kolmapäev, detsember 10, 2008

nõukogude naine

The other day, an acquaintance dropped off a batch of newspapers and magazines, including a treasure trove of old copies of the Estonian woman's magazine Nõukogude Naine [Soviet Woman].

Several years ago I stood in the office of Eesti Naine in downtown Tallinn and asked the editor if she was the first editor of the publication, which I assumed was only a decade old, like the magazines Anne or Stiil.

"Oh, no," she replied. "I might be editor number 13 or 14." The publication Eesti Naine was actually launched in 1924. After the Soviets took over, it became Nõukogude Naine, a publication of the Estonian Communist Party.

Nõukogude Naine
may have published some copies in 1940 and '41, but, according to the party, it was launched in 1945. It reverted to being Eesti Naine in 1989. The first issue of that year says that it is a party publication, the fourth issue makes no mention of it, and later issues no longer use 1945 as the start date of the publication, but 1924.

I have read somewhere before a mention of the "Brezhnev stagnation." This was a period, from approximately the late 1960s to the mid 1980s when the Soviet Union forever lost its ability to keep up with the West. From the vantage point of 2008, it is hard to gauge what this really means. Some Estonian homes look like they haven't changed much since the 1930s, aside from a laptop here and a television set there.

Looking at copies of Nõukogude Naine, though, you can witness stagnation in the form of clothing and hair styles. If you picked up an American magazine from 1966, you might be greeted by a beehive hairdo, while a 1976 issue might have a woman with a shag, and the 1986 issue might be framed by shoulder pads and exorbitant amounts of cosmetics. In Nõukogude Naine, though, the women mostly look the same, year in, year out. They care not so much for looks, but for hard work in service to the state.

One evening last week, I met with our friend's mother, a grandmother who was in town to spend time with her grandchildren -- friends of our daughters'. Vanaema complimented me on my Estonian language skills, and informed me that her first foreign language was Russian. She had learned it in Siberia.

I was surprised, because most of the deportees I have met are in their seventies or eighties. But this Vanaema was only 5 years old when they deported her family in 1949. I asked her how it happened, and she then launched into a long tale of how the secret police had first picked up her brother and then went to get her mother, with the kid sitting in the car to drive the hopelessness of the situation home.

They were marked for deportation because her father was a member of Omakaitse -- the equivalent of the Estonian national guard. Many Estonian men, young and old, were in this organization. My wife's great-grandfather, then aged 50, and his immediate family were also deported because of his membership in this organization. According to Vanaema, her mother was forced to sign a paper by the police saying that she willingly went to Siberia.

They were deported at night. She said they traveled by armed convoy to the train station -- apparently, the Soviet troops were getting picked off left and right by bandiitid -- forest brothers. The family was put into a cattle car and shipped east for two weeks until they reached their destination. They didn't return until the late 1950s. There would be no Happy Days for their family. The father, who had been sent to a separate camp, also made it back, but in bad shape. He didn't live long after his return. At this point Vanaema -- and Estonian grandmas are pretty stoic -- started to cry.

"You don't have to keep going if you don't want to," I said. "No, I have to tell the story so that people know what happened to us." She said that when she has told some foreigners about it they ask, "Well, why didn't you call the police? But it was the police that were doing it!" At that point, her two tiny grandchildren, who seem so far removed from this sordid tale to almost render it surreal, ran up, and the ghosts of the past faded into the shadows. The conversation switched to lighter fare.

In the May 1976 and May 1985 editions of Nõukogude Naine, there is the same photo -- of the Soviet soldier hoisting his banner aloft from the burning rooftop of the Reichstag. This is a "victory photo" -- meant to reinforce faith in the state leadership. Almost every state has such symbols. But how real could they have been to women like this Vanaema? Nõukogude Naine may have "officially" launched in 1945, but many of its readers into the 1970s and 80s must have started reading it back when it was Eesti Naine.

It was a social reality built on an illusion -- that history started only 30 or 40 years previously. Before that, it was some messy mix of workers' uprisings and secret meetings where Estonian communist martyrs like Viktor Kingisepp were in attendance. I wondered what it would be like if one Estonian political party took over the state today. It would be like the free party papers we get in the newspaper, Eesti Eest -- the Isamaa-Res Publica Liit publication, or maybe Kesknädal -- the Center Party weekly, except all magazines and television programs would be like that. Marko Mihkelson's gardening tips. Ain Seppik's baking secrets revealed. The thought is almost too much to bear.

I first heard about the deportations from a deportee. It was my wife's Aunt Salme. I had opened some of her photo albums, and seen photos of earthen shacks in what appeared to be the tundra. It was from her stint in Siberia, she had explained.

Salme had been deported in 1949 for being the daughter of a prosperous farmer, Estonian War of Independence veteran, and national guard member. These connections made her a prime candidate for servitude in the eastern wilds of the Union. Earlier this decade, she received a medal from President Arnold Rüütel for surviving the ordeal.

Salme took an interest in her family, and usually had some questions for us written out on a sheet of paper before we would visit. She wanted to know about my job and to see our children. She had a reputation for being an organizer within the family.

We last saw her in early summer -- we took our youngest daughter to her Tallinn apartment. Salme said she wanted to see the girl who has the same name as her mother before she runs out of time. Our daughter, though, slept most of the hour or so that she was there. But at least she got to see her, because Salme passed away last week.

When I think of Salme's story, the story of Vanaema, and the story of many of those Eesti Naine, then Nõukogude Naine, then Eesti Naine readers of years past, I can't help but feel a bit befuddled. These women are no different than the young women of today, except life dealt them unfortunate circumstances that they ultimately had to digest and live with.

Why did they get the booty end of the stick? Why did they, of all people, have to travel to Siberia via cattle car, their families broken, their property confiscated, their health imperiled, only to come home to a fresh issue of Nõukogude Naine that made no mention of their very immediate history?

When Nõukogude Naine reverted to Eesti Naine, suddenly the Soviet crypts were opened. In the pages of the 1989, 1990, and 1991 issues there are photos of cultural societies from the 1920s and 30s. There are stories of the anguish of the 1940s, spilled across the pages. In recent years, the personal memoir has become one of the most appreciated literary vehicles in Estonia. One can read Imbi Paju's Memories Denied or Leelo Tungal's Comrade Child to start. For some reason, most of the authors happen to be women.

17 kommentaari:

Unknown ütles ...

I have a large stash of those at our country house. Also another more general magazine, which was called "Aja Pulss" if I remember correctly. I love to browse them when I go there in the summer. So interesting, especially an issue from 1988, the year I was born. The issue was mainly devoted to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and why it was wrong and what should be done. Reading that felt kind of awesome, I mean it's a completely new era in our country's history that started exactly with articles like those. It felt like holding an Egyptian artifact or a relic written by Martin Luther that had been discovered from a church's tower or something. It felt like holding history in your hand... bah, aside all that interest in computers, I must have a soft spot for history as well :P

Pierre ütles ...

Another great post, Justin. Thanks for sharing.

Latvia has a "oral history" project that records stories, as those you write about, from Latvians who were deported or otherwise suffered and lived through the soviet ordeal. These stories need to be preserved and told and re-told...

Wahur ütles ...

For some reason, most of the authors happen to be women.

They survived. Men went to camps where survival rates where a bit different.

matude ütles ...

Wahur, that was my immediate thought as well and so I looked for statistics on how many of the survived deportees were indeed men and women, but I was unable to find any.
Does anybody know the estimated numbers in this matter? Maybe somebody has come across this kind of statistics in history books?

plasma-jack ütles ...

That's what I was able to dig up from the materials of Jakobson commission with the searchword "women". That info ends with 1942, however:

On 14 June 1941, over 10,000 people (10,861 according to some sources) were deported as whole families from Estonia. Over 5000 women and over 2500 children under the age of 16 were among the deported. About 3000 men and 150 women were separated from the others and sent to prison camps where most of them were executed or died; the remaining women and children were sent into banishment
in Siberia.

In late June and early July of 1941, approximately another 1000 men, women and children were arrested on the Estonian islands for the purpose of deporting them to the USSR as well. Most of them were spared and managed to return home due to the rapid advance of the German forces.

Anonüümne ütles ...

Hey Justin,

I am always so pleased to read your excellent takes on WWII issues. However, you risk being pigeonholed as a family trip and deportation story kind of guy. Could you spice it up with some features on Estonian Music. Like
Ursula or Estonian Rap or even ( dear god I don't believe I'm saying this) Vanilla Ninja.

Also I want to be friends on Facebook. Don't you ignore me.

andry ütles ...

thank You for sharing us the fate of so ibterest and lovely (and so typical) person.
My mother in law called Erna was kind a similar person, she passed away several years ago and I still miss her.

Kristopher ütles ...

I must feed the ents.

Puu, if it makes you feel any better, I was pretty uninterested in Facebook until recently and now that I am all into it, I wondered why some people weren't responding. Then I found out I had another profile (same name, different e-mail address that I never checked) and there were like 10 friend requests just waiting there. Now it's as if they're giving me a taste of my own medicine. So it might be something simple like that.

A personal message also does wonders: "Hello, Yes, that's my real name. I met you in the park, I don't know if you noticed me. Deciduous, big crown, burl about halfway up." Etc.

Giustino ütles ...


This piece was originally an obit for Salme that was influenced by other events that made it more of an essay on Soviet Estonian womanhood.

I don't enjoy writing about deportation, but I feel that some readers, perhaps other than you, benefit from reading personal accounts of non-English speakers vicariously through this blog.

Here I am reminded of my Jewish friends. As a youth I was bombarded with the Holocaust. We read Anne Frank's Diary twice in school, Night by Elie Wiesel, and the local synagogue even organized an event showing pretty awful films of the camps and conversations with survivors.

At the time, I didn't like it much. I mean, what subject is after lunch? Why genocide, my dear boy. But I understand why they talked about more than dreidels and latkas and Jewish pop -- because bad things happened to their community and they didn't want me to forget, and so I haven't.

So forgive me for telling the stories of Salme and our friend's grandma to a larger audience. It is not really meant to entertain, merely to express.

Doris ütles ...

I think... there is pain in every individual's life. Sometimes though, there is excruciating pain in a whole group of people's lives - be it physical or emotional or... And in the case of the group, this pain is best expressed through the individual - it makes it more personal for the listener, the "observer".

Have you read "The Whisperers" by Orlando Figes? For a lot of the people who actually lived through all that it might raise feelings of "but I know this already, why is this person spending hundreds of pages spelling it out?" but for those who have only an abstract notion of what collectivisation and industrialisation meant for the individual under a totalitarian regime this book is a real eye-opener :)

I think, likewise are the books of Erich Maria Remarque (at the time exiled from Germany but very sympathetic to his fellow Germans) - WWII from the eyes of the Germans. Regular normal Germans who got stuck in their situation just because of their nationality. The guilt and bone-deep sadness - without the lamentable pathos a la Hemingway - for what their compatriots have done and yet a feeling of going on with life because there's just nowhere else to go.

Please don't take this to mean that I'm a nazi-sympathiser! I'm just saying that when times are hard, people go through unimaginable things without realising just how bad the situation is. They are only trying to survive.

viimneliivlane ütles ...

I must disagree with Puu on subject selection: the internet is cluttered with people writing about Estonian popular music - Justin's recognition of deportees is all the more important because young people prefer to tune out on this unhappy period and go with today's music . . .

Why is it important to remember, to keep writing, to not let other's forget? The Jewish effort to publicize their Holocaust I believe has been helped to a great degree by post-war Germany's policy of full disclosure following sincere apologies. In contrast Russia has no intention of apologizing for the damage it has done, nor of disclosing any information. Indeed, they didn't even keep any records of who died in Sibera so we may never know the actual numbers. All we have is the testimony of survivors and we should dedicate as much effort as we can muster to record these. Historians will require corroboration so it is good that the Latvians are also writing their memoirs. I'm afraid that many of the other people who suffered at the hands of Stalin - the Tatars and Kalmyks come to mind first - never got to tell their story before they were obliterated.

Jens-Olaf ütles ...

Hej, it is not about apologies. It is hard to recognise the facts. What shit did your fellowmen do, where, when, how many did you kill, and how?
Say it, proof it.
Still it is hard to get the facts out of my hometown Osnabrück in Germany. There are so many hidden life stories. Men who had a higher ranked postion on the command level in Latvia and Riga for example. We still don't know what they did, what paper they signed. How many lives are connected to them? We don't know it, in Germany. The soviet part of history is even worse in uncovering.

Kristopher ütles ...

The same thing that made genocide possible is still around today. It's in corporate letters of termination, it's in the way land is zoned.

That is why people have to always remain vigilant, even in eras of rare liberty like this one. If a cop stops you for whatever reason, ask him to fill out a form, or at least for his badge number. As an individual, you should insist on being treated with the same reverence as the largest corporation. You have to keep calling the shots, even now, otherwise they'll assume you don't have the right.

Colm ütles ...

Very interesting and sad post.

Unfortunately I noticed that MEMORIES DENIED was shown at the European Union House in Dublin on the 2nd. http://www.estemb.ie/static/files/009/eu_leaflet.pdf. Sadly I'm just a few days too late in finding out.

Sharon ütles ...

"This piece was originally an obit for Salme that was influenced by other events that made it more of an essay on Soviet Estonian womanhood."

Ah, I was wondering about that. I got to the part about Salme and found myself thinking, "hey, did he bury the lead?"

My sympathies to you and your family.

Sharon ütles ...

I've always found women's magazines are a fascinating look at society through the ages. You get to see what "normal" is more clearly in those publications than almost anything else. Or, at least, what "normal" is supposed to be, according to the people who get to dictate these sorts of things.

It's one of the reasons I really hate the 'tabloid' style gossip magazines that clutter up our newsstands these days. You might not like or support the ideologies shown in older women's magazines, but at least they had ideologies. These rags barely have an idea.

Just compare the various Woman's Days and Woman's Weeklys across the countries and cultures. Fascinating insight into the communities they service. Then compare them across the decades, and see if you don't wonder if we've become more or less enlightened over the years.

Unknown ütles ...

Stories like that have to be told. Why? Because those who don't remember their past are convicted to live without a future (not my words).

I'm old enough to remember the Soviet times, the fear that was constantly present (if I say something wrong the militia will come, the KGB will come - and it was no joke - my brothers both had files in KGB, but probably we all had - my mother was the daughter of a German woman, and being a German was enough of a reason to be deported with three little children, the youngest one was only 2 years old). In Soviet times grown-ups sometimes, in a safe environment, talked about their experiences, but children were always told - don't speak about it! An when I was a little girl, my mother did not tell anything about the fate of her family. And all this would have vanished with her, if the regime had not collapsed. I think, the consequences of this kind of memory black-out can be observed in Russia, where the Soviet regime has killed not only grandmas and grandpas, but also mothers and fathers of THEM. It is hard to fight back, when the official version of the history is the ONLY version of events, because you don't have any memories of ancestors to lean on.

Unfortunately, I know many young Estonians who know nothing about the history of their nation and their country. Their attitude towards Estonia is arrogant and even hostile - such a small sh..ty country, no glorious history, just peasants... Woo-ho, when the Soviet regime came and industrialized our country, what a bless for illiterate peasants it was! The problem is, they know nothing about Estonia in the beginning of the 20th century, but they also don't know that Estonia was inhabited by Fenno-Ugrian tribes already 5 thousand years ago, and had economical and political connections to places far-far away already a few thousand years ago... Why, you might ask? Because they were taught history by Soviet history books, where, like was mentioned, the history began with the year 1940. I remember my schoolbook (or booklet) of Estonian history - it was about 50 or 60 pages, something about agricultural methods and nothing about Estonia and Estonians in ancient annals, and certainly nothing about the Republic of Estonia. Do you know that Estonia had its own airplane industry in the beginning of the 20th century? Well, those young lads don't.

So, history is a very powerful tool in the hands of a wise. And if we want to preserve our independence, if we want to avoid the mistakes made before - then we just have to know about the past.

Why women - because we are the ones who have to protect our families, our children. In Estonian tradition through the centuries women have always been the ones preserving traditions, teaching children to read and to behave and to remember old stories and legends (which are nothing more or less then reflections of experiences). It's a tradition, you see, has always been and probably will be in future also. Sometimes it is said that Estonian women have more courage, wits and "power" then the men... ;) Sorry, but it so often seems so to be true...

Well, I'll give you a link, for those who would like to see something more entertaining - Estonian music (you might be surprised...).