Reviews Hardships and pleasures during the Soviet era. Life stories

Published on balticworlds.com on mars 24, 2010

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At present, both Estonians and Russians use history as a weapon, so, sad to say, I am suspicious of a history book published on commission by the government”, a Russian student said in connection with the Estonian and Latvian governments’ publication of a Russian-language history book in 2005; the year that Russia celebrated its 60-year commemoration of its victory over Nazi Germany.
The fact that history is still being used as a political weapon in the former Soviet Republics is exactly what has led the citizens of these countries to lose faith in official history-writing. During the entire Soviet era, history writing had more to do with ideology than with science. It is primarily against this background that the governments in the Baltic States have intervened to structurize history: the “true” history was finally to be told. For the purpose of showing “communism’s crimes against humanity” the government archives began to publish selections of formerly classified documents from the communist party’s and KGB’s archives. The archives were often gefundenes Fressen for those who had a vested political interest in accusing individual authority figures and political opponents of participating in communism’s “crimes against humanity”. Partly in order to deal with this issue, historians’ commissions were set up in the three Baltic States and given the task of investigating these crimes.

Another way of dealing with the citizens’ deep-rooted distrust of public history-writing has been to let people relate their own history. After the fall of communism, the collection and preservation of biographies from the Soviet era have served to compensate for the deficiencies of public history-writing. Events that it had been forbidden to talk about could now be recorded for posterity. In Estonia, the first campaign was started as early as 1988, and produced more than 2000 life stories. This campaign has been followed by several others. The stories are kept in the collections of the Estonian Literary Museum.
The book under review is part of the Estonian collection of life stories that is published by the Literary Museum in Tartu. The life stories are selected from the series “One Hundred Lives of the Century”. They are 25 in number and are written by people with very different lives, aged 35 to 92. The stories have footnotes that refer to a “Glossary” that provides broad background information to the concepts and events mentioned in the stories, e.g. the “Cultural Autonomy Law for Ethnic Minorities”, “Deportations” or “Destruction battalions”. The glossary contextualizes the stories, whose events are thus anchored in historical facts.
The oldest storyteller is a woman and teacher, Hilja Lill, born in 1905. Her story covers several decades, and includes many dramatic events and private sorrows. Following her life story is like reading an exciting novel. It starts with a happy childhood — a childhood that comes to an abrupt end when both of her parents are murdered by unknown persons when she is 11 years of age — and continues with passionate love and sudden, violent death, when her spouse is shot dead by the Red Army in July 1941. But the story also contains a few “confessions”, for example, that it was “easier to breathe” under Nazi-German occupation than under Soviet rule. The Red Army’s entry into Tallinn is described as a pure slaughter of humans and animals, the destruction of houses and farms — indeed, pretty much everything that got in the army’s way.

In the spring of 1945, Hilja Lill was apprehended and interrogated by the NKVD (the Soviet Secret Police). She was accused of having hidden Estonian resistance fighters. Her story, printed in the book, includes the full names of the men who worked at the NKVD’s headquarters in Viljandi (where Hilja was apprehended). She was arrested and taken to the infamous prison Patarei, where she was again interrogated. Her story also provides the full names of her fellow prisoners.
Given the ways in which history, archives and documents have been used for bringing accusations against individuals, one might question the wisdom of publishing full names, without any attempt to provide protective secrecy. Hilja was sentenced to 10 years of penal servitude in Siberia on anti-Soviet conspiracy charges. Her life story ends, more or less, with her release and return to Estonia in 1957. It is as if, once everyday life took over, there is nothing else to tell, even though Hilja lived for another 40 years after her release. She died on July 4, 1997.

Elmar-Raimund Ruben’s life story is also full of wartime drama. As a trained service man, Elmar-Raimund was recruited into the Red Army, where he remained for the entire war. He gives detailed accounts of each battle and troop movement and describes his own “heroic deeds” with a certain pride and joy. The same joy can be sensed in the story’s continuation after the war. Elmar-Raimund was demoted because of “nationalism”, but remained, nonetheless, in military service for another 14 years. I cannot help wondering whether the mention of this demotion, included in a life story told in 1996, was meant to legitimize his long Red Army service. In spite of his heroism during the war and in the army, he was denied a military career because his superiors had classed him as an Estonian and “nationalist” rather than as a Soviet citizen. One must keep in mind that the life stories are recounted in an entirely different context than the ones in which the events took place, which makes the source-critical reader constantly suspect the intention underlying the story. Life stories may be exciting reading, but they must not be interpreted as giving the “truth” as, for instance, a historian would define it. An analysis of these stories does, however, allow us to examine the positions from which the narrative is created and the positions to which it gives rise.

In the introduction to the book, Tiina Kirss emphasizes the problematic relation between history and life stories: “Undoubtedly a life story is a narrative about the past, but history is not the sum of life stories, of remembered ‘great lives’.” The purpose of publishing the book’s twenty-five life stories is to reflect the history that has previously not been told, namely the years of occupation 1940–1941, then 1941–1944 under Nazism and 1944–1991 under Communist rule. The purpose is not to use the narratives as complements to “scientific” history, but rather as texts and memories of particular historical events. In any case, this is not the kind of book one reads from beginning to end — one can safely skip those life-stories that are not of interest to one’s own research objectives, while others may be very rewarding. Personally, I have benefited greatly from taking part in the women’s life stories about everyday hardships and pleasures during the Soviet era.

+ Estonian Life Stories, Edited and translated by Tiina Kirss, Compiled by Rutt Hinrikus Budapest: Central European University Press 2009, 539 pages