Attempts at putting up intellectual and spiritual resistance to the occupying authorities in Hugo Raudsepp’s comedies from the 1940s
In the 1940s, the totalitarian occupying regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union implemented the strictest control and ideological guidance of intellectual and spiritual life of all time in Estonia. Essentially, the mechanisms and results of control are known. Cultural life was subjected to strict pre-censorship and post-publication censorship, and in the Soviet era also to thematic dictation.
The intellectual and spiritual resistance of Estonians in those years, in other words their refusal to accept the ruling ideology, has been studied very little. The most widespread way of putting up intellectual and spiritual resistance was to remain silent, in other words to avoid creating works that were agreeable to the authorities. Selective silence, that is the selection of one’s points of emphasis, and splitting, in other words writing for oneself works that one keeps in one’s drawer while at the same time writing for publication in print, are also placed in this category. Recording actual history in diaries through the eyes of contemporaries of events, reading intellectually and spiritually enjoyable literature, and other such actions were ways of putting up intellectual and spiritual resistance.
The main objective of this study is to ascertain in historical context the attempts to put up intellectual and spiritual resistance in the comedies from the 1940s by Hugo Raudsepp (1883–1952), one of the most outstanding Estonian playwrights of the 20th century. Ideologically speaking, dramatic literature was clearly one of the most vulnerable branches of literature. It was created for public presentation in theatres, after all, for which reason authors had to be particularly careful in their wording. On the other hand, plays provided both authors and directors with opportunities to conceal messages between the lines. For this reason, theatre became exceedingly popular in Estonia by the final decades of the Soviet era. The ridicule and mocking of the Soviet regime were especially enjoyed.
The subjugation of Estonian intellectual and spiritual life to the ideological requirements of the occupying regime was launched at the time of pre-war Stalinism (1940–1941). Its aim was to rear Soviet-minded people who would help to justify, fortify and enhance the Soviet regime. The systematic control of the activities of creative persons and the working out of dictates and regulations were nevertheless not yet completed during the first year of Soviet rule. Many outstanding cultural figures remained silent or earned a living by translating texts. At that time, Hugo Raudsepp wrote the non-political novel Viimne eurooplane [The Last European], which is noteworthy to this day, while his plays from the period of independent Estonian statehood were not staged in theatres.
Starting with the German occupation (1941–1944), the point of departure for Hugo Raudsepp was writing between the lines in his comedies in order to get both readers and theatregoers to think and to give them strength of soul. In 1943, he wrote the comedy Vaheliku vapustused [Interspatial Jolts], which has later been styled as a masterpiece. He concealed numerous signs between the lines of this play referring to the fate of a small people, in other words Estonia, between its great neighbouring powers the Soviet Union and Germany. Performances of this play were soon banned. Performances in theatres of all other plays by Hugo Raudsepp were similarly banned, with one exception.
During post-war Stalinism in 1944–51, the sovietisation of Estonian cultural life resumed. Hugo Raudsepp did not initially write on topical Soviet themes, rather he sought subject matter from earlier times. His first play from that period entitled Rotid [Rats] (1946) was about the German occupation during the Second World War and it ridiculed the occupying Germans. Raudsepp also skilfully wove messages supporting Estonian cultural identity into the play. The play was staged in the Estonia Theatre but was soon banned.
Raudsepp’s second play from that period, Tagatipu Tiisenoosen (1946), earned first prize at the state comedy competition in that same year. The action in the play was set in the period of Estonian National Awakening at the end of the 19th century. It ridiculed Baltic Germans and the behaviour of parvenu Estonians. Similarly to his previous play, he demonstrated nationalist mentality in this comedy by way of nationalist songs. It is noteworthy that by the summer of 1947, Tagatipu Tiisenoosen had also reached expatriate Estonians and it was staged with an altered title as the only Stalinist- era play from Soviet Estonia in Canada (1952), Australia (1954) and Sweden (1956).
The thematic precepts imposed on Estonian writers and the mechanism for ensuring that those precepts were followed became even stricter starting in 1947. Raudsepp wrote his next 7 plays on required Soviet subject matter: post-war land reform (Tillereinu peremehed [The Owners of Tillereinu], 1947), monetary reform (Noorsulane Ilmar [Ilmar the Young Farmhand], 1948), kolkhozes (Küpsuseksam [Matriculation Exam] and Lasteaed [Kindergarten], 1949, Mineviku köidikuis [In the Fetters of the Past] (1950) and his so-called Viimane näidend [Last Play], 1950 or 1951), and the beginning of the Soviet regime in Estonia in 1940 (Pööripäevad Kikerpillis [Solstices in Kikerpill], 1949). Hugo Raudsepp skilfully wove words of wisdom for Estonians on surviving under foreign rule through the mouths of his characters, or discreetly laughed about Soviet reality in a way that the censors did not grasp.
Post-war cultural policy culminated with the 8th Plenum of the Estonian Communist (Bolshevist) Party (EC(B)P) Central Committee on 21–26 March 1950, where among other things, the EC(B)P Central Committee Bureau was accused of allowing the exaltation of the superiority of Western European science and culture. Cultural figures were branded bourgeois nationalists and they faced serious ordeals. The fate of the great figure of Estonian dramatic literature was very harsh. Hugo Raudsepp was depicted as a ‘fascist henchman’ in 1950. He was expelled from the Estonian Writers’ Union and was deprived of his personal pension. He was arrested on 11 May 1951. Opposition to the Soviet regime was stressed in the charges presented to him. His play Vaheliku vapustused, which the German occupying regime had banned, and his only play that was allowed at that time, Lipud tormis [Flags in the Storm], were named as the primary evidence supporting the charges. Hugo Raudsepp was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in the autumn of 1951. He hoped to the last possible moment that he would be allowed to serve his sentence in Estonia. Unfortunately, on 18 February 1952 he was sent by train from Tallinn to Narva and on 19 February on to Leningrad. From there his journey took him to Vjatka, Kirov and finally Irkutsk oblast. This great man’s health was poor, and he soon died on 15 September 1952.
Very few new literary works appeared in the 1940s. The historical nadir is altogether seen in post-war book production in the era of Stalinism. Estonian theatre was similarly in a most difficult situation due to censorship, shortage of repertoire, scarcity of funding, and layoffs and sackings of theatre personnel. Nowadays the survival of theatre at the time, regardless of difficult times, is appreciated, and actors are recognised for preserving Estonian identity and uniting the people.
Hugo Raudsepp’s role as a playwright in supporting intellectual and spiritual resistance to foreign authorities has to be recognised on the basis of his occupation-era comedies. Hugo Raudsepp was one of the most productive authors of his day, writing a total of 11 plays in 1943–51. According to the assessment of scholars of literature, he never once rose with these works to the leading-edge level of his previous works. It was impossible to create masterpieces that would become classics in that time of strict ideological precepts and the monitoring of their observance. Taking into consideration the extremely restricted creative conditions, his works were still masterpieces of their time. As Hugo Raudsepp’s oeuvre demonstrates, spirit still managed to cleverly trump power regardless of censorship and official precepts. The denunciation of Stalin’s personality cult in 1956 once again opened the door to the theatre for Hugo Raudsepp’s best comedies from Estonia’s era of independent statehood. The witticism and laughter of Hugo Raudsepp’s comedies gave people renewed strength of soul.