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The Founding of BAFSA

The Voro (Estonia) Language, by Kara Brown

Kalevi Kull and the Estonian Research Tradition

Konstantin Pats- History and Myth, by Meghan MacKrell

Alumnus Profile: Guntis Smidchens




Baltic and Finnish Studies Association Founded at IU

On October 1, 1999, twelve students founded the Baltic and Finnish Studies Association (BaFSA). The organization was duly registered with Indiana University on October 4 and since that date its membership has grown quickly. IU has been a longtime supporter of Baltic and Finnish studies. Eminent scholars such as Felix Oinas, Janis Penikis, Toivo Raun, and Inta Carpenter have served or continue to serve as IU faculty members. Recently, IU hosted both the 16th conference of the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies and the Baltic Studies Summer Institute. IU also regularly offers three levels of both Finnish and Estonian. BaFSA is an outgrowth of this commitment and corresponding student interest. BaFSA aims to support and promote a multidisciplinary community of scholarly inquiry into Finnish, Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian society, history, culture, and language. In pursuit of this goal, BaFSA sponsors academic and cultural events. The association also acts as a link to other organizations and institutions engaged in like-minded activities. Special emphasis is put on encouraging interest among those still unacquainted with Baltic and Finnish studies. Membership is open to all interested persons wishing to participate in the association and the general public and undergraduate students are strongly encouraged to attend its activities. BaFSA is affiliated with both the Central Eurasian Studies (CEUS) department and the Russian and East European Institute (REEI). BaFSA's faculty advisor is CEUS chair and professor Toivo Raun. The association sponsored or co-sponsored four events this semester. The first was a lecture by Kalevi Kull of Tartu University on "A Teleology of the Estonian Research Tradition" on November 4, which focused on the works of Karl Ernst von Baer, Jakob von Uexkull, and Juri Lotman (see below). On November 10, there was a video presentation of Waterbird People (Veelinnurahvas, 1970) and Winds of the Milky Way (Linnutee Tuuled, 1977). Both films are ethnographic documentaries on Finno-Ugric peoples by the current president of Estonia Lennart Meri. A commemoration of Latvian Independence Day at the Faculty Club on November 18 featured a poster exhibition, poetry reading, musical performance, and a speech on the meaning of independence day by Linda Grinberga, a Latvian visiting scholar. The traditional celebration of Finnish Independence Day at IU was continued this year with the support and participation of BaFSA. In addition to these special events, BaFSA holds monthly meetings and weekly coffee hours for all four languages (see page 16).

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Voro in Vogue?

by Kara D. Brown

When I visited the Kreutzwald School in Voru, Estonia, the teacher introduced me to twenty of her fourth grade students, "Today we have visitor with us who has come all the way from the United States, from the state of Indiana, so that she can learn the Voro language. Now class, can you imagine how lucky you are that you don't have to travel so far to learn our beautiful language and how important it is that people are coming from all over the world to learn our language?" With this introduction, I was thrust into the promotion and revival of the Voro language (voro kiil'), a movement occurring throughout southern Estonia. The movement includes teachers, politicians, poets, geographers, and administrators, who are attempting to increase the usage of the Voro language, which is currently spoken by approximately 35,000 people in southern Estonia. The majority of fluent Voro speakers are elderly Estonians who continue to live in the rural parts of southern Estonia. The Estonians leading the Voro language revival are all fluent speakers as well, but most are young and living in Voru, the urban center of the region. The status of Voro is questioned in multiple ways. One question revolves around whether Voro is a language or a dialect. Many Estonians I talked with, even ones from Voru county, posit that it is an Estonian dialect. Other Estonians, mostly native speakers, argue that it is a language, which has more in common with Finnish than Estonian. Estonians in the "Voro language camp" also maintain that Voro is closely related to another Estonian dialect-language - Setu. Ironically, those who do not get involved at all in the language-dialect debate are usually the elderly native speakers, who are identified by those in the revival movement as "the last real speakers" of Voro. One Voro speaker, who is in her later seventies, explained her lack of involvement to me, "I don't care what it is I just speak it." In addition to the elderly, there are also many younger Estonians participating in the Voro language revival who are more concerned with the survival of the language than with how to label it. Another question concerns the prestige of Voro, especially since its use in southern Estonia has gradually declined in the past century. The decline is primarily a result of the ban on the instruction and speaking of Vro in schools during the Soviet period and of the push to speak only Estonian in schools during the interwar period. As a result of these efforts to discourage the use of written and spoken Voro, many native speakers consider it to be a language that should be spoken in more informal settings, with friends and family and not one to be used in the formal, professional spheres of work, school and government. The prestige of written and spoken Estonian, which is called the "language of letters" (kirkiil) by many Voro speakers, is reflected in its public usage. In downtown Voru, most of the shop and street signs are in Estonian and one hears primarily Estonian spoken in the stores. For the past ten years, there have been formal and organized attempts to revive the Voro language. The revival movement is driven by multiple forces. For some Estonians, losing the language, means losing family connections, especially since Voro is often the language spoken at home between grandparents and grandchildren. Others are driven to maintain the language out of concern that a way of life and a way of seeing the world will be lost if Voro dies. There are several clear goals of the revival movement: the creation of an orthography, the publication of textbooks and literature, the organization of language classes in schools, the training of language teachers, the expansion of Voro language usage in local media, and the collection of historical place names in Voro. The Voro Institute has made considerable progress in the last four years. Currently, thirteen schools offer Voro language classes as an elective course, maps have been printed with Voro place names, and dozens of books and tapes have been published in the language. One of the greatest challenges that the Institute faces in reviving the language is to convince the youngest generation of students to take Voro in school. In most southern Estonian schools, the popularity of English language and computer classes is undermining the development of and enrollment in Voro language classes. An additional challenge to the success of the movement is that the language is spoken primarily in southern, rural Estonia. As a result, if young people are planning to move from Voru county to one of the two largest cities in Estonia, Tallinn or Tartu, they will not need to know and probably will not be able to use their Voro skills. Since the future of Voro is connected with its use among the young, these are serious impediments to the language revival. Kara D. Brown is a doctoral student in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies and a member of the Baltic and Finnish Studies Association

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Kalevi Kull and the Estonian Research Tradition

At the Seventh International Congress of Semiotics in Dresden last October, Kalevi Kull was one of eight Estonians in attendance. He calculated that in proportion to population, Estonia sent the largest delegation of any nation. He explained that science in small cultures tends to deviate to a certain extent from the mainstream. Semiotics is still not a household word in most places, but in Estonia this field is gaining a large following. Kull's specialization is Biosemiotics. A month later, Professor Kull found himself in Bloomington. He was invited to IU by Thomas Sebeok, for whom he is guest editing a special issue, dedicated to Jakob von Uexkull, of the journal Semiotica. While here, Kull also gave a lecture entitled "A Teleology of the Estonian Research Tradition." The presentation focused on three world-renowned scientists who lived and worked in Estonia: Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876), Jakob von Uexkull (1864-1944), and Juri Lotman (1922-1993). He discussed their work, their impact on Estonian and world scholarship, and Estonia's influence on them. Karl Ernst von Baer, in addition to having discovered the human ovum, was mentioned by Darwin as a forerunner of his work. Von Baer was, however, critical of Darwin's theory of evolution. Darwin saw evolution as determined by external factors of environment and evolution as a group process. Von Baer believed Darwin treated the concept of causality incorrectly and did not consider the internal strive for perfection of individual organisms. Tartu University in the 19th century was a leading center for research and theory in the natural sciences. The term biology was actually first coined by Tartu University Professor K. Burdach, and some of the first courses on Darwinism were offered there. Following in von Baer's tradition, Jakob von Uexkull made his mark in 1920 with the book Theoretical Biology, but he is best remembered for his work Theory of Meaning, which remains a classic of semiotics. In this later work, von Uexkull describes living systems as sign systems. Building upon this work, Juri Lotman established his school on the semiotics of culture. Why did this tradition arise in Estonia? Kalevi Kull explains that the Romantic era of intellectual culture lasted longer in Estonia and produced views different from those of mainstream western science. This smaller world of Estonia imbued these men with a unique vision. Their international contacts enabled them to find a wide audience and gain greater influence. But possibly the explanation lies beyond science, Kull added with a smile. Lotman and von Baer were both born on February 28 and lived on the same street. Can this be explained by coincidence or fate? Maybe it is just something in the water. Regardless, a strong research tradition in natural sciences and semiotics has became established in Estonia, and Kalevi Kull continues this pioneering work.

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Konstantin Pats - History and Myth

by Meghan MacKrell

Last September, the Estonian nation relived part of its past when the leading newspaper Postimees published a nine-part series on the pre-war Estonian president Konstantin Pats. The series was based on research done by the young, up-and-coming Estonian historian Magnus Ilmjrv in preparation for a doctoral dissertation for the University of Helsinki. The series of articles described previously unknown contacts between Pats and the Soviet government and raised the provocative question of whether Pts may have "sold-out" Estonia. Much of Ilmjrv's research on the former Estonian president and his relationship with the Soviet Union had been done in historical archives in Moscow, which until recently had been closed to scholars. In his research, Ilmjrv is primarily concerned with Pats and his relationship with the Soviet government in the years 1924-1934. Democracy in Estonia ended in 1934, when Pats established an authoritarian regime with himself as president. However, the Pats dictatorship was relatively benign and violent oppression was notably absent. This period saw an increase in stability and economic prosperity and is generally remembered with fondness among Estonians. Ilmjrv alleges that Pats was a favorite choice of the Soviets and that they aided his rise to the Estonian presidency. Ilmjrv also accuses Pats of accepting money from the Soviets throughout the 1930s. According to Ilmjrv, this same man who has gone down in history as an honorable president-who did the best he could in the face of great odds-was ironically responsible for Estonia's loss of independence in 1939. With the signing in 1939 of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union, the fate of Estonia was sealed. Secret protocols attached to the pact consigned Estonia to the Soviet sphere of domination. Soon 160,000 Soviet troops were lined up at the Estonian border. In the weeks that followed, the Soviet Union forced a "mutual assistance" pact on Estonia. Estonia later "requested" permission to join the Soviet Union. For most Estonians, this period in their history has always been a particularly murky one, a mixture of ignorance of all the variables involved and perhaps the guilty suspicion that more could have been done to avoid the following forty-odd years of Soviet occupation. (With the exception of the Estonian metsavennad or "forest brothers," Estonians put up relatively little resistance in contrast to the Finns, who chose to fight the Soviets.) Given the size of Estonia (roughly half the size of Indiana) and the lack of the Western assistance for what would have been an impossible battle against the Soviets, Pats has usually been absolved of responsibility for Estonia's loss of independence. The reaction of the Estonian public to this new study has been especially interesting because the reactions of one generation differ greatly from those of another. The older generation of Estonians has been the most critical of Ilmjrv's argument; one elderly Estonian purportedly accused Ilmjrv of killing God. For those who can remember having Pats as their president prior to his exile to the Soviet Union in 1940, the attack on him has been particularly painful, since the memory of Konstantin Pats symbolizes the first independence era. For many older Estonians, as well as for other nations forcibly occupied by the Soviet Union, this period is viewed with near fairytale-like reverence. As the first period of Estonian self-rule, this era and its president have acquired an almost mythic existence in the collective memory of the Estonian people. The younger generation, who are further removed from the events under scrutiny, often look at Ilmjrv's findings as more of a curiosity than anything else. Among the many who rushed to defend the memory of Konstantin Pats was the Nobel Prize-nominated Estonian writer Jaan Kross, whose editorial, "Pats ja meie" (Pats and Us), was published in Postimees on September 17, 1999. Kross criticized Ilmjrv's research as unacademic and accused Ilmjrv of sensationalizing his research at the expense of the memory of Konstantin Pats in order to profit from it. Kross even quoted Konstantin Pats as saying that he would have "danced with the grandmother of the devil" for the Estonian people. Professor Toivo Raun, an Estonian-American historian who specializes in Baltic history, cautions critics to wait until the study is completed before passing judgment. Raun has urged keeping context and perspective in mind, looking at Pats' entire career as a politician and not only at his dealings as president. He also warns that the fact of Pats having contacts with the Soviet authorities does not necessarily make him a traitor. The possibility may even exist that he thought he could negotiate a better position for Estonia in relations with its more powerful neighbor through behind-the-scenes diplomacy. This particular period in Estonian history, Raun adds, was already viewed as an especially ambiguous one even before Ilmjrv's statements. Three Estonian historians at the University of Tartu were also asked by Postimees to give their opinion of Ilmjrv's findings (September 11, 1999). Juri Ant, whose specialty is contemporary history, gave the most positive answer. He welcomed Ilmjrv's research because the younger generation of historians can approach such problems more objectively. He added that the older generations would have a harder time accepting the fall of heroes from their pedestals. The historian Eero Medijainen, however, was not as generous in his assessment of Ilmjrv's research. It seems that in an earlier study for his master's degree, Ilmjrv had accused the Estonian political leadership of choosing a German-friendly position. Medijainen now finds it very interesting that Ilmjrv would present an entirely opposite argument for his dissertation. For this reason, Medijainen does not consider Ilmjrv to be a trustworthy historian. On the other hand, Ago Pajur, also a historian at the University of Tartu, does not doubt what Ilmjrv has found. Nevertheless, he and others emphasize, the most important thing now is how these documents are interpreted because of the far-reaching impact they will have on the understanding of Estonian and Soviet history. Meghan MacKrell is a first year graduate student in the Department of Central Eurasian Studies and a member of the Baltic and Finnish Studies Association.

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Alumni Profile: Guntis Smidchens

Guntis Ivars Smidchens considers himself lucky, that not only did his parents teach him to speak Latvian, but also to read and write it. He feels that growing up fully bilingual eased the way for future language study. He may be right. Since then, midchens has added to his repertoire Estonian, Lithuanian, Russian, Polish, Finnish and German. His love of learning languages paid off in 1993 when the University of Washington was looking for a Lithuanian instructor. Smidchens offered all three Baltic languages and soon after a plan for the University of Washington Baltic Studies Program was hatched. Now entering its sixth year, the program has attracted over one hundred students and expanded to teach courses not only in language at multiple levels but in Baltic culture and history. Two graduate teaching assistants have been added to teach Baltic languages and an endowment to support the UW Baltic program currently stands at $600,000. Washington is the only university in America to run such a program and its success is due in large part to the efforts of IU alumnus Guntis midchens. Smidchens was born and raised among the migr Latvians of Chicago, Illinois. This environment not only instilled in him an interest in Latvia and the Baltic states, but also became an interest in itself. After completing the requirements for a minor in Latvian studies at Western Michigan University in 1982 and earning a BA in linguistics and Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern University in 1985, Smidchens came to IU to study Folklore and the Estonian language. When writing his MA thesis, he chose the community from which he came as the subject of inquiry. The resulting work, Life Stories of Four Chicago Latvians, analyzed spoken autobiographies and sought to answer questions about how the community was formed and maintained and whether there existed a cultural script passed down to community members, as in other forms of folk creativity. In the same work, he identified the traditional processes that appear in the life story and its narration. midchens was awarded an MA in Folklore in 1988. He soon followed this up with an MA from the Russian and East European Institute in 1990. Smidchens chose for his dissertation a topic that grew more exciting with each passing month of research. While he was researching A Baltic Music: The Folklore Movement in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, 1968-1991, he was placed right in the thick of the Baltic independence movements. It was an experience that convinced Smidchens more than ever that, in the Baltic states, politics equals culture. One interviewee related to him that when the tanks rolled into Vilnius during the January 1991 Soviet OMON crackdown, her only thought was "Should we pray or should we sing?" He became convinced of the vitality of folklore for national identity and mobilization as he researched Baltic culture before and during the "Singing Revolution." Smidchens received his PhD in Folklore from Indiana University in 1996. Since graduation, he has published in the Journal of Folklore Research, the Journal of American Folklore, Zeitschrift fur Volkskunde, and the Slavic and East European Journal. But despite his success and a new life in Seattle, Smidchens cannot seem to stay away from Bloomington. He returned in 1998 as an organizer of the 16th Conference of the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies and again last summer to teach a course on Baltic Cultures at the Baltic Studies Summer Institute (BALSSI). Smidchens has been part of BALSSI since University of Washington Professor Daniel Waugh conceived of the project seven years ago and has helped the program strengthen and grow. (See REEIfication, Vol. 23, No. 3, October 1999.) Back in Seattle, Smidchens continues to help build the Baltic Studies Program, and his enthusiasm for Baltic culture is becoming contagious. The 40-member University of Washington Chamber Singers has added Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian music to their repertoire and plan to tour the Baltic countries in June. The UW library has built up a 12,000 volume Latvian studies collection and is intensively building its holdings of current publications from Estonia and Lithuania as well. The program recently accepted its first PhD dissertation and continues to bring to Seattle a wide variety of speakers, ranging from IU's Toivo Raun to the president of Estonia Lennart Meri. Smidchens continues to teach courses on Baltic cultures, Baltic and Scandinavian immigration and Latvian language. He is currently working on an article about the presentation of Baltic identities at the 1998 Smithsonian Folklife Festival (where he served as an interpreter) and collaborating with two Latvian colleagues on a book about the creation of Latvian national culture, in a project supported by the Research Support Scheme (Soros Foundation).

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