For my readers: Notice About what’s Happening with this “Tragedy of the Estonian Mass Deportations” Series of Essays

“This is the captain speaking.” I undertook this series of essays with clear goals in mind, one of which was to devote a little bit of space to the June 14, 1941 deportations per se, and to some of the victims. I haven’t been able to get to that yet.

As can happen with the best-laid plans of mice and men, I missed my own deadline, wanting to have been done by the 14th.  As someone who writes out of his free time, I hadn’t adequately foreseen the labyrinth of issues that I felt was necessary to cover  in order to tell the story properly. To make it come together, there were certain topics that ate up more time than I had figured on, along with the tuning up of raw texts.

Yesterday, Estonians and Latvians and Lithuanians marked the seventieth anniversary of the first of the two great Soviet era deportations in the Baltic States (the first was in 1941, and the second one eight years later). Typically, many Estonians light candles and put them in the window. Flags flew at half-mast. It simply isn’t true that Estonians aren’t spiritual people. We just have our own ways of getting in touch with our inner selves, and in this case with the departed.


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The Tragedy of the Estonian Mass Deportations has been Compounded by a Massive Miscarriage of Justice – part V

While here to gather facts and impressions about the quality of life in Estonia before the Second World War, Marion Washburne made a trip to the Estonian-Russian border. The following description is from her book “A Search for a Happy Country”. “The border is defined by two strong fences made of stout posts confining between them barbed wire entanglements. One fence is on Russian soil, the other on Estonian. Gradually it came over me that these fences …marked more than a geographic boundary; (they) marked a distinction between two groups of people and their ways of thinking and doing. Here on the side nearest me was the neat little Estonian guardhouse, fresh painted in blue, black and white stripes, like the flag. It was set in a neat garden of blue larkspur. The gate, too, was gay with fresh paint in the same colors. The soldiers were trim in their blue uniforms. On the other side, was a weather-beaten guard-house, surrounded with untamed forest, with poorly-clad soldiers, walking along the railroad tracks, spanning which was a huge flamboyant wooden structure or no particular shape, the paint flecking off it.


Border of Republic of Estonia and the USSR in the 30s


It bore aloft a large red star, and below it in the words, in Russian: “Workers of the World, Unite!” Washburne noted that on the Western side of the dividing line “was a small, neat, well-managed, practical little country, with no slogan-bearing structure,” while on the other side there was a “huge sprawling country, concerned with ideals and careless of practical details, its ruling party enforcing its theories by force and terror.”

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The Tragedy of the Estonian Mass Deportations has been Compounded by a Massive Miscarriage of Justice – part IV

Before Darkness at Noon came Crashing in 

I hope the author of the following sentences – ones that I found in the Internet – doesn’t very much mind my borrowing them: “The Second World War, as we well know, was a disaster for Estonians. Invaded first by Russia, then Germany and then Russia again, our national life was irremediably disrupted.” In the late thirties, before the cataclysmic disruption, the people of Estonia were given the opportunity to bring in a few more harvests and to tend to their business for a few more summers.

The Calm Before the Storm

In Part Two of her book “A Search for a Happy Country”, which has the heading: “A Rift in the Clouds: Estonia”, Marion Foster Washburne finds herself in the seaside resort town of Parnu, in the lower left-hand corner of Estonia. Here a quote: “All day on that first Sunday, people were strolling through the hotel, …and listened to the orchestra… I wrote my letters in the glassed-in sun-parlor, glancing up now and then at the trees waving gently in the mild breeze from the summer sea. I could even have written out of doors, by the light of the sky, though it was nearly midnight.”

Live music provides the soundtrack.


The Estonian State Broadcasting Company Symphony Orchestra - 1939


“The orchestra was still playing beautifully – what I was listening to was no radio but the real first-hand heart-born music. Nearly as many people were strolling about as during the afternoon. The full moonshine was of a peculiar mild silver cast, because the air was almost the same color – made of sunlight and moonlight mingled. A child laughed. He was pulling a dog along, decorated with a silk ruff of silk fringe. A distant light-house flashed. I could still see the lacy outline of the tops of the trees along the opposite arm of Parnu Bay. I grew drowsy in spite of the lingering day. My brand-new built-in bed awaited me, spread with a thick nasturtium-colored blanket of virgin wool buttoned up in white linen. Although I went shamelessly to bed, everyone else seemed to stay up all night.”


The Parnu Seaside

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The Tragedy of the Estonian Mass Deportations has been Compounded by a Massive Miscarriage of Justice – part III

Sizing up pre-war European countries and Soviet Russia on the Happiness Index

Probably the best account that puts Estonian things of the interwar period into perspective, in comparison to the way things were working out in the very heart of Europe and in the Soviet Union, is Marion Foster Washburne’s “A Search for a Happy Country”, published in 1940 in the United States. Ms. Washburne didn’t want to settle for writing just another travelogue of her “Grand Tour” of Europe and the USSR. She had loftier goals in mind. Starting in 1936, Marion Foster Washburne was on a quest, on the basis of specific criteria that she’d worked out beforehand, to see if she could find a modern “Shangri La”, though she doesn’t use that phrase. To call Estonia of the thirties a Shangri La may be to push it, but prewar Estonia was undoubtedly a pastoral backwater and even an idyllic place. “A distant and secluded hideaway, usually of great beauty and peacefulness”, as the dictionary defines Shangri La.  It would be to lay it on thick to say that Washburne’s descriptions evoke the stylized landscapes of Gauguin’s Tahiti, particularly since Polynesia had actually been substantially Westernized by European colonists by the time that Gauguin got there, but a similar feeling is certainly there. It would be more accurate to call Estonia of the thirties a little country that was akin in many ways to the Appenzell canton of Switzerland, which Albert Schweitzer had once called “a land of unusual contentment”.

Picture books of Estonia as she was before the Second World War produce a takeaway feeling not so distant from to the ones we get from the prelapsarian landscape paintings of Brueghel and Turner. Visually speaking, Estonia of the thirties had something in common with the bucolic Great Britain that we know from the time shortly after the beginning of the industrial revolution, without the truly big cities of the UK.


The Kivisild (Stone Bridge) of Tartu - Blown up by Red Army in 1941


Because of the powerful legacy of the earlier manorial system of the German barons, we also get a whiff of something in the air similar to the American South as it was after the Civil War. Some of that atmosphere was captured recently in the film “The Poll Diaries”.

In order for readers to be able to visualize how very traumatically the mass deportations of 1941 and 1949 impacted on the unsuspecting citizens of Estonia, one needs to have a feeling for what existed during the previous decade – for the way things were in the time of peace, before the Soviet deportation trains came from the East, and before the Gestapo came from the Southwest. One also shouldn’t forget that Estonians were mindful of how independence had improved their lives – of how much better it was to own your own farm or business than to be indentured. Compared to their earlier servitude, the dream of freedom had truly materialized for many Estonians, who still had an acute awareness of the condition of serfdom that their great-grandparents had lived in.

In 1936, when she sets off from the US on her extended travels, Mrs. Washburne is not burdened with such awarenesses of the way things are in Estonia. She knows nothing of the place, and it’s because she’s such a clean slate that we can consider her observations to be reasonably undistorted.

At the beginning of “A Search for a Happy Country”, Marion Foster Washburne describes her criteria.

“ By a happy country, I mean a country where all of the people have all of these:

1. Plenty of food. 

2. Shelter, including homes and clothing. 

3. Occupation at high enough wages to be able to buy all necessary things. 

4. Education. 

5. Good health. 

6. Love and family. 

7. Freedom of expression.”

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The Tragedy of the Estonian Mass Deportations has been Compounded by a Massive Miscarriage of Justice – part II  

 Estonia Before the Storm of Soviet Annexation and German Occupation

Last year, I took a young foreign couple on a walking tour of Tallinn. Up came the topic of the “Golden Age” of prewar Estonia. One of my guests has one parent of Estonian extraction, but my storytelling abilities were put to the task in any event, as I sought visual cues of the past on the streets of the Estonian capital to illustrate my points.

As my late mother Heldia Estam and her friends – all children of the Republic – would often recount, Estonia blossomed after gaining her independence in 1920. Our War of Independence was preceded by what Estonians call the National Awakening, which began at about the same time as the US Civil War and the emancipation of America’s slaves. This awakening brought awareness of self and increased self-confidence to the Estonians, who had been in servitude for many generations, tilling the soil of the plantations owned and run by a landed class of Germans and Swedes under Danish, German, Swedish and Polish regimes, and finally the the Russian Tsarist Empire.

Since interwar Estonian history doesn’t ring a bell with many visitors, I may have to start arranging tours of unknown Estonia that focus on the prewar period! People could thereby get a conceptual grip on this vanished landscape – a sovereign and happy era between the two Great Wars.


The Republic of Estonia turns 20 - Tartu 1938


Among other things, prewar Estonia was prettier than the battered, chaotic and worn down landscape brought upon and thereafter bequeathed to us by the Soviet occupation – one that we are working on fixing up again. Not only was independent Estonia essentially unspoiled, both in the city and the country, and much less ramshackle and eclectic in appearance than now, but the gentle era itself was a more romantic one, certainly from the perspective of the people on the street and in the countryside.

Past is Prelude –  The Belle Époque of Estonian Independence

With national independence came liberty for all citizens, regardless of ethnic background or religious belief. Independence was also synonymous with nation-building.

While the twenties gave no hints of problems to come, with the ominous exception of a Soviet-sponsored coup attempt in 1924 that the Estonian police and the military managed to defuse and terminate, economic and political developments in much of the rest of Europe and in the Soviet Union took a serious turn for the worse in the thirties.

Estonia’s Political Deficiencies Before WW II

During the thirties, Estonia too encountered political problems, becoming several notches less democratic than before during what has been named “the Silent Era”. Still, many political analysts of the present day say that Estonia’s turn away from full-fledged pluralism was relatively mild compared to what was going on at the same time in Italy, Germany, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere. As the online Estonica Encyclopedia notes, the Estonian regime of the thirties “was one of the most moderate among the similar regimes in Europe.” Estonia may have had warts on her face under the leadership of Konstantin Pats, but she wasn’t terminally disfigured, nor had she gone collectively stark raving mad, as seemed to be the case in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR.

Comparing Estonia of the time to Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany shows that she was a substantially freer country in the thirties than they were. One likes to think that – given time – she would have made her way back to the fold of the freest nations in the world, had things been allowed to run their natural course. But then came the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 and the division of Eastern Europe by Berlin and Moscow. In coming years, these two would visit authoritarianism of the most absolutely virulent kind upon the Baltic States.

Instead of allowing things to run their course, letting the two dictators battle it out, and helping to clean up the mess afterwards, the Western countries then made the fateful and dark mistake of siding with Stalin against Hitler. Instead of remaining on a clean democratic tack, the Allies not only sullied themselves, but also did a major disservice to Russia as well as the Intermarum countries.

But let’s return to the way things were in Estonia during the second half of the thirties. The system of political pluralism had indeed been suspended by Pats, but at the same time, freedoms weren’t restricted in Estonia in a heavy-handedly draconian way either. Until the period when Soviet troops were allowed into the country in late 1939, residents could always leave the country and return to it. Conditions were not the dreadful ones of North Korea nor of Argentina under the junta. It was possible for the common man and woman to live and even prosper in pre-war Estonia. Most people were happy or reasonably happy, and – without trying to make things appear politically better than they were – the democratic reforms that were needed would hopefully have come.

At the time, Estonia was predominantly a farming society with a strong cooperative tradition, similar to that of the Scandinavians and some of the present-day dairy farmers of Vermont. At the same time that the number of businesses and enterprises was on the increase, Estonia of the late thirties remained largely a well-functioning rural subsistence society, even if Estonian soils as a rule are not of the “black earth” kind that some countries enjoy. Estonians were industrious, and while their quality of life was comparatively modest, it was being improved upon, step by step. Estonia didn’t lag far behind Finland next door, which had gotten a head start in the previous century, and which had never known the bondage of serfdom.

To be continued

Source of photo above:

The Tragedy of the Estonian Mass Deportations has been Compounded by a Massive Miscarriage of Justice  

When I was a refugee child living amidst the ruins of Germany after World War II, I had my mother all to myself for a few years before my sisters were born.

Mostly I was raised on a diet of children’s stories and motherly love, but some of the other tales she’d relate were disquieting and nearly beyond my ability to comprehend. Turning serious, she’d recount how she’d lost the country of her childhood to foreign soldiers who brought a violent and murderous regime that was wrenchingly different from the earlier tranquil years of her childhood.

Small Country – Massive Crime Against Humanity

In 1941, at the age of 17, my mother came upon a scene in the small city of Jogeva in the center of Estonia, in which numerous local residents had been herded into cattle cars by Red Army and NKGB troops of the Soviet Union – the country that had invaded us and annexed Estonia along with the two other Baltic States the previous year. Numerous rail wagons crowded full of unfortunates stood in the marshaling yards of the Jogeva train station in the hot sun on the 14th of June. Some of the thirsty abductees –  their arms extended – called from the barred windows of the cattle cars, but the foreign soldiers blocked all bystanders who tried to approach. Soon these wagons would be coupled to others that were waiting in other train yards in other settlements of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and disappear with their sad cargoes into the depths of neighboring Russia to the East.

10,000 Estonian citizens of all possible ages had been rounded up the previous night, and many thousands more from other parts of the Baltic region.  When describing this mass kidnapping of Estonians, my mother would always emphasize two things. One was that the fathers were separated from their families before being forced onto the trains, and the other was that for the people of small Estonia, 10,000 people constituted one per cent of the population. If a foreign power were to abduct one per cent of the population of the United States, that would mean the deportation of all of the residents of Chicago on one night, or of everyone in Strasbourg in France. Later, additional large extralegal mass kidnappings of local citizens would be carried out by the occupying power, as well as numerous unconstitutional individual arrests. Proportionally speaking, very few countries in Europe lost as many people during and after World War II as the Baltic States did, not only because of ethnic cleansing, but also due to war and people “voting with their feet”, escaping to the West.

None of the persons who were dragged out of their homes without warning, given an hour to pack and carted away on June 14, 1941 had committed a crime. To the contrary: it was the Soviet soldiers, the NKGB shock troops, and the collaborators among the local Estonian officials who were breaking the law by detaining persons who hadn’t been charged with crimes. These aren’t actions permitted under international law or the Law of Land Warfare. Numerous locals were dragooned into participating in the operations as unwilling or reluctant assistants. Read More…

Nuclear Rehepaplus – the Rehepapp and Bardak Chronicles – Part 2

Oblivious to Nuclear Calamity in Bardakistan, or of Rehepaplus as Obsolete Scam Artistry

So who is this Rehepapp guy?

In the previous post, we visited the rehepapp concept. In the beginning, rehepapp was a real-life figure who existed in the manorial system of old in German-ruled Estonia. He subsequently became a fictional character in Estonian folklore, and later in Estonian literature.

Rehepapp to me is a previous bit player who was elevated to cult status in Estonia by a writer, a decade after the country became independent again. Rehepapp and rehepaplus were not household words earlier.

Historically speaking, a rehepapp was a lesser sort of overseer on the latifundia of Estonia, after the country had been conquered by German military orders as part of the Northern Crusades, and German nobility had set itself up in swank style in the Estonian countryside. The Lords of the Manors were the victors, and Estonian peasants were chattel. They were the human part of the spoils who came with the territory, as indivisible part and parcel of the conquered lands.

It was the job of the rehepapp, who was essentially a watchman, to ensure that the essentially enslaved workers didn’t make off with the valuable grain stored in the threshing barns of the barons. A rehepapp was positioned higher up on the pecking order than a field hand. Rank hath its privileges, whether you work in a Gulag dispensary, in an Army supply room, in a prison kitchen, or as a rehepapp. Read More…

Posted by: Juri Estam | April 9, 2011

“Please Don’t Hit me No More, Boss!”

Rehepapp Ways – are They Here to Stay, or can they be Shaken?

This commentary is about Estonian choices. It is about the way we choose to continue. The man at the center of this “morality play” is the Estonian athtlete Andrus Veerpalu, who finds himself in a bad reputational bind as this reflection is being written in April 2011.

Two Competing Narratives about the Estonian National Character

I grew up as an Estonian refugee kid in the West, having lived in Germany, the US, Canada and Sweden. The older generation – the folks who raised me – constituted a good strong community. They were people who had been born during the Golden Era of Estonian independence. The Los Angeles Estonian House and the Estonian Society there were a closely knit and well-organized bunch that I owe a lot to. The narrative that I was brought up on rested on the bedrock of a largely agricultural Estonia during the twenties and the thirties that was undergoing rapid modernization and becoming more urban, but embraced a lot of the values of the Grange. Estonian farmsteads were tidy and well run, and neighbors pitched in together like the Amish and other people from the cooperative tradition. When a barn or a sauna needed to be raised, or the roof fixed, or children had to be educated, the community would join hands and forces.

Estonians in exile in Los Angeles, Stockholm, Toronto and New York continued on this track, with a twist. Refugee children were very much encouraged to attend university, and the mentality was that of a group of self-made men and women. The takeaway message at scout camps and our Estonian-language supplementary schools on weekends was: we are industrious and honest. One gets ahead in life by the sweat of one’s brow, but also by working smarter. We labored hard, but we also sat down to many banquets together. This is a rendering of the prewar and exile Estonian experience in Western freedom that some would say is oversimplified and glossy, but in essence it is right. Read More…

Posted by: Juri Estam | December 22, 2010

Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar going the way of Kim Philby?

Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar going the way of Kim Philby?

Updated at 8:47 pm Estonian time on December 22.

This opinion piece was written in reaction to an Economist blog posting by Edward Lucas regarding a breaking story in Estonia – one that promises to stay hot for a number of months, and the resolution of which may substantially influence the future of politics in Estonia and the direction that she takes.

Estonia’s Dirty Xmas: Kremlin Gold

Lucas posted at the Economist’s “Eastern Approaches” blogsite on December 21 concerning the new scandal surrounding Moscow’s alleged attempts to make campaign contributions to Estonia’s Centre Party, as general elections approach for Estonia in March. The Centre Party is the one party in Estonia that is seen as being closely aligned with Russian interests, capital and foreign policy objectives.

Lucas notes: “… the security police, KAPO, has now publicly announced that the leader of the Centre Party, Edgar Savisaar, is compromised by his connection with Russian funding sources (which he denies).” Mr. Lucas rues the fact that the Estonian Secret Service is involved in electoral politics – an attitude that would probably be fully justified in a stable Western society, or in an ideal world. Estonia lives in the real world and has had to stand bare fisted in an ongoing fight for existence since she was born as a state in 1918.

At about the same time that Edward Lucas made his blog posting, the KAPO Security Police released more details about sub rosa meetings in Estonia and Russia between Savisaar and the Head of Russian Railways Vladimir Yakunin, who is a member of Putin’s inner circle and who, it has been suggested by some, may well have been an officer of the First Chief Directorate (responsible for foreign intelligence operations) of the KGB in the past. The meetings also involved a host of other Russian figures and several Savisaar aides. In addition to being the Center Party boss, Edgar Savisaar is also the mayor of Tallinn, the capital city. Among other things, substantial transfers in cash were discussed, according to the KAPO report. The media has on several occasions indicated that the sum in question is 1.5 million euros. Read More…

Not – or no longer – Post-Soviet. “Reindependent” is Much More Accurate

This is an essay that was written for Estonian Public Broadcasting  – Estonia’s national (taxpayer funded) TV and radio organization. After it was published, several people have reacted with a discussion of whether behaviors still persist in Estonian that could be called “Soviet”. The point of writing the commentary, however, was to state: Estonians should avoid using the phrase about their own country, since more often than not, it is not used neutrally or as a compliment. It is an imprecise pair of words.  Others might think twice too. The issue at hand is therefore one of communication and framing.

Recent days have brought news articles pertaining to the “post-Soviet” condition that Estonia is said to be in.
An Estonian Public Broadcasting news item in English on August 20 was headed “Estonia Marks 19 Years of Post-Soviet Independence.” National Public Radio in the US followed with “Russian Minority Struggles In Post-Soviet Estonia” on August 23.
As a concept, “post-Soviet” is an evasive rascal. Encyclopedia Britannica, in an entry about post-Soviet Russia, notes that the “USSR legally ceased to exist on Dec. 31, 1991,” and that Russia, “like most…other former Soviet republics… entered independence in a state of serious disorder and economic chaos. “Disorder and chaos are salient features of the post-Soviet (PS) condition. In this sense, a post-Soviet condition existed in 1991 and 1992 in Estonia, when there was not enough to eat; when scruffy men exchanged dollars for rubles on the steps of the main post office in Tallinn, before Estonia returned to having a currency of her own.

To read more, click HERE.

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