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

 

 

My article on the Baltic under Soviet communism had scarcely appeared in the Independent than, in November 1988, Estonia proclaimed its sovereignty. Suddenly the entire USSR was a sandpile ready to slide. On 6 November 1991 the Russian President Boris Yeltsin (reportedly inflamed by vodka) officially terminated the USSR’s existence when he banned the Communist Party within Russia. Estonia was now free and Red Tallinn had gone before I knew it.

The years passed. I sought out other books by Kross. His twelfth novel, Dr Martens’ Departure (1984), concerns a hapless Baltic expert employed by Tsar Nicholas II to collate treatises; again it unfolds as an exercise in paradox and ambiguity. It was not until 2003 that I finally met Kross. At 83, he was frail and had recently suffered a stroke. He was living with his third wife, the poet and children’s writer Ellen Niit, on the fifth floor of the Soviet-era Writers’ House in Tallinn’s old quarter.

 

 

In him I found the modesty of the true writer, a sorrowful yet slightly mischievous presence. He said he was ‘itching’ to write another novel but was content for the moment to work on his memoirs. By now he had been translated into twenty-three languages; in 1992 he was given ‘advance warning’ that he would win the Nobel Prize for Literature and told to stay by the phone. (‘It was easy enough to do as I hardly ever leave my flat,’ he told me.) Nadine Gordimer won that year. Kross never did.

 

 

Kross’s later short stories, collected in English in 1995 under the title The Conspiracy, recount attempts by Estonians to flee across the Gulf of Finland to Helsinki during the Nazi occupation or their deportation to the Gulag by the Soviets. Understandably, Kross did not begin to describe his Gulag years in print until the advent of Gorbachev’s perestroika in the mid-1980s. Even so, there is surprisingly little bleakness in his prison tales. Kross writes about his incarceration under dictatorship with a poignancy devoid of anger. All his work is the product of a refined and subtly ironic mind, but The Czar’s Madman ranks with Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s The Leopard as an historical novel of timeless importance. (Lampedusa’s wife Alessandra Wolff, incidentally, was a Baltic baroness.) Jaan Kross died, at the age of 87, in Tallinn in 2007. He is one of Europe’s most revered writers and I would recommend his books unreservedly.

 

 

This is a longer version of an article which appeared in Slightly Foxed, No 67 Autumn 2020

Jaan Kross, The Czar’s Madman (1978: English trans.1992) and The Conspiracy and Other Stories (1988: English trans. 1995) are both available in paperback in English from Harvill.

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