Noor-Eesti tähendust otsides: vanu ja uusi mõtteid. In Quest of the Meaning of Young Estonia: Old and New Reflections


  • Jüri Kivimäe



As an important chapter of Estonian literary history, Young Estonia has been relatively well researched and interpreted. However, its influence as a cultural and intellectual movement in Estonian society in the opening decades of the last century requires further study and verification. What stands reflected in Young Estonia is actually a larger groundswell of history, along with a rupture that took place throughout Estonian society in the course of its modernization. Discussions of the meaning of Young Estonia must therefore concern themselves with literary discourse, but much more so with what transpired outside the boundaries of literary pursuits, in the contexts of social and political history and the history of ideas. In view of historiography, there is no consensus on the definition of Young Estonia: it has been referred to as a movement, a group, or a cluster of seminal ideas. The founding of the group is generally located at the publication of the first Young Estonia album near the high tide of the Russian Revolution of 1905. Young Estonia disintegrated during the First World War, with its ending marked both by the publication of the fifth and final album in 1915 and by the journal Vaba Sõna (Free Word), which carried on the ideology of Young Estonia in the years 1914–1916. Although there are strong parallels between Young Estonia and similar movements and associations in Western and Central Europe in the nineteenth century, the greatest influence being exerted by the politicalliterary movement Nuori-Suomi (Young Finland), the respective group in Estonia was largely autochthonic in its time and milieu. In the rhetoric of the era of national awakening, Baltic Germans referred to Estonian national activists as ”Young Estonians”; the term was also under discussion in the Estonian press, yet there is no direct conceptual connection between this polemic and Young Estonia as a group. The Young Estonia group was mostly composed of young educated people, who according to their birth year belonged to the generational cohort of 1886, which made them 20 years old in 1905. This generational concentration explains the mutual solidarity of these young intellectuals and the spread of their radical ideas. Young Estonia’s emergence dovetailed with the Russian Revolution of 1905, but the Young Estonians who rallied to the movement of liberation formed neither a political fighting band nor a party; rather they remained a group of like-minded intellectuals. The achievements of Young Estonia should be seen in terms of their cultural and aesthetic revolution, which found expression in their publications (the Young Estonia albums, the journal Free Word), in book design, a programme for language reform, and efforts toward the renewal of style and rhetoric. An earmark of the Young Estonia movement was the furtherance of public discussion of the women’s movement and women’s education; indeed, the discussion of the ”woman question” in the works of male authors created widespread polemic. Works of literature and scholarship translated by the Young Estonians markedly enriched Estonian intellectual life on the eve of the First World War. The writings and ideas of the Young Estonians came under criticism from their contemporaries ideologically situated on both the right and the left, from conservatives on the one hand, to left-wing socialists on the other. Reviewers saw the neoromanticist thought to be characteristic of the group’s literary works as the fruit of German and French literary and philosophical influences. Young Estonians were faulted for their decadence, ”aristocratism”, eroticism, egoism, skepticism, individualism, aestheticism, etc. The leftleaning tendency of many of the members of the group was in keeping with the temper of the age; often it was a matter of conviction, though for the most part knowledge of the teachings of Marxism and socialism remained rather superficial and eclectic. The basic character of Young Estonia has generally been recognized as the gist of its famous call to action: ”More culture! Let there be more European culture! Let us be Estonians, but let us also become Europeans!” However, the interpretation of this call has been ambivalent. The spirit of the group seems to be a claim to set modern European culture in opposition to old Estonian folk culture. However, to see Young Estonia issuing a principled challenge to the mediation of German and Russian culture, which also in effect suppressed Estonian culture, would be misleading. Young Estonia’s anti-German or anti-Russian attitudes are primarily social-political and not limited to the sphere of culture. On the other hand, the European orientation of Young Estonia cannot be seen as a reneging of Estonian nationalism: it must be acknowledged that there was a diversity of views on nationalism in Estonian society at the brink of World War I. Estonian public discourse nowadays tends to use the ideological legacy of Young Estonia as a source of political arguments supporting the European Union. The question has also been raised to what extent Estonian culture meets European standards, if historically the integration of the Estonian forebears took place in the thirteenth century through military conquest, Christianization, and colonization. Thus in Young Estonians’ attitudes toward old Estonian (peasant) culture one can see an expression of the inferiority complexes of a young, urbanized generation. Attempts have been made to regard Young Estonia from postcolonial perspectives as a project devoted to the mimicry of colonial discourse, a project of self-colonization and the unconscious importation of colonial discourse into Estonian society. To see the intellectual legacy of Young Estonia as a besmirched, self-colonized culture and mindset is a statement of cultural pessimism, or even nihilism, and is unfounded from a historicist point of view. Before making such dubitable claims, the centuries-long history of Estonian culture calls for interdisciplinary analysis of the colonial past. The cultural creativity of the Young Estonia group in the period between two Russian revolutions signals the birth of a professional and elite culture for the first time in the history of the Estonians. This corresponds to the aspirations and ideals of a new, educated generation, not as yet very numerous, as well as to the Young Estonians’ esteem for literature and art as individual creations of aesthetic value. A large part of classical Estonian culture today can be genetically traced to the legacy of Young Estonia, which marked the beginning of modern Estonian culture


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