Sofi Oksanen Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Sofi Oksanen
Photo: Toni Harkonen

Sofi Oksanen

An interview with Sofi Oksanen

Sofi Oksanen talks about her latest book, When the Doves Disappeared, and the environment for citizens in Soviet Russia.

What led you to write When the Doves Disappeared?

Most European countries didn't go through this during World War II, but the Baltic states have a history of double occupations: two Soviet occupations and one German occupation. In my previous Estonia-related novel, Purge, I focused on the Soviet occupations. German occupation is such a big issue that I realized I would need a separate novel to cover it. So I started work on When the Doves Disappeared, which takes place during both the Soviet and German occupations. This was in 2010, at a time when the old Soviet-style propaganda about the Baltic states was back in full swing in contemporary Russia, and I noticed this tended to confuse people abroad. If we don't know how Soviet propaganda was originally created and used, we can't understand Russia today – and then we aren't able to understand today's political situation.


Why did you choose to center the narrative around two time periods – the mid-40s during World War II and then the mid-60s during the days of communism in the Soviet bloc?

In the West, the image of the 60s is Woodstock. It wasn't Woodstock in the Soviet Union. The 60s was a period when the KGB took new turns and focused on new targets – it wanted to take more active measures, and this is the same tool kit they are now using for psychological warfare in Russia. It was also a decade when they started to focus on the German occupation and invented ways to take advantage of that.

When I was reading old propaganda books, it was interesting to notice they didn't actually use now-popular expressions like "fascist." Not at all before the 60s. Instead, they were attacking the "bourgeois blood suckers." This changed in the 60s, and one important reason was the trial of Adolf Eichmann. The huge international attention scared the Soviet Union. They became concerned that the West would take an interest in their human rights crimes as well. That's why they used the method they continue to use today: accuse others of the crimes you commit yourself.

The Soviet Union itself was a very anti-Semitic country. Before Eichmann's trial they didn't even use the word "Jew" in their propaganda or "history" books. They talked only about crimes against "Soviet citizens." But after Eichmann's trial they noticed the West was paying a great deal of attention to what happened to Jewish people during the World Wars, and they had to follow suit.

(And Stalin did have a plan to destroy all the Jews in the Soviet Union. Luckily he died before getting into this.)


When the Doves Disappeared
centers on three main characters: Roland, Edgar and Juudit. Are any of them based on actual people?


I happened to read an article by Estonian researcher Ivo Juurvee, about people who wrote propaganda during the Soviet era. What struck me was that many of them had worked not only for the KGB, but also for the SD during the German occupation. I was surprised how many of those who had served the occupying German power managed to find favor with Soviet power. So I wanted to focus on that, but also on these people, who were creating a forged history (which is what they were doing—history wasn't a science at that time, it was politics).

I was brought up on another version of the story: that all those who had anything to do with the Germans – willingly or not – were killed, shot, arrested, executed, and there were no exceptions. The Estonians who served in the German army weren't volunteers, on the contrary. Yet they met the same fate: death as an enemy of the Soviet Union. As it turns out, people with special talents, like Edgar Meos (the historical model for Edgar in the book) and his peers, could avoid this. And he wasn't the only one – there were plenty of those who kept their German service secret and then continued in the service of Soviet Union.

Edgar Meos participated in writing the official Soviet story, and his books and articles were widely read – in the West as well as in the Soviet bloc. You can still see traces of his work in history books today. He had an ability to lie that was quite startling. He claimed to be a pilot, even though he never was one, and forged flying diaries and licenses. Why would anyone lie about a profession like that? My conclusion is he wanted to be admired. Flying-aces were superstars of that time. It's unusual for me to create a character based on a historical figure. Yet this time it felt important. These kinds of people seem too horrible to exist—but they actually did.

In the West, history is science and historians are expected to work on an objective basis, like any scientist would. But in nations like the Soviet Union – or any dictatorship – history is always an extremely political field. It always has hidden agendas. This isn't news to Eastern Europeans, but Western people have difficulties understanding it. That might also prevent them from understanding Russia today. History there is still political. Moscow is making up a "history" suitable for a mythical superpower, and unfortunately that kind of fiction does no good to other countries.


Can you talk a little bit about the historical research you did for this book? What were some of the most interesting things you discovered about Estonia during that time period?

Reading, lots of reading. Also talking with researchers and other people, going to see the places. Old newspapers - always a great source. The most chilling source: reports from the security services. I've read lots of KGB reports over the years, so I know the language they use, but it was really depressing to read the secret reports sent to Berlin during the German occupation. Especially how happy the Germans were about the mass deportations (during the first Soviet occupation), because people were so scared afterward - "due to the summer operation nobody pays attention to the trains, nobody wants to be the one who gets taken to the train." To Germans it was important to know the local climate, how people would react to the fact they were bringing Jews to Estonia. And they were making comparisons between Jews and Estonians – how both were easy to get to the trains.

I also read a lot of old propaganda books, and checked what kind of books existed and what kind of language was used in a given year - and what then was happening in the Soviet Union and in the rest of the world. Propaganda is always a reaction to something. It was a surprise to me that the only reason Germany wanted to keep Estonia was oil shale – Estonia's sole natural resource. At the time, the Germans were running out of petrol (after losing their access to the Caspian Sea) and oil shale was considered a good way to solve that problem.


What do you make of Russia's involvement with the Ukraine today? Are there historical parallels westerners may not be aware of?

The Soviet Union created an alternative reality through propaganda, and wanted everyone to support that alternative reality, to join in an imitation of friendship. Russia is creating a fiction about itself as a country on the path to democracy, and has managed to get the West to believe in that.

During the Soviet era, the Soviet Union abused and reinforced anti-American sentiment in the West. Today, Russia has been using this old propaganda method again. For example: RT (formerly Russia Today) – was a TV channel meant to give a new perspective on Russia, but they didn't get enough viewers. When they started to broadcast more material focusing on anti-American views, they started to get more viewers.

This takes advantage of those in the West who are somehow disappointed with their own countries, and feeds them conspiracy theories, accusing the CIA of everything – just like in the past. Unfortunately there are plenty of people who are ready to believe these theories. Also old Soviet-style "whataboutism" has been put on the table. This rhetoric, combined with old propaganda tools, is what they are using now: the new hybrid war Russia is waging is a combination of the old and the new.


What's next for you?


Writing a libretto for Kaija Saariaho's opera, for the Royal Opera Covent Garden in the UK.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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