Songs of suffering and trauma

von Pauli Heikkilä

Scholars on Baltic studies convened in mid-June to Tallinn. This year’s Conference on Baltic Studies in Europe was the tenth in order but the conferences have a longer history of symposiums in Stockholm during the Cold War. Nowadays the conferences take place every second year, in a Baltic state and in the “West” in turn, and in 2015 the Herder Institute in Marburg will be the host. Personally, after three of them, the conference is not so much of presenting bold ideas but meeting of old friends and fostering existing connections. There are, however, every time newcomers, who expand the scholarship. Unofficially the conference ended by highly selected fellowship consuming the legendary drink in a legendary bar in Tallinn Old Town.

Besides the conferences in Europe, Baltic scholars meet every second year in the North America under the auspices of the Association to Advance Baltic Studies, which was founded in 1968 being also a legacy of the Cold War. Next year the conference will take place in Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. It will be organized together with the Society of Advancement of Scandinavian Studies. Last time, in 2010, the joint conference experienced bad luck, as ash from an Icelandic volcano prevented many scholars from Europe to fly to Seattle. Unfortunately the joint effort is not the sign of emerging Baltoscandian regionalism and the materialization of the idea of Sten de Geer, Kazys Pakštas and others, but it is more a financial necessity as both organizations of small regions and their member departments in American universities are threatened by budget cuts and forced to look for partners.

From a historian point of view this is not unproblematic and most of the sessions are in both conferences are historic; linguistic following close. Despite the eight small states in the North-Eastern Europe face similar problems for the future, their histories differ greatly; linguistically the Finns are probably most happy to welcome the Estonians, and the two Baltic languages only increase the variety. The eastern shore of the Baltic Sea lacks the homegrown nobility in the earlier centuries, and the history of the 20th century is characterized by the birth – and subsequently the loss – of the Baltic republics. Additionally, whilst the concept of Nordic (or Scandinavian) has positive connotations by both insiders and outsiders, the notion of the Baltic is preferably ignored by the respective nations. Some of their top politicians claim that only the negative experiences in the Soviet Union unites the Baltic nations. An observer from outside could incline to claim the same of a Baltic nation as such, as several presentations in Tallinn concentrated on the tragic events of the past century (loss of sovereign state, mass deportations in 1940 and 1949, demographic changes etc.) Although these events are common to all three Baltic states, only few presentations attempted to compare them with other states, thus the new transnational view of history cannot emerge.

As the historical narratives focus only on their own national sufferings, they fail to recognize the same trauma in the neighboring countries. During my first Baltic conference in Toronto, a colleague recommended me then-recent Anne Applebaum’s Gulag. A History, and now I have finally finished it! The book deals with the whole story of the Soviet labor camps and offers quite a different role to the Baltic prisoners. Applebaum, herself American but married to a Pole, doesn’t refer to the Estonians, Latvians or Lithuanians directly, but more generally considers the introduction of inmates from the Soviet-occupied territories in the West as the beginning of the end to the system. They were far less adjustable to become slaves for the Soviet leaders, and the increased expanses eventually resulted in the rapid decision to close down most of the camps after Stalin’s death. In Applebaum’s view, the Poles, Ukrainians and Baltics are heroes, not victims. Even though Applebaum has been decorated in Estonia and his books are introduced in the main news broadcast, this idea has not come thru and Estonia occasionally continues to remind Russia of the violations by the Soviet authorities. Abandoning the national focuses would result in altered response from Russia as well. Instead of counter-accuses on the national level, Russia could acknowledge of being, in addition to being perpetrators, the first victims of Stalinism. Unfortunately chances for such a change remain low, as Russia keeps on emphasizing the achievements of the Stalinist period.

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