Lifting the Veil on Estonia's Past
Clare Thomson on the pace of change in the Baltic States.
Glasnost, according to one Estonian historian, 'means winning back our history of the War.' Although both the West and the Soviet Union tend to look upon the Baltic States as a single block, the pace of change in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia is uneven. A month in Estonia showed me how rapidly history and notions about history are moving there.
This year, for the first time ever, thousands of Estonians gathered in the ruins of a fifteenth-century convent just outside the capital, Tallinn, for a mass in memory of the ten thousand Estonians deported under Stalin on June 14th, 1941. Three days later a similarly undisturbed gathering assembled in Tallinn's Gothic town hall square to protest against the first day of Soviet occupation, – June 17th, 1940. The Museum of History has scrapped its devotion to 'The Revolutionary Movement and Friendship between Nations', and the bust of Lenin in the lecture hall at Tartu University has been boarded up. On June 25th, 25,000 Estonians attended the unveiling of a monument to Konstantin Pats, president of the Estonian Republic which enjoyed a brief spell of independence between the Wars. The Estonian Heritage Society, founded last year, has been restoring a number of Independence monuments, destroyed by Soviet authorities during and after the Second World War. Trevimi Velliste, chairman of this overtly political association, says that 'for historians, such work is not just symbolic: it is a step towards restoring independence'.
Hannes Valter, a specialist in world war history and new administrator at Tallinn's Museum of History, says that the new climate has made life difficult for many historians. 'It is not easy to be sixty-five and admit that all your previous work amounts to nothing'. No one respects those who suddenly change their views. Valter is one of about thirty younger historians who have never had to choose between toeing the party line and taking up another profession. It is difficult for them too, 'Historians today are slaves of what the people, not the party leaders, want'. Whatever their real interests they must work on those areas of history which have been under 'ideological control', namely the Independence War and 1920 peace treaty with Russia, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, annexation and occupation of the Baltic States and the Estonian resistance movement, recognition of which undermines Soviet theory that there was no resistance. These historians says they constitute an opposition to official history which has now become the official history.
Censorship has lapsed, the magazines and newspapers are full of history and 'children of Gorbachev', new cultural journals, have sprung up everywhere. Book publishing, however, is still slow, complicated by the shortage of printers and papers. One book, the diary of a small boy deported to Siberia in 1941, has been published in nearby Finland but is still awaiting publication in Estonia. The first 'scholarly' work, Hannes Valter's essay on the Independence War, was published last year and sold out immediately.
Rein Kruus, editor at the journal of the Writers Union, says that there is not actually much new writing. 'Glasnost' simply means publishing what has been written, but suppressed, over the least fifty years. It does not, automatically simplify research. Although civil and cultural archives are theoretically open, access is complicated by paperwork, delays, poor cataloguing and by the fact that many are in what Kruus calls 'a very bad state'. And although the KGB and Party are 'playing Glasnost and Perestroika', KGB archives are still closed. Much material, for example an Estonian military document indicating that the independent republic did not plan to attack the Soviet Union, 'disappeared' in 1940.
Some of the most interesting research is being carried out at the popular level. The Heritage Society was founded according to the ideas of Jakob Hurt and Villem Reiman, both leaders of the first 'National Awakening' in the nineteenth century when Estonian, as opposed to Russian or German, culture was cultivated. Hurt's theory was that if a nation was denied its own history then it must develop its popular memory. Mart Laar, specialist in nineteenth-century ideas of nationhood, is now devoting his time to the current national awakening. He believes that the older generation educated in independent Estonia have instinctively honoured Jakob Hurt by recording their own experience of Soviet rule and that this is a peculiarly Estonian phenomenon which is partly why there is no equivalent to the Heritage Society in Lithuania or Latvia. Laar has been compiling a 'new archive' based on interviews, videos and diaries and this venture has inspired fresh debate about 'popular' and 'psycho' history. Laar himself is still awaiting the outcome of a March threat from the State Prosecutor accusing him of falsifying history in a magazine article about the resistance movement.
If the recent changes are affecting the activity of these 'new' historians, most of them hope that their work will in turn affect changes in the political arena. On June 30th, the day I left Estonia and sailed back across the Baltic to Finland, a conference devoted to legal reassessment of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact opened in Tallinn. It was attended by representatives from Byelorussia, East and West Germany, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Moldavia, Poland, Rumania and the Ukraine who hope that the conference will serve as a basis for a special historical commission that will travel to Moscow this August to denounce the pact on its fiftieth anniversary. This could open the explosive question of Soviet military presence in the Baltic Republics but some historians suspect that Moscow will simply blame Stalin and Hitler for past errors now beyond repair and for a map of Europe that cannot be altered. Laar said that if Moscow accepts that the Pact was a 'mistake' and that there is no legal basis for the present situation, the Baltic States must 'go out of the Soviet Union' – but he is also distrustful of the reasoning behind Gorbachev's decision to allow such a commission to assemble in the face of strong opposition from a majority of deputies at the recent Moscow Congress. One cynical representative from the Estonian National Independence Party said that the commission needs scientific experts, not historians, jurists and politicians, in order to prove that the documents are copies of the original pact.
Historians in Estonia say that perceptions of history in their country have been more radically affected than in Lithuania and Latvia. Laar believes there are more 'official' historians surviving in the other republics and that 'in Latvia, even the reddest Estonian historian looks white'. Walter attributes this to a specific 'socio-political' process. Towards the end of the seventies when Moscow recognised that the Khrushchev thaw had lasted longest in Estonia, its sudden and very reactionary response provoked strong cultural opposition. Whereas the authorities responded earlier and less aggressively to the thaw in Latvia, they were unable to contain cultural opposition in Estonia before 'Perestroika' began. Furthermore, cultural opposition in Estonia, where fear of being swamped by 'Russification' is an emotional reality, has an almost missionary zeal. Lithuania, which has a much smaller immigrant 'Soviet' population is freer in this respect, whereas the native population in Latvia is already outnumbered. On a less polemical level, intellectual relations between the three republics are complex. Whilst Estonia and Latvia share a history of German and Lutheran influence, Lithuania developed under Polish, Catholic influence and whilst Lithuanian and Latvian are Indo-European languages, Estonian is a Finno-Ugric language closely related to Finnish. Few historians speak all three languages and the problem involves more than reluctance to communicate in Russian. The most interesting research is written in the national languages and the translations are hard to come by. 'Estonian intellectuals', said Walter, 'are more interested in their "superior" neighbour, Finland. If they ever have the time, those specialising in Estonian history will hunt out Finnish, German and Swedish texts. For the moment the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact unites the Baltic States. Some expect an explosive aftermath to its fiftieth anniversary; others, like Hannes Valter, wonder whether a longer time span is not more realistic. 'In history', he says, 'ten years is nothing'.
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology