A SEPARATE WORLD: JAN KROSS, ‘THE CZAR’S MADMAN’

 

 

When I think back to that first visit of mine to the Baltic Republic of Estonia in the autumn of 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. (‘See what Gorbachev’s getting up to with his perestroika over there,’ said the editor Alexander Chancellor.) 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 across the country to a chorus of howling wolves. ‘The silence of the night was broken by a moaning, snarling, drawn-out cry.’ Estonia was viewed in Eastlake’s day (and to an extent, it still is) as a Ruritanian outpost as remote and exotic as the fictional Syldavia of the Tintin books. (The eye-patch-wearing pilot Piotr Skut of Tintin’s Flight 714 to Sydney actually is Estonian.) In Kross’s view, foreign deprecations of the Baltic as a notional ‘Dracula-Land’ on the fringes of Eurasia are mostly born of ignorance.

A Russian voice over the ship’s tannoy cautioned us to put our watches forward by an hour in anticipation of the Soviet time zone. Presently Tallinn’s coastline came into view through the September haze. The maternal city glimmered as an arrangement of Orthodox onion cupolas and Lutheran church knitting-needle spires. With a crowd of Finns I disembarked and made my way across a rain-slicked quay.

 

 

The customs shed was filled with trestle tables where uniformed officials were busy opening and searching luggage. A sign announced: WELCOME TO SOVIET TALLINN, but the customs man was not too welcoming. ‘How long in Tallinn do you stay?’ – spoken as to an idiot. ‘A week.’ He looked at my passport. ‘Purpose of visit?’ ‘Tourism,’ I lied. Leaving the harbour, I walked in the direction of the Soviet high-rise Hotel Viru, where a room had been booked for me. From the restaurant on the twenty-second floor I was able to survey Tallinn at night. Through the plate-glass windows a red star fizzed over the central railway station and the toy fort-like turrets of the medieval castles described by Kross in Four Monologues on St George.

 

Kross did not come to prominence in the English-speaking world until 1992, when his fifth novel The Czar’s Madman appeared in translation. Unquestionably this is his masterpiece; narrated through a mosaic of journals, diary entries, memoranda and other writings, the novel has the grand sweep and pleasurable density of Tolstoy. ‘Kross is a great writer in the old, grand style,’ Doris Lessing wrote in the Spectator in 2003. The novel concerns the alleged insanity of a Baltic-German aristocrat, Timotheus von Bock, who was stationed in 1820s Livonia (present-day Estonia and Latvia) in the period just after War and Peace. Baron von Bock has the temerity to send Tsar Alexander I a dangerously frank list of proposals for constitutional reform and upbraids him for his maltreatment of serfs. For this reckless and solitary act of rebellion the Baron is imprisoned for nine years in the fortress of Schlüsselburg east of St Petersburg and then released into house arrest on his estate at Voisiku in present-day Estonia. Coincidentally or not, Kross had served almost the same term in the Gulag. For eight years between 1946 and 1954 he slaved in a coalmine near the feared Vorkuta camp west of the Urals and at a brickworks in the Krasnoyarsk region.

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