Insight into Prison Camp Novels by Estonian Writers


  • Anneli Kõvamees Tallinna Ülikool Humanitaarteaduste instituut Narva mnt 29 10120 Tallinn



prison camp literature, Gulag, Soviet system, Estonian prison camp novel


The article focuses on the Estonian novels depicting Soviet prison camps in the 1940s and 1950s. For a long time the Soviet prison camp theme was not publicly discussed in Estonia due to political reasons. Texts dealing with prison camps could appear in print only outside the Soviet Union. The most notable of these are the novels by Arved Viirlaid. The Estonian prison camp novels can be seen as “the literature of testimony”, to use the term by Leona Toker. Dramatic historical events are written down to record the events and to show the inhumane nature of the Soviet society. These records of the dramatic past follow certain patterns and create certain self- and heteroimages that are analysed in the article. The goal is to map themes, motifs and characteristics in such novels, concentrating on various taboos and rules in the prison camp environment. A prison camp is a closed territory within a closed territory; prison camps can be seen as small models of the Soviet society. Prison camp novels provide a detailed view of the environment of the prison camp, its inhabitants and activities. The lives of prisoners whirl around labour and food. The crucial thing is to survive, which often leads to moral decline, e.g. stealing or cheating. However, there are certain lines Estonians do not cross, e.g. cannibalism or homosexual relationships with superiors. Estonians are always depicted as political prisoners (not common criminals) and heterosexuals, while Russians are portrayed mainly as criminals and often also as homosexuals.


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