Sofi Oksanen, the Most Important Eastern European Novelist You’ve Never Heard Of

Review: Sofi Oksanen, ‘Purge’

Sofi Oksanen / AP

As a child, Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen spent her summers visiting relatives on a collective farm in Soviet Estonia. Oksanen and her family would travel from Finland in secret, sidestepping Soviet laws. Each summer she would learn a bit more of Estonia’s code of euphemisms, which included phrases like ‘he went into the forest’ or ‘he was taken to Siberia.’

When she returned to Finland, the code she picked up in Estonia had lost its meaning—while the Finnish people also experienced something of what Oksanen calls ‘Russian colonialism,’ the Finns were more accepting of Soviet rule than the Estonians. But both Soviet Estonia and Western Finland shared the fact that school textbooks in both countries did not mention the horrific Soviet deportations and state violence of the 20th century.

Armed with her childhood experiences of Soviet oppression, Oksanen recognized Vladimir Putin’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine as a manifestation of a renewed Russian doctrine of colonialism. Putin used his lethal weapon—what Oksanen calls the "essence of the Kremlin’s power"—to justify the annexation of Crimea. It is the same weapon that Soviet leaders used all through Oksanen’s childhood: propaganda, or "the politics of history." By perverting and disseminating information, Russian leaders were able to gain control over the minds and memories of Russian and non-Russian citizens. Through manipulating information, they could justify an unjust empire.

Oksanen has become an important Eastern European voice. Her fiction centers on how a people can lose its identity under the influence of propaganda. She champions national loyalty and diversity against the ideological force of foreign occupiers. Her third published book, Purge, won international acclaim for its portrayal of the Soviet occupation of Estonia. It has been translated into 38 languages, sold more than 1 million copies, and was the first novel to win both of Finland’s two most prestigious literary awards.

While Oksanen is celebrated in Finland and across Europe, her work deserves greater recognition in America, where it is harder to understand the manipulation of memory and the threat of a regional hegemon. Her works explain why countries like Estonia, Poland, and Ukraine are terrified of Russia and the Kremlin’s ongoing information war, as well as why the countries fight for their nationhood.

Purge tells the story of an Estonian family torn apart both by internal drama and the external force of communism. It centers on an Estonian woman, Aliide Truu, whose tale offers an account of the brutal effects of a universal ideology and demonstrates the necessity of nationhood.

The book opens two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A bruised, dirty, clumsy girl with a Russian accent shows up on Aliide’s doorstep in Laanemaa, Estonia. The girl’s broken Estonian reminds Aliide of "a world of brittle paper, moldy old albums emptied of pictures." Aliide, herself a survivor of sexual assault, immediately recognizes the girl’s paranoid, twitchy mannerisms.

From here on, the story is told in short, non-chronological chapters that begin in 1992 when Allide and the girl meet and progress towards the beginning, jumping back to Aliide’s childhood in 1936. From the story’s first flashback, Aliide Truu appears clever and ruthless. She envies her perfect sister, Ingel and wants nothing more than for Ingel’s husband Hans to love her. Yet, Hans is wholeheartedly devoted to two things: Ingel and his Estonian fatherland, which he will not give up for anything, even under threat of death.

In 1940, the threat of communism forces Hans to go into hiding. Eventually, Ingel is sent away with her daughter, Linda. Only Aliide is safe, protected by her marriage to Martin Truu, a vigilant Communist organizer. Even though Martin is a heavy-set Russian man that reeks of onions, with him, Aliide is safe. She never stops noticing that he does everything in a Russian manner; he smells, talks, and gesticulates like a foreigner. But Aliide must give up her Estonian self to survive.

As communism creeps over Laanemaa, everything that was once idyllic and Estonian becomes intrusive and alien. A mood of deep paranoia sets in as black cars roll through villages, taking neighbors and family. Farms are collectivized and homes are transformed into community centers. Life revolves around being a good Communist and catching the bad guys – the "Fascists, saboteurs, and bandits" – or anyone suspected of saying a bad thing about Stalin. The forest, once the epitome of Estonian pride, becomes a hiding place for those who side with Germany during Communist occupation.

Martin does not notice this transformation because he does not see Estonia as a unique entity. Instead, he sees the land and the people as a blank palette for the realization of a universal, utopian dream. This dream turns out to be a universalizing, totalitarian reality. While Martin is a loving man, his devotion to communism blinds him to the tormented inner world of his own wife, who was raped by his fellow party members.

When Laanemaa is subjected to a single language and a single culture, injustice goes unnoticed. Those who fervently believe in the good of communism are unable to recognize their own flaws or reflect upon themselves, because a culture or ideology different from their own is not allowed to exist. It seems that communism leaves those fervent believers—whether good-natured like Martin, or evil like the men who raped Aliide—blind and deaf to the search for truth, because there is only one ideological, unexamined, manmade ‘truth.’

In her account of Soviet Estonia, Oksanen shows how a universalist ideology can drive men to reconstruct history and justify the subjugation of other nations, just as much as can the toxic nationalism of fascism. Purge, along with Oksanen’s other work, shows readers why responsible nationalism is necessary today, just as it was necessary in the 20th century. Without a middle course between political extremes, the "possibility of a politics that will hear and hearken to the voice of what is eternal, true, and good" seems closed to us.