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 the stories he was telling he didn’t seem to understand the situation.

Confusion is not only the condition of living in history, it is also an instrument of control. “Confusion was one of the Office’s methods,” acknowledges one low-level but ambitious secret police officer faced with a puzzling assignment. “And they had confused him, he had to admit it.”

Such thoughts would be natural in Estonia, the tiny Baltic country that, for most of the twentieth century, was under occupation. The Soviet Union annexed it in 1940 in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a nonaggression treaty between the USSR and Hitler’s Germany that turned over to Stalin the three Baltic states and the eastern part of Poland. A year after the Soviet Union annexed Estonia, Hitler broke the pact, attacked the USSR, and within weeks conquered Estonia. The Soviets returned in 1944 and stayed until 1991, calling the land the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. Both of the occupying powers interned some Estonians in camps, conscripted some Estonians into their armies, and demanded loyalty from all Estonians. Both of the occupying powers faced some resistance from the local population—an anti-Soviet Estonian underground is said to have existed for decades. Perhaps its fighters did not realize how easily the rest of the world had accepted Soviet annexation.

Oksanen, the author of four novels, has made the trauma of Estonia her topic; warning Europe of the dangers Russia continues to pose has become her mission. At thirty-eight, she has won numerous awards for her fiction—she is probably Finland’s best-known writer and certainly one of the stars of the European literary scene—and she wants to warn her readers that, with Russia run by a KGB operative, history is poised to repeat itself.

Oksanen grew up in Finland, the daughter of a Finnish man and an Estonian woman. She spent her summers in Estonia, and during the rest of the year the family was preoccupied with their annual visit and the ever-present danger of failing to get visas. Oksanen is steeped in the fear and longing resulting from the Soviet occupation of her mother’s motherland. In an interview last year, she told me that she had always assumed that she would write about this part of her and her people’s memory later in life but recent events forced her hand. Three of her novels deal with Estonia’s fate, and the urgency seems to build from book to book.


In the fog and confusion of war and occupation each of Oksanen’s characters is constantly trying to trick history into letting him or her live and build a future. One becomes an underground fighter. Another stubbornly acts as though nothing has changed or will ever change. A third takes a German officer as a lover. A fourth becomes a serial collaborator. Oksanen is ruthless in showing just how quickly and decisively the twentieth century dashed the hopes of the entire interwar generation. She gives voice to a rarely discussed—or portrayed—Eastern European knowledge: no one survived World War II with her hopes, dreams, and loves intact.

It would be impossible to overstate the bleakness Oksanen describes. No strategy works. Resistance fails. Betrayal fails. Indifference fails. Collaboration fails. The people who choose these strategies fail. Love is degraded. Hope dies. Each failure has its reasons, which Oksanen describes clearly and convincingly, against the tellingly muddled background of Estonia in the 1940s and 1960s—Soviet, German, and Soviet again. But each of the tragedies she describes in this book is rooted in the nature of totalitarian society.

Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism that total terror in the service of a totalitarian regime destroys the boundaries between people, turning them into “One Man of gigantic dimensions.” When the Doves Disappeared gives a devastatingly clear picture of airless space. Everyone in the book is beholden to everyone else: everyone is the keeper of secrets that can destroy a life—and one character after another resorts to blackmail, one of the engines of life under the Soviets or the Nazis. Everyone lives in fear and acts out of fear. No one has enough information to make the simplest of decisions. Since each character, and the society as a whole, are robbed of the essential ability to plan for the future, what Oksanen finds herself describing are the many faces of resignation.

These are not stories that writers—fiction writers, young writers, or, really, any writers—usually tell. There is no room for triumph in any of them. Indeed, the stories themselves pointedly resist retelling: even though the narrative takes place between the 1940s and the 1960s, and there is a mystery and there are love stories, and the connections between characters ultimately appear both intricate and believable, throughout the novel the reader is witnessing only the confusing present moment.

One of the characters living under Soviet control is assigned to write a book about Nazi atrocities in Estonia. To do this, he has to decipher instructions he receives and secret documents to which he is given access. Being able to interpret both correctly is, as ever, a matter of survival:

The documents were now locked in Parts’s cabinet—two briefcases filled with books about the Hitlerist occupation, as well as publications from Western countries that had never been seen by Soviet eyes. Parts had gone through the material quickly and deduced what general direction he should take. The book would have to show that the Soviet Union was exceedingly interested in solving the crimes of the Hitlerists, in fact more interested than the Western countries were. It was clear that a different idea had been propagated in the West. The instructions to use adjectives like “just” and “democratic” to describe the Soviet Union as often as possible made it evident that this was not how the West saw them.

For the first decade and a half after the end of World War II, known in the Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War, the country engaged in a concerted effort to erase its memory. Organizations specifically created for the war effort, such as the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, were shut down, their members executed and publications banned. Soon after the war, benefits conferred by medals earned in battle were revoked and Victory Day, initially planned as an annual national holiday, was canceled. Disabled war veterans were rounded up and interned or exiled—they disappeared from city streets. Nothing was to remind the citizens of the Soviet Union of a war that had taken an estimated 27 million lives.

History returned in the mid-1960s, and it had to be told from scratch. Comrade Parts is one of a small army of people charged with the task of conjuring the right kinds of memories where actual memory has been eradicated. If he guesses accurately what his bosses want from the past, he will finally be rich and happy: “A career as a witness to the sadism of the Hitlerists, and as their victim, guaranteed a secure future.”


One character is always present but rarely mentioned in the novel. This character is Finland. It appears early in the book, when two of the Estonians are training to fight the Soviets alongside the Finns and the Germans. Then Finland disappears—just as it seemed to Estonians to have disappeared from their lives, and just as Estonia had disappeared from the view of the world. “No one’s talking about Estonia. Estonia has dropped off the map like an unidentified body on the battlefield,” writes one of the characters in his journal. Was Estonia really dead and gone? The newly minted Soviet historian knows something about that:

Parts remembered well how when the hammer and sickle was hoisted up the flagpole at Pikk Hermann on September 22, 1944, the flag that was taken down wasn’t Hitler’s—it was Estonia’s own flag. Five days of independence. Five days of freedom. Parts had seen the flag himself, although in his manuscript he naturally didn’t mention it, because the Soviet Union had liberated Estonia from the Hitlerists.

Finland was luckier—or, according to some stories, smarter or stronger—than Estonia. The Soviet Union attempted to annex Finland in 1939, and unlike its neighbors, Finland put up a fierce fight. The Winter War cost Finland 11 percent of its territory but was, ultimately, a triumph over a much larger country with a much bigger army and many more planes and tanks. In 1941, when Nazi Germany attacked the USSR, Finland joined the war on the side of the Germans—though the dominant Finnish version of history maintains that the Continuation War, as it is known, was the country’s own separate effort against the Soviets.

When the borders of Europe were redrawn after World War II, Finland lost Karelia, the region the USSR had conquered, driving over a million Finns out. Yet compared to many of its neighbors, including Estonia, Finland fared very well: it got to keep its parliamentary system and its market economy. But it existed precariously on the border between East and West: it never joined NATO, and it maintained economic and diplomatic ties with the USSR that brought more symbolic than tangible profit. For nearly half a century, Finland remained studiously unaligned: its history books and newspapers refrained from criticizing Soviet policies or leaders. Western European political scientists called this phenomenon “Finlandization,” a term that Finns themselves rejected as insulting. But since last summer, after Russia invaded Ukraine, the term appeared in the political conversation again, in Op-Eds suggesting that a policy of concerted appeasement toward Russia is an idea ripe for a revival.

When the Doves Disappeared, like the other two novels in Oksanen’s loose trilogy, is a fictional challenge to the very idea that Finlandization is a valid strategy, or even an option that ought to be discussed in a moral universe. At the beginning of the book, in 1941, two young Estonians who were conscripted into the Red Army but managed to desert receive training from the Finns; they are dressed in Finnish army uniforms but are given orders by the Germans—who send them to fight the Soviets in the rear of the fighting in Estonia. “We hadn’t even been given a decent map of Estonia,” says Roland, the narrator of this and several other chapters.

We’d been sent there to die, I was sure of it. But I followed orders and kept my mouth shut. As if the last few centuries hadn’t taught us anything, all the times the German barons of the Baltic had flayed the skin off our backs.

But Roland imagines there will be a different future, and he prepares for it: “I knew that once Estonia was free again, people of good conscience would want to examine these years.” He devotes himself not only to fighting the Soviets, and later the Germans, but also to keeping a record of the atrocities carried out against the people of Estonia.

Then Finland disappears from the pages of the book. As Oksanen describes the post–World War II world, it is as if Estonians no longer had a neighbor called Finland; this is certainly how many Estonians felt through the decades of Soviet occupation, which wasn’t called an occupation in Finland any more than it was called that in the Soviet Union. Finally, toward the end of the book, Finland reappears in one painful reference: Comrade Parts’s book, the manufactured history of the Nazi occupation of Estonia, will be published in three places: in Tallinn, in Moscow, and in Finland.

The Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg said that all those who lived through the catastrophe were either victims, perpetrators, or bystanders. Much has been written about the muddled line between victims and perpetrators in the Soviet Union. Less has been said about the bystanders. Can one really be a bystander in a totalitarian society? When the Doves Disappeared is not the first book to show just how questionable, how likely impossible, the very idea of a bystander is. It is in the nature of a totalitarian society to force every single person into an active role at any given time. But as a Finnish writer working and speaking out in this historical era, Oksanen is making another point as well: countries don’t get to be bystanders either. When they are not on the side of the victims, they are aiding the executioners.