Jaan Kaplinski – From Confrontation To Reconciliation

Two weeks back, the distinguished Estonian poet and linguist Jaan Kaplinski in a comment on this blog linked to his article in the Russian-Estonian paper День за Днем lamenting the state of Estonian – Russian relations, especially as they were apparently really good back in the Tsarist days. In that article from От противостояния к примирению (From Confrontation to Reconciliation), which is translated below, Jaan argues that it is long past time to bury the hatchet.

In my view, it is a very good article as it avoids the moral preening and victimization complexes typical of Baltic nationalists while also decisively calling out hardcore Russian Stalinists for their lies and mendacity. I also note with approval that he uses the historically correct term “annexation” to describe the coercive incorporation of the Baltics into the USSR as opposed to the propagandistic term “occupation”.

From Confrontation to Reconciliation

Jaan Kaplinski

I know of no Estonian who defected to the Germans during the First World War. On the other hand, I do know the names of many senior Estonian officers, who fought valiantly against the Germans in the ranks of the Tsar’s troops.

Later many of them became commanders in the newborn Estonian Army. Without their knowledge, acquired in the Imperial Nicholas Military Academy and other higher military schools, Estonia’s victory against the Red Army and the German Landeswehr would have hardly been possible.

I remember a conversation long ago with an old man, who participated in the Liberation War. He told me that when it came time for Estonian guys like him to fight against the Reds on Pskov territory, they did so without enthusiasm, and sometimes even expressing discontent: It had nothing to do with them, fighting Russians in Russia. At that time there was no Russophobia among Estonians. There was however an age-old hatred towards the German landlords, about which, by the way, one can read aplenty in the memoirs of the Estonian-Finnish writer Hella Wuolijoki. This hate flared up in 1905, when Estonian peasants burned down many German myzy [AK: Gutshof, or manor houses, specific to the Baltic region].

“The manors are burning, the Germans are dying”

Memories of these events were still very fresh in 1919, when Estonian formations clashed with Landeswehr elements formed from local Germans and “soldiers of fortune” from Germany. Some historians believe that these clashes began spontaneously, against the wishes of the Estonian high command: The Estonian soldiers couldn’t wait to open fire and wreck vengeance on the “barons”. And as these soldiers routed the German troops, they sang, “The manors are burning, the Germans are dying, the forests and lands will be ours…”

There was no anti-Russian sentiment, let alone pro-German, on the home front either. My mother, then a schoolgirl at the erstwhile Pushkin Gymnasium in Tartu, told me the girls in her class corresponded with Russian frontline soldiers, knitted them woolen socks, and visited the wounded in Tartu’s infirmaries to sing them Russian songs and read poems. When I was a child, she too sang to me the “Cossack lullaby” in Russian on some of the evenings. How then could I not get mad at the words of the current President of Estonia, who says that Russian is the language of the occupation!?

Summing up these examples, which are far from singular, one begins to appreciate that pre-revolutionary relations between Estonians and Russians, and in fact all the way up to Estonia’s annexation by the Soviet Union in 1940, were friendly, and that Estonian attitudes to the Russian Empire were loyal. And the Estonians had perfectly good reasons to be loyal subjects: The reforms of Alexander III greatly reduced the power of the German nobility here, and the introduction of Russian language instruction made it possible for Estonian youth to have a career, learn, and get good jobs in Russia, where, in contrast to the Baltics, there were no racial prejudices against them. Not a few prominent members of the nascent Estonian intelligentsia were educated in St.-Petersburg, Moscow, and Kiev, where they often lived and worked.

Forgotten parallels

It’s clear that since then a lot of things have changed in Russian – Estonian relations, and not for the better. These changes continue to strongly influence bilateral relations. How and why did this happen?

From a historical point of view, the mail culprit behind the current tensions is, of course, the “brilliant” policies of Stalin, as a result of which for many Estonians the Germans went from being hated oppressors and invaders to liberators from the Bolshevik nightmare. For before that time, even as conservative a politician as Jaan Tõnisson was trying to query Soviet diplomats on whether Estonia could get military aid from Soviet Russia against Nazi Germany…

In 1940-41, the Estonians received confirmation of what Russian writers such as Ivan Bunin, Ivan Shmelev, and Lev Gumilev were already convinced of, not to mention the mutinying Kronstadt sailors, the Tambov peasants, and the Izhevsk workers: Russia was ruled by a gang of fanatics and terrorists. Almost everything that came after flowed on from this.

In my opinion, there are a lot more commonalities in our history, than many politicians and journalists in both Estonia and Russia want to admit. In both those information spaces there are too many myths, distortions, and attempts to artificially create enemies. Few write about the parallels in our histories, and sometimes, they do not even know about them.

True, many Estonians fought in the German SS. But the vast majority of them were conscripts, and they found themselves in the SS because only German citizens could serve in the Wehrmacht. And on this note: How many Russians and Ukrainians fought in the ranks of the German troops? About 200,000 men, and they all voluntarily entered the ranks of the Russian Liberation Army and other similar units. Yet during the First World War, there were no Russian formations fighting under the German banners, just as there were no Estonians or Latvians. On the other hand, there was a Polish Legion and Finnish Riflemen [AK: fighting for the Whites]…

One conclusion we can draw: The Stalinist regime, as opposed to the Tsar’s reign, itself very much contributed to what was considered treason in Soviet times. There is a lot of food for thought here. And people do think – as in Estonia, so too in Russia, where one can also hear voices saying that perhaps the Vlasovites too were fighters for a free Russia…

They also write about the Estonian “forest brothers” – most often portraying them simply as bandits, stymieing the restoration of civil life after the war. This so-called banditism is considered justification for the deportation and exile of 10,000’s of peaceful citizens into Siberia. The deportation is called “resettlement”. I dare ask, were the Tambov peasants who rose up against the Bolsheviks also bandits? Were the families of Russian kulaks likewise “resettled” on the empty banks of some big Siberian river, where they had to live – and often, die – without food and shelter?

Reconciliation is impossible without knowledge

Nonetheless, despite all these distortions, Estonia’s portrayal in the Russian media isn’t anywhere near as simplified and tendentious as Russia’s image in the Estonian media. Among those Estonian readers unable to read Russian websites and newspapers – unfortunately, the level of our Russian language skills is constantly decreasing – there appears this impression that there is no freedom of speech and systematic killings of journalists in Russia (that is, “Putin’s Russia”), which it is claimed is ruled by some kind of neo-Stalinist clique.

In our press you will not find positive information about Russia with a torch in broad daylight. Our readers would be shocked to find out that Russian schoolchildren study Solzhenitsyn, Bunin, and Ivan Shmelev’s “The Sun of the Dead”, with its no holds barred depictions of the ruthlessness of the Red Terror in the Crimea. Medvedev’s speech, in which he said that Stalin’s crimes have no justification, was not covered in our press, even though the speech was recognized and honored with an award from the Unitas Foundation, which was founded by Mart Laar.

Attempts to reevaluate the White movement and their leaders (Kolchak, Denikin, Wrangel), undertaken in the interests of national reconciliation, are either unknown to our public or interpreted as a manifestation of Great Russian chauvinism. When I watched a documentary film by Nikita Mikhalkov about Kolchak, I could not help but recall that, according to family lore, my great-uncle too fought against the Bolsheviks under the command of the Admiral…

Whether we like it or not, our history is closely intertwined with Russia’s, and it would be reasonable to learn from this, and perhaps, participate in the process of transition from confrontation to reconciliation – as between Estonians and Russians, so too between our two countries. Reconciliation is impossible without knowledge, and knowledge is incompatible with the stereotypes and myth-making that should have long since been rejected.


A few translations of select comments from readers:

ближе к делу: An excursion into ancient history, from the Tsars to the First Republic and the Stalinist period, distracts us from more important issues – the history of the past twenty years and the essence of the current regime and its ideology.

тартуский обыватель (in reply to above): … And do you not think, that this is exactly what the authoritarian powers seek from you: Do not study your past, it is enough to know it in its simplified form from official ideologues: From Mart Laar in Estonia, to multiple Filippovs in Russia? [AK: Filippov is the author of a textbook on modern Russian history, whose controversial “pro-Stalinist” chapter I translated here]

ближе к делу [in reply to above]: You didn’t catch my point. I’m not against studying history. But I am against treating Stalinist crimes as if they occurred just yesterday, and treating those crimes, which occurred yesterday and are still occurring today, being considered fine and dandy. I do not think there should be a difference in attitudes towards the repressed kulak, and the repressed Gray Passporter. [AK: i.e., alien]

12 баллов (in reply to above): Oi-oi, what have we got here, a “victim of repressions”. I’ll cry any minute now! They were so cruelly repressed: Freed from military service, given the opportunity of visa free travel all over the world. Oh, bloodthirsty Ansip, you are so cruel!

ближе к делу (in reply to above): A job in government (in fact,, almost the only place of work that offers decent pay and stability in modern Estonia)? And what visa-free travel prior to accession into Schengen are you talking about? In the 90’s a great many countries flat out refused to give visas to Gray Passporters (due to documents status). Apart from that, if its so good having a Gray Passport, why did you Estonians personally not take it, and that same Ansip? If that were the case then your story, about how we live so well, would be a bit more convincing.

т.о (in reply to ближе к делу, a few comments later): Listen, when we are talking of millions of lives destroyed because of differing views, origins, faith, and nationality, and equating it with restrictions on Russian language instruction – only a person who principally refuses to know his own history would do this. Furthermore, what Stalin didn’t finish, his successors attempted to. Recall, what was implied in the realization of the concept of the “one Soviet people”. Thank God oil prices fell, otherwise they’d have brought this into fruition. In that case, to your satisfaction, there would be no questions about the status of Russian language education in Estonia whatsoever. Is that so? Or am I still misunderstanding you?

ближе к делу (in reply to above): … The concept of “one Soviet people” didn’t envision remaking Estonians into Russians, neither did it envision the destruction of higher education in the Estonian language or the transition of middle school education to 60% in Russian neither by 1980, not 2000, nor 2020, nor any other year. Not a single Estonian became Russian and rejected his language. The mergence of nations was envisioned in the far future, under Communism, that is after 500 years. That is a theoretical construct, no practical measures to this end were envisioned. Therefore, to equate this with Estonian neo-Nazism (in which the destruction of education really was embodied) is impossible.

бла-бла-бла: Russians never made Estonians second-class citizens. But the Estonians do this to Russians – AND CONTINUE TO INSIST ON THIS. Is it really that this holds no significance for the “thinker” Kaplinski?

вениамин: So what’s the issue about. All these wars are long ended. But Estonian agitprop still hasn’t died down, they still haven’t realized, that we fought and made up, and it’s time to go forwards. Again they start ranting on about their integration… What a bunch of vomit.

Hayduk (in reply to above): True, in that case integrate with the Tajiks, Chechens, if Estonians make you vomit. [AK: I.e., go back to Russia]

….: On the matter of kulak families. Does the author know what the Bolsheviks did to the kulaks? Complete dekulakization, and either shootings, or exile to Siberia! Russians suffered a lot more at the hands of the Georgian mafia of schizophrenics. No need to make oneself out to be the most downtrodden and miserable victims!

villi: Respect.

бабарашка: Why isn’t this article in the Estonian press? Why in the Estonian language press we can only find the “pearls” of Anchutka Iegokodla?


  1. “True, in that case integrate with the Tajiks, Chechens, if Estonians make you vomit. [AK: I.e., go back to Russia]” I lolled ! Fascinating interview.

  2. A very fine article. Whilst there are points of history with which I might take issue. (By way of example, the article surely downplays the favoured position of Baltic Germans in the Russian Empire and the Tsar’s court, whilst I do not think Bunin and Shmelev give a complete view of the Bolshevik revolution, which also had its supporters in the Baltic States as it did in Finland and towards which Bunin at least revised his views in later life). However these do not detract from the fine points the article makes.

    I want to just repeat a point I have always made. I understand why people in the Baltic States may have a strong sense of grievance towards Russia. Anti Russian feeling in the Baltic States makes far more sense to me and I have much more understanding and sympathy for it than I do for anti Russian feeling in places like Britain or France or the US, which have suffered no injury from Russia at all. However I do think the policies of the existing authorities in the three Baltic States have gone too far and are both wrong and unwise. A glance at the map shows why.

    Incidentally the only Estonian I have ever got to know was a young man who over the winter did some building work in my house in London. He was conspicuously free of any anti Russian prejudice at all. On the contrary he was planning to start a business that would do high quality residential building work in Russia especially in St. Petersburg, where he had worked and which he seemed to know well. Obviously I have no idea how typical of Estonians generally his attitudes to Russia are.

    • From what I understand the Baltic states with Russian minorities amount to some diplomatic squabbles and some tit for tat historical and current domestic arguments. Nothing really major.

      I doubt it is a serious as hostilities between Serbs and Croats, Pakistanis and Indians, Sunnis and Shias, Muslims and everybody else.

      The problem is that external forces (US and Britain) and affiliated global media and think tanks especially the Jamestown and Heritage Foundation want to maintain hostile relations against ethnic Russians among non-ethnic Russian groups inside and outside of Russia based on a fraudulent or simplified version of history supporting hostile elements among Circassians, Chechens, Crimean Tatars, western Ukrainians, etc to maintain a British lead NWO who rightfully see Russia as the last remaining bulwark against there domination of the world via control of the Eurasian sphere through Turkish and Turkic/Islamic proxy.

      The Finns are far worse who have a huge chip on there shoulder since the Winter war who like Turkey without actually physically running terrorist training camps openly support Chechen terrorist groups with government support and I don’t mean Chechen fighters I mean Umarov, KavakCenter and the Islamists groups who are directing terrorist attacks against Russia.

  3. Scowspi says:

    Good piece – basically what I would expect from Kaplinski given my (admittedly limited) acquaintance with his other work.

    I realize article space is limited, but a few other points worth mentioning would be the contributions of the “traditional Russian minority” (i.e. pre-Soviet) to Estonian life; and Estonia’s role as a relative “safe haven” for non-conformist Russian intellectuals (e.g. Yuri Lotman, Sergei Dovlatov) during the Soviet period.

    • Thanks! I will write more, and certainly touch the subject of Estonia as a “Soviet abroad” for a few Russian intellectuals. As to Lotman, he was forced to quit Leningrad, unable to find a job there as a Jew. He and some other less known academics came to Tartu, among them the philosophers Leonid Stolovich and Rem Blum. I can with some reservations call Lotman and Stolovich my teachers.

  4. Estonians do this to Russians because they believe they will please their masters in Washington and London.

  5. johnUK
    on June 3, 2012 at 1:33 am said:
    The problem is that external forces (US and Britain) and affiliated global media and think tanks especially the Jamestown and Heritage Foundation want to maintain hostile relations …..
    John you are very right
    More and more people in ex Yugoslavia see that way….but now it is too late.

  6. бабарашка: Why isn’t this article in the Estonian press? Why in the Estonian language press we can only find the “pearls” of Anchutka Iegokodla?
    Why the Russian people in Estonia are not more aggressive on internet in Estonian language, why don’t they own Estonian newspaper, blogs in Estonian language etc?