The marriage of Aino and Oskar Kallas

by Sirje Olesk


The marriage of Aino and Oskar Kallas – a Finnish bridge in reality

1.    Romance
One of the brightest and most diverse eras in Estonia’s history was the first half of the 20th century: overcoming the pressure of the expansion of tsarist Russia, the emergence and development of a civic state, the whirlwind of revolutions in 1905 and 1917, the victorious War of Independence and the consequent Republic of Estonia. These were heroic times, full of hope. One international couple in particular stood out in our small community: the prominent writer Aino Kallas and her husband Oskar Kallas, doctor of folklore and later a diplomat.

Aino Kallas (nee Krohn in 1878) was the daughter of Julius Krohn, an outstanding Finnish national figure, scientist and writer. In 1899 in the summer cottage of her brother Kaarle Krohn, professor of folklore, she met the not-so-young Estonian scholar Oskar Kallas (b 1868). He fell in love at first sight and proposed on the third day. Aino Krohn had never been to Estonia but her father had written the first Estonian language textbook for Finns. She also knew that the father of her good friend, Antti Almberg-Jalava, had once pined for the greatest Estonian poet, Lydia Koidula. The romanticism of youth was reinforced by National Romanticism. This man who had come from an alien country was big, strong and mysterious: the young woman accepted the challenge, i.e. the marriage. To her friend Ilona Jalava she explained her decision that so bewildered everybody: “We two did not seek each other, God himself has given us to each other.”

By that time, Aino Krohn was already an established writer; under the pseudonym of her father, Suonio, she had published a collection of poetry and short stories in addition to stories in various magazines. She was a spoilt, talented and inquisitive young lady, raised in a pleasant middle-class home without financial worries, who had no experience dealing with practical matters. She held Scandinavian-style idealistic views regarding the relations between men and women, and strongly believed in her own calling as a writer. Her fiancé was from Saaremaa Island, youngest son of the vicar of Kaarma. He had studied classical languages at Tartu University and had been trained in folklore at Helsinki University. His views of family and marriage were of the most conservative kind, based on the old Baltic German ideal of the three K-s for women (Kirche, Kinder, Küche). This is the prologue of that imposing and dramatic marriage.   

The wedding ceremony took place in Finnish on 6 August 1900 in the German church in Helsinki; an Estonian-language religious speech was presented by pastor Rudolf Kallas, the bridegroom’s brother. Languages spoken at home were initially German, Finnish and Estonian, with the latter becoming more significant as the children were growing up. The young married couple settled in St. Petersburg.
The next generation were able to read fragments about this marriage in Aino Kallas’s books and diaries published in mid-century. Scholars have had access to their voluminous correspondence in Estonian and Finnish archives.

2.    Oskar

Oskar Kallas (1868-1946) was the contemporary and friend of Jaan Tõnisson, one of the most prominent Estonian statesmen of all times. These two and a few other Estonian students formed the Estonian Student Society at the then German and Russian-speaking Imperial University, and thus established opposition to the spreading Russification policy of the late 19th century. After graduating, Jaan Tõnisson, Oskar Kallas and a few other young men of similar ideas bought the newspaper Postimees and started to purposefully use it to awaken the national self-consciousness of the Estonian people. Theirs was the first generation of educated Estonians who started using Estonian at home and set up the first Estonian-language private school in Tartu in 1906. Oskar Kallas became head of the school. Historians term this pre-1905 period the Tartu Renaissance. Immediately after political parties were allowed in Russia, Tõnisson organised a national-conservative party.

Oskar Kallas, like his brothers before him, had taken out a loan to study at Tartu University. After graduating in 1892 he worked in various schools for a few decades as a teacher of German and classical languages, but his scholarly interests soon led him to national subjects and kindred languages. In 1889 he visited Finland for the first time, and afterwards devoted himself mostly to Estonian folklore and ethnography. These subjects did not actually yet exist as fields of study in Estonia at that time. Tartu University had a post of lecturer of the Estonian language, and in 1912 Oskar Kallas applied. As he was a well-known national figure, however, the Russian-oriented University Council turned him down. All national studies were still in an embryonic state as academic disciplines. During the last decades of the 19th century, an impressive amount of verbal heritage had been collected: old songs, stories, beliefs. The whole undertaking carried out by volunteer collectors, was supervised by pastor Jakob Hurt. A significant role in supplementing the collection belonged to students of Estonian origin who, for a modest salary, went on extensive expeditions in summer, visiting various parishes, writing down old songs, stories and legends, and whenever possible, also collecting ethnographic items. Largely on the initiative of Oskar Kallas, the newly founded society began gathering publications in the Estonian language. In 1909, again aided and abetted by Kallas, these very collections formed the basis for the Estonian National Museum in Tartu. Oskar Kallas was the head of this institution (in addition to his other commitments, and for no fee) until his transfer to diplomatic work.

Besides his breadwinning job of schoolteacher in Narva and St. Petersburg, Kallas tried to find resources to continue his academic work as well. He found an academic supervisor in Helsinki, a good friend of Jakob Hurt, and his future wife’s half-brother, Kaarle Krohn.

He never managed to get a scholarship to Helsinki, only smaller amounts for the necessary expeditions. His dissertation had to be written in the evening and over the weekends. During the last years of the 19th century, Oskar Kallas had a chance to undertake two longer trips through Europe. After returning from the second trip, he ended up in his supervisor’s summer cottage on Kuorsalo island. Aino was already there.

Oskar Kallas defended his thesis Die Wiederholungslieder der estnischen Volkspoesie at Helsinki University in summer 1900. The only tangible reward of his newly acquired doctor’s degree was the post of Privatdozent at St.Petersburg University, which was sadly underpaid.
As a family man – his first child was born on the very same day he defended his doctoral thesis – Kallas started looking around for a job in Estonia or Finland, and in early autumn 1903 he moved to Tartu.

The Kallas family lived in Tartu for fifteen busy years. They had five children, four of whom survived. With astonishing energy, Oskar Kallas worked at the Postimees newspaper, as a teacher at school and as the organiser and head of the Estonian National Museum. This was the early period in the development of Estonian civil society, qualified people were few and far between, and their workload was enormous. Kallas still hoped to continue his academic work, but it was to remain only a hope. When the Republic of Estonia was declared in 1918 and sought recognition in Europe, Oskar Kallas was dispatched to Helsinki where he was well known and trusted. He became a full-fledged ambassador who achieved both de jure and de facto recognition of Estonia in Finland. At first he considered his job to be temporary, fulfilling a nationally important task. In 1922 the Foreign Office appointed Oskar Kallas Ambassador to London, which at that time was the most important embassy abroad. The initially agreed upon three years stretched to twelve – until his retirement. The newly emerged states (the Baltic countries, as well as Finland) were unknown in Europe, and introducing them became a true challenge for the Kallas family. It is quite clear, in hindsight, that they managed better than any other married couple at that time in Estonia.
This union of politics and literature, so well represented in the imposing Kallas marriage, has caused various problems for historians who have researched Estonian foreign policy. Oskar Kallas, after all, was first and foremost a scholar and a national figure. Was he sufficiently shrewd and perceptive, or clever enough to politically protect the interests of the Republic of Estonia? His long stay as an ambassador, which no doubt seems strange today, was quite usual at the time; representatives of other small countries kept their post for much longer than the 3-4 years considered normal in the rotation business of today. K.R. Pusta, for example, worked as an ambassador in France for 14 years, and Karl Menning in Germany for 12 years. However, the reader of Aino Kallas’s diaries cannot help noticing regular hints about the possibility of being called back home, which the author presents with acute bitterness. The post of the London Ambassador was one of the most desirable at the Estonian Foreign Ministry, and the intrigues surrounding it were thus plentiful. Oskar Kallas himself would reputedly have returned much earlier, but he very much respected his wife’s wish to live in a world metropolis. These are naturally no more than speculations. It is abundantly obvious that Britain and Estonia were by no means equal partners, and the best the diplomats could do at that time was to try and introduce their country in the heart of the world’s most powerful empire. Here, the role of the Kallas couple was undeniably enormous. The fact that British papers wrote about the Estonian ambassador’s wife, and more than once, that she was “... one of the most beautiful women in the Corps Diplomatique...”, certainly considerably helped the Estonian cause.

3.    Aino

Is Aino Kallas (1878-1956) a Finnish or an Estonian writer? Professor Kai Laitinen, author of her monograph, has used the term ‘joint writer’.
She wrote mostly in Finnish, but largely on Estonian topics. Her work can be interpreted as part of each country’s literary heritage. Almost all her books appeared in both countries, and she introduced their respective cultures in the press. In addition to Finnish and Estonian, her work has been published in English, German, Dutch, Italian, French, Swedish, Danish, Hungarian and Russian.

Aino Kallas started, rather fumblingly, with contemporary Finnish themes, without achieving much success. She found her true talent when she discovered Estonian history, writing short stories about things that had deeply shocked her: the cruel treatment of Estonian peasants by the German landowners. Estonian history largely remained the main source of topics in her work. Besides the dramatic occurrences in her emotional life, she used real historical texts as background material in order to sublimate her personal experience. Her best work, the prose ballads The Vicar of Reigi and The Wolf’s Bride both seemingly tackle the distant past, with one relying on a specific historical event and the other on an Estonian legend. The topic of forbidden love and deadly Eros, however, make them deeply, although covertly, personal.
“Lucky chance has brought Aino Kallas into contact with Estonia, its life and language. It is quite likely that our semi-barbarian society with its maladies and aspirations for grandeur have had their impact in shaping Aino Kallas into the kind of writer we know her to be…” wrote her contemporary, Estonian writer Friedebert Tuglas in 1922.

Aino Kallas wrote short stories, novellas, novels, essays, criticism, memoirs and poetry. Contemporary critics valued most highly her prose ballads in archaic style on the subject of forbidden love; most readers, however, preferred her diaries published when she was already past her prime. Aino Kallas was the most translated Estonian or Finnish author during the interwar period and moved freely in the literary circles of London. The contemporary English press devoted quite a lot of attention to her; only Jean Sibelius and Marshal Mannerheim could compete with her there. English-speaking readers have the following works available: the collection of short stories The White Ship (1924), two prose ballads under the title Eros the Slayer (1927) and the mythical short novel The Wolf’s Bride (1930). These books did not sell particularly well, but the critics were unanimously appreciative. John Galsworthy wrote in the foreword to the The White Ship: Madame Aino Kallas, though well-known elsewhere, is so far unfortunately unknown by us in England. Judging by at least half these stories, she is one of the strongest and most individual of living writers. Reading them, one is conscious of a new dish –  a stranger flavour and of coming very close to primal things. And he concludes: Though I maintain that they are unnecessary, I am proud to write these few words about work for which I feel such genuine admiration.

There have been no reprints of Aino Kallas’s books in English since the Second World War. Her work, together with England’s days of glory and the collapse of colonial empire, quietly sank into oblivion. Still, a number of films and operas have been based on her work; readers in Finland and Estonia have been endlessly intrigued by her private life, which she herself made public in her diaries, most of which were published during her lifetime.

There are instances in European literature where authentic diaries have acquired the meaning of a literary work. The French can enjoy the diaries of H. F. Amiel and the brothers Concourt, the English have those of Byron and Katherine Mansfield. Estonians, alas, have been able to read the diaries of Elo Tuglas, Jaan Roos or K.A. Hindrey only during the past decade; Pentti Saarikoski’s diaries of his younger days are a compelling read for Finns. All through the last half-century, both Estonians and Finns have been most fascinated by the diary of Aino Kallas, which captivates with its inner dramatism and accomplished style. Dust to  dust, the soul’s secrets to humanity (Elisabeth Barrett-Browning) is what Aino Kallas, then almost 75, chose as the motto of her diary. It covers the years 1897-1931 and is traditionally published in five volumes. The diary starts with matters of the heart of a young starry-eyed Helsinki schoolgirl, describes at great length her meeting with Oskar Kallas and their romantic engagement and reveals her ambitions and inner conflicts as a writer, her concerns as a mother, the romantic yearning of a passionate woman, and overviews of the glamorous life of a diplomatic wife. All this has been written by a true writer. The diaries are dramatic (Kai Laitinen has used the metaphor of a classical 5-act drama), the main conflict being the clash between the ambitions of a writer and the duties of a traditional wife. In her late thirties she experienced a great and tragic love for Eino Leino, one of the most talented Finnish poets of all time. Her soul was torn between her children, career and a loving husband on the one hand, and a creative genius, albeit an alcoholic, whose better days were already over, on the other. This painful conflict is presented in the third, middle part of her diaries, and it forms the centre in more ways than one. The affair is preceded by a vague yearning, and often a deep dissatisfaction with herself and her surroundings, followed by feelings of fulfilment and the pain of renouncing her love, which nevertheless enriches her work.

Aino Kallas published her diaries when the other participants in her story, including members of her family (both daughters) were already dead. Her candour displays flair and disregard, exudes the symbolist aesthetics of her youth which often turned her life into a work of art. Kallas’s diaries were first published in Finland between 1952 and 1956 and in the Estonian language in exile (it was impossible to publish them in Estonia during the Soviet times) between 1954 and 1960. The first edition and subsequent printings, attracted lively attention and polemics, where the focus was no longer an aesthetic, but moral problems. These diaries are truly exciting also from psychological and historical points of view, and have remained successful. Both societies, Finnish and Estonian, are small enough to maintain keen interest in individuals. A biographical film appropriately called The Burning Love was made in Finland (director Kirsti Petäjäniemi), and there is also a chamber opera, A Woman Like Frozen Champagne, by the composer Ilkka Kuusisto. Just as her work inspired the great national composers Tauno Pylkkänen and Eduard Tubin, the person and dramatic life of Aino Kallas still inspires people today.

Sirje Olesk