Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty was a workplace like no other during the Cold War years. Some jobs give you the opportunity to encounter interesting people, and this was unquestionably one of them. Names come immediately to mind, such as that of Pytor Grigorenko – a famous Soviet general of Ukrainian descent turned human rights activist, but also the Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi and the composer Arvo Pärt, among many others. There’s no way you can forget the experience of having been up close to Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin at pivotal moments in history as a journalist. RFE-RL itself as I remember it was an extremely multicultural “Noah’s Ark” that employed lots of smart and downright charismatic people.
Paris wasn’t situated all that far from Munich. Looking back, I wish I’d taken the night train to Paris more often than I actually did. During one of those occasions in the early eighties I met with the cinematographer, radio personality (and my colleague) Vladimir-Georg Karassev-Orgusaar.
Although Vladimir was born in independent Estonia before WW II, his Russian mother had taken him to the USSR at some point after the death of his father.
Karassev-Orgusaar was and is well known in Estonia as a Soviet-era filmmaker given to spells of chomping at the bit. Chances are he’d have gone far, had he not been of the stubborn and fiercely independent personality type one encounters now and then among the Finns and the Estonians. He’d have gone far, had the leadership of the USSR not been so obsessively ideological and preoccupied with micromanagement and yanking people’s chains. Vladimir had a habit of making films that won him few friends among the Soviet bosses.
Born on December 14, 1931 in Tallinn, Karassev-Orgusaar studied history and literature at Tomsk University, and filmmaking at the famed Moscow All-Union State Institute of Cinematography, under the tutelage of Sergei Gerasimov.
Having returned to Estonia by the mid-60s, he embarked on his filmmaking career, also working as a film critic on the side. Considering the education the USSR had given him, the expectation was that he’d apply himself as a cinematic spin doctor of sorts to sing the praises of Soviet-style socialism.
Karassev-Orgusaar did indeed made a number of documentary films about Estonian revolutionaries and the Soviet-engineered and implemented coup d’état of 1940 that ended his country’s existence as an independent nation. The trouble was that his scripts left possibilities for unwanted interpretations!
In the 1968 documentary “Solstice” (“Pööripäev”), he somehow neglected to omit scenes of Soviet tanks clattering on cobblestoned Estonian streets during the Kremlin-imposed and Kremlin-staged regime change of 1940. Pressing his luck in the editing studio, he zoomed in on scenes of numerous armed Soviet soldiers standing sentinel among the Estonians on the street, suggesting that what was being carried out wasn’t a voluntary referendum on joining the USSR, but something rather altogether different. No wonder his Soviet film career didn’t take off. Karassev-Orgusaar experimented with various cinematic techniques, and also declined to portray communist leaders in a fully heroic fashion. The things he was accused of in Soviet ideological jargon were “naturalism”, “formalism” and “pessimism”.
All of this came to a head when closed preview sessions of his feature film “The Outlaws” (“Lindpriid”) rankled Communist Party watchdogs, who ordered both the work and its negatives to be destroyed. In reality, copies of the film survived and have been shown in France and Estonia in recent years, but much too late in time, and very much out of context by now. An Estonian-language DVD of “The Outlaws” is now in circulation, but more than a day late and a dollar short. Regardless of its maker’s efforts to drop hints to discerning viewers, it also remains a film framed and hamstrung by Soviet restraints.
While at the Cannes Film Festival in 1976, Karassev-Orgusaar requested political asylum. Instead of being able to buckle down to work, the next five years were consumed on both sides of the Iron Curtain by the effort to obtain exit visas for his wife and son, who were finally able to join him in France and continue to live there now.
Karassev-Orgusaar worked as a stringer for both the Russian and Estonian services of RFE-RL for many years, coming by the studios of the Paris office to make recordings. Since the man was a dramaturgist with a good voice and a God-given gift for diction, intonation and the making of pauses in the right places – someone who didn’t rush unnecessarily – Vladimir was a natural. Although Karassev-Orgusaar never gained admittance to the film world in the league that Sergei Eisenstein and Federico Fellini played in, it never hurts in radio work to have a guy around with a strong education and experience in cinematography and dramaturgy. Skilled in making moving pictures but denied the opportunity, Karassev-Orgusaar channeled his energy into enabling people to “see things with their ears”. Radio studios are places where empathy and the ability to be evocative pay off very nicely.
It was Karassev-Orgusaar who wrote and voiced an obituary for the Estonian political prisoner Jüri Kukk. Professor Kukk – a scientist – had worked in France as a visitor before Karassev-Orgusaar’s arrival there, and many Frenchmen were shocked to hear of his fate.
On March 30, 1981, I picked up the previous night’s reel-to-reel tapes with recordings from various Radio Free Europe – Radio Liberty studios and correspondents around the world. We knew Jüri Kukk had been on a hunger strike in one of the prison camps in the Gulag, but weren’t aware yet he’d died three days earlier.
I put headphones on, and the first thing was Karassev-Orgusaar exclaiming in his slightly metallic staccato voice: “Arrival of news concerning the death of Jüri Kukk struck us like the blow of an axe!” Having broken the story, he then provided the listeners with a properly written account of the life and the trials (literally) of Mr. Kukk.
I can still hear echoes of Vladimir’s voice in my thoughts more than 30 years later – evidence that people do live on in the consciousness of others, because on January 27 of this year, it was Vladimir’s turn to die in a Paris hospital. Pneumonia is listed as the cause of death.
We sat in Karassev-Orgusaar’s apartment in France once upon a time and talked the night away, completely surrounded by his many vertical stacks of books on the floor. Like the Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus, who said “When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes,” Vladimir in his Parisian exile didn’t see the utility in buying bookshelves when more books could be purchased instead.
He regaled me with filmmaker’s stories, such as the one about the time he and his crew had been in a longboat on a river that had burst its banks somewhere in Russia. Pirates pushed off from a nearby dock, bent on robbing the filmmakers, but Vladimir aimed his camera at them as though he were brandishing a weapon. The bad guys considered it wiser to abandon the attempt.
The slogan of the United Negro College Fund in America is “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.”. How much talent went to waste in the USSR simply because the tyrants in the Kremlin were pigheaded? One wonders with a sigh what might have become not only of Vladimir-Georg Karassev-Orgusaar, but also of many others, had their abilities been given free rein in their home countries.
In 1990, Karassev-Orgusaar was elected to the Congress of Estonia from abroad. Having been rendered a non-person in the USSR, he played an active part in the West to help restore Estonian independence. He was the founder of the Association “France–Estonie—Pont de la Démocratie” and its co-President. Although not denied any longer, for he was presented with the Order of the White Star, 4th Class on behalf of the Republic of Estonia at the Embassy in Paris in 2011 in recognition of his contributions, Karassev-Orgusaar – a man who endured life for many years as an untouchable – still hasn’t fully gained the attention or gotten the credit he may otherwise well have earned.
It wouldn’t be right to conclude on a note suggesting Vladimir was forced into a position as a backbencher or a “backup singer” of sorts compared to what might have been. Each of us is given one life and we all try to live that particular life as best we know how, regardless of how it’s configured. Not all lives are nice and easy. Karassev-Orgusaar’s purpose was – in a series of four books printed by Estonians in Sweden in a pocket format designed to be conveniently hidden while crossing the restrictive border of the Soviet Union – to tell “the rest of the story” about the forcible incorporation of Estonia into the USSR in a way that once again made the Soviet authorities livid!
So stop for a moment to remember a man who never ceased persisting and applying his considerable cinematographic talents to the perpetual tug of war between justice and injustice. This then more through the airwaves than at the movies, thanks to an opportunity rightly afforded him by what I continue to think of as the Free World.
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Photo credit: http://eestimeel.blogspot.com/2011/08/kord-koduni.html