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Reviewed by:
  • Shadowlands: Memory and History in Post-Soviet Estonia by Meike Wulf
  • Frederick C. Corney
Shadowlands: Memory and History in Post-Soviet Estonia. By meike wulf. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2016. 246 pp. $90.00 (hardcover).

This book examines the ways in which Estonia, in the course of its steady exit from the Soviet orbit sparked by its popular resistance movements in 1989, sought to come to terms with its two periods of occupation, initially by Nazi Germany, and more enduringly by Soviet Russia. The author is interested in the role played by cultural and collective memory in this process, particularly in the first fifteen years after independence. She concentrates her analysis on over forty interviews conducted with "professional historians from Estonia" between 1996 and 2004 (p. 7). She is explicitly interested in generational group memory in Estonia's case, and identifies four distinct generations, which she terms War Generation, Post-War Children, Transitional Generation, and Freedom Children. In the context of global history, this work offers a case-study of transitional polities as they emerge from repressive occupation regimes into independence. It foregrounds the role of memory as a mode of cultural negotiation with the past in this process.

This book is at its best when it features the testimonials prominently in its analysis, most notably in chapters 3 and 4. Here, the term "Estonian" is parsed into multiple identities under the impact of often traumatic events involving the near-continuous occupation by foreign powers: pro-German, pro-SS, pro-Russian, pro-Soviet (or anti- these as well), Baltic, Scandinavian, "stagna," Russia-born, émigrés, returnees, cultural hybrids, etc. These various terms give a far more nuanced and authentic picture of the inhabitants of Estonia that transcends the passe-partout term "Estonian." Any seemingly self-evident designation of national identity requires such parsing. Similarly, terms such as "collaboration" and "resistance" also yield nuanced analysis here, their complexity amid changing definitions vis-à-vis the respective occupation regimes captured well by Wulf's discussion of the terms "national resistance" and "national treason" used to refer to the same phenomenon at the same time (p. 130). This complexity comes into clear focus again later in the author's too-short discussion of the Maarjamäe War Memorial Complex, a resting place for many different incarnations of "Estonian." The volume is at its most readable and engaging in the final chapter, when the author examines various sites of memory at which the specific debates at issue really come into focus. The Estonian Occupation Museum, the [End Page 436] Estonian International Commission for the Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity, the Bronze Soldier statue, and the Cross of Freedom bring up, for the first time in detail, the salient and difficult issues of Estonian "victimhood," complicity in the Holocaust, and the moral and political stakes of comparing German and Soviet occupation regimes.

Despite the many exegeses on theory and methods in this volume, this is a curiously undertheorized work that undercuts its methodology in odd ways. Wulf justifies her choice of professional historians as her case-study for their role in the Estonian memory debates as "carriers of meaning," who were politically actively involved "in the construction of national identities" (p. 64). Her respondents do offer interesting insights into the nature of history-writing and memory produced by both domestic and exiled Estonian historians. Still, less than half of her interviewees are professional historians, judging from their biographies, and one wonders why she did not just use the term "professionals" instead to characterize them. Some of them are not located in Estonia itself, and indeed she uses two quite different questionnaires—not merely "altered slightly" as she puts it (p. 70)—for those in Estonia and those abroad, although her rationale for doing so is not adequately explained. It is unclear, for example, why she would ask historians in Estonia about "national identity" and "national pride" or about "events of collective resistance," "collective suffering," and "taboo, shame, conflict," but not ask these questions of historians in exile. Surely the similarities or differences in their responses would have been very illuminating. Nor is it clear why Wulf limits her source base to only...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-8050
Print ISSN
1045-6007
Pages
pp. 436-438
Launched on MUSE
2019-03-19
Open Access
No
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