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In Vladivostok a young woman recalls how, as a child, her grandmother secretly taught her to speak Estonian and told her about a place far removed from the cold, stark landscape of Siberia. The old lady made Zara promise never to tell her mother what they had talked about. Zara lived for these happy times with her grandmother; her mother was an undemonstrative woman who said very little. Zara dreams of one day being able to visit Estonia but for the meantime she follows up the suggestion of an old school-friend, temporarily back from Germany and clearly prospering, to move to Berlin to work in a hotel.
In rural Estonia elderly Aliide Truu spends her days canning fruit and vegetables and trying to ignore the harassment doled out by those of her neighbours who know about her Communist past. Now a widow she lives alone, her daughter having long ago moved away to Helsinki. She has tried to shut out the events of the past but when she finds the dishevelled Zara bruised and battered one morning in her yard, the sad and often brutal past looks set to re-surface.
At first Aliide believes that Zara is a decoy, sent by burglars to find out if there's anything of worth in the house and she's highly suspicious of the story that Zara tells her. Zara, too, is wary of Aliide even though she knows that if she is to escape the gangsters who are on her tail, she must trust the old woman. It's all the same to Aliide; "they might as well all come - Mafia thugs, soldiers - Reds and Whites - Russians, Germans, Estonians . . . Aliide would survive. She always had."
Over the course of the novel we learn the price of Aliide's survival and it's a dramatic and often horrific tale. The "purge" of the novel's title refers to the mass deportations (for the fortunate?) under Stalin's regime of those Estonians who had been reported (often by their neighbours, sometimes even by family members) of having collaborated with the Germans during their occupation of the country between 1941 and 1944.
Aliide's brother-in-law, Hans - whom Aliide has always wanted for herself - a peasant and a nationalist, goes into hiding to avoid being arrested by the Russians. Before long, Aliide, her sister and her sister's young daughter are taken in for questioning and are subjected to a terrifying sexual assault, after which ordeal the young girl becomes mute. Aliide deals with the situation by marrying Martin, a Communist party official, an act which will, she hopes, mark her out as co-operative and willing to submit; however, she still harbours her secret love for Hans and, behind Martin's back, she helps her sister to hide him.
"Purge" is an epic tale spanning over sixty years; it is by necessity lengthy and involved but it is vivid and compelling and told in such a way as to keep the reader thoroughly engaged. The story darts around but each chapter is clearly headed with a reminder of time and place. I did find the early part a little confusing (Estonia was first occupied by the Russians, then "liberated" by German troops before being taken again in 1944 when it became part of the Soviet Union; one failing of Sofi Oksanaen's storytelling is that it assumes an understanding of the timeline of twentieth century Estonian history that not all readers may have. At first the scenes run, not chronologically but darting here and there between Zara's and Aliide's stories and, for Aliide, the current day and several points in the past. By halfway in, though, the chronology is more conventional and manageable and the way the background to the current day reveals itself is a triumph of skilful writing combined with an excellent story.
Sofi Oksanen (she is Finnish-Estonian) is rather brave in telling the story of her ancestors; it must take some courage to so deliberately highlight the culpability of previous generations. When the story arrives at the point of independence from the Soviet Union, there are the unsurprising recriminations with Communists claiming to have simply been following orders. Aliide, though, believes that "too many people had dirty flour in their bags, and people with filthy fingers are hardly enthusiastic about digging up the past . . . those who poke around in the past will get a stick in the eye." To Aliide it doesn't matter who has the power and looking at the experiences of Aliide and Zara she might just be right. Both are the victims of sexual terror, affected in the same way but forty years apart. Aliide thinks to herself "Even if the ruble had changed to the kroon . . . there would always be . . . a boot on your neck" and when Tallinn gets its first sex shop, the fact that its run by ex-KGB men seems to bear out her theory.
As terrible as Zara's ordeal is, it is overshadowed by Aliide's behaviour and her betrayals which she justifies with her own warped sense of morality. "Purge" is frequently uncomfortable reading verging on the Gothic in terms of its darkness and power to shock. It's a thought provoking examination of conscience and morality in terrible circumstances but though its message may be grave, it never ceases to entertain with superbly developed characters - especially the highly complex Aliide - and clever and surprising twists. "Purge" is a challenging but worthwhile read but one that may require a brush up on your Estonian history.