Political Autobiography

 

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Updated 06/17/2008

MY POLITICAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY

 Published during 1988-1989 in several Estonian and Finnish newspapers, and in the yearbook of the Estonian literary group “WELLESTO”.

 When my mother was seven months pregnant with me, the local leader of the Communist Party came to our home in Mustla, a town in the Suislepa County in South Estonia.  He came to demand that my father should leave my mother.  Why? Because she was the daughter of kulak -- politically despised, and therefore damned, farmers.  Kulak owned their farms, a mortal sin against communism, worthy of prison or Siberia, ideologically dangerous and an enemy class in the Soviet Union.  The threat that this man brought that day was possible expulsion of my father from the Communist Party.

 

 If you never lived under Soviet rule, perhaps the first question in your mind is why would my father even want to be part of the Communist Party?  It was corrupt, both administratively and ideologically, and was the principal mechanism by which soviet oppression was carried out.  Why care about membership? The soviets had a system, a quite simple one, really.  No job with leadership activity or potential in the USSR could be had without membership in the Communist Party.  Period.  This rule started affecting my life before I was born, and continued for all the 40+ years that the soviets occupied and oppressed Estonia.

 

 My mother stood that day in the hot sunshine, behind some lilac bushes, and listened to this official telling my father to abandon her.  There was a bitter irony to threats from the party about my father’s marriage to my mother.  It was ironic because my mother had been beaten, quite literally, out of her own home at age 16 by her father (owner of a big forest-farm in North Estonia), for wanting to leave the farm and study in the city.  My grandfather beat his only daughter with horse reins.  She left the farm and never returned.  Yet the communists wanted to break up the marriage of a pregnant woman because her estranged father owned something.

 

 Of course my father did not leave my mother.  I was born in August 1949, while Stalin still lived, and my father was thrown out of Communist Party for the first time.  My father was a poor farmhand who began service in the Estonian army in 1940.  After soviet occupation in June of that year, he was conscripted into the Red Army and sent to the Ural mountains. He had no choice. That was the beginning, for him, of the insidious practice of “needing” to be in the Communist Party to be successful in life, to fit into the ideology of the community.  My father joined the party out of his deep belief that it was possible to build, in Estonia, a more fair-minded state.  Estonia, except for a few short, sun-bright moments of independence, had been occupied by foreign powers for centuries.

 

 Eventually my father was allowed back into the party, but was ejected a second time because he refused to work as the Chairman of a kolhos ( a big soviet collective farm).  My father was not a troublemaker or a resister.  He didn’t want to manage the farm because he knew that his skills lay in managing small cooperative farms.  But the method was consistent: Fail to do as the communists wanted, be thrown out of the party, face reduced opportunity to make a living.

 

 I belonged to the Children of October, a soviet children’s organization.  Mostly I remember singing in the choir, “We are children of Lenin, children of Stalin…” I wanted to be a Pioneer, an important youth communist organization, and was very proud when I was elected leader of the Pioneers at my school.  I remember wearing, on my white blouse, strings of whistles when I marched in the bright sunshine of festive parades.

 

 I did not understand why my uncle, who was a beekeeper, and who had loaned me his accordion to study music, suddenly came and took it back.  He was always telling us what the Voice of America had recently broadcast into Estonia.  Discussion of the Voice of America was such a secret subject, we could talk about it only with the door closed, and when my father was not around.  Two other brothers of my mother were killed in the forests during the second World War, fighting against the soviets.  My beekeeper uncle had resisted in another way by refusing to fight for the soviets or the Germans, and had been imprisoned for his refusal to serve.  I was proud to tell to my uncle that the famous farmer Elmina Otsman had visited our Pioneer Organization.  Otsman gave me a badge with picture of Yuri Gagarin, one of the USSR’s most famous cosmonauts.  Among the first poems I wrote was an ode to Gagarin.  Another early effort was an ode to Lenin.

 

 When I was forced by school administrators to take a leadership role in the Komsomol Organization (yet another soviet youth group), I was so angry and ashamed, so full of protest, that I skipped school for a week.  I really wanted to go to another school.  But there was one damned magic word that made me stay – character reference – without which one could not study at any university in the soviet system.  That which had haunted my father now haunted me.

 

 My university experience started with “Prague spring,” a time when we believed that we might have greater freedom in the Soviet Union.  One of the first poetry evenings that we organized with students and young writers in Viljandi resulted in a persecution campaign against us by the KGB.  Invitations to interrogations lay unopened in Tartu dormitories while I concealed myself at home in Viljandi.

 Professor Ülo Vooglaid, called the Dreamer of the Kremlin, the free spirit of the sociological laboratory of Tartu University, led me away from the study of literature and toward studying the problems of society.

 

 I ended up being educated in two ways -- half as a philologist, half as a sociologist.  This required extensive travel throughout the Soviet Union.  I traveled by night train among Moscow, Leningrad and Tartu to take exams, and felt quite strongly, to my core, what bands of steel Brezhnev’s USSR was wrapping around the brighter brains of the Soviet Union.  In 1975, sociology was forbidden in the USSR.  I was just entering candidacy for my doctorate and was able to get a grant of 15000 rubles for the first study of the attitudes of Estonian intellectuals.  I wanted to study the expectations of the audience of the cultural weekly newspaper Sirp ja Vasar (Sickle and Hammer), as well as to make content analyses of the newspaper.

 

 In the Soviet Union there was an unwritten rule that anyone who was not a member of the Communist Party could not earn a doctorate, especially in social science.  The chief editor of the magazine “Keel ja Kirjandus” (Language and Literature), Olev Jõgi, invited me to work as a assistant chief editor.  The only condition: I must join Communist Party, because this job was a so-called nomenclature job, available only to communists.  The job had already been vacant for three months, the salary for it unspent.  The Central Committee of the Communist Party wanted to put their own party-man in the job, if I didn’t take it, and there were other forms of pressure commonly used by the party back then.

 

 My doctoral candidacy was to end soon.  I wanted to graduate, so I decided to agree to join the party, fully aware that I was committing “political prostitution.” But at least I didn’t hide my real motives.  On the membership application, I wrote that I wanted to protect Estonian language and culture!  Many writers then, and even today, are surprised that I could write so openly about my motives.  The party organization that I joined was the Estonian Writers’ Union.  At the same time that I was accepted as a candidate for membership in the Communist Party, my doctoral research was declared a secret topic in the USSR.  I was forced to sign an agreement of silence, promising not to publish any results, and my research (as well as that of colleagues working on the same project) was put in safes controlled by the KGB.  We were not allowed to even make reference to our research or its results.  I did not want to go through the difficult procedure of a so-called “closed graduation” (dissertation defense made in secret), so I gave up and left sociology, because practically it did not exist at this time in Estonia or the rest of the USSR, anyway.

 So I did not graduate, but I remained a member of the party.  The inside life of the Writers’ Union reminded me of the Freemasons – there were so many levels of secrets.  I never got an exact understanding of just how many secret rituals and procedures existed in the communist ideological life.  I watched with wonder the behaviors of some other writers – party members.  Some that I had respected before turned out to be great secret demagogues.  Others surprised me with their bravery and proud use of words.  Anyway most of them tailored their behavior to the expectations of the party.  There was also another group, perhaps a third of the membership, who were always silent.  They were active in the 1940s and 50s in repressing the work of others, using their positions in the party to put down other writers for being disloyal to the USSR, but during this period they did not get involved.

 

 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 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.

 Those threats stayed in the air and recurred for several years.  Being pursued by the KGB became a routine part of our everyday life.  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.  The leaders who were pressing these charges were surprised by my arguments.  They further argued that there were Nazi-inspired elements in the 40 intellectuals’ letter, for example, the term põliselanik-indigene (indigenous people).  They were willing to try practically anything to criminalize our willingness to speak out against cruelty and injustice.

 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.

 

 Two months passed.  In December the KGB started to call almost everybody who was involved with the letter in for interrogation.  I received a phone call from somebody called Lehtmets, ordering me to go to the Lai street KGB office.  My first interrogation lasted an hour and a half.  He started with a carrot (“…you DO want to travel to the symposium in Finland… you DO you want to work some years in Finland,” etc.).  Then he switched to a stick (“…if you don’t cooperate with us, we will be forced to inform party organs and your work office about your activities (an indirect threat to get fired).”

 

 Lehtmets showed me a list of names of about 15 people – Estonian writers, foreign Estonian intellectuals, Finnish Estophiles – asking who I knew and what did I know about them, connected with the 40 intellectuals’ letter and other matters.  I started to cry from anger and tried to explain what I felt when I saw soviet militia beating our young Estonian school children on the streets.  I also tried to explain why we wrote this peaceful letter.  Those reasons did not seem to interest this man at all.  He wanted me to tell him who did NOT sign the letter and many other details about it.  Finally he told me to write an explanation of why we wrote this letter.  In my explanation, I underscored the voluntary signing process.  When I left the KGB office, Lehtmets asked me not to be angry at him, and said that he hoped for continuing cooperation with me and to become a friend.

 

 They asked me to come in for interrogation at least two more times, but I just didn’t go.  I heard from friends who went there that they were very angry at me, first because I told others about the interrogations, and second because I was not “behaving properly.”  I tried then to limit my correspondence with people all over the world, to limit my foreign contacts, because this was one of the reasons that the KGB was so interested in me.  They had tapped our home phone and KGB cars were parked on the street near our house every time we had foreign visitors, Finns or foreign Estonians, and also for some visits by Estonian writers.

 

 Two years passed, full of continuing threats of house searches and warnings not to have contact with foreign people.  We were constantly watched by the KGB.  They were waiting, hoping that one of us would make a mistake, so that they could punish us properly.  They knew that they could not punish all 40 intellectuals at once, but were determined to punish us one-by-one, over time, for whatever reasons they could find.

 

 In July 1982 I received a phone call at work from a KGB man named Iller.  He demanded (“It’s in your best interests to come! We have some of your letters here!”) that I come to Lai Street number 40, the same KGB house.  This time I decided to go.  Attending the interrogation was another man, a higher-ranking KGB officer named Vladimir Poolus.  He led the interrogation.  They showed me a copy of a personal letter I had written to a friend in the USA and asked was it mine?  Their cover story was that they got this letter from a foreign Estonian lady named Erna K. in the U.S.A., who was complaining that somebody was writing such letters from Estonia.

 

 The letter contained a copy of a poem by Andrus Rõuk which had recently been published in the literary magazine Looming.  I had pointed out that, if you read the first letters of each line, it spelled SINI-MUST-VALGE (BLUE-BLACK-WHITE, the strictly forbidden colors of the Estonian national flag).  Poolus told me that Rõuk would be punished for this poem, and probably his editor and others as well.  Then, quite sarcastically, “Very pleasant reading.”  He asked if I understood what kind of mistake I had made by acting in ways that they did not want?  He said they would be forced to start a punishment process against me for all the harm I had done to the soviet system.

 

 The KGB men used the expression that they would “oppose the engine.”  It meant that Iller came to my office and showed the “papers of my case” to the Chief Editor of the literary magazine and demanded that he fire me from my post as Assistant Editor.  The Editor, Olev Jõgi, did it.

 

 KGB men started to ask questions of our neighbors about us (How many visitors did they have? How many from abroad? One of them is not working, how do they make a living? Are they involved in some dark business? Where are they getting the money to repair their house?).  KGB men also visited our son’s school and asked his teachers how he was behaving, what was he thinking and talking about, was he missing lessons?  Even our relatives’ children’s schools were visited by the KGB, to ask similar questions (many had the courage and solidarity to tell us about these inquiries).

 

 The communist partly leader of the writers’ union, Jaak Jõerüüt, demanded a letter of explanation from me about what I had done, then started half a year of party meetings, at levels from the Writers’ Union to the Central Committee, with the intention of throwing me out of the party.  At one of those meetings, I remember a dramatic speech by an old party veteran, the writer Lembit Remmelgas:  “If those of us here who were soldiers in the second world war – Kuusberg, Gross and me – had done during the war what you did – telling the enemy our positions, what would have happened to this kind of soldier?  He would be shot dead.  That’s what happens to traitors!”

 

 In a Central Committee meeting in Tallinn, one of the older party leaders, a man named Busel shouted, “How dare you use words as weapons, words that you learned to use with your higher education, against the soviet state?  How could you to write to America, to Americans, who set my house on fire during the war?”  Even now I do not understand what he was talking about.

 

 Also in a Central Committee meeting in Tallinn, a party leader named Mati Pedak said that he was hoping that the Writers’ Union would re-grow or re-discipline me, because such a young person did not deserve to be thrown out for her first mistake.  But the party secretary, Vellamaa, looked at me for a long time, then said with extreme disdain, “THIS KIND of Writers Union will never re-grow THIS KIND of person, ever!”

 

 I remember having a big feeling of freedom after my case was finally decided and I was told to put my membership card on the table of party committee.  I was finally free of years-long association with scum.  I walked over Toompea Hill, breathing in a feeling of liberation and breathing out dark and haunting memories.  I had been fired from my position as editor a few months earlier.  Now I stood convicted committing a politically irresponsible act.  My chief editor told me that I had politically compromised our literary magazine and poisoned the atmosphere at work.

 

 There was only one member of the Writers’ Union, Uno Laht -- interestingly a member of the famous "Destroying Battalion" of the Red Army -- who questioned the action of the party regarding my alleged letter to America and how it related to the constitution of the USSR.  I had used the same argument in my explanation of the letter to the Central Committee.  In fact, just before the final party meeting, Lembit Remmelgas tried to convince me to not use the argument about my constitutional rights because it would make my case even worse.  He “just wanted to help me!” Several writers asked me after that meeting why I let them punish me in that way and didn’t use my constitutional right of private correspondence.  It was comforting to learn that I was not the only naïf in the country, and in the Writers’ Union.  Starting from that year, 1982, I wore our national colors, Sini–Must–Valge, Blue–Black–White.  It’s such a big feeling, when you are no longer afraid to show your freedom and love.

 

 During my long jobless years in the 1980s, I wrote four books, some poetry, essays, and a monograph about the poetess Kersti Merilaas.  During that time I managed to publish only a few articles, and that was done using pseudonyms.  Two years ago I was Jüri Kiis.  All four of my book manuscripts were waiting at the publisher, unable to be published until now, a delay of as much as 5 years.  When hunger visited our home, I sold all of my completed novels and did earn money by translating Finnish novels.  Ideological Secretary of the Estonian Communist Party, Rein Ristlaan, made angry calls to every editor who dared to publish any article from our family.

 

 One day I was asked to visit the office of the VAAP (Vsesojuznõi Agentur Avtorskih Prav – a soviet agency that was supposed to protect the legal rights of authors).  They asked me to write a list of all names that I was using as a writer or critic.  They said that “Moscow” asked for and needed this list badly.  I wrote only two names: Sirje Kiin as poet and critic, and Sirje Ruutsoo (my husband’s last name) as a journalist and translator, and omitted my ten pseudonyms. They were not satisfied with this short list.

 

 By 1988, clearly there was change in the air in the Soviet Union.  Somehow it was failing and all that it oppressed were feeling the loosening of its grip.  As soviet control over Estonia weakened, more activities that supported our culture and heritage sprang up.  That year I was asked by the writer (and later President of free Estonia) Lennart Meri to come work for the new Estonian Cultural Foundation.  He asked me to return to the activity for which I had been punished and repressed for so many years – improve relationships with foreign Estonians.

 

 I later learned that officers in the highest level of the soviet regime were not ashamed to admit that I was the best candidate to work in this new position.  Because I had been punished for this kind of activity, they figured that my political biography would help me to win back the trust of foreign Estonians.  I was convinced that there was no limit to the cynicism of the soviet regime.

 

 As oppression lessened, the Sini-Must-Valge colors of the Estonian national flag became very popular in Estonia.  But pins showing those colors were still prohibited and one could get them only by smuggling them in from Finland.  One day I ran into Jaak Jõerüüt, the man who had led the party investigation of me and had presided over my expulsion from the party and loss of my job.  He assumed that I would know how to obtain these pins and asked me to get some for him.  Get for him the pins with the colors that had been the basis for his, and the Communist Party’s, persecution of me!  It was with some perverse satisfaction that I got him the pins.

 

 I remember 1984 as the most black, most hungry, most dark year of my life, when I was not able to publish anything anywhere nor to work anywhere.  That year I wrote a poem which was published many years later in the magazine Vikerkaar (Rainbow):

 

ÜMBERSÜND                                  REBIRTH

 

Kas sa usud ümbersündi                Do you believe in rebirth

Kas sa ootad seda tundi                 Do you wait for this hour

Millal vale keerab tõeks                   When lie turns to be a truth

Vaenlase teeb vennaks õeks           Makes enemy to be brother sister

Tuhamäest saab õitsva aia              Mountain of cinder becomes the blossom garden

Kitsaist oludest saab laia                Ill-being becomes well-being

Rahast luuleraamatu                       Money becomes poetry book

Meistriks sõgesaamatu                   Unwitting inept becomes master

Pime näeb siis tegelikku                  Blind will see then reality

Tegija teeb tulevikku                       Doer will make a future

Olevik on sinu teha                         Present tense is your job

Vaba vaim ja vaba keha                   Free Mind and Free Body

 

Oh ei tule seda tundi                       O there will never be such an hour

Kes see usub ümbersündi                 Who believes in rebirth

Äkki lukk lööb lahti lukust                 Suddenly the lock will open

Vaata -                                          Look -

           Liblikas sai nukust!                          From pupa became a butterfly!