Shortly after the turn of the millennium, two remarkable documentaries about Estonian history were released: Raimo Jõerand’s Sinimäed and Imbi Paju’s Memories Denied. The first one deals with the Second World War battle in Estonia at Sinimäed in 1944 from the perspective of an Estonian who fought in the German Army. The second discusses women’s experiences in the Soviet labour camps and is based on the story of the director’s mother and aunt, who in 1948 were imprisoned by the NKVD and sent to the Gulag. Both are highly compelling films, but their reception and international success has been very different. Sinimäed was well received in Estonia, but has in the subsequent years largely disappeared from the cultural radar. Memories Denied received a much more emotional welcome and quickly became one of the most representative stories of Estonian history, having been circulated in various international fora from cultural festivals to screenings in the European Parliament. The differing fortunes of these films well epitomises important transformations in the remembering of the Second World War and the Soviet occupation in the post-Soviet Estonian culture of remembrance in the past 25 years.

The following article argues that one of the prominent characteristics of the post-Soviet Estonian memory culture has been its orientation outwards, towards the popularisation of Estonian history in the international arena, and asks for the reasons behind this disposition. The article focuses on what and how: what has been remembered from the past, and how has it been presented, paying particular attention to the transformation of both the themes of memory and the memorial forms that are used to remember the past. If in the 1990s the Soviet occupation and repressions were remembered in terms of national resistance to the regime, with little attention paid to the transnational tendencies in the global memory culture, then in the past decade the Estonian culture of remembrance has considerably opened up towards the global developments. The article focuses on artistic representations of memory, on some of the most successful memory-related art works of the past decade – Imbi Paju’s documentary Memories Denied, Martti Helde’s feature film In the Crosswind and Kristina Norman’s video art. It explores in particular the transcultural memorial forms that these artistic works use to talk about Estonian history and the way in which remembering the past has contributed to the awareness of human rights’ issues in the present.

International pressure and orientation outwards

Remembering the past is always connected with the present and with the future. The selections made of what is remembered, and how, help to make sense of the present and set one’s sights for the future. In transitional societies this kind of “memory work” plays an important role in coming to terms with the legacies of previous regimes, in the moral redress of past injustices and suffering, and in levelling past political divisions. At the beginning of the 1990s, the vital issues of the past that hampered the political and cultural development of Estonian society, and that therefore had to be worked through and morally evaluated, included the Stalinist repressions; the mass deportations of approximately 30,000 people on two occasions - in 1941 and 1949; war crimes and crimes against humanity committed on Estonian territory during and after the Second World War; the mass migration of Estonians to the West towards the end of the war in September 1944; and adaptation to and collaboration with the Soviet regime. Even if it is widely assumed that in the Soviet period the knowledge of these aspects of 20th century Estonian history was present in the unofficial memory, at the beginning of the 1990s all these issues still had to be not only made public, but also scientifically researched, popularised and remembered. This kind of “memory work” is generally held to be important for the coherence of the new society: the working through and public remembering of problematic aspects of the past is believed to set necessary moral standards, to contribute to moral reparations for the victims, to healing the wounds and to the reconciliation of past divisions.

If the “memory work” is held to be necessary for the society itself, the post-Soviet Estonian, and more widely the Baltic cultures of remembrance have been characterised by their turn outwards to the international arena. More important than the local research and remembering of the occupation, the repressions and the crimes against humanity has been their popularisation abroad. The past decades have been stamped by the feeling that the specificity of Estonian history is not understood in the West and hence everything has to be done both on the political and on the cultural level to highlight its details and special status.

The orientation outwards has considerably hampered open debate about the painful issues of the past. It has been widely assumed that in Estonia everybody knows what happened here during and after the Second World War, thereby ignoring both important differences in the Soviet experience across Estonian society as well as in the resulting images of the past. Different interpretations of history and in particular of the history of the Second World War have been one of the main obstacles to the integration of society in Estonia. Furthermore, in the search for international recognition for local history there has been a belief in the need for only one story to be distributed abroad and it has been assumed that an open debate about the past and its different interpretations would only weaken Estonia’s position internationally.

There have been two main reasons for the international orientation of the post-Soviet Estonian memory culture: the post-Soviet developments in Russia, and major transformations in the global memory culture. Even if Russia officially condemned the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1989, Russian recognition and condemnation of the occupation of the Baltic countries has been dwindling in the past decades. Furthermore, Russia has never officially dealt with the study, condemnation and remembering of Stalinist repressions (Etkind 2013). The latter has been one of the main reasons why the Baltic States have felt the need to search for international recognition for these aspects of the past: to establish historical justice. As Russia has in the past 25 years repeatedly denied its occupation of the Baltic States, the culture of remembrance in the 1990s in Estonia focused on the aspects of history that highlighted the resistance to the Soviet regime, i.e. the battle of Estonian men against the Soviet Union in the German Army or as Forest Brothers (the members of the anti-Soviet military resistance movement in the Estonian forests after the Second World War). The facts concerning the armed resistance proved the unwanted and violent nature of the annexation in 1940.

Even if at the end of the 1980s the working through of the Soviet past started with the Stalinist repressions, the deportations and the Gulag, the central issues of the culture of remembrance in the 1990s were the heroic fight for the nation and the nation state with the German army or as Forest Brothers. The “memory work” done in regard to the mass deportations quickly found support through legal initiatives at the end of the 1980s. However, by the mid-1990s many former victims still felt that the public interest towards them was withering (Anepaio 2002). Even if various scholars have explained the diminished public attention to the deportations in the 1990s with the need for future-oriented goals for building up the new state and joining NATO and the EU, one of the reasons why it fell into the shadow of the armed resistance was precisely the need to stress the facts of the resistance in the search for the international recognition for Estonian history.

However, the international orientation of the post-Soviet Estonian culture of remembrance in the 1990s was also a reaction to global developments in transnational memory culture. The collapse of the Soviet Union, and working through its legacies in the Baltic States, roughly overlapped with major transformations in the global cultures of remembrance. In the second half of the 20th century the previous modernist utopias of the future and the belief in progress were slowly replaced with memorialising the catastrophes of the century, in particular the Second World War. Immediately after the war the whole of Europe was focused on reconstruction and there was only limited public attention given to the crimes against humanity committed during the war. But starting from the 1960s and 1970s the destruction of European Jews by the Nazis emerged as the central focus of remembering the Second World War.

In the subsequent decades, the Holocaust acquired a wide cultural significance also outside Europe and North America and by the beginning of the 1990s there had developed a transnational memory of the Holocaust. Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider (2006), who use the term cosmopolitan memory have shown how starting from the 1990s many countries were forced to reshape their national memory by relating it to the Holocaust, independently of the question of whether the country had been directly involved in it or not. In addition, the Holocaust has developed into a global memory imperative, a reminder from the past that helps to counter genocide and human rights’ violations in the present. The development of the Holocaust memory into a global model has also contributed to its use for remembering violent historical events in other times and in other parts of the world. Michael Rothberg (2009) has shown how slavery in the US and European colonialism have been increasingly remembered in comparison with and in competition with the Holocaust.

The transnationalisation of the Holocaust memory in the beginning of the 1990s brought an international political and cultural pressure to the Baltic States to integrate the Holocaust memory into their newly-established national memory, and this not only in terms of a commitment to human rights. Estonia belongs to the group of post-socialist countries that were directly involved in the Holocaust. In 1941, after the occupation of Estonia by the Nazis, all the Estonian Jews who had remained in the country were killed. In addition, the Nazis built various concentration camps here where Jews from Lithuania, Germany, Czechoslovakia and other European countries died or were killed. The international pressure to deal with this history caught Estonia by surprise not only because attending to the legacies of the Stalinist repressions seemed much more pressing, but also because of the fact that despite the Soviet anti-fascist propaganda the genocidal aspect of the Nazi crimes had been largely silenced in the Soviet Union. There was not enough trustworthy information about the extent and nature of the local Holocaust experience to fall back on in the process of public remembering. Therefore in the 1990s there was a certain sluggishness in dealing with the local Holocaust experience (Pettai 2011).

The difficulties in dealing with the Holocaust in Estonia resulted also from the fact that it clashed with remembering the Estonian men in the German army as freedom fighters. In an attempt to honour those who had fought for the freedom of their country and had in many cases paid a high price for it in terms of Soviet repressions, it was difficult to accept, on the level of public remembering, that some of these men had been involved in Nazi war crimes and crimes against humanity. With these choices Estonia put itself into a difficult position. On the one hand, there was the felt need to open up towards the West and search for international recognition for its particular history, including for the motives and ideals of the Estonian men involved in the German army. On the other hand, however, there was also a considerable blindness to the fact that in the global memory culture the heroisation of fighting in the German army, in whatever circumstances, has been and continues to be unthinkable. The memory culture of the 1990s was stamped by the widespread belief that it would be possible to convince the international public sphere that the Estonian men in the German army fought only for their independent state and they did not have anything to do with the Nazi crimes. One of the examples of such an approach is Raimo Jõerand’s Sinimäed, which from the perspective of global memory culture is difficult to understand.

There are numerous examples from the past two decades in which the pressure of the transnational culture of remembrance, while not in conflict with the local memory culture, certainly put pressure on it, especially in relation to the issue of the involvement of Estonian men in the German army. These examples include the critique of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre towards Estonia for insufficient prosecution of the Nazi perpetrators as well as, conversely, the decision of the Estonian Government to remove the monument to the Estonian men in the German army in Lihula in 2004. The establishment of the Estonian International Commission for Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity by the President of Estonia, Lennart Meri, in 1998 has also been seen by many scholars as a successful attempt to come to terms with the international pressure to deal with war crimes and crimes against humanity committed on Estonian territory during the Second World War, by scientific research and wide popularisation.

New memorial forms: the suffering of individuals and their psychological traumas

The global developments that have had an impact on Estonian memory culture are not limited only to the topic of the Holocaust. The transnational emergence of the Holocaust memory changed not only what was remembered of the past – crimes against humanity instead of the war victories – but also the way in which they were remembered. Starting from the last decades of the past century the Western world has been focused not on remembering collective heroic deeds, but the suffering of individuals. The war hero or resistance fighter has been replaced by the innocent victim, often a civilian who had been caught in the whirlwind of war, repressions or forced displacement. Historical events have been increasingly remembered in terms of the psychological traumas they brought to individuals, paying particular attention to the ways of coming to terms with the after-effects of the violent events on people’s lives.

The anthropologists Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman (2009) have shown that the emergence of the theme of trauma cannot be linked only to progress in psychiatry, which enabled the diagnosis of disturbances that were previously left unregistered. Rather, psychiatry offered a name for a phenomenon that had made an appearance in contemporary historical culture due to historical developments. The emergence of trauma in the contemporary cultures of remembrance has been associated with the recognition of the psychological plight of the Vietnam War veterans in the US and with the women’s rights movement of the 1970s. However, it became the prevailing paradigm in making sense of historical violence in relation to the testimonies of the Holocaust survivors, which, starting from the beginning of 1980s, had been collected with the help of a new medium, video testimonies (The path-breaking initiatives in this regard were the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University and Steven Spielberg Film and the Video Archive housed in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.). In the contemporary world, testimony of trauma is a memorial form, a language that can be used to talk about violent histories world-over, a language that is internationally understandable.

What is a memorial form? The scholars of memory have drawn attention to the fact that we cannot speak about the past in whatever way. We can only make use of the discursive forms that are available to us in a certain historical and cultural context. Ann Rigney (2005) has shown that even though the history of different groups of people is always unique, the memorial forms and technologies of remembering are often similar, transcultural - they are borrowed and recycled. In recent years the scholars of transnational memory have been interested in how memorial forms travel between cultures and how the forms developed in one context are used to remember a different past elsewhere.

In the Estonian culture of remembrance of the 1990s there was little place for psychological trauma. Even if the medium of individual life stories had an important role in the memory culture, the vocabulary of trauma was not present in them when the Soviet deportations and the Gulag were recalled. The researchers of life stories have noted that in the narration of their experiences the deported persons used more traditional autobiographical forms. This might be one of the reasons why the Estonian memories of the deportations and the Gulag highlight survival and endurance rather than psychological suffering.

5.3.3. The trauma of the repressions: Imbi Paju’s Memories Denied

An important change in the Estonian culture of remembrance was signalled in the mid-2000s by Imbi Paju’s documentary Memories Denied (2005) and her popular history book by the same name. When the film, which had been released in Finland, was first shown in Estonia it provoked a strong emotional response both from renowned cultural critics as well as from a wider audience, as if the Soviet deportations and the Gulag had been addressed for the first time. After two decades of working through the painful memories of Soviet oppression, the film seemed to have captured its impact on peoples’ lives.

Figure 5.3.1. Imbi Paju’s Memories Denied

Source: Fantaasiafilmi, Allfilm, 2005

What was the reason for such an emotional response? The film was different from previous Estonian representations of the Gulag in many respects. It is a very personal story about the director’s mother and aunt, twin sisters who were imprisoned as teenagers by the NVKD for alleged collaboration with the Forest Brothers, and sent to a labour camp in the Arkhangelsk region. But the film is also about the director herself, as it deals with the impact of this largely untold story on the next generation. Paju starts her film with the following remarks:

As a child I often couldn’t sleep because my mother had nightmares and cried out for help in her sleep. The horrors of her dreams were Stalin’s forced labor camps and the Soviet soldiers who threatened her life. In these nightmares, she never made it back home to her mother. The nightmares stirred me as a child. It was then that the scenario for this story began to form in my mind. Forced labor camps and death camps penetrated my unconscious through my mother’s nightmares […] Feelings of all kinds can flow from mother to child. I didn’t know then that my mother was suffering from what might be called “remembrance.” I felt helpless.

Paju addresses the experience of the Gulag and its after-effects for the subsequent generations from the perspective of psychological traumas. The scholars of memory call this kind of memory postmemory (Hirsch 1999). Postmemory is the relationship of the children of the survivors to the memories of their parents, which have reached them through stories and images, but which are so overwhelming that they become part of their own memories. Imbi Paju’s Memories Denied is an act of postmemory because it describes the second generation’s journey into the past and tries to sort out a story that the first generation prefers not to recall – a fact made abundantly clear in the film.

Secondly, Memories Denied was unique because it represents the Soviet deportations and the Gulag through the gendered experiences of women and deals with the question of sexual humiliation and violence in the context of state terror. The Estonian memory culture of the 1990s had been dominated by the memory of the military resistance of the Estonian men in the German army and as Forest Brothers and thus by the experiences of men. Even if stories told by women formed an important part of the public memories of deportations because more women than men were deported and more women survived, the sensitive question of sexual violence was hardly addressed in these stories. Even in the film the issue is surrounded by silences. As the protagonists refuse to address the question directly, Paju is forced to interview other women whose fate was similar to her mother’s and to build a certain archive of testimonies.

Thirdly, in contrast to previous representations of the Soviet crimes of repression in theatre, literature and film, Memories Denied was consciously turned outwards toward the international audience. The film was co-produced by its Finnish filmmakers and was first released in Finland. The book Memories Denied was also first published in Finnish. In telling the story of the Stalinist repressions in the international arena Paju uses a language - the language of psychological trauma - which is understandable in that context. The film received a very emotional response in Estonia because her approach was completely new in this context. Together, the film and book introduced a new era in remembering the Soviet deportations and the Gulag and perhaps the whole Soviet period and opened it up to the global transnational memory culture.


Other film and literary works that use the same kind of memorial form and focus on the psychological suffering of women and children in the context of Stalinist repressions are Leelo Tungal’s Comrade Child (Seltsimees laps, 2008), Velvet and Sawdust (Samet ja saepuru, 2009) and Estonian-Finnish author Sofi Oksanen’s novel Purge (Puhdistus 2008).

Even though the film does not make any direct references to the Holocaust, one of the first critics of the film immediately spotted its link to the global memory culture. In a review with a telling title “So late came the first Estonian holocaust doc, Jürgen Rooste (2005) writes: “the lingua franca of modern historical documentary is obviously the Holocaust film […] but here [in Estonia] the language that would pave the way to the academic or public realm is spoken only by a few.” Rooste observes that in order to talk about Estonian history the film uses memorial forms developed in the context of the Holocaust memory. Starting from the 2000s the remembering in Estonia of Stalinist repressions and the forced displacements caused by them has increasingly been intertwined with the transnational memory culture and focuses mainly on the psychological traumas of women and children in the context of state terror.

The Soviet Holocaust: Martti Helde’s In the Crosswind

The transcultural memorial forms are more visible in one of the most internationally-successful recent Estonian feature films In the Crosswind (2014) by a young director, Martti Helde. The film tells the story of the deportation of a young Estonian woman and her family by using the experimental mode of tableau vivant. The film features more than a dozen tableaux that represent different stages of the experience of the deportation. The tableaux are accompanied by a voice-over by the protagonist, who tells her story in letters to her husband. The aesthetic of the film has greatly contributed to its impact and won it a great deal of international interest and praise.

Figure 5.3.2. Photo from Martti Helde’s In the Crosswind

Source: Allfilm, 2014. Photo by Mardo Männimägi.

But these extraordinary artistic choices are not the only reasons for the film’s success. Like Memories Denied, the film is consciously turned outward toward the international audience and is made in the context of the global memory culture. It focuses on the psychological traumas of an innocent victim, traumas caused by sexual violence and the loss of a child. However, in contrast to Memories Denied it makes a much more direct reference to the Holocaust and to its transnational culture of remembrance in the context of which the film is made. It employs tropes and iconographic motifs from the Holocaust memory tradition, such as the freezing of time that is rendered by the tableaux vivants or the pile of shoes of the killed victims, which is one of the most recognisable icons in the Holocaust memorial culture.


After a screening of the film in May 2015 in Tallinn, Helde told to the audience that after six months of screenings at different festivals he considered removing the dedication, but was advised against it by a French distributor of the film who argued that the film would not be understandable without the reference.

The film refers to the Holocaust in its end titles, which read: “The film is dedicated to the victims of the Soviet Holocaust”. Here one may ask what might have been the director’s intentions in adding the dedication to the film. On the one hand, Helde seems to refer to the widely-known Holocaust in order to draw attention to a lesser-known and for him a similar historical event. As explained above, in the contemporary world the Holocaust has become a global model for talking about other histories of violence all over the world. On the other hand, the reference could also come across as an attempt to compare the Soviet deportation to the Holocaust, which is unacceptable for many. The reception of the film in different contexts has testified to the ambiguity of the reference. For some viewers the allusion to the Holocaust is a necessary reference that helps to contextualise an otherwise unknown story. However, there have also been other viewers who have been deeply moved by the mastery of the experimental film, but have found the questionable reference to the Holocaust inelegant and unnecessarily politicising. There are many lessons to be learned by the Estonian culture of remembrance from the ambivalent reception of the film.

After the enlargement of Europe into the East, the Eastern European historical experience has gained more attention on the European level. The Eastern European countries have been able to make their voices heard in different political fora and there have been various attempts to condemn Soviet repressions on the European level. Maria Mälksoo (2014) has shown that in their search for international recognition for their local history the Eastern European initiatives have used the Holocaust template and striven for the universal condemnation of all crimes against humanity, including those committed by the Soviet Union. However, the attempts to compare the Holocaust and the Soviet repressions may have differing results both on the political as well as on the cultural level, as we saw in the case of the film In the Crosswind. The Nazi genocide against the Jews has, due to its industrialised nature, been remembered as an absolutely unique event. Therefore all the attempts to compare it to other historical events have been seen by many as morally offensive. All kinds of historical comparisons are internationally acceptable only if they take into account the specificity of historical contexts.

Next to the growing awareness of the transnational Holocaust memory and its memorial forms in Estonia, there has been considerable progress in the research and popularisation of the local Holocaust experience. In 2013 the Estonian History Museum inaugurated an open-air exposition at the location of the former Klooga concentration camp near Tallinn. Alongside scholarly publications, the researchers at the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory have regularly discussed the local Holocaust experience in the Estonian media. In recent years on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, on January 26, the media has frequently run stories about the Nazi crimes in Estonia and about the fate of local Jews.

When memory returns home

This brief overview of the post-Soviet Estonian culture of remembrance has shown that in the past quarter of a century important transformations have taken place in the remembrance of the Second World War and Soviet crimes in Estonia. Both the memorial forms and central themes have changed. The focus of the memory culture has shifted from the resistance to the Soviet regime by Estonians in the German army and as Forest Brothers, to the suffering resulting from mass deportations and crimes. The experiences of men have been supplemented and sometimes replaced by those of women and these are remembered not in terms of resistance, but in terms of psychological traumas. The stories that have gained most attention are not told by the people who experienced them, but by the second and third generation who feel at home in the global memory culture and are able to speak its language. However, what has remained unchanged is the outward orientation of memory culture itself. The most successful aesthetic acts of memory of the past dozen years have been consciously addressed not to the local Estonian audience, but to the international one. But these films and books also act locally and have an impact on the cultural memory of local people. In fact, it might be interesting to ask what happens if after the international success and approval the stories told outward return home? What happens if stories that are told in the transnational language of memory have to be translated back into the local context?

The reception of the artistic work turned outwards has not always been unproblematic in Estonia. One of the most remarkable examples in this regard has been the public debate that erupted in 2010 around Estonian-Finnish author Sofi Oksanen’s novel Purge. The discussion was unprecedented as it filled the columns of the biggest daily newspapers for several weeks. Strangely enough for a fictional text, the focus of the debate was on the historical correctness of the image of history created in the novel. Purge is written by an author who has an Estonian background, but who was born abroad and is thus situated at the borders of a different culture. In the novel, Estonian history is used as a setting for a universal story about the psychological traumas resulting from sexual violence against women in the context of state terror.

Despite the universalising ambitions of the novel, some of the Estonian readers and commentators greeted the book as the one that will finally explain Estonian history for the international readership. For those people, more important than its disputed aspects was its international success and the attention it drew to Estonian history. However, the opposing side of the debate questioned the image of history represented in the novel and criticised its black and white depiction of Estonian history, where the roles of victims and perpetrators were distributed along ethnics lines.

The debate around Purge showed that the popularisation of Estonian history abroad cannot be the only aim of “memory work” as had been believed for the past 25 years. The discussions about the past and its cultural representations should also serve the purpose of working through different interpretations of history within the involved community itself. The international pressure on the post-Soviet Estonian memory culture has created the need to popularise Estonia history abroad by going back to the ‘one and only story’ and by presenting it in a language that is internationally understandable. The questions of public memory have often been linked in Estonia to the securitisation of memory and to the idea of psychological defence (Mälksoo 2015). This has led to the neglect of the importance of working through different histories, experiences and their memories within Estonian society and among its different ethnic groups for the sake of political and cultural cohesion.

In the past decade the Estonian culture of remembrance has been considerably diversified. Its focus has shifted to the previously under-represented groups such as women and children, and to their psychological suffering. However, it is also symptomatic of how rapidly these stories have been re-nationalised and distributed by the state as the only and most representative stories of Estonian history. The way in which just in a decade sexual violence against women has moved from complete silence into the centre of the remembrance of Soviet repression and forced displacements is not without its problems. The scholars of memory have drawn attention to the dangers of putting an exclusive focus on suffering and victimhood, as this often serves to overshadow the problematic aspects of history that are reluctantly remembered on the collective level. In Estonia the under-discussed aspects of local history include the collaboration of some with the Soviet regime and the participation of Estonians in crimes against humanity during the Second World War.

In the past 25 years the need for the ‘one and only story’ to be told abroad has overshadowed the plurality of historical experiences of different ethnic and cultural communities within contemporary Estonian society. There have been important initiatives by artists such as Merle Karusoo or Kristina Norman to chart the diverging memories of the Russian-Estonian community of the Second World War. However, when the divergences become apparent, as in the case of the Bronze Soldier conflict in 2007, they still catch many by surprise. One of the major challenges of the post-Soviet Estonian culture of remembrance continues to be its diversification through the memories of different ethnic and cultural communities.

Estonian cultural memory and contemporary human rights: Kristina Norman’s video art

The preceding overview has shown how several recent cultural representations of memory have used historical comparisons with the Holocaust to talk about Estonian history. A different kind of transnationalisation is at stake in those comparisons that do not aim at popularising Estonian history abroad, but use historical parallels in order to draw attention to human rights’ violations and to experiences of political violence in the present. The best example in this regard is Kristina Norman’s video art, in particular her piece Common Ground (2013).

Historical paralleling is the central principle of Norman’s Common Ground. In this work she juxtaposes the memories of the Estonian refugees who escaped to Sweden in 1944 with the stories of contemporary asylum seekers in Estonia interviewed in the asylum centre in Illuka in 2013. By drawing on memories of the mass migration of the Estonians in September 1944 that have been in high regard in the post-Soviet memory culture, Norman tries to elicit empathy for the contemporary asylum seekers who in 2013, before the refugee crisis in Europe, received very little attention in Estonian society.

In the intertwined testimonies, the elderly Estonian-Swedes recall their reception by the Swedes in 1944 with great warmth. They highlight the instances of hospitality related to such basic human needs as food, shelter and health protection. In one of the most moving of these stories a lady recalls how a hospital nurse, before releasing her from the hospital after a serious illness of diphtheria, washed her hair, not out of duty, but out of pure human care. The experiences of the contemporary asylum seekers in Estonia are quite different. They have no one to ask how to feed themselves from the state relief subsidies, or how to cook or take a shower in an accommodation centre that has been left without water. The experiences of the asylum seekers testify to official negligence and to the various psychological problems of refugee life. Norman’s work highlights the difference between the experiences of the Estonian-Swedes and contemporary refugees and their asymmetrical recognition in Estonian society by the fact that the Estonian-Swedes testify in their own name, facing the camera, while the asylum seeker, however, have to remain unidentified for security reasons and tell their stories with their backs turned to the viewer.

Figure 5.3.3. A scene from Kristina Norman’s Common Ground.

Figure 5.3.4. A scene from Kristina Norman’s Common Ground.

Norman’s aim in making a historical juxtaposition in Common Ground is not to equalise these historical events. Instead of comparing large historical contexts themselves she focuses on similar personal experiences related to basic human needs such as food, water and shelter. The intertwined testimonies draw attention to the devastating effects of violent histories and to the nurturing impact of hospitality in the refugee situations. Norman’s historical parallels represent a new trend in the post-Soviet Estonian culture of remembrance. They do not serve the purpose of popularising Estonian history abroad. Instead, the national memory is used here as a ground for comparison in order to draw attention to political violence and to the burning issues of human rights in the present. Norman’s video art shows that the questions of cultural memory cross national borders and only an open-minded remembering can contribute to the dialogue on public memory.


The present article charts important transformations in the Estonian culture of remembrance over the past 25 years by making reference to some of the most significant and internationally-successful films and artistic works. While in the 1990s the Soviet occupation and Stalinist repressions were remembered through the prism of national memory by concentrating on the military resistance to the Soviet regime, in the last decade the accent has shifted more onto the Stalinist repressions and the psychological traumas experienced by their victims, often women. This change has been partly called forth by developments in the global memory culture where new memorial forms have focused attention onto the after-effects of violent histories on individual human lives. Additionally, in the last decade the remembering of the Second World War in Estonia has increasingly served the purpose of raising awareness about human rights in the present.


Anepaio, T. (2002). Reception of the Topic of Repressions in the Estonian Society. Runnel, P. (ed) Whose Culture? Tartu: Eesti Rahva Muuseum, 47–65.

Etkind, A. (2013). Warped Mourning: Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Fassin, D., Rechtman, R. (2009). The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry Into the Condition of Victimhood. Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Hirsch, M. (1999). Projected Memory: Holocaust Photographs in Personal and Public Fantasy. Bal, M., Crew, J., Spitzer, L. (eds), Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present, 3–23. Hanover, HN: University Press of New England.

Levy, D., Sznaider, N. (2006). Holocaust and the Memory in the Global Age. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Mälksoo, M. (2015). Mäluseadused ja julgeolek. Vikerkaar, 10–11, 120–129.

Mälksoo, M. (2014). Criminalizing Communism: Transnational Mnemopolitics in Europe. International Political Sociology 8, 82–99.

Pettai, E.-C. (2011). Establishing “Holocaust Memory. – A Comparison of Estonia and Latvia”. Rathkolb, O., Sooman, I. (eds), Geschichtspolitik im erweiterten Ostseeraum und ihre aktuellen Symptome – Historical Memory Culture in the Enlarged Baltic Sea Region and its Symptoms Today, 159–173. Göttingen: V&R unipress, Wien: Vienna University Press.

Rigney, A. (2005). Plenitude, Scarcity and the Circulation of Cultural Memory.Journal of European Studies, 35 (1), 11–28.

Rooste, J. (2005). Nii hilja valmis siis Eesti esimene holokaustidokk! Sirp, 14. XI.

Rothberg, M. (2009). Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.