Everything is wonderful

Lovely read over someone’s thoughts whilst living in Estonia. I find that one must have lived in both Western and Eastern Europe to relate to much of what is written here, which is not a bad thing, it is always nice to come across thoughts that resonant with one’s own, to realise that these thoughts are not unique to you, and find others similar, but as yet, still in the box of things “I would never have thought of”.

“‘Why do you think we have such thick paper in the Soviet Union?’ she said. ‘Central office in Moscow demanded that a certain factory produced a certain amount in tons, and so it was easier to produce heavier paper than to produce more paper!’ The same was true for tins: the tin factories had targets of weight, which meant that the tins became absurdly heavy. The machine weights, too, she said, were about ten times their weight from those in the West: ‘Everything was very heavy!'” 

“Like Soviet slogans and the now rusty old Soviet signs, the posters were about identity and ideology, not commerce or even the actual existence of goods for sale.”

“How do you convey the poverty? Not only hers, but the poverty of most of the old people I met: old European peasant poverty.  The smell of stale sweat, earth and apples”

“School-children also spies, sky was as night, earth as giddiness, deceit, fraud – life as leprosy. Communist live royally. Work women (people) must live as deaf and dumb.”

“Cultures are so malleable, so changeable, and also so fragile. What can be created can also be destroyed. If history is falsified, people eventually forget.”

“Sitting in that sauna I thought of forms of knowledge – concrete knowledge like how to milk a cow or dye eggs with onion skin, and experiential knowledge like the scent of the birch leaves in the sauna, spicy and strong. I thought, also, of the accumulation of meaning, and the images that lay behind the words of poverty: wood stoves, small iron beds, old clothes, sores around the mouths of children, tin buckets with water, old pieces of brown soap, potatoes and cabbage. The vodka of hardship, lined dark faces, glazed eyes, clothes melting onto the body, dirty hands red and cut. Those words are so meaningful if you have seen the reality of it, and lived with it, and so empty if you have not.”

“The driving force, however, behind the restoration of Swedishness is not so much a resurrection of the past for its own sake, but rather a process of building a future which is not based on the Soviet past.”

“There is a sense in which people are waiting for the future to happen, stocking up as far as they can against a sense of uncertainty which represents both the actual condition of poverty and the loss of the teleology of the Soviet ideology: that pervasive sense of working towards a goal, which also, of course, was part of the great deception of the state”

“In my view the challenge is how to build a future from the violent rupture of the Soviet years without further marginalising the people, who are involuntarily stuck in a quasi-Soviet aesthetic, which can now be reframed simply as poverty.”

“The Estonians, on the other hand, seemed never to have told anyone what happened to them on that night. Even allowing for different reactions to the TV cameras in their living rooms, and a less empowered relationship with the outside world, it was still as if the very culture of routinely creating stories from memories had been ruptured. The memories remained fragmented; an incoherent flotsam of odd details.

Watching it I was reminded of George Orwell’s 1984. Winston, asking some “proles” in a pub whether life was better or worse before the revolution, couldn’t get a coherent answer: “They remembered a million useless things, a quarrel with a work-mate, a hunt for a lost bicycle pump, the expression on a long-dead sister’s face, the swirls of dust on a windy morning seventy years ago: but all the relevant facts were outside the range of their vision.” The memories of the older people I met on the peninsula were similarly fragile and incoherent. We underestimate, I think, how much our individual stores are supported by a mutual understanding of shared history. We refer to the zeitgeist of the decades in coded shorthand. Each decade eventually gains a dominant symbolic narrative – think of the 1920s, or the 1960s – within which our individual memories and stores are contextualised. In the West there is an easy relationship between individual lives and national culture and history.”

“Swedes were not allowed to fish or join fishing collective farms after the invasion. Two young men, I heard, had tried to escape by boat to Sweden in the 1960s. They built the boat in secret. It took a long time, and it wasn’t a very good boat. They were caught, on the the sea. One of them died in prison. No one I spoke to knew what he had died of, or the details of what happened, or even their names. Just like it was taken for granted that houses could be abandoned and slowly decay, so it was taken for granted that people died in prisons, and that it was possible that no one would ever really know the cause of death. That is the nature of totalitarianism.”

“History, in the sense of a shared national narrative, a dynamic and evolving conversation, was lost to ideology and political repression. And many, perhaps most, of the people conducting that cultural conversation – historians, journalists, writers, archivists, museum curators, reporters, teachers, editors, publishers, documentary filmmakers and producers, and many others – were gone: they had fled, or been deported, or killed.”

“..The emptiness is great indeed, as is the land.

Each one is someone else, from everywhere and leads the way somewhere else,

and no one could ever walk through all this land:

every beginning is different after its end than it was before it ended,

and everything is always something else: the houses remain empty

and I haven’t the strength, nobody has the strength to live and die with everyone,

to step across your thresholds, sleep in all your beds.”

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