XI Tallinn, Estonia 1987
In 1980s Tallinn the KGB offered me felt pens for blowing the whistle on one of my teachers.
She and I often met and talked about all kinds of things; she wanted to educate me to be a self-confident Estonian. When talking about how all-encompassingly the nations occupied by the Soviets helped their oppressors, she used the word “self-contaminating”.
It was no different than Kertész’ Auschwitz or all those people in the lands of Warsaw pact: the same way that the prisoners in concentration camps bartered with bits of bread for a better place in their own hierarchy, the Soviet citizens ferreted each other and traded for almost anything, usually something ridiculously small – or for something illusive, like freedom from danger. The Kremlin didn’t have to do anything other than kill – all the rest: the paralysis and the sustaining of fear were summoned in the oppressed by their own labour.
We had felt tip pens at my school. It was an elite school but like most of the Soviet Union it was infected by a process likening to bestiality. Teachers, who understood the society and treated their pupils with love had become an anomaly – they now had their own needs; their children demanded pens, jeans, chewing gum, stickers, things they could trade for more humane treatment. Children without felt pens were treated by adults like dirt.
With the onset of the Singing revolution, we saw Western countries in ecstasy via Finnish TV. Our school was infected first by a riptide of religion, then by suicides. Some students went more or less secretly into mental hospitals.
Years later I met a student from that school. She could not remember any physical or mental violence at all. She was as shocked as I was by her amnesia.
Everything that had meant something was invisible. It was considered not worth understanding. Everything that was a facade was visible. After the news about of another suicide, most of us carried on as a means of defence. Only at a bus station near the school could one see a few pupils secretly crying.
I tended to think for years that one of the tasks of any state would be to create an environment of purging the past. Germany is an example of that; and Germany, for the time being, is inwardly doing relatively well.
It was only later when I realised that it is not about states understanding themselves, it is about its citizens understanding themselves. No country can summon what its citizens cannot comprehend.
But what choice could the individuals make about bread, a felt tip pen, whether their children can survive, or whether they can remain there?
And after the collapse – the stillness. Only the silent droning of busses on a nearby road. When all that had happened had been so big, and so all-encompassing – it had become unfathomable.
But all the people continued living, like Aliide – the whistleblowers and the ones who drowned in the Gulag, left with their questions completely alone.