Estonian Life Story: Narrative and Testimony

by Rutt Hinrikus

Estonian Life Story – Narrative and Testimony

Rutt Hinrikus


Although the notion of autobiography developed in England only in 1786, the life story, together with memoirs, diaries and correspondence, is one of the oldest and most democratic genres, which almost everybody has felt he can handle. Life is essentially a story. A traditional approach to a life story emphasises that this is a story that a person is telling about his own life and about things that have really happened in the person’s life. Therefore, a life story is essentially not a fictional story, but the narrative dimension conditions its somewhat “literary” presentation, and requires certain models for interpreting the past.

In Estonia, just as in all countries with a written culture, the beginning of the genre of autobiography can be traced to the beginning of national literature. As a rule, the first Estonian cultural figures did not leave memoirs behind. A life story per se is not to be found in the first known diary in the Estonian language, kept by the first Estonian poet Kristjan Jaak Peterson from 1818-1822. There is a bit more of life story in Pärnu Pastor J. Fr. Rosenplänter’s diary (“Maakeele päevaraamat”), 1833, written in Estonian. The first real Estonian life story was written by a forward-looking 19th century peasant named Märt Mitt (1833-1912), who was conscious of himself as a subject of history and gave his memoirs, begun in the 1880s, the memorable title “Märt Mitt’s life story told in a manner connected with history”.

More extensive writing, collecting and publishing of memoirs and life stories in Estonia began in the 1920s, when the scope of the activities of the Estonian National Museum, established in 1909, broadened considerably. This was a time when the educated generation of the previous century reached an age at which memoirs are traditionally written. Two writers charted the path: August Kitzberg (Memoirs from the Youth of an Old Chaser after Wind, Kitzberg, 1924, 1925) and Lilli Suburg (The Suburg Family, Suburg 1923-1924).

In 1929, the Estonian Cultural Archive was established at the Estonian National Museum. At present, the archive forms one department of the Estonian Literary Museum and its collection of life stories contains about two thousand very different texts of life stories, which have been collected during the last decade. Adding to this all kinds of memoirs, diaries and other materials, collected during earlier times, the collection adds up to a much larger number; all together, Estonian museums probably hold about 6000-10 000 different autobiographical texts.

Although the collecting of memoirs did not cease during the Soviet occupation, the recording of both private and collective experience was largely limited by larger or smaller distortions and dangers, a fact which often prevented people from writing memoirs. There were only a few areas in which memoirs were not dangerous, mostly connected with folklore and ethnography, and with some reservations, also with cultural history. The autobiographies published during the Soviet period were written by actors (M. Möldre, L. Hansen), musicians (G. Ernesaks) and less often, by scientists. Politicians did not write memoirs, or wrote politically engaged propagandist texts. If they wanted to get published, many authors had to compromise; at best they simply left certain things out. Quite often, the memoirs ended rather early, for example, they closed with a description of the events of the year 1905 (memoirs of the historian H. Kruus) to avoid conscious falsification. Clearly there were people who kept their texts in bottom drawers, waiting for better times. In the late 1980s, a few manuscripts were brought out that could not have been published earlier because of political censorship (novels by A. Valton, H. Kiik). But during the past decade it has become apparent that very many memoirs were written, hoping for a better future in Estonia; we could say that such “literature from the drawers” was mostly of autobiographical character. Many of these “hidden memoirs” have been published (memoirs of D. Palgi, E. Parek, J. Roos’s diaries, etc.) But even in the case of the hidden memoirs, it is obvious that the internal censor of the authors was very vigilant in all issues that might even slightly touch upon politics. Among those who openly recorded their memories, thoughts and historical testimony for the future, we should, above all, mention the diaries of a director of a gymnasium, Jaan Roos, which constitute a rich chronicle of history and the history of his mental development, registering events in 1944-1954.

Since the end of the 1980s, the collecting of life stories has involved more and more people, and interest in autobiographical experience has grown into a real “boom in Estonian biography”, characterised by the growing number of published life stories and memoirs.

A pioneer in collecting and using memoirs has been the stage producer Merle Karusoo, who has staged (she herself uses the expression “to give back to people”) a number of documentary productions since the 1980s.

The Estonian Heritage Society started to collect historical memoirs in 1988; during the peak of their activities in 1988-1992 they received a large number of life stories or descriptions of autobiographical episodes.

In autumn 1989, the Cultural History Archive of the Estonian Literary Museum published the first calls for manuscripts under the heading “Do you remember your life history?” in Estonian newspapers, encouraging people to write about their lives and send the texts to the Literary Museum. It was a time of liberation in historical memory, and in just a few years a couple of hundred people responded and sent their autobiographies to the museum, written either in earlier times, or in answer to the appeal. In 1996, the Association for Estonian Life Histories was created at the museum. Its purpose is to facilitate the collection, research, and publication of life stories in Estonia, including methodological oversight of such activities, and the promotion of collaborative research in the field of life histories.

Modelled on the Finnish experience, a competition of life stories was initiated to get materials. Such competitions have produced excellent results. The mass collection of life histories, aimed at making as many voices heard as possible, has allowed everybody a free choice in how to construct their stories, in order to accumulate a large-scale collection representing history, memory and world image. The first large competition, entitled “My Destiny and the Destiny of Those Close to Me in the Labyrinths of History”, opened in 1996, and included about 20 000 pages of life histories. In 1997, Eve Annuk, who had collected women’s life stories, compiled the first life story anthology, Estonian Life Stories: Women Speak (“Eesti elulood. Naised kõnelevad”, 1997), containing 14 life stories. In 1996, Estonian life story writers had a chance to participate in a competition initiated by Finnish sociologists. The title of the competition was “Life Stories about Love, Marriage, and Sex” and its goal was to compare the sexual behaviour of different nations. Merle Karusoo chose from among the materials of this collection the stories for her successful documentary play and for the anthology The Storks Have Flown, Foul Weather (“Kured läinud, kurjad ilmad”, 1997). In 1999, 50 years had passed since the March 1949 deportations – the second great deportations - during which about 21 000 people were taken away during a few days. By 1999, numerous deportees’ life histories had already been collected, and the anniversary was commemorated by an anthology of deportation life stories, Estonian Life Stories. We Came Back (“Eesti elulood. Me tulime tagasi”, Hinrikus, 1999).

The 1999 competition, entitled “One Hundred Lives of a Century”, set as its goal the collection of material for the anthology Estonian Life Stories. Two hundred and thirty life stories were collected, one hundred of which were chosen for the anthology Estonian Life Stories (I-II, Hinrikus, 2000). The third volume of the anthology was published in 2003, subtitled My Life in the Estonian SSR (“Minu elu Eesti NSV-s”, Hinrikus, 2003). The length of the 150 life stories published in these three volumes ranges from a few pages to several dozen. Many stories have been shortened by the editor.

The anthology has had a surprising commercial success. Jaan Kross has said that if such books had come out some 15 years earlier, they would have been among those banned in the Soviet Union.

Lives of people born in the first half of the 20th century, which form the majority, have mostly been dramatic; their life stories cover long periods of time and contain extremely varied material. Similar patterns can be found in the memoirs of people who belong to different generations. Those who were born in the first half of the century were young when the Estonian Republic was created, and many families were quite well off in the 1930s. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, concluded between the Soviet Union and Germany in 1939, robbed them of their present and their future, turned their whole lives upside down and killed many. Most of the writers were born in the 1920s and 1930s. Their options varied, but these options depended on the politics of great powers. All men born before 1927 were mobilised by one or the other occupying power and often their lives depended only on chance. People born before 1939 draw direct or indirect comparisons in their life histories between their life before Soviet annexation and after.

The life stories of Estonians born in the 20th century can most naturally be divided into three groups: people who escaped to the West; people who were deported to Siberia; and people who remained in their homeland. The life stories of the deportees are typical traumatic. We have to admit that Estonian literature lacks a work of fiction that would describe the fate of the deportees with such emotional power as these life stories. But very often other life stories are also full of trauma. The authors often classify their life stories as certain archetypal stories, such as “my life, marked with a red stamp”, “one of the many”, etc. Opening lines such as “The story of our family is typical of Estonian families of the 20th century” recur often. Quite often the authors endow their writing with the task of giving historical testimony and with the fact that finally they can write about things “just as they were”. Paradoxically, it seems that the authors have found it easiest to write about traumatic experience: extraordinary events can best be inserted into the structure of the narrative of life history. Whereas the autobiographical narrative describing the Stalinist violence and post-war period is of a relatively homogeneous nature, this homogeneity is lost when the narrative reaches the period of stable regime, and often the authors lack models for describing a more peaceful life. Attempting to represent the everyday life of the Soviet period, they all, even the youngest and often professionally experienced narrators (e.g. journalists), feel a kind of helplessness.

A woman, born in 1927, states: My story is the story of my generation. Being children of the war days and the post-war years, we were the orphans of society. We gave society more, but received less than we deserved. Thanks to our very hard work, Estonia has again become inhabitable for our children.

Many readers have confessed that these ordinary narratives of ordinary people give a surprisingly impressive and telling view of life in Estonia in the 20th century and help us to understand historical events not as abstractions, but as traces of time in people’s lives.