Maarja Vaino: I don't take attacks on Helme family personally

Sirje Helme and Maarja Vaino in the Vikerraadio studio.
Sirje Helme and Maarja Vaino in the Vikerraadio studio. Source: Sten Teppan/ERR

Literature academic Maarja Vaino appeared earlier this week on Vikerradio show "Käbi ei kuku…", a family-based show whose format usually involves parent/child appearances – in this case her mother, Sirje Helme, also took part.

Maarja revealed that on occasions she perceives the shadows of both her father and twin brother (Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) founder Mart Helme and party leader Martin Helme respectively – ed.)

Maarja said that she notices this sometimes when speaking on her own behalf, while the political sphere occasionally abuts on to her life in a way that she would prefer it didn't.

"It has been said that she is nothing but a mouthpiece for EKRE – and pens the thoughts of her father and brother," she told host Sten Teppan.

"This has disturbed me somewhat, although I have decided not to let that happen to me /.../ people have the right to think what they will, and then let them guess," she went on.

According to Sirje, Mart Helme's first wife and the mother of Maarja and Martin and one older daughter, the twins were already very close as children, getting into scrapes and doing everything together.

"They seem very different, but in childhood it was more noticeable, because today they are both intense and vocal characters. But as a child, Martin could be observed looking around with a hang-dog expression and sitting still while Maarja managed to run around the room a dozen times, organizing something," Sirje said.

Maarja added that for her part, she is not guided in her actions by party politics or directly by family ties, but feels that the political sphere intrudes on her life, from time to time, in a way that she herself does not necessarily appreciate.

"And when someone treats my father or brother badly, I have decided not to take things personally. My close relationships with my brother and father will not be affected by it," Maarja continued.

Sirje Helme, too, conceded that she has suffered a lot because Martin tends to attract criticism, but in that case it is Martin who comforts his mother, and not vice versa. "From my perspective, he is a kind-hearted boy, very empathetic, he loves company, has a positive outlook on the world, and does not have depressive episodes; in fact, he can inject a positive feeling among his peers. For me, he is a sunny boy all round."

'I decided to survive'

Nonetheless, the twins' birth was not the easiest one.

"This was Soviet-era medicine," Sirje said (the year was 1976, April – ed.), reminiscing that she was admitted to hospital because "the doctor thought I had gained too much weight" completely unaware that she was expecting twins."

A hospital receptionist, cigarette in hand, then gave her the news, based on an external check-up.

"After that, I wasn't released from the hospital," she said.

The situation subsequently became critical because both children were lying transverse in the womb.

"A C-section should have been performed a long time before, but no one had done so and in the end it was too late and we had to rely on, I don't know, on God," she went on, adding that a doctor was able to rescue the situation.

"Once one twin had been born born, it took a long time until they confirmed that the other had survived. So I was so happy," Sirje, whose own life was also endangered, recounted.

Indeed it was Maarja who was not breathing, at first. "But toughie that she is, she saw that her brother, in front of her, was making a racket, so she did too," Sirje said. "Yes, I decided to survive," Maarja added.

"The angels were flying about that time," Sirje summed up the dramatic episode.

A protracted game of hide and seek

Maarja revealed more about her childhood with Martin and their older sister, Triin, their parents and grandparents. "My family and I spent a lot of time together, we went to the summer home in Matsirand, on trips, watched TV and talked over what we had seen, and in the evenings my father read to us. We spent plenty of time together."

Since both parents were able to work at home, it also transpired that the twins absconded from kindergarten, to spend more time with their parents at home.

Maarja recounted on episode that scared the whole family: "Martin and I hid quietly under the table while we were at the country house, and the whole family ended up searching for us for several hours, in blind a panic. The gate was open, and the fear was that two small children had run off into the forest."

Since the pair ultimately got bored with their hiding place, they were finally busted; joy of their being found was so great that the parents were unable to get too angry.

Early interest in social life

As to host Sten Teppan's question as to whether it was possible to guess what the children would turn out to be, Sirje said that in Martin's case it was clear from quite early on that he was going to go on to study history at the University of Tartu.

However, Maarja took more time to make her choices. "But when she did it, she went at it very quickly and on full turbocharge; she completed her bachelor's, master's and doctorate in one fell swoop, all while being a young mother herself," Sirje said.

Sirje says she does regret one thing. Martin was also very interested in studying music, but his mother felt that the boy should still go out and play sports: "Perhaps this guidance was not the most correct, but while under Russian rule, there was a certain model of how life should progress," she said.

According to Maarja, it is out of the question that Martin would have turned out as someone else today if he had studied music instead of playing sports. "Since he was little, he used to sit and listen to old men's yarns, and what they thought about society. It was clear quite early on that he would want to go into politics. And he was principled – he once said that he would not become a pioneer (a Soviet youth organization – ed.), he would not wear that neckerchief."

On another occasion, the twins orchestrated a rebellion against the math teacher at school, as, in their opinion, that teacher had not treated the children well, but in a harsh and mocking way. "We held a protest so that we wouldn't get treated like that any more, and we encouraged everyone to boycott the class," she recalled. The protest was effective as well, she said; the teacher's behavior improved, and overall she became an effective teacher.

Letters awaiting a reader

Sirje also looked back to her own childhood. She only came to meet her father, who had been deported to Siberia, when she was seven years old.

Sirje had only just been born when her father was arrested. Her mother was sure that she, too, would be taken away, so the baby was hidden with neighbors and further arrangements were made. However, while her mother was not taken away, she fell ill. According to Sirje, neither parent ever wanted to talk about that episode.

"I have their correspondence. I started to read it, but I realized that the time was not right to do so. I haven't read more than two or three of the letters," Sirje revealed, adding that while she has held these letters in his hands several times, she has not been able to go on with reading them. 

"But one day I'll read them," she added.

Maarja admitted that the appearance on the show was the first time she heard about the bundle of correspondence. Though said she would likely find reading them easier, as the distance between her and the events is just that much wider.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Laura Raudnagel

Source: "Käbi ei kuku...", interviewer Sten Teppan

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