My husband can speak Estonian. (At least he says he can, and goodness knows he’s had enough lessons over the years – but I have no way of putting him to the test, as I wouldn’t recognise it if he did.) Not many people outside Estonia can claim this, I imagine, except in the areas round the world where exiled Estonians have settled: apparently the biggest twentieth-century migrations were to the United States, Brazil and Canada, but throughout the nineteenth century emigrants from all the Baltic states were seeking freedom and a better life than they could achieve as part of the Russian empire.
Like Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia experienced twenty-two years of independence after the First World War, until the invasion by the Soviet Union in 1940. Independence was again achieved as part of the collapse of the Soviet empire, in the exciting years of the ‘Singing Revolution’ – the tradition of singing as a patriotic activity having been established in the years of the ‘national awakening’ in the nineteenth century. How can you not feel well disposed towards a country which sings its way to freedom? (Another family anecdote: my husband was at the 2009 Singing Festival (participants 34,000, audience 200,000), and he happened to be standing near ex-prime minister Mart Laar during the procession of the choirs – which took a lot longer than it should because of all the choirs who waved, and called out Laar’s name or surrounded him and gave him an impromptu performance. One can’t quite imagine that in the UK.)
Anyway, back in 1841, Elizabeth Rigby (later wife to Sir Charles Eastlake, artist, keeper of the National Gallery and the man responsible, along with Prince Albert, for the decoration of the new Houses of Parliament) published – anonymously – a two-volume record (which we have reissued in one volume) of a stay of 18 months with her sister in what is now Estonia. It doesn’t start well: the opening chapter, about the voyage across the North Sea, is both arch and sententious, and one’s irritation at the style tends to lessen the impact of the narrative, which is that the boat nearly foundered in a severe storm.
Things get better once Elizabeth arrives within the Russian empire, and the annoying ‘all foreigners [especially the French] are fiends’ outbursts are toned down a bit. Time spent at St Petersburg (where she moved in the highest circles, chatting to Tsar Nicholas I at a masquerade party) book-ends the account, but most of the ‘letters’ describe living in the Estonian countryside through the long, dark, cold winter, and the domestic and social life of the capital city, Reval (now Tallin).
A question which never really gets resolved is: who are the Estonians? The local aristocracy and landed gentry regard themselves as Estonians, but as the descendants of medieval German conquerors, they speak German first, Russian second, and Estonian hardly at all. (In Petersburg, of course, everybody speaks French.) Elizabeth decides there’s no point in trying to learn Estonian: ‘However philologically interesting to trace in its connexion with other Finnish dialects, or even with those of a Celtic origin, the Estonian language in itself offers no reward for the present, and no promise for the future.’ She masters the all-purpose Estonian phrase ‘Yummal aga’ (‘May God be with you’), but she attempts to learn Russian, from Sascha, her maid, who clearly sees herself a rank above the other servants through nationality alone. Estonian-speakers are mostly peasants, with feudal obligations of work and tithe to their landowners, or the lower sorts of house servants. She shrewdly observes that one of the major problems with the whole of the Russian empire is that it ‘has only two ranks – the highest and the lowest; consequently it exhibits all those rudenesses of social life which must be attendant on those two extreme positions of power and dependence’. The lack of an educated and enlightened middle class will, she believes, prevent the social and political evolution of the empire which she (and many others) saw as vital to the peace and stability of Europe.
But the most interesting parts of the book are the descriptions of the daily life of the affluent in the country and the town: a visit to Schloss Fall, the rural retreat of Count Benckendorff, founder of the Tsar’s secret police; sleigh rides for which the preparation involved stockings, socks, shoes, galoshes, more stockings over the top, and shawls, scarves and veils, with the children so tightly bundled up that they could not move and had to be carried to the sleigh like parcels; the ruined Padis Kloster, a fourteenth-century monastery now the playground of the 23 children of the current landowner; the ‘abode of a hard-working, respectable Estonian’ where ‘an extremely filthy sow and a whole litter of little pigs were grunting and tumbling about with some other little animals, seemingly of the same generic origin, but which, on nearer inspection, proved to be part of our host’s youthful family’.
It’s a mostly light-hearted, and inevitably superficial, view of an idyllic-sounding way of life which was of course available only to those with money and social status, but it provides insights into an area of Europe which was little known at the time, and now deserves to be better known than as a cheap and cheerful destination for stag parties.