restricted access Preface: On the Collection of Estonian Life Stories
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Preface On the Collection of Estonian Life Stories More than 30 years have passed since, after graduating from university, I was hired at the Estonian Literary Museum and got my first taste of collecting manuscript sources—the personal archives, correspondence, manuscripts, and memoirs of distinguished Estonian cultural figures. Paradoxically, the institution which in Estonia bears the name “Literary Museum” is really not a museum, but rather an association of three archives of Estonian oral and written culture—a folklore archive, a cultural history archive, and an archival library. The Estonian Literary Museum, which has grown to become the central institution collecting life stories in Estonia, has developed alongside the Estonian National Museum, founded in 1909. The two institutions were run by the same organization until 1940, at which time they became independent. Throughout the Soviet occupation, it was safer for a memory institution to bear the name “museum” rather than “archive,” since archives were closed (or at least half-closed) institutions, where access and use of materials was subject to closer surveillance. Furthermore people never completely trusted any Soviet institutions. During the Soviet era, efforts to collect memoirs—if they were at all successful—yielded texts with the “proper” ideological slant. Conversely, the regime did not trust the people, and archives were closed even to those who wished to research family trees. Estonia is certainly not the only place in the world where memories have been feared, avoided, or distorted. Fortunately destruction and forgetting do not always rule in history; alongside these forces there has always been remembering—the preservation and collection of “memory -objects.” During the rising tide of Estonian nationalism in the second half of the 19th century, the term “old treasures” (vanavara) was adopted, to refer to things of ethnographic value to keep in museums, but also to oral tradition. The first nationwide campaign to collect oral i3 Kirss.indb 7 7/17/09 5:47:22 AM viii Estonian Life Stories folklore (rahvapärimus) was initiated in 1888 by pastor Jakob Hurt, leader of the conservative wing of the movement of national awakening , with his call in the newspapers, “Appeals to Estonia’s Awakened Sons and Daughters” (“Paar palvid Eesti ärksamaile poegadele ja tütardele ”). The people were urged to write down and collect old songs and stories. Over 1,400 people participated in the campaign, sending Hurt mainly old folksongs, which it was high time to gather, since they were fast disappearing. In the 1930s, unpublished memoirs began to be collected by the Cultural History Archive of the joint museums. A tradition of gathering and publishing autobiographical materials made a modest beginning and even had a brief season of flourishing. Soon the clock was striking the last hours of the Estonian Republic. After 1940 and during the 50 years of Soviet occupation that followed , the collection and preservation of narratives of both collective and private experience was fraught with danger, except for the “old treasures”—ethnography or folklore, and by extension, cultural history. Memoirs were published by actors, composers, and cultural figures, but seldom by scholars, and none by politicians, except for propagandistic texts. Published memoirs that sought to avoid willful falsification required compromise—tactical omissions, and abbreviated chronologies , such as ending with the ideologically palatable events of 1905. How many people wrote their memoirs surreptitiously during this period , consigning them “into the drawer,” is of course an interesting question . A portion of these previously written “hidden” memoirs have by now reached publication. After the year 1988, remembering in Estonia was not quite so dangerous any more: life stories that told more of the whole story began to be published. The Estonian Heritage Society sponsored a heritage collection campaign spanning the years 1988–92, which drew a great many participants. To date the Estonian Heritage Society’s collection, held at the Estonian Literary Museum in Tartu, consists of approximately 2,000 manuscripts. As the leader of this campaign, Mart Laar, pointed out in 1989, a portion of historical memory was being restored—those chapters of national and personal pasts that up until then could not be discussed openly and publicly. Another leader in the field of life story collection, theatre director Merle Karusoo, who renowned for her documentary productions based on life stories, explained her work with the imperative that the collected stories must be given back to the people. i3 Kirss.indb 8 7/17/09 5:47:22 AM ix Preface The increasing openness of society created optimal conditions for the collection of...


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