At a Pensioners' get-together in Vancouver recently Rein Vasara spoke about a collection of letters written at the beginning of the 20th century by Jaan Unt to Emilie Moor. Vello Püss read out a selection from the letters and Raul Vabasalu gave a short overview of that period of time. Herein follows my summary of these events but first some scene-setting:
The first railway line in Estonia was constructed in 1870 by the Russian Ministry from Paldiski to Narva. By the turn of the 20th century railway lines stretched to Tartu, Valga, Pärnu and Riga. Public transportation in Tallinn consisted of horses pulling omnibuses on these rail tracks. In 1901 Konstantin Päts was employed in Tallinn as an editor for "Teataja" newspaper and in the following year writers began organizing themselves under the name Noor-Eesti with the intention of moving away from the dominating German and Russian influence on Estonian culture and developing their own sense of emancipation and uniqueness. By 1912 Noor-Eesti was legalized and proved to be a powerful publishing house. In August 1906 the Vanemuine Music and Theatre Society in Tartu officially began. In 1907 the Boy Scout movement was just getting underway in England and Girl Guides originated in 1910.
Võrtsjärv is a small lake in Estonia located between Viljandi and Tartu. At the southern tip of the lake is a little town called Pikasilla and there lived Emilie an attractive young Estonian woman who was the love interest of Jaan Unt. In 1914 during World War I Jaan worked as an administrator in the Russian Imperial Army, the same year in which the city of St. Petersburg's name changed to Petrograd. Emilie was the sister of Jaan's best friend and he wrote to her lamenting that when he was stationed in Warsaw he had no friends there. He was lonely and wrote her about his ambition to join the police force.
In the collection of letters written to Emilie we hear only Jaan's voice. Her letters are missing. She is perhaps pedalling a Singer sewing machine making herself a new dress. By 1915 hemlines had risen for the first time from floor-length to mid-calf and women were abandoning their buttoned-up boots for a more modern-styled shoe. The latest style in Europe was flesh-coloured transparent hosiery. Apparently the first person to wear a pair of silk stockings was Queen Elizabeth I in 1560 and I assume hers were handmade, as the knitting frame had not as yet been invented.
Elsewhere, in the larger picture, Pancho Villa led the Mexican Revolution. Further north in 1914 Charlie Chaplin debuted in his first film ‘Making a Living, the Panama Canal formally opened, Einstein formulated the theory of relativity and Monet painted water lilies. In 1918 the Estonian calendar converted from Julian to Gregorian, meaning the date jumped forward 2 weeks, and in the same year Estonian women gained the right to vote. By 1920 in free Estonia there was a count of 110 automobiles in the country, the greatest number being in Tallinn decorated with white license plates beginning with the letter ‘A' followed by four black numbers.
Over a six-year period Jaan quills Emilie 30 letters as he scuttles from one military base to another. An undated letter reached Emilie on September 22nd 1917 wherein Jaan wrote that he was in a Russian village longing to be in the Battle of Riga defending his homeland. He threw his pen into the corner of the room disgusted with himself that he was pushing a pen behind a desk "paberi määrimine" rather than participating in the midst of smoky rifle combat.
Like many war-time stories all that is left of Jaan's ardour is a few pages of "paberi määrimine" and no firm conclusion of a happy romantic ending between the two or whether Jaan eventually became an Estonian war hero.... which I suspect did happen. Definitively what remains for us is a peep into those dusty long-ago times.
Letters of Emilie & Jaan 1914 - 1920 (1)