Historical culture, conflicting memories and identities in post-Soviet Estonia
This study investigates the interplay of collective memories and national identity in Estonia, and uses life story interviews with members of the intellectual elite as the primary source. I view collective memory not as a monolithic homogenous unit, but as subdivided into various group memories that can be conflicting. The conflict line between 'Estonian victims' and 'Russian perpetrators' figures prominently in the historical culture of post-Soviet Estonia. However, by setting an ethnic Estonian memory against a 'Soviet Russian' memory, the official historical narrative fails to account for the complexity of the various counter-histories and newly emerging identities activated in times of socio-political 'transition'. Considering that any national history is above all the tale of the dominant group, a comparative analysis of the different group memories among those debating, teaching and writing Estonian history helps to discover which historical facts were integrated into the official narrative after 1991 and which had to be deliberately omitted. From the life story interviews with over forty intellectuals of Estonian, Russian and Estonian Russian background it transpired that group memories are not determined by ethnic background alone, but that generational factors and the socio-political milieu play as significant a role. In the interviews 'narrative identity' is reconstructed and the intertwined levels of 'communicative memory' and of 'cultural memory' are revealed. Post-Soviet Estonia is a 'nationalising state' with an exclusive ethnic concept of the nation. Estonian identity is based on language, folklore and culture and a long tradition of defining one's identity against the 'other' (i.e. Baltic German, Soviet Russian rule). In contrast to some postmodernists, I argue that it is memories of certain 'formative historical events' that compose one constitutive part of national identity. At the core of Estonia's national narrative lies the story of subjugation and survival; thus events of collective suffering and resistance figure prominently. After 1940 in particular it was up to individual history teachers to convey a more critical view on the past, and it was historians born in the late 1950s who took an active political stance in the move for independence (e.g. Estonian Heritage Society). Quintessentially, historians did not function as 'custodians of counter-memory' during the Soviet period; instead it was through private family memories, underground literature, forbidden books and other sites of counter memory that alternative historical accounts were preserved. This study of emerging collective identities in Estonia is applicable to the larger context of societies in Eastern Europe that have undergone processes of identity-reconfiguration during and after the collapse of the Soviet bloc.