Why the Finns Were Lucky!

Magnum Photos
Tallinn, Estonia, 1973; photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Viewed from the inside and from below, history is frightfully confusing. The movements of troops and borders that will later be described as orderly, planned, and logical feel simply like waves of violence and fear. They are waves of hope, too, though hope wanes as soon as the confusion subsides even slightly; the violence and the fear remain.

The terrifying sense of confusion permeates Sofi Oksanen’s new novel, When the Doves Disappeared. Its small cast of central characters—two male cousins, their young brides, and the mothers of two of the young people—devise distinct strategies for surviving, succeeding, or fighting in a land—Estonia—that the twentieth century’s two totalitarian regimes take turns subjugating. One of the characters finds solace in a semblance, or a stubborn illusion, of normalcy:

Rosalie went right on milking the cows, even as her fiancé’s family was terrorized. The Simsons’ farm had been taken away; Roland’s father had been arrested and his mother, Anna, had moved to the Armses’ place so Rosalie could take care of her.

Another waits for the next violent takeover, and welcomes it, even as she realizes that news is always bad:

Smiles sparkled in the air like bubbles in fresh soda, arms waved and sent a breeze sweet with the scent of girls toward the liberators, girls with their hands fluttering like leaves on summer trees, shifting and shimmering. Some of the hands were tearing down the Communist Party posters, the photos honoring communist leaders, tearing their mouths in two, ripping their heads in half, cutting them off at the neck, heels grinding into the leaders’ eyes, rubbing them into the ground, cramming the dust of rage into their paper mouths, the shreds of paper floating into the wind like confetti, the broken glass crunching underfoot like new-fallen snow. The wind slammed the window shut, and Juudit winced.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. Where was the end she’d been expecting? She was disappointed. The solution hadn’t arrived. She breathed in the air of a free Tallinn from the window. Doubtful. Wary. As if the wrong kind of breath could take the peace away again, or cause a woman who didn’t believe in the German victory and the Soviet retreat to be punished.

Roland, a young man and the only one who starts out possessed of a moral clarity, experiences the same changeover of power with the same rise and sudden loss of hope:

Soon it would be time to rebuild the country. This was the beginning. I was about to ask the mail girl what officials I should contact to give them my information about the destruction wrought by the Bolsheviks. And at that moment, I realized my foolishness. The German army would nab me immediately to fight in their ranks, and Edgar, too, though judging by…

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