These days, Estonia, bordered by Finland, Latvia and Russia, is known for its staunch democracy, wired technologies and as the birthplace of the founder of Skype. Unfortunately, it has endured a chequered and difficult history mainly due to its proximity to Russia.
“When the Doves Disappeared” by Sofi Oksanen (Knopf) is the story of particularly dark period in Estonia’s history, from the early 1940s when the country was occupied first by Soviet Russia and then by Nazi Germany, through the 1960s, when as part of the Soviet bloc, Estonia endured a Stasi-like regime.
Oksanen, a prize-winning Finnish-Estonian novelist and playwright, tells the story of this painful era through the eyes and interlocked lives of three main protagonists: Edgar, his wife, Juudit and his cousin Roland. But it is Edgar, aka Eggert Fürst, aka Parts, a closeted, villainous quisling and apparatchik, a perfect embodiment of Arendt’s “banality of evil, “who functions as the book’s center; his unhappy wife and heroic cousin serve mainly as foils to his self-serving amorality and spurs to his continuing deceptions. Juudit makes choices that stretch her loyalties in opposing directions; she sleeps with an SS officer while helping Roland smuggle refugees; Roland seems to stand true to his beliefs and country until he disappears from view. In truth, by the end of this sad saga, Oksanen seems to suggest that all Estonians during this precarious time were damaged by the vicissitudes of the war and its subsequent uneasy peace.
The fate of Estonia’s Jews runs like an invisible thread throughout the novel; they appear mostly in the shadows, as third-person victims of the Nazis’ vision and goals, and as a harbinger for all that is yet to come. Jews began settling in Estonia in the 19th century after they were officially granted the right to leave the Russian “Pale.” Following Estonia’s War of Independence in 1920, the state displayed exceptional tolerance towards minorities and between the two World Wars, Jewish life began to flourish there, although always in very small numbers. As the novel makes clear, there was little ingrained hatred of Jews in Estonia as was the case in so many other European countries.The Nazis gained traction in their Anti-Semitic efforts by portraying the Jews as Communists; the Soviets by portraying them as Fascists.
This interesting and engaging novel, a bestseller in Finland and Sweden, works on many levels: as an eye-opening history of a particular time and place, as a story of how thwarted love and unfulfilled needs turns people inside out, and finally as a mystery novel whose crime remains undisclosed until the final shocking denouement.
Gloria Kestenbaum is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer.