures notes, the Estonians had only been shopkeepers; among the Estonian families there were very few big businessmen and industrialists). And of course the pride in their status! For instance, it was, if not unthinkable, then downright improper, that a woman from a noble family went to work for money and started earning a living. Of course, all these prejudices were overshadowed by the trials of exile and the world war.

But before that final, forced exile there was one semi-voluntary one – the exile of the Balts between the two wars, about which not much has been heard until now. Again there are surprising parallels to be found, this time with the later exile of Estonians. In fact, after 1919, among the Balts remaining in Germany, two camps took shape, as occurred among Estonian exiles later. Some of the Balts who remained abroad were so insulted by the expropriations that they regarded the Estonian Republic as utterly criminal, refusing any kind of collaboration with a regime that had robbed them bare (through they did not give up the remaining property held by them through middlemen), and they would not even allow their children to visit their former homeland. Young Berndt, however, justifies the great scandal, on a visit to his grandparents and aunt in Germany, when he repeats a tale read in a book written in German by a bluestocking authoress – that the land reform was the rectification of an historic wrong. The scandal reaches such proportions that at the Cathedral School in Tallinn they investigate who could have spread such heresy (which was, after all, the official Estonian doctrine!). Does this not call to mind the teaching of history in the Russian schools of modern Estonia? Yes, our own history.

In recent times it has often been said that we ought to include in our own (official) history more of the Baltic Germans and their story. That it would be prouder and greater. I have thought and said so myself. And yet it seems to me more and more that that is not possible. History is always somebody’s history, and it must have one hero (the nation), whose story is studied and narrated. This Œnation’ is indeed an artificial construct on the one hand; on the other hand it must have a living form, a sense of itself. And there is always a difference between whether the nation is telling its own story or whether others are telling it. In traditional Estonian history one speaks – and not a little, either – of the Baltic Germans, whether landowners or town-dwellers yet always as “them”, viewed from outside, if not from below. Our own history is essentially always the history of the peasantry, and as such, fairly unique in Europe. On the whole, national histories are always compiled mainly from the position of the ruling class. Estonia and Latvia are, in this sense, distinctive countries, in that virtually nowhere else, not even in Russia, has the centuries-old upper stratum, the ruling elite, vanished without trace. The Umsiedlung was, after all, almost a hundred percent. I believe that this has had direct effects on the present-day political life of our countries. It is not easy to rule without born rulers, even if their claims to innate superiority are often ridiculous. Democracy is actually a much more aristocratic system than it would wish to appear. In actual fact, representative democracy might not work well, as we see in Estonia at the moment. For an Estonian there is nothing more repulsive than the Riigikogu, his Parliament, because an Estonian cannot stand for a moment to see another Estonian ruling over him, as if he were somehow superior. Better let a German do that! Kures himself says as much, for example in connection with the exiled Estonian Orthodox church dispute (Orthodox church disputes seem to have been something peculiarly Estonian, although in exile the Lutherans also conspired for positions and honours): they would rather submit themselves to a conniving Greek than choose one of their own for a bishop.

In short, there are complex stories associated with the “conspiracies” of the Baltic German history in the Estonian historical context. It doesn’t help if we call the von Tolls and von Krusensterns7 and their great deeds “Estonian” or eestimaalane, as the fashionable Estonian term has it, as it is quite ridiculous in historical terms. The nobles of South Estonia would turn in their graves if we started calling them by the term eestimaalane (what is more, nowadays, eestimaalane means a Russian) because of course they were “Livonians”.8 And here, by the way, is yet another problem in the integration of the Baltic German past into Estonian history: even if we were to try to narrate this Estonian history as the history of a nation, not of a country, then what country’s history should we be narrating? We could not neglect Latvia, but that would obviously be too much, and political correctness toward Latvians alone would not allow us to call that concept “Estonian history”. But “Baltic history”? Trouble again! Nowadays such a rubric must include Lithuania as well, but what have they (and the old Balts there) to do with us? “Baltic history” in the old sense would mean, in fact, the history of the Baltic Germans, as was written throughout the Enlightenment period by local German historians. And so the circle would be complete: we may speak of either Baltic (-German) or Estonian history, and they would be very different narratives, because not only would the subject – the hero – of the story be different, but also the territory on which these heroes enacted it.

Of course, every proper Baltic-German history speaks of the Estonians and Latvians as well, just as any proper modern history of France would tell not only of the deeds of kings and counts, great scientists and poets, but also of the “conditions” of the peasantry and the other plebeians. At the same time, one can still see these kings and noblemen as the continuous bearers of historical statehood, and not the peasants of Poitou or the Auvergne, even though the modern understanding of statehood, in France too, is of the nation as a power-creating subject. Which concept, by the way, reveals a certain hypocrisy.

So then, we can after all construct a single meaningful and coherent Estonian history, as has been done up to now, beginning with the so-called ancient generation of liberty, with Lembitu,9 with the heroes of St. George’s Night,10 through the seven-hundred-year night of slavery,11 up to the fighters of Mahtra and Otepää, 12 to Koidula13 and Jannsen14 and all those who came after them. What is also unavoidable is that such an “only possible” history of Estonia will always be somewhat vague and half-formed. To understand what really happened in this land through the centuries and why, we have to delve into the past of the local ruling stratum, to study the intrigues of the orders of knights, both internally and as relates to the courts of Stockholm or St. Petersburg, to learn the differences between all these Stackelbergs and Tiesenhausens, to investigate their origins and matrimonial connections, the rise and fall of the great clans. All this detailed entomology and botany! And yet, of course, it would be deadly boring. Because at the same time, these Balts, despite their local grandeur, were by the standards of Europe and even Russia, ultimately a pretty but purposeless assortment, even if they were not exactly as insignificant as the Estonians and Latvians in the present-day European Union.

But from the point of view of understanding, this conceivable (and also long ago written) Baltic-German history would also be vague and half-formed, even if it were to throw a very detailed light on the state of the peasantry, and of course also the endlessly self-denying actions of the upper class to improve its lot. After all, were not the Balts, in a later and more important part of their history, only local landlords, the vassals of the great rulers? In that case, in order to compile a full history of this land and people, one would have to take in also the history of the kings of Sweden and even Poland, the empire of Russia and then of the Soviet Union. Once again, one can attempt to weave it into the narration of Estonian history as has been done, especially in the newly published major history of Estonia (Eesti ajalugu. IV, Pohjasojast pärisorjuse kaotamiseni, written by Mati Laur, Tonu Tannberg, Helmut Piirimäe; executive editor Mart Laur, chief editor Sulev Vahtre, Opetatud Eesti Selts. Tartu: Ilmamaa 2003), but as can be seen, not even this works particularly well. Firstly, even the slightest examination of the internal power struggles of the palace in St. Petersburg or the Politburo in Moscow will completely stifle and overshadow the historical narrative of our own fine peasantry. Secondly, one would have to examine them in order to understand the local policies and conditions. Thirdly, it would surely be wiser to leave even a slightly more thorough treatment of the histories of Russia or Sweden or the Soviet Union to the historians and chroniclers of those countries.

So I do not really believe in integration, at least as concerns history. If one wishes to get even a slightly clear and comprehensible picture of the history of this country and its people, there is no other option than a synoptic reading (and narration). At the same time it would be desirable to select, starting from the Swedish period15 at least three distinct histories: those of Estonia, the Baltic Germans, and then either Sweden or Russia, accordingly. Such a reading would illuminate the ideological lies and suppressions or exaggerations of all three histories, cancelling out what is mutually conflicting (although we do have a tendency to take sides). In this way we could avoid the “pressing” need to “finally” compile a single, orderly and correct history of Estonia, which would quash all the ideological lies spread by the old histories and those of our neighbours. We ourselves tend to love ideological lies, as long as they are our own. But if one takes the example of young Berndt von Staden and the scandal he caused at the Cathedral School, then we have not much cause to hope that our Russian schools, whether or not we provide them with the correct textbooks, would let our own, our one and only, reading of history pass muster. No! Because as long as they are in Russian schools, the Russians will want to be able to narrate their own Russian history, as we want to narrate our own. Our own recent efforts to tell the world about our own correct history have been somewhat ridiculous. We forget that it is neither correct nor our own, and as little as we are interested in the Croatians’ or even the Frenchmen’s own correct reading of history, in all its minute detail, can we hope that our own story of heroism and suffering will gain worldwide currency.

Is there not something of the Estonian exiles about this hope? And yet, have we inherited something of theirs in our country, which we no longer notice very much, because the activities of the Estonians in exile have not amounted to much? What has remained is just their ideological heritage – but more about that below, because we have not yet actually arrived at Kures’ work.

The internal dissemination of a “correct” history is the same story as with the work of international explication. The only true integration is assimilation, but right from the start, in the 1920s, the Republic of Estonia embarked on another path, that of segregation. This whole story of cultural autonomy, of which we are so proud! Even Berndt von Staden notes that the German Cultural Administration was partly a scheme by the Estonians to remove the Germans from national affairs. After all, power should be shared with the “integrated” (read: assimilated) Germans, later Russians. There is one very interesting anecdote along these lines in Kures’ diary. It is the reminiscence of an Estonian diplomat from the time of the Republic, in which a Turkish scholar had told him in Tartu in confidence that if he were an Estonian politician, the first thing he would do would be to do away with German cultural autonomy; that the Germans here could play the loyalist card, while otherwise always conspiring and propagandising against the Estonian state, not having come to any agreement with it! I think that to much the same extent things have gone with the Russians in Estonia nowadays, without of course having a formal, while at least having a great actual, cultural autonomy. In the same way perhaps, we can see both those who, like Berndt von Staden, were quite loyal to the Estonian state (he joined the Estonian Home Guard as a volunteer, just as some Russians do nowadays), and those who would never in their hearts recognise its legitimacy, and not because of its malevolence, but because they simply associate themselves with the legitimacy of Russia which is offered to them, and id at least as natural. In the same way, in the first republic, a large proportion of Baltic German youth was happy to align itself with German Nazism, because it was simply strong, proud and cool, as we would say nowadays.

At least at university level, courses in Estonian history should adopt the synoptic principle and present, side by side, at least three independent histories. There are no great problems with those of Russia, Sweden or Poland; there only need to be some more appropriate Estonian translations of some concepts. The weakest point at the moment is still that of Baltic (German) history, since that notion is known to be on the point of extinction; the concepts of those days have become somewhat dated.

But what about more recent history? As is known, after the Second World War the Balts here ceased to exist, and so, if our synoptic principle were to be maintained, would it help to read the histories of Estonia and the Soviet Union side by side? Unfortunately, it isn’t like that. Some sort of Law of Three Histories seems to apply here. As we know, after the war the Estonian nation divided into two, the homeland and the diaspora. Or, viewed from the opposite side, the exiles and the Estonians who “stayed” in the Soviet Union. Anyway – two nations, two histories. That is how it seems to be. It may seem to us that we have “integrated” the history of the diaspora into a “common” Estonian history, by inserting appropriate chapters in modern literature textbooks or citing the deeds of the government(s) in exile in surveys of political history, stressing the importance of the “external struggle”, of Esto16 and so forth. However, I think this integration seems possible to us only thanks to the chauvinistic position of our home-grown Estonians, in whose view the events in exile do seem important, but not crucial. You know, all that Välis-Eesti17 business: quite touching but at the same time a little ridiculous.

But one can take quite the opposite view of this. It is possible to narrate two quite distinct Estonian histories: the fifty years of “occupation” (by this term, for example, we have taken over the dogma of the Välis-Eesti view of history, even though here in Estonia the “occupation period” used to refer only to the German occupation. And they may be read side by side, but can never be fully combined, for they are different stories. I am not speaking here of any Red history books written deep in the Russian period, which of course contain many lies and much that is tendentious (but also a lot that is interesting). In domestic Estonia one could never write a real history of Välis-Eesti, since we simply cannot know it or understand it as “they” can, because “they” are “they”, despite all the post-independence talk of “reunion”. To them, too, we are “they”, insofar as only remaining old exiles may still take a view of us. As indeed they may! Once again, here in our own domestic Estonian self-satisfaction, we may think that the classic väliseestlane, who speaks with a slight Swedish accent the lovely pre-war Estonian language and believes that everything that is still wrong with Estonia is due to “Russkies” and “Communists” – such a forceful väliseestlane is a thing of the past. But he is not. Such a nation is still very much alive. I saw it last autumn with my own eyes. It was the Vilsandi boat.18 A group of exile Estonian ladies and gentlemen were on an excursion to the island. There was a pretty brisk sea breeze, but the gentlemen would not button up their neat clean jackets, and the ladies were wearing stockings and shoes. When the boat got under way, they took up the song Vändra metsas Pärnumaal19 led by one gentleman. I was astonished. There was something utterly stylish and yet pathetic about these Estonians, as is always the way with people who represent a lost world. In the days of old Estonia, one might have got the same impression from some Baltic baron or baroness, living in Germany with their own impoverished pride and intransigent “nobility”.

Some time about twenty years ago, when more of those väliseestlased started moving here, we must have thought that what distinguished them was simply the distinction of someone from the free, prosperous capitalist western world. And so it was – but not only that. The kind of ladies and gentlemen that I saw last autumn on the Vilsnadi boat are no longer to be found in western Europe. Or if they are, they are individuals. They may always come from some lost world, because there are dozens, hundreds of such lost worlds all over Europe. Time seems to have stopped for them. It might have been in the Seventies. I think it was not exactly the time of the Estonian Republic, but a time in Estonia, fossilised and glazed over, when exile, the state of the väliseestlane, finally turned into kitsch. Yes, that was an interesting encounter, and I realised that during the past twenty years there has been no integration between the domestic and välis-Estonians; they have remained two different worlds, two different peoples. Those unbelievably chic (although the “chic” dates from about 1970, but that made it all the more stylish) ladies and gentlemen somehow did not seem like my compatriots to me. Nor were they. What was interesting and thought-provoking was their “nostalgic look”, for why was it from the seventies? Isn’t it so that each person carries within himself, in his being and his appearance, the styles, bearing and ideals of his own heyday? As if some successful director of a sovkhoz20 in the Seventies in Estonia, whose best years were behind him, were to carry on wearing the badge of the farm with its logo, or the sheepskin hat, or the fashionable brown nylon jacket, so that you would look around to see where his new Volga was – that is what these people, in their nice timeless jackets (which were not appropriate for an open seagoing boat in autumn, but they didn’t seem to be cold!), were still wearing, at that time when the väliseestlane was out on a limb, had become an independent species, somehow freed from the “communist” pressure of his homeland, and at the same time embarked on the road to visible decline and fall. Yes, they may have been beautiful times, whose beauty we can never fully understand.

But as for the history of Estonian written from the standpoint of Välis-Eesti, of exile, it might remain unnoticed, cast aside as just as tendentious as that of the “communists” at home and their treatment of history at that time. And yet that should not be done with either of them. Not only because both have recorded valuable information. The concepts presented in both of them have affected our present conception of history, but what is more, our present statehood and politics: in particular, the treatment of Välis-Eesti history.

For although the exiles represented only a tiny fraction of the whole Estonian, nation at the time of the restoration of independence, and their material and personal participation in that restoration was unexpectedly modest, there was in fact a moment when their viewpoint became quite powerful. The present-day Republic of Estonia is in many respects created according to the concepts of the väliseestlased, their examples and sometimes their interests (such as in the return of property), starting from the basic uncompromising ideology of restitution. This is somewhat understandable, because at that time, twenty years ago, they represented the winners. Capitalism and democracy had won, and these people had come from it. We thought they knew how to do it, and they did: sometimes we let ourselves be led by the nose. Looking back now, that partial capitulation to the väliseestlased seems embarrassing, of course, and nobody would want to bring it up any more. Reading Voldemar Kures’ diary, I was reminded, for example, of a heart-rending ceremony, after the first constitutional elections, during which the Government in Exile symbolically handed power over to the Government of the Republic. Well, what embarrassing things were done, when one thinks of it now! It emerges clearly from Kures’ diary that this “Government in Exile” was more or less a laughing stock (though it took itself very seriously) as early as 1954. And what is more, there were two of them! And how could one not laugh at a government which no-one had actually elected, which no-one had chosen to have, and which no other government recognized? Yes! In 1990, of course, we had not yet read Kures’ diaries. They had not been published, not even in Välis-Eesti, since they did not suit the prevailing ideology there either, besides which there was still a lot of bitter backbiting, many of the objects of which were still alive. Here, too, we were not ready to read Kures and understand him. We needed a clear national ideology, a ready-made, “correct” history of Estonia, and that is what the exiles were offering us.

However, although the picture of exiled Estonian society that is depicted in Kures’ diary is anything but heroic, these diaries are still the most wide-ranging and honest monument to the entire exile of those fifty years. There is something very human, in a general sense, about exile as a subject in itself. Is it not so that a nation without a land, as every exile community is, quickly becomes somehow empty, and of course also somehow tempered? On the one hand it is very difficult to always remain the same nation without a land, and on the other, it is a lot simpler! Land, reality, does not intervene. The exiled Estonians (like the exiled Latvians, exiled Russians, exiled Bulgarians, exiled Baltic Germans) carried on developing their own kind of pure, idealised nation, with its own history, customs, literature and myths. It was a nation that no-one oppressed, no-one feared, but no-one needed either – and which did not rule over any land, had no responsibility for anything, apart from its own self-created ideology, jealously guarded. A virtual nation it would be called today, and perhaps there was something futuristic about the Estonian diaspora. Estonian history, as narrated by the väliseestlased, however, is undoubtedly the purest Estonian history imaginable. In many respects we have, however unconsciously, taken it as the basis of our present official / semi-official historical narrative. That is interesting.

There is one more interesting aspect to it. Somehow we have taken it as axiomatic that the most fundamental basis of Estonian nationality and statehood is the Estonian language. Is that not a very väliseestlane approach? For what else do we have but a language? Yet it surely reveals the heroic, but ultimately vacuous, “struggle in exile” of the väliseestlased (which Kures, even in the mid-fifties, declared to have fallen through), and the later, equally heroic, history of self-preservation: blood is blood, but is a language worth anything without a country? The languages that developed over the course of fifty years in exile and in Soviet Estonia were so different that after the restoration of independence there would have been a need for interpreters if the language that had lost a land had not virtually vanished by then. Was not the pious wish of the väliseestlased that they would regain their lands, their property, actually the wish to make their own language understandable to them? And yet this has no relation to property and ownership. Or has it?

In much the same way, the Baltic German nation faded – their whole identity was bound up with land ownership, and even more so with land administration (a landlord is something more than a mere landowner). But in the same way that the väliseestlased carried the language associated with the land (and it remained, juicy and earthy, for the hoped-for call to return to the homeland – Kures’ language is very amusing, a history in itself), to understand that land, in the same way the Baltic Germans carried away from here one language which had been chiefly intended for their lands. In my understanding, the Estonian did not really become a landlord. Our understanding of our “own” land is half-formed, and the administration of it is also half-formed. The horizon of a peasant is too narrow. Perhaps that is why our land is still neglected (and Latvia even more so). Our language does not embrace it properly.
In exile it was the élite of the Republic that set the tone (and they even established contacts with their fellow exiles the Baltic Germans, but these came to nothing, and perhaps rightly so, as Kures reveals) and so those brief twenty years somehow became the core of all Estonian history, from which emerges the narrative of not only what followed it, but also what preceded it. Those were the only years when this land was governed and interpreted purely in Estonian. The whole preceding story, seen from that viewpoint, was a striving for that ideal state, and the succeeding one was a struggle to regain it. Everything else is relatively irrelevant. It is almost a scientific fact, an axiom, that Estonia’s happiest time, its golden age, was the 1930s. That is understandable, because that life was a lost paradise for both those who left and those who stayed.

And yet the apparent axiom, or indisputable fact, was not yet so immediately after the war, especially in Välis-Eesti. If in the homeland, mired in poverty and repression, the age of Päts already seemed like an ideal (though certainly not for everybody), then this same Kures, himself a man of the Tsarist era, develops the idea (and he has sympathisers, even if it was already heresy for the main currents of Välis-Eesti political thinking), that actually Estonia’s most beautiful and proud period was the beginning of the twentieth century, the end of the Tsarist era. I have also thought at various points that if one had to pick one ideal time for Estonia from the twentieth century, would it not be around 1910-1913? There has not been the like of such progress in every sphere since then. That may well be true for all of Europe. Has Europe really recovered from the shock of the 1914-1918 war? The popular conception of history would of course reject that idea straight away, because in the years 1910-1913 the Estonians lacked what we have come to regard as essential: our own country, to be ruled over in our own language. But did that trouble the people of that time? Maybe a little, and few of them. In some respects the conditions and opportunities of the Tsarist empire were considerably greater than the narrow, meagre, provincial ones of the later Republic. At least that is how it might be seen by a genuine Baltic German historian, for whom the Republic of Estonia, the central figure of our historical narrative, might seem dubious, if, in a sense, like an unavoidable accident.

No, if one wishes to remain honest, insofar as that is possible, one can probably never, at least in the foreseeable future, write a single history of Estonia which would be a complete history of Estonia. It would have to be written in three languages. And what would be the third language of the present day? That of Brussels?

Recently I heard a story about some Estonians who have gone to “serve” in Brussels, among whom there is a fashion, as soon as they have gone through their CV, to change “back” the Estonianised name of their great-grandparents: Lilleorg to Lilienthal (to pluck an example) and so on. The person who told me this story told it as a scandalous betrayal by the Estonians. I would rather see it as a sign of a practical Estonian turn of mind, in other words an unusual aptitude for acclimatisation (and by the way, von Staden tells with a certain sarcasm of the Germans in his contemporary Estonia who Estonianised their names in the hope of being state functionaries). On the other hand, our own new “upper class” must want to internationalise itself, seek more room for itself to move in, just as the Baltic German nobility did, looking toward the Russian court or longingly toward the Vaterland. This country has always been too narrow for its rulers, and in a way that seems natural, if the administration is conducted in one, the government is cursed in a second, and the electorate is governed in a third language. The land itself, though, is mute.

Or is it the land that always forces us again and again to desperately scrape around in our own past to bring up a few more old bones? Our own, or foreign ones? But bones cannot speak, and we can make them speak the language that we understand, the one we like to hear.

The term "Baltic Germans" refers to the people of German origin whose families had been established in the Baltic lands of Livonia and Courland (present-day Estonia and Latvia, as explained later) and constituted the ruling elite, clergy and landowning class in those countries.

Dorpat in German.

Reval in German.

An elegant district of Tallinn, with large villas and embassies.

Konstantin Päts (1874-1956), president of Estonia throughout most of the inter-war republic, who assumed authoritarian powers in its later years. He was arrested by the Soviet occupiers and deported to Siberia. He died in a psychiatric hospital in Kalinin (now Tver) in 1956.

A region of north-central Estonia.

Baltic German families who distinguished themselves, among other things, in science and exploration.

Eestimaalane means approximately "Estlander" with reference to the land itself; the Estonian term used for Livonians here, liivimaalane, means approximately "Livlander".

Lembitu (d. 1217) was an elder of the Sakala region who died in battle against the German Order of the Sword Brethren (mentioned in the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia).

The St.George's Night uprising (Est. Jüriöö ülestous) (1343-1345) was a rebellion by native Estonians against their German overlords.

Estonia was not to become an independent nation-state until 1918, seven hundred years counted from the time of Lembitu onwards.

Scenes of peasant insurgencies against the Russian rulers in the 19th century.

Lydia Koidula (1843-1886), the first important poetess to write in Estonian.

Johann Voldemar Jannsen (1819-1890), father of Koidula, journalist and poet, and author of the words of the Estonian national anthem.

1558-1710.

ESTO: An international festival of Estonian culture, conducted by exile organisations in the years preceding the restoration of independence.

Literally "Estonia abroad" -- generic term for the diaspora and its activities. An exiled Estonian is called väliseestlane (pl. väliseestlased).

Vilsandi is the westernmost populated island of Estonia, off the large island of Saaremaa.

"In the Vändra forest of Pärnu district" is an old-established popular song of heroic acts of bear-slaying, with words by the poet Otto Wilhelm Masing (1763-1832).

Soviet state farm.

Published 30 December 2009
Original in Estonian
Translated by Christopher Moseley
First published by Vikerkaar 4-5 (2009)

Contributed by Vikerkaar © Tonu Onnepalu / Vikerkaar / Eurozine

PDF/PRINT

Related Articles

Cover for: The ordinary affects of repair

The repair of everyday objects is a way of healing the wounds of post-socialist transition and of building affective bonds, where the market forces people to think of each other only as rational and expendable actors. Francisco Martínez talks to Estonians practitioners of ‘remont’ about their motivations.

Belarus, Estonia, Russia and Ukraine: four countries whose destinies are tightly interwoven. Now the S. Fischer Foundation, the German Academy of Language and Literature, and Allianz Cultural Foundation have created a transnational platform for discussing the most pressing country-specific topics in a common European context.

Discussion