Translated from German (Silberne Löffel und Taubendreck) by Anita Tscherne.
I never saw myself as a person from the Soviet era with a Soviet home. Only in the last few years did I begin to take an interest in what exactly the Soviet era might have given me. I always thought that the questions that concerned me most were transcending particular epochs and were of a generally human nature. On the other hand, it is quite clear that I, as someone born in Tallinn in 1980, am a child of the Soviet era and as such I have been influenced in one way or another by that time and the prevailing mentality. The question is how? Seeking an answer to the question of what the home of my childhood looked like, there is no guarantee whatsoever that I will achieve clarity. But I will certainly be able to see more clearly where in the future I could look for traces of that time in my everyday life and my beliefs and see what exactly has been stored within me from the world of my childhood.
My Estonian Mother and my Russian Father
One can ask the question whether my parents would have been different people if they hadn't been born immediately after the Second World War, my mother in 1946, my father in 1947. They certainly would have been, but what kind, I don't know. I can only speculate that my mother, whose maternal ancestors were mostly already urbanised educated citizens, mainly teachers, and whose paternal grandparents were large farmers in southern Estonia, would have grown up in a comparatively well-off family in the educated middle-class milieu. My father's life and fate deviate so much from his family background that it is difficult for me to assess how his life would have developed under different circumstances. His parents both came from modest farming families in central Russia and were deeply shaped by their experiences of the Second World War. My father's father spent a total of eight years inside the maelstrom of war and took part in the Battle of Stalingrad, but also fought in the border battles between Soviet and Japanese troops that preceded the Second World War. His mother was also active as a radio operator during the war, and in my memory her chest is decorated with veteran medals. My father, however, left his parents' house quite early because of his artistic interests and, against all expectations, became an artist rather than an engineer.
What unites my parents in my opinion is that, contrary to the expectations placed on them, they became artists, and I believe that they were influenced by the Soviet era in both a positive and a negative sense, as was I.
I was born on 5 December 1980, the first daughter of Estonian ceramicist Kersti Karu and Russian monumental painter Valeriy Sakov. Later my little sister Marja was born, who is the most important companion in my life. It has always been important to me to emphasise that my father is not an Estonian Russian, but a Russian from Russia, who lives in Severodvinsk, near Arkhangelsk in northern Russia. His family - my sister and I, and our mother- lives in Estonia. My parents had married a few months before I was born and are still married to this day. My father's stays or visits with us were sometimes longer, sometimes shorter, but his home is there in the far north, and that was his own choice, because he was born and raised in central Russia, in Dzerzhinsk in the Nizhny-Novgorod Oblast.
For me it was natural growing up with my mother and to have a father who came to visit from time to time. It was only later that I understood that being married usually meant something else. It was also natural for me that my mother and I had different names, because as a 33-year-old artist she had decided at the time of her marriage to keep her Estonian name. At the same time, my surname, which was different from my mother's, was something that made me understand that I was not a ‘real’ Estonian like the other people around me.
At home we spoke Estonian because most of the time there were only the three of us, my sister, my mother and me. But when Father came, we spoke Russian with him, which is still the common language between Father and Mother today. All the relatives kept asking in disbelief why our father had never learned Estonian. One reason for this is certainly that, unlike me, he has no talent for languages. But another reason is that his home is not really here. It's neither good nor bad, it's just the way it is.
For me it was normal to speak two languages simultaneously. And this certainly has had a significant impact on my later life as well.
Faehlmann-Street, corner Vase-Street
The home I grew up in was a shared apartment in a three-storey white stone building in Kadriorg on the corner of Faehlmann-Street and Vase-Street, near the broadcasting station. Next to our house was the foreign exchange shop ‘Albatros’. I don’t remember dreaming about ever entering this shop or watching the people who did it. It was just a low building with a shop that was only meant for the select few, Mother said that they were mainly sailors. Instead, I remember how you could get to the roof of that shop to recover the tennis balls that we had thrown against the wall of our house.
Our building must have been very special at one time, since in its basement, though we rarely were allowed in, were the remains of a swimming pool. It was quite an amazing feeling to live in a house where there once was a swimming pool in the cellar. At the same time, I couldn't comprehend why the swimming pool wouldn't be repaired so that it could be used. The mailboxes in our house were also from a bygone era. They were made of wood and decorated with carvings.
Our apartment, Number 8, was located on the second floor and was the middle one, which meant that our front door was twice as wide and significantly higher than the doors of the apartments facing to the side. The apartment itself was partitioned in two parts: our neighbours, a family of four with two daughters who were a little older than us, had one half, i.e. two rooms, and we had the other half, also with two rooms, and we all shared the kitchen. But we also had a small windowless box room and a pantry or what used to be the maid's room. The box room was mainly used by Father to keep his art utensils and paintings, while Mother's ceramic materials were kept in the pantry, next to the tableware and groceries, for which there was no room in the cramped communal kitchen.
Although the general opinion seemed to be that families in shared apartments did not get along well with each other, it was different with us. We had a good relationship with our neighbours. Mother even confessed later that for her, as somebody who often worked in the evenings, it was a blessing to have neighbours who could keep an eye on us children if necessary. When we were kids, we often played with the other two girls, and we enjoyed it. Of course, we had been instructed never to just walk into the neighbours' part of the apartment unannounced. In spring and autumn, Uncle Mati and Aunt Reet (her family name was Wahtramäe) took us, together with their children, even later when they were older, to their summer house in Kiisa. Mati also had a car, something my family didn’t. While Aunt Reet had a somewhat stricter manner, Uncle Mati was one of the most pleasant and calm men of my childhood. When our families later moved into separate apartments in Lasnamäe, we still visited each other from time to time. To this day we maintain, if not a very intimate yet thoroughly friendly, contact with the two daughters Hedi and Malle.
The apartment we lived in had been the final residence of a great-aunt of my mother’s. Anette Marie Vilbaste, whose former family names were Rütmik and Mänd, was a sister of my mother's maternal grandfather, who had been married twice: her second and last husband was the well-known botanist Gustav Vilbaste, to whom she was married from 1939 to 1967. Her first husband was the industrialist and manufacturer Johannes Rütmik, who died in 1937. But Anette did not have children of her own, so my mother was like a child to her. Anette had died only a few months before I was born and only one month after my parents' marriage. So although I never met Anette, she was always present during my childhood. The entire furnishings of the apartment surrounding me, from the furniture to the embroidered bed linen and cutlery, were an inheritance from my great-aunt, mostly from the time of her marriage to Johannes Rütmik, when the couple lived in Nõmme. Only later did I realise that it was not necessarily common to eat with silver spoons every day. But in our family the silver spoons were for everyday use and the silver tableware for more festive occasions. The latter had engraved initials, mostly AR.
My mother had moved in with Anette a few years after Gustav Vilbaste's death in 1971, after graduating from the Estonian Academy of Fine Arts and taking up a position with the ARS Art Combine. We had to move out of the apartment at Faehlmann-Street 15/Vask-Street 14 in 1996, when it was returned to its original owners, who had sold it to the real estate company Oberhaus. Our second home became a three-room apartment on the top floor of a nine-storey building in Lasnamäe, in the Mustakivi district. Aunt Anette's old furniture moved with us, but it stood in stark contrast to the rooms with the low ceilings.
I am used to living surrounded by old furniture decorated with carvings. I am used to chairs that need to be constantly glued back together and have their covers replaced, and I am also used to cupboard doors not necessarily always staying properly closed or drawers falling open way too easily.
Father's attitude towards our family furniture was one of great reverence, but at times he treated it with a degree of ignorance. Sometimes he would repair old wooden chairs that had pegs with nails, or painted furniture that did not particularly benefit from it. But most of the time he tried to consciously and sensitively restore or repair the furniture, especially when it came to replacing fabric or leather upholstery. He painted my wooden desk and the wooden wall cupboard white, though. At least it provided a little bit of brightness in our otherwise rather darkly tinted apartment.
In contrast to our furniture from the interwar period, our surroundings were increasingly filled with Mother's ceramics and both Father's and Mother's paintings. The occupation with art was part of both my sister’s everyday life as well as mine. We always had clay in the house, and Mother initially let us make beads from it, from which we made necklaces, later on we eagerly moulded various birds and animals (cats, snakes, monkeys, bears etc.). Not long after that cups, vases and bowls. I don't think there is a single childhood friend of mine to whom I haven’t given a clay jug or an oil painting. Later, when we spent our summers at our mother's friend's house in Pudisoo, we passionately painted the juniper landscape and all kinds of insects under father's guidance. We captured a cricket, a beetle or an ant, put it in a jar with a perforated lid and set out - Father, my sister and I - to immortalise the creature in a painting. Father's dream is to exhibit them one day.
For me it was normal to live in an apartment where all the walls were covered with paintings. Just as it was quite normal to be occupied with pottery and oil painting.
Once, when Father was busy with a larger kind of mural, evidently a fresco, he had drawn a large design on the wall of our living room. But then Mother had the wall painted over rather quickly, because it was impossible to feel at ease and at home with it. Later, for years, Father's reproduction of Pieter Bruegel's The Elder ‘The Hay Harvest’ (De Hooi-oogst, 1565) hung in its original format above Mother's bed in the living room. Father had made many reproductions of famous paintings to hone his skills. ‘The Hay Harvest’ was indeed excellent. This Dutch painting with its thick gold frame in many ways fit right in with our ornate wooden furniture and at the same time provided a little bit of summer on each of our autumn, winter or spring days. In the end, however, we grew tired of the painting, even though it accompanied us to our Lasnamäe apartment, where it never really fitted in, so my parents eventually sold it. But ‘The Hay Harvest’ will always remain a part of my childhood.
Part of my childhood is also the big round dining table with the one thick leg in our living room with its tall and elegant chairs. For some reason I loved this table. Probably because it was so lovely to draw on it, and perhaps also because it stood in our living room directly under the large, three-part arched window right next to the wide windowsill. I liked to climb on this windowsill to look out of the window, although mother did not allow it.
I also became fond of my sister's and my (bedroom) furniture, which had also been the bedroom furniture of Aunt Anette and Uncle Gustav. Two large wooden beds, two matching low bedside tables, a three-part mirror cabinet with a wide chair and a chest of drawers for our clothes. I can still remember with great ease and feel in my fingertips the handles of these cupboards and the dotted floral carvings on the bedposts and cupboard doors.
The spice jars in three different sizes on the top shelf in our kitchen however I treated with particular reverence. I can still remember their Estonian inscription and the smell of the spices, although Mother generally did not allow us to touch them. Their lids had been broken at some point, but had been carefully glued back together.
Furthermore, large Aloe plants were also part of our city apartment. They were truly enormous. As well as the mellifluous and sprawling wax flower, which in my memory covered the whole window, including the entire windowsill of our pantry. My mother loved plants and still does. She often told me that she had attended the special botanical classes during her school days and had enjoyed a thorough practical botanical education. However, it is only in recent years that I have been able to prevent plants from dying within the first few weeks they have spent with me. In the past I always had to discourage birthday guests from giving me a living plant.
Was there anything Russian in our house? Not much, but there was definitely something. We had a big Samovar that I liked very much, but I don't remember using it very often. We also had many North Russian wood carvings: a big, roundish wooden bird, a bear on a wooden base that danced when pulling a string, a carved painted wooden horse on wheels. There were probably also one or two sets of Matryoshkas. The Nordic Russian flair mainly came into our house because of my father's paintings. And, apart from my father's paintings, it certainly also expressed itself, at least partially, in my character and nature.
In Viljandi and Loodi
As it is typical for Estonians, my childhood memories are divided into a winter and a summer setting. For the summer, my sister and I were regularly sent to the countryside. Not to my grandmother, because she was already a city person and unfortunately she died quite early, in 1987. My grandfather had even died earlier, in 1976, before I was born. So I didn't really have grandparents. But my sister and I spent the summers in Viljandi and near Viljandi in Loodi with relatives. In fact, all of my mother's relatives are from Viljandi district, so I sometimes jokingly claimed that the only Estonian thing about me was really South Estonian.
Because Mother worked most of the summer, she distributed my sister and myself between our relatives on a farm in Loodi, which meant Aunt Heli's family, and Great Aunt Linda, who lived in Viljandi. Heli Maria Kahu is the daughter of Martin Kahu, the older brother of my great-grandmother Anna. The Kahus had six sons, and the seventh child was their little sister Anna. At least two or three of these brothers were teachers, and Anna also chose this profession. Martin was even a school principal in Tallinn before he bought a farm in his home area in Loodi just before the war broke out - just in case things took a turn for the worse. And so Heli ran the farm and at the same time conducted various choirs in the Viljandi district and taught in Viljandi. She taught me many things, both about agriculture and animal husbandry and about life in general.
The great aunt in Viljandi, Linda Oja (formerly Karu), was the daughter of Mother's great uncle on her father's side. Her husband Elmar had died and she shared her house in Tehnika Street with her sister-in-law Ernestiine and Aunt Erna respectively. Aunt Linda, like great-aunt Anette, had no children of her own, and for her too, my mother was a bit like her own daughter. Aunt Linda had been a German teacher, but unfortunately I have no memories or information about Aunt Erna's profession or work. In a way, Aunt Linda was like a grandmother to us. She died when I was already a young adult and I was able to say goodbye to her in a conscious way. For some reason my sister and I were not taken to grandmother's funeral, even though I was seven and my sister was five.
Aunt Linda never got angry, she kept cats and fed pigeons. In her yard there would be huge flocks of pigeons and the stairs of her house were always full of pigeon shit. Linda's garden was like a wild jungle, there were so many plants and trees that you never got bored. At the same time, there were an awful lot of snails we children sometimes had to collect. In this garden, masses of tulips bloomed in spring in all colours, which in my memory are so beautiful as I later never saw them again. Linda also had the biggest strawberries in the world, the best smelling jasmine, the brightest orange marigolds and the most unforgettable abundance of forget-me-nots. This garden was a garden full of wonder with mysterious pathways and compost heaps.
While we had a water closet in our city apartment, here in Viljandi the toilet was outside in the courtyard, and at night we naturally squatted on the bucket in the kitchen. So sometimes I could proudly tell those people who thought I was a 'city girl' that I was quite familiar with and remembered what a bucket was, what haymaking was or what cow patties were.
Proust was right. Memories are indeed made up of distinct sensory perceptions. I had no idea that smells, especially the smells and colours of nature, played such an important role in my life.
After a week at Aunt Linda's and Aunt Erna's - Erna, by the way, let us play parlour games and cards, Linda didn't like such things, she loved to do crossword puzzles - my mother came from Tallinn and took me to Loodi in the country and my sister to the city, to Aunt Linda in Viljandi. When using the word ‘city’, it was always necessary to say whether it was Viljandi or Tallinn, because for the relatives in Loodi it was Viljandi, but for us it was Tallinn.
In Loodi lived and still lives one of the most important and longest-standing friends of my childhood, the son of the family, Martin, who is two years older than me. During the summers we were inseparable, in winter we wrote letters to each other, we sometimes exchanged coins, sometimes stamps, but also impressions of life and school.
In Loodi us children were given our own tasks. When it was not haymaking time, we always had to pull out weeds in some patch of land, dig potato furrows, pick or clean berries, clean potatoes or do other chores. But we still had plenty of time to do mischief, tease each other, eat berries and fruit, read, play cards, hike in the Hell Valley of Loodi, but also swim in the Sinialliku Lake which was only four kilometres away and practice water jumping.
The farmhouse in Loodi was also decorated with old furniture that had been bought or received when the estate was dissolved. Everything in this house was old, and the bookshelves were filled with old German-language books in gothic font. I especially remember the volumes of Meyer's 19th Century Conversation Dictionary, which from time to time we very carefully leafed through and tried to decipher.
My Idea of Home
My understanding of a home was formed in terms of content from the interaction of these three places: our shared apartment in Tallinn, which had two addresses (one on Faehlmann Street, the other on Vask Street), the small town house on Tehnika Street in Viljandi with its large mystery garden, and the Risti farm in Viljandi district, which was located opposite the Loodi Manor House, where animals and poultry were still kept during my childhood. In retrospect, all these places were permeated by the mentality of the first Estonian Republic, both in terms of objects and attitudes, there was something old-fashioned and elegant about them. Aunt Linda never ate without a separate bread plate and saucers.
In our Tallinn home and on the farm in Loodi, there was a great deal of unconventionality, art and music, which I certainly learned to love and appreciate. In my home, too, there must be an organised chaos or a certain atmosphere that favours creative activity. While my parents' house was overloaded with paintings, there are certainly far too many books in my home. But there is also art, especially that of my parents, overflowing in my apartment and by far not everything is fitting on the walls.
I cannot say whether the places of my childhood would have developed differently if they had existed in a different time. Perhaps the Soviet period and its shortages played an important role in preserving this whole old atmosphere, of which the furniture was certainly a part. According to family history, the only known story is that of an accidentally burnt piano and whose feet have been given a new artistic use in a Tallinn art shop.
That my parents are artists of different nationalities is certainly, at least partly, due to the circumstances of the time in which they lived. Both longed for something different and were looking for something that they each found or hoped to find in the other. Perhaps also in us, their children. Perhaps in us, their children, two things are connected in a strange way: that which has been handed down through the generations from times gone by, and that which our parents themselves were able to take from their time - after all, as artists they had relatively good working conditions under the Soviet system.
It is certainly also true that my parents' bi-national artist family did not quite (or only partly) fit into the specific world they came from. And this circumstance certainly welded my parents together. I believe that both of them incorporated both themselves and the spirit of their time into their creative work. But that's already the subject of the next story.