Previous page


    Maarit Niiniluoto


The red leaves swish about my feet; the autumn day is turning into dusk. The bombing raids in Afghanistan and the war against terrorism grab the tabloid headlines. I bump into an old acquaintance I used to meet at the university cafeteria, someone from the era of youth and idealism, the '60s. We both look slightly baffled.

"Weren't we supposed to make the world a better place?" I enquire.

"It was a better place, for a little while," he says. With a wave of our hands, we part.

Matti Virtanen discusses the same thing when he suggests in his thesis, The Heirs of Fennomania, the Finnish Nationalist Movement: Political Traditions and the Dynamics of a Generation, that the membership a certain age group is not enough as such to create a specific bond between the members of a generation. A feeling of unity can emerge only after we share an experience and live through it; a specific experience unites the generation. In his thesis, Virtanen deals with historical turns, starting from the Fennomanian movement of the 1820s and 1880s, and for example, the 1918 Civil War, the Second World War 1939-1945, the youth movements in the 1960s and 1970s, up to the present day activist movements.

According to Virtanen, the social and intellectual movements were triggered by the mobilisation and the experiences shared by the '60s and '70s generations. The young of those days ­ today middle-aged ­ are now in a position to decide about war and peace. No wonder the current news evoke confused feelings, the disappearance of idealism and a feeling of betrayal.

"From the perspective of cultural advancement, forgetting is as elementary as remembering," Virtanen writes. Who remembers the ideals of non-violence of our youth? "It's not enough that we know something. We should also try to understand why," said Estonian author Jaan Kaplinski on October 24th in a meeting at Villa Kivi, The Other World? The Islamic World and Culture, arranged by Helsinki Authors' Association. Kaplinski's calm European approach, his intellectual manner of expression, so emblematic of Estonians, the Tartu scent of his coat once again brought to my mind a sequence of events, which once gave me ­ then a student living the hectic days of youth ­ the historical role as a go-between for two cultural personalities of the early 1900s. Only recently has it dawned on me how bitterly disappointed they must have felt in the divided, Cold War Europe which had, on the eve of the Second World War, separated them for the rest of their lives.

When the Helsinki-Tallinn ferry route was opened in the mid 1960s, a Finnish delegation from the Eino Leino Association went to visit Estonian national author Friedebert Tuglas. The meeting was featured in the newspapers and attracted due attention. The old city centre of Tallinn cautiously opened up to the post-war generations, showing its wonders. We young people had also heard that Irene Tiittanen, an eccentric elderly female journalist with her bobbed hair and 1920s-style strap-shoes, known as Firinä, had worked as a secretary to the author Hella Wuolijoki, had been a friend of Olavi Paavolainen, the leading figure of a modernist artists' group Tulenkantajat, and had frequented the cultural meetings of the prominent literary group Kiila.

The rumours had it that her Ingrian husband had disappeared during the war. This was something that Firinä never talked about. She was often seen in the editorial office of Suomen Kuvalehti even after she retired; a wrinkled, witty woman with an ever-burning cigarette in its long holder.

I was a summer trainee in the editorial office. When Firinä found out that I, enthusiastic about the new ferry route, visited Tallinn every now and then, she gave me a letter addressed to Friedebert and Elo Tuglas, to be personally delivered to the author's villa in Nõmme. Because of the KGB censorship, Firinä was reluctant to use the regular mail.

White-haired Tuglas, who spoke beautiful Finnish, was delighted to receive messages from Firinä; I always had a letter from him to bring back with me to Finland. The close relationship between the Estonian and Finnish cultural intelligentsia in the 1920s and 1930s, the new age of independence, happy memories from the pre-Second World War era and as early as the very beginning of the 20th century ­ for me, the letters made the bygone world alive. My generation was quite ignorant about Estonia, save something like the 'Saarenmaa Waltz' by Georg Ots which was frequently played on the radio when we were children.

I once asked Firinä why she did not visit Tuglas herself; the ferry trip only took a couple of hours. Her reaction was stern: "Why should I set my foot on the soil of an occupied country," she said, stiffening up. I did not understand this fully until in the 1990s, when the Baltic history opened up after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The last time I took Firinä's letter, and smuggled a pair of golden sandals through the customs in order to give them to Elo Tuglas, I found the beautiful villa in Nõmme deserted. The doors and windows were open, the air was full of flower scent and the butterflies flew in the garden. It seemed that the place had been left in great haste.

Months later, Firinä came to me, devastated, to tell that she had received a letter from Friedebert. In his last letter, Tuglas had written that his wife Elo had been taken to the hospital on the very same day of my visit and been buried wearing those golden sandals. Shortly afterwards, in the early 1970s, both Friedebert Tuglas and Firinä also died.

A story of the friendship of three people; their mutual experience, the feeling of being a member of a generation, which endured wars, the division of Europe, the era of Stalinism and the Cold War, has emerged in my mind lately, giving a feeling of miraculous hope.

Theirs was a dream of an independent country, language, and culture. Ours was a better, more equal and international world. Now I wait for the key experience of the World Trade Center generation: what will be their dream?

Maarit Niiniluoto is an author and journalist. ß