Swedish-born philanthropist and Granta publisher Rausing offers an intimate look at the devastations of communism in Estonia.
The author’s academic study about a small community in post-Soviet Estonia followed her fieldwork on the Noarootsi peninsula in 1993-1994 (History, Memory and Identity in Post-Soviet Estonia: The End of a Collective Farm, 2004). Here, she returns to the notebooks of that year and her memory for a more sensuous, character-rich portrait of the denuded landscape, ruined economy, and erratic, alcoholic personalities she encountered as a dreamy, lonely observer and teacher. The peninsula’s population had been half Swedish-speaking until the Nazis deported them, and those few thousand left were corralled behind the Soviet military barrier into villages that became “like villages all over the Soviet Union at that particular time: forgotten places sinking into quiet poverty.” Estonia’s independence followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the country had to grapple with the Russian presence and language, depopulation and stalled economy. The collective farm in Pürksi was taken over by a “transitory privatisation commission,” and there was new hope for Swedish return and involvement. The signs of Swedishness made the author feel nostalgic for her own Swedish childhood, and everywhere, she gleaned the sense that time had stopped in Estonia. She unearths fascinating history of this remote area, annexed and depleted by Russia, then Germany, then the Soviet Union; all the while, she taught ninth grade in the local school, tramped through the Baltic forests and interviewed people on the farms. In a talk she made to a group of diplomats visiting the village, she was rebuked for being too candid about the Soviet era; instead, she was told ironically she should have said that “everything is wonderful.”
A mellifluous portrait of a country slowly and painfully pulling itself into the European world.