This collection of articles aims to introduce the studies of the researchers of traditional culture from the countries of the Baltic Sea and northwestern Russia, focusing on the oral and popular history and life stories from the 1990s.

Narrating the past makes it possible to shape one's identity and interpretation of history. For the people living around the Baltic Sea, the 20th century brought along two great wars, disintegration and formation of states, migration of people, formation and assimilation of ethnic minorities, drastic changes in education and the supremacy of urbanisation and technical world over nature. In the revolutionary changes of the society and conditions it was necessary to adapt to and evaluate the changes. It was done in different areas and forms of culture: in everyday conversation and literature (fiction), in politics and on the stage, in the circles of home studies and in scientific research… Although the researchers of oral tradition, biographies and family history had made contacts with the researchers of the same field in other countries, they lacked an overview of what was done in the neighbourhood. In order to fill in this gap, the seminar Oral History as the Reflector of Societal Change and Emerging Cultural Differences and Values (1) was organised in May 2000 at the Chair of Estonian and Comparative Folklore of the University of Tartu, supported by Open Estonia Foundation and the Cultural Endowment of Tartu. The aims of the seminar can be summarised in four points:

  1. To achieve a dialogue with researchers of popular treatment of history, especially family tradition and biographies from the neighbouring countries;
  2. To collect independent studies from the same research area;
  3. To specify the current situation in this field of research (terminology, methods, etc.);
  4. To learn about the past experiences and self-determination of the social and ethnic minorities of the second half of the 20th century.

The seminar reports and articles in the collection that followed (Pärimuslik ajalugu, Tartu 2001, in Estonian) revealed how different the traditions of studying close areas of culture in neighbouring countries are (not to mention that the study of each researcher represents a treatment that to a certain degree is unparalleled).

The collections of Estonian and Finnish folklore and biographies have shaped not only in the course of interviews and scientific fieldwork, but also on account of written narratives contributed to collection competitions. So the collection of written biographies Eesti elulood (Estonian Life Stories) (2) and the collection of thematic facts and narratives Kirjasaatjate vastused (Materials Sent by Correspondents) (3) came into being in Tartu, as well as the collection of family narratives Suvun suuri kertomus (The Great Narrative of the Family) in Helsinki. (4)

Collecting folklore by means of appeals has been one of the most serious methods of collecting in Estonia since 1888, when Jakob Hurt published an appeal in a newspaper Paar palvid eesti ärksamatele poegadele ja tütardele (Requests to the Smartest Estonian Sons and Daughters) meant for all poets and narrators (who were able to hold the pen in hand), not only for educated people, schoolteachers or pastors as earlier. Hurt's folklore collection grew unexpectedly large in volume and became the foundation of the Estonian Folklore Archives, (5) in which the manuscripts from Hurt's earlier and later collections were stored. But in this case another aspect is of interest: replying to appeals has become a natural part of culture. Contributions written by the narrators and poets themselves have added a new problem to the theoretical discussion - that of the relationships between oral and written narratives and their characteristic features.

These articles were written by Finnish, Russian and Estonian folklorists and ethnologists. Liina Rootalu is a sociologist, the Latvian researchers are sociologists and philosophers, Alar Schönberg and Katalin Henriksson are philologists and Merle Karusoo is a director. Although the same area of culture is under observation, similar questions are raised and at times even the same sources are used, the viewpoints and methods of treatment used by the representatives of different fields of science, as well as their terminology and scientific phraseology are different. The treatments of Estonian ethnologists and folklorists expose a trend to study the interrelationship between the narrative and its underlying factual truth. Particular importance is attached to the question of experience that connects actual life to narrating. The articles of Finnish researchers are more centred on the individual: what different roles the researcher has; who the imagined reader of the written narrative is; how and what the narrator reveals about him/herself through the characters of his/her story. Latvian researchers focus on the social context of historical experience and the philosophical, at times even mythical level that becomes evident in the narratives.(6) In the studies of Russian family tradition (7) the structural analysis of the narrative can be found.

Despite the methodological differences, the articles form interesting thematic pairs: how the local minorities, who have lost their land and their language, speak of the past, (Livonians in Latvia and Estonian Swedes in Estonia); how the ethnic groups who emigrated at the beginning of the century identify themselves (Finns in Canada and Estonians in Russia) and how it is done by ethnic groups who moved to another country in the second half of the century (Hungarians in Sweden, different peoples of the former Soviet Union in Estonia); how people in different cultures speak about negative issues (examples from Finland and northwestern Russia). Several articles deal with the topic how one's own space is created in social or physical sense: whether and to what extent the traditions of one's own culture are followed or to what extent they are abandoned; why communication with one's ancestors is required for the creation of one's own world; to what extent the society and one's preferences are described through biographical narratives.

Should the above diversity be regarded as an advantage or disadvantage? In this case it has been intentional - by outlining various accents and viewpoints it is also possible to emphasise the independence of fields of science and the observed cultures. Variation in detail eventually allows a more general comprehension of what is universal.


References from text:

(1) The thesis of the presentations of the seminar in Estonian and English: Back

(2) Estonian Cultural Historical Archives in the Estonian Literary Museum: Back

(3) Estonian National Museum: Back

(4) Folklore Archives of the Finnish Literature Society: Back

(5) Estonian Folklore Archives: Back

(6) See also Lifestory: Back

(7) See also Folklor i postfolklor: struktura, tipologia, semiotika: Back