reede, oktoober 12, 2007

An encounter with Johan Skytte

It was a brisk evening in the Danish village of Skagen in the fall of 2001 and my fellow students and I, as well as some teachers from my study program, were sitting around drinking alcoholic beverages in one of the few cafes in town that were open past 10 pm.

One of the 'teachers' was actually a librarian named Peter who was 60 years old and wore leather pants to work. In other words, Peter may have been old, but he was still 'cool'. And so I asked Peter a question that had been burning on my mind during the weeks I had spent in Copenhagen.

"Peter, why is that everytime I have a bit too much to drink, people ask me if I am Swedish?"

"Well," he replied. "The short answer is that Swedes like to come to Denmark to get drunk because the beer is cheaper here. But the truth is that Danes actually feel a bit inferior to Swedes. I mean they have Volvo and Ikea. What does Denmark have? The Little Mermaid?"

This was about as soul-searching as the Danish-Swedish dialog got during my time there. Most other times it was "damn drunk Swedes", "drunk as a Swede", "you have a beer in your hand, you must be Swedish" and, "Looks like a Swede threw up in the street again."

It got to the point that one time while walking home from a party in Norrebro I encountered a man staggering to the street after peeing on the wall of an apartment block. "Are you Swedish?" I asked him, quite convinced he must be. "No mate," he replied. "I'm Australian."


Fast forward six years and here I am in Tartu in the midst of sügis, the Estonian season that roughly corresponds to the American fall and the British autumn. But unlike visions of crisp October days and Indian Summers, sügis is damp, wet, soaking ... märg. They put the 'ü' in 'sügis' just to capture the feeling of wading through slops of wet leaves. It was like this last week when I climbed up Toomemäe in Tartu to see a new monument -- the Johan Skytte memorial, recently opened with the help of Queen Silvia of Sweden (see above). It was the Swede Skytte who founded the university, 375 years ago this month.

While checking out the Skytte monument, I began to wonder why is it that here in Estland, the Swedish cultural influence is respected and memorialized in national historiography, but in places like Denmark, Norway, and Finland, Swedes are looked upon as Carlsberg-chugging, self-absorbed primadonnas who are too busy thinking about their perfect society to notice anyone else around them? The Danes and Finns and Norwegians say their jokes are all in good fun, but are they really?

The answer to this question is rooted in the geopolitical repositioning of the nascent Estonian state in the 1920s under the tutelage of respected political thinkers like Jaan Tõnisson, who was at the heart of the Baltoscandia idea -- linking the Scandinavian and Baltic states into a union that could counterbalance Russian and German influence.

Beyond that though there is the reality that the Estonian past feels truncated. There's the mythology -- 800 years of slavery -- but then the reality. How many Estonian stories have been passed down from the times of the Great Northern War? Some. Our tour guide through Tartu the other day basically took the side of Karl XII in the end. He was trying to be unbiased, but it was so hard for him to be.

But did the Estonians of the time feel that way? Remember, regardless of noblemen and armies, the Estonians were maarahvas -- people of the land. While the Swedish influence cannot be understated by academics or politicians or clergymen, it probably trickled down to the maarahvas in ways that they may have not noticed. There was probably not a rash of newborn babies named Johan in 1633, to put it simply. The Estonian mothers kept naming their kids Tõnu and Tiidrik.

Nagu Rootsi Kuningas

But one day in Tartu I met a man who had named his son Karl, Karl "nagu rootsi kuningas", he said as he smiled to me. It's kind of odd to think that people even today have warm feelings about the Swedish monarchy. Another friend, a Swede, told me that when he visited an old couple in Noarootsi, the walls were covered with photos of the Swedish royal family.

Now I admit the Swedes are nice looking people. That they are so ashamed of their own language that they insist on cranking out pop hits in English, rather than paa svenska, is ok with me also. But let's just say that if I named my future son Gustav, I'd be doing it for Gustav Suits, not for King Gustavus Adolphus.

Still I just can't put my finger on what it is about Skytte's people that still endears them to the locals here. I can only guess that if a drunk Estonian somewhere out there has to find an alleyway where he can relieve himself and finds himself beside a Swede engaged in the same activity, he feels a tinge of familiarity and camaraderie with his fellow traveler.

17 kommentaari:

stockholm slender ütles ...

Oh yeah, that "hea Rootsi aeg" - as a good Finn that phrase makes me want to throw up. (Well, admittedly in a kind of ironic way...) The Finnish-Swedish relationship is a lot like the Anglo-Irish, though of course without the bloodshed - the other side is bristling with perceived insults to "national honour" and the other side is goodnaturedly ignorant of the whole issue. I guess Estonian history has been so much more tragic that the Swedish interlude, as grim as the times then were, was genuinely something of a bright spot. Well, there surely was a difference being occupied by Sweden than by German robber barons: Finns were involved in choosing the Swedish king in the 12th century as an integral part of the realm. But had the Swedish time lasted till independence I bet Estonians would be far more resentful and thin skinned... As it is, even the honest "seisova pöytä" is called Rootsi laud, of all things, for God's sake!

Ly Kesse ütles ...

I believe that Estonians have a warm spot in their hearts for the Swedish period because without it the culture would have become either Russified or Garmanized.

Essentially, the establishment of Tartu University and the creation a written Estonian language allowed the culture to endure.

With the creation of the written language, Estonians had access to the Bible (and other works) in their own language. After the Swedes left, the Estonians were forbidden reading and writing (something Americans should be familiar with because of the Peculiar Institution). However, the Estonians, being the stiff necked folk they were, continued teaching their children to read at the hearthside down through the centuries. (In fact, Estonians were expected to start school knowing reading, writing and arithmetic during the inter-war years, probably a remnant of that practice.)

The secret teaching of reading meant that the Estonians had a literacy rate of approximately 90% in the 1890's. However, very few could write (a dangerous skill to pass along at the hearthside).

This literacy probably enabled the Estonians the level of success it has had when unshackled from the Germans and Russians.

Jim Hass ütles ...

A lot of the good will probably relates to the Swedish system of agricultural labor was a lot more pleasant and tolerant than the Russian one that followed it. Remember that story of Pushkin pawning some serfs to finance his wedding.

Jens-Olaf ütles ...

When the Swedes occupied Osnabrueck (Lower Saxony in German nowadays) in 1633 they stayed for 10 years. Gustav Gustavson became head of the tiny "Fuerstentum". But the common soldiers who arrived with the Swedish army were 400 Finns. And from the records of that time they brought all their tradional customs including their mother tongue with them. Only the Finn Kurkinen (Trana) , who was a war governor of Estonia before was a high rank officer. He was capable of speaking Finnish and Russian.

Wahur ütles ...

I think that there is one remarkable misconception about not only Swedish era, but about the role of all those different rulers of Estonia throughout the history. In fact, whoever was in power - Danes, Swedes, Polish, Russians - local Baltic German aristocracy enjoyed quite a bit of autonomy. Faraway kings an czars needed their loyalty badly and Estonian/Livonian/Latvian administrative system was always different from the ruling country.

From Estonians point of view this was rather bad in Swedish era - Sweden did not have serfdom and there were attempts to abolish this in Baltics that failed utterly due to the resistance of local aristocracy. Nevertheless Swedish era brought university to Tartu, Forselius got the beginnings school system going (ny state: no, that school system was not forbidden later) and overall situation of local natives improved somewhat. To the other side of the coin remained final prohibition for Estonians to wear weapons in the end of 17th century (yes, that late!).

In Russian empire, on the contrary, Baltic autonomy proved a good defense against russification, at least until the end of 19th century when it was too late and the job was left unfinished. Also, while social thinking of local Germans was centuries behind the rest of Europe, it was still revolutionary compared to the rest of Russia, which brought abolishment of serfdom here decades before it happened in Russia + in Baltics it resulted in gradual disappearance of the dependent situation of farmers from aristocracy, which was mostly not the case in Russia.

Giustino ütles ...


Are the Swedes also thought of as drunks in Finland, or do the Finns have other kinds of jokes about them?

stockholm slender ütles ...

Oh no, it's more like "they are all pansy girlie boys" type of thing - see below:

The World in Flames

AndresS ütles ...

lol, great video. Must send to my Swedish/Estonian girlfriend. Not sure she'll find it as funny as I do. :)

Wally Kranich ütles ...

Wally sees How Blog Chief Giustinos residence in Kingdom of Denmark supports all Wally's darkest fears concerning Danes and homosexual agendas of Giustino.

Wally sees how Giustino portrays self as married family man with passion for histories. Wallt sees this as honorable.

Now truths about Giustinos persuasions and interests come to surface!

Giustino stared at old Peters in leather pants!

Giustino thinks this is "cool".

Wally sees how Giustino engages in unnatural acts and immoral Danish lifestyles!

Wally begs Blog Chief Giustino to gain the forgiveness of his family and gain help for his illness!

Wally promises to give supports to Blog Chief Giustino during his dark times to come!

Wally begs all other loyal Scratchers of Itching in Eestimaa to give supports to our leather pants obsessioned Blog Chief - Giustino!

Doris ütles ...

plus, if you think about the fact that about 75% of the people died either during the famine and plague right before the Northern war, or during the war or during the plague during that war, then it's quite understandable how the Swedish time was the "good old time when everyone was alive" Add to that the fact that Peter The Great granted the Baltic German nobility even more power over the serfs than they had before the King of Sweden tried to take some of that power away (= thus be more popular among the peasantry although that wasn't why he did it, was because he didn't want the nasty nobility barking back at him)...

Imagine you're an Estonian serf. The king abolishes some of the horrible taxes on you. yay! comes a bad year and there's no crops... well, ok because you get to keep some of what you'd have had to give to the German landlord before. But it's not enough. Comes the famine. Almost half of your village dies. Rumours of the Plague. The war, armies scavenging for food, and you hear rumours of how the Tzar is using the "burned land tactic" even though you don't know the name of it... meaning that the Russians are burning everything and killing everyone on their way to not let the supplies fall to the Swedes. You're afraid, but hopeful because your landlord is still siding with the Swedish and there's still a chance they might win. But then comes the plague, killing half of the Swedish army (and a large chunk of the already sickly - remember the famine - peasantry). Now most of your village and family is dead. And the Russian tzar swoops in with a pardon to all Baltic Germans promising them all their lands and power back.

So, ok... at that point you're probably just glad to be alive. But thinking back and retelling the story to your grandchildren you refer to the Swedish time as the "golden time" when there was enough food and the landlord wasn't allowed to be quite so mean.

Ironically enough, the contract offered to the Baltic nobility kept Estonia and Latvia in the German culture sphere. Every other part of the Empire was very quickly russified, but not the Baltics. We remained in the German =European culture space, even if it was as serfs.

LPR ütles ...

Sorry, off the topic yet so ON the topic at the same time. Check this out. I just cannot believe my eyes! This is too good. And too sad.


Jens-Olaf ütles ...

Some note to my recent comment: This guy I've mentioned,Erich Andersson Trana, but in German sources called Kurkinen and Kranich in German too is a fascinating person. He was a Karelian. His father was captured by the Russians. After that the father teached the son the Russian language. So the Swedish got one who could communicate with this side. For that reason he became the "Kriegskommissar" of Estonia, from where he was sent to "Germany".
I would be eagger to interview him about Russia, Estonia, Sweden and Germany in 1633.
A Finn who was governing in Estonia for the Swedish.

Frank ütles ...

Confessing sympathies with the Baltic German point of view I can absolutely agree with Wahur´s and Doris´s comments, but "in ny state"´s guesses make me sort of nervous ...

I would like to add that the birth of Estonian as a written language had to rely on (Baltic German) Lutheran priests as midwives - the Swedish Crown as head of the constitutional church used the priests in order to spread literacy and Swedish ways among Estonians, so that you could find Germans on both sides: the barons of that age might have been less interested in educating the maa-rahvas (at least, in toto), the burghers in the cities and the priests themselves probably had more to gain and not much to lose when the Estonians turned more literate and mentally agile, i. e. emancipation.

But then again, the national point of view sort of forbids itself when we look back to baroque Estonia. For example, the upper crust of the Swedish society was "Germanized" in the highest degree.

The antagonisms of that day and age can scarcely be explained by stressing national attributes and far more easily by social conditions (even though there are coincidences).

À propos, just the other day I was told that a compulsory extradition of the Estonians in post-world-war-II Sweden could only be averted by hair´s length. Does anybody know the full story?

Giustino ütles ...

The antagonisms of that day and age can scarcely be explained by stressing national attributes and far more easily by social conditions (even though there are coincidences).

It's pretty clear to me where the Estonian state's sympathies lie, not to mention its historians.

For example, there is a lion commemorating the Swedish victory in Narva. When the residents wished to put up a statue of Peter the Great though, the idea was nixed by none other than Andrus Ansip!

Frank ütles ...

Of course, but then again we tend to look at these issues through glasses whose grinding-process automatically contain safeguarding of the national point of view - so they will not do as "field-glasses" when we look at pre-napoleonic times and conditions.

And - lacking deeper knowledge - I have been told several times that modern Sweden (meaning the political power or the official body) has betrayed Estonia more often than once within the last 100 years ...

And if you care for monuments, the Gustavus Adolphus memorial in Tartu has been re-erected also with considerable donations by the Baltic-German community (including yours truly), at the same time the lion´s share of the money to renovate or to conserve the coat-of-arms-epitaphs of the baltic German nobility in Tallinn Toom Kirik was donated by the Crown of Sweden.

Giustino ütles ...

... they will not do as "field-glasses" when we look at pre-napoleonic times and conditions.

What is the real difference between Lübeck, Visby, and Tallinn?

And - lacking deeper knowledge - I have been told several times that modern Sweden has betrayed Estonia more often than once within the last 100 years ...

When Norway was occupied by Germany, Sweden was similarly compliant with the new authorities. I wouldn't characterize them as selective betrayers.

And if you care for monuments, the Gustavus Adolphus memorial in Tartu has been re-erected also with considerable donations by the Baltic-German community (including yours truly), at the same time the lion´s share of the money to renovate or to conserve the coat-of-arms-epitaphs of the baltic German nobility in Tallinn Toom Kirik was donated by the Crown of Sweden.

It pays to have rich relatives :)
I am always amused when I see German tourists in Tartu. I wonder what do they think of this city which is in many ways part of their 'civilization'.

What do they think about the corporations that carry on Baltic German traditions even when those same traditions have atrophied in Germany proper?

Frank ütles ...

Lacking the time just now for a decent answer:

- Tallinn has a toompea, Lübeck and the other Hanseatic metropoles don´t, as far as I know ...

- if you go to places like Heidelberg, Göttingen and Tübingen in Germany, old university-towns, you will see that the corporations have not died out yet ... I know some where atrophy is not apparent, that are alive and kicking.

- corporations in Tartu started when the Tsar called his subjects that studied abroad back "home" so that they could not take up the revolutionary ideas spread by Napoleon in Western Europe, so in Tartu you can get an idea of pre-Napoleonic corporation life.