ERM's new research examines muted lives of Estonian Forest Brothers

Estonian "Forest Brothers." Source: Kuvatõmmis

Estonian National Museum (ERM) researched the living conditions and lifestyles of the Estonian Forest Brothers. The study links to the exhibition "Right Body, Wrong Body?" that tackles the cultural meanings of the body in different stages of life, food and health, beauty and morality, the idea of the "body national" and suffering body.

Human experience of the body is more complex than mere physical existence: the new ERM research project sheds light on the body's cultural meanings in Estonia.

A keynote talk by Tallinn University archaeology department numismatics collection keeper Mauri Kiudsoo covered in detail the Forest Brothers' life and world. He and his colleagues from other academic fields have voluntarily documented and researched bunker remains in woods, studied the lives of forest brothers and sisters, their survivors and descendants for past ten years.


In contrast to a popular misconception, the forest uprising of the 1940s and 1950s was not an idyllic lifestyle devoted to birdwatching. On the contrary, it was psychologically difficult, lengthy and arduous journey of self-denial on the part of people who had sought refuge in the forest, enduring extremely perilous conditions in the process. Years of life in the woods left a profound mark on the physical and mental health of the survivors.

The hardest time of year in the life of the Forest Brothers was winter, when snowfall forced the men and women who had taken shelter in barns and bogs to seek-out sunshine. Being cut off from the rest of the world in terms of information, news of Russian security operations in the area could only reach the bunker dwellers along with the raiders. The only time they could move more freely outdoors in winter was in heavy snow and sleet, which quickly hid treacherous ski tracks. And wherever possible, windier weather was chosen for heating the bunker; in addition, various other precautions were taken to disperse the smoke.

When there was no snow, the forest brothers could help out with various chores on farms to give support back to people who helped them. They stocked forest products, hunted game, distilled spirits, etc. In the winter, when mobility was limited, the main focus was on the daily routines associated with the bunker: heating, fetching water, cooking food, keeping watch, etc. In the evenings, people listened to the radio, wherever possible, and reading also played an important role. To keep sanity during the harsh winter months, crafts of all kinds were practiced.

The full lecture in Estonian is available here.

People sought refuge in the forest after the mass deportation on June 14, 1941, after the USSR occupied and annexed Estonia in 1940. Estonian partisans, or Forest Brothers (Metsavennad), fought Soviet forces guerrilla-style. The largest organization of the Forest Brothers was the Armed Combat Union (RVL), which operated from 1946 to 1949.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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