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Jaan Kross

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

Jaan Kross is one of my favorite writers.

He lived in Estonia under Nazi and Soviet occupation. He survived six years in the Soviet Gulag.

He wrote his novels under the Soviet occupation. They are historical novels with more relevance to today than I ever expected during the times I walked by his apartment in Tallinn.

Elizabeth Braw writes about his life and novels.

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. 

His novels criticized the Soviet occupation without ever referring to it directly. People live their lives under dictatorships rather normally unless they anger the regime. Kross pushed the limits and remained safe.

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.

I suspect they missed the clues because the novels were written in Estonian. Both Russians and Estonians believe that Estonian is the most difficult language in the world.

Read the whole thing. It’s a lovely tribute to a man who did his best.

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner

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