Oral History as the Reflector of Societal Change and Emerging Cultural Differences and Values.






Man, Woman and Longings in the Sexual Humour of Heikan Jussi


Tuija Saarinen


Recently, the research methods of micro- and mentality history have started to become used in folklore research. These methods allow us to treat topics formerly considered of lesser value or even taboo, such as sexuality, or the life and biography of the common folk, exceptional individuals or minority groups. My research topic is connected with an eccentric, a cobbler, Juho Mäkäräinen, known as Heikan Jussi (1892-1967) who lived in the village of Herrala in southern Finland. I will study his life history, the humour he created and also his contribution for the Herrala village culture with the help of the interviews I have recorded and the written sources.


The course of Heikan Jussi’s life changed dramatically when he caught tuberculosis at the young age of 12 years. This curtailed his school education and he was never able to work enough to earn a real living. Tuberculosis was also the reason why he never married. However, Jussi had the will to live and was eager to learn. Private studies broadened his knowledge and led to him acquiring a reputation of being too wise. He also had hobbies uncommon for an ordinary man – photography and writing newspaper articles. In addition to these, Jussi was known as a humorist whose unique humour touched all aspects of his life and work.


The humour of Heikan Jussi was not limited to practical jokes altering his physical appearance or decorating his surroundins, house and yard, but also included verbal jokes. These jokes included witticisms, linguistic tricks and giving nicknames. The interview material I have collected from the male inhabitants of Herrala village includes much sexual humour, similar to other material found in different regions in Finland. These folk traditions can help us study the concepts of the sexual norms of the individual and the group, as well as relationships between men and women. The sexual humour of Heikan Jussi lives on in the village of his birth; many of the people I interviewed repeated his witticisms and sayings when they were commenting on sexual norms.


Biographies of the Deaf as a Part of Sign Language Narrative History


Liina Paales


One of the richest parts of Deaf folklore is Sign Language storytelling tradition. Storytelling places are wherever the deaf meet: residential schools for the deaf, deaf clubs, homes with deaf families, camps, parties, athletic events etc. The storytelling tradition of Deaf is their wisdom passed on to the next generations "by sign of hands".

Deaf storytelling tradition has been for many reasons largely neglected. My own experience is that it would be the best for Deaf history researcher, if he or she will be fluent in Sign Language, so the subject would be directly accessible for researcher. This in turn raises several theoretical questions as pointed out by researchers of Deaf history all over the world.

1.     As the Deaf are seen as a lingual-cultural minority, who could deal with the Deaf heritage? Would it be the Deaf people or the hearers? If the hearers there is the counter-argument the lacking experience of deafness, so they would never competent enough. At the same time - the Deaf have not enough theoretical knowledge necessary for collecting and interpreting the material. And based on what should we interpret the Deaf heritage: the frames set by the hearers, or should a new framework considering all aspects of the lingual and cultural uniqueness of deafness be developed? The worst variant would be that the deaf are seen only as receivers of material coming from hearing community and are thus treated from the hearers' point of view.

2.     In collecting biographic data from the deaf, interviews should be conducted in Sign Language as I pointed before. Thus the interviewer establishes direct contact with Deaf person; this will not be happening in using Sign Language interpreter. Naturally, the whole storytelling act should be videotaped, leaving a primary source. The video will be supplemented with translation from Sign Language, making the material accessible in typed form for non-signing people. Since these narrations require a kinetic, not a verbal medium of expression, and a visual, not an aural appreciation, there is also the problem that all aspects of visual and kinetic accents are lost. But certainly, there is variety of ways collecting Deaf biographies: some of them would be written whilst others would be collected by interviewing. The language of interviews will be ranged from spoken language to Sign-supported spoken language, and Sign Language. One some occasions Sign Language interpreters would be used.

3.     An important aspect is how the Deaf person himself interprets his own life course: this may be contrary to that of his or her family, friends and relatives, especially if they are hearers. Many of the Deaf biographies deal with questions of identity and community, isolation and rejection, and overt discrimination. The stories of the deaf reveal how they have managed in the hearing world, how they have arranged their life, how they are solved the communication problem etc.


There can find two threads in the Deaf biographies: 1) the deaf person's isolation (i.e. a deaf person in a hearing family); 2) the deaf person's social isolation (A deaf child in the school of deaf, creating tight connections in the community. The hearing world has been seen as cruel and unjust, within the Deaf community, relations are caring and warm, etc.). But there is a lot more possible conclusion. Deaf bibliographies are not, however, a collection of 'victim' stories. There are many successes among these people and much for Deaf people to celebrate. We can't find a "typical" Deaf life course. There are as many experiences as there are deaf people, and the storytellers represent only themselves.


The Deaf should not be excluded when collecting Estonian biographies; the life and experiences of deaf are an enriching, unique aspect in understanding the world. Their biographies range from light-hearted and amusing to sad and angry as some biographies of hearing people too. After all, these people live beside us day by day.


(Additional material: "The Biography of Fritz Helstein" (A Summary); episodes from the film "Stan of Life and Choices of the Deaf".)


The Child-birth Heritage of the Udumurts East of the Kaama River


Tatiana Minniiakhmetova


Udmurts living East of the Kaama River have maintained more traditions than the general Udmurt community. In addition, they practice old customs not on a random basis but use actively in everyday and holiday customs. Customs connected with childbirth can be considered important and necessary.


As is clear from both literature and my own fieldwork material, Udmurt women know mechanisms of having a baby. But in addition to this, they are convinced that gods and fairies influence the birth of a child. They do not believe that children come from the underworld, but many aspects of childbirth customs show that dead forefathers or habitants of the other world participate in these matters.


According to Udmurtian beliefs, everybody has two souls: lul connected to breathing and urt seen as shadow. Urt and lul are different in that the first can leave the body for while the person is asleep or ill, while the other stays in the body till death. Both are necessary for normal life.


The birth of a child is participated by these gods and fairies: vorshud – the protector of the kindred and the family; mukõlchin – the earth god; inmar – the god. The continuation of the kindred is the main goal of every person’s life. Therefore a pregnant woman must constantly pray for a live and healthy child. Up to the 1970s, Udmurt women gave birth in the sauna or at home; naturally in recent times they give birth either at home or in the hospital.


The new-born was received in the sauna by the midwife who gave the child her first name - min'cho nim or sauna name. The afterbirth was gathered into a clean piece of cloth and buried into a sauna corner. In some villages, however, it was put into bass shoes and buried in the orchard or garden. It was not advisable that anyone notice the buried afterbirth. It was especially horrifying and dangerous if a dog found it. Also, the umbilical cord was not to be simply thrown away.


Children born in a lucky shirt were and are still treated as special. The embryo sac was washed and kept to be later used for a specific purpose.


For 40 days following birth, the child was washed in the sauna almost every day, as it is also done today. For the first three days the baby is washed in the sauna, later every other day and still later less and less often.


If the new-born gave no sign of life, a ritual of calling the soul of the stillborn was carried out: the register was opened and a family member hit the iron register hard. At the same time, the midwife held the child and said audibly: Kulemjes, peresjes. Sjotele solõ lul – “Dead forefathers, old ones. Give his soul.” There is also a custom that the midwife lit a match in the oven in front of the woman. Holding the match, she called all dead relatives by saying Lul vaje – “Bring the soul”.


The child was also given a second, official name. The first, “sauna name”, was a secret name that was not used; this name protected the child. There is even a custom for changing name, for if the child is sick or cries much, it is thought that the name is not suitable for him and needs to be changed.


After birth, on the same day or soon after, ritual food is cooked – bread and porridge – and the first praying is held.


Very many customs related to what is to be done after birth have reached our time. When the child is brought home, he and the mother are certainly taken to the sauna, a place still important for the Udmurts. It is believed that the sauna cures diseases. For 40 days after birth the baby is not considered a human. He is referred to as vil' lul - new soul or vil' zõn - new smell. Also, during this time the baby is not to be seen by strangers in fear of the evil eye. The child is not to be left alone in fear of being exchanged by bad and evil fairies. After these 40 days, bäbäj tuj or nunõ sjuan – “the child’s wedding” is held, after which the child is considered a human.


Beliefs and Customs Related to Death


Tiia Köss


Beliefs and customs related to death have been and are varied in Estonian folklore. They change in time as folklore changes, reflecting the attitudes to life in different eras.


Some aspect of contemporary death culture:


1.     A prevailing theme is fear and veneration of death.

2.     In contemporary society, death culture is not only related to folk belief, but also encompasses juridical, medical, psychological, etc. aspects, thus making the subject interdisciplinary. In village society all these aspects were an organic part of heritage.

3.     Today, a good death is considered one that comes unexpected – for example, dying when asleep –, contrary to Estonian traditions where death was not to come suddenly, disrupting the world order everyone believed in.

4.     Death has become a routine: the hospital department – preservation – autopsy – the funeral bureau – the funeral – the death certificate. Death is no longer a part of everyday life but a field of occupation; death has become impersonal. Taking care of the dead is handled by strangers. Death has moved onto paper, becoming the last event of a person’s biography. Contemporary urban society turns a lot of attention to the death of celebrities.

5.     Contemporary death culture is characterised by individuality, distancing from death. The world of beliefs is much more subdued in the rational present – it is not considered proper to believe, although answers for the time and place of death are still sought from everyday life. However, death omens are not considered to apply to oneself but rather to somebody else, usually a close person. Thus we can observe a developmental tendency of from the self to the outside.

6.     Archive material reveals whether the respondent is still lives according to the described world. Contemporary researcher is more distanced from the research material as a representative of a newer and more realistic world view.

7.     Cross-cultural communication undoubtedly influences death culture. Processes of integration are unavoidable on funerals.


What do we need a death culture for today? In the heat of emotions it is difficult for a person to find the best way of expressing feelings. He is helped by the funeral customs with determined rituals and ethic norms. Rituals help establish balance within the person and organise relationships in the society. Funeral customs are one way of guaranteeing consistency between generations. Today these customs are a multileveled mix from different times, religions, beliefs. Estonians’ traditions connected with death have not become disconnected, but have changed. But the changes are yet too fresh to have any concrete form.


The Grave-top as Research Object


Triin Viitamees



The current paper is based on a proseminar work defended at the chair of Estonian and comparative folklore dealing with grave markings and data on them: personal data (name and dates), writings and images found in the K-sector of Kärdla cemetery.


The section in question encompasses 164 graves from 1970 to 2000. Tombstones are classified according to outward characteristics (material, colour, shape, etc.) and special characteristics of grave markings. Descriptive statics reveal three aspects of tombstones that could be of interest to folklorists.

1.     The discrepancy between impression and reality. Moving about the cemetery all grave markings from an era seem alike, while closer examination reveals differences - contrary to the general impression, grave markings vary widely within a single era. The so-called typical grave marking is an abstraction.

2.     The grave marking of a common person versus of a celebrity. The main subject of investigation is the grave marking of an ordinary person which despite abundant variations still form a unity: there are common characteristics as to both the tombstone and the design of its markings (see photo 1). Differences are caused by locality, partly due to the proximity of the sea (see photo 2), partly due to the fact that Kärdla is situated on an island and its habitants are islanders (see photo 3). But tombstones of people that have had an important contribution to culture stand outside the canon; their grave markings differ from the traditional in almost all respects (see photos 4, 5, 6).

3.     Attitudes and values. Far-reaching conclusions are made about how the deceased was perceived by his relatives by the design of the grave and choice of grave markings. There are certain stereotypes that people are expected to follow. Among others, it influences the concept of what a grave marking (i.e. the typical grave marking) should be like, and the real tombstone is made in accordance to this concept. The relationship of how much typical and individual a grave marking is shows us how much we can (or is proper) to differ from others. This also explains the contradiction between an ordinary person’s and celebrity’s grave marking.



The Boundaries of the “Us” and “They” Groups among Siberian Estonians


Astrid Tuisk


My father was in the Sangaste manor in Estonia. My father was 14 when they left. There was little land available. When they came here, the village was all measured out, there were 4 wells. There was railway till Omsk, from there on you had to come on your own. The hay was up to their chests. My mother started crying: “We will die here, who would help us here!”


This emotional story was related in the village called Zolotaia Niva – the Golden Cornfield. The story is but another expression of the most memorable events in the short history of Siberian Estonians – emigration and establishment of a new home. Only about thirty of the settlements established at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries have survived, while the number of Estonians in Siberia has winded to a half of the 33,600 counted in 1939.


After resettling, boundaries between the groups of “us” and “they” were established. This was accomplished, for example, by creating a myth of common past. Although life in Estonia is not remembered, depicting the hard and unjust serfdom times are important elements of emigration tales. What is remembered of how places were named is related to coming to Siberia and the hardships of beginning a new life. Events connected with the former fatherland Estonia as well as those happening before their arrival and outside their own village are at the background. Difference is made between “tallinn” and “tartu”, or respectively North and South Estonian dialects, but more importance is given to whether one comes from settlements established by South or North Estonians.


Contemporary habitants of various ethnicity and settled at different times are connected by their common geographical location – Siberia. Still, Estonians give little importance to whether the neighbouring village habitants are re-settlers from Belorussia, the Ukraine or from the Viatka gubernia. Tartars is the common name used for Tartars, Kazakhs, Chuvashes and other peoples. The forgotten Estonian local legends have not been replaced by Siberian ones.


A new national group sharing common history, geography, chronology and identity has appeared – the Siberian Estonians. What is it that determines the boundary between the us and they groups today: nationality, place of origin, language use, current location, cultural background? Why was it that especially at the beginning of resettlement times they preferred to stay aloof and integration was not considered important? Whether we are dealing with a marginal national group in-between two cultures – this question is sought to answer with the help of the Siberian Estonians’ opinions and their folklore.




Crooks and Heroes, Priests and Preachers. Religion and Socialism in the Oral-Literary Tradition of  a Finnish-Canadian Mining Community


Kirsti Salmi-Niklander



My paper is based on a case study of the history and oral-literary tradition of a Finnish community in the goldmining center of Timmins and South Porcupine in Northern Ontario, Canada. The goldmining center was founded in 1909 and grew very fast into one of the largest goldmines of the Western hemisphere.


The largest ethnic groups in this community were the Finns, the Ukranians, the French, the Italians and the Croatians.  Strikes, great fires and mine accidents are described as the most important events in the  short history of the community.


The focus of my paper is on the controversial relationship of religion and socialism as it has been discussed in various oral or literary narratives of the Finnish immigrants. My source material includes handwritten newspapers from th 1910s and 1920s, manuscript or published local histories and interviews.


The political situation of the community was complex: the Finns of Timmins and South Porcupine had a reputation of being communists and atheists, and the Finnish (Socialist) Organization of Canada actually was the strongest political group for a long time. The strict ideology led to the marginalization of the Finns, and many of them moved to Soviet Carelia at the end of the 1920s. At the beginning of the 1930s  both the right-wing, religious Finns and the more moderate socialists were organized. Also the religious situation was complex, since both the preachers of the United Church of Canada and the Lutheran priests were competing for the souls of the Finns. Until the 1960s the Finnish community was strictly divided into several political groups, and all avoided contact with each other.


Priests and preachers are central characters in the oral-literary local tradition of the Finnish community. Presbyterian preachers of the United Church in particular  are described as controversial crook-hero-characters.  In my paper I will analyze narrative strategies and tendencies of “the priest/preacher stories”. I will also discuss the relationship of the immigrant narratives to the Finnish legend tradition and oral history in the light of the research done by Anna-Leena Siikala and Ulla-Maija Peltonen.   




On the Ethnic Identity of St. Petersburg Estonians


Liina Rootalu


St. Petersburg is a multicultural city. Why in such circumstances ethnic identities change or are maintained as important is the main question sought to answer by the present paper. It would be perhaps more correct to say that identification is a process -

never finished but constantly ongoing. Ethnic identity should be viewed as a person's relationship with a certain ethnic group. The construction of ethnic identity can be studied through how and what is told of one's life. Thus biographical stories is the best means for this goal. I will view a certain group of ethnic Estonians with whom

biographical interviews were conducted.


My informants are connected by command of the Estonian language. There are a total of about 500 Estonians born and grown up in the Leningrad oblast and in St. Petersburg, former Leningrad. However, only 18 of them spoke Estonian. The eldest was born in 1903, the youngest in 1958. 13 of the sample had born in the Soviet times and 3 after World War II. They see the language as the key symbol to being an Estonian. The majority of them was born in the first half of the 20th century and define themselves as Estonians in Russia. Although they are also connected by the events of the same era, their lives have been very different.


For comparison, I interviewed 13 Estonians who have for various reasons resettled to St. Petersburg after acquisition of school education. The eldest was born in 1916 and the youngest in 1954. It is interesting to observe how the group adapted to another culture. Thus we have the biography of 31 people considering themselves Estonians living in St. Petersburg. The choice of material allows us to compare the perception of history by people with different cultural background and memory, their search for themselves as connected to the quality of life.


Considering the factors contributing to the development of ethnic identity, Russian Estonians are of more interest. Biographies reflect Russian history and social context connected. The totalitarian ideology of the socialist country contributed to the attempts of growing the soviet person for whom ethnicity was of no importance. National groups were dispersed, leaving only separate persons carrying ethnic identity. I had the opportunity to talk to people with strong personalities. They were not killed or broken, nor had they adapted. While many had returned to Estonia as soon as there was a possibility, I was interested in those that for different reasons could not return but still carry a strong national identity. They have managed to be integrated, while not assimilated in St. Petersburg.


The existence of ethnical Estonians in Russia is connected with language acquired in childhood, family oriented to Estonia, and in some cases also with attending Estonian schools and the Estonian Society. Religion and church were not as important, they could not have been in the USSR. In 1937, all schools and societies were closed. But it seems that Protestant ethics has still influenced them, probably through the childhood home. The informants consider Estonians to be individualistic, neat, hard-working and introverted.


Reasons for the ancestors for coming to Russia are known fairly well: relatives were lost in repression actions, homes burnt down in the war. There are few written sources, but some photos have been acquired and family trees reconstructed.


It is the role of ethnic stereotypes to stabilise and support ethnic concepts. Due to Estonia becoming independent, isolation from Estonia has increased further. Russian Estonians relate songs, tales and linguistic forms no longer in use in Estonia. Instead of Estonian territory, the Estonian Society is the cultural outlet, running language courses and divine service in Estonian. Unfortunately, these are of little interest to the young; being Estonian is mostly restricted to the retired.


In biographic tales, fatherland is not perceived as a territory. Childhood homes in the country are often recollected. The land of the forefathers is dear to them, but generally unknown or idealised; they know little Estonian history and the oppression of Estonians is beyond their understanding. Fatherland and country are not synonyms. They live in a situation different from the Estonian one country, one territory. Russia is like a mainland, with extremely different regions. There is no common nominator for Estonians living in the East as they are called by where they live.


The attitude of those grown in Estonia is quite different. For them, Estonia will remain the fatherland they want to return to. But their children and grandchildren are already rooted in St. Petersburg. One's own nationality is always perceived more clearly when person gets into the foreign country. The first generation of resettles carries different understandings and has different scars, sometimes causing conflicts in the Estonian Society. With the changing of generations, there are less and less decisions based on emotions.


Based on biographic and situational stories of different cultural background and by understanding the remembering of the past in the context of the present, it is possible to study the current social background of Estonians living in St. Petersburg. The narration’s reflect the individual level, not a common attitude. One's identity is attempted to be defined via national feelings. Cultural memory comes from childhood. It is important for the Estonians living in the city that they form a group which has a common social basis. We know who we are only when we know who we are not.




The Interaction between Individual, Social, and Official Memory in History


Mara Lazda


Oral histories and memoirs play a particularly significant role in societies which have been denied the ability to write their own histories. In the second half of the 20th century, Latvia was occupied by two authoritarian states — the Soviet and the Nazi — which sought to control memory and history. The recording of individual memories was limited to the private sphere and could be freely expressed only in underground literature or in the oral tradition. Individual and social remembering, however, continued and the glasnost  period in 1985 revealed the need for individuals to express their experiences and to find others with common histories. Oral histories provide insight into the past not only for the researcher, but also for the individual interviewee.


At the same time, official history, based on documents and "objective" facts, has remained dominant. This study argues that all levels of memory--individual, social, and official--must be considered in order construct a more complete picture of the 20th century in Latvia. Specifically, this paper will focus on the history of World War II in Latvia.


One of the most painful memories of the Soviet occupations in Latvia is the mass deportation of Latvians to Siberia. These days, June 14, 1941, and March 25, 1949, are days of national mourning in Latvia. This history is presented on an official and social level as a national tragedy. The oral histories of deportations support this social understanding of history and describe feelings of sorrow and memories of brutality, but they also provide a more complex picture of this experience. They reflect the different  experiences of men and women, of representatives of various social, economic, and ethnic  groups. Life in exile often  constructed a sense of solidarity with other nationalities and social groups, which provides a context for official "national" history. Finally, while the period of exile in Siberia is clearly a period of isolation and despair, these narratives are also stories of strength and pride.  The deportees were able to construct some kind of a life in Siberia and to survive.


Latvian society today also struggles with its history and memories of the Nazi occupation. This paper will also briefly examine oral histories of the Nazi occupation as a source of  valuable insight into the different experiences and memories of various ethnic groups (for example,  Latvians, Russians, Jews, Germans). Oral histories which reveal the individual in history shed light on the conflict between the individual and national groups during war. Wartime propaganda divides society into large faceless groups. Individuals, however, often continue to remember the individual.


In conclusion, the use of oral histories, as well as more traditional sources, in the study of World War II in Latvia reveals a history not only of the nation, but of different social and national groups. This multidimensional approach may also serve as a common bridge between these groups in the future.


Narrated Kin, Narrated History


Pauliina Latvala


My paper focuses on narrated family history. The material consists of texts sent to a collection competition “The Great Narrative of the Family” organized by the Finnish Literature Society Folklore Archive 1997. In addition, this paper is based on a few interviews. My interests here are threefold. Firstly, I explore the narrated family history as tradition. How the narrators actualize and create their tradition, and in what purpose? One important aim is to describe the individual experiences of the changes in family and kin in 20th century Finland. Peoples’ categories of their kinship system differs from the official model. The old cultural model is based on patriarchal lines of genealogy and is often vertical. The texts and interviews stress that non-blood relatives and emotional kin are important, as well as horizontal- and matriarchal-lines of genealogy. The kin and ‘one’s roots’ get different regional, historical and ethnic emphasizes and cultural meanings. Furthermore, the texts are produced according to what is important to narrator’s identity. Secondly, while dealing with the written material, I examine the narration process and its’ textual strategies as literary discourses. Narrators have written their memories, oral history and experiences in different genres and styles. This production process is called a textualisation strategy. Different registers and their markers are used in texts in order to bring forth the meanings. Thirdly, I analyse the historical representations of texts. Family history differs from official history. For example, family history tells about the most important individual events of  the World War II, the official history  on the other hand concentrates on nations and states. The memories tell about tragically and personal experiences.


The Soviet Time in the Biographies of the Estonians


Ene Kõresaar


Reading the written biographies of the Estonians sent to the Estonian Museum of Literature, one gets a weird and confusing impression: compared to the periods of the independent republic of Estonia the period of the soviet Estonia is much less and one-sided expressed in the biographies of older Estonians. We may as well say that this particular period as well as the lives lived at that period almost disappear in the life histories, not to mention that almost no estimation of a political, historical, economic or moral kind is given to that period.


Considering that particular experience, questions about the soviet time in Estonia were included in the biographical interviews to elderly Estonians conducted during  the project “Memory as a culture factor” in 1998-1999. Here, at first, the similar picture occurred but at a closer look it seems that the biographies of the soviet time just take another form in which the experiences of the time are filtered. When so, we must look behind the form and read between the lines to grasp the “soviet life experiences” of individuals. Further more, even if hidden, the soviet time as experienced often constitutes a point of departure for elderly Estonians in comparisons and estimations of the times of independence of the Estonian Republic.


My paper deals with both written and told biographies of the Estonians born in the 1920s. I will concentrate on following questions:

1. How to interpret the matter of almost exclusion the soviet time in the biographies?

2. Which forms the experiences of the soviet time take in the biographies? How the experiences expressed differ by gender and social class?

3. How the soviet time as experienced functions in the comparison and estimation of the Estonian history?



Usually  Silenced: The Changing World of the Apolitical Lifecourse


Baiba Bela-Kruminja


Oral  history not only gives a voice to so called common people, to social groups or  ethnicity’s usually silenced by the dominating version of official history, but it also allows us to observe how each individual story draws upon a common  culture. Life stories may tell us about symbolic categories through  which reality is perceived and interpreted. Analysis of life stories shows  changing facts of life as well as indicates changes in the culture, language,  traditions, habits, social praxis etc.


I  would like to use life stories of apolitical women in Latvia in order to show  different possibilities of perception and creation of history. Also, I will show  how  life story can throw light on the process as well as on the mechanisms of social  change and emerging cultural differences.


I  chose life stories of apolitical women, because they still can be seen as  significant social group, but are traditionally evaluated as an insignificant  historical power. These life stories allow a focus on the relationship between  privacy and history. How historical is private life? How private is history? 


History,  private as well as academic, is composed from only some events from the flow  of life. We are looking for traditions and existing genres when creating our  history  — private as well as academic. Maybe the creation of the apolitical life course  is one possibility of many others. The construction of these life stories  differs from the construction of more political ones. The narrative is made  through private events and action take place usually in a close neighborhood.  The flow of time is segmented without using years and conventional points of  reference to adjust individual life story to common history. 


Despite everything political events transform a life's worldview, and we can see these  transformations in described events - in narratives about  confirmation,  wedding, work, children etc. In these  life stories among other things we can see the conflict between two discourses -  how the Latvian national cultural discourse, the active shaping of which started at the  end of the 19th century, was affected by the Soviet discourse after 1940, on the ideological and political level as well as in its attempt to change  social life and redefine the perceiving and interpretation of world  events.


A  life story is composed of both the narration itself as well as the events narrated. An  oral historian should take into account that  both aspects of  narration: the narration and the events in the narration are not hard  facts and can not be understood without understanding of the act of narration,  which has the concrete cultural and social background. Therefore content and  form of a life story as well as the act of narration signify social changes and  emerging cultural differences and values. And in one society simultaneously may  exist different ways of perceiving and creating history.



A House in the Topography of Life – Lifestory Case of Certain House


Dace  Bormane


Our movement in time is much more similar to movement in space than we usually imagine (Jaan Kross). History is topical. A house represents the movement of time in a certain space, a space which absorbs and is shaped by the experiences around it. The house is socially archeological (completely different, seemingly unrelated factors can be found next to one another). As far as spatial construction and language are concerned the house provides the environment, background, and context for events and happenings.  The house becomes a part of an individual's biographical situation and becomes the object of the ethos reflection.


Currently an opportunity for discourse is developing regarding "another history" which exists along with official, political, aristocratic, military, silent etc. history. In Latvia's society, which has been ruled for decades by "doubles consciousness" or "silence," the presence of the individual is evident throughout history. This kind of history represents a process, which does not consider people to be simply subjected to external influences or submitted to a certain power, but rather puts the individual at the center of the 20th century, in the context of history. The issue is the culture of history (J. Ruesen), as well as  historical consciousness and the application of history: moral,  existential, political, commercial.


In this study of a rental building in Riga (1996-1999), the lifestories of its owners and inhabitants (20) are recorded. This includes interviews, photographs, information regarding the house since the 1930s. The individuals are invited to share their lifestories because of their connection to this house. History is shaped in these texts: lifestories, which free history for the present and for document testimonies. The recording of lifestories is a dialog: a conversation with oneself, with others about life's reconstruction. Lifestories cross time lines not only in one direction, its historicity reflects not only linear time, but also a philosophical sense of time. Text creates text.  The components of this study complement and support each other, interact, and thus  determine the relationship between the objects studied, the researchers themselves, various concepts.


Questions which are considered in the study of the house as a specific social unit:

1)     the owners of the house and their families lives (chronology, social structure, individual's history)

2)     the biography of the home (in a broad sense) reflects social changes, relationships and value changes regarding one's livingspace, his/her relationship and sense of belonging to this place, the influence of the structure of one's living space on one's living situation, value orientation, identity, "history of beliefs"

3)     dialog interaction  in the house (considering national, class, gender differences)


The histories both in the House and of the House itself provide insight into the social changes past and still present, make these changes clear and available for analysis.. .


Livonian Lifestories  — source of Identity


Mara Zirnïte


Lizete Svanenberg, 85 years old, recorded at Luzna, Kurzemes peninsula, in1987. She spoke in the Tamian dialect of Latvian. There is a simple explanation that the Tamian dialect was created by Livonians when they use Livonian Grammar rules in Latvian speech,  In Lizete's life-story  there are memories about an Estonian professor Loorits, whom she calls "Baltgalvîtis" (Whit-headed man, because of his white hair), carefully listening  and learning her mother's Livonian language and folk-tales. "Like roe in the wood's darkness - so beautiful and clueless" - this folk-teller Oskar Loorits wrote poetically about Lizete's mother. The call of the wild and mythological outlook echoes throughout Lizete's life- story.


Lizete narrates about  her own life in a creative way: about 2 years at school, before her father - a seaman, took his family to Odessa, Sevastopole - during World War I; about her husband's death on the sea, about the last Livonian feelings when their Fatherland became the Soviet boundary,  with various military  forces around. She likes to repeat the belief of her Mother that everybody needs to leave a cup of water in the bail of well for Spirits, and after washing water at the bath house leaving something for the  Daughter of Mâra. The many times Lizete was recorded, every time she had another history to tell. When a bus with tourists came, she always was ready to tell how she found Livonian language in TV and how she came a star of cinema, how she in childhood saw Lenin and Stalin and how she  played games with the Tsar's children on Sevastopole's railway station when she was a refugee.


Fantasies and real happenings — all are mixed in the way of Lizete's Story telling. In Lizete's version of the traditional Livonian folk-tale motif about Blue Cows and Sea Goddess the Daughter of Mâra was played by a  real person  — Lizete's neighbor Davins. Many years later in another world he could listen Lizete's tales about himself in many ways.


"The Daughter of Mâra came out of the sea with her blue cows. She had twelve cows, twelve blue cows. She left them graze there on Davins' field, right across Davins' field she led them. And then old Davins looked: what are those cows on his field?

He says: I'll take a stick to you!

Now he takes a stick and drives them out, drives those blue cows out. So the Daughter of Mâra looks on dunes, she looks and says:

 - Don't touch them, they are my cows!

So Davins says:

 - Drive them away, drive those cows away from my field, drive them away, I'll beat them off!

Who wants his fields trampled down?

The Daughter of Mâra takes her twelve cows and drives them into the sea, drives them back into the sea and says:

 - Hunger is upon you and from hunger you will have to die, for not letting me graze them, for driving my cows away.

And she leads them away, she leads all her cows off into the sea. And she never returns."


The Life-stories  keep specific Livonian character and poetry longer than language which flew away in a rapid way — nobody on the Livonian coast speak the  Livonian language in the family now. Without language,  Livonians could still find their identity in  the historical memory.


O. Loorits. Volkslieder der Liven, Tartu, 1936.


Collective Farms as Reflected in Biographies


Marietta Aardam


The subject of collective farms is reflected in biographies collected in the 1990s in the following ways:

1.     in biographies of rural people;

2.     the topic is more or less related to conflict situations;

3.     most cases are presented as informative summaries.

The collective farms are related to history: many biography writers have emphasised that they are writing so that the generations to come would know how it all really was; i.e. they were motivated by the need for truth. However, we are here not dealing with the factual historical truth but historical facts as perceived subjectively, as related to one’s life. Thus for example the Molotov-Rippendroff Pact is not mentioned while deportations and establishment of the collective farms are.

The topic is related to heritage via self-justification. Those that have been in Siberia have been rehabilitated, while those that joined collective farms are not. It is important to show that the writer was not to blame, but the soviet regime was. This also shows a clear US-THEY opposition.

Biographies end with the appreciation that what happened in the past has no meaning – Estonians have always found a way out through hard work. The person does not reproach himself.

The presentation will elaborate the third point – how the past is told and what is considered important. Naturally, this is closely connected with appraisal in general and thus these topics are not viewed separately.

Family Heritage as Reflector of History in Estonian Material


Tiiu Jaago


At the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, I became more and more acquainted with the field that I started calling family heritage. People related about everyday life, calendar holidays, religion and singing for the kids in a way that it reflected the person’s own close relations: when mother died…; when I first went to a wedding then mother …; when I was in the army, father …; my mother sang …; when mother got married then … The stories following these phrases could, of course, be classified into folklore genres following the scientific tradition, but this lost the whole the story carried: the connection between the narrator’s life experience and heritage. This evoked me to analyse the material from another point of view – family heritage.


The narrator’s relationship with the family and whether this manifests in the story told is influenced by several factors, three of which I will elaborate further:

1.     Societal background system. Tales told by narrators coming from rural and urban societies, with local and mobile lifestyle are principally different. (From this point of view the nationality of the narrator is not considered.) The differences are caused by the differences of experiences. Another important factor is who, how and in what circumstances relate: experience determines topics, emphasises, what can be talked about at all.

2.     The function of family heritage for the heritage carrying group. For example, in the soviet times family heritage was largely alternative history correcting formal education; it filled in gaps that the formal history left for different reasons. In the 1990s the socio-political situation changed, followed by a change in heritage. Topics and emphasise in narrating is influenced by the function narrating carries.

3.     Earlier tradition of narrating – cultural facilitation. Prior to World War II narrating had clear regional characteristics. I have thoroughly studied heritage of Läänemaa and Virumaa parishes: the difference in family heritage is displayed by the fact that in Läänemaa county action thread is dominating while in Virumaal county more emphasise is given to the tradition of narrating. Traditions influence what is considered proper to narrate and how the narration is carried out.


Up to the 1990s, Estonian family heritage was centred on knowledge of forefathers as connected with a “new beginning”: forefather came from Sweden after the Great Northern War; forefather was exchanged for hunting dogs from Hiiumaa Island to Virumaa county after the Great Northern War; grandfather became a bar-keeper… ; grandfather came from Hiiumaa island and bought a farm here …. The continuity of the family and the connection of all members of the family to the same location is considered important.


At the end of the 1990s, the emphasis of family heritage moves to a person’s individuality. Forefathers are important if they are connected with the narrator by some outward similarity of character or abilities: there are freckles in our family because the forefathers came from Ireland. Neither is family heritage any longer in the role of alternative history as it used to. Heritage is rather more connected with comparison of personal experiences and behavioural norms.


Family heritage reflects history on at least two levels: what has been (the factual level) and what importance is given to the past at the time of narrating (the level of appreciation). Narration’s are centred on information thus allowing us to assume that the factual level remains unchanged. However, this is not quite so: the factual level depends on the interpretation of the story. In heritage history both what is told as well as what is left untold is important.