Of a Forgotten Minor Chapter in the Annals of Estonian Satirical Resistance
As a young refugee in the West, my ethnic background, my work, politics, and a variety of other things kept bringing me into contact with the three Baltic States, despite their being essentially sealed off in the USSR. There were good sides and downsides to this. Whenever the rare visitor brought a loaf of black rye bread from Estonia, it was a good day, specially if you had some sweet butter to go with it. I remember a Midsummer Night’s Eve with Estonians in exile out by the Kern River in California - one bonfire of many in many places. The late Karin Nukk shared some dried flounder, a regional Estonian delicacy she’d hand-carried thousands of miles from Saaremaa to the American West Coast. “Fish jerky”, if you will, dried by the sun and wind on a clothesline on a Baltic island in the age-old way.
In Canada many years ago, I heard rock music rendered in Estonian for the first time - something akin to a catharsis, even though it emanated from a small tinny speaker and a bootlegged cassette tape. A copy of a copy of a copy. Hard to explain to non-Estonians, but it was sublime. An ahh ha experience and a piercing of the veil for me.
Many of the smells and some of the tastes associated with the East were not good. Chocolate manufactured during the Soviet era had slipped a notch or two, and unpasteurized generic Russian Zhiguli beer, with no shelf life at all, tasted the way that the diapers of sickly babies smell. There are ambiences and then there are ambiences. The aroma of coarse mahorka tobacco - now a rarity even in Russia - sometimes emanating from a papirosa was rough, more so than even that of dark French cigarettes. Though smoke-filled rooms put me off, I find there is nonetheless a pungent charm to Gitanes and Gauloises. Then again, those memories evoke a different world in the form of the bohemian quarters of Paris and Munich and John Lennon and Asterix, and not of East Berlin or Esztergom.
When in the East, or for that matter in Austria, you were always reminded that you were there, because of the stink and pall of low-grade diesel fumes coming from the exhausts of trucks.
Perhaps the worst was the smell of newspapers and books - both stale and sour at the same time. This East Bloc smell was exported to certain shops on side streets in big Western cities that specialized in Soviet printed matter - bookshops that were specialized and esoteric. You had to know where to find them. Predominantly, the books and periodicals were in the language of the first fraternal nation among equals, although there were also small sections featuring books in Armenian, Uzbek, Estonian and other languages of the Empire of the Friendship of Peoples. The walls were decorated with posters of girls in Young Pioneer uniforms rendering hand salutes, Lenin calendars, and pictures of industrial landscapes. I’ve been known to spend whole days in bookstores, but I’d rather have avoided these establishments. They had the market cornered, though, being the only places where one could buy select and interesting examples of contemporary Estonian literature and other works from behind the Iron Curtain, in contrast to the prolific but small free press of the Estonians in exile.
I picked up a full set of the “Estonian” Soviet Encyclopedia for an exorbitant price in Helsinki during the seventies. This was the second Estonian language encyclopedia that I had access to. My parents had spent a nice sum in the sixties for a rare Estonian encyclopedia from the independence period. How this pre-war Estonian set of books had made its way out to the American West Coast remains a mystery, but it was a special possession from a golden era. From a vanished landscape.
Much as Tallinn and other Estonian cities are an architectural patchwork quilt reflecting the tastes and priorities of ruling elites under various regimes, Estonia’s history is reflected in her uneven encyclopedic history. First you have the encyclopedia of a free nation in the thirties. My set, bound in leather, has made the long trip back to Estonia from the Pacific coast of the US. It’s volumes feel good to hold. Then you have the Soviet-era encyclopedia in Estonian, and the Komsomol-flavored children’s Estonian language encyclopedia of the second half of the last century. Mass-produced, cheap, and hyperideologized, although the children’s one was much less cheesy, appearance-wise. Not really reference works at all, but works of indoctrination and propaganda poured into the ostensible form of encyclopedias, with useful information mixed up with the disinformation and poison-pen entries.
Nowadays my copy of the Estonian Soviet Encyclopedia does double duty as a footrest at my work desk. I have to bend down when I need to refer to it occasionally. Particularly bizarre is the second edition of the Estonian Soviet Encyclopedia that began to appear during the end of the Soviet occupation period, and continued to be published after the watershed events that led to Estonia uncoupling herself from the Empire for the second time in 1991. That particular encyclopedia didn’t appear in one fell swoop, but was published incrementally. The first four volumes are classically Soviet, with glasnost creeping in as time goes by. Starting with volume Five, the word “Soviet” is absent from the spine and the title page, and the series gets progressively deideologized towards the end. A more inconsistent work you cannot find. Nowadays, Estonian encyclopedias are largely digital.
When I found myself in Estonia in 1979 for the first time, the legendary Estonian actor, rock musician and composer Peeter Volkonksi, who is a great-great-great-grandson of Prince Pyotr Mikhailovich Volkonsky, directed my attention to an entry in the earlier Estonian Soviet Encyclopedia. Peeter - himself a Prince in several senses of the word - both trusted and prodded me: “Look up the entry for fascism”. Here is the relevant passage, translated into English.
(From the Italian fascismo < fascia. ‘ties, association, connectedness’.)
The terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary circles of financial capital, which is characterized by the suppression of democratic rights and freedoms, an authoritarian one-party regime, the intertwining of a thoroughly centralized apparatus of state with the fascist political party and the most important monopolistic groupings, the rigorous regimentation and surveillance of all aspects of societal life, a mandatory fascist ideology, a leadership cult. Other facets (of fascism) that often manifest themselves are militant nationalism, an aggressive and expansionist foreign policy, boundless arbitrariness and terror wielded against the exploited classes, minority groups and opponents, racism.
(Eesti Nõukogude Entsüklopeedia, Tallinn, volume 2, 1970, p. 299)
Peeter was convinced the wording hadn’t come about by mistake, but was instead a sneaky act of insurrection by one of the editors.
We shook hands and I returned to the Viru Hotel. I managed to bond with a number of good people during that ten-day trip to my occupied homeland. We remain friends to this day.
As I walked, gaggles of olive-clad Soviet troops wended their way down Viru Street. I entered the foyer of the hotel - an apartheid establishment that was off-limits for ordinary locals - showed my ID, went past the retired KGB workers who served as Dobermans at the door, and also past the women who sat as monitors on every floor. I presume my room was bugged. As we know now, an entire floor of the Viru Hotel was taken up by an electronic eavesdropping facility.
I didn’t turn on the lights, but looked north in the direction of Finland for a while. Massive military searchlights searched the sea, their beams probing horizontally in a pincer operation from their positions at opposite ends of Tallinn’s harbor (one at Kakumae and the other somewhere in the Viimsi area). Between them in the bay, a Soviet gunboat patrolled darkly, occasionally flicking on her searchlight as well. The last time I looked, the ruins of the searchlight emplacement at Kakumae, not far from the Soviet Border Guard compounds once located there, were still relatively intact.
As I drifted off to sleep in the hotel, cold air leaked into the room from the poorly fitted window, and the wheels of the trams slowly turning round the bend in front of the hotel issued piercing whistling steel-on-steel lullabies.
© 2010 Jüri Estam
Fascism, as defined by the Soviet Estonian Encyclopedia (1)