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Obituary: Jaan Kross

Eric Dickens—translator of Kross and his fellow countryman Mati Unt, along with many other writers—offered to write an obituary of Jaan Kross for us. As Dickens points out, this is more than just an obituary—it’s also an overview of one of Estonia’s great writers who is hardly known in the U.S./UK despite the fact that several of his books have been translated and published by Harvill and The New Press.

Jaan Kross, the novelist and grand old man of Estonian literature died in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, on Thursday 27th December 2007. He was 87.

What follows is both an obituary, a history and a bibliography. As will be seen, life and letters are inextricably intertwined and as only three of Kross’ novels and one collection of stories are readily available in English, light will also be shed on those that are not yet available in that language. I will translate the titles of all the works mentioned for the convenience of readers.

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Jaan Kross was born on February 19th, 1920, in Tallinn, as the son of a metal craftsman and engineer. The Estonian Republic, independent for the first time in history, had been proclaimed shortly before Kross was born, and he spent a reasonably idyllic life at school in Tallinn, and university in Tartu, studying to become a lawyer. But history was instead to ultimately make him the author of more than a dozen historical and semi-autobiographical novels, all intimately connected with the fate of Estonia.

At a national level, the twenty years of Estonian independence which marked Kross’ boyhood and youth were marred by a failed Communist coup in 1924, the knock-on effect of the Wall Street Crash in 1929, and the resulting authoritarian governments of the 1930s. But worse was to come. Kross’ dreams of peace and prosperity, and those of most Estonians, were shattered as a result of the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, where Hitler and Stalin in effect divided up Europe into two spheres of influence. Estonia, like Latvia and Lithuania, all three fledgling independent republics, fell under the Soviet, i.e. Russian, sphere of influence. From then onwards, until Estonia regained its independence in 1991, the country suffered occupation, war, destruction, deportations and a ruined and centrally planned economy, tailored to suit the exigencies of Moscow.

In 1940, the Soviet Union bullied its way into Estonia, stationing large numbers of troops in several parts of the country. A Communist takeover was then rigged so that it looked democratic. Yet the number of Estonian Communists was minuscule; Russian Communists were shipped in to pad out demonstrations. During this one year Soviet occupation, all the members of what had been the government of an independent state, including the President and Prime-Minister, were deported to Siberia, as were many members of parliament. Many were shot in 1942.

Kross was too young to be greatly affected, but observed, experienced. When the German Nazis invaded and occupied the country in the summer of 1941 and stayed for three years, Kross was imprisoned for a few months, on suspicion of being an Estonian nationalist. This was not the last time that Kross suffered at the hands of an occupying power.

In 1944, as the Germans retreated and the Soviets returned causing a power vacuum, a large number of middle-class people took the opportunity to flee to Sweden. Kross was not among them. He decided to stay put and take his chances with whatever history brought Estonia. All went reasonably well until 1946 when Kross was arrested, this time by the Soviet authorities, and sent to the Gulag – suspected, as by the Germans, of nationalist activity. He spent most of his eight years of labour camp and internal exile in the area around Krasnoyarsk in the Komi Republic, not returning to his home town Tallinn until 1954. Kross depicts these two periods of incarceration and forced labour in a series of stories, available in English translation under the title The Conspiracy and Other Stories.

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For some 15 years after his release, Kross wrote poetry, but by 1970 he started publishing novels. From then onwards, Kross’ literary output was divided in two: he wrote both semi-autobiographical works and purely historical ones, all of them in prose.

A number of shorter novels were then published alongside what is regarded as his masterpiece, the historical tetralogy Between Three Plagues (1970, 1972, 1977, 1980) set in 16th century Tallinn, depicting the national aspirations of the Estonians, then under the rule of the Baltic-German barons, seen through the eyes of the clergyman Balthasar Russow, a real historical figure. Kross examines the psychology of his characters. This book has been translated into Russian, Finnish and German, but is not available in English.

In 1975, Kross published the novel The Third Range of Hills about the Estonian painter Johann Köler, and in the same year the novel The Moonstone which consists of a dialogue between two leading 19th century Estonian intellectuals and writers, the very young Kristjan Jaak Peterson, a poet, and the much older Otto Wilhelm Masing.

His most translated historical novel is The Czar’s Madman (1978), a work that tells the story of a 19th century Baltic-German nobleman who tries to persuade the Russian czar to abolish serfdom and is imprisoned in a casemate as a traitor for his pains. As with most of his protagonists, Kross based the character of Timotheus von Bock on a real-life figure. This novel has been translated into English by Anselm Hollo.

Next came a novel set in the 18th century, A Rakvere Romance (1982), where the burghers of Rakvere (German name: Wesenberg) revolted against the oppression of the nobility. It also involves a love story.

From then onwards, Kross shifted his focus to a more modern period. The novels and stories are mostly semi-autobiographical, and even where this is not the case, they are set in the twentieth century.

In 1984, the author published another of his novels that is available in English translation Professor Martens’ Departure, which is set during the early years of the 20th century when Czarist Russia decided to collate and classify all its various treaties with foreign countries. This is done by an ethnic Estonian, and diplomat Friedrich Martens. Kross also plays with the idea of his namesake, who did something similar a century previously. Curiously enough, both Martenses are real historical figures. What is rather sad about this novel is that it forespells one of Kross’ personal disappointments. Professor Martens narrowly misses the Nobel Peace Prize and this disappointment must, years afterwards, been the same as that of the author, since although a candidate, Kross never actually won the Nobel Literature Prize.

Kross’ 1987 novel Into the Wind describes the life of another real-life character, Bernard Schmidt the astronomer, lens polisher and inventor of the Schmidt telescope (still used today!), who was born on the Estonian island of Naissaar (Swedish and German name: Nargö), loses a hand during a teenage fireworks accident, but goes on to become the polisher of precision lenses and mirrors for telescopes of his own invention. Estranged from his wife, he moves to Germany during the rise of Nazism in the 1930s giving Kross the opportunity to examine the paradoxical life of this scientist and hermit as the clouds gather over Germany.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kross published three collections of short-stories plus his first directly autobiographical novel The Wikman Boys (1988) describing his schooldays and the characters he met there. Its sequel Mesmer’s Circle appeared in 1995 and here the author describes the ultimate fates of a number of these contemporaries at high school: some fled to Sweden, some were deported to Siberia, some died, some survived.

In 1989, the novel Excavations was first published in Finnish in Helsinki, Finland, before the Estonian version appeared. The reason for this was that Estonia was going through a very unstable period, during the break-up of the Soviet Union, and if Gorbachev and Yeltsin had not kept things under control, anything could have happened. This novel, that nevertheless appeared in Estonia the following year, is set in the 1950s and the protagonist, once again Kross’ alter ego, is a young man who has just returned from the Gulag and has to find a job to avoid being sent back to Siberia as a “parasite”, a frequent Soviet charge to get rid of inconvenient citizens. He takes part in an archaeological dig under what is now the parliament building and finds a document which proves Estonian claims to nationalism and is controversial from a Soviet or Russian point of view.

In 1993, Kross published the novel Untouchability about Jüri Vilms, who nearly became a member of the government of the newly independent Estonian Republic in 1918, but who died under mysterious circumstances off the Finnish coast near Helsinki, presumably shot by the Germans who were helping the Finns against the Russians at the time. There is, as often with Kross, a parallel theme of the researcher on the run, who is trying to find out more about Vilms, some decades later.

In 1997, a detailed bibliography of everything by and about Jaan Kross was published, in Estonian and in translation. The book is nearly 400 pages long!

The novel Treading Air (1998) looks at the life of a young man from his time at the Wikman high school of the novel above to his rather sad decline in a mental hospital in the 1980s. Ulo Paerand is highly intelligent and is obliged to take the initiative early in life to help the family budget when his father, who proves to be a philandering swindler, flees abroad with his mistress, leaving Ulo and his mother behind, penniless. They start a laundry and this is the start of a series of odd jobs for Ulo, including being messenger for the then Estonian Prime-Minister just at the time when Estonia is forced to sign what is in effect its death warrant as an independent republic on the Soviet-Estonian border. Ulo sees it all, experiences it all, yet remains something of an observer, a bystander. The novels examines the complex psychology of this very Estonian individual. This novel appeared in English translation by Eric Dickens in 2003.

Kross was to publish one more novel, Tahtamaa Farm (2001). This is a contemporary novel, set in post-Soviet Estonia, where an exile Estonian, one of those whose parents fled to Sweden in 1944, comes to Estonia to try to buy a plot of land from a somewhat gullible Estonian. The land contains valuable medicinal mud, which can be used in sanatoria, and as the scales fall from the eyes of the owner of the land, a duel ensues between the scheming Western businessman and the now equally shrewd Estonian.

Kross’ substantial autobiography Dear Travel Companions (600 text pages, plus documents and photographs) appeared in 2003. It covers his life until about 1962, when Kross had achieved some stability in life, had settled down and put his years in the Gulag behind him. It starts out with the small city of Tallinn, the family summer cottage and his student life, and moves on to his work at a newspaper and at a bank, studies, how he avoided being conscripted into the Waffen-SS (also described in the story Lead Piping), his prison experiences during the German occupation, and so on. Over 250 pages are devoted to his involuntary sojourn in Siberia, while the last 150 pages describe Soviet life when he returned from the Gulag. The text was edited by his daughter Kristiina, so there may be a little more to come from the following 45 years of his life.

Finally, Kross published a book of observations on the creation (and translation) of literary texts, also in 2003, under the rather complex title of Jaan Kross – One’s Own Historicity and Subtext. This is a collection of a series of lectures Kross gave in 1998 at the Department of Philosophy at Tartu University where Kross was Extra-Mural Professor of the Liberal Arts. The lectures are, in effect, critical examinations of his own novels and stories. This 220-page book is divided into two sections: Autobiographism and the opportunities and inevitabilities of literature and Text, context, surface text and subtext. This, along with his autobiography, neatly rounds off Jaan Kross’ life’s work.

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Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves recently praised Kross’ work in preserving Estonia’s will to independence, language and literature. “He was one of those who helped the nation maintain a freshness of spirit and prepared the ground for the return of national independence”, said Ilves.

Jaan Kross was married three times and is survived by his widow, Ellen Niit the children’s writer and poet, and his children Kristiina, Eerik-Niiles, Maarja and Märten. From 1962 until his death, Jaan and his family lived in an apartment at the top of a block inhabited only by writers. This was common during Soviet times. The apartment block is right in the center of Tallinn, almost opposite the small commemorative plaque to the bombing of Tallinn in March 1944, which Kross experienced, when the other side of the street was flattened by the Soviet airforce, never to be rebuilt.

At time of writing, a brief obituary has appeared in the International Herald Tribune and ones will be appearing in the British dailies The Guardian and The Independent.

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Eric Dickens 28th December 2007



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