"Who is red on the
outside and white inside?" (1)
The topic of the Soviet
rule in Estonian life stories
In the course of World War
II, which started in 1939, the independent state of Estonia vanished
from the map of the world. The forced merger with the Soviet
Union in 1940 put an end to the statehood that had lasted some
twenty years. The power that ruled in the Soviet Estonia used
different measures to achieve their aims, from active agitation
to extreme violence. In such a situation many Estonians had to
recant their nationalist frame of mind, repress their beliefs
and 'forget' the Republic of Estonia and its national patriotic
'Forgetting' is a substantial
and interesting problem in the biographies of the 20th-century
Estonians, which not only characterises the reflection of a certain
period in history, but is a separate phenomenon generally characteristic
to biographies. Researchers have been interested why people choose
to present in their biographies the stories they do, and not
others. It is evident that people are not able to speak about
everything and verbalise all their experiences (cf. Löfgren
1990: 146; Kõresaar 2001a: 46) - but why?
The narrator of a life story
presents episodes of his/her life, which are important for him/her
at the time and which spring from the general aim of the narration.
For that purpose he/she chooses events from his/her course of
life, the presentation of which would best meet the aim. At the
same time, while making the choice, some episodes have to be
'forgotten'. For the narrators the primary goal of narrating
is not describing the past 'as it was' nor as it was experienced,
but first of all, they attempt to attach a certain meaning to
their past experience, a meaning that would support the present
meaning. Narrating one's life story is not just retelling or
reminiscing, it is an activity, meeting the reality: first the
person reconstructs the meaning of the past from the standpoint
of the present, then he/she gives a meaning to his/her past with
the aim of giving a meaning to the present as well (see Niedermüller
1988: 468-469). Starting one's biography a person has an idea
what this story will have to be like, but also what kind of a
person he/she him/herself is in this story. For this purpose
the life events that drop out of this framework have to be 'forgotten'.
Great social changes, which
involve the re-valuation and rewriting of history, also actualise
the forgetting and blocking of knowledge in people's memories.
In this respect more or less awarely caused 'collective amnesia'
or 'loss of memory' may occur. Such loss of memory lasts as long
as the course of certain events has been re-valued (cf. Korkiakangas
1997: 9). Such 'loss of memory' is also typical of many Estonian
biographies describing the Soviet period, because in the Republic
of Estonia that has regained its independence, this period has
not been uniformly estimated yet and therefore people are uncertain
how to remember some topics in their biography.
The study (Siemer 2001) on
which this article is based observes how narrators born in the
1920s describe Soviet Estonia and their compatriots in the 1990s.
The question is which topics from this era they point out and
which they rather prefer to 'forget' about. The source material
includes the biographies of older Estonians contributed to the
Estonian Literary Museum in the years 1989-1998. Of the studied
71 biographies 11 were chosen for closer analysis, 4 men's and
7 women's biographies. The basis of such selection was the extensive
treatment of the studied subject in these stories. All the narrators
are Estonians. Ten of them come from the country: seven from
a farmer's, one from a craftsman's, one from a tradesman's and
one from a cottager's family. The author of one narrative is
from a railwayman's family, who lived in several settlements
by the railway lines and in town. Two of the narrators have elementary
education, five secondary professional and four are university
For the purpose of the above-mentioned
analysis, the topic of the Soviet rule has been divided into
three: (1) political-ideological mass organisations; (2) 'the
builders of communism'; (3) people's attitude to the representatives
of the authorities and the ruling order. Of these, the following
article deals with the subject of mass organisations and individual
options, which open the narrators' evaluation of the Soviet society.
The Soviet period and narrative
On August 6, 1940 the Estonian
SSR was incorporated into the Soviet Union. According to the
authors of the biographies, at first nothing changed in the daily
lives of common Estonians - "In the country nothing changed
at first [
]" (EE 28, Heino, 1928). To some extent,
people even believed there would be improvements, because the
new government of Johannes Vares-Barbarus directed their activities
to the interests of the poorer groups - more jobs were created,
free education and medical help were introduced.
The turning point was the deportation
in June 1941, which drew a deep line between 'us - Estonians'
and 'them - Russians'. This line remained there for Estonians
all through the occupation period and it was further deepened
by later arrestments, collectivisation and the deportation in
The biographies of Estonians
born in the 1920s provide extremely detailed descriptions of
their lives in the years 1939-1949. "It was a period in
which the individual time and the historical time overlapped,
i.e. personal events were described through historical events
and vice versa, through one's personal destiny the destiny of
the whole nation could be described. Not to mention that these
were grievous experiences compared to which any later events
might really have seemed less noteworthy" (Kõresaar
The stable life in the following
years in the Estonian SSR is described in the Estonian biographies
remarkably more laconically than the preceding revolutionary
decades. While the descriptions of the years of World War II
and the first two Soviet decades are at times extremely detailed,
the narratives of the later peaceful life are often given in
a few sentences only. Briefness in describing routine periods
of life is generally characteristic to biographies as a narrative
form. Focus is more laid on revolutionary periods and breaking
points of life that have influenced people's lives (cf. Bohman
1986: 10; Kõresaar 2001b: 121).
Similarly, the authors of the
analysed biographies are relatively short-spoken in describing
personal daily life in the Soviet period. More attention is paid
to the spheres of life through which the time-specific social
atmosphere can be dealt with: political-ideological mass organisation
membership; Estonians' adaptation to the Soviet environment and
their search for a parallel world. All the mentioned areas are
specific to the Soviet time and enable us to describe the strategies
how to survive in this environment.
Together with the Soviet rule
all associations, including Kaitseliit and the popular youth
organisations Noored Kotkad and Kodutütred,
(2) which supported bourgeois ideology,
were immediately done away with. Instead of this, new pioneer
and young communist organisation as well as the Communist Party
were established, although Estonians were reluctant towards them.
These organisations were to quickly erase the previous time of
freedom from the memory of the local people and orientate them
towards becoming genuine citizens of the Soviet Union. Membership
of these organisations was regarded as a proof of one's loyalty
to the state. Belonging or not belonging to these organisations
started to play an important role in the career and security
This topic is not often mentioned
in the biographies. Firstly, because joining ideological organisations
was not widespread among the Estonians who had lived during Estonia's
statehood and if the problem was easily overcome, it was not
regarded worth writing about. Secondly, such party membership
was generally regarded a deplorable matter at the time the biographies
were written (and is even now) and that is why authors do not
wish to reminisce this circumstance in their life story. Membership
in organisations is mentioned in biographies only in case there
is serious justification to it (fear because of one's own and
family's security, career). Much more frequently people explain
how and why they did not join the pioneer or young communist
organisation or the Communist Party, because that was like an
evidence of their resistance to the Soviet occupation and their
loyalty to the lost Republic of Estonia.
"None of us became
By the first year under Soviet
rule (1940-1941) the Estonians born in the 1920s had reached
their teenage years. The younger among them, 11-14-year-olds
were recruited at schools into the newly founded pioneer organisation.
Yet the former members of the national-patriotic organisations
were not particularly eager to join this organisation, because
the new power started to force its ideology on schoolchildren
by condemning national patriotism and Estonian-mindedness:
Next schoolyear, when I
was in the 5th class, the Soviet rule came. Our beliefs were
overthrown and our love for our contry was trampled down. Both
me and all the other adherents were frustrated and hostile to
the new order. None of us became a pioneer. (EE 500. Helmi, 1928)
In the first Soviet year becoming
a pioneer was not compulsory yet - the local authorities had
taken a waiting attitude, following how people were accepting
the reforms. In many towns schoolchildren started to establish
opposing youth organisations to retain national spirit and education.
The secret organisations of that time were characterised by strict
discipline, rules, hand-written leaflets, vows and collecting
arms. As signs of opposition they used symbols that emphasised
their Estonian-mindedness, especially blue-black-white colour
By the Red October celebrations
in November 1940 the Young Communist League had been founded.
The agitator was a former student A. S. from the village. After
the agitator's speech volunteers were registered. Of the 30 pupils
in the 6th class 2 - a boy and a girl - registered, and in the
whole school 7-8 young communists, which was not enough, of course.
Everybody had to think twice. Teachers remained impartial in
this matter. At the same time a so-called underground secret
group was organised by former members of 'Noorkotkad' and 'Kodutütred',
whose organisation had been liquidated and closed since summer
1940, their leaders arrested by the Red. The objective of the
opposition group was to fight against Red ideology, to exchange
information, to collect, write down and spread anecdotes and
dirty ballads about the figures of the red organisation. The
only sign of this secret group membership was a 5-cent postal
stamp with the portrait of the President of the Republic of Estonia
Konstantin Päts, this stamp was worn pinned under the left
lapel. How many conspirators were there in the school I don't
remember, I knew 5-6 boys.
(EE 540. Johannes, 1926)
Resistance organisations are
mentioned in biographies by many authors, regardless whether
they themselves belonged to those or not. Yet the existence of
such associations seems very important to the writers, as now
(even if they knew nothing about the organisation at that time
or would not have dared to belong to one) it symbolises for them
the strength of the Estonians and their unyieldingness to foreign
power. Writing about it proves the author's anti-Sovietism.
Pioneers wore red
scarves in the school. Class photo from the 1970s. Private collection
Heino (EE 28. 1928) is one
of the few who is not afraid to describe his boyhood eagerness
and support to the new order and mentality in his biography.
He was also one of those who was impatient to become a pioneer.
Because of his poor health he had not been able to join Noorkotkad
or boy scouts in the period of the Republic of Estonia. But now
that a wonderful children's organisation is set up in the school,
where all possibilities for exciting adventures are offered to
a lively boy, he is not impeded by the education in a pro-Estonian
school and he immediately agrees to join the organisation:
[---] one day a couple of
young men from the town came to our school. Our lessons were
called off, we gathered in the hall and they told us about a
new children's organisation, about the most interesting activities
there - of pioneer meetings and camps, even the Artek camp. After
that there were conversations in classrooms and volunteers to
become pioneers were registered. But it did not get going [---].
They got a few names, including mine, but that was evidently
too little to start local activities and so this thing calmed
down. (EE 28. Heino, 1928)
So Heino's wish did not come
true then, because there were too few 'would-be' pioneers like
him in the small school to found their own organisation. Yet
it feels that later while reminiscing this incident, Heino is
slightly ashamed of his attitudes of that time and pleased that
in reality his dream to become a pioneer did not come true. Many
years later, when Heino was recommended to join the Communist
Party, there was nothing left of his boyhood eagerness - as a
grown-up his attitude to this power and its measures were thoroughly
changed and that is why he did not accept such invitation:
[The local party official]
seriously advised me to join the glorious party [---].
I did not join in, because I had no inclination for such adventures.
(EE 28. Heino, 1928)
"I have never been
a real Young Communist"
The problem of joining or not
joining the Young Communist League arose for the biographers
studied in this article at the end of the 1940s - beginning of
the 1950s. In those years people were governed by fear about
the fate of themselves and their close ones. That is why they
often behaved against their conscience and took measures because
of their personal security. One of such decisions many people
had to take in the interests of their own welfare was joining
the Young Communist League. For example, this was a problem for
Erna-Hellen (EE 501. 1929), for whom joining the komsomol
was a vital issue - otherwise she was threatened by deportation
to Siberia, because the girl's father had been taken a war prisoner
in Germany and his charge with being a 'people's enemy' was extended
to the daughter:
I "wriggled my way"
until the final exams of medical school, I was neither an October
child nor a pioneer nor young communist. Before the finals I
was called to the director and the leader of the committee of
Young Communist League. "Why aren't you a Young Communist?"
- "Don't want to." - "But where is your father?"
- "I don't know!" Afterwards the director said quietly:
"If you want to graduate from the school, join the league."
I did and no one bothered me any more. Another girl was sent
to Siberia, her mother was there already. She was told that she
would become a young communist there anyway if she wanted a job. (EE 501. Erna-Hellen, 1929)
Young people were often made
to join komsomol out of fear because of their future career.
For example, students in their final year were told that they
could not graduate from the university and find a suitable job
without a komsomol member card. Helmi (EE 500. 1928) was
one of those who decided to join the organisation due to future
I had never been a pioneer
or a real young communist. Only in the spring semester of my
final year at university I was forced to take this step. We had
a true communist Ludmilla V. in our group, who started to work
on me in the issue of joining komsomol, because otherwise I would
not graduate or get a job. Finally I agreed and graduated from
the university as a Young Communist. (EE 500. Helmi, 1928)
The later ideologist Virve
(EE 602. 1924) did not join the komsomol during schooltime.
Her reason for that was the pressure exerted by the propagators
of the organisation - she did not like pressure and although
the principles were acceptable for her, she did not agree to
In my school years  the whole of our course were
advised to join the 'komsomol'. In our group only the group leader
Aniita was a member of ELKNÜ ('Estonian Leninist Young Communist
League'). None of us joined. I would have, maybe, because I liked
the statutes, but as we were forced I was against it, because
I can never stand pressure. (EE 602. Virve, 1924)
On the other hand, in the context
of the whole biography the description leaves an impression as
if the negative decision was caused by the anti-komsomol
views of the whole group. That is why Virve, who came from the
family of onetime new settlers (and presumedly also pro-Soviet
family - "I would have joined, because I liked the statutes"),
was afraid to differ from her coursemates, because they could
have regarded the member of komsomol as a Soviet hanger-on
and a traitor of the Republic of Estonia. It seems as though
in her opinion the 'non-membership' might also serve as a justification
to her later being an ideologist - later she worked as a Communist
Party member or nonpartisan?
Just like komsomol and
pioneer organisation membership, it is important for Estonians
in the newly independent Estonia whether a person belonged to
the Communist Party in the Soviet period or not. The biographies
of Estonians born in the 1920s reveal that actually it was a
'question of honour' already in the Soviet years, when the party
member card was a certificate of 'guilty' conscience and 'faithfulness
to the Republic' was proved by evading or opposing the Communist
Party. Supporting the Soviet ideology and being a member of the
party are described laconically in Estonia after it regained
independence. At the same time, as evading the party has become
almost an indispensable part in an Estonian biography today,
the more excited and complicated the evasion was, the more 'unstained'
one's patriotism is believed to be:
I was not left alone for
long, they found that the director of a pioneer centre must be
a member of the Communist Party. 'Komsomol', Education Board
also supported this idea and I had to take their advice and go
to the bureau of party committee. I was sent back twice, the
reason was that I didn't take the party seriously enough. I was
scared, that I would be fired and maybe sent to Siberia. I started
looking for a new job and found it. (EE 389. Ants, 1928)
I haven't been in the Communist
Party. They wanted to, forced me to the party meeting, where
I had to join the party. I took a lorry from the dairy and drove
off to bring sawdust for house repairs - the kolkhoz could not
refuse to lend me this lorry. The construction supervisor was
also invited to the meeting to join the party. I saw him and
the builders driving in another direction, not where the meeting
was. We waved each other and continued our way. But the kolkhoz
chairman, who was the party official, saw me in the car and came
to my house on his motorbike. I ran to the attic, behind hay,
he didn't find me. He did not make me join the party any more.
Maybe this was the reason why he [the
chairman] started to hate me. (EE 554. Helmi, 1923)
In the case of the above people
their evading the party also had a result - one of them changed
jobs because of fear of repressions, in the other's opinion her
boss started to hate her because she determinedly held on to
her principles. Yet in their opinion just this is what makes
them 'national heroes' and later on makes them worthier Estonians.
It is much more difficult for
those people who still had become Communist Party members to
prove their Estonian-mindedness. After rebirth of independence,
the Estonian society has been critical about this issue, that
is why former members attempt to excuse and justify their past
conduct. The biographies expose four main reasons why people
joined the party (the two first were evident already with respect
to komsomol): 1) fear because of personal security; 2)
considerations of future career; 3) belief that the party can
be reformed from the inside; 4) taking sides with the Soviet
Ants (EE 389. 1928) faced the
problem of joining the party quite many times. His parents had
been declared kulaks ('expoiters, wealthy landowners')
in the past and that is why their family lived many years in
fear of deportation to Siberia. Fear is a dominant theme in Ants's
biography and because he was afraid his background would be discovered,
he finally, being a university lecturer, decided to join the
party. Ants explains this unpleasant event as stepping "into
shit" and points out that he was "in shit" only
as long as circumstances required:
I got completely adapted
to university life, taking active part in voluntary work. And
then it was found that there were not enough communist party
members in the university and they started to force me in again.
Then I more or less knew already who of the university teachers
was a "radish" and who was a careerist-communist or
an informer. Fortunately, most were radishes, my former friends
from student days. And I eventually stepped "into shit".
There I got a strict party punishment for deceit of the party.
When time came, I was the first to come "out of shit".
I worked as a university teacher and the director of the motoring
department until 1993. Then prostate cancer was discovered and
I underwent operation in 1994. I think the cancer was caused
by continuous stress.
(EE 389. Ants, 1928)
Regardless of the fact that
Ants had emphasised already before that the reason he joined
the party was fear because of his security, he tries to excuse
his membership even more and that is why he points out his punishment
"for deceipt of the party". Because of his fear all
his life in the Soviet years was "continuous stress"
for him and it resulted in prostate cancer. Such suffering should
probably be adequate proof of his pro-Estonian and anti-Soviet
The period of 'thaw' after
the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956 freed people from a lot
of fears. (3) Now they started to look for possibilities
how to make life under the Soviet power more decent. At that
time people had great hopes for internal reform of the Communist
Party: they thought that if the percentage of Estonians in the
party increased drastically, the right of decision in ESSR would
gradually go over to Estonians (Rikmann 1997). Valda (EE 804.
1926) was one of those who joined the party after the 20th Congress
of the CPSU, because she believed that as a member, she would
be able to do something for her nation and homeland:
After the 20th Congress
of the CPSU I joined the party. It was unbelievable that a nonpartisan
would teach history, moreover, history of the Communist Party
[in a higher educational institution]. Besides, at that time
I believed that the road is open to reasonable changes. The party
was a strong well-functioning organisation. It had real potential
to do something. (EE
804. Valda, 1926)
Virve (EE 602. 1924) joined
the party as a supporter of its ideology:
Working in N. machinery
and tractor station I became a candidate member of CPSU in 1955
and a year later, a member. And in autumn 1957 I was transferred
to the position of instructor of the department of agriculture
in the N. district committee of Estonian CP. (EE 602. Virve, 1924)
Already as a schoolgirl, the
statutes of komsomol had appealed to her and she had been
invited to join komsomol, but that time she had not joined
the organisation. Now, ten years later, she finds her mission
here in joining the party: soon she becomes the ideologist of
the kolkhoz and gets a gratifying job for decades.
In their biographies older
Estonians rarely describe their life in Soviet Estonia after
the second half of the 1950s through the social prism. This period
is rather described through the personal life story, which is
at times intertwined with the social story. One reason might
be the characteristic structure of narrative: depiction of changes
in the situation and comparison of the new situation to the earlier
one is more important a subject from the aspect of self-examination
and more familiar than picturing daily routine as far as narrating
methods are concerned. But probably the general separation of
the state and the nation should be added here as a significant
reason - the state and the nation developed separately from one
another and there were but few common grounds (cf. Aarelaid 2000).
Among the most vivid examples of such parallel life were the
Many may not know what happened
at that Song Festival ,
but the participants will remember it for all their lives. When
all the songs in the programme and the compulsory encores like
"Suur ja lai
etc. had been sung, the choirs did not come off the stage. They
did not want to leave yet. Suddenly the tenors started to sing
"Mu isamaa on minu arm". (5)
Others joined in immediately and the song rolled over the festival
ground. Ernesaks wanted to come up to conduct but came back from
the stairs. High party executives forbade him to go up. But we,
and not only us, all the people in the square stood up and sang
along. Seeing that they could do nothing against the people,
Ernesaks was eventually permitted to go and conduct. This was
the rebirth of this song, in dark Brezhnev years - this sentence
is confusing [---]. It was a kind of victory, even though
a small one, but yet a victory. (EE 267. Kalvi, 1925)
Mu isamaa on minu arm became a hymn, the singing of which
symbolised the singing of all these songs that were forbidden
in the Soviet period. (Kodanikualgatus... 1996: 47) With
this song people started 'their own and national' singing party
at the end of nearly each Song Festival and every time the authorities
attempted to stop the singers. Year by year people became more
courageous and at the end of the 1980s the Song Festivals became
an efficient measure in the fight for independence (cf. Kuutma
At the social level, the Soviet
period was a complicated and difficult era for Estonians. The
biographies of the Estonians born in the 1920s give evidence
that to survive as individuals and as a nation, they as people
who had been raised in the conditions of an independent state
and educated in national spirit needed certain survival strategies:
'forgetting' the independent Republic of Estonia, acceptance
of the Soviet ideology 'to a certain degree' (in the interests
of oneself and one's family people often reluctantly joined the
Soviet political-ideological mass organisations) and the understanding
that "speech is silver - silence is golden". Such keeping
oneself back and a feeling of inability gave birth to bitterness
against the ruling order and against people who carried its ideology,
an escape of this was found in creating a parallel world for
oneself - most often in escaping into amateur activities.
Yet despite everything unpleasant
that the Soviet rule brought along, the Estonians who lived through
this period emphasise that the life they lived was worth living
even in these conditions and they would not and cannot change
it backwards, because "nobody is given the chance to live
two lives, to start all over again" (EE 137. Lehte, 1929).
Translated by Ann Kuslap
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References from text:
question: "Who is red on the outside and white inside?"
(answer: a communist) was a widespread joke in the Soviet time:
using the common colour symbolics: red - communists, white -
opposition; people expressed their attitude to communists and
the hypocritical Soviet politics. The question could also be
asked: "Who is the truest communist?" (answer: a radish,
because the radish is red on the outside and white inside). Back
Kaitseliit - 'the Defence Guard', a voluntary state defence
organisation in Estonia. Founded 11 Nov. 1918. The main activities
of the Defence Guard were 1) organisation of military training;
2) defence of order; 3) developing and practising physical education
among its members and all the nation; 4) promoting the need for
state defence among the population and developing people's understanding
of the need for state defence (Eesti Entsüklopeedia
1934. Vol. IV, pp. 296-298). Noored Kotkad - or Noorkotkad
('Young Eagles'), the youth organisation of Kaitseliit,
founded 27 May 1930, based on the principles of the Boy Scouts
organisation. The aim is to educate young men into good patriotic
citizens under the slogan "Always Ready!" (Eesti
Entsüklopeedia 1935. Vol. VI, p. 247).
Kodutütred - a girls' organisation under Kaitseliit,
founded in 1932 with the aim to educate girls into useful citizens
of Estonia (Eesti Entsüklopeedia 1934. Vol. IV, p.
"In the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956 N. Khrushchev
explicitly condemned the crimes of Stalin and demanded the results
of the personality cult to be eliminated. The focus was on the
liberalisation of the society and modernisation of economy. The
latter was supported by restoration of contacts with other countries
[---]. In the more open society the economic system based on
prison camps became impossible and it had to be liquidated"
(Laar & Vahtre & Valk 1989: 78, chapter "Adaptation
to the system"). Although the open and democratic society
was not achieved, the earlier fears of people disappeared, what
is more, both prisoners and deportees started to return from
Suur ja lai on maa, mis on mu kodu ('Great and wide is
the country that is my home') - a song by Issaak Dunayevski (1900-1955),
Russian (Soviet) composer. Back
Mu isamaa on minu arm ('My fatherland is my love') - a
song by composer Gustav Ernesaks (1908-1993), written on the
lyrics of Lydia Koidula (1843-1886), the first Estonian female
poetess. The song became the hymn of the Estonian nation in the
Soviet years. Back