What is the price of Silverwhite?

by Andres Langemets

What is the price of silverwhite?

Many processes, phenomena and events that took place in the former communist empire called the Soviet Union, have remained mysterious, illogical and incomprehensible to the rest of the world. What’s more, this was true of former Soviet citizens as well, because hardly any information was available about what was going on back then. Things are far from perfect even today.

The Khrushchev Thaw can be placed in a fixed period of time – 1957 to 1964. This was not immediately followed by a fierce wave of frost, although it crept closer, slowly but steadily (dress rehearsal Hungary 1956), and arrived after the Czech spring in autumn 1968. However, the Thaw Period was quite productive, which is evident upon inspection of a former Soviet library and its catalogue cards: translations of numerous world-famous writers and scientists, wonderful original books, rediscovery of lost culture – everything falling within the mentioned period of time, and not later. During this time, Lennart Meri managed to translate principal works by such authors as Graham Greene, Aleksander Solženitsõn, Marcel Aymé et al.  It should be added here that among them was a classic science-fiction work – Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes, which, besides its fascinating plot, raises issues about the questionable difference between the society of humans and apes.

I think that Boulle’s book was of considerable significance to Meri as a writer. Lennart Meri, who had a degree in history and excellent communication skills, worked in theatre and Estonian Radio, and participated in expeditions to Central Asia, Kamtchatka and canoe trips on Siberian rivers. About all these travels he wrote books that at that time lacked any literary ambition. Instead he was drawn to cinema and later went to work at Tallinnfilm.
The major Estonian writer Viivi Luik has claimed, and with good reason, that the Soviet power arrived in Estonia in the 1960s. This was the time when the generation which still remembered the independence period and Stalinist crimes against humanity no longer dominated. This generation was replaced by younger people born and raised under the conditions of Soviet occupation. This new generation wished to live according to their own rules, starting with a clean slate. Lennart Meri had been politically repressed, but he easily found a common language with younger people.
However, in 1970 something strange, of which I have written before, happened.

During the Republic of Estonia, especially in the 1930s when President Päts was in power, nationalism and the movements of kindred peoples – fashionable in Europe at the time – were enthusiastically cultivated, great effort went into making homes more beautiful, and family names were changed from German- to Estonian-sounding. Estonians also helped the Livonians to build their own cultural house and publish Livonian-language textbooks, and ties with the Finns and Hungarians were tightened. A number of people even wished to restore the old pagan faith, but the real roots of the Balto-Finns remained out of reach.

Rediscovering the real roots was only possible during the heyday of communist stagnation, a situation in which all other paths were closed to people. Perhaps we ought to be grateful to Brezhnev’s senility, which relied on Lenin’s old pre-Revolution tactical slogan about Russian chauvinism and nationalism of small peoples and allowed people to pursue certain small-nation hobbies.
Perhaps for the first time in Estonian history, people took up the research of their Finno-Ugric history more seriously and thoroughly. During the Republic of Estonia, in the 1920s and 1930s, no-one had access to the Finno-Ugric tribes that had stayed in Siberia and at the foot of the Ural Mountains. In the Soviet Union access was suddenly possible. Lennart Meri travelled throughout northern Siberia, from the Petchora River to the Kamtchatka peninsula, including to the territories where he had been deported, and he became increasingly fascinated by local peoples, their daily lives and their perceptions of the world. Finnish scholars were dying to get to these places but did not receive permission, as various military installations had been established in the areas of our kindred peoples, and plenty of oil was found there as well, especially in the areas of the Khanti and Mansi peoples.

Driven by insatiable curiosity Lennart Meri travelled throughout the coastal area of the northern Siberian Arctic Ocean in order to explore the voyage of Baltic-German seamen in search of the north-eastern passage. The result of this trip was the book Virmaliste väraval (At the Gate of Northern Lights, 1973), which constituted the starting point of Meri’s interest in the history and life of our eastern kinsmen. In his fascinating travelogue-cum-history book, Meri introduced the question that is eloquent even today: why is science fiction always directed at the future, although the past is infinitely more exciting and wondrous?

The continuously repeated queries – where do we come from? where are we heading? –  date from about that period. I remember once asking Lennart Meri if he knew whence these expressions originated. He looked at me, clearly a bit annoyed, as he thought this was his own quotation. It comes, however, from the title of the largest and one of the most famous Tahiti compositions of Paul Gauguin: ‘D´où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?’ –Still, in these matters Gauguin and Meri were of the same mind: the encounter of ancient civilised Europeans with something aboriginal and singular evokes questions in any thinking man about himself as well: who are we, where do we come from and where are we heading?
These were not ordinary questions in the Soviet Union of the late 1960s and early 1970s. These questions, in fact, constituted total heresy, but luckily the authorities failed to grasp this. They also failed to understand the music of Veljo Tormis, which at the end of the 1960s began focusing on the folk culture of the Balto-Finnic peoples (Livonians, Veps, Estonians, Izhorians, Votic people etc.). The folk dance ensemble Leegajus was founded in Tallinn, and it diverged from socialist-realist folk art to seek original forms. In Tartu, the male ensemble Hellero was founded, reviving the tradition of Setu male song. The newspaper of the Estonian Academy of Agriculture initiated a debate about country people, in which many prominent thinkers took part and emphasised our Finno-Ugric origin. And when Lennart Meri’s documentary Veelinnurahvas (The Waterfowl People) came out in 1970, the search for Estonia’s original identity was at its height. This was enhanced by the work of the poet Jaan Kaplinski, Hando Runnel’s popular songs and the work of the artist Kaljo Põllu, who travelled to the Kola Peninsula to examine its cave drawings and then created his famous print series Kodalased (Ancient Dwellers). Mention should also be made of the novelist Jaan Kross’ enthusiasm for historical allegories and Estonian-spirited predecessors, Mats Traat’s novels set in the 18th and 19th centuries, etc. By the 1970s, a situation had suddenly emerged in which the general Soviet levelling of culture was gradually overshadowed by cultural people’s relentless search for their national identities. The recent past was naturally out of bounds, and thus the distant or very distant past was examined instead. Examples include Lennart Meri’s historical science fiction works Hõbevalge (Silverwhite, 1976) and Hõbevalgem (More Silverwhite, 1984). All this put together was, at least in the opinion of the present author, a reliable basis for aspirations towards new independence and enhancing confidence in progressively-minded Estonians.

The publication of Silverwhite caused quite a stir; experts in various fields (historians, ethnographers, linguists) were not too pleased. Lennart Meri’s ‘excuse’ was his status as a writer, licentia poetica, his membership in the protective Writers Union. The whole thing is quite embarrassing to recall, as several respected Soviet professors and academicians, still powerful today, got their intellectual authority totally smeared in those discussions. They claimed to stand for truth and defence against falsely overturning hypotheses, but the real reason was their own insufficient achievements and pitiful lack of imagination.

The whole point, after all, was not whether the Kaali meteorite in fact came from across the Ebavere mountain to Saaremaa, or whether Pytheas visited the grave of the Sun there. Meri’s ‘crime’ was to claim that we were one of the oldest stationary peoples in Europe. This was no less than political pretension. Lennart Meri’s films Waterfowl People, The Winds of the Milky Way, Sounds of Kalevala and The Sons of Thorum, as well as his historical essayistic novels, all talk about small stationary Eurasian aborigines, nations who have been forcefully deprived of their land and their world views, whose ancient territories have been occupied. Naturally, by various conquerors and nomadic peoples.

Now a little interesting detour. Olzhass Suleimenov, writer and film-maker, at that time no less than the chairman of the Soviet Kazakh cinema committee, published his own equally pretentious book approximately at the same time as Silverwhite, titled Az i Ja. This book examined the fundamental text of Russian history, The Tale of Igor’s Campaign. Using textological analysis, Suleimenov concluded that the book was not written by Slavs but by Turkish Tartars. The title was telling too: Asia, Alfa and Omega (the first and last letters in Church Slavonic are Az and Ja).  Besides, ‘Az’ means an ABC book and ‘Ja’ means ´I´. Suleimenov’s book was severely criticised by the academicians at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Lennart Meri was lucky in comparison. This served as an example that something similar was going on in Kazakhstan, Armenia, Georgia and even in Russia ( ‘village prose’). The nations of the empire had no wish to become totally Soviet, but instead sought identity in history.

At that time, less than a decade was still left before the final collapse of the Soviet Union. During the Singing Revolution, the spirit of the Estonians came alive; before the bloodless battle, the Cultural Council of all creative unions came together in April 1988, and one of its leaders and most active members was the author of Silverwhite, later an ambassador, foreign minister and the second president of Estonia.

Lennart Meri’s historical travelogues do not actually tell as much about Pytheas, al-Idrisi, the Kaali meteorite and Tacitus as about boats, waterways and ancient conic tents, our world pillar or sampo, and what kind of world outlook prevailed in Hyperborea, in that Ultima Thule from where we come. When Alaska still belonged to the Russian empire and the Mexican-American War had not yet taken place, there was a border between Russia and Mexico in California. Or in other words, Palaearctic Eurasia, starting in Iceland and Northern Norway, stretching across the land of the Tchuktchis and Korjaks in the Far-East and that of the Inuits in Alaska, and reaching the North-American Indian tribes in Central America, in fact, formed a rather congruous whole in their world view and way of life. It is but one step from the Sami conical tent to the tepee of the Navahos.
And finally, what does ‘silverwhite’ mean? No need to explain this to historians, but as far as I can remember nobody has cast any light on it, not even in all the reviews of Lennart Meri’s books. Meri mentions that the word ‘raha’ (money) is derived from the ancient Scandinavian ‘skraha’, which means fur, but he does not say that ‘silverwhite’ also means money, ancient silver used by weight that could have various shapes, but functioned as money just like fur in our climatic zone. Silverwhite is a precious metal, but it is also a unit of mental measurement.