Jaan Kross by Ellen Niit - Ian Thomson on Jaan Kross, The Czar’s Madman

A Separate World

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When I think back to that first visit of mine to Estonia in 1988, I see muted, metallic-grey tones of fog and sea; above all I remember a sense of wonder that I was finally on my way to my mother’s homeland. Ingrid was 17 when, stateless and displaced, she arrived in England in 1947, having fled westwards from the Baltic ahead of Stalin’s advancing Red Army. She had not been back to her native land since. Now, half a century later, I was sailing to the Estonian capital of Tallinn from Helsinki – a three-hour journey by ferry across the Gulf of Finland. The Independent Magazine had asked me to report on Moscow’s waning power in the Soviet Baltic. A hammer and sickle flapped red from the ship’s stern as we set sail. The air was pungent with engine oil as I walked towards the stern and watched Helsinki’s Eastern Orthodox cathedral dwindle to a dot.

On the flight over to Helsinki from London I had read a novel by the Estonian writer Jaan Kross, Four Monologues on St George. It investigates the life of the Tallinn-born artist Michel Sittow, who had worked as court painter to Queen Isabella of Spain in the late fifteenth century, and it had been published in Moscow in 1982 in a translation by Robert Dalglish. I did not know it then, but Kross had written sixteen other semi-factual historical novels set in Estonia under the Swedish, Danish, Russian and Nazi occupations. The novels all sought to outwit Soviet censorship – ‘writing between the lines’, Kross called it – and use history as a way to restore Estonia’s national memory under dictatorship and confirm the country’s place as Europe’s ultimate East-West borderland.

In the centuries before Kross, Western travellers had marvelled at the untranslatable names and the ‘exotic’ strangeness of sea-girt Estonia. In 1839 Lady Elizabeth Eastlake (later notorious for her hostile review of Jane Eyre in the Quarterly Review) had travelled by sledge acro

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About the contributor

Ian Thomson is the author of Primo Levi: The Elements of a Life, and two prize-winning works of reportage, Bonjour Blanc: A Journey through Haiti and The Dead Yard: Tales of Modern Jamaica. His most recent book, Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Journey Without End, was published in 2018.

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