I first visited Estonia—or more specifically, its capital, Tallinn—in August 1993, two years after the small Baltic state regained its independence after nearly half-a-century of Soviet occupation. Tallinn was in the process of uneasy, edgy transformation. The Soviet past was not yet cleanly past. It was still lurking in the dwindling Russian military bases. It was still visible in the general shabbiness, in the rhythms of everyday life, and, above all, in the presence of the large Russian settler population, a minority that Vladimir Putin now eyes hopefully, if not necessarily realistically, for its troublemaking potential.
Totalitarian colonial rule had been replaced by a national democracy, the ruble had been succeeded by the kroon, and free-market reformers were at the helm; but the new government was operating in the rubble of the command economy. There was no spare cash to smooth the transition to capitalism. Inflation had exceeded 1,000 percent during the course of the previous year, savings had been wiped out, the old Soviet enterprises were dying, and the welfare net was fraying.
Yet in Tallinn there was a discernible sense of purpose, buttressed by memories of the prosperous nation prewar Estonia had been. What people wanted, I was told, was a “normal life.” That was a phrase that could be heard all over the former Eastern Bloc in those days, a phrase that damned the Soviet experience as an unwanted, unnatural interruption and resonated with dreams of that elusive Western future. Life was tough in Tallinn, but there were hints of better times to come. If the country was to be rebuilt, this was where the turnaround was taking shape.
But Sigrid Rausing went somewhere else in 1993, to a place far from the hub of national reconstruction, a place where the inhabitants had little idea of what could or should come next, a bleak place—poor, even by the demanding standards of post-Soviet Estonia—where nationhood was misty and visions of the future were still obscured by the wreckage of an alien utopia. Rausing, a scion of one of Sweden’s richest families, was a doctoral student in social anthropology. To gather material for her thesis, she spent a year on the former V. I. Lenin collective farm on Noarootsi, a remote peninsula on the western Estonian coast.
Noarootsi had once been inhabited by members of the country’s tiny Swedish minority, most of whom had been evacuated to the safety of their ancestral homeland by Estonia’s German occupiers shortly before the Red Army returned in 1944. The final minutes before their departure were caught on film: the exiles-to-be assembled on a beach, Red Cross representatives mingling with smiling SS officers. Baltic history is rarely straightforward.
Rausing’s thesis formed the basis of her History, Memory, and Identity in Post-Soviet Estonia: The End of a Collective Farm, an academic work published by Oxford University Press 10 years ago. This was never a book destined to top the bestseller lists, but for anyone able to weather the clouds of jargon that drift by—“the effect was to emphasize the experience of oppositions in the form of a homology”—it offers a sharp, intriguing, and unexpectedly wry portrait of what Rausing refers to as the “particular post-Soviet culture of 1993-94, the culture of transition and reconstruction,” a culture that no longer exists.
Rausing has now reworked the topic of her time in Noarootsi into Everything Is Wonderful, a personal, intimate account of that year in which she largely dispenses with academic analysis—indeed, there are moments when she pokes gentle fun at its absurdities—and gives her considerable lyrical gifts free rein. Graduate-school prose now finds itself transformed into passages of austere beauty. They describe a landscape that reminds her of Sweden, only “deeper, vaster, and sadder”; more than that, they portray a people adrift. There is something of dreaming in her writing, images that haunt. Spring returns, and
the children were outside again, playing and shouting in the long twilight, until there was an almost deafening din echoing between the blocks of flats. One day someone burnt the old brown grass strewn with rubbish between the blocks, and the children kept up their own private fires deep into the night.
There is a subplot too, tense and awkward, sometimes expressed in not much more than a hint, that surrounds the position of Rausing herself, an attractive thirty-some-thing Swedish heiress inserted into this exhausted husk of a community and, for a while, lodging with the heavy-drink-ing, possibly/-probably lecherous Toivo and his long-suffering wife, Inna. Ingmar Bergman, your agent is on the line.