Back to the bleak house: a playground and flats in the Estonian village of Purksi, in a former Soviet border protection zone
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Minority report: the plight of Estonia’s ethnic Swedes

Estonia’s Swedes survived revolution, invasion and exile. Their struggles tell the story of 20th-century Europe.

In 1993 I found myself living on a former collective farm in a remote border protection zone in western Estonia. The place was like small collective farms everywhere in the Soviet Union: there was a cultural hall, a school, a dining room (then closed), some rusty workshops and concrete blocks of flats, built on the field behind the former manor house, which had been left to decay. There was a manned barrier on the only road in to the Noarootsi Peninsula through salty marshland – until 1991, everyone had to show their papers there, no matter how well known they were to the Soviet soldiers on duty. Abandoned watchtowers dotted the coastline, and in some areas you could still see the intermittent line in the sand 50 metres from the sea, beyond which local people were not allowed to go.

When the Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991 I was working on a PhD in the anthropology department at University College London, on Melanesian systems of law. I changed my thesis to a Soviet theme: looking at how national minorities in Soviet countries reconnected with their history to form new national identities. I decided to focus on Estonian Swedes, and chose the collective farm in western Estonia as a field site. The village I lived in – Birkas in Swedish, Pürksi in Estonian – had become a centre for Swedishness in the independence era between the wars, and the Swedish minority culture was now being revived there.

It was desolate, yet also compelling, a region affected by all the major European political events of the 20th century: the first revolution in 1905, the First World War, the Russian Revolution, brief independence, Soviet and Nazi occupations and, finally, in 1991, independence. I was interested in the small community of Swedes, a minority within another minority, stacked like Russian dolls inside the Russian empire and the Soviet Union. And I wanted to know how Soviet censorship had affected local people’s perception and knowledge of history.

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Swedish-speaking groups had settled in Estonia in the early Middle Ages, probably migrating down from Finland. They lived on the islands and west coast of Estonia, fishing, farming and trading across the Baltic Sea. After independence in 1918 and the First World War, Swedish tourists started coming to Estonia. The Estonian Swedes, in their traditional folk costumes, stared solemnly into a hundred cameras, fetched water for the tourists from their wells, and talked about their feelings for the Motherland, which few of them had ever seen. The tourists cycled from farm to farm, slept in hay barns and delighted in the kinship.

It was patronising, perhaps, and often sentimental, but it was also helpful: from the 1880s onwards, evangelical missionaries travelled from Sweden to support and spiritually enlighten the Estonian Swedes, who lived in great poverty. After independence, nurses, teachers and agronomists followed. Estonian Swedish cultural activists started newspapers, journals and schools. Swedish people were moved by the hardship of the Swedish minority, and by their struggle for cultural survival. The Russifying policies of the tsarist empire had been harsh. In addition, the large estates and the repressive bureaucracy and censorship had entrenched the poverty of the rural population. To counteract this, independent Estonia instituted land reform, minority protection and democracy, in an attempt to encourage a thriving civil society to emerge.

The discussion about the preservation of the Swedish culture in Estonia was part of debates about minorities in the new nation states of Europe following the First World War. Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia came into being, in the spirit fostered by President Woodrow Wilson, whose Fourteen Points of 1918 outlined a postwar Europe of free trade and democracy. The former Russian territories, however, were not given independence by the newly created Soviet Union: the emerging countries had to fight for it. In the case of Finland and the Baltic states the battle was, eventually, successful. In Ukraine, where three empires met, the First World War turned into a civil war. In 1922 about half of Ukraine formed one of the original Soviet Socialist Republics; the rest of the region was parcelled up between Poland, Belarus, Russia, Moldova, Romania and Czechoslovakia. Georgia, like the Baltic states, declared independence in 1918. It didn’t last long.

For the countries that escaped Soviet control, the 1920s were an era of new parliamentary democracies, each with minority populations struggling for recognition and protection. The talk was of disarmament and diplomacy, of the League of Nations and the balance of power. It didn’t last long. All the efforts of benign philanthropists and missionaries of that era, of nurses, doctors, agronomists and teachers, came to nothing in the end.

From the summer of 1940 to the summer of 1941 the Baltic states were occupied by the Soviet Union. It was a brutal process, culminating in mass deportations, mainly of professional families. In June 1941 Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, began. The Wehrmacht, followed by SS forces and the specialised Einsatzgruppen, tasked with finding and killing Jews, unleashed the Holocaust in what the American historian Timothy Snyder has called the “Bloodlands”: the killing fields across Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus. Estonia, albeit with a small Jewish population, was part of it, too. Only a handful of Estonian Jews in hiding survived the Holocaust, and many thousands of people from other countries were transported to the little-known Estonian concentration camps.

And the Estonian Swedes? From 1943, the Wehrmacht began the forced recruitment of Swedish men (Estonian men were already subject to conscription). Many families fled to Sweden in small boats. In 1944, several high-ranking Nazis – including Bruno Peter Kleist, an SS officer from the inner circle of Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister – were involved in secret negotiations with the Allies. According to the historian Reinhard Doerries, Kleist travelled to Stockholm to discuss the settlement of ethnic Germans in occupied territories, and the resettlement of the ethnic Swedes from Estonia to Sweden.

Heinrich Himmler, the SS leader, had also entered into negotiations with various people in Sweden through his massage therapist, Felix Kersten, a Baltic German who was hired by Himmler to treat his painful stomach condition. Kersten had become famous in the 1920s and 1930s, treating royalty and celebrities. On 20 April 1945, Norbert Masur, a Jewish refugee in Sweden who was a representative of the World Jewish Congress, travelled to Germany with Kersten. They met Walter Schellenberg, head of German foreign intelligence, and Himmler. That conversation was the beginning of the initiative to save some of the inmates of the concentration camps – some Jewish, some with Scandinavian connections – by evacuating them to Sweden on Swedish Red Cross buses (the “white buses”).

The previous year, the Swedish govern­ment had made a deal with the SS about the Estonian Swedes. For a payment of 50 Swedish crowns per person, the SS evacuated some 7,000 Swedes, out of a population of 8,000, to safety in Sweden. The Wehrmacht then settled ethnic Estonians evacuated from Russia in the abandoned farmhouses. In autumn 1944, Soviet forces reoccupied Estonia. After the wave of deportations from the countryside in March 1949, followed by forced collectivisation, the distinction between the locals and the refugees ceased to matter.

By now there were few Swedish families left. The ones that had remained came under suspicion because they had relatives abroad, and were banned from joining fishing collectives. Their children were barred from the Young Pioneers, the Soviet youth movement. Soon most of them took Soviet Estonian identities: it was safer that way. In turn, when the Estonian Swedes came to Sweden they were told to assimilate as best they could, and not talk about the Nazi evacuation. And assimilate they did.

After 1989, there was a new Swedish revival in Estonia – exiled people, former owners, came back to visit. Seeing them next to their cousins left behind made me realise the marks repressive regimes leave on their people. Living in a benign welfare state makes for good height and good teeth; living in a repressive state makes for the opposite. The few Swedes who had remained in Estonia looked so much older than their relatives who had left as children.

It is easy to assume that the only people who are affected by repression are dissidents or minorities, and to think that the only rights abused in the Soviet Union were civil and political rights. In fact, people’s social and economic rights were equally violated. On the collective farm, a woman told me about losing her baby in hospital and seeing a political delegation troop through the ward. Not one of them took their shoes off, or washed their hands, as all the patients’ relatives had to do. To her, that moment symbolised Soviet oppression.

After I’d lived on the former collective farm for nearly a year, I gave a speech to a group of diplomats visiting the peninsula. I outlined my research project, and described some of the current problems in the community as I saw it. The headmistress of the school, who was married to the former director of the collective farm, was not happy with what I had said. What should I have said? I asked Alar and Hele, my neighbours and friends. “That everything is all right,” Alar said ironically. “That everything is wonderful.” The Soviet tendency to conceal reality was still alive and well.

I had gone to the collective farm to investigate people’s sense of the past in the context of the Soviet censorship of history. What did people remember about the war, the deportations and collectivisation? The intellectual elite had been decimated in the Baltic states and the other newly incorporated Soviet republics. Two hundred thousand library books were destroyed; independent publishing was over; censorship lists were drawn up; schools and universities became political institutions. By the end of the war most intellectuals had either disappeared or become conformists.

When I finished my speech about the Swedish community, one of the French diplomats in the audience seemed surprised. “But your English is very good,” he said. “Do you come from this area?” I didn’t, of course. But I might have done – strangely, I have never lived anywhere where I melted in better. Many of the villagers had names like mine: German-sounding without being German. We dressed alike, and looked alike. The old Swedes searched for Swedish words, their mother tongue hidden, like mine, behind another language.

The culture I was studying in that remote border protection zone was in fact the surviving fragments of a once-thriving rural economy and culture. Every village on the peninsula had decreased dramatically in size since the census of 1934: the population had never recovered from the war, the deportations and the exodus of the local Swedes. And the people in those bedraggled villages no longer knew what they had lost. The world that was lost had disappeared from history.

This is no longer the case. In the past 20 years, Estonia has been good at history, good at memorialising the Soviet era and good at establishing a liberal democracy and civil society. This is in stark contrast to Russia, with its oligarchical capitalism and nostalgia for authoritarian communism, its violence, its dying villages and dismal life expectancy. There is an echo of the Soviet Union’s destruction of history in the crisis in Ukraine: in the minds of Russian nationalists, Russia’s enemies are always fascists, no matter what history tells you. The echo is faint, but it’s dangerous nevertheless, because the anti-fascist struggle is an ideal for which Russians are willing to sacrifice much.

“Everything Is Wonderful: Memories of a Collective Farm in Estonia” is published by Grove Press (£14.99)

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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