Thursday, 25 June 2009

Sirje Kiin and the "Letter of Forty Intellectuals"

For those who think that Iran is the only place where freedom of expression is disapproved of by the powers that be, have a heart for Sirje Kiin, growing up in Soviet Estonia during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1980, the now famous “Letter of Forty Intellectuals” was signed by 40 Estonian writers and intellectuals complaining about the lack of press freedom, and hoping to preserve the Estonian language and culture. Their wish for it to appear in Pravda was ignored. And they were all ultimately interviewed by the KGB.

The extracts below come from Sirje Kiin's English-language website. The full story of her political biography can be read there.

Sirje Kiin (born 1949) published the autobiographical sketch below in the cultural album or almanac entitled Wellesto, which has been mentioned elsewhere on this blog. Nowadays she has become a poetry critic and lives in the United States.

My Political Biography (extracts from an essay)

In 1980 the political pressure of the Soviets became intolerable. I wrote in my diary of unendurable silence, in which it seemed like everything was alright, but deep inside tension was building. In October, flare-ups occurred in the schools against Russification of the school system. The Soviet militia responded to this misbehavior by beating the high school students who were involved. For some of us, this was the limit of our tolerance.

I was involved in writing a letter of protest and getting 40 well-known intellectuals to sign it. We did it in an attempt to protect those young people, as well as the Estonian language and culture, against Soviet repression. For two weeks there was feverish activity around our kitchen table. Sometimes we worked through the night, then collected signatures during the day. There were conversations with dozens of people, silences, refusals, disappointments, tensions, fights, new friends and the loss of some old ones, before the letter was actually sent by mail on the 28th of October. We rushed the process because there was a pressing need – we had already received threats from the KGB to search our house.

At a party meeting in the Writers’ Union, the leadership punished an older lady, a translator named Ita Saks, who was one of the 40 signers of the letter. In my fiery speech defending her, I used a statute of the communist party which said that every communist had a right to send letters to communist party newspapers.

During a recess in the meeting, the chairman of the Writers Union, Paul Kuusberg, invited me to an empty room and asked me strongly to stay silent. He asked why did I not sign this letter, if I was willing to defend it now in such fiery terms? I told him that only one person from each family signed the letter, because we were ready for the worst, for the signers to be arrested. My husband and I agreed that he would sign it so that I could stay home with our six year old son. “Then we should really punish you, too, because you were so deeply involved in writing the letter,” he said. “You had better be silent,” Kuusberg suggested, like he was my wise father. Other older communist writers Vladimir Beekman and Villem Gross accused me of being under the spell of strange enemy forces, an agent of some foreign ideology. When I tried to explain that it’s not right to punish a messenger for reporting a fire, Villem Gross said that you cannot quench a fire with gasoline from the CIA.

The actual text of the whole "Letter of Forty Intellectuals" itself is available here on the same website.

The translators on this occasion are Jüri Estam and Jaan Pennar


David McDuff said...

Right now the problem for Estonians is not a lack of freedom of expression as such, but rather the continuing foreign intimidation and threats they face when assessing and commemorating their own history. See this link.

Eric Dickens said...

Well, yes. The British Conservatives are being berated for joining an EU group containing people who are supposed to be glorifying the exploits of the SS in Latvia. People who know no history and have never heard of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact can easily be manipulated by half-truths. Goebbels admitted to using this trick in his brand of agit-prop. Nothing's new under the sun.

The Estonian and Latvian economies face serious challenges. But in a democratic system, these challenges should not be insuperable. Nonetheless, there are always foreigners that work avidly to show that everything the Balts do is bad, evil or mad.

Eternal vigilance is the clue. Fukuyama was just a little bit wrong when he claimed the end of history had arrived. In the Baltics, one can imagine that history will be eternal.

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David McDuff said...

Thank you for the information. Nordic Voices in Translation is really a literary blog, not a language blog - however, we'll look forward to reading more about the competition in due course.

Eric Dickens said...

Just out of interest, Sirje Kiin's main achievement for Estonian culture is in fact as an author of essays and biographies of poets, often women poets. She has, for instance, written a monograph biography of the poet Kersti Merilaas (1989), and published a book of essays about Estonian poets called "Fears and Scars/Graces" (1993). The ambiguity of the title is because the Estonian word "arm" can mean both favour, mercy, charity, grace, love, etc., but also scar or cicatrice. It is rumoured that Kiin is working on a biography of the poet Marie Under.

A second role that Kiin played, and her Komsomol training stood her in good stead, was to be the leader of an "expedition" by a group of some twenty Estonian writers and cultural people, plus two Dutch, one German-Hungarian, and one English (me) hangers-on, back in 1989. It was still Soviet times, and a Soviet soldier entered our coach as it passed into the Sperrgebiet which the western islands formed at the time. Kiin also made sure that we had accommodation in a hostel, plus a good supply of food and locally brewed beer. The food & booze were a major achievement in a period when the crumbling Soviet Union was suffering severe shortages.