Even by the macabre standards of the twentieth century, Estonia had a rough lot. Between 1918 and 1920, with some assistance from the British, White Russians, and neighboring powers, it fought a bloody but victorious war for independence against Soviet Russia. The Republic of Estonia's period of sovereignty was brief, however, as it was occupied by the Soviets at the start of World War II, only to be later invaded by the Third Reich, and finally occupied again by the Soviet Union in 1944. Like nearby Finland, Estonia found itself besieged by multiple forces, but unlike the Finns, who fended off Stalin's armies at a terrible cost , Estonia would become a Soviet republic, occupied until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Its Soviet life was particularly brutal, with tens of thousands of people—in a country whose population in 1945, down 25 percent from six years prior, was only 865,000—sent to the gulags.
This is the sort of history that does not mesh well with popular American narratives of World War II, according to which the Axis powers were our enemy and the Soviet Union our reluctant ally. Instead, Estonians fought on both sides in the war. A few thousand Estonians managed to join up with British and Finnish military units. Members of the Omakaitse and Forest Brothers organizations fiercely resisted the Soviet incursion, finding refuge in the country's woodlands, with the latter waging guerilla warfare throughout the Baltic well past 1945. At the same time, some Estonians aligned themselves with the Germans because they saw the Wehrmacht as a bulwark against a return of Russian occupation; and still others were conscripted into German units. Some of these anti-Soviet fighters were the first to be sent to the gulags following the end of the war.
This complicated record of rebellion and collaboration is the main concern of Sofi Oksanen's novel. Purge is her first book to be translated into English. Oksanen, a young Finnish-Estonian writer who works in Finnish (the two languages are closely related, and she speaks both), has now seen the book published in twenty-five languages, and for good reason: this novel is a bravura work, deeply engaged with the knotted history described above, sparing but potent in its use of irony, and containing an empathic treatment of all the miserable choices Estonians faced during their periods of oppression.
Following a brief diary entry dated May 1949—headed with the call-to-arms "Free Estonia!"—Purge opens on Aliide Truu, an Estonian woman in her late sixties, living in the rural community of Läänemaa in 1992. She appears to be a humble person, a self-reliant skeptic fearful that her country, in its lurch toward independence and with everything for sale, is crumbling. Young people are leaving her community, seeking opportunities in Tallinn, the capital, or, like her daughter, jetting off to nearby Finland, long an allure for Estonians fleeing the Soviet Union. Those who remain seem to avoid Aliide. Boys from nearby homes harass her, pelting her house with rocks.
Gazing out her kitchen window, Aliide discovers a mound in her yard and decides to investigate. There she finds Zara, a mysterious waif:
Her hair was bleached until it was coarse, and had greasy, dark roots. But under the dirt her skin seemed overripe, her cheek white, transparent. Tatters of skin were torn from her dry lower lip, and between them the lip swelled tomato red, unnaturally bright and bloody-looking, making the grime look like a coating, something to be wiped off like the cold, waxy surface of an apple. Purple had collected in the folds of her eyelids, and her black, translucent stockings had runs in them.
This is how Oksanen presents a scene: in an accretion of unembellished detail, building something precise and vivid. (Credit also should be given to Lola Rogers' translation, which presents Oksanen's language fluidly, while wisely preserving the occasional transliterated word of Russian or Estonian.) Later Aliide determines that the stockings are "definitely Western," which tells us something about both Zara and Aliide. The older woman, while unassuming, is quite perceptive: Zara has indeed spent time abroad.
Over the next hundred or so pages, Aliide and Zara, apparently in her early twenties, perform a feinting dance, each trying to draw out the other's life story without revealing too much of herself. The reader learns that Zara, a native of Vladivostok, the unofficial capital of the Russian Far East, was lured to Berlin by a trusted acquaintance, only to be trapped in a brutal sex-trafficking operation. But Zara is afraid to tell Aliide, with whom she seems to have some connection, about her past. Instead she offers only that she is running away from her supposed husband, Pasha, and that she somehow knows how to speak Estonian. Aliide is sympathetic but suspicious, as her years have taught her to be.
After this exchange, which moves between 1991 and 1992 as well as from Berlin to Läänemaa, the novel's second part flashes back to the late 1930s, in a bucolic Läänemaa removed from the war buildup taking place throughout the continent. I should add at this point that Oksanen's book, until its epilogue, adheres a little too closely to the perspectives of her protagonists, a condition that allows us to know both women well but also to glean only a haphazard picture of the political milieu. There is no mention, for example, of the Estonian SS or of atrocities against Jews in Estonia, except for a line alluding to the disappearance of Jewish doctors, which is disappointing for a novel so concerned with issues of collaboration and suppressed crimes.
Aliide and her sister, Ingel, stumble upon a group of young men. Aliide first sees—and instantly falls in love with—Hans Pekk, whose post-war journal entries are strewn throughout the novel, but Hans sees Ingel without noticing Aliide. The subsequent marriage of Hans and Aliide's older sister will alter the course of all their lives. Hans later becomes a German sympathizer and a member of the Forest Brothers' partisan brigade. After the war, Aliide manages to hide Hans for years from Soviet NKVD officers, but the experience pushes her toward a hideous array of compromises and self-abnegation that go unappreciated by all.
This interplay—between Aliide's personal sacrifice and deep longing for Hans, her conflicting feelings of jealousy and affection toward Ingel, as well as rending collisions of politics and subterfuge—draws out the best in Oksanen's narrative. The author uses a melodramatic set-up—Aliide can't get over that Hans saw Ingel first and fell in love with her instead—and wrings from it profound insights about the choices made under occupation. Aliide never relinquishes her love for Hans, but she becomes much more than a bundle of unrequited desires as she shakily, with a mix of heroism and cowardice, toes the line between Soviet collaborator and quiet dissident. Her choices in these matters earn her no one's affection and everyone's scorn—save that of her husband Martin, a bumbling but despicable Soviet official.
Flashbacks are always prone to elision and unearned romanticism, but Purge never becomes facile in this way. The Läänemaa sections spanning the 1930s, '40s, and '50s are exceedingly well drawn, full of action and telling period detail. They show a woman and a small community struggling to survive under the strictures of kolkhozy (collective farms), omnipresent propaganda and informers, and the black-booted security officers who at any time may pluck citizens from the streets or their homes to torture and rape them for information on "anti-Soviet elements." Aliide is a victim of these interrogations, and it leaves her traumatized, capable of recognizing other villagers who, like herself, are damaged and alone:
From every trembling hand, she could tell -- there's another one. From every flinch at the sound of a Russian soldier's shout and every lurch at the tramp of boots. Her, too? Every one who couldn't keep herself from crossing the street when militiamen or soldiers approached. Every one with a waistband on her dress that showed she was wearing several pairs of underwear. Every one who couldn't look you in the eye.
Notice that essential bit of description—the bulging waistband—that tells us, plainly, how some women tried to cope.
The novel never moves past 1992, but really it is a book of our time. Modern Estonia, with a quarter of its population ethnic Russians (many of whom were encouraged to move or transplanted there by Soviet authorities), is still fractured over the question of the Soviet legacy. In 2007, the relocation of the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn, a monument to the Soviet war dead, led to riots and powerful cyberattacks attributed to Russia—what some analysts have described as the first cyberwar. The Monument of Lihula, which honors Estonians who fought against the Soviets during the war, has itself been moved twice, and was so controversial that it was the subject of a semiotic analysis to determine whether a bas-relief on the statue showed, and glorified, Nazi symbolism. (The analysis found no such symbolism.) Amid these difficult and virulent historical debates, literature has a place—not to judge but to offer a window, the calm of understanding. Out of these immensely sensitive materials, Oksanen has crafted a stirring and humane work of art.
Jacob Silverman is a contributing online editor for The Virginia Quarterly Review.