WHEN THE DOVES DISAPPEARED
ATLANTIC BOOKS 303 pp.
The Second World War was a titanic struggle between the world’s major powers fought over several continents. It impacted also on many other smaller countries drawn unwillingly into the fray. Ireland was one of the fortunate neutrals. The Baltic states were not so lucky. This novel explores the impact of the War, involving invasion, occupation, and the lengthy post war brutal subjugation of one small country, Estonia and how certain ordinary Estonians coped.
The War experience and the lengthy Soviet occupation were not easy for the million Estonians. Independent since 1920, in 1939 Estonia enjoyed a standard of living roughly on a par with other Nordic countries. In June 1940, under the terms of a secret provision in the infamous Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, it was occupied by a Soviet army of 160,000, its status as an independent country was abolished and it was incorporated into the USSR. Over the next year several thousand Estonians were murdered, at least 11,000 more deported as the Soviets set about the systematic destruction and elimination of the Estonian political and administrative classes.
This was only the start of it. In 1941 Germany attacked the USSR, occupying Estonia as its armies drove towards Leningrad. As the Soviets withdrew they murdered several thousand as part of a scorched earth policy conducted by so called destruction battalions. By 1943 half of the country’s M.P.s had been murdered by the Soviets – you can see their names and dates of death on a plaque outside Ireland’s Embassy in Tallinn. Their President died in a KGB prison “hospital” after 16 years; his chain of office has yet to be returned.
The Estonians, having greeted the Germans initially as liberators, came rapidly to realise they had traded one slave master for another. During a brutal occupation the country was administered as part of the Nazi province of Ostland. Concentration and labour camps were set up and thousands of Jews, Communists and political dissidents murdered. As under the Soviets attempts were made to conscript Estonians to fight. Later, as the tide of war turned, Estonians, finally permitted to fight on their own, tried to resist the advancing Soviets. The third city of Estonia, Narva, was levelled in a ferocious battle in 1944. Thousands of Estonians fled; many more took to the woods, where they waged a guerrilla war against the Soviets until well into the 1950’s.
With the return of the Soviets came score settling, completion of the task of liquidating the Estonian elite suspended in 1941 and actions against any alleged to have assisted the Germans. After 1945 there were mass imprisonments, many murders, deportations to Siberia, and, in March 1949, the mass deportation of 25,000 people, mainly farmers and their families ( one friend of mine, then aged six months, was among those deported and spent over a decade in Siberia), to facilitate the collectivisation of agriculture and to break the rural resistance of the “Forest Brothers.” All this out of a population of little over a million.
All told the population of Estonia is estimated to have fallen by 200,000 during and after the war years through a combination of murders ( overwhelmingly by the Soviets), casualties of war, deportations, deprivation and the estimated 80,000 who fled to Sweden and elsewhere to escape the Soviets. In the decades that followed repression continued and several hundred thousand Russian settlers were moved in, seen by Estonians as an attempt to destroy Estonian nationalism.
This is the bleak background to Sofi Oxanen’s latest book. The author, half Estonian, half Finnish, came to international recognition in 2008 with her powerful bestselling third novel, “Purge.” The award winning novel, set in the 1950s and 1992, dealt with the Soviet occupation and its immediate aftermath and explored themes of collaboration and sexual exploitation of women under the Soviets and after.
In “Purge”, Aliide, an old woman, is alienated from her neighbours in rural Estonia over perceived collaboration with the Soviets over the decades, her story as portrayed described by one critic as “an empathic treatment of all the miserable choices Estonians faced during their periods of oppression.” Then her grandniece, Zara, from Vladivostok, to where the rest of Aliide’s family were deported in the 1940s, arrives, seeking help. Zara has escaped from the Russian mafia who had sex trafficked her to Berlin and who are pursuing her. In helping her Aliide must confront her own past. The story continues through a series of flashbacks, inter alia to the 1940s and 1950s, revealing the tortuous and dark family history over the period.
“ When the Doves Disappeared” is set largely in Tallinn and concentrates on the period of German occupation and the early decades thereafter. The “Doves” of the title are the pigeons which used to congregate on Tallinn’s main square, Raekoja Platz, and which were eaten by the occupying German troops, partial to roast pigeon. The title could, at a stretch , be a metaphor for the whole horror story of Estonian history from 1939 to 1994 ( the year the Russian armies left).
The story revolves around three main characters, Roland, his cousin Edgar, and Edgar’s wife Juudit and how each coped with the Nazi and then Soviet occupations. A separate character, chiefly off-stage but highly relevant, is Roland’s fiancée Rosalie (Juudit’s cousin), who dies in mysterious circumstances soon after the Germans invade. As in “Purge,” the choices facing civilians under occupation by a murderous regime are limited and bleak, all the more so when there are two sequential murderous regimes. As in “Purge” also the story takes place through flashbacks in two different time periods, the 1940s and the 1960s, with the chapters neatly delineated by headings featuring Estonian postage stamps of each period.
During the war Roland is a staunch Estonian patriot, trained in Finland, fighting first the Soviets, then the Germans, before surfacing again as one of the Forest Brothers in the struggle against the Soviets. He is determined also to uncover the truth about Rosalie’s death. Edgar, less than enthusiastic about fighting, is gay but has not come out and is equally unenthusiastic about his marriage to Juudit. As the Germans invade, the couple become become estranged as he also separates from Roland.
While Roland goes underground Edgar reinvents himself as a collaborator, adopting a German name and working for the Germans identifying for the Nazis those who had supported the Soviets as well as Estonian anti-Nazi dissidents. Eventually he encounters Juudit again to find her life has also changed. For Juudit, tasked by Roland to cultivate an SS officer, has fallen in love and begun an affair with an SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer (Captain), with whom she moves in. She is reviled by other Estonians for doing so but, in the words of one reviewer, is a complex character, “one whom it is difficult to like but easy to understand.” After a hiatus, she resumes working for the underground, while clinging to the hope that she and her lover can somehow escape their predicament and the war.
The sections set in the 1960s portray a different scene. Estonia is by now firmly a part of the Soviet Union, the “Estonian SSR.” Hopes of independence and the insurrection of the Forest Brothers have been firmly and brutally snuffed out. Through the eyes of Edgar the ruthless and comprehensive nature of the crushing of Estonian resistance by the Soviets is revealed. For Edgar has done another volte face and is now a Soviet apparatchik, “Comrade Parts.” His skin was saved by the compromising documents he had kept from his time working for the Germans. His job now is spying on his fellow Estonians. He is tasked also with writing a pseudo history of Estonia during the war, alleging crimes against real and imagined Estonian patriots. The task, and the language he employs are truly Orwellian.
Edgar is, moreover, now living once again with Juudit, who has become an alcoholic, riven by depression and guilt. Yet Estonian nationalism is not dead. Edgar conducts spurious correspondence with Estonian emigres hoping to find clues for his KGB masters regarding any remaining dissidents including Roland, who has been very careful to avoid capture. He is also monitoring some young radical students who gather regularly at Tallinn’s Café Moskva, (still today a favourite haunt of Tallinn’s young people). Edgar continues to hope for that one major stroke of luck which will cement his position as the novel builds towards a dramatic and revealing denouement.
“ Doves” is another excellent novel by Oxanen, taking the reader through a dark period of a country’s history and pointing up the dilemmas and moral choices facing ordinary people in extraordinary times. It is multi-layered, with many twists and surprises, superb descriptions of war and its side effects and all too believable characters. The translation by Lola Rogers merits special praise. Highly recommended.