FIRST THERE WAS A PHOTO OF MY MOTHER
When I look at the picture of my mother, I see sadness. The photo was taken in 1955, about a year after she had been released from Stalin’s forced labor camp. Mother’s melancholic look brings the reality of that time into the present day. The past lives on in her expression, and a perceptive observer can see her nightmarish experiences engraved on her face. My mother does not like to look at that photograph. She thinks the look on her face is too frightening. “You don’t know how hard it was,” says Mother. I failed to grasp the full meaning of my mother’s expression “frightening” until the beginning of the 21st century, when I began collecting materials for the documentary Memories Denied.
Throughout the Soviet occupation, the people who had survived the Siberian forced labor camps and persecutions either kept their painful memories to themselves or shared them only within the confines of their family, even then keeping the most horrifying details to themselves. Fearing renewed persecution and hoping to conceal the fact that they were marked, they remained silent. When they did speak, they were often met with indifference and a lack of understanding, making communication of these bitter experiences even more difficult. Social memory had suffered the systematic elimination of the actual past, a socially designed amnesia. This was the case throughout Central and Eastern Europe.
People living in the countries formerly within the Soviet system, countries that had once enjoyed freedom and democracy, have reacted with awkwardness, sometimes even hostility toward those who have suffered, especially when this suffering can not be reconciled with the belief that, despite the terror its system had inflicted, Communist ideology had actually been good. To a person who has survived the Gulag or the Holocaust, his or her experience is sacred, making the person all the more vulnerable.
Any humane approach to history must include the belief that concentration, forced labor, and death camps cannot possibly serve progress, no matter how good the ideology. In other words: when looking at a destructive system that claims millions of victims, one can not presume that this brutality was inflicted on behalf of a good ideology.
Recollections from my childhood include a plywood suitcase that I often played with, filling it with my doll clothes and toys. It was the same suitcase that my mother had carried on a summer’s day in 1954 as she stepped off the train that had brought her back home from a place 1,500 kilometers away in Russia. She was then 24 years old, having spent 6 years in a forced labor camp in Archangelsk oblast. She was released during the amnesty after Stalin’s death in 1953, having been labeled as someone “behaving in a hostile manner” against the Soviet system as a young girl. She had survived amid the terror, although death had often been too close. Her own mother Helene and her mother’s sister Heldi with her two small children Pille and Helve had also been deported to Russia in 1949. Their home, which could have offered them safety and reassurance, had been demolished by the new Soviet order and dismantled; its planks used to build a sauna at some collective farm. My mother’s passport bore the stamp “Enemy of the People,” making it hard for her to find work. Upon her release from the camp, she signed a promise to keep silent about what she had experienced there. Upon returning home, she had to register with the Soviet security apparatus (NKVD – Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennykh Del – People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, the Soviet Secret Police in the 1930s and the Second World War), and was forbidden to live in any coastal town, since the Soviet Union considered such towns to be strategically important.
I was born five years after Mother’s release from prison camp. At the age of forty, I began making a documentary film entitled Memories Denied about the story of my mother and her twin sister. I wanted something to endure from my mother’s life; something that would create a new sense of continuity. I believe that any kind of pain that is recreated on film, in a book, in a work of art, changes the source of its meaning, creating a new event. The screen is like a mirror in which the viewer does not directly see oneself; what the viewer sees gives birth to a feeling, which in turn creates an experience, an experience through which the viewer becomes a participant in the process of laying open this pain. And this pain often has universal significance.
As a child, I often awoke to hear my mother crying out for help as she struggled in nightmares. Her dreams were of Stalin’s forced labor camps and the Soviet soldiers who threatened her life. In those dreams, she was never able to return home to her mother. In my childhood, those dreams of my mother’s caused me great distress. The script of this story began taking shape in those childhood years. The forced labor camps and death camps filtered into my subconscious through my mother’s dreams.
This story is the untold story of all Estonian society, a story of sadness, arbitrary power, and images of violence – a puzzle. Many different feelings flow from mother to child; at that time, I did not know that my mother was suffering from something called remembering.
(From the film Memories Denied)
Even a documentary film can be dreamlike. A dreamer always stands within the events; the dreamer’s experience is actual and immediate. The film Memories Denied is the symbolic expression of those nightmares. Dreams themselves are moving pictures, abundant with events and meaning.
The French historian François Dosse claims that historical processes may be viewed through the prism of psychoanalysis. People today actually expect the historian to assume the role of psychoanalyst or psychologist. Two parties are required for the preservation of historical memory: the one who talks and the one who listens. Psychoanalytic treatment supports the “work of remembering,” forcing the person to break through the screen of memories and confront their pain and mourning. “Mourning does not consist only of sadness, but in actual discussion of the loss of a beloved person, a slow and painful surrender to reality,” Dosse writes. “This ‘work of remembering’ helps one to recollect, and the ‘work of mourning’ helps to create distance, and the necessity of such ‘work’ indicates that the normal functioning of memory can be guaranteed only if painful images can be eliminated and forgotten.”
The purpose of individual as well as collective memory is the preservation of the integrity of identity that is connected to a particular time and activity. The English moral philosopher Jonathan Glover writes in Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century3 that by keeping the past alive, we can prevent the repetition of horrifying events. These events, which people are sometimes required to forget, may be horrifying, particularly for the victims who survived them. In a speech given to SS soldiers heading for Poland, Hitler ordered them to mercilessly kill men, women and children. He hinted that these deeds would eventually be forgotten: “Who remembers the Armenian genocide any more?” This is strikingly similar to the comment Stalin made as he signed an execution order: “Who is going to remember all this riffraff in ten or twenty years’ time? No one! Who remembers the names of the boyars Ivan the Terrible got rid of? No one!”
Politics and politicians frequently have a hand in the demand for silence. A dissertation written by Turo Uskali, a scholar at Finland’s Jyväskyla University, investigates the work of Finnish correspondents in the Soviet Union during the Cold War (1957-1975). In it, he lists three topics that the KGB forbade foreign correspondents to write about: the exodus of Jews from the Soviet Union, the Winter War, and anything involving the Baltic States. Journalists were not to talk or write about the past of Estonia and the Baltic States, or if they did, only under strict self-censorship. Honesty and openness would have endangered the dictatorial regime, the guilty conscience of the Soviet system. Whereas the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians experienced actual Communism, the Finns, Swedes, French and other free nations experienced only the ideas of Communism. Communism has always had a wonderful brand – the “uprising of the working class.”
Talking about the victims of Communism has never been fashionable in the West. Nazism has been the “easy enemy;” it lived and died along with Hitler. The Soviet Union was enormous, with plenty of places to send people. Any person could be exchanged, unnoticed, for another. After arguing with Lenin’s widow Nadezhda Krupskaya, Stalin threatened to find Lenin a new widow… Communism in the Soviet Union resembled an enormous anthill, and it was hard to sympathize with victims who seemed not even to exist. Communism never had its Anne Frank.
My good Finnish friend Carita Rosenberg-Wolff has a startling example from one of her school geography lessons in the sixties. Her teacher, describing the location of the Baltic States and Estonia, told the class that these states existed before the war, but that it was no longer appropriate to talk of them. The teacher then went on to a different topic, leaving Carita with the feeling that those countries must be part of some great secret. The teacher had behaved just like her parents when they hid sexually explicit materials from the curious eyes of their children. The child realized that this must be some kind of secret, something forbidden and thus all the more exciting. Playing on the beach in summer, she and the other children had cupped their hands and called across the Gulf of Finland: “Estonia, Estonia, where are you?” But Estonia did not answer until the early 1990s.
At the time of this writing, Estonia has been independent for 15 years, after half a century of forced silence. Occasionally, there is still discussion about whether the Baltic States were occupied or whether they joined the Soviet Union voluntarily. Those who delve into Estonia’s recent past and the crimes of Communism are sometimes labeled “Russophobes.”
Every so often, someone will claim that life was good during Soviet times or that traveling in the Soviet Union was easy. These people were not directly affected by the terror, the murders, the persecution inflicted by the Soviet system. The Soviet occupation authorities preached the equality of all peoples, while in reality there were always some people more equal than others. At certain store counters, some people could purchase “deficit goods,” i.e. household items and food not sold to the public; there were special hospitals that tended to the so-called superior people; there were special schools in which the children of the Soviet elite could study foreign languages. Labor unions handed out car purchase permits, apartments, and vacation travel packages to particularly loyal citizens. Whenever anyone was fortunate enough to acquire an item that was in short supply, such as toilet paper or a sack of sugar, that person would feel uplifted, superior. It did not take much to make someone feel special.
They would turn their eyes away from a fellow citizen who had fallen on hard times, because empathy was a relic of the bourgeois West, and dangerous in the circumstances of the occupation.
And the price of this superficial welfare? The destruction of hundreds of thousands of Estonian lives, disruption of traditions, and economic catastrophe – a loss which is still felt in this country that has now restored its independence.
The occupation brought about an abrupt and unexpected change in morality. It remained unnoticed by those outside the Soviet Union, particularly since the new morality was being described with expressions co-opted from the “rotting humanism and bourgeoisie”: freedom, equality, brotherhood and justice.
Those who had survived now lived in the shadow of the Gulag, concealing their personal loss.
Over the last five years, I have ventured into this nightmarish time, one step at a time. On my desk, I have copies of documents which the NKVD compiled about my mother in 1948-49. The KGB destroyed her interrogation files in 1962. I want to know the identity of the Soviet KGB agents who labeled my mother a “bandit;” I want to know how it all happened. It is for this reason that I must put everything in writing as well as on film. By opening these pathologies of history to the extent that I am able in this moment and at this time, I am attempting to re-create the lost era which engulfed my mother and her contemporaries, but which has sunk into silence and been denied the comfort of closure. This may not be reason enough to bring up these pathologies of history, but then again, there is no need to know everything, because total recollection could lead to madness.