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

Saturday 29 December 2007 01:00

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

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