Escape from the sun
It takes half an hour to travel by bus no. 42 southwest from Tallinn’s city centre to the Vaike-Oismäe district, which means roughly “little hill of blossoms.” The right side of the street is lined with lots of car dealerships, the giant Rocca al Mare shopping centre and a large concert hall announcing performances by David Garrett and the band Kraftwerk. The left is lined by solitary birch and spruce trees.
Although the bus is full, hardly anyone speaks; just a woman behind me taking nonstop on her mobile in Russian while the others stare at their smartphones. Next to me are two pupils. When I smile at them, they quickly look away with stony faces. I am surprised that the people here approach one another so little. Perhaps it’s the season.
Kullerkupu is the name of the station where I get off. There is a kiosk, a supermarket and a wide street. And that must be them, the two little ladies who come towards me with their arms linked: Jelena Gilts and Svetlana Kamenzeva, one from Tallinn, the other from St. Petersburg, the one – now – Estonian, the other Russian. They are cousins, and Svetlana came to visit from St. Petersburg the day before. They welcome me as if we were old friends, but we have never met.
In early October in Berlin, I received an email from a cousin asking whether I wanted to visit the Parochial Church in Berlin with him and a distant relative of his who lives in Australia. The two were planning to look at ancient graves in the crypt. Apparently ancestors of the Australian were said to be buried there. The Australian with the German name Eugen Schlusser also wrote a book called Escape from the Sun – Surviving the Tyrannies of Lenin, Hitler and Stalin. I didn’t have time.
But somehow the story would not let go of me. When I learned that Eugen also wanted to visit the Frankfurt Book Fair to find a German publisher for his book, I quickly arranged to meet him at the Australian publishers’ booth. I was greeted by a short, friendly man and soon we were engrossed in an intense conversation alternating between English and German.
From Germany to Australia
Eugen Schlusser was born in Frankfurt am Main in 1939 as the fourth child of Russian parents. In 1950, his mother emigrated to Australia with the children, her father, who had arranged for the emigration, died shortly before the departure of a heart attack. Today, Eugen lives in Melbourne and is a documentary filmmaker. Why did the family leave Germany and go to Australia? And how, back then, did the parents live in Russia? Was there some secret that they wanted to hide from their children? he wondered. Escape from the Sun is the attempted answer, a search for traces that leads right across Europe and to Australia.
It also leads to Tallinn. Lena lives only a few metres from the Kullerkupu bus stop in a block of flats. It is a modest three-room flat with a small balcony and a loggia. Edward, Lena’s husband, suddenly appears out of nowhere and speaks to me in a few words of German, wants to help me out of my coat. But I have already taken it off myself. The corridor is crowded and it is incredibly warm in the rooms. In the lounge there is a piano, on it a violin and on the wall a portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven. The table is set with cake, sausage, cheese, butter. Lena brews coffee and tea. I hand over gifts and I am given potholders.
Lena and Svetlana, one in her late seventies, the other in her early eighties, are also second cousins of Eugen Schlusser. Svetlana tells of the elaborate research that Eugen undertook for his book about the turbulent family history, even in St. Petersburg. His parents as well as the families of Lena and Svetlana came from there. The Russian Revolution, the World Wars and their aftermath scattered the family in all directions.
Lena brings out a folder with photos. Her grandmother Marie Leontine Schillart, half Estonian, half German, was born in 1883 in Kuressaare, Estonia. At the age of 16, she went to Moscow to teach a young nobleman there German. The man was already engaged, but when he met the pretty Estonian, the two fell in love. They married. I forgot to ask how well he learned German.
In one photo, there are four girls clad in white lace dresses in a posh room. The youngest, sitting on a brocade chair, is Lena’s mother. Later shots show a beautiful woman with dark hair and well-proportioned features. Lena comes from a wealthy family.
As did Eugen Schlusser’s parents and ancestors. Justus Schlusser (or Schlüsser in the original spelling), born in 1760 in the Prussian town of Bandenburg, came to St. Petersburg in 1824 and founded the Schlüsser&Co trading company there. His eight children, including seven sons, established branches of the business throughout Europe. Moscow, Odessa, Pisa, Florence, Paris, London, Warsaw, Berlin, Munich and even Tallinn – Eugen’s book contains a map showing how far the Schlüsser family branched out over the course of time.
But then the Russian Revolution sweeps it all away, trade empires disappear, families are torn apart, people starve to death. Eugen’s father, stricken with typhoid fever, would have starved to death in Petrograd, as St. Petersburg was called at that time before it was renamed Leningrad in 1924, had a relative not brought the 18-year-old out to the countryside and nursed him back to health. Eugene later found all these places for his book.
While his parents Paul and Natalia later go to Germany and survive the Second World War there as Russians with German names, Lena’s family only narrowly escapes death when the Wehrmacht besieges Leningrad for almost 900 days beginning in 1941. Her father is near death, her mother, Lena recalls, kills rats with the poker to feed the family, scrapes glue from the wallpaper and cooks it. By a stroke of luck, the family manages to leave the city in 1942 and to reach Moscow via Nizhny Novgorod.
“It was my grandmother who dreamed of returning to Estonia,” says Lena, and in retrospect it’s hard to say whether she thinks that was a good idea. The whole family moves to Tallinn in 1946. The father, a military engineer, works on a construction and architectural project. Lena initially learns Estonian at school. But after two years, the Estonian teacher is dismissed, the Russians keep to themselves. “Contacts with individual Estonians were polite and friendly,” recalls Lena, “but as soon as several Estonians were in the room, they totally ignored us.” It was the same even at the Polytechnic, where she later studied. But it was a good time, working in computer technology early on and earning very well. Two marriages go awry; she has been with her third husband, Edward, since 1980. Lena has no children. Tallinn is their life centre, Estonia is their home. She never questioned either.
Suddenly, everything changed
Until 1991. “The independence of the Baltic states was a shock to many Russians,” says Katja Koort, a lecturer in humanities at Tallinn University. Suddenly, they no longer knew where they belonged and felt foreign in the land in which they had always lived. Katja herself is a daughter of Russian parents, grew up in Kohtla-Jarva in northern Estonia, and wrote about the situation of Russians in Estonia following independence. In her report, she mentions a study from 2011 in which it is assumed that about half of the Russians living in Estonia emigrated in the meantime, the other half stayed. Five groups are presented: 1. the successfully integrated, 2. Russian-speaking patriots in Estonia, 3. Estonian-speaking Russians who are active and critical, 4. poorly integrated, and finally, 5. passive Russians who cannot be integrated.
As for many Russians in the Baltic countries, nothing was the same for Lena after independence. She hardly speaks Estonian, has almost no Estonian friends or family, and the Russian environment in which she once moved has disappeared. Who am I, where do I belong? she asks herself.
She and her husband immediately acknowledged Estonian independence and were therefore given Estonian citizenship, so the Gilts have Estonian passports. Thanks to her grandmother from Kuressare, she received an Estonian passport. She had to give up the Russian one; dual citizenship is not allowed in Estonia. Now Lena is an Estonian Russian and also a citizen of the EU. Luckily, she bought the small flat on Oismäe Street at the right time. Like many retirees, she’s trying to live on 350 euros a month. It’s almost impossible in an expensive city like Tallinn, especially since she has to spend a lot of money on medicine. With thirty percent of the regular worker’s wage, the Baltic states are at the bottom of the European pension scale.
“Lena is considering going back to Russia,” Eugen had told me in Frankfurt. Like his cousin, he is always questioning his own identity: Am I an Australian with a German name and Russian parents? Or am I a German, a Russian? What is my native language? Eugen hardly speaks Russian, he has largely forgotten German, but it comes back to him in conversations. He first learned English as a high school student.
Svetlana, the cousin of the two, is the only one who has no identity problems. “Apart from the blockade, I always lived in St. Petersburg and not badly at all,” she says. She is single and worked for an American company. That’s where her good command of English comes from. When Lena rang her in the spring and told her she was looking for flats in St. Petersburg, Svetlana replied, “Are you mad? Don’t do it! Do you want to live under power-hungry Putin? Stay in Tallinn and, most of all, in the EU.” Even today, a good six months later, Svetlana is upset and hopes that Lena will listen to her advice. Lena in turn says Estonia is her home. But she doesn’t seem very convinced.