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Imbi Paju: Can our shared culture manage to save the world?

Estonian author and filmmaker Imbi Paju.
Estonian author and filmmaker Imbi Paju. Source: (Private library)

As the media is dominated by headlines which stir up memories of political threats, torture, deporations and escapes from years of occupation in the Baltics, Estonian author and filmmaker Imbi Paju considers whether culture is enough to keep man's basic instict for destruction in check.

Every newspaper story, every discussion program on broadcast on TV or the radio where concern is expressed that Trump and Putin will soon begin dividing up the world’s resources and Estonia together with the other Baltic states will fall into Russia’s sphere of influence creates a sense of danger. They unearth images of political threats, torture, deportations and fleeing for many Balts. Social media offers up newspaper headlines which shape the hunch that the process of dividing up the world has begun. Articles appear on Facebook’s timeline and announce that the U.S.’ potential new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has close ties with Putin’s Russian businesses. Similar unsettling stories drop into the mailboxes of readers of international publications…

At the same time, another existential question has come up: Why are the people of the Baltic states fearful of a President Trump? Because a feeling has developed that our living environment is becoming one great business in which money is God and people can be manipulated.

Every circumstance, every reference to the risk of the world being divided up in this discussion increases tensions. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and secret protocols signed by Hitler and Stalin in 1939, which changed the fate of the Baltic states almost overnight and a year after which the Soviet Union’s secret police began arresting and killing people remains alive in people’s consciousness. This fear is amplified when a retired general from a Nordic country states in his home country’s largest media outlet that Ukraine should be divided in half. Sensitive people stiffen in response to this statement. All the more so as the same country’s ex-prime minister has advised Putin for years already on Nord Stream and has turned their back on former Baltic friends.

There is a feeling in the air that money and the power associated with it will begin to determine everything. It may become the case that anyone from the West can go become adviser to some undemocratic leader and lobby to become a shareholder in the dividing up of the world. There are enough examples in history of how immoral, bribed individuals are capable of doing anything for money.

So an existential question arises from our common subconsciousness over which Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, dwelled for his entire life: can culture save the world? Culture in this case is not narrowly defined as literature, art or film. It also includes knowledge — everything which makes one sensitive to understanding things and cultivates a social conscience. But it is precisely in recent times that humanistic studies are being driven out of European universities, slowly and quietly, so that we don’t even realize how the world is becoming more black and white. No need to think too much! There is no need for books and reflection to lead people to philosophical wisdom.

Freud's works destroyed as dangerous

During his lifetime, Freud had with his knowledge instilled into many people and peoples the hope that the fixing up of man’s inner world would also change the world in which we live. In 1940, Estonia was occupied and Soviet forces began stripping Estonians of their Western mentality and memory by destroying books. Freud’s works were hacked to pieces as well. A total of approximately 26 million works was destroyed. During the great deportations of 1949, as people were deported to Siberia, the last personal libraries were burned in ovens as well.

In 1941, however, editor-in-chief of an Estonian psychoanalytic magazine, author and essayist Max Laosson became a member of a Soviet destruction battalion who began eliminating his own compatriots and rose to become a high-ranking Communist functionary. Conformity is a survival strategy, however before that culture is ground thin with terror. Trust does not develop overnight, however it can disappear overnight, as those who have lived through occupations, violent regimes and wars can attest.

Continuing on the subject of the collective subconsciousness, which the current political situation is driving up to the surface, one cannot ignore Russia. This large country full of problems had also placed high hopes on Freud in changing society for the more human before the bloody revolution of 1917. All of his works were translated into Russian. Russia’s cultural figures, scholars and doctors who felt at ease in the capitals of Europe and soaked up ideas there were excellent cultural mediators. Before 1914, the world belonged to everyone. Everyone went where they pleased and remained where they pleased; even a passport wasn’t necessary.

Too much to bear

Russian psychoanalyst Tatiana Rosenthal, a great lover of cultures who attempted to unite Marxism and psychoanalysis, rushed from Zurich to her now Bolshevist homeland and optimistically began work in Soviet Russia. In 1921, at age 36, she committed suicide as she could no longer stand seeing the terrorization, persecution and murder of talented people. Freud’s books were soon destroyed in the Soviet Union and psychiatry began to serve the NKVD and later the KGB in “curing” political dissidents.

In exile in London from the Hitler regime in 1939, a depressed Freud said to author Stefan Zeig, another refugee, that his theory about people’s basic destructive urges that culture was unable to save had become reality. He maintained hope, however, that perhaps in the coming centuries some means would be found to control these instincts at least in the peoples’ collective life…

By this time, Freud’s works had been burned at Goebbels’ stake in Germany as well. He died before they began burning people at concentration camps. Stefan Zweig, one of Europe’s most translated authors, committed suicide together with his wife in 1942, leaving us with the book “The World of Yesterday,” to be used as a compass today. He had lost faith in humanity, because as someone who had been involved with history for too long, he had noticed that the mass was headed straight for where the center of gravity of power lay and indifference kills as well.

Thus we are left with Freud’s unanswered question: are we capable of keeping a lid on humanity’s urges for destruction?

Culture as a means to fight back

Finnish author and filmmaker Jörn Donner once wrote that books are incapable of preventing war. I remember just how deeply this sentence shocked me. Estonia had regained its independence, I was working on the documentary “Memories Denied” and at the same time, a book was forming based on hundreds of notes and interviews. I was seeking an answer for my mother’s story, who was taken as a young girl to a forced labor camp — a Gulag. I wanted to expose the social and political, legal and illegal patterns which demoralized time and morality, which centered on the commands: kill and testify against your neighbor.

The demoralizing effect of these rules did not disappear with the falloff the Berlin wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union or the regaining of the Baltic states’ independence, as many people, Soviet-era networks and positive narratives between the East and the West created during the Cold War about the Communist regime lived on as beliefs deep in hibernation. And now they are saying these networks are coming back out of hibernation?! Is this people’s death wish? I have thought about this a lot.

At the beginning of the 1990s I had discovered social- and psychological sciences in the free world and I have never believed as deeply in the freedom of speech, the power of words, human rights and humanism. I began making films and books so that this horrible past would never repeat itself.

I traveled as a guest with my books and films in Europe, the U.S., Asia and Israel and again and again the same question came up: can we manage with the help of culture to keep our basic urges in check? This is not always a simple question, and there are people who are prepared to betray, to censor others when ideology, one’s position, money, envy or guilty conscience are in question. The banal evil of which Hannah Arendt has spoken has not gone anywhere.

French philosopher Julia Kristeva has said that cultures die, but they can also kill. I am not so confident that the freedom of speech can be taken for granted anymore.

I nonetheless write in hopes that with the help of culture, we can avoid a great dividing up of the world, but for this we also need the civil courage and courage to speak needed to discuss these matters together.

Editor: Editor: Aili Vahtla

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