Jaan Kross

Treading Air. A Novel of Ullo Paerand

Treading air tpb1
Translation by Eric Dickens

My immediate superior in this new job was, as said above, the private secretary to the Prime-Minister, Major Tilgre. He no doubt came from the fertile province of Mulgimaa, but was, for all that, a particularly dry individual, a thoroughly correct man of around forty-five. In actual fact, Tilgre had less to do with me than Head of Chancery Terras who was in formal terms a much higher and more distant boss. This smallish man was the soul of discretion, came originally from the Virumaa province near the capital and had graduated from Saint Petersburg University. He had qualities ideal for a civil servant - he was entirely inconspicuous. But he was always there when he was needed. And inconspicuous, thus indispensable, to such a degree that he stayed in his post for over twenty years, during all the changes of government which Estonia underwent. And what's more, he stayed at his post even during the first few weeks of 1946, that is to say during Barbarus' time as prime-minister, until one of the informers in place by that time noticed, and the inevitable came to pass. The Head of the Chancery was arrested and given the choice of dying a year later what was a normal death at the Solikam labour camp, of hunger and dysentery, or to freeze to death, which, God rest his soul, was, as we all know, the normal death for someone of his calibre.

And I, Jaak Sirkel, as I leaf through my old exercise books filled with Ulloica think to myself: I myself know this full well. Because Ullo knew this in quite a mythical way, the way we all know from hearsay about what happened. But as for me, I received a full-blown academic lecture on the subject (and in an environment of much greater relevance) from a bald-headed chap with major's flashes.

This happened to me during the last days of my career as felt boot-dryer in the year 1949. I have described elsewhere the ins and outs of this particular profession, and how I ended up entering it. But only now did the thought strike me that my dismissal from what was, by labour camp standards, rather a pleasant job, is maybe the result of this didactic conversation.

The whole thing started when I had, in the drawer of the desk in the drying room, an exercise book in which I occasionally wrote things down. Carefully chosen items, let it be said. In those days, mainly poems. A few of my own, some translations. Of the latter I remember Blok's "Girl Singing in a Church Choir" and Simonov's "Zhdi menya". Anyway, I only wrote down texts which fell within the pale of neutrality, somewhere in between Soviet patriotism and criticism of the powers that be. So that they would not put me in any danger, should anyone go inspecting them behind my back. And someone did look undetected through my lines (as happened with all our expressions of life out there). Of that I was of course quite sure.

So if you now ask me why I actually kept such an exercise book in the first place, I can't really give you a satisfactory answer. To a certain extent there arose in me all feelings which would have done so under normal circumstances: leaving your mark on the world, an aide- mémoire. But to a certain extent also to provoke the world, as a game, a protest. The informer who read my notebook in my absence (or even in my presence) had, of course, to be an Estonian and must have conveyed what was written there to his boss in a manner which put me in a more or less positive light. Because for months my jottings caused no complications. Till suddenly, in the autumn of '49, I was summoned late one evening to appear before the "godfather".

"Imya? Otchestvo? God rozhdeniya? Statya? Srok?"
I rattled out the answers and thought to myself: in some strange way this major isn't as wooden a non-entity with rusty pieces of iron as the rest of his colleagues, as far as I have come across them. This sinewy man, fortyish, prematurely bald only appears to be playing at being sleepy and bored. And right away, he furnished the first proof of his ploy: instead of approaching the subject by God knows what byways, as was usual here, the major plunged straight in:
"What have you been noting down in that exercise book out there in the drying room?"
I explained, expanding my counterploy into a list of details, about my attempts at writing poetry, draft translations, and so on, so that anyone researching such matters nowadays would be tempted to ask whether there was not cooperation with the KGB in the way myself and the major were talking.
The major asked: "Are you, then, a poet in your own right? Your file states you're a lawyer."
I said: "Yes, I am. But when I'm released, I won't be able to get a job as a lawyer."
The major pursed his lips, stretched his legs and looked at me from under his heavy brow: "Well, you might be able to, none the less. As a legal consultant for the system of village cooperatives."
I said: "That would hardly do."
"And you think you'd be allowed to write?"
"People say there are precedents."
"For example?"
"Astafyev. With his Alitet Goes to the Hills, for example."
The major thrust his chin forward. "Don't go around believing all the twaddle you hear. But, by the way, what are you in here for anyway?"
"You should damned well know", I thought, but said:
"It's written in my file. For maintaining contacts - as it says there - with bourgeois nationalists during the temporary occupation by German fascists of the territory of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic."
"And did you maintain such contacts?"
I had answered this question so often during interrogation with a "no", so I said automatically:
"Course I didn't."
And thought: well, I hope he doesn't hold it against me that I blamed the Special Commission, the Soviet Court, having claimed they had convicted me without grounds. But the surprise came from quite another quarter. He thought for a moment, jutted out his chin and said with the aplomb of a superior:
"Quite understandable that you didn't maintain such contacts. If you had, you'd have given ten years. But you've only been given five."

At this point, the anecdotal and retrospective part of our conversation was exhausted. The second half of our conversation followed, the part in which I felt it necessary to mention Ullo. Because in this half, a train of thought developed which overshadows our road to becoming part of Europe, and not only our road, but that of one third of Europe to this day. The major's unexpected statement was so provocative that I asked:
"But citizen major, please explain why are such contacts so deplorable in the eyes of the Soviet authorities that even those who have not maintained them are punished - as you have admitted in my case?"
The major growled: "What sort of lawyer are you if you can't understand that simple point? Bourgeois nationalists tried to restore their so-called Estonian Republic. Did they, or did they not?"
"I don't know. Maybe."
"But right from the start in 1918, that republic was nothing more than an armed revolt against Soviet power. Your so-called War of Independence was a revolt against the Soviet Union. And the result was the provisional one of all revolts. Leaders of such revolts have to be shot. Their class base has to be eradicated. And those elements operating under their influence have to be scattered. To the taiga, the tundra, the steppe, the desert. Wherever."
I asked: "Does this all mean that everyone who exhibited loyalty to Estonia over a period of twenty years is a criminal?"
"But of course. Everyone. Each in his own individual way."
I asked: "And this despite the fact that the Soviet government signed an agreement with Estonia, the Treaty of Tartu, supposedly for all time?"
"Good Lord, one ephemeral little agreement can be signed any day you like! When it is in the interests of the immutable policy of the Soviet Union. That is to say - of world revolution!"

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