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« Tuna 4 / 2020

Barbarus’ Letters to Semper 1941–1946

The correspondence between Johannes Vares-Barbarus (1890–1946) and Johannes Semper (1892–1970) has a long history. It is also the story of a life-long friendship. The two young men go to know each other at Pärnu Gymnasium [Grammar School], which they graduated from in 1910. Interest in literature is chiefly what bound the two classmates, but also interest in politics. After graduating from gymnasium, Semper continued his studies in Germanic and Romance language philology at St. Petersburg University, while Vares studied in the Faculty of Medicine at Kiev University. Their friendship continued by mail. The two friends lived their lives in different cities later in life as well (Barbarus in Pärnu and Semper in Tartu). Thanks to this, we have a very unique correspondence in terms of its volume, density and duration, to say nothing of the substantive meaning of this correspondence in the context of cultural history, of course. The correspondence began in 1911 and as can be seen from the letters here, it lasted until the death of one of the participants – Barbarus – in 1946.

The voluminous (1,167 pages) correspondence between Barbarus and Semper in 1911–1940, entitled Euroopa, esteedid ja elulähedus [Europe, Aesthetes and Closeness to Life], was published in the summer of 2020 by the Estonian Literary Museum Scholarly Publishing House. Yet when the layout for the book had already been completed and the manuscript was about to be sent to the printers, the author of this article accidentally found more letters in the archive while checking an archival reference. They were deposited separately from the rest of the correspondence and nothing was known about them before, yet it was no longer possible to add them to the book. These letters were from Vares-Barbarus to Semper in 1941–1946, and a selection of these letters is now being presented to Tuna’s readers.

Most of these letters were written in the Soviet rear area, where both Barbarus and Semper were evacuated when war broke out in 1941. At that time, Vares was the Chairman of the Presidium of the ESSR Supreme Soviet and Semper was the Deputy ESSR People’s Commissar for Education. Prior to that, Semper had been the editor-in-chief of the cultural periodical Looming and a lecturer at the University of Tartu, and Vares had been a well-known physician in Pärnu. By that time, they were both recognised writers. Semper had published 6 collections of poetry, 3 collections of short stories and 2 novels, while Barbarus had published 11 collections of poetry.

Their correspondence continued in 1941 in Russia, when Vares was in Chelyabinsk, which was the location in the rear area where the ESSR Communist Party and governmental agencies were first evacuated. Semper, on the other hand, was initially in Moscow in the service of the USSR-wide Radio Committee. In the rear area, Vares, as the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet Presidium, continued to generally coordinate the life of the evacuees, and operated on the ideology front, spreading Soviet propaganda as far as possible among evacuated Estonians, the men at the front, and people who remained in the Estonian homeland. Semper became the director of the ESSR State Art Ensembles that was formed in the spring of 1942. There are no letters from 1942–1944 since they were apparently in direct contact sufficiently often during that period (or those letters have not survived). The last letters were written after the war in Estonia (in Võru and Tallinn).

The main theme of the letters was initially the resolution of the everyday concerns of the evacuees from Estonia and the search for job opportunities for those people. Yet thereafter the theme switched to fostering Estonian cultural life in the rear area. Both Barbarus and Semper wrote and published poetry (and collections of poetry) in the rear area. The literary collected work Sõjasarv [War Horn] was issued regularly, concerts and performances were given, and the Yaroslavl art ensembles and the collective of Estonian artists operated. All of this was nevertheless in the service of Soviet ideology. Everyday life is also reflected in the letters: a general lack of coordination, shortages of the essentials of life, etc. Considering possible censorship, the letters are relatively candid (when possible, they also used hand delivery).

Ever more signs of fatigue and depression emanate from the last letters sent from Estonia, along with complaints about the burden of work being too large, and the lack of time for creative pursuits. The poems sent in these letters have rather morbid undertones, hinting at what was to follow. Political pressure probably also intensified. J. Vares-Barbarus committed suicide on 29 November 1946.

The originals of these letters are deposited in the Estonian Literary Museum Cultural History Archive – EKM EKLA, f. 188, m. 16: 15.