Tabud ja reeglid. Sissevaateid eesti laagriromaani / Taboos and Rules. Insights into Prison Camp Novels by Estonian Writers


  • Anneli Kõvamees Tallinn University



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


The article concentrates on Estonian novels depicting Soviet prison camps in the 1940s and 1950s. The goal is to map themes, motifs and characteristics in such novels, concentrating on various taboos and rules in the prison camp environment. 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 way Estonians saw these historical events and hellish experiences were depicted mostly in exile novels. Most notable are the novels by Arved Viirlaid (b. 1922), e.g., Kes tappis Eerik Hormi? (Who Killed Eerik Horm?) (1974), Surnud ei loe (The Dead do not Read) (1975), Vaim ja ahelad (Mind and Chains) (1961).

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 Soviet society. These records of the dramatic past follow certain patterns and create certain self- and hetero-images.

A prison camp is a closed territory within a closed territory; prison camps can be seen as small models of Soviet society. Prison camp novels give a detailed view of the environment of the prison camp, its inhabitants and activities. Two central aspects are labour and food; the life of the prisoner whirls around these. The most important thing is to survive, which often leads to moral decline, e.g., stealing, cheating. However, there are 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. Another important component of the image of the Estonians is their enterprising spirit and ability to manage even under very difficult conditions. Therefore, several oppositions can be identified, e.g., Estonians vs. Russians; political prisoners vs. criminals; heterosexuals vs. homosexuals; civilized vs. barbaric, etc.


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Author Biography

Anneli Kõvamees, Tallinn University

Anneli Kõvamees – PhD in literary studies. She is a lecturer and researcher at Tallinn University. Her main research interests are Estonian travel literature (travelogues) and national images and stereotypes in literature, e.g., the depiction of Russians in Estonian literature and the depiction of Italy in Estonian travelogues.






Artiklid / Articles