In the two decades after its declaration of independence in 1918, Estonia entered the limelight of history as a hopeful new Baltic republic situated at the strategic midway between the Russian and German worlds. The economy prospered; there was little sense of the tragedy that lay ahead.
Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, and the following year by Hitler; then in 1944 Stalin returned. The Nazi and Soviet occupations disturbed and violated everybody’s home and sense of belonging. Minorities that had been integrated over the course of centuries – Swedes, Jews, Roma, Baltic Germans – more or less vanished.
From 1993 to 1994, the Swedish-born philanthropist and publisher Sigrid Rausing spent 12 months on a collective farm in post-Soviet Estonia. She was conducting fieldwork into Estonia’s tiny Swedish community for a PhD in anthropology. In many ways the farm in Pürksi village was depressing: alcoholism was widespread and a smell of “stale sweat” reached into Rausing’s rented rooms. The village seems to radiate a Wallander-like gloom.
Most Swedes had left Estonia ahead of Stalin’s reconquest. Some 7,000 managed to escape to ancestral Sweden; a further 1,000 fled westwards through the soon-to-be liberated zones of Germany. Few returned in the decades that followed but, as Rausing found out, traces of “Swedishness” had survived in the dialects and folk customs along Estonia’s west coast.
As an heiress of the Tetra Pak empire, which revolutionised the packaging of dairy products, Rausing kept a low profile on the farm. In her early thirties at the time, she worked hard to make her anthropological endeavour look normal, even if her Volvo car was an “ambassadorial limousine” compared with the ubiquitous decrepit Ladas. She would later chronicle her Baltic experiences in a book, History, Memory and Identity in Post-Soviet Estonia, published by Oxford University Press in 2004.
Now Rausing has revisited her Estonian fieldwork and memories of the inhabitants of the Pürksi farm. The result, Everything is Wonderful, eschews the earlier book’s schematic disquisitions on “dirt and disorder” influenced by Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger (a landmark text in cultural anthropology). Instead, pages of dreamlike prose explore Estonia’s terrible Nazi-Soviet past, the trauma of dictatorship and how memory processes that trauma.
The incongruity of a Tetra Pak heiress living among impoverished Baltic peoples is not lost on Rausing. The farmers suspect that Rausing’s unspoken mission is to explore the history of the von Rosens, a long-departed family of Baltic German landowners whom they wrongly presume to be her ancestors. The suspicion is unfortunate, given the disdain with which the landowning class had treated their peasantry over many centuries.
The farm, dissolved in the mid-1990s, is remembered fondly at times by Rausing; she recalls a place where the “tipsy sweet happiness of strawberry liqueur” helped her to shed inhibitions and form friendships with teachers, mechanics and builders. In Everything is Wonderful she evokes the spirit of a lost Baltic community and, in so doing, has written a rather beautiful book.
Ian Thomson is writing a book for Faber about the Estonian capital Tallinn during the second world war
Get alerts on Non-Fiction when a new story is published