The Story You Need to Survive
Sigrid Rausing’s first book on her time spent in the once-Swedish peninsula Noarootsi in coastal Estonia was The End of a Collective Farm: History, Memory and Identity in Post-Soviet Estonia (Oxford 2004). Based on her dissertation in the field of anthropology, it is a fine academic work on the early transition from Soviet collectivism to nascent capitalism in this rural outpost: once the heavily guarded Western border of what Ronald Reagan liked to call the “Evil Empire.”
Most notable from that book was the idea that Estonian nationalism – with its belief that Estonians are an ancient pure race populating this little swampy territory at the edge of the Baltic Sea – was a notion heavily promoted by the Soviet Union. All its member nations were encouraged to keep up their ancient folk customs while in practice they were part of a soulless proletariat who had to give up their homesteads and land to live in ugly collective farm apartments, scattered throughout the rural nowhere, right across this vast oppressive nation.
Estonia, Rausing reminded us in her first book, was once a small but ethnically diverse country, with Russians, Estonians, Germans and Swedes living in something like harmony for hundreds of years, whose culture is in fact a special blend of all these influences, guided by the accidents of history.
It was a provocative thesis, and one I often mention to Estonians, who tend to find it unfamiliar. “What?” they say. “We are an ancient nation of pagans, the Native Americans of Europe. We have been knitted to this nature and this land for centuries, even as all these foreign powers have tried to swallow us up. We will prevail.” Fascinating to think that the Soviet Union encouraged such beliefs, and never saw them as a threat.
Today Estonia is very much a modern, capitalist nation, that likes to think of itself as a Nordic country, allying its fortunes with Finland and Sweden more than any dark Soviet or German past. I’ve met young people in rural areas who have no idea who Stalin was, and don’t know what it was like to be a Young Pioneer. People tend to want to forget the worst parts of the past, and this might be the same all over the world.
Rausing’s new book is far more personal, a beautifully written memoir of what it was like to spend a year in Estonia in the early nineties, the first decade of its re-emergence as an independent nation. As the publisher and now editor of Granta, she knows well the qualities of good narrative nonfiction, and her work could easily fit in the pages of her magazine. Anthropologists are always told to keep themselves out of their fieldwork, and of course this advice is misguided, because the best part of ethnographies is often the moment when the researcher’s preconceptions are tested by the stark realities of the place they find themselves in.
When such researchers decide it’s important enough to write more personal books on their experiences, the truth of their journey shines through. We are lucky that Rausing realized that revisiting that year, witnessing the crumbling of one system and the bare beginnings of another, was worth her time, for the new book is a far more gripping read:
“The current of assimilation was tugging at me. At the same time, reading my diary now, I see a recurring note of a crisis of meaning underneath the mild struggle of everyday life. I heated water on the wobbly stove for washing. I shopped and cooked (a little). I cleaned, I taught…. There was an undercurrent, too, of something quite eerie about that spring—something about feeling exposed after the deep privacy of winter: hearing the children half sarcastically and half sweetly call out long, drawn out “haaallloooos” after me; being woken at three am by sudden and violent knocks on my door, followed by the sound of people running downstairs, laughing. They were teasing me. I think now that they also knew more about me than I thought—the anonymity I took for granted was, I think, gone within weeks of my being there, maybe even earlier.”
Rausing came to rural Estonia looking for an outpost of Swedishness that remained only in people’s distant memories and hopes: “There was silence about the Swedes in Estonia, too, after the war. People with relatives abroad…. were generally suspect in the Soviet Union. Most of the few remaining Swedes assimilated quietly…. History, in the sense of a shared national narrative, a dynamic and evolving conversation, was lost to ideology and political repression.”
And today this history is easily in danger of being lost to dreams of carefully managed prosperity in a place that has become just another corner of the spreading European Union. What will Estonia be like in a hundred years? Like a state in the U.S., just a place that used to be known for its music, its beauty, and its sadness? Years later Rausing returns to the scene of her investigations, and finds even more empty houses now that so many people have left the provinces for the cities, to Tallinn and onward into the world. “The empty houses, that distorted nostalgia I felt. What was I nostalgic for, I wonder now? Not my lost home, but my lost homeland. Did I do enough? Did I stay for long enough? I hope so. This, I know, is not the only story that could have been told of that time, about those people and that place.”
It is a good thing that Sigrid Rausing has dared to revisit her story and tell it in a way that more readers can grasp it. For the times of transition from darkness to light can be the toughest moments to remember, and a people must not forget what they have lived through, and what they want to become.
Everything is Wonderful by Sigrid Rausing is available from Grove Press, at £14.99.