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« Tuna 2 / 2017

Literature’s Soldiers in the First World War: the Correspondence of Johannes Vares-Barbarus and Johannes Semper in 1911–1917

Estonian literature underwent a radical innovation before the Second World War and arrived at the level comparable with other European literatures. Modernisation started with the activities of the groups Young Estonia (1905–1915) and Siuru (1917–1920) and continued by following the footsteps of German expressionists and the group Clartè. The 1920s have proved to be one of the most democratic periods in the history of the Estonian Republic, when heated discussions gave birth to several national structures for supporting literature and culture, which have been continuously active up to present day: Estonian Writers’ Union (1922), literary magazine Looming (1923), Estonian Cultural Endowment (1925). This period has been documented in the correspondence between Johannes Vares-Barbarus (1892–1946) and Johannes Semper (1890–1971), containing, all in all, 670 letters. This is a mostly private exchange of ideas between two friends and classmates. Although the letters were not intended for publication, preparations for issuing them as a textual critical publication were started already in the 1970s.

The present article publishes the first 12 letters from 1911–1917, when the friends were located geographically far from each other. Semper was studying Romance and German philology at the Petersburg University and Vares-Barbarus had entered the Faculty of Medicine of the Kiev University. He participated in WWI and the War of Liberation as a military surgeon and later worked as a physician in Pärnu up to 1939. Vares-Barbarus’s fate was determined by his collaboration with the Soviet occupation powers in 1940, when he became the head of the puppet government, led by Moscow. The poet, who became involved in political affairs, committed suicide in 1946, which is still covered with a veil of secrecy. The voluminous private correspondence of the two writers is a unique and reliable biographical record and historical document.