Mart Laar’s magisterial work, Metsavennad: Sõda metsas,
reached English readers in 1992, translated into English by Tiina Ets as War in the Woods: Estonia’s Struggle for Survival 1944-1956
. Curiously, the Estonian version was published a year later, an instance where the original work was perhaps held back considering the uncertain tenor of the times. Not that Laar has ever been a shrinking lily as an historian. He has always written without fear and with honesty about the times when Estonia was battling for freedom and later, under occupation, when an estimated 30 000 men took advantage of the country’s vast forest cover to shelter and wage an armed fight against the hated communists.
The last documented Forest Brother was August Sabe, who was killed by the KGB on September 28, 1978. A remarkable 34 years of survival in the forests of Võrumaa came to an end with his betrayal.
To the best of my knowledge in all of Laar’s work about “Forest Brothers”, metsavennad, the name of the legendary Black Captain was never revealed. Certainly Hirmus Ants (Terrible Ants) or Ants Kaljurand was identified, a legend who attacked Soviet soldiers until his capture in 1949, and was subsequently sentenced to death in 1951. It is a name that Estonians of a certain generation know well. Must kapten
or the Black Captain, however, was a much more mythological figure, whose name was well known, but who was he? Did others take his name as well?
A recent streamlining, organizing of personal archival material unearthed an interview that I conducted in 1990 with a man who claimed to be the Black Captain. At the time I was working at – well, employed by – “Noorte Hääl”, one of Soviet-occupied Estonia’s higher circulation newspapers, thanks to connections established a year earlier with the editor-in-chief, able to do so by being a regular contributor to “Meie Elu”, Toronto’s Estonian weekly. As a result, I suppose that I belong to a select few – having earned rubles as well as dollars for being an ink-stained wretch.
Connections were everything in those days. Vello Lään is a highly respected radio broadcaster, translator and journalist (sports, humour), who had visited Canada in the late 1970’s, written a memoir of visiting Maple Leaf country (Vikerkaar Niagara kohal
– Rainbow over Niagara, published in 1981, worth looking for, as it provides an interesting perspective of Canada at the time). We clicked well. I expressed my interest in the “Forest Brothers” and he had just the individual for me to meet. This at a time when I had no right to be in Tartu, because of travel restrictions, but Soviet times meant that courage often overcame the law, as long as one did not stand out.
(As a sidebar, Lään invited me to an extended family gathering on the shores of Võrtsjärv, where I encountered my first ever siil
, hedgehog, and also sponsored the volleyball game with one Canadian paper dollar (the loonie existed but so did paper dollars) to the winning team. Breaking far too many Soviet rules in the process, especially due to the pain of being on the losing side of the match. Lään is also a long-time badminton fanatic, and the Estonian from Canada lost on that court as well…)
Vello Lään introduced me to a man, who claimed to be the “Must Kapten”, Black Captain. I recall, though not in my notes, that thanks to Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost policies, the purported freedom fighter had presented himself to the media in hope of restoring his legacy. We paid a visit to the former Forest Brother. Of that there was no doubt, considering his age, the bullet still trapped under the skin of his scalp against his skull, and the detail that this gentleman went into describing anti-communist guerilla activities.
It must be remembered that this encounter took place at a time when history was no longer obscured, hidden by Soviet censorship and blatant propaganda. Articles about Forest brothers were a regular occurrence, bunkers in forests were either revealed or even restored, and memoirs published, to great acclaim. Alfred Käärmann, Ülo Jõgi and Jaan Laiusk are but three former metsavennad
who wrote about that period in occupied Estonia’s history, either for newspapers or in book form.
While the interview was fascinating, helped along with generous consumption of the excellent (White stork) cognac by all present, questions remained even then, and a recent internet search about the Black Captain underscored that it was quite likely that I spoke with someone, who while present and involved in armed resistance, was most likely not who he claimed to be.
In 1998 I received by mail from a friend in Estonia, who knew about my encounter with the man who claimed to be the Black Captain, a copy of an interview that appeared in Eesti Ekspress on August 28, 1998, written by Pekka Erelt. A familiar face was captured in the accompanying photograph; the gentleman was identified only by his initials, F.N. Even in 1998 FN did not wish to have his full name revealed, according to Erelt. Unusual, to say the least.
Much of Erelt’s interview mirrored my notes from eight years earlier. FN’s meetings with Estonian statesman Jaan Tõnisson in 1941 en route to Siberia, later with Soviet leader Nikita Khrustchev were a source of pride for the former forest brother. FN escaped in 1945. According to my notes it took two months and 27 days for him to make it back to Estonia, now firmly occupied.
FN also described being shot during an operation against the Soviets in 1949, accounting for the bullet still in his head. Perhaps it was the cognac, but at that time FN never revealed what he told Erelt – in April 1949 he was en route to Hiiumaa, to meet Hirmus Ants (see pt I), Hiiumaa was the legend’s territory. However, FN’s escape from the hospital, thanks to an Estonian nurse, was described exactly as I found in my earlier notes. Both Erelt’s interview and my notes confirm that “eye-doctor”, ophthalmologist Dr. Schotter, who tended to FN’s head wounds and the vision loss that accompanied being shot in the head, informed the Soviet security organs that the alleged Black Captain was in hospital. Alleged, for FN proudly told the doctor, according to Erelt, “do you know who you are treating, I am the Black Captain.” A foolish statement for anyone to make at that time, undermining, again, FN’s credibility. However, FN was able to escape from the hospital, descending from the second floor via a gutter downspout, all this with a bullet in his head and vision loss.
The alleged Black Captain did not remain a free fugitive for long, my notes indicate his arrest in October of 1949, a date not found in Erelt’s interview.
After FN’s arrest by the KGB, – six years after the end of warfare on Estonian soil -, where he was doped into unconsciousness at a birthday party, waking up in the infamous Pagari street jail complex, he was sent to Siberia for the second time. He told me that he was interrogated for one and a half years, during which time he was kept in solitary confinement, the only human contact was with his interrogators. He claimed in 1990 that he almost lost the ability to speak – either Estonian or Russian, due to his determination not to answer any questions, betray his brothers in arms and those who assisted him.
He was sentenced under ∞ 58. 1,2,4,6,8,10,12 of the Soviet penal code, accounting for treason, terror, agitation, undermining the state, espionage and a peculiar category, diversion. The penalty – death. FN told me he spent 57 days on the Soviet version of Death Row, after which his sentence was commuted to the infamous 25+5+5: 25 years in Siberia, working in the mines, 5 years forced settlement away from Estonia, then 5 years of monitoring, the Soviet form of parole in Estonia. FN told me that on January 12th 1950 the death penalty was abolished in the Soviet Union. Perhaps legally, but not in practical application, as later cases were to prove. FN also added then that the day after, January 13, 1950 he would have been executed, according to Boris Kumm, Soviet Estonia’s Commissar for State Security and the chief architect of Stalinist-era terror and repression in the country.
Thanks to Khrushchev’s amnesty in 1965 FN was able to return to Estonia much earlier than his sentence called for. FN claimed that happened due to a personal appeal sent to the Soviet leader in 1963. This resulted in an invitation to visit the Soviet leader and discuss the issue personally (Did that happen to everyone? May be another question of credibility, as many petitioned the Soviet leadership, and certainly not all were granted an audience). During this face-to-face meeting he promised Khrushchev that he would never take up arms against the Soviets again. In retrospect, again a little far-fetched.
As is the claim that FN led a group of 50-60 forest brothers. At the time, especially after the 1949 deportations, such a large group would find it extremely difficult to remain hidden, much less find adequate food and shelter in the Võrumaa forests, as the surrounding farms were either abandoned due to forced collectivization or deportation. Hence much of FN’s claims must be taken with a grain of salt.
When Erelt’s interview appeared the Internet, while not any longer in its infancy, was not the source of information that it is in 2017. Granted, even today one must weigh the material found with caution, for just because it is available it does not mean that it is a fact. Or even close to the truth, just ask the American president.
The Estonian web site mil.ee is, however, very reliable, and as many such sites are has postings by critics of information, or postings by those who have other information sources available. Not quite a Wikipedia, but certainly, to these eyes, a credible source for much of Estonia’s military history, and a fascinating site to lose oneself in for hours at a time.
No surprise at all, that FN was identified. Ferdinand Nurme, son of Jaan, was born in 1923 (mil.ee commentator indicates that he was born on October 15th of that year) in Viljandi province, Suislepa parish. His first arrest date gibes with the interviews, April 25, 1941, as does his sentencing under ∞ 58. The site does provide a death year – 2004 -, but no month/day. At the end of his life Nurme was blind, most certainly thanks to the events of 1949.
Nurme operated as a forest brother under the alias of Vello Salumets. He has been included in historical works by Enno Piir about Viljandi province, the Viljandi Heritage Society and the Viljandi branch of Memento, as well as in a register of names from Viljandi dealing with that time period. The anonymous mil.ee poster notes that none of these mentions are of great value. Yet another strike against the claim of being the Black Captain. As well, the Soviet security organs have named others as the Black Captain.
Erelt’s interview is addressed at mil.ee as well. A man who was incarcerated along with Nurme was infuriated by the claims made in the lengthy Eesti Ekspress article, maddened not only by Nurme as a person but by his fabrications. Hence, strike two.
A final posting notes that the EE interview left a dubious impression for that reader, most notably meeting Khrushchev. That commentator was aware of an encounter that journalist Marko Püüa ( http://www.ppy.ee/kuukiir/a/20... ) had with Nurme. Püüa quoted Nurme as saying in 2003 (!) “I hope that by the grace of God I will see the true Estonian Republic”, a bizarre comment to make 12 years after the restoration of independence. Püüa noted that Nurme walked with the aid of a cane and wore Coke-bottle thick-lensed glasses.
Even in 2003 Nurme insisted on being called the Black Captain, and kept repeating how he had met Jaan Tõnisson en route to the GULAG. This posting on mil.ee concludes that in the final years of his life Nurme was not necessarily deceptive, spurious or uttering outright falsehoods. In Estonian he wrote “ehk ei olnudki nende viimaste sõnavõttude puhul tegu mingi valskusega - pigem olid eluraskused peas mõned kruvid logisema löönud”. (Perhaps these last statements were not falsehoods, rather the hardships of life had set a few screws loose in his head).
Thus it still remains to be determined who was the real Black Captain. For the legend of Must Kapten was known by many, not only in Soviet occupied Estonia but by those who had successfully fled the occupying Soviet Army. Perhaps the real Black Captain suffered an anonymous death, or, unlike Ferdinand Nurme, chose to keep his identity a secret to the very end. For it is unlikely that a legend such as the Must Kapten would have had, as Nurme did, his death sentence commuted. (Hirmus Ants was put to death almost immediately). More likely he would have been murdered after his arrest as was the case with far too many unlucky and unfortunate forest brother.
That 1990 interview was made with personal interest in mind, certainly not for publication in “Noorte Hääl”, today known as “Päevaleht”. (The name change took place while I was there). Nor in Meie Elu, as Nurme did express a desire to not have it published while the Soviets were in power. His delusions in 2003 do indicate, that 13 years earlier he had already lost touch with reality. Yet it was a fascinating encounter.
The question thus remains today: The Black Captain – who was he?