Vol 1, No 12
13 September 1999
B O O K R E V I E W:
War in the Woods: Estonia's Struggle for Survival, 1944 -1956
by Mart Laar
Translated by Tiina Ets
The Compass Press, Washington, 1992; ISBN: 0-929590-09-0
Despite faults in the text and in the translation, this book is a must read and a necessity not only for Baltic enthusiasts but also for anyone generally interested in history. War in the Woods tells the story of Estonia's "Forest Brothers" - the freedom fighters that took to the woods after the second Soviet occupation, which started in 1944.
As the topic of resistance to Soviet rule was taboo in the Soviet Union, most Eastern academics failed to explore it with any seriousness. And as most Western academics of the former Soviet empire seemed to be even more Moscow-centric than their Soviet counterparts, the topic never gained much publicity in the West either. The only writings about the Forest Brothers which appeared in Estonia, the other Baltic countries and Ukraine were often labelled as examples of "ethnic sympathy" and relegated to the sidelines.
However, in the late 1980s, a young historian by the name of Mart Laar bravely took on the topic - despite vigorous opposition by Soviet authorities. Travelling from village to village, Laar and his colleagues collected oral testimony and data from survivors of Soviet atrocities and veterans of the Forest Brother movement, which included both active resistance fighters and their support network in villages and towns. At the time, none of the interviewees could imagine that within a few years, the young lad interviewing them would become the Prime Minister of a newly independent Estonia (first in 1992 and again in 1999).
Laar's narration guides the story along, but the heart of the project is in the oral testimonies given by the various individuals Laar interviewed. Stories of gruesome atrocities from survivors of Soviet heavy-handedness, tales of bravado from surviving resistance fighters and even accounts from the perpetrators themselves bring the events vividly close to the reader.
As in any project based primarily on oral testimony, personal embellishments and exaggerations are noticeable throughout the text; however, the great majority of information is in line with the book's theme. Also, Laar falls into a trap of over-narration at some points, employing too many charged adjectives and phrases, such as "inhuman" and "blood has to be avenged in blood."
Each of the stories evoke the raw human emotion necessary for survival under extreme conditions. Stories of success and failure capture the reader's attention. The tale of August Sabe, who survived in the forests until 1978; the story of how Colonel Alfons Rebane ran "Operation Jungle" from England under the SIS (see 5 July instalment of Amber Coast); and the exploits of Ants Kaljur, nicknamed "Ants the Terrible" by both friend and foe, are just a few examples of the intrigue to be found throughout the book.
Personal testimony dramatically brings the actions and emotions of these events to life. The following is just one of the hundreds of examples of such testimony recounted in War in the Woods:
"A Soviet army officer, Estonian by nationality, decided to take a shortcut home while he was on leave and march through Oobikuorg, a popular village festival site. To his delight, he found a festival in full swing. A band played, some people danced, others dipped moonshine into their mugs from a vat by the edge of the clearing.
"The officer made himself comfortable among the village folk, filled his mug, and enjoyed himself immensely. Suddenly, the words being sung to a traditional melody struck him as unfamiliar: 'I want to be home when Estonia is free, when Laidoner [Johan, Commander-in-Chief of the Estonian military, deported by the Soviets in 1940 - ed] commands the forces, when I hold the Estonian kroon in my hand.' The officer took a closer look around the festival site. In the distance, he now noticed a neatly constructed pyramid of side arms and light machine guns with a guard standing alongside. Suddenly, it dawned on him that he had stumbled into a Forest Brothers celebration. Apparently, the revelers had anticipated this moment of realization, because at that instant, a pair of armed men stepped up to him and politely asked him to surrender his weapons and identity papers. The officer had no choice. After complying with the request, he was handed another mug of moonshine and the merrymaking continued.
"When the officer reported the incident to the security office the following day, he was harshly reprimanded and finally stripped of his rank, because the officials failed to understand why he hadn't arrested all those Forest Brothers."
Perhaps most importantly, this book opens an area of research previously limited by Soviet ban and sympathisers of the former system. Today, the topic is no longer taboo, and the publication of Mart Laar's work is a sign of the recent general acknowledgment of the heroism and action of the Forest Brothers.
Mel Huang, 8 September 1999
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