TALLINN – News media nowadays are rife with speculation about whether – if not when – US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will divide the world between them. We in Estonia and the other Baltic states now fear being consigned to Russia’s sphere of influence once more. Indeed, for many Baltic citizens, suppressed visions of torture, deportations, and flight – all experiences from our recent history – are once again bursting into our consciousness.
In the Baltics, we know well the feeling that our country is part of some great global game of money and manipulation. We haven’t forgotten the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the other secret protocols by which Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler in 1939 altered the fate of our countries almost overnight. How could we? Just a year later, the Soviet Union’s secret police began arresting and killing our parents and grandparents.
We also have another dark memory of that time: collaboration and appeasement. Like anyone who has lived through occupation, violent regimes, and brutal wars, we know that trust, so long to develop, can be thrown away in an instant. It is so easy for immoral individuals to be bribed into betrayal.
This is as true today as ever. In Finland, Estonia, and throughout Europe, we are seeing a deeply worrying trend, with traditional values and principles being compromised by political maneuvering and money. Appeasement toward the authoritarian regime in Russia can apparently be bought.
How can we counter these forces? Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, believed that, by improving humans’ inner world, we could improve the outer world we all share. He argued that culture – all kinds of knowledge that cultivate a social conscience – could be our salvation.
Before the 1917 revolution, Russia itself had high hopes in this regard. All of Freud’s works were translated into Russian. Many of the country’s leading artists, scholars, and doctors, having studied in the capitals of Europe, acted as cultural mediators. The likes of Mikhail Bulgakov, Marina Tsvetaeva, Alexander Blok, Nikolai Berdyaev, and Wassily Kandinsky were all under Freud’s remedial spell.
Then the revolution came. The Russian psychoanalyst Tatiana Rosenthal believed she could reconcile Marxism with psychoanalysis. But the Soviets were soon terrorizing, persecuting, and murdering the people she respected, and destroying Freud’s books, along with tens of millions of others. Soon, they perverted psychiatry to serve their own interests, using it to “cure” political dissidents. In 1921, at age 36, Rosenthal committed suicide.
A generation later, Estonia experienced the same terror. Once occupation began in 1940, Soviet forces began stripping Estonians of their Western mentality and memory by destroying some 26 million books. During the major deportations of 1949, as 22,000 people were sent to Siberia, the last personal libraries were burned as well.
Of course, there were always collaborators. In 1941, Max Laosson, an author and editor of an Estonian psychoanalytic magazine, joined a Soviet destruction battalion. As his former friends’ lives and careers were lost, he rose through the ranks, ultimately becoming a high-ranking Communist functionary. For Laosson, conformity was a survival strategy; it contributed to the annihilation of culture and trust, but it worked.
As for Freud, he was driven into exile by the Hitler regime. In 1939, while living in London, he observed that his theory that people had a basic destructive urge had been proven. He maintained hope, however, that, while culture could not cure humans of their destructiveness, it could help us to limit these instincts, at least in our shared outer world.
Was Freud – who died before the Nazis began burning people in extermination camps – right to think that we are capable of suppressing humanity’s urge for destruction?
The Finnish author and filmmaker Jörn Donner once wrote that books are incapable of preventing war. I remember how deeply this sentence shocked me when I first read it. Estonia had regained its independence, and I was seeking a kind of resolution for my mother, who had been taken as a young girl to a gulag. That resolution would, at least partly, take the form of a book.
I believed at that time, and I still do, that culture, as defined by Freud, can save humanity by ensuring that history doesn’t repeat itself. Soviet-era networks and narratives, for many, endured in the shadows. So I made films and books that would expose the patterns of thought and behavior that underpin the devastating commands to kill and betray one’s neighbor.
Yet some now say that those destructive old networks and narratives are reawakening. And when powerful forces – ideology, money, envy, or guilt – are activated, there are always those who are willing to betray or censor others. The banal evil of which Hannah Arendt wrote is still very much alive.
According to the French philosopher Julia Kristeva, cultures die, but they may also kill. I am not even confident that freedom of speech can be taken for granted anymore. But, like Freud, I still have hope that – with the help not just of culture, but also of a civil society willing to defend it – we can learn to control our basest urges, and avoid another disastrous division of the world.