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« Tuna 2 / 2017

Jaan Kross’s Failed Attempts to become a Soviet Writer. The years of exile 1951–1954

Only sporadic light has been shed on the beginning of Jaan Kross’s development as a writer. Accord- ing to the understanding that remains current  to this day, his creative  work was rather  episodic before the mid-1950s, creating the impression that Kross emerged  on the  Soviet Estonian literary scene with a “big bang” just when he was given a dignified opportunity to do so for the first time: namely during the political thaw that followed the condemnation of Stalin’s personality  cult, when his first collection of poetry entitled  Söerikastaja (Coal Refiner, 1958) was published. Closer exam- ination nevertheless  indicates that Kross already tried  to  make  his way into  the  literary  world considerably earlier already and in an altogether different  way than it later turned  out.

Kross’s correspondence from his period  of forced Siberian exile (which was first meant to be lifelong) in the settlement of Aban in Krasnoyarsk krai, where he lived in 1951–1954 after his time in the prison camps, sheds new light on the his- tory of his creative work: letters to and from his mother  and his first wife Helga Pedusaar-Kross, who remained in Tallinn, correspondence with his second wife Helga Roos and with the art histo- rian Villem Raam,  who both were also exiled in Siberia. The letters  to Kross’s mother  from the communist activist Alma Vaarman, who was one of Kross’s fellow exiles in Aban and had been sent to Siberia for a second time already, are also of interest. Yet in this and the subsequent two issues of Tuna, the joint correspondence of Kross and Vaarman with the  Stalinist  literary  critic Huko Lumet,  who lived in Tallinn,  will be published, along with Kross’s letters to Vaarman in Siberia in 1954 when he himself was already back in Estonia. These letters are found in the Estonian National Archives (Tallinn), the Estonian Cultural History Archive (Tartu), and in private collections.

It becomes apparent from his correspondence with the abovementioned people that it was pre- cisely during his years in Siberian exile that Kross became aware once and for all of his calling as a writer and tried to settle in to the working style of the professional man of letters – this, of course, to the extent to which it was possible alongside the hard physical labour he had to engage in for his daily bread. He had graduated from the University of Tartu as a lawyer and taken a job there as a specialist in international law but his juridical diploma was useless in Siberia. He had to come to grips with the fact that exiles stay in Siberia for the rest of their lives, or at least for a very long time. The  only way to feel like a human  being and to keep himself in spiritual and intellectual shape  was to read  as much  as possible  (books were sent from Estonia)  and to work on writing: to translate from foreign languages, to compose critical  texts, and  to fulfil his own belletristic ambitions.  The two years he spent living with A. Vaarman, who looked after Kross as if he were her own son, fostered this pursuit. Kross also tried to publish his work in Estonia  by way of H. Lumet but predictably, nothing came of these efforts.

Kross’s correspondence provides incentive to seek the creative work from his Siberian period, much of which has been preserved in manuscript form. The more important original texts on which he had worked in Siberia were the novel in verse Tiit Pagu about  the transformation of a former bourgeois  member  of a students’ fraternity  into a member  of socialist society (A. Pushkin’s Eu- gene Onegin served as the example for its form), a socially critical  play on an American  theme entitled Marc Edfordi kaitsekõne (Marc Edford’s Defence), and  the  long poem  Gameš. None  of these were published  or put on stage. When he was already back in Tallinn, he received a com- mission in the  autumn  of 1954 to write a long poem about the “uprising” of 1 December 1924, actually the attempt to overthrow the government of Estonia  plotted  by the Soviet Union. Yet this work entitled  Pojad (Sons)  was not  published either  because editors  were afraid of Kross as a former political prisoner.

Kross was later even thankful  to the editors for thwarting  his attempts to fit in to the trivial system of Stalinist  literature. Yet he would not have needed  to feel shame about his works later in retrospect because there  is a strong humanist aspect in all of these works and they are profes- sional in their form.