Tiit Aleksejev is an Estonian writer and historian who has served as the head of the Estonian Writers’ Union since 2016. This autumn, the EWU will celebrate its centenary. ELM probed into the significance behind the round number.

This year, members of the EWU voted you in for a third term. What is the job all about? How much work and responsibility does it entail?

My tenure can be divided into two parts: before the pandemic and now. Covid gave rise to an unprecedented situation. First of all, I had to navigate the inevitable financial difficulties and avoid laying off employees and, secondly, we needed to completely reorganize the literary practices to ensure authors could continue presenting their works, and events wouldn’t be entirely cancelled. As of today, I can state that the Estonian Writers’ Union accomplished both tasks, though it did entail a fair amount of stress for our entire team. At the same time, it was a uniquely exciting period and allowed us to carry out changes that would have otherwise dragged on for much longer.

To focus on the lighter side of things, making a living through literature, no matter how scant that living may be, is a distinct privilege. While crossing the border of a Middle Eastern country a few years ago, I was required to fill out a hefty stack of forms. Two of the blank spaces were “Profession” and “Place of Employment”. In the first, I wrote “writer”, and in the second, “The Estonian Writers’ Union”. I realized that’s exactly what I’ve wanted: to be tied as closely to literature as possible.

Why should an author belong to the Estonian Writers’ Union? What do they get from membership and what is expected of them in return?

The EWU doesn’t expect anything of its authors. Requirements and expectations are dubious categories in general. We don’t offer any exceptional advantages or privileges, either. I believe most authors wish to join to attain certain confirmation of their professional abilities. If I am accepted into the Estonian Writers’ Union, I am therefore a credible author. It seems to matter to an author’s awareness. To me, as the head of the EWU, what matters much more is what our organization can offer its members, and I mean that not in terms of benefits, but of assistance. Such as in defending writers’ interests in negotiations over copyright and public lending rights, for instance. Then, you also have arguing on behalf of literature in a wider sense.

Whether or not literature can change the world may be questionable, but it is certainly capable of changing an individual. And what, as a society, are we if not a collection of individuals?

One hundred years of the Estonian Writers’ Union. Is that a little or a lot?

It’s an extraordinary amount of time, especially if you consider the kinds of regimes we’ve weathered while still keeping our flag relatively unblemished.

How large was the Estonian Writers’ Union 100 years ago, and how many writers belong to it now?

There were 33 members when the EWU was founded and today there are 336. In addition to writers, we have translators and literary scholars in our ranks. The gender divide is nearly even. In terms of worldview, the EWU represents a cross-section of contemporary Estonian society. Stendhal speaks of literature’s role in holding a mirror up to life, but writers themselves are also a part of that reflection. They are precisely what life is.

There have been points where Estonia’s writing community has been split, just like the rest of the nation. What role do writers play in the shifting ideological winds of different regimes?

Writers are just like anyone else: some remain true to their principles; others give in to temptations. They, and creative persons more broadly, often have a more acute sense of justice, which may – as an unusual paradox – result in unjust works. But there has always been a majority of writers who stand up for the right thing. Otherwise, Estonia would no longer have its own state or culture.

What historical events have been the most trying for Estonian authors over the last century?

Possibly, the loss of our independence in 1940. When writers could see where the path was heading, and that the USSR didn’t intend to abide by any of its agreements. The truth must have even dawned on the communist writers.

What are the EWU’s duties and objectives today?

First and foremost, comes our mission to promote Estonian-language culture. After that come the trade-union objectives of protecting authors’ interests. The latter includes issues like fair renumeration, public lending rights, and general copyright. A sizeable amount of resources is spent promoting literature. We are the only organization in Estonia that holds regular weekly literary events in both Tallinn and Tartu. The EWU provides authors and publishers with the opportunity to present new works and translations that are significant not only in the context of Estonian culture, but from a wider perspective. For example, we just hosted an event celebrating the 150th anniversary of Marcel Proust’s birth. One of the most popular literary events of 2022 has been the release of the Estonian translation of Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book in the auditorium of the EWU. Another critical undertaking is the EWU’s novel-writing competition, which aims to discover talented new authors. In short, we strive to amplify fine literature and support new authors to create more.

What have been the greatest accomplishments of the EWU, and thereby of Estonian authors, over the last 100 years?

I personally believe that the EWU’s greatest accomplishment was preserving Estonian literary culture through several occupations. The efforts and activities of the EWU in Exile are also to be praised for this. Then there is, of course, the restoration of Estonia’s independence, in which artists’ unions and specific writers played a crucial role. Estonian culture has a remarkably unique tradition of original novel-writing and translation, particularly in the historical genre.

Who is the contemporary writer and what is their function in society?

Anyone who has published something can call themselves a writer these days, but I suppose a true writer is one whose works connect with readers and leaves an imprint on culture. Proceeding from the sense of justice I mentioned earlier, a writer should be socially bound to speak the truth and, if speaking the truth is impossible then, at least to not lie.

What kind of an era is it for literature? Good, fair, poor?

Compared with the time of Beowulf, it’s fantastic. Though literature’s share in overall culture has clearly decreased since the early 20th century, the trend isn’t due to a decline, but to culture diverging and diversifying on the whole. That being said, there’s no danger of literature’s disappearance. People wish to read and there’s something that only literature can provide. Something that can’t be shown on a screen or a stage. Literature’s magical and psychological dimensions.

Can we be satisfied with the number of active fiction readers in Estonia, given our small population? I suppose changes have occurred in that area as well.

Of course, there have been changes and they’re due to the same cultural divergence. A portion of literature is competing with the rest of the enormous entertainment industry. Yet, literature is something much more than entertainment. There are always those seeking something more lasting; something that will touch them on a deeper level. Whereas one could have a casual approach to attracting readers just a couple decades ago, this is no longer the case. We need to increase the number of readers, especially young ones. Not that they’ve become less intelligent, but so many other options have spawned. That burgeoning is also misleading. As Jaan Kaplinski succinctly put it: “as a whole, everything has increased, but taken individually, there is less”.

How international is Estonian literature?

Every national literature is a part of world literature; it exists as a complete organism. You can find top-rate writers of every nationality. It’s a question of tending to the garden. One element is state support for literature’s dissemination, and another is for translators’ enthusiasm and motivation to be the vehicle for Estonian literature in their respective native languages. We must show our appreciation to these translators and foreign publishers who have faith in Estonian literature.

What can the EWU do, and what is it doing, to ensure that Estonian literature is disseminated and translated, and that writers are known and loved at home and abroad?

The EWU must recognize authors whose works are of substance and support them in every way: both morally and financially. Simultaneously, we must do our part to foster the growth of new writers. Literature is a singular element shared between the living and the dead, but it’s also a crucial tie to the modern day; to all the changes going on around us.

What makes Estonia’s literature and authors stand out in the world?

The power of the word in Finno-Ugric tradition. Its relationship to the environment, spells, and protective magic. Its openness to the world. A pursuit conditioned by the exceptional development of Estonian written culture.

What do Estonian writers have in common with those of any other country? What are the differences? Is there any difference?

There may be no difference in principle, meaning the desire and need to create, but there certainly are in terms of environment and history. Those are two strengths at the Estonian writer’s disposal.

What are the EWU’s current strengths and what are its weaknesses?

Our strengths are independence (though it naturally leads to financial difficulties) and young authors’ interest in joining the organization. Our weaknesses are mainly of the monetary persuasion. The EWU is a non-profit organization that receives support from the Cultural Endowment of Estonia for organizing literary events but finances its own operating costs from rental revenue. That revenue has been in decline since the beginning of the pandemic.

What goals has the EWU set for itself? What’s next?

Our goals and intentions can be summarized by the keywords: “the significance of literature in culture”, “identity”, “young authors”, “continuity”, and “change”.

How will the EWU be celebrating its centenary, both in Estonia and abroad?

We’ll be marking the occasion with literary events taking place over the entire year, but the main event will be a gala at the Estonia Opera House on October 8th. It’s important to note that this isn’t merely the anniversary of the founding of a creative union, but a cultural milestone to which the entire Estonian nation has contributed.

Annika Koppel is the editor-in-chief of Estonian Literary Magazine. 

The Estonian Writers’ Union is a professional association of writers and literary critics that was founded on October 8, 1922 at Tallinn Town Hall. During the first independence of Estonia the chairmanship of the creative union was held by Friedebert Tuglas, Eduard Hubel (Mait Metsanurk), Karl Ast (Rumor), Henrik Visnapuu, and August Jakobson.

When Estonia was incorporated into the Soviet Union, an organizing committee of the Estonian Soviet Writers’ Union began to operate in October 1943. On October 8th and 9th, 1943, a founding conference took place in Moscow, where the board, presidium, and the chairman of the new union were elected. The Moscow-born association of Estonian writers was called Estonian Soviet Writers’ Union until 1958, and later became the Writers’ Union of the Estonian SSR.

During the 1941 to 1944 German occupation of Estonia the Union’s work was, at first, organized by a three-member board. Estonian writers managing to escape to the free west in the war of the autumn of 1944, succeeded in organizing their activities so quickly that the Estonian Writers’ Union Abroad was founded as early as 1945 in Stockholm.

Ideological isolation made it impossible to have official contacts between the two writers’ unions, the one in Estonia and the one abroad, until 1989. However, in May 1989 an “unofficial”, but actually high-level and extremely successful meeting of writers from both sides of the border took place in Helsinki. Honest and talented writers at home and abroad had succeeded in protecting and supporting their nation’s ideals of freedom and culture despite all the political and economic difficulties. The professional association of writers in Estonia began to call itself the Estonian Writers’ Union again in 1991.

From 1995 until 2004, EWU was chaired by Mati Sirkel, after that it was chaired by Jan Kaus (2004-2007) and Karl Martin Sinijärv (2007-2016). Currently the chairman of EWU is Tiit Aleksejev (since April 2016).

In October 2000, the Estonian Writers’ Union Abroad decided to dissolve itself and its former members were accepted as members of Estonian Writers’ Union. A section of EWU was founded in Stockholm (chaired by Karin Saarsen-Karlstedt) in addition to the section in Tartu (chaired by Janika Kronberg, Piret Bristol and currently by Berk Vaher).

As of 2022, EWU has a membership of 336 writers, literary translators, critics, and researchers both in Estonia and worldwide.

As of 1992, the Estonian Writers’ Union is a member of the European Writers’ Council.