I recently had the chance to travel to Estonia for the first time, to attend a conference in Tallinn. In the spirit of this trip, then, I took along a copy of The Conspiracy, a collection of stories by one of the leading Estonian writers of the last 50 years, Jaan Kross. I was thoroughly impressed by the people, sights, food, and energy of life in Estonia, and once you’ve read a little of the country’s history, you realize how long and hard they have had to struggle to establish–and reestablish–their independence and to maintain their culture and way of life in the 50+ years they spent under Nazi and Soviet control.
The Conspiracy offers a particularly good fictional introduction to what the Estonians endured during that time. Kross, who was born in 1920, not long after Estonia declared its independence, reached adulthood at about the time when that independence was crushed–first by Soviets (1940-1941, starting with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and ending soon after the German invasion of Russia), then by the Germans (1941-1944), and then again by the Soviets, who settled in for over forty years. The stories in The Conspiracy trace this history through episodes in the life of Kross’ fictional counterpart, Peeter Mirk.
The first story, “The Wound”, is set in the time around the start of the German invasion of Poland, when Germany offered ethnic Germans in the Baltic republics the opportunity to move into settlements in recently-conquered Poland and begin the process of establishing Hitler’s precious lebensraum. Peeter Mirk’s first love, a neighbor and fellow student in Tartu University, belongs to a family with German connections who decides to accept the offer. At a farewell party, feelings of nostalgia overtake the two young people and they decide in a moment of haste to run away and get married. As they run from the restaurant through rainy streets, however, she slips and falls, getting a severe cut on her leg, forcing them to stop and go back. Their impulsive act leads, in the end, to just the first of many casualties suffered by people in Peeter’s life over the next twenty years.
Kross was able to complete law school and stay on as a member of faculty for the first years of German occupation, in part through a series of medical dodges, avoiding the “lead piping” into which many Estonian men were channeled:
And the lead pipes, as already mentioned above, were, according to these notices, two in number. One of them spewed forth its load on to the front via the notorious Bad-Tölz training camp, that is to say, via southern Bavaria after a period of three to four months. The other pipe did the same, after a couple of weeks of basic drill at the Kohila or Elva training camps. Those spewed out of the first pipe wore SS uniforms and were told that they constituted the elite of Neues Europa and of the Estonian people. The second pipe spat forth so-called “Volunteer Assistants”, who were in fact required to stay in the frontier zone in the same section as the prisoners of war stationed there.
But some of Kross’s friends were not so lucky. Even those who tried to escape to Sweden or Finland took extraordinary risks, as is illustrated in the stories “Lead Piping” and “The Stahl Grammar.” And Kross himself ended up being arrested by the Germans in 1944, only to be set free from a Tallinn prison by the first wave of Soviet troops to retake the city. Two years later, however, he was again arrested, this time on the charge of being a “bourgeois recidivist”, and was sent to the Vorkutlag complex of camps. He spent the next eight years in the Gulag, finally returning to Estonia in 1954.
Fortunately for Kross and his readers, he was possessed of a spirit of extraordinary resilience and good humor. He was lucky, he once remarked in an interview for the Guardian, that he was imprisoned by the Soviets and not the Germans: “Such was their Ordnungsliebe –passion for order–and their savage discipline. The Soviets at least had their saving virtues of inefficiency and incompetence.” He had an intense interest in other people–indeed, at a few points in his stories he pulls himself up with a remark such as, “But why have I begun to describe him in such detail?”
And Kross works details into his writing with all his senses. The reader gets the sense not just of how things looked, but also weather, textures, sounds, and, most of all, smells:
I had keys to Uncle’s apartment. We climbed the stairs with their faint smell of polish and stepped into the hall of the apartment. For some reason (or perhaps because we entered without switching on the light) it was the smells of the apartment which impinged on my consciousness on that occasion: the faint smell of ether emanating from Uncle’s surgery into the hall and its extension which served as a waiting room; the faint smell of naphthalene which arose from the Biedermeier furniture in the living room, the faint smell of cooking oil from the dining room through which we groped our way and where rye flour pancakes fried in a drop of sunflower oil, obtained goodness knows where, had been eaten; the fragrance of Soir de Paris which seeped through his wife’s door which stood ajar; the smell of the liquor store from the chink in the bathroom door, though this could have been mere imagination, since Uncle stored his several-liter stock of spirits in large flagons which stood in the bath which was half-filled with water as a precaution against fire and air raids; and then the comically coarse yet subtle whiff of tobacco from Uncle’s own room (for he had, for donkeys’ years, been smoking a weed grown by some patient or other and prepared with rose oil in his straight-stemmed pipe).
After Kross returned to Estonia, he realized that the only way he could survive was to write things that would not be closely examined for possible counter-revolutionary themes. So he became a historical novelist, carefully disguising his criticism of Soviet rule and calls for Estonian independence through characters and situations from hundreds of years earlier. Through this work and teaching, he was able to survive to see Estonia’s return to independence in 1991, and even to sit in its first Parliament and participate in writing the country’s new constitution. He died in 2007.
Four of Kross’ books, including his best-regarded novel, The Czar’s Madman, were translated into English, by Anselm Hollo and Eric Dickens, and published by Harvill in the mid-1990s, and a further novel featuring Peeter Mirk, Treading Air, was issued in 2003. Most of these are now out of print, but recently, Quercus Publishing began releasing an English translation of his most popular work in Estonia, a historical trilogy, Between Three Plagues, starting with the first volume, The Ropemaker.
In a piece for the Estonian Literary Magazine, Kross once wrote of the disadvantages and benefits of being a writer from a small, much-invaded country. Starting out as a writer at perhaps the worst time in his country’s history, he became “not only a writer of a small nation, but a writer who had lost his country.” When, after fifty years’ wait, he had the chance to reclaim his country, he was burdened
… with only the normal troubles of the literature of a small nation: linguistic isolation, the indifference with which the world mostly treats us and our helpless resignation in the face of it -instead of trying to fight it with every possible means within the limits of good taste. Most important of all is the sense of proportion: the amount of time for all sorts of meetings where these means are being discussed, should be reasonable. The rest of the time a writer should stay at home–the smaller the nation of the writer, the more he ought to stay at home, at his desk, writing truly remarkable books.
When Kross died in 2007, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves saluted him in a funeral service that was broadcast live on Estonian State Television: “He was one of those who kept fresh the spirits of the people and made us ready to take the opportunity of restoring Estonia’s independence.”