The other day, an acquaintance dropped off a batch of newspapers and magazines, including a treasure trove of old copies of the Estonian woman’s magazine Nõukogude Naine [Soviet Woman].
Several years ago I stood in the office of Eesti Naine in downtown Tallinn and asked the editor if she was the first editor of the publication, which I assumed was only a decade old, like the magazines Anne or Stiil.
“Oh, no,” she replied. “I might be editor number 13 or 14.” The publication Eesti Naine was actually launched in 1924. After the Soviets took over, it became Nõukogude Naine, a publication of the Estonian Communist Party.
Nõukogude Naine may have published some copies in 1940 and ’41, but, according to the party, it was launched in 1945. It reverted to being Eesti Naine in 1989. The first issue of that year says that it is a party publication, the fourth issue makes no mention of it, and later issues no longer use 1945 as the start date of the publication, but 1924.
I have read somewhere before a mention of the “Brezhnev stagnation.” This was a period, from approximately the late 1960s to the mid 1980s when the Soviet Union forever lost its ability to keep up with the West. From the vantage point of 2008, it is hard to gauge what this really means. Some Estonian homes look like they haven’t changed much since the 1930s, aside from a laptop here and a television set there.
Looking at copies of Nõukogude Naine, though, you can witness stagnation in the form of clothing and hair styles. If you picked up an American magazine from 1966, you might be greeted by a beehive hairdo, while a 1976 issue might have a woman with a shag, and the 1986 issue might be framed by shoulder pads and exorbitant amounts of cosmetics. In Nõukogude Naine, though, the women mostly look the same, year in, year out. They care not so much for looks, but for hard work in service to the state.
One evening last week, I met with our friend’s mother, a grandmother who was in town to spend time with her grandchildren — friends of our daughters’. Vanaema complimented me on my Estonian language skills, and informed me that her first foreign language was Russian. She had learned it in Siberia.
I was surprised, because most of the deportees I have met are in their seventies or eighties. But this Vanaema was only 5 years old when they deported her family in 1949. I asked her how it happened, and she then launched into a long tale of how the secret police had first picked up her brother and then went to get her mother, with the kid sitting in the car to drive the hopelessness of the situation home.
They were marked for deportation because her father was a member of Omakaitse — the equivalent of the Estonian national guard. Many Estonian men, young and old, were in this organization. My wife’s great-grandfather, then aged 50, and his immediate family were also deported because of his membership in this organization. According to Vanaema, her mother was forced to sign a paper by the police saying that she willingly went to Siberia.
They were deported at night. She said they traveled by armed convoy to the train station — apparently, the Soviet troops were getting picked off left and right by bandiitid — forest brothers. The family was put into a cattle car and shipped east for two weeks until they reached their destination. They didn’t return until the late 1950s. There would be no Happy Days for their family. The father, who had been sent to a separate camp, also made it back, but in bad shape. He didn’t live long after his return. At this point Vanaema — and Estonian grandmas are pretty stoic — started to cry.
“You don’t have to keep going if you don’t want to,” I said. “No, I have to tell the story so that people know what happened to us.” She said that when she has told some foreigners about it they ask, “Well, why didn’t you call the police? But it was the police that were doing it!” At that point, her two tiny grandchildren, who seem so far removed from this sordid tale to almost render it surreal, ran up, and the ghosts of the past faded into the shadows. The conversation switched to lighter fare.
In the May 1976 and May 1985 editions of Nõukogude Naine, there is the same photo — of the Soviet soldier hoisting his banner aloft from the burning rooftop of the Reichstag. This is a “victory photo” — meant to reinforce faith in the state leadership. Almost every state has such symbols. But how real could they have been to women like this Vanaema? Nõukogude Naine may have “officially” launched in 1945, but many of its readers into the 1970s and 80s must have started reading it back when it was Eesti Naine.
It was a social reality built on an illusion — that history started only 30 or 40 years previously. Before that, it was some messy mix of workers’ uprisings and secret meetings where Estonian communist martyrs like Viktor Kingisepp were in attendance. I wondered what it would be like if one Estonian political party took over the state today. It would be like the free party papers we get in the newspaper, Eesti Eest — the Isamaa-Res Publica Liit publication, or maybe Kesknädal — the Center Party weekly, except all magazines and television programs would be like that. Marko Mihkelson’s gardening tips. Ain Seppik’s baking secrets revealed. The thought is almost too much to bear.
I first heard about the deportations from a deportee. It was my wife’s Aunt Salme. I had opened some of her photo albums, and seen photos of earthen shacks in what appeared to be the tundra. It was from her stint in Siberia, she had explained.
Salme had been deported in 1949 for being the daughter of a prosperous farmer, Estonian War of Independence veteran, and national guard member. These connections made her a prime candidate for servitude in the eastern wilds of the Union. Earlier this decade, she received a medal from President Arnold Rüütel for surviving the ordeal.
Salme took an interest in her family, and usually had some questions for us written out on a sheet of paper before we would visit. She wanted to know about my job and to see our children. She had a reputation for being an organizer within the family.
We last saw her in early summer — we took our youngest daughter to her Tallinn apartment. Salme said she wanted to see the girl who has the same name as her mother before she runs out of time. Our daughter, though, slept most of the hour or so that she was there. But at least she got to see her, because Salme passed away last week.
When I think of Salme’s story, the story of Vanaema, and the story of many of those Eesti Naine, then Nõukogude Naine, then Eesti Naine readers of years past, I can’t help but feel a bit befuddled. These women are no different than the young women of today, except life dealt them unfortunate circumstances that they ultimately had to digest and live with.
Why did they get the booty end of the stick? Why did they, of all people, have to travel to Siberia via cattle car, their families broken, their property confiscated, their health imperiled, only to come home to a fresh issue of Nõukogude Naine that made no mention of their very immediate history?
When Nõukogude Naine reverted to Eesti Naine, suddenly the Soviet crypts were opened. In the pages of the 1989, 1990, and 1991 issues there are photos of cultural societies from the 1920s and 30s. There are stories of the anguish of the 1940s, spilled across the pages. In recent years, the personal memoir has become one of the most appreciated literary vehicles in Estonia. One can read Imbi Paju’s Memories Denied or Leelo Tungal’s Comrade Child to start. For some reason, most of the authors happen to be women.