Jaan Kross — a writer’s route to happiness

The novels of Estonian Jaan Kross, who endured both Nazi and Soviet occupation, provide a window into life under oppression.

Jaan Kross. Credit: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo.
Jaan Kross. Credit: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo.

Every so often – or rather, on rare occasions – a novelist appears who not only writes beautiful, gripping, thought provoking opuses but who comes to embody his or her country. Jaan Kross, whose life followed modern Estonia’s path from early independence to the Second World War, Soviet occupation, and triumphant return to independence, was such a writer. Disguising his powerful stories as historical tales, he outwitted the Soviet censors and was understood by every Estonian.

You may have heard of Rakvere. It’s a historic town in north-eastern Estonia, populated since the Middle Ages by merchants and conquered many times over by invading powers. Today, its long history makes it popular with tourists. But Rakvere is also a novel by Jaan Kross, set in the town during one of these tumultuous changes of power. Rakvere had been granted city privileges during the Middle Ages, but in Kross’s novel, a new lord of the manor arrives at the nearby estate and makes it known that the people of Rakvere are now his subjects. Brave Rakverians decide to resist their uninvited ruler and they’re assisted by none other than the nobleman’s secretary. ‘That’s who Jaan Kross was for occupied Estonia,’ my father, Christian Braw, told me.

By the time my father, a Swedish theologian and novelist, met Kross in the 1980s, the latter was a renowned author loved by Estonians and tolerated by the Soviet authorities. Despite belonging to different generations — my father is a generation younger than Kross — and two different Cold War blocs, the two became instant friends and remained so until Kross’s death in 2007.  They discussed, sometimes being listened to  covertly by the KGB, the conditions of existence in free and unfree societies and the role played by literature. (Because the two men conversed in German, the KGB didn’t get much useful material.) Jaan’s wife, Ellen Niit, a well-known poet and children’s author who also helped edit her husband’s books, joined them on occasions. By that time, Kross was a member of the Soviet writers’ union and lived in an apartment building that belonged to them.

That marked a radical change from Kross’s first years under Soviet occupation, which he spent initially in a secret-police prison in Tallinn and then doing forced labour in a gulag brick factory. He was deported to the gulag in 1946, a young lawyer aged 26, and returned a man of 32 — but uncowed. ‘Jaan told me once, “I was just the right age during deportation – not too young, because then you died, and not too old, because then you died too”,’ my father recalled. During the early years of occupation, the Soviet authorities deported tens of thousands of Estonians to Siberia and executed thousands of others. ‘He was never bitter about the gulag, and sometimes he even joked about it even though it was such a serious matter,’ his son, Eerik, told me. ‘But after this death, when I read his letters from the gulag, I discovered that that was his attitude even at the time.’ Every now and again, Kross would comment on how Soviet construction technology — bricks made by forced labour — hadn’t improved since the time of the ancient Egyptians.

During the Nazi occupation, the Germans had enlisted Kross, a fluent German speaker, as a translator. But what the Nazis didn’t know was that he was a member of Estonia’s underground resistance and secretly copied the documents and sent them to Estonia’s still functioning embassy in Helsinki. And like most Estonians, he was elated when the Nazis withdrew. But many Estonians suspected worse was to come. Kross once told my father about the brief period between Nazi Germany’s withdrawal from Estonia and the Soviets’ occupation: ‘He recalled how an Estonian government official went around to the prisons and released those detained by the Nazis. ‘“Now the misery is over – this time around,” the official said.’

As the official had anticipated, the misery returned in even fuller force as the Soviets permanently occupied Estonia. In that misery, Kross found his unique role as his country’s most distinguished writer and its secret source of hope. ‘Already in the gulag, he was trying to figure out how he could carve out a space of freedom for himself,’ Eerik told me. ‘This was during the worst years of Stalin. My father was trying to think how he could write; maybe write under an assumed name? Maybe translate? He was constantly trying to get access to books in German, Swedish and English.’ By the time he was released, he’d written a large number of poems that would form his first book, as well as hundreds of letters to his first wife. Recently, Eerik — a Soviet era opposition activist who went on to open Estonia’s first post-independence embassy in London and later became a parliamentarian and intelligence official — received hundreds of pages of these letters from his half-sister and published them in Kallid krantsid. Kirjad vangilaagritest ja asumiselt Siberis 1946 – 1954 (Dear mongrels. Letters about a prison camp and settlement in Siberia 1946-1954).

In The Czar’s Madman, which was published in 1978 and has become Kross’s most famous novel, he tells the story of Timotheus von Bock, a Livonian (early Estonian) nobleman who is a friend of the czar and has promised to always tell him the truth. The czar, alas, can’t stand to hear the truth and throws von Bock in prison. By feigning madness, von Bock manages to get released and has to spend the rest of his life pretending to be mad. Even so, he manages to compose a manifesto addressed to the nobility, calling for an overhaul of the country’s governance. The czar’s agents have an inkling of what he’s up to and constantly hunt the manuscript. ‘Timo’s wife, Eeva, supports his idea that they should try to leave the country, so they plan to escape on a ship,’ Eerik noted. ‘But Timo changes his mind. Exactly this happened to Jaan, in 1944. He got out of the German prison and the Soviets were already closing in on Tallinn. He and his first wife tried to leave, but an Estonian soldier told them that there were no boats, and they decided to return. The question of whether to leave or stay haunted him his whole life.’

Blaming von Bock’s alleged madness, the authorities take his son away and send him to a military academy, after which he will, of course, serve the czar. ‘Timotheus von Bock’s commitment to truth became a curse on his family,’ my father observed. ’But even while it was a tragedy, it became a sign of hope. That’s probably the way it is with everyone who is committed to the truth.’ The Soviet censors, so keen on any writings denigrating their country’s previous regime, were blind to the story’s contemporary connotations. But Estonians understood.

That was the case, too, with Balthasar Russow, a sixteenth century Estonian chronicler whom Kross portrays in a series of novels. Kross’s story begins with a thrilling scene featuring an Italian troupe whose members dance on a rope high above the ground, fortified by a drink of dew from their homeland. ‘ “The thing about rope dancing is that we easily forget how dangerous it is,” Jaan once told me,’ my father recalled. ‘And so much in Jaan’s life as an author was dancing on a rope. Even while being an establishment figure, a member of the Soviet writers’ union, he managed to say so many fundamental things, things that the Russians never saw through.’

But Kross never forgot how dangerous it was to say the things he did, albeit it in the disguise of historical fiction. After a relatively free period in the 1960s, Soviet repression in Estonia worsened again, and Kross was once more overcome by the urge to defect. ‘At one point, he was supposed to give a speech at the writers’ union congress in Tallinn,’ Eerik recalled. ‘He was seriously contemplating standing up and, rather than giving a speech, asking for permission, there on the stage, to leave the Soviet Union with his family.’ But, once again, he decided against it. In The Czar’s Madman, after making the same decision, Timotheus von Bock explains that, ‘I want to be a nail in the body of the empire’. But, as ever, the Soviet censors missed the clues.

In his 1984 novel Professor Martens’ Departure, Kross portrays Friedrich Fromhold von Martens, a nineteenth century Estonian diplomat in the service of czarist Russia. The nature of states’ relationship to other states is determined by their treatment of their own citizens, von Martens declares: dynamite in a repressive country like the Soviet Union. ‘But Jaan managed to get the book published because he let von Martens say the things Jaan himself wanted to say. He was exceptionally skilled in saying things between the lines, and everyone understood what he said, except the censors,’ my father reflected.

By August 1991, it had become possible for Estonians to travel to the West, and Jaan Kross and Ellen Niit arranged for one of their granddaughters and a friend of hers to come and visit my family. Everything about life in the capitalist West — even as manifested in a parsonage — was new, bewildering and exciting for the girls. Then, one day my aunt called with alarming news: there had been a coup in Moscow. For three terrifying days, the girls, and we. watched the news from Moscow, uncertain whether they’d be able to return.

Soon the Soviet Union collapsed, while the Estonians — and the Latvians, the Lithuanians, and many other peoples in countries oppressed by the Soviets — prevailed. ‘People like Jaan kept a different world alive,’ Eerik said. ‘Writing, gathering personal correspondence, teaching their children things that were not taught in school. Estonia was underwater, and we just had to keep our breath long enough to be able to resurface.’ After his country’s triumphant resurfacing, Kross served in Estonia’s first free parliament and helped draft some of its new laws. Ever the graceful writer, he often despaired at the legalese others put into the legislation. He continued to write and to be read, because while he played a unique role in occupied Estonia as his people’s secret helper, his novels and novellas have global appeal, and an appeal not confined to a particular period of time. His books, especially The Czar’s Madman, have since been translated into numerous languages. In 2020, on what would have been Kross’s 100th birthday, Google honoured him with a Doodle.

Today, his novels, all of which can be said to address the dilemma of living under oppression, are gaining new prominence. Ukrainians in newly occupied parts of the country face the same quandary Cold War Estonians — and Professor Martens, Balthasar Russow, and Timotheus von Bock — faced: how to exist under a regime that denies your freedom. Those of us who are lucky enough to live in freedom would also do well to read Kross’s novels, not just for the literary pleasure but for a window into life under oppression. And they would help us better understand our fellow members of NATO, the EU and other outfits, and reflect on how we might act if we had to endure what Kross and his fellow Estonians (and Latvians, Lithuanians and so many others) had to endure.

Despite the misery that had accompanied most of his life, until the end Kross remained a joyful person. ‘He was a phenomenally positive and life affirming person,’ my father said. ’He loved life and could see rays of light in even the most miserable situations. And he loved telling stories. When he was in the mood to tell a story, he’d lean back and fold his hand behind his neck, and off the story went.’

At the end of Kross’s chronicle of the life of Balthasar Russow, the scribe lies on his deathbed, engaged in a final conversation with God. But what he tells the Lord is not the usual deathbed confession: he asks for forgiveness because in his miserable life, during a miserable period in history, he’s managed to be happy. And, my father told me, ‘that’s the way Jaan Kross was’.


Elisabeth Braw