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Estonian Life Stories and Histories Tiina Kirss and Jüri Kivimäe Life stories are a border phenomenon, poised—sometimes precariously , between autobiography and history. According to Eberhard Jäckel, “human life consists essentially of relations with the past.” He adds, “History is remembering subjected to order, a report of what has occurred ; in another, colloquial meaning of the word, History also means narrative.”1 Undoubtedly a life story is a narrative about the past, but history is not the summa of life stories, of remembered “great lives.” Though they share a common anchor in the past, life stories taken together do not yet constitute history. The relationship between life stories and history is more complex than it seems at first glance; where do individual life stories end, and the general history of a people begin? How do episodes of a remembered past become “subjected to order,” configured according to broader continuities and ruptures, structures of sequence, and emphasis, with or without the intention of explanation? It is important for the reader of Estonian Life Stories to understand the nature of the collection and its component stories neither as “simple autobiographies,” nor “real history,” but rather as texts written in response to a summons to collect life narratives at a particular juncture in Estonian national history. This summons was issued as an open, public invitation with a specific form—life story writing competitions sponsored in the second half of the 1990s by an association of professionals and citizens, under the aegis of “memory institutions,” primarily the Cultural History Archive at the Estonian Literary Museum in Tartu. The threevolume text Eesti rahva elulood (Estonian Life Stories, the first two volumes of which were published in 2000) emerged from the 20,000 pages 1  Eberhard Jäckel, Umgang mit Vergangenheit. Beiträge zur Geschichte (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1989), 118. i3 Kirss.indb 1 7/17/09 5:47:23 AM 2 Estonian Life Stories of manuscript submitted to the competition jury. Eesti rahva elulood, the source text for the 25 stories translated here, has a complex canonical status in Estonia, due to the way it positions itself between autobiography and history.2 Accounts of the lives of “simple people,” accounts they have written themselves, may seem to be the very stuff of “lived” history—events and circumstances witnessed and experienced by real people. In view of Estonia’s historical destiny in the twentieth century, particularly the period of Soviet rule from 1940–41 and 1944–1991, as well as the Nazi occupation 1941–1944, the silences and official silencing of certain aspects, chapters, and social groups, further reinforce the assumption that now, finally, after Estonia is again independent, the real truth can be told and the blank spots of history filled in. A further implicit assumption is concealed in this undertaking—that “memory” holds the key to “true” history, a very old problem indeed, the contemporary manifestations of which historians and the scholars connected with the amorphous field of “memory studies” have subjected to an intensive and sharp critique in recent years. Such assumptions—that life stories automatically constitute compensatory or supplementary history, are misleading , as we shall attempt to explain below. These assumptions are politically suspect as well, given dubious but persistent “use value” that is drawn from life narratives, in Estonia no more and no less than elsewhere in Europe and in the world. What kinds of texts are the stories that have been included in Estonian Life Stories? What is a life story? What is a history? And what have these terms, categories, and designations meant for Estonia and for Estonians ? Since the life stories in this book cannot be simply inserted or slotted into a political history of Estonia (be this conceived as a history of the “land,” the “people,” or “the nation”), we have chosen not to begin with an overview of Estonian history, let alone with a diagnostic list of the problematic knots and nodes of twentieth century historical events that remain loci of public polemic and Estonia’s international image.3 Rather, we have elaborated on specific contexts of cultural his2 Rutt Hinrikus (ed.), Eesti rahva elulood (Estonian Life Stories) I–III (Tallinn: Tänapäev, 2000, 2003); cf. also Tiina Kirss, Ene Kõresaar, Marju Lauristin (eds.), She Who Remembers: Interpreting Estonian Women’s Post-Soviet Life Stories (Tartu: Tartu University Press, 2004); Suzanne Stiver Lie (ed.), Carrying Linda’s Stones: An Anthology of Estonian Women’s Life Stories (Tallinn: Tallinn University Press...


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