Bird Droppings from Estonia: On Spring, War and Culture
Arvamus 21 Jun 2010 Hilary BirdEWR
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I started to write this Droppings in April but have not managed to gather my thoughts until now, mostly because spring zapped in and caught us all unawares! Snow just kept on coming until March, then a dramatic thaw in early April left everyone pleased but disorientated and tired. The Lancastrians and I had been staring out of our windows since January muttering that we wouldn’t see the end of the snow until June. But we were wrong, much to the smug satisfaction of our Estonian pals ... Old Man Winter lurkied around in the form of dirty ice in shady spots for the duration of April and out in the country the forests were still patchily white. But, by May, it was all gone.

The abundance of winter snow has meant an abundance of spring water. The Ema (Mother) River is still very high - the water meadows are inundated and the walkways under the bridges of the embankment in town are still flooded and impassable. Soviet trained mossies have invaded - one friend told me that his parents will have to redecorate because his father has splatted so many of the little b*ggers on the walls with his newspaper ... Viscious dive-bombing squadrons attacked me after I was caught on the back foot on return from Tallinn where strong sea winds keep Mission Mossie away ... I scratched through half a miserable night before I resorted to my secret weapon - anti-histamine pills. The next day I blew off last year’s corpses from my blue fluorescent ‘Insect-O-Cutor’ (really, where do they dream up these names?) lamp and dug out my UK ‘jungle-strength’ (yes, it really says that) insect repellant. Puss does her bit. When an unsuspecting mini-muncher alights on Jelli she quickly bats it off, clamps her paw on it and eats it. Several people have enquired if she’s for hire ...

What a winter !! Extremely beautiful but so cold and so long ... Humans and animals were especially glad to see spring this year.. Its impossible to sneak off to the pub without half of Tartu knowing. The birds are just as frisky. The sparrows and tits in my horse chestnut are battling for the balls of fat I have hung well out of range of the felines who sit underneath and chatter impotently ... and there’s a positive queque for the balls hanging from my stairwell window. Out in the country young storks are poking their long beaks over the edges of their untidy nests and v-shaped flocks of geese have come and gone on thier way north ...

I am glad to be able to be out and about not least of all because, in late winter, I had a nasty, very incapacitating bout of arthritis. I was rather stiff upper lip and British about it but my leg got so painful that I gave in. I called the Lancastrian taxi service to ferry me to my GP where a glamourous Hungarian lady doctor gave me some kill-or-cure pills that put paid to the worst of it. Even if they did knock me out for a week. The gammy leg is still not right but is getting better with exercise and a better diet – I am d*mned if I am going to sit indoors looking at a plate of salad when it’s –20 outside ...

Miraculously, since I was forced to stay indoors, The History Channel appeared on telly! I was a real HC addict in the UK so I was thrilled. Here’s a quick pick -

The Channel Island occupation remembered. I don’t know much about the Channel Islands apart from their peculiar administration -they have no MPs and are governed by bailiffs directly responsible to the crown. Very medieval. I knew that Guernsey was occupied in WWII and this was as close as the Germans got to the UK but that’s it. The occupation was heavy - one Nazi soldier for every two islanders. Resistance took the form of speaking in Guernésais, the local patois, in order to avoid being understood. Estonians will recognise this stratagem, I am sure! Island women who fraternised were called ‘jerry-bags’. I laughed out loud. Not so funny were the four concentration camps where 6,000 or so prisoners were forced to build military installations. Over 700 died before the inmates were transferred to Germany in 1944.

The situation got really nasty after D-Day when the Islands were by-passed by the allies (due to heavy fortification) and supplies from France were cut. Churchill's reaction to the German garrison was to "let 'em rot" even though the islanders had to rot with them. It was months before the Red Cross brought relief in December 1944 and liberation came only in May 1945. There were some very moving interviews.

The Korean War, The American Revolutionary War Series
I have increased my knowledge but I get weary of wars and technology – so much of all this fevered destruction seems so pointless. As Hamlet says: “Witness this army, of such mass and charge … exposing what is mortal and unsure to all that fortune, death, and danger dare, even for an eggshell. Rightly to be great is not to stir without great argument, but greatly to find quarrel in a straw.”

Now, as I have invoked Shakespeare, my pal Loone has told me to make mention of Kozintsev’s wonderful King Lear (1971). Like Hamlet, the translation is by Pasternak and the music by Shostakovitch. Actor wise it’s quite a Baltic affair with Jüri Järvet (Estonia) as the best Lear ever with Elza Radzina (Latvia) as Goneril and Donatas Banionis (Lithunia) as the Duke of Albany (Soviet film buffs will recognise him as the main character in Tarkovsky's Solaris). “All banned people,” says Loone “are graced in this film...” and I agree. I shall monitor Russian telly like a hawk to seek it out …

Cities of the Underworld series – A great series but marred by booming music and over frantic commentaries. Fascinating to see, four meters beneath the pavements of the Old Town, an eleventh century street in Prague (used by the Czech resistance in WWII), complete with casement windows, torture chamber and oubliette; the caves in the Czech Republic where Hitler was building his ultimate weapon of destruction at the end of the war; the lost subterranean river of Viking Dublin and the sewers of Jerusalem where, maybe, the rabbis carried away the Ark of the Covenant when the Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple in 70AD … Really, who needs fiction?

King Tut Unwrapped (Discovery Channel). I am amazed by what DNA can do: the information in this programme was right up to the minute – February 2010. A crack team went to Egypt to examine a series of mummies thought to be related to golden boy, Pharaoh Tutankhamun (1341 – 1323 BC). After extracting DNA the team identified Tut’s grandparents, his father (the heretic monotheist Akhenaten), his mother (known as The Younger Lady of King’s Valley –KV- tomb 35) who was a biological sister of Akhenaten (and thus not Akhenaten’s stunning number one wife, Nefertiti) and the foetuses of his two unborn daughters. Science also tells us that Tutankhamun was disabled and that, when he died, the poor sod not only suffered from a painfully deformed foot, he had a broken leg and a deadly form of malaria …

The Master and Margerita. A 2005 Russian version of the book by Mikhail Bulgakov, rented on line from my telly provider. This is a real 100% European book from the Wild East. The cast of Bulgakov’s iconic novel, set in Stalin’s Moscow of the 1930’s, includes Satan disguised as Voland, a mysterious gentleman ‘magician’, with a retinue that includes the oddly dressed ‘ex-choirmaster’ Koroviev or Fagotto (‘bassoon’ in Russian), the fanged hit man Azazello (Azazel, the Jewish proto-type devil), the pale-faced Abadonna (king of tormenting locusts and angel of the bottomless pit), the witch Hella and, my favourite (naturally) the pig-sized, vodka swigging, chess-playing, gun-toting, sardine-eating, fast-talking black cat, Behemoth (both the monster of the bible and ‘hippopotamus’ in Russian). See him at on a wall in Andriyivsky Descent, Kiev, where part of the action takes place, and the real McCoy at http://www.masterandmargarita.... in the Bulgakov Museum. This gallery of grotesques is off set by the gentle, idealistic writer, the Master, and his beautiful, strong and devoted mistress, Margarita, who, with the help of Voland, flies naked into the night, over the great forests and rivers of Russia and is cleansed before her return to Moscow to Satan's great Spring Ball where, to the tune of an orchestra conducted by Johan Strauss, she is the hostess to a parade of the dark celebs of history from the maw of Hell.

A sub-plot includes Pontius Pilate and Yeshua Ha-Nozri who appear spasmodically in Jerusalem and are last seen strolling on a moonbeam debating the pros and cons of the Crucifixion. Margarita and her Master are too compromised by their relationship with Voland for paradise but, in recognition of Margarita’s services, are retired for a peaceful eternity to an idyllic country cottage with all the accoutrements that European high culture can offer. Finally Voland, Koroviev and Behemoth take to the skies themselves in a version of the pagan Wild Hunt – these folk tales derive mostly from Germany but the Anglos-Saxons and Celts also had their version – a version of the Hunt was known as the ‘Devil’s Dandy dogs’ in Cornwall … Most of Bulgakov’s work ridiculed the Soviet system and stayed in his desk drawer for decades. The Master and Margerita, his masterpiece, was published 25 years after his death, and ten years after Stalin’s. I love it. It really cheered me as I lay on my sofa, immobilised by poor health. The great sweep over time, space and ideas is magnificent, the humour is just about as cynical and bleak as humour gets, the lovers have nobility and dignity and the belief in everlasting, romantic love is inspiring. A love of German culture is palpable but the crazy Slavonic logic will make an orderly mind reel ... Wonderful.

Soviet Woman in Estonian Art

When back on my feet I made a trip to Tallinn to see the hugely enjoyable Soviet Woman in Estonian Art at our National Gallery – KUMU . See and click on the pix to enlarge. Soviet artistic policy (‘Socialist Realism’) was, especially while Stalin was alive, very restrictive in subject matter (revolutionary or working class heroes performing selfless tasks for party and state) and style –figurative imagery was mandatory and abstraction and experimentation were discouraged.

Nevertheless, there is plenty of scope within these parameters for fine work. Many of the artists on display were either trained in pre-Soviet Estonia or taught by teachers who were and the level of traditional expertise, especially in graphics and drawing, is high. Konstantin Mikhailov, for example, trained in 1947 as a mature student (aged 39) at the Tallinn State Institute of Design and studied painting under August Jansen (1881-1957) and Lepo Mikko (1911-1978) both of whom were graduates of some of the most prestigious art schools (Petersburg and Riga) in the Tsarist empire. Mikhailov’s L. Drobila – the last female underground mine worker (1962) is a sensitive depiction of the dignity of labour and Ilmar Kimm’s (1920) portrait of his wife sat quietly knitting is tender and timeless. The pictures by female artists were my favourites - Asta Vendor’s (1916-) 1953 Kolkhoz women! Get the (respected) Mechaniser of Agriculture qualification! is suitably stirring but Lola Liivat’s (b.1928 and later a very good abstract painter) big portrait of actress Elo Tamal, winner of a Stalin prize, is subtler, showing a distinctly wary sitter and with detail (such as a vase of flowers) beautifully done. Leili Muuga’s (1922 -) cheerful 1956

Preparation for the song festival shows three women sewing by a brightly lit window in high summer and reflects the relief that Uncle Joe was gone and the Khrushchev thaw was about to begin. And who can argue with the message of Muuga’s (1922-) Protest against war? The pictures and sculptures are complemented by films about a range of Soviet women– assorted mothers, composers, tractor drivers, the poetess Debora Vaarandi and Vaike Paduri-Kaljuvee, figure skating champion of the USSR. A fine gallery of achievement and although much is propaganda I am of an age, cultural background and disposition that will always prefer images of women as teachers, artists and workers (I include mothers in this category!) to those of bimbos.

Finally, on the subject of Soviet women, a second look at Shoster’s savage Lady Macbeth of Mtensk in a seat-gripping production by the Latvian National Opera in Riga seals my opinion of this company as, quite simply, amazing… I have never heard this magnificent music sung or played with such force and conviction anywhere. My ticket cost less than 10GBP to sit in the stalls. Opera lovers, please note…
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