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

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism