President Ilves this week announced the establishment of the Mälu Instituut, or Institute of Memory, which despite its interesting name, serves an honorable purpose - to look into the human rights violations committed in Estonia in the period from 1944-1991.
I would take it a step further and argue that the Institute of Memory should study the entirety of the Soviet period, not just the human rights violations, because from living here, at least, it sometimes seems that the 1960s and 1970s have fallen down some collective mental black hole.
It seems especially pertinent to address this condition of national memory loss as we celebrate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Estonia. What everyone knows, but won't say, is that out of those 90 years, 50 were spent under foreign occupation. That's not to diminish the symbolism of the event. I mean in three years, from 1917 to 1920, Estonia went from being part of two tsarist provinces to an independent country subject to international law.
But what of those 50 years? Perhaps the reason that we hear so little of them, except the dramatic beginning and end of Soviet rule, is because the older generation -- who experienced the Soviet period as adults -- are not used to telling their stories. There are a number of reasons for this, but I would peg one down as simple childhood trauma.
The elders of today experienced the beginning of the Soviet occupation as children. They were separated from their families, dispossessed of their land. Some families were not reunited until after the death of Stalin in 1953. A full decade or more had elapsed. So in a way, their personal memories were destroyed. What they did remember, they did not wish to discuss in public.
A second factor is that the current middle-aged generation in Estonia went through a deep revolution in identity in the 1980s. They disowned their Soviet heritage, they divorced themselves from their pasts as party members. Estonia in 1991 was something real, but a childhood singing songs about Lenin was now "fake". So for them too, the Laars, Ansips, and Savisaars of Estonia, the Soviet period is nothing to gather around and reminisce about.
This blotting out of the 1960s and 70s as a sort of a wasteland of useless memories, is interesting when you consider that in the United States, there are stacks and stacks of books that cover this period in great detail. Indeed a major campaign issue of this year's contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton has been their interpretation of who was most responsible for the Civil Rights Act of 1965.
There are actually many books to be written about in this period, especially with regards to the emergence of a new national intelligentsia in the 1960s that replaced the one forced underground or into exile in the 1940s. But for some reason it lacks the relevance in today's Estonia that it has elsewhere. It would be a worthy task to record memories of this time before they are lost forever.
(Itching for Eestimaa, February 5, 2008.)