Mäetagused vol. 56


Narrated history: Trends and parallels

Tiiu Jaago

Key words: folkloristics, narrated history, oral history

Narrated history (pärimuslik ajalugu) as an independent research approach started to emerge in Estonian folkloristics in the 1990s. On the one hand, it was expectable, as narrating the past was significantly in the foreground in the 1980s–90s, due to the changes that society was undergoing. On the other hand, it was connected with the general development pattern in the 1970s-80s folkloristics, for example, in the emergence of context-centred folkloristics as well as interest in modern-day folklore and small-group folklore tradition. At the end of the 1990s contacts were established with fellow researchers from neighbouring countries, and collaboration with Latvian and Finnish researchers has proved most durable. Internationally, this line of research is associated with oral history research, and is, to some extent, also related with memory studies and life history research. This thematic publication is another step aiming to discuss the ongoing trends and investigations in the field of narrated/oral history in the abovementioned area of cooperation.

In general, there are new topics (e.g., experience in being a representative of state authorities; researcher’s self-awareness as an interviewer) and also observations of earlier topics considering the present-day contexts (e.g., family traditions in the Internet era; experience of members of transnational families; modern possibilities for analysing materials recorded in the past). Focusing on the present day and interpersonal relationships is characteristic, as opposed to the past and the interpretation of past events. Among the theoretical aspects in the line of research, most often the developments of earlier standpoints are dealt with (for example, the change in the balance between the public and the private in modern society). This gives evidence of a new stage in research, leaving the discussions on the formation of this line of research (and other interrelated lines) into the 2000s.

Witness to history or the specifics of oral history in Poland

Marta Kurkowska-Budzan

Key words: oral history, Poland, politics of memory, public history, a witness to history

In most of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, oral history was initiated in the circles of dissidents in the 1980s. Memories of the politically marginalised or persecuted citizens were the source of insights into uncensored versions of recent past. Therefore the term “a witness to history” is central to the “civic historiography”, which has been developed in Poland.

After the fall of communism, the civic participation in the archiving, educating and researching has been institutionalised and identifies itself as oral history.

The article presents epistemological and ethical paradoxes of the concept of “a witness to history” in the light of social and linguistic practice, as well as its historiographical and political usage. Examples of major oral history projects actively present in the public space and state and public institutions, influencing oral history practice in Poland, are presented. In the analysis of such institutions as the Warsaw Uprising Museum or the Institute of National Memory, the author focuses on their definition of “a witness to history” and places their practices in the context of the politics of memory implemented in Poland since 2005. Apart from the abovementioned powerful social players in the serious game of memory, knowledge and imagination, there are, however, other social actors contributing to the notion of oral history and creating an alternative vision of its tasks.

The author sketches two modes of the development of oral history in Poland – academic and public oral history – pointing at the concepts of ‘narrator’ and ‘a witness to history’, and briefly summarises the main problems of contemporary dominant practice.

Characteristics of institutional remembering: Parliament as a producer of MPs’ oral history in Finland

Joni Krekola, Pauliina Latvala

Key words: institutions, interviews, position analysis, power, recounting, veteran MPs’ oral history

Our aim is to introduce the oral history project of veteran MPs in Finland and to depict some aspects of our ongoing research. The Library of the Finnish Parliament has, since 1988, produced over 340 oral history interviews with veteran parliamentarians, politically active in the post-war era. The recently digitalised collection – approximately 2,000 hours of recorded theme interviews and 50,000 pages of transcriptions – sheds light on the changes and continuities in parliamentarians’ work and their views on society and political life since the 1940s.

Parliamentarians, mandated by the people through elections, operate in the conjunction of democracy, where the will of the people is supposed to be refined into political decision-making. Parliamentarians’ thinking on politics and political life is also intriguing on the grounds that while the Members of Parliament work in the prime forum of national politics, a major share of the actual power may still lie somewhere else in society. Moreover, MPs’ views on their own work have rarely been explored, even though they are at the heart of politics.

In this article, we ask what kind of benefit or disadvantage results from the fact that interviews are conducted, transcribed and archived by the same institution that ex-MPs have served during their political career. We also argue that oral history of the MPs should be approached not only in terms of elite oral history as a given category, but also by paying attention to the variation of MPs’ experiences as political representation. The concept of institutional remembering provides frames for understanding interviews as communicative events, where both parties are active agents in positioning themselves and the other. In this article, we show how the questions posed by the interviewers are also a substantial part of the data as they frame the concept of power in a negative or positive manner.

Debt of honour and feeling of guilt: On the perplexities of biographical research

Kristi Grünberg

Key words: agricultural leaders, biographical interview, biographical method, ethics, reflexivity, role conflict, Soviet era

The article discusses ethical concerns and hesitations related to different phases of biographical research – interviewing, analysing the interviews and publishing research findings. Drawing on the principles of reflexive methodology, the author explores tensions raised by and in the field, from reconciling the discrepancy between the roles of a researcher and close relative. Biographical interview is perceived as a private experience, whereas the public nature of (academic) writing evokes questions as it presumes examining also the personal relationships developed in the field. Moving from the role of an emphatic listener to that of a determined cultural analyst can be challenging and force the researcher to question the legitimacy of her research activity as she engages in self-protective behaviour. Based on biographical interviews with Soviet era agricultural leaders, the author addresses also the debates over the Soviet legacy in Estonia.

Facts of the past – presentations of the past: Question of the source specificity of narrated history

Tiiu Jaago

Key words: interview, narrated history, oral history, Tartu

In the article, three versions of presentation of the past: the oral presentation, its transcription from the tape, and the narrator’s comments and additions to the version transcribed from the tape, are compared from the standpoint of narrated history research. The question is to what extent the information that is interesting for narrated history research varies in the different versions of presentation of these memories. The analysis reveals that the transcribing of an oral presentation does not in itself change the interpretation of the past. The difference in information results from the aims of the interviewer and the interviewee. The narrator offers an emotional adventure story, in which he as the first-person character comes out as a winner. The interviewer-historian, however, places the narrator’s everyday life more precisely in the temporal and spatial framework. This analysis draws the researcher’s attention to the importance of interpersonal relationships when remembering historical events. From the point of narrated history research, more attention could be paid to how (new) conditions make people behave and how this in turn affects the internal life of the community. This way, interest in the specific historical event fades, but there is room for discussion on people’s behavioural patterns in certain periods of time.

Life stories in ethnic culture research: Livonian and Roma life stories in Latvia

Ieva Garda-Rozenberga, Māra Zirnīte

Key words: ethnic culture, life stories, Livonian, oral history, Roma

Even though narrating is a universal phenomenon, there is no one universal narration model, much less a universal life story model. This is also verified by the life stories from various ethnic groups that have long lived among Latvians in the Latvian cultural space.

Life stories play an important role in the research of ethnic history and social memory, because both Roma and Livonian cultures and their transmission between generations have traditionally been based on the oral tradition. Any attempt to reconstruct the history of these two ethnic groups is therefore encumbered as well as open to various interpretations. Life stories can likewise be interpreted in different ways. This article examines the creation of life stories both as a social event in a specific time and space and as one of the forms of cultural experience.

The article presents excerpts from Livonian and Roma life stories, thereby revealing not only what is unique about each narrator, but also providing an insight into a certain group’s experience of reality that is expressed through narratives. The type of expression and use of language, story composition, intertextuality and presentation all contain information about the culture and society in which the narrator lives.

Audio recordings from the National Oral History Archives at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the University of Latvia have been used for this study. Over the 20 years since its founding, the archives have amassed a voluminous Livonian oral history collection. The interviews took place in the Latvian language, in the local tāmnieku dialect spoken by the Livonians who were born and have grown up along the northern Kurzeme coast. The Roma interviews were also recorded in Kurzeme, some in the 1990s, but most just this past summer, within the project “Ethnic and Narrative Diversity in the Construction of Life Stories in Latvia”, financed by the Latvian Council of Science.

Life stories are unique performances, but they are, at the same time, also created within a complicated, established social situation and are influenced by several aspects: the interview context, cooperation between the narrator and the interviewee as two separate personalities, the narrator’s abilities and individual creativity.

Cultural and historical conditions have influenced both Livonian and Roma life stories, thereby revealing influences from their usual environment, traditional way of life and folklore, as well as from Latvian culture and the era in which they live.

Transnational families: Stories about moving and staying put

Pihla Maria Siim

Key words: border, family, migration, storytelling, transnationality

In the research into migration, push and pull factors have for a long time been in the foreground, in addition to integration and the acculturation of mobile people settling in receiving countries. The starting point for integration-centred research has been the fact that the new country of residence is, or should be, also a new home country for the migrants. In this context, the transnational networks of migrants have not received enough attention, multi-locality being regarded rather as an exception. However, during the last two decades researchers have started to stress the parallel relations that people have to two or more states, meaning that it is possible even to talk about a transnational turn in the interdisciplinary field of migration studies.

Drawing on fieldwork material, this article explores the experiences of multi-local families, whose members live some or most of the time separated from each other, in the transnational social space in an Estonian–Finnish–northwest-Russian context. The main research material consists of forty interviews the author has made between the years 2001 and 2004. Interviewees are former Soviet immigrants living in Finland, on the one hand, and their family members living in the country of origin (Russian Karelia and Estonia), on the other.

By using narrative research methods, the author explores narratives of migration and border crossing – the possibilities and difficulties related to going beyond them. The aim has been to study transnational family life and narrating mobility from the perspective of different family members, taking into account the experiences of relatives who stay behind as well as those of children, in addition to adult migrants. The author is especially interested in the changes in family (life) caused by migration and the role of family storytelling in coping with these challenges.

Mobility is narrated differently depending on the situation and the position of the narrator. Even during the same interview the motivations for relocation are described in different ways, picturing both a spontaneous move and carefully thought out decision. Different aspects are stressed in the migration stories told by adult family members as compared to those of children, unexpectedness of migration being more important in the narratives of the younger generation. Family members staying in the country of origin are more willing to talk about the negative sides of transnational family life, as well as about the problems encountered when keeping in touch with relocated family members. When narrating migration and transnational family life, people have to take into consideration the standpoints, expectations and possible disapproval of their relatives, acquaintances and members of surrounding societies. People rarely talk about unsuccessful migration or about the negative sides of family life, although these aspects can also be moulded into a positive key narrative that helps a person continue with his/her life. With the help of stories, it can also be easier to put into words feelings and attitudes that would otherwise be difficult to express. Sometimes feelings are also described through the experiences of other family members, for example children.

The migration stories told during the interviews concentrate on relocations that took place in the recent past. When talking about the forced relocations or other hardships in the family history, the stress is on survival, on coping with problems. The stories about the persistence and courage of previous generations can also help people to cope with the present-day difficulties. Interviewees are generally aware of the historical relocations of their family members, although forced migration has not always been openly talked about even in the family circle. Along with experiences, fears related to them are often passed to younger generations. Interviewees have, for example, mentioned their fears related to the possible closing of borders. A number of stories also describe people’s first visits to Finland, reflecting the dynamics between their ‘own’ and the ‘foreign’ worlds. When family members move to other countries, they can become foreigners in the eyes of the relatives who remain. This can be fostered by the problems related to keeping in touch, which have been touched upon especially by older family members who stay in the country of origin. Keeping up a cohesive family feeling across national borders brings its own challenges, with which transnational families must deal.

Family history in the digital age: Diasporic genealogy and participatory history culture

Anne Heimo

Key words: diasporic genealogy, family history, family narrative, Finnish migrants in Australia, migration memories, participatory history culture

Since the 1990s there has been a notable increase in family history research and genealogy in many countries. The development and popularity of information and social networking technology has substantially contributed to this boom in family history. Numerous associations, museums, archives, memorials, the media and online projects are actively participating in the collection of family history and migrant memories, to preserve this increasingly transnational heritage for future generations. It has also resulted in a growing interest to search one’s ancestral roots in “the old home country”, to search for family members who have migrated to other parts of the world, or to share one’s own memories of migration with others. In this article the author focuses on Finnish migrants in Australia and their family history activities. Australia as “a nation of migrants“ actively supports its people to engage in family history research and publicly share their experiences of migration with others in many ways as part of its multicultural policy.

Angels and the spiritual Internet forum the Nest of Angels as the carriers and legitimisers of the values of new spirituality

Marko Uibu

Key words: angels, new spirituality, online ethnography, religious syncretism, virtual community

The article observes angels as figures important for the contemporary spiritual milieu. The article focuses on an Estonian spiritual Internet forum, The Nest of Angels, and demonstrates how angels help to share virtual social support and create/confirm spiritual meanings. The forum, explicitly opposing the consumerist side of new spirituality, has become popular and demonstrates the nature and various roles of contemporary spiritual angels. Angels constitute a salient example of a recent religious change, becoming the symbols of human-centeredness and this-worldliness of modern religiosity. By asking why angels and why in the internet environment, the study identifies two main modes in which the Nest and the presence of angels have found their place in people’s lives. Firstly, emotional support is shared, either by fellow users directly or by confirmations that angels will definitely help. Secondly, the Nest allows people to acquire knowledge both on spiritual and practical issues. As the Nest is dialogical, users can pose questions and find confirmations for their otherwise deviant experiences. Discussions in the Nest encourage everybody to interpret some situations and objects (like feathers) as signs from angels. This interpreting process might change people’s perceptions of the world by adding a layer of positive emotions. The study demonstrates how the angelic presence (or at least endeavour towards the presence) helps to establish and keep the tonality of benevolence, which functions as the cornerstone of this virtual space. The ideology of the Nest and the community interactions support “connected knowledge”: being empathic, intuitive, and individualistic. As a rule, commenters do not aim to challenge diverging views (common elsewhere in Internet communication), but attempt to understand and support each other. The trustful virtual relationships actualise the influence and the authority of people similar to users themselves, and increase distrust towards traditional authorities, especially those that do not accept people’s free choice and subjectivism. Therefore, although quite opposite to a feminist empowerment ideology, new spirituality and angels support a subjective feeling of self-confidence that is framed with ‘feminine’ softness. In addition to active moderation and the strongly perceived normativity of keeping the place “high-vibrational”, the angels themselves are guardians and guarantors of this intimacy, so knowledge and emotional support can be shared. The angels’ divine nature supports people directly, but more importantly, makes them speak in a language of goodness and guarantees that fellow users, although not real angels, are trying to be at least slightly angel-like. Angels as symbolic figures unite power and benevolence; they legitimise values and epistemological positions characteristic to the milieu of new spirituality.

News, overviews   

Mare Kõiva 60

Piret Voolaid writes about Mare Kõiva, one of the best specialists in Estonian folk belief and folklore, leading researcher and Head of the Department of Folkloristics at the Estonian Literary Museum, on the occasion of her 60th jubilee.

Star scholars of paremiology celebrate

On February 17, Wolfgang Mieder, professor at the University of Vermont, a megastar of modern paremiology, folklorist and phraseologist, expert in Germanistics and Medievistics, celebrated his 70th jubilee.

March 25 was the 100th birth anniversary of Matti Kuusi, a long-term professor of the University of Helsinki, paremiologist and folklorist of world renown, specialist in Finnish epic poetry and runo songs, literary historian, essayist, writer and public figure.

March 1 was the 90th birth anniversary of Kazys Grigas, a merited Lithuanian paremiologist.

Conference on border code

Tuulikki Kurki gives an overview of the conference under the heading “Border Code”, which was organised by the working group of the research project “Writing Cultures and Traditions at Borders”, financed by the Academy of Finland, at the University of Eastern Finland on November 6–8, 2013.

Tiiu Ernits’s doctoral thesis on music education in Baltic-German schools

On May 16, 2013, Tiiu Ernits defended her doctoral thesis entitled “Music Education Literature and Teaching of Singing in Schools with German as the Language of Instruction in Estonia 1860–1914” at the Institute of Educational Sciences at Tallinn University. An analysis of the thesis is provided by Ingrid Rüütel.

Seminar on digital humanities at the Estonian Literary Museum: Interdisciplinary view of IT-applications

Kaisa Kulasalu and Mari Sarv give an overview of the seminar “Estonian Digital Humanities Anno 2013: IT-Applications in Humanities”, which took place at the Estonian Literary Museum on October 25, 2013.

Sille Kapper defended her doctoral thesis on traditional folk dance

On December 12, 2013, Sille Kapper defended her doctoral thesis “Changing Traditional Folk Dance: Concepts and Realizations in Estonia 2008–2013” at the Estonian Institute of Humanities at Tallinn University. An overview of the thesis is given by Ingrid Rüütel.

Winter school of folkloristics in Jharkhand, India

Reet Hiiemäe recalls the winter school of folkloristics under the heading “Tradition, Creativity and Indigenous Knowledge: Winter School of International Folkloristics and Indigenous Culture”, which took place in Jharkhand, India.

3rd all-Russian congress of folklorists in Moscow

Piret Voolaid speaks about the 3rd all-Russian congress of folklorists, which took place in Voronovo, Russia, on February 3–7, 2014.


A brief summary of the events of Estonian folklorists from December 2013 to April 2014.

Cannibals, ritual murderers, organ robbers: The darker side of folklore

Christa Agnes Tuczay. Die Herzesser. Dämonische Verbrechen in der Donaumonarchie. Wien: Seifert Verlag 2007. 160 pp.

An introduction of the book by Reet Hiiemäe.

Era of memes in digital culture

Limor Shifman. Memes in Digital Culture. The MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series. Cambridge: MIT Press 2013. 216 pp.

An introduction of the book by Mare Kalda.