Jaan Kross: Writer who through his novels sought to restore the national memory of his native Estonia

Jaan Kross, writer and poet: born Tallinn 19 February 1920; married 1940 Helga Pedussaar (marriage dissolved), 1952 Helga Roos (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1958 Ellen Niit (two sons, one daughter); died Tallinn 27 December 2007

Jaan Kross, the Estonian novelist and poet, was born in the medieval capital Tallinn in 1920 and his fiction, set against a vivid historical canvas, charts the vagaries of Baltic life under Czarist, Nazi and Soviet occupation. In all 16 of his novels, Kross used history as a source of inspiration, as well as a way to restore Estonian national memory. In 1991 he was given "advance warning" that he would win the Nobel Prize for Literature and told to stay by the telephone. "It was easy to do, as I never really leave Tallinn anyway," he recalled. (Nadine Gordimer won that year.)

Kross first came to prominence in the English-speaking world in 1992 with the publication in translation of his Keisri Hull as The Czar's Madman, an allegory about Soviet censorship and the folly of idealism. On its publication in Soviet Tallinn in 1978, the novel had sold an impressive 32,000 copies. The migr Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky had reportedly wanted to film the novel, but died before the project materialised. The Czar's Madman is now regarded as a European masterwork.

Kross's early years unfolded happily in pre-Soviet Tallinn, where genteel standards prevailed. His father was a machine-tool foreman and reasonably well-off. Jaan Kross attended the local Jakob Westholm Grammar School and from 1938 studied law at the distinguished Tartu University. There he met Helga Pedussaar, a philology student and later translator, whom he married in 1940.

On the eve of the Second World War, Kross was made assistant university lecturer in international law. All was not well. Rumours of Stalin's Great Terror began to reach the campus: Estonia, on the edge of the Slav world, was in imminent danger of Soviet takeover.

In June 1940, after just two decades of independence, Estonia succumbed to Soviet occupation. Some 9,700 Estonian army officers, clerks and priests were deported to collective farms in eastern Russia. Not surprisingly, the deportations had a nightmare quality for Kross; his last novel to be published in Britain, Treading Air (2003; originally published as Paigallend in 1998), was a semi-autobiographical account of Estonia's wartime devastation and humiliation. Stalin's departure was followed by further brutality. On 28 August 1941, the Nazis invaded Tallinn.

Kross was able to avoid conscription into the Nazi Estonian Legion by swallowing pills that produced thyroid gland swelling. (The German medical officer examining him said he was "a drunken idiot" not worthy of fighting.) In secret he pursued his political ambitions in the Third Way, a resistance movement which tried to decide Estonia's problems without the Russians and without the Germans. (One of its leaders was the Tallinn lawyer Arnold Susi, later a key figure in Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago.) On 21 April, Kross was arrested by the Nazis on suspicion of "nationalist activities". By the time the Red Army came back to reoccupy Estonia in September 1944, he had spent over five months in Tallinn's central jail.

During the first months of the second Soviet occupation, Kross continued to teach international law at Tartu University, only to be arrested in January 1946 by the KGB. He was taken to the KGB headquarters in Tallinn and placed in a cell with four other men condemned to death. Although reprieved from execution, he spent the next eight years in Soviet prisons and labour camps, a fate shared by some 150,000 of his compatriots.

Conditions were appalling, but Kross had the good luck, in 1949, to work as a felt-boot dryer, thus avoiding the sub-zero temperatures outside. By then he had divorced his first wife and befriended Helga Roos, an Estonian translator of English and German, whom he met and married in the gulag. With the Khrushchev thaw, Kross was pardoned "early" and returned to Tallinn with Helga in 1954. He now began to translate the classics, including Shakespeare, Balzac and Lewis Carroll. (Soviet patronage of the arts, though repressive, ensured that some of the great European works appeared in Estonian.)

Kross's first volume of poetry, Soerikastaja ("The Coal Enricher"), came out in 1958; the erudite, allegorical-ironical free-verse was denounced by the Estonian cultural monthly Sirp ja Vasar ("Hammer and Sickle", today just "Hammer") as "decadent" and "insufficiently Bolshevik". Though Stalin had been dead for five years, his strictures still terrorised Soviet arts and letters.

Kross's third wife, Ellen Niit (whom he married in 1958), was a poet, children's writer and translator from the Hungarian. It was she who encouraged Kross to turn his attention to the historical novel: history at least would allow him to write obliquely of the present. In 1970, Kross published the first in a series of semi-factual historical works which made him famous, first throughout the Soviet Baltics, and later in the West. Neli monoloogi Pha Jri asjus ("Four Monologues on St George") investigated the life of the Estonian artist Michel Sittow (1469-1525), who had worked as court painter to Queen Isabella of Spain. The novella unfolds in the form of a judicial inquiry and explores such contentious issues as nationhood, cultural assimilation and political exile.

The breakthrough, however, came between 1970 and 1980, when Kross brought out his three-part novel on the life of the 16th-century Tallinn city elder Balthasar Russow, Kolme katku vahel ("Between Three Plagues"). Though the trilogy was richly brocaded in historical detail, only in the loosest sense could Kross be described as a historical novelist. The book, written to outwit censorship, was a masterpiece of paradox and ambiguity.

In 1992, after the collapse of Communism, Kross briefly returned to politics and took his place in the renascent Estonian parliament, where he helped to draft his country's new constitution. (At 72, he was then the oldest member on the benches.) With the departure of the Soviet censors, Kross was finally discovered in the English-speaking world. His later short stories, collected in English in 1995 under the title The Conspiracy, recount attempts by Estonians to flee to Finland during the German occupation and their later deportation by the Soviets. Understandably, Kross did not begin to describe his gulag years in print until the advent of glasnost in the mid-1980s. Even so, there is surprisingly little bleakness in his prison stories. Jann Kross wrote about his incarceration with a poignancy devoid of anger.

Ian Thomson

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Eminem's daughter Hailie has graduated from high school
music
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Arts and Entertainment
'Deep Breath' is Peter Capaldi's first full-length adventure as the twelfth Doctor
TVFirst episode of new series has ended up on the internet
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Dynamics CRM Developer (C#, .NET, Dynamics CRM 2011/2013)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Dynamics CRM D...

Web Developer (C#, ASP.NET, AJAX, JavaScript, MVC, HTML)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Web Developer ...

C# R&D .NET Developer-Algorithms, WCF, WPF, Agile, ASP.NET,MVC

£50000 - £67000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# R&D .NE...

C# Developer (Web, HTML5, CSS3, ASP.NET, JS, Visual Studios)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?