I recently did something for the first time. I went to a book reading. The Estonian embassy here in Ottawa put out an email advising our local community of this event which featured author Eric Enno Tamm reading from his latest book “The Horse that Leaps Through Clouds” published by Douglas and McIntyre.
The book deals with the author retracing a journey to China undertaken by (as he was then) colonel Baron Carl Gustaf Mannerheim at the request of the last tsar of Russia, Nicholas ll. Mannerheim left St. Petersburg on July 6, 1906 on a 17,000 kilometer journey on what was a clandestine spying mission. He returned in September 1908. His final report amounted to almost 200 typewritten pages and 1,370 photographs. He personally briefed the tsar at his request in an interview lasting over an hour. Then as today, the Russians were nervous about the giant awakening next door.
Tamm preparing for the trip applied for a Chinese visa using his Canadian passport but was denied for reasons never satisfactorily explained to him. He eventually was successful using his Estonian passport, the Chinese apparently had not heard of this tiny country. (It just goes to show that having an Estonian passport has its advantages.) Tamm even managed to get a visa for Russia without hassle despite this being shortly after the “bronze soldier” episode.
Tamm is an excellent public speaker and very knowledgeable about his topic. The interesting lecture with slides was followed by a question and answer period. Intelligent questions were posed; the most poignant was whether Tibet would ever regain its independence from its occupation by communist China.
Tamm was not optimistic in this regard because of the intensifying effort on the part of the communist party rulers to move in yet more Han Chinese settlers as physical access becomes easier. I gathered that he feels that China is a fragile superpower because of various problems such as latent powerful centrifugal forces within the vast empire and the negative effects of extremely rapid industrialization following the reforms undertaken by the Chinese in 1998 as well as the lingering effect of the one child policy. It struck me that the Chinese empire resembles that of Russia in that only about 50% of the population is ethnic Han Chinese, a potential Achilles heel sure to cause problems.
I found it surprising that as part of their reforms, the Chinese leadership was brave or foolhardy enough to decollectivise agriculture thus giving up control of food supplies. It may be that this will eventually have the same unintended result as “perestroika” although at the moment it seems to be a successful adaptation of Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) that put survival ahead of ideology. One wonders though when the Chinese version of Stalin will appear and return China to the chaos that existed under Mao and the Gang of Four.
To me the situation of Tibet is reminiscent of the ruthless programs of deliberate cultural and linguistic genocide carried out by both tsarist and Bolshevik Russia in our parents’ homeland in the not so distant past. I cannot help wonder and hope, however, that tiny Tibet will eventually somehow develop its own version of the “Singing Revolution” that will eventually cause the empire to disintegrate.
This book consists of 446 pages chock full of detail. I usually manage to get through a book at one sitting; however, this one took me three sessions despite the fact that Tamm is a talented writer with a fluid style that handles the tricky task of juxtaposition of present and past very well.
Tamm’s father was Estonian and he seems to have inherited an Estonian sense of humour although he has only a rudimentary knowledge of Estonian despite having struggled through a summer at Tartu University. I found his observation that he “certainly smelled like an Estonian” when he entered China badly hung over after a night of heavy vodka consumption and several days on horseback particularly amusing.
I did take exception to one comment made by Tamm in his book. He described Mannerheim as “the only White general to successfully defeat the Bolsheviks…” My understanding is that another former tsarist colonel by the name of general Johann Laidoner managed the same feat. Unfortunately, he was only allowed to do so once by Estonia’s decision makers but that is a different story.
Although the book itself contains only one photograph, there is an interactive multimedia website that complements it. Tamm took more than 3,000 digital photographs. You can find this at http://horsethatleaps.com/.
In conclusion I recommend buying the book. Estonians are thrifty and getting essentially three interesting, well written books for the price of one has appeal.
The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds